Monday, March 31, 2008

Monday night linkage

Austin Cline has a very nice post on the Dalai Lama. There goes another sacred cow.

Via Barefoot Bum, I learn about a new Google bomb:

Expelled
Expelled, the movie
Ben Stein
Intelligent Design

Via Corrente, I've found a interesting summary of ten technologies futurists are excited about. I have to say I expect 8, 6, 5, and 4 to become huge within my lifetime, and would expand 8 to "molecular biology in general." Those things collectively should transform society. But I'm skeptical about the rest. Thoughts?

PZ Myers is still a badass.

But I don't think PZ gets the award for biggest badass of the moment. You see, four days ago Dutch politician Geert Wilders put up the following short film on Liveleak:



One day after that, Liveleak took it down citing security concerns, but put a defiant message in its place, declaring the incident a sad day for freedom of speech. The Liveleak version of the film was gone, but it had already been made available elsewhere. Then, Liveleak put it back up after beefing up the security measures for their staff. Though the film is worth watching especially for an idea of what modern Islam might look like from a European standpoint, having the film removed due to death threats but not stopped was the real coup. Muslims are cementing their reputation as people who will kill you if you accuse them of being violent.

Consider this an open thread.

Carnivalia

The 88th Carnival of the Godless and the 17th Humanist Symposium are both up.

Communicating science

In the comments of one of my recent posts on Matt Nisbet and framing, Karl of The Inoculate Mind said:
I'm just sitting here agape at this debate, Chris. I want to understand "Framing" for my own field, but each time the Atheists-shut-up "frame" comes up it turns me off.
After spending a fair amount of time listening to communications people, here are my thoughts on how to communicate science.

First, do listen to communications people. Don't believe everything they say, especially on things like the ethics of what they propose, but do listen to them.

Next most important thing is getting the length right. When you only have a bumper sticker worth of space to promote your message, you have to come up with something that will fit on a bumper sticker. And there are many people who you can only reach that way, at least in the immediate "what's my next move" future. So you need to have a bumper-sticker version of your message, an elevator speech version (short enough to be delivered in the space of an elevator ride), a YouTube video length version, and so on, and so forth.

The ability to be concise is one of the main things that let William Lane Craig do well in so many debates with atheists, especially when he started out. Campus Crusade would arrange debates between him and a college professor who was used to delivering information in 50 minute chunks, and who suddenly had to deal with time limits of 20 minutes or less. Craig, meanwhile, would cram five or six arguments into 20 minutes. Take a look at that debate transcript: the arguments may not be very good, but in each case all the parts are there in condensed form.

Now, some people seem to have this idea that when faced with tight time constraints placed on us, say, by the media, the appropriate response is to sit out and complain, because there is no way to give a bumper-sticker version of our case. This view is false. 'Nuff said.

Of course, being concise isn't enough, you also want to be punchy. This is also quite doable. Here's Mike the Mad Biologist, via Pharyngula:
The other thing we evolutionary biologists don't do enough of, and this stems from the previous point, is make an emotional and moral case for the study of evolution. Last night, I concluded my talk with a quote from Dover, PA creationist school board member William Cunningham, who declared, "Two thousand years ago someone died on a cross. Can't someone take a stand for him?"

My response was, "In the last two minutes, someone died from a bacterial infection. We take a stand for him."
Speaking of bacterial infection (and, implicitly, antibiotic resistance), it's worth saying that I sort of agree with Nisbet and Mooney that we should emphasize the practical side of science, though not to the exclusion of evidence and not for the same reasons. For one, the fact that we can get practical results out of science findings is a piece of evidence for them. More importantly, in my experience citing the practical results of science is a good way of showing how silly relativism about scientific claims is. I fairly recently got into a discussion on science with a local Campus Crusader, and responded to what she had said about scientific theories by telling her, "if you were on trial for your life, you would insist that any use of science by the prosecutor was actually based on sound science, and you would be outraged if he tried to dismiss as mere theory DNA evidence showing someone else did it." She went quiet after that. Finally, xkcd is a great webcomic.

And by all means, we should emphasize the points that favor us most. This does not mean we should abandon "arguments" in favor of "frames." Many of the things Nisbet lists as "frames" are pretty clearly arguments for a position. And there's no reason to think that evidence isn't something worth emphasizing. When you actually sit down to talk to people about science, you quickly realize that evidence vs. superstition isn't a fight they want to be on the wrong end of. And moral arguments are a perfectly good thing, especially when your opponent's position is morally grotesque. To ignore the morally grotesque in your opponents' position is to not emphasize the points that favor you the most. If Nisbet is concerned about making the moral case for evolution, I recommend he take the following line out for a spin: "Creationism is based on the idea that if evolution is true, we would have to admit that massacring children is wrong, and if we did that, the moral fabric of society would come undone."

Philosophers' Carnival #66

Welcome to the 66th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival. I've decided to do something a little different for this edition: handing out awards for posts in a variety of specific categories. First I'll do the non-award posts by category, then I'll do the award posts. For those of you who find your post in the non-awards category, please be aware that they were assigned based on criteria made up on the spot. Also, I typed this thing way to late at night. Indeed, that last point might be just as worth remembering for those who actually got awards...

Metaphysics:

Joongol Kim of Platonic Heaven sketches out a view on free will called semicompatiblism. Comes under pretty heavy criticism but interesting all the same.

Roman Altshuler also writes about free will, specifically on the phenomenology of responsibility.

Kenny Pearce asks whether Berkley was a phenomenalist or Platonist.

Philosophy of Science:

At Philosophy of Brains we get to read complaints about careless talk of psychological laws.

Rebecca Roache of Practical Ethics asks some sharp questions about claims of internet addiction.

Tanasije Gjorgoski discusses the interplay of Kant, Einstein, rationalism, and quantum mechanics.

Ethics and whatever:

Avery Archer discusses John McDowell and our ability to do what we know is wrong.

Michael of Phluaria has up a draft of a lexicon on types of reasons. It will be interesting to see how this project grows in the future.

Why Logic Isn't Overrated: Inconsistent Thoughts argues against the idea of logic as a mere tool for reasoning.

Awards:

The Hooray for Science Fiction Award: Richard Chappell discuses the possibility of benevolent aliens policing the Earth. Because no bunch of philosophical essays would be complete without at least one science-fictiony post.

Things Philosophers Don't Talk About Enough Award: Almost Philosophy talks about the philosophy of sex, specifically infidelity, specifically having dreams about sleeping with other people when married. I'm serious when I say philosophers don't talk about sex enough: most people are about a billion times more likely to have a chance to dream about having sex with someone not their spouse than to have a chance to push a fat man on roller skates in front of a trolley.

The Long Heated Comment Thread Award: In Jesus Lives; is Christianity a corpse? Enigman looks at some questions relating to theistic creation and morality. Commenters immediately question how he could say what he did, and the resulting thread is 41 comments long.

The Heated Comment Thread that Almost Was: Thom Brooks suggests promising tax cuts is tantamount to bribery. A commenter objects. Brooks asks if the commenter is suggesting all taxation is theft. No further comments after that point.

The Wizards Are Always Good award: Old-Wizard.com has a list of the all time ten greatest philosophers. Each is described in solid detail, though the details are likely to cause controversy.

That's it for this carnival. The next one is to be held at Kenny Pearce's blog. See you all again then.

EDIT: Apology for the typos in the original version.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

J. J. Ramsey on Chris Mooney

Chris Mooney has another post defending the things he's been saying on framing. I was going to comment, but J. J. Ramsey nailed it before I could:
"Some have sought to paint me as a science defender who somehow flip-flopped on strategy."

