Wednesday, October 31, 2007

On David Horowitz's cluelessness.

Today, Andrew Sullivan posted a reader e-mail defending David Horowitz against Andrew's nomination of him for the "Malkin award." It was an outgrowth of Horowitz's "Islamofascism awareness week," something organized on many campuses across the country, including my own (UW-Madison), where Horowitz came to speak. I stayed out of the whole mess--didn't go to the talk--because I found the main players on both sides unbearable. I'm broadly sympathetic to worries about what Islam inspires people to do, and a lot of the liberal response I saw seemed to go along the lines of "how dare Horowitz criticize a religion." Those things would make me sorely tempted to defend him, but unfortunately he's a clueless boob.

His main thing seems to be complaining about supposed liberal indoctrination, which, in my two and a quarter years in college, I've come to see as premised on a ridiculously offensive view of college students. I've had professors get opinionated in the classroom, and as a rule it adds greatly to the quality of the class, because it gives students something to think about and as a rule they are prefectly capable of thinking critically about it. Horowitz seems to assume we are incapable of doing that.

The version of his "Islamofascism awareness" website I saw declared it would not just raise awareness about one form of Islam, but also "two great liberal lies" (or some such). One was that George Bush had started the War on Terror, the second was the global warming is a bigger threat that radical Islam. I don't know what either of them even mean. I don't know of any liberal going around saying "George Bush started the war on terror," I think Horowitz may have in mind the claim that a "war on terror" is a bad way of conceptualizing the problem, which is not the same as Horowitz' caricature. As for global warming, it's a very different kind of threat than terrorism, so I don't know how you even compare them, and again I don't know which liberals are making that comparison.

As for the stuff at Andrew's blog, I can only say that as someone actually on a campus where this debate happened, the Horowitz quote that set it off was totally out of touch with reality. Horowitz apparently thinks that everyone opposed to his stupidity is supporting Islamic theocrats. This is a paranoid fantasy in no way justified by the mild stupidity displayed by some of his opponents.

A I can figure is that having spent all his life as an ideologue--first left-wing, then right-wing, Horowitz is incapable of understanding that there might be anything going on on college campuses other than ideological warfare. Let's stop paying attention to him, please.

Ann Coulter follow-up

In the comments of the Philosophy, etc. post I linked yesterday, someone posted this from Matthew Yglesias:
This is an uncomfortable thing for Jewish people to think about, but isn't that actually a very banal baseline belief of all Christians and Muslims everywhere? Jews don't evangelize like this, and I don't think Hindus do either, but our world's great crusading faiths certainly do and converting everyone is . . . the whole point! This is one reason -- probably the reason -- that whatever the electoral politics of the matter, it's probably not a great idea to encourage politicians to "talk about faith" more. For America to work as an enterprise you need people with deeply held but mutually inconsistent religious beliefs to all work and live together peacefully. Rubbing everyone's noses in the precise implications of other people's beliefs (Christians think Jews shouldn't exist, Jews think Christians are worshipping a false messiah, Protestants think Catholics worship idols, etc.) isn't really helpful.
I disagree--this is reason to hope politicians talk about faith more. Our inability to rationally discuss religion is exhaustingly foolish, and serves as a cover for worse nonsense. What we're supposed to get out of it, what "isn't really helpful" about honesty, is a mystery to me. How would honesty be a barrier to having us "all work and live together peacefully"? All I can think of is that some things people believe would lead to violence if carried to their logical conclusion, but that's reason to junk said beliefs, not delude ourselves about their true nature.

Someone I didn't know existed

Zen Bullets has an obituary for a local homeless man, who had apparently become something of a celebrity. It's one of those things that makes you say, "cool--I didn't know he existed, I didn't know anyone like that existed."

Thought of the Time Being

Humans don't see the world the way we computers do. To them, everything is just a bunch of ion movements in aqueous solution.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Some random Tuesday linkage

Loren Rosson does a top ten list of vampire literature for Haloween: yay, more things to feel I have to reed/watch even though I don't have the time.

Brian Leiter posts a smackdown from Voltaire.

Also via, Leiter, I noticed that when browsing a category of old posts at his site, he linked a post that casually equates metaphysics with religion. The post has plenty of wothwhileness, but why didn't Leiter slap the guy for that at the time. Reminds me of David Chalmers' guide to philosophical terms:

What it means to a layman:
somewhere between "crystal healing" and "tree hugging" in the Dewey decimal system

What it means to a philosopher: No! How many times do I have to tell you? Nothing whatever to do with this New Age stuff! Now move my book away from the stand containing Shirley MacLaine, or I shall be very upset
Finally, a Philosophy, etc. post that declares Infinite Injury's defense of Ann Coulter is the single most admirable blog post I've read all month. Yes, I am trying to provoke you. That means I want you to read the post. Badly. Do so.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Moral vs. biological supervenience

Currently, the one philosophy class I'm taking right now is a 500-level philosophy of mind class--was supposed to be taking a 500-level philosophy of the natural sciences course too, but it turned out to conflict with neuro, which I decided I really wanted to take. Anyway, one of the big concepts that comes up is supervenience. If you've never heard that term before, you can read the big, long, boring SEP article if you like, but it's pretty well summed up by the stock slogan (which I think was originated by some famous philosopher somewhere) that "to say A supervenes on B is to say you can't have an A difference without a B difference."

In his book The Conscious Mind, David Chalmers spends an awful lot of time on supervenience, because two of his arguments against reductionism use it. The general outline of both is:

1. If reductionism is true, conscious properties would supervene on physical properties.
2. Conscious properties do not supervene on physical properties.
3. Therefore, reductionism is false.

The first argument in the pair, "The Zombie Argument," bases premise 2 on the claim it is logically possible that there be a world physically identical to ours, but with no conscious states whatsoever. The second, "The Inverted Spectrum Argument," claims that even if the world described in the Zombie Argument is impossible, it seems logically possible that there be a world physically identical to ours, but such that our green is their red, that the physical circumstances giving rise to red experiences in our world give rise to green experiences in the other world.

Now, what I'm interested about in this post is not these controversial two versions of the second premise, but the first one. On the one hand, it seems that supervenience is necessary for reduction in the biological case, which seems to be the desired model for reduction of the mind. That fact that there is no vital force, noting above and beyond an organisms physical constituents that makes it alive, means it is impossible to have a difference in the biological properties of something without a corresponding difference in its physical properties.

However, it also seems that it is impossible to have a difference in the moral properties of something without a corresponding difference in descriptive properties--this is at least what seems to be the case, implying moral truths are necessary (though I'm still unsure of what to think on that question). Now, there is an important difference from the biological case here: it seems that unlike reducible biological facts, moral facts are something above and beyond descriptive facts (see my comments on the is-ought problem, though again this could be questioned on closer scrutiny). Something similar seems to be the case with aesthetics. The mere plausibly of such accounts of ethics and aesthetics implies that supervenience is not enough to capture what is going on in reduction, and philosophers interested in reduction really need to move on to something stronger. I'm not sure what that is, unfortunately.

Blogspotting: Experimental Philosophy

Via Brian Leiter, I've discovered a blog dedicated to experimental philosophy, the idea of going out to do psychology-type research on the sort of intuitions philosopher appeal to. This is going on my bloglines--not because such experiments should be decisive in philosophical matters, but because they're worth taking into consideration.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Religion is boring

sleep church

(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

I've gotten used to the idea that every day when I wake up, there will be a few new posts criticizing Christianity, theism, or religion in general at Debunking Christianity. And every two weeks, there's another Carnival of the Godless, with more posts along those lines than I can find time to read. At one point in my blogging career, such things seemed natural. However, I've come to wonder how people can do it. The thing is, just as I once threw up my hands and said how boring pseudoscience is, I have come to the conclusion that religion, too, is profoundly boring.

I cannot bring myself to care much about the blatherings of Dinesh D'Souza (so ably dissected at Pharyngula and God is for Suckers!). Idiocy and ignorance aren't news, folks. It's a snooze fest.

