Doing Nothing in the Time of COVID-19

In the wake of COVID-19, memes asserting that, for the first time in history, we could save the world by doing absolutely nothing went (ahem) viral. The notion that one can achieve a great good by doing bugger all is blindingly attractive. How cool would it be if heroism not only begins at home, but gets to stay there, putting its feet up, watching Netflix, and occasionally donning a mask to pop out for emergency pizza? Not all heroes get to wear masks or stay at home though, because not all heroes can…


I recently heard someone affirm, as if this were common knowledge, that the essence of language is to communicate propositions. When I questioned this assumption, another person interjected that language was by definition the communication of propositions. I thought I’d entered some weird sci-fi novel in which the very notion of language had been artificially constrained for the purposes of some dystopian plot development but, alas, I was merely at an academic workshop.

There are understandable reasons why silly assumptions about the essence of language remain widespread within philosophy, linguistics, and related disciplines. High up on the list is the…


Friedrich Nietzsche described his books Human, All Too Human and Thus Spoke Zarathustra as ‘a book for free spirits’ and ‘A Book for All and None’, respectively. What did he mean by this? A clue may be found in his uses of ‘we’ to pick out — and where necessary create– the groups to which he belongs:

‘we northeners’ (Beyond Good and Evil § 48); ‘we free spirits’ (BGE § 61); ‘we first born of the twentieth century’ (BGE § 214); ‘We scholars’ (BGE § 204); ‘We artists’ (The Gay Science § 59); ‘we [good] Europeans’ (GS § 352, BGE…


(with Aryeh Younger)

‘Who will guard the guards themselves?’ asked the Roman poet Juvenal. For many today, the answer is to replace guardians altogether with blockchain technology. Blockchains are designed to be resistant to data modification, with each storage block (viz. record) containing an unalterable cryptographic timestamp. As such, the chain of block can act as a transaction ledger without being overseen by any overarching authority. Originally created to underpin the bitcoin cryptocurrency, it was only a matter of time before other industries began to use it.

One such industry is that of real estate. One of the largest U.S…


A vegan sausage by any other name would smell as sweet. Yet France has recently amended its agriculture bill to ban the use of so-called ‘meat and dairy terms’ to describe plant-based products that serve as meat substitutes. These include patties made from soybeans, and dairy alternatives made from oats, coconuts, almonds, cashews, hazelnuts, and soy.

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The words in question include ‘sausage’, ‘steak’, ‘burger’, ‘milk’, and ‘cheese’. The use of these to describe vegan products will now be subject to fines of up to 300,000 Euros. …


’Tis the season of goodwill and cheer, but not many listeners over the past decade have found sufficient reserves of either to forgive Bob Dylan’s 2009 seasonal offering Christmas in the Heart. A sign of the Great American Songbook albums he had yet to record, Dylan delivers his cantankerous brand of easy listening that is hard to listen to like some kind of post-apocalyptic Cringe Crinkle.

The opening bells of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’ signal at once that Dylan’s Christmas album is going to be a joyously traditional — and traditionally joyous — take on the genre; closer to Elvis’s…


(with Richard H.R. Harper)

Forget the Turing test. Alan said it best in a neglected paragraph of the original paper in which he first proposed his test:

The original question, “Can machines think?” I believe to be too meaningless to deserve discussion. Nevertheless I believe that at the end of the century the use of words and general educated opinion will have altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted (442).

Turing’s 1950 prediction was not that computers would be able to think in the future but that we would…


There are reasons why robots and other machines behave as they do at any given time. Knowledge of how they were programmed, combined with knowledge about the environment in which they behaved will give us their structuring and triggering causes, respectively. Information about each of these is, individually of jointly (depending on our standpoint and interests) crucial to the explanation of their actions.

I have argued elsewhere that reasons why we act should not be conflated with the reasons for which we act, but all I shall presume here is that the latter are at best a subset of the…


What Fairy Tales Can Teach us about AI

In Gail Carson Levine’s fairy tale Ella Enchanted, the imprudent fairy Lucinda casts a spell on Ella which causes her to ‘always be obedient’, her behaviour triggered by commands which she literally cannot resist ‘obeying’. Her orders are for reasonably discrete actions such as fetching people items of food but are clearly extendable to complex activities like going on a three-weak horseback trip across the country side. Commands to the do the latter sort of thing leave Ella sufficient space to choose to perform any small acts which aren’t in conflict with…


Early on in the Philosophical Investigations, Ludwig Wittgenstein offers his famous example of games to show how many things are united in name by similarities not underscored by any single common feature. He writes:

Consider, for example, the activities that we call “games”. I mean board-games, card-games, ball-games, athletic games, and so on. What is common to them all? — Don’t say: “They must have something in common, or they would not be called ‘games’” — but look and see whether there is anything common to all. — For if you look at them, you won’t see something that is…

Constantine Sandis

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Hertfordshire and Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

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