You may not have "flip-flopped," but you went from noting real traps that come up in rebutting denialists to coming up with the impractical suggestion of avoiding the whole business of rebuttal altogether, which is irresponsible.
To be just a little more specific, Mooney seems to use the word "defend" without meaning "rebut criticisms." He claims he will soon be "defending science" at Georgia Tech. But from the brief description of the talk he's giving, it sounds like he won't be giving an evidence-based defense of science, but rather giving a history of some controversies vaguely designed to make his positions look good. This is the same problem I noticed with his original book on the politicization of science.

Friday, March 28, 2008

A retraction

Last year, I attacked a paper by David Chalmers because I thought it was a silly paper and found it shocking that such a thing could be published as serious academic work. I would like to retract that statement. While the paper is definitely sily, I do not think it is much sillier than other things that get published in philosophy, and it is much shorter than these other things. The shortness is good in and of itself, but it also makes the silliness obvious, and I figure if you're going to be silly, it is important not to pretend you're doing something serious.

The Feminists

Philosophical Fortnights has some shots of a bizarre book cover from 1971. Make of it what you will.

More Scientology

Via Ed Brayton, a great overview of the Scientology protests.

Review: Frank Schaffer's Crazy for God

When I started hearing about Frank Schaeffer's Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Live to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back, the impression I was given was that it would show the dark underbelly of the religious right. This Ed Brayton post and this one by Adam Lee pretty much gave me my perceptions of the book. It was to tell us all about how nasty many religious right leaders were in private, including Frank's own father, Francis Schaeffer, who abused Frank's mother. This view of things sort of made sense to me: the fact that Tom Morris wrote a fairly kind book on Schaeffer's apologetics suggested to me his public image had to be somewhat softer than, say, Bahnsen's, I knew that Schaeffer was still a Calvinist presuppositionalist, and that type tends to be pretty scary.

Having now read the book, I would more readily describe it as showing the light underbelly of the religious right. First and foremost, the book is a personal memoir, and only talks about the religious right as we know it when it comes to those years of Schaeffer's life when he was involved with them. Yes, the dad did begin his religious life as a scary Calvinist, getting involved in nasty schisms over theological purity, but he mellowed out with time, becoming a religious leader to hippies. On this part of the story, the son notes that while his dad was described as making hippies into evangelicals, it was as much about an evangelical becoming something of a hippie as anything.

There are a few insights into evangelicalism: how his dad's conversion story varied with the tellings, from revival tent meeting to "studying Greek philosophy... and that it occurred to him that the Bible answered the philosophical questions raised by the Greeks." Then there's this gem:
It is no coincidence that about 99 percent of evangelical books are written to help people order their lives according to an invisible world when everything in the visible world is challenging faith. The title of almost any evangelical book could be "How to Keep Your Faith in Spite of..." fill in the blank, college, art, science, philosophy, sex, temptation, literature, media, TV, movies, your homosexual tendencies, your heterosexual tendencies... in other words, every break you take.
This passage was something of an "aha!" moment for me: I knew of course that a lot of apologetics focused on helping people keep their faith in spite of history, science, and philosophy (the latter, I understand, was the dad's specialty), but it never occurred to me that Evangelical books on popular culture might fill this same essential role.

And yet, and yet, and yet: this is a personal memoir. You're going to be bored to death if you're not willing to read about a close-knit evangelical community; about growing up with a largely American cultural identity, yet doing it in Europe; about English boarding schools; and about, uh, teenage group masturbation (okay, that may not bore you, just squick you out). Get ready to feel more sympathetic to film makers who make crappy movies for the money, because hey, they could be doing it just to avoid something they find more degrading. Get ready for that kind of thing.

The actually stuff about the religious right is interesting, though it could be accused of being self-aggrandizing, as Frank almost makes it sound as though the religious right wouldn't have happened without him. Here's the story: originally, abortion was seen as a Catholic issue. Protestants might be opposed to it, but didn't want to do the political things those Catholics were doing. Well, it happened that Francis had become a successful author, and was beginning to get into making a film series based on his writing. Frank took charge of the project. Then he got this idea: hey, why don't we do a couple of segments on abortion to wrap up the series? Francis wasn't entirely enthusiastic about it at first, but was talked into it, and once the idea was out there, other leaders of the religious right ran with it. Who knows how things would have turned out if not for Frank's nudging (and at one point screaming at) his dad into talking about abortion. He does give some of the credit to the extremism of pro-choice groups who insisted on absolute ideological purity on the abortion issue. Maybe opportunistic evangelists would have found someone else to get the ball rolling on abortion if they hadn't had Frank. Who knows. The association of anti-abortion forces with conservatism, in Frank's view, was an arbitrary thing, and with a slightly different turn of events it could have been a liberal thing and his father remembered as a left-wing religious leader, a place where Frank thought he would have been more at home. (Again, his father was a bit of a hippie, though he did revert to his scary Calvinist roots when associations with other religious hardliners demanded it.)

The story ends with Frank describing how he came to despise the leaders of the religious right as he had more and more contact with them and had to find a way out, which is where the crappy film making comes in. That, and the fact that his involvement with the religious right was a relatively brief part of his life, suggests a sort of moral to the story: people can get wrapped up in something they aren't quite supportive of, get fed up and leave relatively quickly, and yet they've done what they've done, and it can't be undone. They've left their mark on the world.

Final verdict: Four stars

Thursday, March 27, 2008

What do you do with a BA Ph.D. in English?

This will be useful to me one day.

Ethics and economics

I've seen a few post on the internets recently on the links between ethics and economics. Barefoot Bum discusses the prisoner's dilemma, Chicago Dyke talks experimental economics, and Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias (that's the place where the amazing Eliezer Yudkowsky blogs) argues morality is overrated, and that moral philosophers need to pay more attention to economics.

I find it all worth reading, as perhaps the most interesting moral problem I've come across is economic in nature, or at least game-theoryish. One of the main positions in modern/contemporary ethics is consequentialism, traditionally understood as the idea that whether an act is right or wrong depends on the consequences. However, other variants have been proposed, such as rule-consequentialism: an act is right if it accords with rules that, if generally followed, would have good consequences.

One criticism of rule-consequentialism that's been around for awhile is that the rule-following is senseless, that it would have us follow rules that don't make any sense. I recently got my thinking on that question kick-started by reading the anthology Morality, Rules, and Consequences (previous notes here). Much of what's in the essays I find puzzling. Shelly Kagan, for example, goes on at some length about "evaluative focal points," ends up endorsing something that looks a lot like traditional "act" consequentialism, though she says people who've endorsed the view thinking themselves act consequentialists aren't really act consequentialists. Kagan makes good actions determined by consequences of the act itself, but also insists upon the existence of good rules, which have no clear relevance to our conduct.

The interesting defense of rule consequentialism, the more I think of it, is Riley's. As I described it in the notebook post: "Riley insists that some rules only produce good consequences as rules generally followed, and may not produce the best results in individual cases." His example is secretly killing for spare organs to save several times as many lives: it might produce the right consequences in occasional cases, but as a general practice (even a general practice in only the cases where it really has good consequences) it would undermine trust, having overall negative effects on society. If you're uncertain about this case, I suggest thinking about voting: one vote, it seems, makes no difference, so you can stay home at benefit to yourself and harm to no one, in that sense promoting the greater good. But if nobody votes, that's a bad thing. What are you to do?