Or, consider this recent piece by Chuck Colson. This piece is a bit special for me, because I found it linked by Vic Reppert when I decided to pick up reading his blog again. I did so having vague memories that Reppert was worth reading, because he had a Ph.D. in philosophy and was sensitive to some of the weaknesses in his religious position. Colson, himself, is a big-shot Evangelical, politically influential and the author of a book on Christian apologetics. Yet what do I find? Basically, Colson's argument is that two atheists had an exchange where they took atheism for granted, and therefore atheism is a faith position. Even without having read the articles Colson is referring to, it's easy to see where he's going wrong: winning people to atheism wasn't their purpose, their purpose was to have an intramurral discussion of an issue that arises if you're an atheist. In this case, it isn't even that Colson needs to have someone who understands the issues to show him how ridiculous his beliefs are. It isn't even that he needs some basic training in critical thinking or science or history. It's more like Colson needs remedial reading comprehension classes. Did this guy go to college? If so, how on earth did he get an admittable score on his verbal SAT?

Faced with such formidable intellectual opposition to Colson, I must struggle with all my might to avoid falling asleep. This doesn't mean I'm giving up writing about religion. I do, for example, regard it as my duty to fight against the waves of misinformation that orthodox believers have been vigorously churning out to keep their flock (their word, not mine) deceived. But it is duty only--born of desire to do some good in the world and realization that this is an area where my skills are most suited to helping out. The excitement, however, is gone.

CotG #78

The 78th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up at Greta Christina's blog. Choice picks:

*What Ann Coulter Got Right: Yes, agreeing with Ann Coulter is something that one generally avoids. However, much of the liberal hysteria that comes out in response to people like her has always struck me as horribly naive, and this post helps correct that.
*Watch Alister McGrath Take a Very Long Time to Say Very Little: My gut reaction to this was "great title, but I'll pass." But read the post. It's funny.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

You might be a philosophy major if...

There's over a dozen responses to this question at Philosophy@UtahState. My contribution:
You’ve flamed a discussion thread by saying:

"Your position has the following two features:

"1) It’s false

"2) (1) is sufficiently clear that the fact that you hold your position is evidence of mental deficiency on your part."
This is actually loosely based on something a professor once said in class (referring to Leibniz's view of Spinoza, not the prof's view of anything).

Friday, October 26, 2007

On promises

Last weekend, some friends from the dorm a couple years back threw what was billed as an "8th grade dance party" at their house. The linchpin of the thing was that they were playing songs that were popular c. the turn of the millennium, giving us all a chance to remark on what crap we listened to back then, but some people also dressed to the theme. Most of the dressing up was straightfowardly along in the "trying to look cool while looking dorky" genre, but a couple stood out: one of my friends, Kevin, went goth, not just with black clothes but with spikes of hair distributed around his head (somewhat like this), and black make-up that included a black tear on his cheek. The credit for doing him up, it turned out, went to a friend of his who herself had decided to go in the role of "hot young teacher chaperoning," which she did quite well.

At one point in the conversation, someone mentioned that I had a blog, and the girl asked me to write about her. I said yes, with every intention of doing it, because at the time I had some vague idea that I had something interesting to say about people like her, or perhaps parties like that one, so I could fulfill the promise without boring readers.

The trouble is, that I can no longer remember what I thought it was that I thought I had to say. When I realized this, the next thought that occurred to me was that by using it as the jumping off point for a post on promises, I could fulfill the promise without boring readers too much--I think.

The main question, I think, is whether there is much point in worrying about such minor promises--and yes, I know there is something strange about asking the question not because of a direct worry, but because of the need to fulfill a promise. Anyway. I once did a little moral intuitions test on some website with the question of having promised to regularly put flowers on your mother's grave, but then being in the position where no one could possibly be harmed, indeed even know, about your not doing it. And there, especially because there is a mother involved and because there is a grave involved, there is a strong intuition that you must do it, even though I, like many people, have fairly strongly picked up consequentialist notions of morality, where if there are no bad effects it can't be wrong. And there I think I may have clicked that it wouldn't be wrong.

On the other hand, I more recently put up the following on my Facebook page:
In the history class I'm taking right now, Dr. Dickey told us that Rousseau hated lying, hypocrisy, politeness even. I haven't gotten around to doing the Rousseau readings yet, but I like the guy already.
This does not mean I've quite swung around to the Kantian position that you have to be absolutely honest all the time, to the point of telling the Nazis you have Jews in your house. Yet I've still developed a very strong instinctive dislike of the slightest dishonesty, going beyond the usual disapproval that comes with socially indoctrinated mores to a deep-seated loathing. Why that is, who knows, perhaps it is because in recent events in my life such a stance has given me a pretext for feeling superior to certain people around me, but I won't get in to that.

So why am I bothering writing this post? I still feel the consequentialist instinct, which suggests that since there's no harm done in forgetting the promise, I may as well just forget it. Still I think there is a good defense of my position: such casually made and broken promises represent a perfectly inane sort of conversation, where you say what is socially expected by convention rather than what you mean to say. When I enter a conversation, I generally want to talk, not engage in a silly and utterly pointless game of metatalk, dominated by bluffs and counterbluffs, where, as Steven Pinker once said, words don't even mean what they mean. If I want to play that kind of game, I'll play poker, under normal circumstances such behavior is waste of my time.

Incidentally, earlier this week there was some debate over at Andrew Sullivan's blog over the value of Jon Stewart and the Daily Show. Of course, much of what they mock is nothing more than personally insincerity on a grand scale, a scale where it can result in fools taking power and doing serious harm to the country and the world. In such cases, I firmly the first step to making the world a better place believe derisive cynicism, and I only wish there were people applying that approach to the absurd insincerities of everyday interaction.

To wanna be philosophers

Via Florida Student Philosophy Blog, Eric Schwitzgebel's series for prospective philosophy grads is now complete. I'd be surprised if I had more than one reader in this position, but if you're that one reader, check it out. Or, check it out just if you want to get a very vague idea of what philosophy is as a field.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

#1 meme

Not that the meme itself is necessarily #1 (thought it might be!) No, via PZ and Brian, I've found a meme where you say what you're #1 on Google for. All of these are from my Sitemeter:

The outsider Tests--not sure why I beat out John on this search. "Outsider test," incidentally, returns what you'd expect.
rocky horror picture show madison--That's something to be proud of. Not sure why, though, as it seems the local shadow cast has gotten its act together with their website. Perhaps because they didn't have it together for so long.
atheist in hollywood--Nice to see that people are reading one of my first posts.
Meaning of anti fundamentalist--This gets people to my manifesto.
what is a clairvoyant--Who has to ask this? People who know not to put "what" in questions they pose to Google.
being gay a cross to carry--Looks like someone found my blog who needed it.
bible uncredible--Darn straight I'm the person to go to for this!
how did the towers really fall--I can has fight crackpottery.
josh mcdowell + creationism--Ooh, I'm hitting the big targets.

Good take, all in all.

Simplest possible universal Turing machine discovered

Found this via Facebook: the simplest possible universal Turing machine has been discovered, along with a mathematical proof that it is what it seems to be. Turns out, all it takes is two possible internal states and three possible things to write on the tape.

If you don't follow that, here's my best amature shot at an explanation: a Turing machine is a theoretical entity conceived of as an infinitely long tape attached to a device which, on each operation, takes what's on the tape and its internal state and returns a new thing for the tape, a new internal state, and moves either left or right. It's possible to build a Turing machine--a "universal" Turing machine--that can imitate any other Turing machine given the right set up on the tape (a "program," if you will). Computers are designed around this idea, except that they don't have infinite memory, so whatever serves as their tape won't be infinite, and this limits what they can do.

Not sure if this has any grand theoretical significance, from what I've read on computer science and cognitive science I have no reason to think it does, but still kinda cool.

Bad laughs

Recently, I read a book on the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Among other things, it mentions how Miguel de Unamuno was once horrified to hear one of Franco's supporters at a rally shout "¡Viva la muerte!" When I read that, I cracked up, for reasons that aren't terribly hard to see if you speak a little Spanish.

This incident reminded me of an earlier time, when I was thinking about the worries entertained in some quarters about Christian theocracy coming to the US. The argument occurred to me that this has become an impossibility, because a religious theocracy would feel the need to try to forcibly supress homosexuality, and with all the gay people that have come out of the closet in the last couple decades, they could never get away with it. After all, you can't just make millions of people disappear. Then I thought to myself, "Wait a minute, yes you can." And for lack of anything better to do, I laughed at myself.