The relevance of economics and game theory is that this is the sort of situation that economists try to model all the time, and they do so with great sophistication. They typically assume selfish players, but some of the problems of interest arise even in agents dominated by altruism: both the killing-for-organs case and the voting case can be set up in a way as to be entirely other-directed. It seems to me that if you really want to say something siginficant on these debates in ethical theory, you should try to make use of the very best economics and game theory we have.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Pseudoscience that's not: Evolutionary Psychology

I've gotten tired of hearing complaints about Evolutionary Psychology--especially with the capital letters. Typically, critics are emphasizing that they aren't against the idea altogether, but do oppose... it's not clear what. Here's the most recent example of the kind of thing that set me off:
Mike the Mad Biologist delivers the smackdown on Evolutionary Psychology pseudoscience:
One colleague, a male evolutionary biologist, characterized to me evolutionary psychology as "the discipline which justifies middle-aged professors sleeping with their younger graduate students."
The really sad thing is that it really is true that [per a comment on Pandagon]
evo psych is potentially useful, so it's really frustrating that its principle application appears to be putting a pseudo-scientific facade on social norms and gender roles that are really not organic at all. After all, there is clearly some evolutionary history behind human behavior, e.g. why we are social instead of solitary, why we need sleep, etc.
Where was the evidence for this? If you follow the links, all you'll find is two sentences of sloppy popularization by a journalist, not anything by any of the well-known academics promoting evolutionary psychology. If you want a good presentation of what actual academics are saying, I can't recommend Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works strongly enough. Among other things, he makes the mind-blowingly obvious point that the fact that we have some inclination, for whatever reason, doesn't justify it. Thinking otherwise is as stupid as thinking morality can only be grounded in the whims of a cosmic psychopath, but some critics of evolutionary psychology seem to take it for granted: when they see people explaining some behavior, they immediately accuse the people of justifying it.

A just slightly older example is when Richard Chappell linked the SEP evo psych article. I tried to point out that Pinker gave a more nuanced presentation of evo psych than the one the article attacked. This was met by the initially obtuse point that Pinker is a clear example of an evo psych proponent. After I got him to understand what I was saying, Chappell declared he would take the authority of the SEP over what I had found actually reading one of the people in question. The willingness to defend straw-man attacks here is really astounding.

Here's my challenge to evo psych bashers: Sit down and read How the Mind Works. Make it the focus of any criticisms of evo psych you have, or, if you're inclined to think that something else is really worth talking about, ask yourself whether its at least as careful as Pinker's treatment. Stop attacking an idea by going after its weakest representatives.

Scientology

Ron Brown recently asked if he was the only atheist blogger blogging about Scientology. When he e-mailed me about it, I frankly told him that I didn't have much to say on the subject, that they aren't a force in my city, etc. However, I do believe very much in publicly standing up to them, which is why I'm taking time out to check out the excellent stuff on Scientology at Ron's blog. Start on the first page and start scrolling: you'll see cool videos of anti-Scientology protests, and some videos that expose the religion's disturbing tactics more effectively than I've seen before.

Thought of the Time Being

Cynicism begins at home.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

More PZ, Nisbet, and Mooney

Chris Mooney's co-blogger, Sheril Kirshenbaum, wrote a post talking PZ to tasks for saying "fuck you" to Matt Nisbet. Those of you who read my latest on Nisbet will understand why PZ was angry, and PZ himself was clear enough--he was basically being told to shut up. Now, when your opponent refuses to so much as engage in honest debate with you, you do have the option of explaining to the world once again why they're wrong to do so, but a good "fuck you" really isn't out of line. The post got a number of comments saying basically that, and while Sheril didn't reply, Chris Mooney posted a number of things that basically amounted to a refusal to engage his critics, just because a naughty word had been used.

Then PZ himself got in:
It is petty and childish to whine about a profanity in a post (and who defines what is profanity? Ben Stein daubing himself with the ashes of Dachau to proclaim the moral superiority of Christian ignorance is by far a greater obscenity than anything I have ever said, yet where is your outrage there?), while ignoring the substance of the disagreement.

Matt Nisbet has told me and Richard Dawkins to shut up, stop speaking out, and defer to his chosen religious apologists in future discussions. How insulting, how patronizing, how arrogant of him... and how ignorant. Would you prefer that I rip him apart at length and in detail, with relish and exuberant vigor, as long as I didn't use a single four letter word? I could do it, you know, and I would have a phenomenally good time, and I would leave you and Chris and Matt far more angry than you are at my crude dismissal. I would happily open the spigot on the flamethrower wide open, and expand a war of rhetoric the Nisbet began with his oh-so-genteel accusations and demands for censorship.

I was being fucking kind to simply suggest that we fuck all that noise.
Mooney did respond after a fashion to that. However, while Mooney used the word "substance" three times, it was connected only with naked assertions, without anything to back them up. The entirety of what Mooney said on the real issue was "I don't want you to shut up. You are a great writer. I have loved your reviews of both of my books. In each case, they have been the *best* reviews out there." What does this mean? That Mooney only wants PZ to shut up about some things? Or is he denying that Nisbet (who Mooney vaguely says "has important and thoughtful things to say about tactics") is telling PZ to shut up on anything? If the latter, why does Mooney think an instruction to "refer journalists to these organizations and individuals... Lay low and let others do the talking... it's time to let other people be the messengers for science" does not constitute an instruction to shut up? We aren't told.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Notebook: Ned Block on thought experiments

Here's from Ned Block's first article in the anthology on consciousness I'm reading, The Nature of Consciousness:
This is the concept of consciousness that gives rise to the famous "inverted spectrum" hypothesis--things we both call "green" look to you the way things we both call "red" look to me--and the "absent qualia qualia" hypothesis, the idea that there could be a machine that was computationally like us, but was nonetheless a phenomenally unconscious zombie. Note that these conundra are routes to consciousness--they do not constitute it. One can accept phenomenal consciosness without accepting any of them because our fundamental access to phenomenal consciousness derives from our acquaintance with it.
I rather like this passage, because these imaginary scenarios seem to dominate a certain sector of the literature on consciousness, but I'm not sure we should trust our intuitions about such arcane matters, while, on the other hand, our direct acquaintance with consciousness seems undeniable.

Reading Obama's book

Vastleft, a blogger who's mirrored my lack of enthusiasm for Barack Obama, has decided to give him a fair shake by reading The Audacity of Hope and commenting, bit by bit. It'll be a sort of online book club. I was toying with the idea of joining in, forgot to borrow a copy from my brother over spring break, and then found myself a bit early for a train at a train station right next to a Boarders Books. So I got my $15 paperback copy, and I'll be contributing my thoughts in the comments over there. I'll post links as Vastleft does his posts.

A milestone

Click this link

And this one

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Thought of the Time Being

So I was driving down the highway, and saw this billboard with a little girls face on it. When I got close enough to see the small print, it said, "Little Madison, aged 5, killed by a driver who got distracted by a billboard."

Matt Nisbet is a dishonest scumbag

For those of you who haven't read my previous posting on Matt Nisbet, he's been very loud about the idea that proponents of evolution should present science as compatible with religion. This post was sparked by two items of interest:

First is this interview with Nisbet, which appeared on CFI's podcast Point of Inquiry. The key bit comes, I think, around the 12 minute mark, where interviewer D. J. Grothe asks about the possibility that the views Nisbet is promoting on science and religion are wrong. What did Nisbet do in response? He ignored the question, and talked about strategy, heavily implying that he doesn't think the truth matters.