The thing is, in both cases, they were bad laughs. I don't think I'm the first person to use this phrase, but I can't find anyone using it this way with a quick Google search, so I'll claim credit for coining it for now.* What I mean by "bad laugh" is when the thing you are laughing at is in actuality horrifying, and you can recognize this fact. It seems to me, and I seem to remember hearing someone else say, that bad laughs are a way of protecting ourselves from coming to grips with just how horrifying the thing is. While I can vaguely understand the horrifying nature of the idea of millions of US citizens being murdered by their own government, or of someone enthusiastically embracing the slogan "¡Viva la muerte!" with all his heart, I can't say I've really felt the horror deeply, nor do I care to.

This raises an interesting question, though: a number of comedians have commented on how happiness isn't very funny, there will be no laughter in heaven, etc. Does this mean all laughs are bad laughs?

*Just as I typed the last paragraph, I realized I had heard the phrase in a Roger Ebert book. But on re-reading the passage, I'm not quite sure he used the phrase in the way I had thought. So perhaps this is a coinage of sorts.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

In which I annoy Ed

Few days ago Ed Brayton posted a quote from H L Mencken and I wondered aloud if that made Ed a New Atheist. Argument followed. Thread is dead now, but if you're trying to figure out what's going on with Ed and his religious views, the comments are worth reading, and that's something people have been trying to figure out for some time. My gut reaction is that Ed is being holier than thou with his deism and anti-New Atheism, but that's not really fair to him. What's really going on is that he's being something somewhat like but not exactly holiness-er than thou.

Thought of the Time Being

You are a beautiful and unique snowflake, which means someone may or may not glance at you and think "oh, that's nice" before you are crushed or melt and cease to exist forever.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Thought of the Time Being

Not only do I deny that our souls survive our bodily deaths, I suspect that some people's souls atrophy before making it that far.

PC 55

The 55th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at The Brooks Blog.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Hidden meanings in classic texts

Via Overcoming Bias, an interesting paper arguing esoterism was one the norm among great writers. I'm not quite sure what to make of it, but it at least worth taking a serious look at, as it is sensitive to the troubles this view raises up.

Thought of the Time Being

Be that guy.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Notes on Chris Mooney's book

Last month, when commenting on something Chris Mooney had written, I asked, "Can this really be the same Chris Mooney who wrote The Republican War on Science, which I heard such wonderful things about?" I decided after making this remark I had to sit down and read the thing. While I'm glad he took the trouble to document political abuses of science, the book left a bad taste in my mouth. The reason for this is explained very well by a comment I found via Facebook's "Books" application:
Interesting, but I wish they'd actually give more detail into the science on each side of the issues. Some of the "republican" points actually sounded sort of valid, and I wish I had the data they had to say that they weren't. And yes, I could scrub the notes and find the original papers, but as an author, he really should have laid out a better argument in the text itself.
Though Mooney has a couple of instances where he clearly caught his targets with their pants down, making simple contrary-to-fact assertions, most of the time he just relies on the reader to trust him that he's getting the science right. I'm willing to do that because I feel I have a pretty good idea of who's trustworthy and who isn't on scientific matters, but people across the political perspective from Mooney will have a different view. It's a worrisome foreshadowing of the disregard for evidence he showed in what he's done on framing, and a sign of why the approach he advocates doesn't even make practical sense.

Final verdict: Three stars

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Ron Paul is a crackpot, and other notes on the campaign

There's been some discussion over at Dispatches from the Culture Wars about whether Ron Paul is a Dominionist, or perhaps a neo-confederate. The evidence for those pathologies isn't clear, but it is clear he's pretty nutty. I used to think of him as a so-so candidate, with some costs, but who could at least balance the budget and stop regular torture of detainees, but now methinks he possess a much higher level of nuttiness, not worth the cost.

In other news, I got a (presumably canned) response from Al Gore saying contra my hopes, he won't run for president, and The Economist says he wouldn't get the nomination anyway. I'm seriously considering writing in Jon Stewart in 2008, and I don't mean "seriously" as in "I'm joking." Accepting imperfect compromise candidates is one thing, but we need to work up the courage to junk the buzz-based candidacies of recent years.

"Still Alive" closing song by Jonathan Coulton

I was recently introduced to the music of Jonathan Coulton, a geeky-comedy singer with some amazing songs (though much of his stuff is mediocre--hint, listen to "Code Monkey" for one of the better ones). Anyway, after enthusiastically endorsing Coulton's work to a friend, I the friend informed me that he had also done the closing song for a videogame, and from there I found out the thing was on YouTube. This is a good one:

Friday, October 19, 2007

On not engaging in real dialog with William Lane Craig

Today, John W. Loftus a post meant to get William Lane Craig to answer a follow up question to something Craig had previously answered. John isn't going to like this, but I have to say that if he thinks he's going to engage Craig in real dialog, he's severely mistaken. Craig's original response to him reeks of saying whatever sounds good, whether or not it really makes sense, something that's true of most of Craig's responses to criticism.

I only partially explained my reasons for thinking this in my initial response to Craig, but rather than going even deeper into the problems with that particular article, let me cite an even more egregious example of Craig's behavior: a post at the Secular Outpost on Craig's response to some of his daughter's friends. Take a good look at it: his account of the encounter begins "I argued..." and launches into a numbered list of six points. The approach is not surprising insofar as this is how Craig talks in his debates, but who talks that way with personal acquaintances? This is not a human being speaking, this is an apologetics bot. "Apologist" is not enough here, my philosophy of religion professor Keith Yandell is something of an apologist at heart insofar as arguing about religion is what really gets his blood pumping. I have to say "apologetics bot" because it is the only way to describe Craig's well-crafted debating persona that is totally disconnected from Craig's real reasons for believing, since he says he would believe even if all the arguments came out the other way. His persona is one he crafted just because he thought it would be effective in winning converts and keeping believers in the fold. The case is made even more disturbing by the fact that when I read Craig's Reasonable Faith, I got the impression the meaning-of-life type issues constituted his real reasons for believing, but in the quoted material at Secular Outpost, that is subsumed into his apologetics bot style.

So it's time to give up hope of dialog with Craig. He deserves public expose for his more sophisticated pieces of fakery, public ridicule for his more transparent ones, and that is all he deserves.

Talking to a God-bot

No, not the kind cranked out by Campus Crusade for Christ. The kind computer programmers make. A number of philosophers have been talking with one: Carrie, Brit, Ross. Their conversations are pretty entertaining, and prompted me to try my hand at it. However, I lost interest when the machine failed to be phased by my "I am Satan" introduction. Oh well.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Is James Watson an idiot?

Normally, James Watson's recent racist comments are the sort of thing I'd ignore. However, Greg Laden has an analysis that raises an interesting question: Is James Watson an idiot? He's a Nobel Prize winner, won it for discovering the structure of DNA, a discovery which modern biology wouldn't be much of anywhere without, but... this might not be an indicator of talent: "Watson and his colleagues... were living in times when you could not swing a dead cat without discovering a fundemental property of nature."

Jerry Fodor fails me

A week ago, I mentioned having enjoyed Jerry Fodor's Water's water everywhere. That made it so much more disappointing to see, via Jason Rosenhouse, that Fodor just recently wrote a truly awful attack on the theory of natural selection. What's really depressing about it is that I think nobody's born that stupid, that kind of stupidity has to be learned. And even though creationists have their share of virulent ignorance, even they don't say things this stupid:
Here’s the problem: you can read adaptationism as saying that environments select creatures for their fitness; or you can read it as saying that environments select traits for their fitness. It looks like the theory must be read both ways if it’s to do the work that it’s intended to: on the one hand, forces of selection must act on individual creatures since it is individual creatures that live, struggle, reproduce and die. On the other hand, forces of selection must act on traits since it is phenotypes – bundles of heritable traits – whose evolution selection theory purports to explain. It isn’t obvious, however, that the theory of selection can sustain both readings at once. Perhaps the consensus view among Darwinists is that phenotypes evolve because fit individuals are selected for the traits that make them fit. This way of putting it avoids the ambiguity, but whether it’s viable depends on whether adaptationism is able to provide the required notion of ‘selection for’; and it seems, on reflection, that maybe it can’t. Hence the current perplexity.
* * *
The crucial test is whether one’s pet theory can distinguish between selection for trait A and selection for trait B when A and B are coextensive: were polar bears selected for being white or for matching their environment? Search me; and search any kind of adaptationism I’ve heard of. Nor am I holding my breath till one comes along.
I suspect that only a philosopher could say something so foolish. These are the sort of conceptual, go-nowhere nitpicks that Fodor was supposed to be rejecting in "Water's water everywhere." If even he falls into them, what does this say about the state of modern philosophy?