Second is Nisbet going ballistic over this video clip:



You know what I see there? A bunch of atheists giving a cool-headed, clear explanation of their views. If Nisbet is opposed to this, he's basically saying he doesn't even want people who disagree with him to talk--honest debate is off the table. Nisbet's rationales are laughable--they "implicitly claim to speak for science"? Whenever someone claims about their opponents "implicit" position, it's a good warning sign they're using a lame excuse to avoid having to deal with what their opponents actually say. Nisbet also claims their views do not "stand up to mounds of empirical evidence about the complex relationship between science literacy and public perceptions," a bizarre statement given that Myers, Dawkins, et. al. are talking about other subjects entirely (even according to Nisbet's own account of the positions that supposedly do not so stand up!)

Nisbet also lies in the most obvious way possible about what he's doing. He presents himself as merely saying "Let others play the role of communicator," when he's loudly insisting on deciding what our views should be and not just how to communicate them. He also claims "This is not about censoring your ideas and positions, but rather being smart, strategic, tactical, and ultimately effective in promoting science rather than your own personal ideology, books, or blog." It's not about censoring anybody in so far as Nisbet doesn't have the power to throw his opponents in jail (no matter how badly he may want to), but this is plainly a matter of insisting that his opponents just SHUT UP SHUT UP SHUT UP rather than merely being smart. (Jason Rosenhouse makes this same point; though I consciously avoided reading what he had to say until I had gotten out the first draft of this post.)

Nisbet's actions are especially disturbing, because he isn't a mere hack popularizer, he's someone who has the ear of a lot of scientists, to the extent that he managed to put together a very one-sided panel at an AAAS meeting to promote his views. He's cultivating a contempt for truth among scientists, members of humanity's best-cultivated institution for seeking the truth, and people who, so long as they understand it's worth their while, can do wonder's for improving the public's understanding of the world. Though in some ways less sleazy, this aspect makes me feel that Nisbet's work corrupting our intellectual life is every bit as destructive as what Evangelical apologists like William Lane Craig do.

In suggesting Nisbet is dishonest, I make one caveat: I've spent enough time listening to communications people to understand that they spend the vast majority of their time trying to make themselves and their clients look good, and rarely stop to worry about whether what they're saying is true. It's possible that Nisbet has simply lost the ability to consider that what he's saying might be false. If he's lost all concept of falsehood, then he can't technically lie in the sense of knowingly uttering a falsehood, but it also means he is incapable of honesty, in a philosophical la la land beyond either.

If Nisbet sees this and thinks I'm being unfair to him, I have a few questions for him: if he saw good reason to think the views he promotes are false, would he stop promoting them? Will he promise to actually engage with his opponents' ideas, rather than declaring it's harmful to even express them? And just for good measure: did science influence him in any way at all in adopting the views on religion that Nisbet holds? (After all, Nisbet did once conceed that he mostly agrees with Dawkins' worldview.)

PS: Chris Mooney is also a fool. Seriously, if we followed his advice, we'd allow all the charlatans in the world to go unopposed, for fear of giving them attention.

PPS: PZ remains unimpressed by Nisbet. He also says there's supposed to be a review by Dawkins of Expelled, the movie that sparked this round of the fight, but the link is currently not working.

Friday, March 21, 2008

On not getting conservatism

This post by Dennis Sanders has been given the thumbs up by Michael Reynolds as "a conservative who's not an idiot discussing the Obama speech." I've said everything I have to say about the Obama speech itself, but there's one bigger-picture thing that struck me as off:
Okay, I totally agree that Obama is a liberal, which is why I am not taken with him. But then let me ask Goldberg and others like him this: what is the conservative answer to racial issues? Do you all have an urban agenda that will help poor young blacks, who don’t see a way out of their destructive lives, huh?
This is from someone who claims to be center-right. Yet it misses the obvious response from any thoughtful conservative: just because we don't have an "urban agenda that will help poor young blacks" doesn't mean you do. Just because you think you do doesn't mean your agenda will do what you claim. Maybe nobody knows how to fix things, and for that reason the government has to keep its hands off.

When it comes to individual initiative trying to fix the world, people can be overconfident, but I don't think that's so very bad, as they can only waste their own time and money, and if enough people try, a few people will occasionally get a few things right. But when we're talking about the government spending other people's money and using police power, it's another matter. The government, being big, can make much bigger screw-ups. And for that reason, caution is warranted. Sometimes you have to admit that we don't have a nice easy way out of our problems.

Friday linkage post

The fact that today is Friday has nothing to do with the fact that I'm doing a massive linkage post. Really, I just accumulated a bunch of links I wanted to post. But here it goes:

Okay, PZ Myers is, as Greta Christina says, the winner of the internet today. Or, as I would say, the badass motherfucker of the moment in the entire atheist community. Or perhaps, as PZ himself says, he is merely mighty. Why? Because he went to a creationist movie screening and got kicked out, while Richard Dawkins was let in. Go PZ! Follow those two links for all I know, and watch PZ's blog for more.

This wouldn't normally go in a post labled "linkage," but I missed linking to the latest Carnival of the Godless.

Greta Christina is talking about the future of the atheist movement. I was going to add something equally profound to the discussion, but didn't find the time.

According to a post by Hemant Mehta, James Randi spoke at Illinois University, and there was a really creepy incident with a Christian getting up and telling everyone how God let him get away with a hit-and-run. Surprisingly, it takes awhile for someone in that thread to notice something wrong with the guy beyond evangelism/hogging the microphone. I take it as proof that "repenting" of your sins doesn't entail taking responsibility for them, and may well be the antithesis of it.

Mind Hacks and TIME magazine give us a helpful reminder that authenticity is everything, and once you can fake that, you've got it made.

Finally, I recently got a kick out of an xkcd strip pedestrian enough for me to understand, but obscure enough for me to feel good about the fact that even some of my smart friends won't get it.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Thought of the Time Being

It turns out that you can't choose to be gay after all. Yet another example of the false promises made by traditional religion.

Thought of the Time Being

A businessman will lie to you to get your money. A politician will lie to you to get your vote. But a preacher, you see, wants your soul...

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Is a politics of sanity possible?

This is a post inspired by the recent Obama-Wright controversy, so I may as well start out by saying what I think of Obama's recent speech. Not essential to the post--I'm going to end up talking more about religion than race--but too hard to write around it, so here it goes: it was an average speech. One any politician could have produced. Didn't even have Obama's usual smooth shallowness. The stuff that everybody was focused on--Wright--was word salad. Wright's nutty comments are described as "incendiary language to express views that have the potential not only to widen the racial divide, but views that denigrate both the greatness and the goodness of our nation; that rightly offend white and black alike." When did the word "crazy" become too short? He didn't have to give the Michael Reynolds fantasy version of the speech, but a little more bluntness would have been appreciated. Obama could have said "crazy" without (what is now the popular phrase) "throwing Wright under the bus;" try "it's disturbing to see someone you know well and generally admire buy into ideas that crazy."

The general comments on race were better. Didn't quite resonate with me--my generation is more nearly over race than Obama's (not that we're entirely over it, if we were, I would have heard an Obama-fan friend talk about how great it is that Obama's black). I can think of it, though, as a nice perspective from an older generation. On the other hand, "great"? More like all in a day's work for the sharper observers of modern society. (The TVTroes entry hype backlash may explain part of my reaction here.)

Oh, and then there's this other facet of the speech, which, well, let me quote Ross Douthat here:
Of course John Derbyshire is right that Obama’s vision of how America ought to transcend our racial divisions is essentially left-wing, with whites and blacks joining hands to raise taxes and government spending, while uniting against their common enemy, the wicked axis of corporations, lobbyists and special interests.
And Amba:
I think Rezko is all you have left.