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Mini review: The Missionary Position

Hitchens is an unusual but valuable sort of journalist, one who lets facts get in the way of a good story. Aside from exposing the unpleasant underside of Mother Teresa's work--and the facts of Hitchens' case there have gone undisputed--Hitchens offers up valuable thoughts on the hypocrisy of Western rich.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Cool optical illusion

Steve Higgins of Omni Brain swore his spinning dancer video is ambiguous. Swore it can be seen as spinning both clockwise and counterclockwise. I could only see it spinning clockwise at first. Then, after staring at it really hard, I can to understand why in theory it was ambiguous, but I couldn't see it that way. Now Andrew Sullivan has a still, which allows me to see the ambiguity. I think I caught it spinning counterclockwise once. But now it's spinning clockwise again, and I can't get it to change.

Thought of the Time Being

Supposedly, Camus once said that the first and most important philosophical question we must ask is, "why not just commit suicide?" But he overlooked another question: "why bother?"

Monday, October 15, 2007

My notes on the FFRF convention

Thus far, I've found two write-ups of the FFRF convention: one by PZ Myers (who I met!) and a two parts by Palmer of Fearful Symmetries (who I'm pretty sure I met). Read at least one of them before this post, since I've decided on a fill-in-the-gaps approach here.

First, I agree wholeheartedly with PZ Myers' thoughts on what needs to be changed at future conferences, though this is as much an expression of what I liked as what I didn't like. For me, major highlights of the conference were meeting student activist awardee Matthew LaClair and his dad, getting to talk with August Brunsman about group trouble shooting, getting to talk with a leader of the Minnesota group about how to organize well, talking to PZ about coming to speak maybe for Darwin day, introducing members of the local group to Dan Barker, and so on. Palmer misses the point in saying that the purpose of the FFRF is not social networking, the point is not that but, as PZ says, "to organize. To interact with fellow freethinkers. To get ideas that we can carry home to help advance our goals. To meet new people and to network." In this age of YouTube, I can get an earful of Hitchens in the comfort (sorta) of my dorm room. Face to face networking, that's where the real strength of these things are.

Beyond that general outline, what were the highlights? First, both Matt LaClair and his father were really cool. Matt didn't just fight against proselytizing at school, he did it by tape recording class, using the recording to prove that the teacher lied about not proselytizing, and then used a second recording to prove the teacher had lied about not lying in the first round. That takes a certain amount of guts and initiative. The dad, Paul, was a lawyer, which I think went a long way towards them knowing how to play ball in the dispute. I also had one of those inspiring intergenerational chats with Mr. LaClair that are supposed to only happen in cheesy movies: he said his generation accomplished a lot but then they got tired and now things are looking bleak, I declared we'd be able to deal with the problems, and he said he was inspired by that into thinking our generation might be able to do something. That actually sounds really like something from a cheesy movie, but there was more to the conversation than that. I just can't remember it perfectly, but I swear if I remembered it all it wouldn't sound so cheesy.

The second thing worth noting about the talk is my run ins with the art of meeting famous people. For Dan and PZ, I did well. In each case I sought them out with a fairly good idea of how I'd introduce myself: for Dan, since I had met him twice before, my main focus was introducing the other students. For PZ, who I hadn't met before, the approach was, "Hi PZ. Chris Hallquist. I'm the guy who called Matthew Nisbet a miserable worm." However, before any of that happened, I had surprise encounters that I was less prepared for. Pretty much the first thing that happened when I went into the room where the talks were taking place was I took a look at the book table, and suddenly noticed Christopher Hitchens standing four feet from me. I said something along the lines of "Oh, hi." Unsure of what to do, I got a copy of his book The Missionary Position and was going to ask him to sign, but then he was gone. When I finally got him to sign it the next day after a long wait in line, he said, "I saw you yesterday. But then you disappeared." I explained that I had went to buy one of his books for him to sign, but then he left. "I would have waited," he replied. (I think that meant "would have if you had said more than, 'oh, hi.'") Julia Sweeney similarly caught me off guard as I was sitting and listening to the talk immediately proceeding hers. There I had my wits about me enough to say, "There are famous people all around me! They're popping out of nowhere." She thought that was funny, and I felt pretty good about myself for making Julia Sweeney laugh.

After all the talks on the first night (including Sweeney's live one) we got a preview screening of the movie version of her monologue "letting go of God." She introduced by explaining that it had been submitted to Sundance, and they were currently in the process of deciding whether to cut some of it, and they wanted input from us. Here's the e-mail I just sent her:

I was one of the FFRF convention goers who saw your movie on Friday. It's one of the best speeches on religion I've ever heard or read, on par with Ingersoll's lectures, and I say this having listened to, and using as my point of comparison, such well-known modern speakers as Michael Shermer, Dan Barker, Tom Flynn, Eddie Tabash, Salman Rushdie and Paul Kurtz. It had a wonderful everywoman quality to it: you start off taking the Bible seriously enough to be deeply troubled by all the bad things in it, but also spend a fair amount of time on the vaguer liberal forms of religion that many secularists often ignore, and telling the story of a nonscientist's relationship with science. Don't cut a word of it.

The meetup with PZ was good, with lots and lots of people attempting to sit down to have lunch together in basically the same place (though we did get spread out over quite a few tables). That's where I'm pretty sure I met Palmer, who I think was the one who told me Antony Flew didn't even write his latest book. I was unsure whether to believe that or first, but I later found at Gods 4 Suckers that yes, Flew has a new book coming out, and yes, it has "with" on the cover, "with" being a standard euphemism for "ghostwritten by." FYI, Richard Carrier tells me he's already read it but promised not to say much until the New York Times review comes out or something. I'll link to Richard's review when it happens, but also try to post my own review.

Finally, Hitchens' talk, whose comments on dealing with terrorism pissed at least half the audience off (clips at both Fearful Symmetries and Pharyngula). Really, Hitchen's talk represents what I love about freethought organizations: we don't march in lockstep. He came to the conference as the big shot, big draw, but made a point to say something contentious without the slightest expectation that his status would cause anyone to nod along. This is also, incidentally, why I'll be very reluctant to ever join a Unitarian Universalist group: I have a couple friends who've gone to meetings, and they'll talk about how there was a sermon-ish thing on a rather political topic, and though they weren't complaining you could tell from how they described it that people were expected to nod along because it's the moral thing to do. It's a mirror image of the more political Evangelical churches, and it creeps me out.

I agree with Palmer, who said that PZ Myers' description of Hitchens' remarks here was rather misleading. For example, when Myers says Hitchens' position on Iran is to "go in there with bombs and marines and blow it all up," it rings false, and I should know because I was the one who made a point of asking Hitchens exactly what he thought we should do about Iran. My understanding of what he said it that would should promise to blow up anything they build towards getting nuclear weapons, and follow through. If "it all" was meant to refer to a large number of things in Iran beyond nuclear facilities, I can't remember Hitchens saying anything to that effect. Also, Marines need not get involved--we could just stare at them with an expression like, "hey, a fullscale war would go really badly for you guys" and then go about our regular business. The Israelis did that to Saddam at one point.

Similarly, I see no reason to think that what Hitchens was proposing re: terrorism would amount to genocide, or would logically lead to also shooting Baptists. My impression was that all the people Hitchens wanted to kill were people planning to kill us and our allies, and the plan is not to go until they abandon Islam but until they get sick of fighting in a conflict where our troops are much better trained and equipped. That would logically suggest also being willing to kill the sort of Baptist who bombs abortion clinics, but not the average supporter of the US religious right, not "putting a bullet through every god-haunted brain."

Hitchens was also more subtle on questions than Myers lets on:
He was asked to consider the possibility that bombing and killing was only going to accomplish an increase in the number of people opposing us. Hitchens accused the questioner of being incredibly stupid (the question was not well-phrased, I'll agree, but it was clear what he meant), and said that it was obvious that every Moslem you kill means there is one less Moslem to fight you ... which is only true if you assume that every Moslem already wants to kill Americans and is armed and willing to do so.
My memory is that Hitchens asked the questioner if he wanted to re-ask the question, on the grounds that the intent could not possibly be as stupid as the actual words (some exact quotes here). That's the sort of rhetorical jab that makes me really glad Hitchens is on our side, and it was basically on-target, however gratuitous.