UPDATE: Oh, that and -- the easy populism, the class warfare.

It was the race part of the speech I thought was powerful, brave, and original. The redistributive liberalism, the Dem boilerplate, not so much.
I won't say the first thing that comes to mind here, for fear of being too hard on the guy, but I will say it seems rather unreflective of Obama.

Final comment about the speech: if this post gets any real attention at all (and it may not), it will include Obama fans who think there must be something wrong with me for not being impressed by it. This, I take it, shows just how screwed up our public discourse is. And that's what I really want to talk about.

You see, there was a point when I noticed how association with racism could just torpedo a public figure's credibility. I thought to myself: why couldn't we do that with religion? Not treating belief in God like racism, no, but treating the belief that everyone who disagrees with you goes to hell like racism--that seemed like an obvious move. I voiced the idea as best I could here, but started noticing things that should've clued me in that it wouldn't work. One example was in my post What's Wrong with Ann Coulter?, where I said "When I first encountered her, I took it for granted that the problem was she was making outlandish claims on flimsy rationales," but "Somehow, some people seem to have gotten the notion that the issue with people like Coulter and Goldberg is just that they're so rude." I described other observations in my post Against Whining. Other things I haven't noted here--like how some atheists, when presented with the claim that atheists have no reason to be moral, don't respond that this is a stupid bit of philosophy, but rather complain about how darned offensive it is.

What I had imagined doing, based on how we deal with racism, was a politics of sanity, where crazy beliefs are embarrassing to public figures, and more than anything people are forced to discuss their crazy beliefs, rather than hiding them for discussion only by the initiated (the official policy for the Scientology doctrine of Xenu, and a policy which seems to have been adopted informally by many Evangelicals for Christian doctrine). I still believe getting crazy beliefs out in the open is a good thing, but have realized the tools of national-level politics are too crude for the task.

For starters, it's too hard to get the loudest voices in these debates to talk about whether a belief makes sense, rather than whether it's offensive. This came out pretty well when Hagee endorsed John McCain. The secular flak McCain got for that was exactly the kind of thing I had wanted to see, and I quickly switched my support to Jon Stewart. I did notice that Bill Donahue got involved, though, and Donahue is no supporter of open discussion of whether religious beliefs make sense. Donahue is the guy who called Bill Maher the biggest bigot in the country. I wasn't excited to be associated with that.

Other things came up as the Hagee thing and the Wright thing played out in parallel. In both cases a candidate had gotten himself entangled with a nutcase, claimed to reject the nutcase's views, and a lot of people still wanted blood. At that point, there was nothing sensible for the candidates to do: they could either let things be with brief comments, hope it all goes away (McCain), or make a so-so speech for everyone to debate with great vitriol (Obama). Via Hemant's place and Sullivan's place I saw what were to me baffling complaints that Obama was facing an unfair double standard. I don't know about the MSM (don't pay enough attention to them), but in the places I hang out McCain got hit pretty hard for Hagee, and people were in fact more inclined to let Obama off the hook. Other people have noted the strange connections between the Wright kerfluffles and the Religious Right including Frank Schaeffer and, of all people, Mike Huckabee.

What's clear about all these cases is that nobody, no matter how good or bad their intentions were, succeeded in advancing the debate about race or religion. Everything was too bound up in attacking or defending whatever political figure was involved. On top of that is the way everything boiled down to offensiveness. Not only does talk about offensiveness not advance the debate, it sets it back. It lets people with nutty beliefs convince themselves that they're a-okay, as long as they aren't "offensive." I've talked to more than a few Campus Crusaders who go to great lengths to insist they aren't to be compared to the street preachers who come through town, even if they couldn't name an actual point of disagreement with what the preachers say.

So I've given up hope on the kind of politics I wanted. We can have a politics of attacks, defenses, whining, and offense, but politics appears to be no place for sanity.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Thought of the Time Being

I like it when you hear a joke, and you think its going one place, and it goes somewhere entirely different, like with a normal punchline.

Obama, Iraq, and the big "if"

Last week, I heard about a McCain-Obama dust-up over Iraq which, as I initially heard it, went like this: First, Obama said that he would keep troops in Iraq to fight al Qaeda if they tried to establish a base there. McCain heard this and said "hey, al Qaeda already is in Iraq." Obama's response? "There was no such thing as al Qaeda in Iraq until George Bush and John McCain decided to invade Iraq."

Cheers from Obama's base, as I sit astonished at how ready Obama was to change the subject when things got awkward.

I've since looked it up online, and on CNN found that Obama complained about his remarks being taken out of context, and yes, he had acknowledged that al Qaeda is in Iraq.

This is a little better, but only a little. The problem becomes: why did Obama ever treat al Qaeda's presence as a hypothetical in the first place? This wasn't a minor slip in the debate, this is how Obama's website presents things as well. This is his official position on Iraq:
Obama will immediately begin to remove our troops from Iraq. He will remove one to two combat brigades each month, and have all of our combat brigades out of Iraq within 16 months. Obama will make it clear that we will not build any permanent bases in Iraq. He will keep some troops in Iraq to protect our embassy and diplomats; if al Qaeda attempts to build a base within Iraq, he will keep troops in Iraq or elsewhere in the region to carry out targeted strikes on al Qaeda.
Once again, al Qaeda is treated in the hypothetical. Yet when pressed, Obama makes things definite. The CNN article quotes him as saying "I've said we should continue to strike al Qaeda targets." So why ever speak hypothetically in the first place? Why say "if"?

The obvious answer is that he doesn't want people to pay attention to the fact that he wants to stay in Iraq. Staying in Iraq vs. withdrawing is something he can rally people around, staying with a big force vs. staying with a small force isn't as good a talking point. This also explains the bold red herring about the initial invasion: it only serves to distract attention away from Obama's actual position. One more sign Obama is long on rhetoric and short on substance.

Quote of the Time Being

The two are not a couple.
-NYT

Unlike most of the quotes I post, this is not an intentionally good line, but rather an unintentional highlighting of a quirk in the English language.

Monday, March 17, 2008

More persecution paranoia

The Ebon Muse keeps track of it, leading with a quote from James Dobson. Not news, but worth keeping a finger on.

Respecting believers

There's been some discussion on the internets about a paper by Simon Blackburn, arguing against respecting religious believers... (Continue reading at God is for Suckers!)

Quote of the Time Being

Politics is not about getting someone elected or changing the world, which anyone who has taken a look at the ability of the Daily Kos to actually get people elected should know. Politics is about feeling good about yourself.
-Jon Swift

All in all, the whole essay is good work. I see vastleft also found it quote-worthy.

PC 65

The 65th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Philosophy, etc. The carnival page tells me the next one is going to be here, in case you care.

Friday, March 14, 2008

The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Security Trust

This is something I've been sitting on for awhile, and have just now gotten around to acting on: towards the end of last year, difficulties arose in the security situation of Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who wrote the script for the short movie Submission that got Theo van Gogh killed, and who also wrote Infidel (excellent book) and The Caged Virgin: An Emancipation Proclamation for Women and Islam (which I haven't read). She was at one time not only a Dutch citizen but a member of the Dutch parliament, so the Dutch government helped her go into hiding in the Netherlands, and then flee the country all together, though she was provided with security in the United States. Then, in October of last year, the Dutch government withdrew its support for her security.

In response, Sam Harris organized the Ayaan Hirsi Ali Security Trust and later the Foundation for Freedom of Expression, to protect Ali in the US. I think I initially found out about it through an e-mail, in which he stated that if everyone who got the e-mail were to sign up for a $10 monthly donation, the problem would be solved (though also that realistically, he did not expect such wide grass-roots support, and was hoping for larger donations as well). Full information can be found at the last link. I just got around to making a small donation of my own, and I encourage anyone reading this who can afford it to do so as well.

Quote of the Time Being

I think we tend to be realists: humanity has done fairly well for itself, and has potential to do better, but human nature is not a perfect ideal, nor is it perfectable, and we're always going to have conflict and compromise. The question is whether we're going to resolve those conflicts with reason, or with tribalisms and superstition.
-PZ

Obama and transworld identity

This post in a nutshell: how a recent political flap teaches us to be cautious about a lot of things philosophers say.

The flap in question is Geraldine Ferraro's comment that "if Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position, and if he was a woman (of any color) he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept." In case you care what I think about this remark, Mickey Kaus gives spot-on reasons to think it was at least not racist, though Ferraro could at least be condemned for failing to exercise what philosophers would call sufficient modal skepticism. I'm not much interested in whatever claims about race the comment may imply, and will likely ignore any comments disputing my position here. What I care about is the implied philosophical claims.

You see, many contemporary philosophers believe that there is this thing called the "Problem of Transworld Identity"--the question of how two people in different possible worlds could be the same person, "possible world" here indicating a fancy variant on the idea of a possible situation which philosophers often invoke when they have no good reason to. Peter van Inwagen has mocked this idea, suggesting it is analogous to the problem of transpropositional identity: how can "Nixon is a villain" and "Nixon is an honest man" refer to the same person, when one is about a villain, and one is about an honest man? Nevertheless, even van Inwagen agrees that there are serious questions in the general vicinity of this problem, such as (and I think he uses this specific example) whether Socrates could have been an alligator.

Now the relevance of Obama and Ferraro: many metaphysicians would be inclined to deny that Obama could possibly have been white. For example, Saul Kripke has advocated a thesis known as the essentiality of origin, according to which you could not possibly have originated in a different way than you did. What this all means is not entirely clear, but it at least means you would have had to have had the same parents. However, Obama could not have been white unless he had a different father, a white one. Ergo, if Kripke is right, Ferraro made a serious metaphysical mistake aside from any racism that was or wasn't present.

In the discussion of the flap, I have found one brief suggestion that a philosophical mistake might have been involved. Here's Ezra Klein:
After all, Obama is not a woman, nor a white man. He's who he is. To say that if he were different, things would be different is to say nothing at all.
So far so good, but then Klein lapses back into taking Ferraro's assumptions at face value (while advocating the modal skepticism I referred to above):
As a white woman, maybe he would have led a military coup and established himself dictator. Who knows!? Hell, if he were a slightly less inspiring speaker, or had an off-night at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, he wouldn't be in this position either. Similarly, if Hillary Clinton were a black man, it's unlikely that she would have been a national political figure for the past 15 years, as it's unlikely that she would have married another man from Arkansas, and unlikely that the country would have put an interracial, same sex couple in the White House. But so what? This is an election, not Marvel's "What If?" series.
Now for another what if: what if Kripke were to contact Ferraro or Kaus or Klein and try to explain their metaphysical mistake? I suspect they would laugh and begin telling their friends about how silly philosophers can be. None of them ever meant to be making metaphysical claims, what they were debating was roughly "would a white man of Obama's age, talents, accomplishments, etc. be a viable Democratic presidential candidate?"

What's especially curious is that though the people mentioned would probably explain themselves in a predictable way when pressed, they also probably never thought about the distinction. I may well be the first person on Earth to notice the metaphysical implications of Ferraro's comment. All of this, I suggest, entails the following: we sometimes say things that look like deep metaphysical claims, aren't deep metaphysical claims, and yet do so without really paying attention to whether or not we're making a profound metaphysical claim. This suggests it is at least possible that some well-known work on transworld identity turns on less obvious but similar mistakes, because philosophers notice something that looks like a profound metaphysical question but might not be, yet the possibility that it is not is not seriously considered. This seems to reinforce the Eliezer Yudkowsky quote I posted earlier this week:
Many philosophers - particularly amateur philosophers, and ancient philosophers - share a dangerous instinct: If you give them a question, they try to answer it.

Subjectivism and negative attacks

Richard Chappell has a good post on the subject. I was going to work this into some post or another on some other subject, but really, it's applicable to a lot of the stuff I write about here.

Quote of the Time Being

There's no one in Nigeria sitting on a million dollars that needs only your bank account to access. The Brooklyn Bridge is not for sale. And not a single one of your priests or prophets or the authors of your scripture knows anything more than you do about God (and you don't know fuck all): Anyone who says differently is trying to con you.
-Barefoot Bum

That statistic

Recently, I claimed that people lie on social science surveys, and pulled a vaguely remembered statistic out of my butt to justify that claim. Now I found a citeable version of it:
A [French] woman's average number of partners has risen from under two in 1970 to over five today, while a man's has remained the same for four decades, almost 13.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Dawkins in Madison

As I mentioned earlier, there was a talk by Richard Dawkins in Madison on Tuesday. I've never seen an auditorium packed like that before--1,300 people, and they had to turn a lot away, 100 I heard. Dawkwins was introduced by UW-Madison professor of evolutionary biology Sean Carroll. My friend Nick, biology major who knows a bit more about Carroll than I do, said he wondered what kind of introduction Carroll would give, as Carroll wasn't known for being a hard-core atheist. Carroll's introduction, thankfully, was truly enthusiastic, with no "I have to give this intro, you have to at least listen to this guy" half-assing.

The talk itself was nothing particularly new to me, mostly drawing material from The God Delusion, though it was very well delivered, Dawkins seemed at home with himself. The one memorable part was when he responded to complaints about the tone of his book by reading quotes from restaurant reviews, to show that he had been relatively subdued in his criticisms by comparison. If I weren't so lazy I'd try to look the quotes up online.

Seeing the audience reaction was the best part. It was almost entirely enthusiastic. They did plenty of laughing, though I didn't feel Dawkins had been going out of his way to get laughs--it was more of a "we're all friends here, we can laugh along with this whole thing" feeling. No hostile questions. I was involved with selling t-shirts, working with CFI, and Debbie Goddard was there representing CFI. She said that Dawkins claimed to only get testimonials and such during questions only once every few talks at the very most. She also said there had been another even where there were Christians protesting outside, and she tried to offer them tickets so they could see the event, but they insisted they would not let themselves be exposed to it. Unfortunate, but not really surprising. Anyway, while I guess that means there was a "preaching to the choir" element to it (though I know there were a number of Muslims and Christians there) it was great to see local atheists out in such force.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Exchange of the Time Being

From Tom Dashcle and Jon Stewart discussing superdelegates, and why we have them:
Daschle: They worried that somebody like Colbert could actually become the nominee, and they wanted to veto the nominee

Stewart: And that would be bad why?
Full video here, for those interested:

What's a serious question?

Austin Cline has another post rebutting Amy Sullivan, and I agree with most of what he says. Amy Sullivan is on my mental list of noteworthy wankers. However, there's one thing I take issue with:
We have to make a distinction between the phrase "I have serious moral concerns about abortion" and "abortion is a subject which necessarily involves serious moral problems." If someone says the first, then I'll believe it is true for them.