None of this means that Hitchens was right. Not long ago I would have been very sympathetic to his position by Iran, though I'm made cautious by the fact that the Iranian president seems to be dealing with serious domestic opposition and I'd hate to do anything that would risk mucking up their efforts by giving him something to rally the country around. Iraq is also more complicated that Hitchens' remarks would suggest: a lot of the militants want to kill each other as much as they want to kill foreigners if not more, and that means that continuing our involvement means risking bloodying our hands in sectarian feuding. My doubts are not absolute: these are difficult questions of military and geopolitical strategy with a large empirical element, and I'm no expert on the relevant issues. On the other hand, Hitchens isn't really an expert either; he doesn't know what will work as clearly as he seems to think. This is an area where I'll listen to the Army War College types that Bush ignored going into Iraq, academics who've studied the region in a serious way, and so on.

In the end, Hitchens looks a little silly spouting off on strategic questions like that, but Myers really should be embarrassed at such a sloppy write-up.

Oh, and since Myers posted it under the heading "more to atheism than Hitchens," I should direct you to the latest carnival of the godless. I pick as highlights Greta Christian's Why Religion is like Fan Fic, and the Hell's Handmaiden piece God. Sex. Violence. Immorality.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

What I know about Josh McDowell

What follows is a post I could have made, in a form, some time ago, but chose not to write for a variety of reasons. I've chosen to write it now because I no longer have much hope of getting a definite answer to my questions, and have decided that the best thing I can do is say what I know and let others make what they will of it. Perhaps someone else will succeed in finding a definite answer where I have not, who knows.

First, for those who don't know, Josh McDowell is an Evangelical Christian who made his career as a traveling speaker for Campus Crusade for Christ, and boasts of a mind-boggling running total for college students spoken to (I think I read somewhere that he has a record for that, but am not sure). In 1972 he was involved in the creation of the book The Evidence That Demands a Verdict, put out by Campus Crusade's publishing arm, Here's Life Publications. The ambiguity in my "he was involved" phrasing is deliberate. The cover of the first edition says "by Josh McDowell," but the title page says "complied by Josh McDowell," and later editions just say "Josh McDowell." What he was "compiling" was quotations collected by a team of eleven college students (and more for later expansions), and the book consists almost entirely quotations that kinda sound like they support the credibility of Christianity, presented with a painful disregard for logical flow of argument. The names of the college students are listed prominently in early editions, but the billing is less prominent in recent ones.

Despite the rather odd nature of the work, it's been enormously influential. It's one of the first books Evangelicals have turned to when trying to claim rational support for their beliefs. As Jeff Lowder once said, "We remember the old alt.atheism days when every other refutation to a post was 'read McDowell.'" A year ago the book was listed as #13 out of the top 50 most influential Evangelical books. McDowell has been cited as a foundational influence by such apologists as William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, and J. P. Moreland.

One of his main selling points, at least in recent years, is his claim to be a former atheist who set out to investigate the evidence for Christianity, thinking he would discredit it, and was compelled to convert by overwhelming evidence. It seems like half the Campus Crusaders I talk to here in Madison know that and little else about him. When I first encountered this claim I had only a vague idea of it. Then, one day (it must have been nearly a year ago) I was paging through my copy of The Evidence that Demands a Verdict (1999 edition--the date is important) and noticed what struck me as a rather odd claim:
I left the university and traveled throughout the United States and Europe to gather evidence to prove that Christianity is a sham.

One day while I was sitting in a library in London, England, I sensed a voice within me saying, "Josh, you don't have a leg to stand on." I immediately surpressed it. But just about every day after that I heard the same inner voice. The more I researched, the more I head this voice. I returned to the United States and to the university, but I couldn't sleep at night."
This immediately struck me as at odds with what I knew generally about McDowell from other sources, such as Ed Babinski's comments on McDowell's conversion. I contacted Ed about it, and with his help I eventually compiled a list of places where McDowell had given a testimonial of some kind:

*Kucharsky, David. "Josh McDowell Apologizing is his Calling." (interview with Josh McDowell) Christian Herald. Feb. 1981.
*McDowell, Josh. The Evidence That Demands a Verdict. n.p. 1972.
*McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. 1976.
*McDowell, Josh. The Resurrection Factor. San Bernardino: Here's Life Publishers, 1981.
*McDowell, Josh. The Evidence That Demands a Verdict: Volume 1. San Bernardino: Here's Life Publishers, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1992
*McDowell, Josh. The New Evidence That Demands a Verdict. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1999.
*McDowell, Josh. More Than a Carpenter. 2004
*McDowell, Josh. Evidence for Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2006.
*McDowell, Josh, and Bob Hostetler. Beyond Belief to Convictions. Tyndale House Publishers, 2002.
*McDowell, Josh. "A Skeptic's Quest: Josh McDowell's Testimony." in Geisler, Norman L. and Paul K. Hoffman, eds. Why I Am a Christian. Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2001.
*McDowell, Josh (interview with). "It's No Hoax." Moody Magazine. April 1983.
*McDowell, Josh (interview with). "New Evidence." SBC Life. May 2000.

In the course of this work, an interesting pattern emerged: In every source 1999 and later, McDowell makes basically the same claim about traveling to Europe. However, in every source before 1999, no mention of Europe is made; McDowell still claims to have investigated Christianity but the claims are much less extravagant in nature. As an aside, I found nothing written by McDowell that did not give some kind of testimonial, with the exception of the 1981 book Reasons Skeptics should Consider Christianity, coauthored with a Don Stewart. The kicker is that I also found a full length biography of McDowell written in 1981 by Evangelical writer Joe Musser. In spite of being quite detailed, the book said nothing about McDowell's alleged travels to Europe, and described him as having done his research as part of a term paper and having attended a local church during the process of his conversion. I also noticed a handful of other red flags: the way the 1999 edition of McDowell's book awkwardly inserted the Eurotrip stuff into what was otherwise mostly the same exact version of his story that had appeared a few years earlier, the fact that his "leaving the university" did not keep him from graduating on time from the two-year college he was attending, and the fact that McDowell's background as described by Musser (family suffering financially because of an intrafamilial lawsuit, college funded by work and military) wouldn't have given him much in the way of resources to use traveling.

I sent an e-mail to McDowell's organization, and after a little under two months got McDowell on the phone. The first thing he did was to insist that Joe Musser had gotten his story wrong, specifically emphasizing that he had written no such term paper. Various questions on my part yielded a handful of interesting bits: he said he did not take time off from school but rather traveled to Europe in the summer, he specifically went to England, France, Germany, and Switzerland, he could not name any early sources that mentioned the Europe story, and he insisted that the matter was not important (try telling that to some of McDowell's fans...)

From there I tried to get in touch with people I knew had known McDowell and might have useful information about. One such person was Glenn Morton, author of the excellent essay "Morton's Demon," about his time as a Young Earth Creationist and explaining the creationist mindset. He's described himself as having ghostwritten the section defending creationism in McDowell's book Reasons Skeptics should Consider Christianity (in the book he gets a much vaguer mention in the "acknowledgments"). Morton said he really didn't know much about that part of McDowell's life, though he had "watched controversies swirl about his story" and also made a rather skeptical mention of McDowell's claim to have been "son of the town drunk" (for what it's worth, I haven't myself seen much reason to doubt the "town drunk" part of McDowell's story, but who knows).

I had gotten a response from Morton pretty quickly, but it took much longer to get a response from Joe Musser. My first letter got no response, as did the second, only on the third try did I provoke an annoyed response. Musser said he would take McDowell's word for it, saying "Mr. McDowell has an unquestioned character and integrity [comment: Glenn Morton seems to question it], whose ministry has been endorsed by Billy Graham and other major evangelical leaders," but it was clear he had no real information. The letter ended by telling me not to contact him again.

Those are the facts. What to make of them? The obvious conclusion is that McDowell lied about having traveled to Europe. A somewhat more complicated possibility is that the story is false but McDowell has managed to convince himself of it. As Bertrand Russell once said:
More distant memories are more doubtful, particularly if there is some strong emotional reason for remembering falsely, such, for instance, as made George IV remember being at the battle of Waterloo.
On this hypothesis, McDowell is not guilty of lying, but the falsification is not entirely innocent, either: it was probably not made at random, but as the result of wanting to remember and being pressured to remember things a certain way. The possibility of being pressured is worth emphasizing, as McDowell joined Campus Crusade at a young age and I've seen signs that the organization occasionally behaves in a quite manipulative manner.

For a long time, I had great difficulty conceiving of a plausible scenario on which the story is true. However, I did eventually come up with a decent shot at doing so, and here it goes: McDowell traveled to Europe, but learned almost nothing from it, wasted a lot of time and money and at the end felt rather foolish. The feeling foolish kept him from talking about it much, but after many years he finally realized he could tell the story and most people would never realize how foolish he had been.

To explain this possibility, I need to point out one thing I've left out so far: McDowell's story as given displays an imbecilic approach to library research. I say this as one who has done extensive library research for classes, for a summer apprenticeship in the history of science department, and for personal interests. If I want to learn about a subject, I go first to the university library (mostly) and to the public library (sometimes). There's an excellent selection of introductory texts available on every subject you can imagine. Even as I get deeper in to a subject, any given book I need is going to be there at least half the time. Once I'm far enough in to really badly want a specific title, accepting no substitutes, the library has a miraculous service called Inter Library Loan, which can get even the most obscure titles most of the time. Want a book by an obscure 1950's UFO cultist who's been almost entirely forgotten today? No problem--I've done that. If I'm not satisfied by the ILL for some reason (usually it will be because I want the book to refer back to over a period of more than a month) will probably come through for me: even if the book's out of print, they do a very good job of working with used book sellers to get you almost anything you want.

In order for it to be necessary to travel, you generally have to be looking for the sort of book that they never let out of its climate-controlled building wing and which even professors are only allowed to look at under supervision. For example, my history of science class has spent the last week and a half on the top floor of the main UW-Madison library, looking at manuscripts of an astronomical text produced c. 1500 (and "c. 1500" refers to the manuscripts, not the original text, which was older). During the preliminaries, our guide for the exercise explained to us that scholars from other universities do come to use the collections stored in that part of the building. Obviously, that kind of work is at a much higher level than the kind you do during your first semester of self-education.

Of course, McDowell's situation would have been somewhat different. The internet was not around to support bookselling and ILL systems, but they were definitely around. I've checked a couple librarianship encyclopedias, which have indicated that ILL systems got started well before McDowell was in college. Before, books could be ordered directly from publishers, and if you look closely in many older books and magazines, you'll find advertisements instructing readers to do exactly that. I don't know what the state of the used book market was in McDowell's youth, but that's hardly an essential resource for library research (called "library research" for a reason). McDowell would have been disadvantaged by the fact that he was a two-year community college rather than the main university for his state, but that could have been remedied by a summer trip to a larger library within his home state, or just maybe in an adjacent state (and with a good ILL system, even that would be entirely unnecessary). None of these disadvantages would have provided the basis for taking a trip to Switzerland.

Speaking of Switzerland: can you say language barrier? French, German, and Swiss universities would have had English texts, but almost all of those would be of the sort important enough to also be widely available in the Anglophone world. The main resource of the foreign libraries would have been texts by French, German, and Swiss scholars in the original languages. Academic reading fluency in a foreign language is not easy to attain. I don't have it after seven years of Spanish classes. Immersion teaches you a language a lot faster than classes do, and I can almost-barely-not-really believe a summer of immersion could have given McDowell academic reading abilities in one foreign language. But French, German, and maybe a third (several languages are spoken in Switzerland)? Come on.

So maybe McDowell did something stupid and didn't tell anyone about it for a long time. I'm not really convinced--though college students are often naive, and McDowell doesn't come across as the sort of guy who has such an amazing intellect that he definitely would have known better, I'm not sure he could have really screwed up in such an extravagantly expensive and wasteful way. I suppose it's possible, though. As I said in the introduction, I don't really have a definite answer to these questions. Perhaps someone else will get them--we'll see.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Thought of the Time Being

Some people think that if we aren't created by God, our lives have no meaning, but that's not necessarily true: what about a person created in a government laboratory for the purpose of hunting down and killing terrorists?

Another Internet Infidels article

I have another article up at Internet Infidels (this one's a kiosk piece): The War of Ideas: Atheism as a Mass Movement. It's an attempt to synthesize a fair amount of the blogging I've done over the past year for a hopefully wider audience.

Reply to Gimbel

Thursday, Steve Gimbel responded to my post arguing for the ambiguity of language. It makes for an interesting read if nothing else, and the first commenter was correct to predict that I would like Jerry Fodor's "Water's water everywhere."

The first thing I want to say by way of reply to Gimbel is that we seem to have different Hilary Putnam pieces in mind. The one I referred to was "Brains and Behaviour," whose main purpose is to attack the doctrine of behaviorism regarding the mind. The section I had in mind when I wrote "Can water taste funny?" is fairly short, so I'll quote it in full to establish context:
Some philosophers would prefer to say that 'polio' used to mean 'the simultaneous presence of such-and-such symptoms.' And they would say that the decision to accept the presence or absence of a virus as a criterion for the presence or absence of polio represented a change of meaning. But this runs strongly counter to our common sense. For example, doctors used to say 'I believe polio is caused by a virus.' On the 'change of meaning' account, those doctors were wrong, not right. Polio, as the word was then used, was not always caused by a virus; it is only what we call polio that is always caused by a virus. And if a doctor ever said (many did) 'I believe this may not be a case of polio,' knowing that all of the text-book symptoms were present, that doctor must have been contradicting himself (even if we, to-day, would say that he was right) or perhaps, 'making a disguised linguistic proposal.'
In response to this, I'd start by noting a fact that seems to bolster the change of meaning account: there are bodies in the scientific community responsible for hammering out consensus as to scientific terminology, and one can often imagine decisions going either way. A contemporary example is the change in Pluto's status, which some scientists aren't happy about for reasons not purely a matter of scientific fact.

In the polio case, suppose that when the polio virus was first discovered, the doctor who discovered it had examine a hundred polio patients (people with the standard systems) and found that 94 had the same virus, but 6 did not. After the publication of these findings, there might well be an open debate about whether or not to redefine polio. Turning to Putnam's scenarios, it is not at all hard in the first case for me to think that a doctor who says polio is caused by a virus may not be entirely right. Leaving aside the ambiguity in what the words meant, if he was thinking "I bet all past cases of these symptoms were caused by this virus," well, that would be a mistake. The ambiguity of the language becomes even clearer when we imagine a gradient of cases where at one end the symptoms have always been caused by polio, while at the other end only 1% over all are, yet nonetheless a doctor has only seen cases of the symptoms where the symptoms were caused by the same virus. In the 1% case the doctor who says "polio is caused by the virus" is wrong, the doctor in the 50% case is also still wrong, it seems, and only once you get up around 80% does it become plausible that the doctor is right. In the second case, I would say that what's probably happening is that at some point in the past, the doctor came to accept a change of definition without noticing it because cases of polio-symptom without polio-virus were too rare to get him to think about them.

Now I'll turn to Gimbel's post. He imagines a planet, Twin Earth (and I think this all comes from Putnam, though I'm not sure), that's just like Earth, except that instead of H2O they have a substance with all the same most readily visible properties as H20, but which has the chemical formula XYZ. Now imagine an ancient Greek, who has never heard of H20 and defines "water" in terms of all it's most readily visible properties. Transport the ancient to Twin Earth, show him some XYZ, and he'll think "this is water." But allegedly, H2O and XYZ aren't the same liquid, so the ancient is wrong to think XYZ is water and wrong in his definition.

In the comments, someone points out a case which seriously challenges the Putnam/Gimbel claims about water: jade, which in modern usage refers to both jadeite and nephrite. People didn't know there were two minerals there until the 19th century. Someone tries to defend Putnam by saying, "okay, jade can refer to both things"--but what's the basis for treating XYZ-H2O one way and jadeite-nephrite another way. For points of comparison, we can imagine cases where jade works just like XYZ-H2O is stipulated to work in the thought experiment, and then cases in-between that case and the modern case with lesser degrees of geographic separation. What on Earth (or Twin Earth) could possibly justify an objective cut off?

The only solution to these problems I can see is to admit that the idea of perfectly precise language is a delusion, and philosophers would do best to stop questing after it.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

To oppose the torrent of scholastic religion by such feeble maxims as these, that it is impossible for the same thing to be and not to be, that the whole is greater than a part, that two and three make five is pretending to stop the ocean with a bullrush.
-David Hume, The Natural History of Religion. Found in Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell

My first Internet Infidels paper is up

Over a year ago, I did a post series critiquing William Lane Craig's apologetics textbook Reasonable Faith. A revised version of the paper is now up at Internet Infidels, for those interested.