The second, however, isn't a true statement. There can be cases where abortion poses serious moral questions, but not ever single instance of abortion does. The Christian Right benefits from a blurring of the distinction between the two because if they can get anyone to agree that any cases of abortion involve moral problems, they can quickly move to saying that abortion is inherently problematic. After getting agreement on the premise that abortion involves serious moral questions they then move to conclude that women can't make those moral decisions herself — and therefore they can't be permitted to legally chose to have an abortion.
Now Cline makes it quite clear that when he says "problems," he just means "questions." And I don't know how anyone could deny that abortion involves serious questions. Surely the question of when something becomes a person with rights is a serious question? They involve questions, just look at what people say, so what reason can be given for thinking the questions unserious? While you might have an easy base case in, say, the morning after pill, the development to a full baby appears gradual, so even that base case becomes entangled in some difficult questions. Finally, some serious philosophers have argued that abortion is always or almost always wrong. You may think you have the right answer to these questions, or that some opposing views are irrational, but how are the questions not even serious?

If abortion opponents have offered the argument Cline ascribes to them--and he provides no evidence they have--the problem is in moving from "there's a question" to "we have the right answer."

This is part of a larger problem I've noticed--people think that philosophical questions are highly restricted, so the statement "it's a philosophical question" can be casually used as an important premise in an argument (the ghostwriting for the recent Antony Flew book comes to mind). Philosophy, far from being narrow, is about as broad in analysis as it gets. Philosophical questions are everywhere. What we need to stop the inference from "it's a serious philosophical question" to "I'm right."

Quote of the Time Being

Many philosophers - particularly amateur philosophers, and ancient philosophers - share a dangerous instinct: If you give them a question, they try to answer it.
-Eliezer Yudkowsky

Dawkins is coming to town

Dawkins speaking tour of the US has begun. We already have accounts of his talks by Gridman, Jim Lippard, Omnithought, and John Wilkins. We also already have a rebuttal to Wilkins by PZ Myers (rightly so--Wilkins is being awfully silly, complaining about the presence of good public speaking skills and the fact that Dawkins gives an assessment of the Old Testament that Wilkins doesn't actually appear to disagree with).

Dawkins will be in Madison tomorrow. I'll write an account of his talk as soon as I have the time.

Sunday, March 09, 2008

HC 16

Sixteenth edition of the Humanist Symposium is up at GlitteringMuse. Include a post on reductionism and pride by Atheist Ethicist Alonzo Fyfe.

Thinking and voting

At Crooked Timber, there's a post titled Don’t worry, you don’t have to think all that carefully in order to vote, which argues just that, based on the idea that if you have a large number of people who make the correct decision 51% of the time, it follows mathematically that as voters they will almost always make the correct decision.

Would that this were true. Unfortunately, the probabilities aren't independent, and it wouldn't be at all surprising to find that on some issues, people perform at below chance. One area where people are likely to perform at below chance is where politicians are trying to manipulate them and they're not putting in the needed effort to avoid manipulation.

Thought of the Time Being

Never underestimate the human capacity for stupidity. In fact, never underestimate anything. While your at it, you should also never overestimate anything either.

Quote of the Time Being

There is a third advantage, harder to describe, that the philosopher brings to theology. It might be put this way: The philosopher is not likely to be impressed by a piece of text that looks like an argument but is only an assertion.
-Peter van Inwagen

Religion in Iraq

Austin Cline and Hemant Mehta are talking about how apparently, the Iraq war is encouraging religious skepticism there. One of Hemant's commenters totally misses the point:
[sarcasm]We give Bush much too little credit. What a brilliant strategy this Iraq War has turned out to be! All we need to do is make Muslims lives a living hell for long enough that they decide God has abandoned them, and then we needn’t ever worry about the threat of Islamic terrorism—there will be no Islam! Brilliant![/sarcasm]
But the point is not just that their lives have been made a living hell. The point is that there lives have been made a living hell by religious nutcases. Yes, the U.S. is responsible for invading without even realizing it would need to work hard to prevent a religious civil war. But the primary responsibility for what's happened lies with the religious nuts who've actually been doing the killing; the US's responsibility is secondary. Looks like a lot of Iraqis understand this.

Somewhere awhile back, I speculated that the only way to fix the Middle East would be to let unpopular secular regimes fall, and force the people there to figure out for themselves how stupid the serious religionists are. It's a horrible, bloody way to solve a problem, but it may be what has the best chance of working. There is one clear difficulty that needs to be mentioned though: civil war is a good way to get your educated, relatively secular middle class to flee the country, and this has happened in Iraq. That flight is, from my vantage point, the biggest indicator that we may not get stability there anytime soon.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Notebook: Emergence

Currently trying to digest a massive (800+ pages) anthology on consciousness, titled The Nature of Consciousness: Philosophical Debates. Contains a great quote from Patricia Churchland on emergentism: "'Emergence' in this context is entirely non-spooky and respectable, meaning, to a first approximation, 'property of the network.'" (p. 129) Not terribly noteworthy in isolation, but against the backdrop of often-confusing use of the word "emergence," it's a nice contrast. Here is a good random example of what I'm talking about, I also seem to see a lot of similar stuff in professional skeptic Michael Shermer's work.

The usual course of men's conduct belies their words...

Through Richard Chapell, I've happened across an article that makes a very telling point against claims that there is a "rape epidemic" on college campuses:
The one-in-four statistic would mean that every year, millions of young women graduate who have suffered the most terrifying assault, short of murder, that a woman can experience. Such a crime wave would require nothing less than a state of emergency—Take Back the Night rallies and 24-hour hotlines would hardly be adequate to counter this tsunami of sexual violence. Admissions policies letting in tens of thousands of vicious criminals would require a complete revision, perhaps banning boys entirely. The nation’s nearly 10 million female undergrads would need to take the most stringent safety precautions. Certainly, they would have to alter their sexual behavior radically to avoid falling prey to the rape epidemic.

None of this crisis response occurs, of course—because the crisis doesn’t exist.
The title of this post comes from a David Hume quote, making a similar point about many religious beliefs, a topic I've written about myself. How far does this phenomena extend?

Power bias

At Overcoming Bias, there's a post on human bias towards listening to powerful humans. I wonder: what does this tell us about power-worship in religion as we know it in the west? You know, the whole idea that being worthy of worship, a source for morality, a source for whatever philosophical problem is trendy this week, all necessarily connects to being infinitely powerful?

Science porn

HASSERS has up an article asking whether physics popularizers are too willing to promote dubious claims to get the public's attention, colorfully titled "Is big physics peddling science pornography? I've had similar worries about philosophy: the only stuff that catches the public's eye is the bizarre stuff. No philosopher ever became famous for trying to sort out confusions in public debate.

Horny Moses

Some time ago, I learned that a lot of Medieval artwork portrays Moses with horns. I was told it was due to a mistranslation of the Old Testament. Just learned from John Hobbins that scholars are still debating this. I regard this as a cool bit of nerd knowledge.

On authorities

Simple question: why do people find the concept of a fallacious appeal to authority difficult to grasp? Not long ago... (Contine reading at God is for Suckers!)