Doubting your arguments without knowing what's wrong with them

From Overcoming Bias
On Thursday I asked:

Among academics who focus on particular times other than our own, far more focus on past than future times. Why?

Among the 24 comments a great many creative explanations were offered. But:

I find it striking that most everyone seems to think it reasonably obvious that we should expect more study of history than the future, and yet people offer widely differing explanations for this phenomena.

This is a common and interesting situation: people offering divergent explanations of a conclusion on which they mostly agree. This suggests to me that they do not really know why they believe this conclusion. But does that fact suggest anything about how reasonable is their conclusion?
What do people think of this? I personally feel it puts me in a weird situation. I think I have a pretty good idea of why we study the past more than the future: we have more data on the past; predicting the future is largely a matter of projecting past trends, requiring studying the past; studying the future has inherent uncertainties coming from the chaotic nature of human affairs, as well as the fact that the future will be determined by knowledge we don't have yet. These all seem to me like perfectly good reasons, and I can't see anything wrong with them. Yet I feel the tug of the argument that when a bunch of people give totally divergent explanations for something, it's a sign they don't know what they're talking about. What am I to believe here?

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Priorities in Life

As most of my college readers will know, Facebook has recently allowed users to design "applications," little program-like things that can be embedded in anyone's Facebook account. I have mixed feelings about them--there are a small number of special tools that I'm glad to have, but many people have added the things willy-nilly and turned their Facebook pages into ugly, disorganized messes that serve to sharply remind me why I'm not on MySpace.

With that bit of background, I've recently encountered a "quizes" application that has you answer a short list of questions and then tells you, in percentage form, how similar your answers are to those of your friends. One such quiz is called "priorities in life" and asks you to rank the following ten things in order of importance to you:
being single
being married
having a house
having a car
When I just say the title of this quiz, I was curious to take it. When I saw the choices, though, I decided against, because honestly I can't see a person's interest in these things telling me much about them. They're the sort of things that have a sort of moderate importance to me that is roughly equal across the board, too close to rank meaningfully.

Evidently, the creator of the quiz things otherwise. The natural inference is that he or she sees these things as the obvious candidates for what's important in life, and would have a hard time seeing why anyone might want to list other things. Alternatively, the creator might have several things he or she would rank higher, but considers those ten the only sufficiently universal ones to put in a quiz like this.

I find this significant because I suspect that the creator of the application is not totally out of touch with the thinking of the average American, providing fuel for my wonderings about how the average American thinks. Unfortunately, it tends to confirm Vjack's comment...

Hilary Derangement Syndrome

What's with Andrew Sullivan and Hilary? When Andrew Sullivan got accused of "Bush Derangement Syndrome" some time ago, I was happy to call bull along with him, and even wondered about applications to modern religious debate. But I'm starting to agree with the reader who accused him of Hilary Derangement Syndrome last month. Examples come in several stripes, from straightforward mini-rants to this more complicated example where Sullivan admitted that "She's extremely smart, able, intelligent and hard-working" and that in another life "She'd be president of a major college or a candidate for the Supreme Court," but then goes on to savage her and paint her as totally unacceptable. What makes it so weird for me is that I'm on board with most of Sullivan's reasons for disliking her. Indeed, when she first announced her candidacy my gut reaction was extremely negative. Where I differ from Sullivan is that it's not obvious to me that the other Democratic front runners are great improvements on her. Both Obama and Edwards have even less national-level experience than Hilary does, and I suspect Sullivan's guarded endorsement of her abilities is something he actually wouldn't say of either of them. So, at the end of the day, I suspect Hilary would make a better president than either of them. I don't have Sullivan's dogmatism either way, though; I can listen to arguments that Obama's local experience counts for more than many people think.

So what's up with Sully?

Monday, October 08, 2007

Thought of the Time Being

People are always saying, "There's more to life than such-and-such, such-and-such won't make you happy." Does it ever occur to them that maybe there's more to life than being happy?

Philosophy Carnival 54

Various EDITS: For apparently having gotten carnival # wrong, misspelled a couple names, broken a link, and confusion next host/last host. Hopefully that's all of them.

Welcome to the 54rd edition of the Philosophy Carnival. Or is thatC the Philosophy Carnival? Both homepages are good to know. This edition is hosted at The Uncredible Hallq. Wait, you figured that out already. Look what happens to my brain when I stay up until one in the morning to do something like this for all you people out there... no, I'm not complaining, just rambling incoherently because I respond poorly to shifts in my sleep cycle.*

Anyway, before we begin, I have just one shameless plug: I'm currently working on getting a comprehensive Philosophy Blogroll off the ground. Not only can you join, you can add it to your site in one of three forms! Details at the link. Now on to the carnival...


The Financial Philosopher makes it to the top of the carnival role by giving me a post arguing that the world needs philosophy. It's something I've been trying to convince everyone I meet of of late. Yes, this is true in spite of recent posts complaining about the way philosophy is currently done. FP has some good arguments, though I fear they will be of little use to me in trying to win over random acquaintances.

First Philosophy and Rhizomatic Mathematics has a post that could be philosophy of mathematics, could be philosophy of a lot of things, but there's also some meta-philosophy, so I'm putting it here. Has embedded in it the conclusion that philosophy has been influenced by a notion of mathematics that doesn't reflect the reality of how mathematics has been done most of the time.

Thom Brooks of The Brooks Blog asks: What is the point of staff development for university employees? Yet another reason for me to not go into college teaching, as per my current considerations. I seem to be getting a lot of those lately...


Leading off the ethics section we have our illustrious founder of the Philosophy Carnival, Richard Chappell of Philosophy, etc. His post is called Temporal Neutrality: can we still care?, which contains some careful reflections on the relationship between time and value.

At NoodleFood, Diana attempts to formulate the argument against egoism given by Colin McGinn:
P1. Ethical egoism implies that helping others, with no benefit to self, is immoral.
P2. That's rubbish.
C. Ethical egoism is false.
I'm not all that sympathetic to egoism but... oh, snap!

Atheists Have Morals by Phil for Humanity could be put under philosophy of religion, but is really more notable for brief thoughts on the reasons underlying ethics.

The Agonist looks at some standard questions surrounding means and ends.


Sportive Thoughts has some comments on a Paul Krugman article that are well worth reading, even though the author says he ought to be spending his time talking about Plato.

There's a discussion of an article titled we aren't as ethical as we think we are at Trusted Advisor Associates. The original article is 44 pages long, the sort of thing that I'd love to read if I had the time. Of personal interest to me, because I've recently gotten into the habit of making jokes about being a horrible person, and then silently wondering if I could really be as bad a person as I sometimes suspect myself of being. Thanks to this paper, I now know that the situation is actually probably worse than I had thought.

In the counterintuitive but worthwhile theses department, we have Hobbes and Locke: Bedfellows? by Matthew Wilder of the aptly named Wild Philosophy (hey! I'm not the only one doing a lame name pun shtick!) It works out in great detail something I've gotten as a general vibe. After you've read it, I'd offer up this generalization for consideration: pairs of philosophers generally considered traditional opponents of each other often have surprisingly a lot in common, because they lived in the same milieu and therefore picked up the same sets of unquestioned assumptions.

Dinner Table Don'ts asks whether health care is really special.

Philosophy of Religion

Enigmania has a discussion of omniscience involving, among other things, a self-referential paradox. The paradox is quite clever, making the post worth reading, but also making it the sort of thing I'm only pretty sure I understood.

Primate Diaries has some interesting thoughts on parsimony, God, and multiple universes.

Martial Development totally wins for being provocative by opening a post with the line:
There are two kinds of agnostics in the world. The first are lazy and ignorant fools; the second reject the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza.
Also with comparisons between Spinoza's philosophy and Taoism.

Not only a great Phil Religion piece, but also a good piece on pedagogy, is Jennifer Lawson's God and The Perfect Burger Maker, which came out of this problem:
I have found that certain arguments against the existence of God, against the reasonableness of belief in God, or arguments that challenge certain qualities of God are fairly hard to make salient and powerful to some students.
I think she does a fine job of rising to this challenge here.


DuckRabbit asks the age old question of "What is truth?--with specific context of the theories of McDowell and Davidson. I wonder about the truth about his profile artwork.

Contrastingly, at the blog Brains we have an age-new question: What Exactly is a Computer? (Probably not asked often enough, given their importance to modern philosophy of mind.)

Kenny Pearce looks at the ontological status of dreams in Berkleian metaphysics--not quite a canonical question, but an old sticking point for trying to make sense of Idealism.


Avery Archer of The Space of Reasons examines Reid's "Same Shop" argument for trusting our senses.

Jgiesselmann has an interesting post on BonJour and the Lottery Paradox


Yes, we got a post on aesthetics. It's called Reversibility: Aesthetics Centered Ontology. Read it, because philosophers don't talk about aesthetics enough.

Word for grab-bag that I can't spell

Are You Anybody's Favorite Person? It's both a video found on YouTube and a commentary post by Alex Landis. Both are great, though by nature of the question, the commentary fails to give any sense of closure to the question. A must read if you want something to ponder for the next few days.

That's all for this week's carnival. The next edition shall appear in three week's time at The Brooks Blog. See you all then.

*Yes, that means this post may well be full of typos and even stupider mistakes. Hit me with a virtual bitchslap and I'll fix it when I'm lucid.

Shoot me now

Obama refuses to wear American flag pin. Gives intelligent reason for not doing so. Right wing goes crazy. John Cole thinks this shows that right wingers are out of touch with reality, and this is why Republicans are so marginalized in politics right now. Ed Brayton concludes Obama destroyed his chances of winning the election by overestimating the intelligence of the American people. I fear Brayton is right.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Stupid over-hyped science story

Anyone out there with a little bit of college-level science who wants to tell me what's wrong with this story about the creation of an artificial chromosome?

...Er, that was a rhetorical question. To me, it seems painfully obvious that this isn't as interesting as it's billed to be. The hype is that a scientist has created "LIFE! LIFE I SAY!" The reality is that scientists have been pretty sure for an awfully long time that there is no vital force above and beyond the chemistry that makes life life. Since the goal of this project wasn't an innovative new form of life but rather a slightly stripped-down version of something already existing, it's basically a showy feat of chemical synthesis techniques. It's making something that's already out there from scratch. The stuff about radical new applications is mostly nonsense. The chemical synthesis techniques could prove useful for something way down the road, but only once we figure out a reliable way to design brand-spanking new genes--proteins, really, since that's what genes code for--that actually do something useful. Honestly, I would be far more impressed by a single new and demonstrably useful protein than I would be by creating a human genome from scratch.

Dear Al Gore

Here's the text of a letter I just dropped in the mail. Probably won't do any good, but it soothes my civic conscience:
Dear Al Gore,

I know you’ve gotten many pleas like this before, so I’ll keep it short: please run for president. I was impressed by your recent book The Assault on Reason, and you are the only person I can imagine getting excited about as a candidate. Hilary Clinton appears to have a basic level of competence, but has nothing that would make her a serious candidate were she not related to a former president—reminiscent of George Bush. Her election would also reinforce a troubling dynastic precedent in presidential politics. Barack Obama appears to have built his campaign on an ability to write good speeches, which is nice to have in our speechwriter-dominated environment, but we need more than good speeches from a president. Bill Richardson is one candidate who has tried to build a campaign on qualifications rather than media buzz, but without media buzz he stands little chance of winning the primaries.

In a recent article in Vanity Fair, you were quoted as saying that a reason for staying out of the current presidential race is that you lack the tolerance for spin over substance required in modern politics. This may accurately describe politics as it exists at the moment, but we cannot be resigned to it, because it is guaranteed to give us a parade of politicians who are excellent spin masters and terrible office holders. This must change. In 2008, you could be the one to fight for that change.


Chris Hallquist
For background, I'd suggest reading the Vanity Fair piece on what cost Gore the 2000 election, and my review of The Assault on Reason. For those interested in sending a similar letter, I used this contact information for Gore. There are also a number of "Draft Gore" type organizations out there that are worth Googling.

Quote of the Time Being

Sperm are like e-mail spam.
-Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Quote of the Time Being

In Modern Orthodox Judaism I have not heard much emphasis of the virtues of blind faith. You're allowed to doubt. You're just not allowed to successfully doubt.
-Eliezer Yudkowsky. I see this in modern Evangelicalism too.

Thought of the Time Being

Whatever happened to the good old days when a man would look you in the eye and lie to you straight?

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Can water taste funny?

This is another philosophy ticks me off post, and it hinges on a surprisingly simple question: is it possible to have funny-tasting water? Have you ever been surprised at the taste of what you got out of the tap at your own home, out of a bottle at a store, or out of a bubbler in a strange building, and responded by saying "This water tastes funny"?

If you think water can taste funny, we have what must seem to some philosophers like an incredible paradox: water is supposed to be H2O. Yet H20 is pretty limited in the properties it has: it can be hot or cold, and it can contain unusual isotopes of oxygen or hydrogen (as is the case with heavy water), but that pretty much exhausts the possible properties H2O can have. And generally those things don't trigger a "that tastes funny" response. So how is it that water can taste funny?

The answer is that funny-tasting things can be dissolved in H2O, and when we say "this water tastes funny" we don't mean "this H2O tastes funny" but rather "this aqueous solution tastes funny." This means that while the standards scientific definition of "water" is "H2O," it seems that standard usage allows "water" to mean "solution where H2O is the solvent."

This is significant for the state of modern philosophy, because there seems to be among modern philosophers an extraordinary reluctance to admit ambiguity in the language. It leads to some awful silliness when they ask questions like "is it a necessary truth that water is H2O?" Plausibly, the answer to that question depends on how you define "water." And the resistance to such ambiguity can really be extraordinary; in the philosophy class I'm taking right now we were assigned a paper by Hilary Putnam titled "Brains and Behavior," which among other things attacks the idea that science might occasionally involve a re-definition of central terms.

Why is this hard for people?

Jon Stewart for God, 2008

I don't watch the Daily Show enough. I was reminded of that fact to day by, of all things, Andrew Sullivan's complaints about Stewart's treatment of Chris Matthews. Watch the clips. I'm with Stewart, and the reader who went after Sullivan on the grounds that he seemed to imply "the rule is that you cannot talk to an author about their book unless you fully accept its premise." Really, Stewart wasn't that nasty, and the main reason that Matthews came off looking bad is that Matthews started whining about his treatment near the end of the clip. If I were Matthews, I would be relieved that the audience was laughing at me rather than jeering.

Oh, and PS: I'm tempted to get that book Matthews was promoting, just because it sounds like one of those things that's so silly you could learn a lot from it.

An age old question

Steve Gimbel asks: Are romance novels porn for middle aged women?

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Intellectual masturbation makes God kill kittens

Recently, while checking out David Chalmers' website, I came across this paper. Read it, it's not that long.

Now, I don't know about you, but I found this paper utterly soul-sucking, in a somewhere-a-kitten-just-died sort of way. This is what passes for philosophy in the modern world. It basically consists of finding two things two guys said once, and making them look silly. Perhaps there's a reason to care a great deal about those two things the two guys said, but the reason isn't explained in the text. And this is what passes for philosophy in the modern world.

Don't misunderstand me. At the beginning of the philosophy course I'm taking this semester, the prof briefly explained what thought experiments were and said that at the end of the semester we'd be asking the question if they're the sort of thing that adults should be spending their time talking about. I wouldn't put the question that way. I have good reason reason for this: a week and a half ago I was hanging out with friends waxing nostalgic about the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers. I figure that fact alone (and it isn't alone) is enough to disqualify me from making blanket statements about how other adults should spend their time.

So if Chalmers had put that paper up as a blog post, or as the not-so-serious article on the last page of a magazine. But this is considered a contribution to a serious professional enterprise, the sort of thing that could help a guy get tenure. I know Chalmers has published much more worthwhile things and doesn't need this paper for career reasons, but a lesser academic could theoretically have used this paper as a first step to securing lifetime job security. In a field that's supposed to be about really important questions asked by people in togas. Where have all the togas gone?

Yeah, a kitten just died somewhere.

If all stories were written by science fiction.

I found this via the ever-entertaining (if overly addictive) TV Enjoy

Quote of the Time Being

This is the danger of getting into discussions with philosophers — they're saying something with great erudition, but sometimes you don't quite see the point, except that they must say something.
-PZ Myers

Madison religion news

Apparently, the whole religious-fliers-in-public-schools controversy has reached my very own Madison, WI. The FFRF is trying to stop it, while Vjack of Atheist Revolution proposes a much more clever solution: try using the system to send home atheist fliers.

Thought of the Time Being

Guns don't kill people. Bullets kill people.