Thursday, March 06, 2008

Keith Parsons, other philosophers, and dualism

Vic Reppert has redated two posts on objections to dualism, objections which Keith Parsons defends. One thing that strikes me is that Parsons doesn't seem to be defending the arguments he implies he's defending: opponents of dualism have liked to claim for a long time that there's some way to rule out dualism in principle. Parsons seems to be making the more cautious claim that in lieu of a detailed account we should be skeptical.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Notebook: rule consequentialism

I'm currently at work on an essay for my philosophy department's undergraduate ethics prize. I could potentially win a few hundred bucks. Woo money! Anyway, while doing some background reading, I came across an essay which doesn't really have direct relevance to what I plan to write, is worth checking out if you're really into philosophical ethics. The essay is Jonathan Riley's "Defending Rule Utilitarianism" in Morality, Rules and Consequences, ed. Hooker et. al. "Rule utilitarianism" here means the idea that the correct moral rules are the ones that would produce the greatest well-being if generally followed. It has been suggested that this collapses into act utilitarianism--the idea that we should judge individual acts based on their effect on well being--because what rule could produce better consequences than that?

Riley insists that some rules only produce good consequences as rules generally followed, and may not produce the best results in individual cases. I'm skeptical of this defense of rule consequentialism, but here I just want to get down a couple of things that jumped out at me.

First on p. 63 there is a discussion of the idea that act and rule utilitarianism could be mixed, allowing for secret deviation from rules when the consequences will be good. Here is Riley's response:
Given that the existing rules of other-regarding conduct are optimal, the suggestion that Alice [a character in a thought experiment] can do even more good overall by secretly deviating from the optimal code to harvest her husband's organs is unpersuasive. Alice is unwilling to openly endorse a rule of conscience to the effect that anyone in her position should act as she as acting. After all, if she is willing to do that and most agree with her, then there can't be any objection to rule utilitarianism.
The focus on what Alice would publicly advocate is puzzling. The question of what to do in secret is logically separate from the question of what to publicly advocate, and on act utilitarianism, there will be no hard moral principle linking them. This is a point J. J. C. Smart makes very clearly in his Outline of Utilitarianism (or some such), a book I strongly recommend for anyone interested in a clear statement of act utilitarianism. The suggestion of a link would seem to beg the question against act utilitarianism. I can't find the quote at the moment, but I also remember Riley mentioning something about how act utilitarianism can never recommend that its adherents transform themselves into something else. I will never understand why philosophers think things can't destroy themselves. In this case, it seems to be question begging for the same reason as the other criticism.

Carnivalia

Okay, I'm late on this: we have new editions of the Carnival of the Godless and the Philosopher's Carnival

Gary Gygax fails his save

Gary Gygax, creator Dungeons and Dragons, died today, apparently of heart problems. A lot of people have already weighed in on this, so I'll mainly provide a round-up:

John Cole
Christopher Heard
Rich Burlew
PZ Myers

All I'll add is this: Gygax is a fascinating example of how an apparently obscure person can have a huge impact on the culture. Without him, I doubt I'd get to hear my friend Bill's girlfriend reference World of Warcraft on a semi-regular basis.

UPDATE 05/03/2008:
Patrick Rothfus
Penny Arcade

I think I'm suddenly going for a comprehensive list... Feel free to add in comments.

UPDATE 07/03/2008:
BBC (via Thom Brooks)
Loren Rosson
Eliezer Yudkowsky
Randall Munroe

UPDATE 19/03/2008:
d20SRD.org (a big roundup)
The Economist (this is why I love that magazine)

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

From the department of are you kidding me

Sullivan: "here's what I fear: that [McCain] will not be honest and candid about the true implications on his strategy" on Iraq.

???

One of the major threats to McCain's general election campaign is that he's been remarkably candid about what he thinks we should do in Iraq. Love his proposals or hate them, whatever you do, don't pretend he's not likely to be honest.

Against happiness (or at least the tendency to profess it on surveys)

prozac(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

I notice that as part of Internet Infidels' Great Debate, Jeffery Jordan tries to rehabilitate pragmatic arguments for belief by appealing to benefits in this life. The chief benefit listed is that studies supposedly show that religious people are happier. But how do they show this? If they're like most social-science studies, they simply ask people whether they're happy or not. If this is true, then what the studies show is not that religion makes people happy, but rather that religion gives people a propensity to tell survey-takers that they're happy.

The difference is obvious enough, but let me drive it home: it seems to be a fairly well-established finding that when asked by a social scientist, the average straight man will claim to have had six sexual partners, and the average straight woman will claim to have had one. Do the math. People lie on social science surveys.

So maybe religions have no positive impact whatsoever on people's state of mind. Maybe religious people, because there is an expectation that they will be happy, are simply inclined to say things they don't really believe.

This, of course, is not the only alternative interpretation of these studies. Maybe people's ideas of happiness are skewed. How many people in the U. S., do you think, have done serious thinking about the nature of happiness? And of those people, how many would you characterize as being such sound philosophical thinkers that you would be willing to accept on faith that their ideas about happiness are right?

Again, drive the point home: we know how to wire up animals' brains to deliver intense jolts of pleasure via electrodes. If given the ability to do so, they will self-administer these jolts to the exclusion of other activities. Would we characterize a person with such a setup as happy? Or, if memory serves, in his Philosophy for Dummies Tom Morris imagines a drug that allows someone to be in some sense contented as they divide their life between gang hit jobs and watching soap operas. Are they happy? Or, there's Robert Nozick's "experience machine," which is supposed to allow all kinds of great experiences without actually doing anything: would you plug in?

These issues aren't easy. Maybe the people in the experience machine aren't happy. Maybe they are, but the thought experiment shows happiness is not the be-all-end-all it's sometimes portrayed as. In any case, I won't trust a survey to answer the question.

Plausibly, people who feel some long-lasting, vaguely pleasurable feeling over the long term because of a false religious belief are like people plugged into Nozick's machine. As Carl Sagan said:
For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring.

Monday, March 03, 2008

FYI

For those who have read my recent political posts, and want an update on my thinking, I'm currently back to voting for Jon Stewart.

Though the fact that McCain pissed of Bill Donahue feels to me like a silver lining on the story. Not enough of a silver lining, but a silver lining.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

Academic Freedom: Who Needs It?

That was the title of a talk I attended last Thursday on campus. It was organized by Lester Hunt of our own philosophy department, and delivered by Richard T. De George of the University of Kansas. Though the talk ranged over a number of related issues, the title of the talk referred specifically to the issue of the question of who academic freedom is designed to benefit. De George argued it was designed to benefit not the professors, as one might think, but the general public. His central example was that of the USSR: professors learned to keep their mouths shut and avoid suffering personally, but they failed to produce new discoveries, greatly hurting the position of the USSR. Along the way I learned some useful tidbits of Soviet history: That Lenin had written a pamphlet titled "What is to be Done" arguing against intellectual freedom as early as 1901, and that Soviet pseudoscience extended well-beyond the bogus genetics of Lysenko, and to the denunciation of relativity and quantum mechanics as "bourgeois" (this changed when the Soviets decided they wanted to build an atom bomb).

De George described the arguments used by Lenin against intellectual freedom, and argued they had some plausibility at first glance. The problem, he said, was that the Bolsheviks didn't have the competence to evaluate what was good scientific theory. The government has no special access to truth. Adults are reasonable people, not needing government oversight of their beliefs.

He went on to describe an ideal of how the university should operate, conceding to an extent that his picture was idealized. Scholars were to be presumed competent as the ultimate authorities in their discipline, knowing better than outsiders what to teach. This independence, however, was not to be a barrier to accountability. He proposed that Universities could be judged on whether their graduates actually had valuable skills.

It was not terribly surprising when De George got around to arguing that not only is there no excess of academic freedom, in reality there's too little of it. He discussed a couple of well known cases: First was Larry Summers of Harvard, who was forced to resign for suggesting that the lack of women in science might be explicable by a difference in innate ability or interest. De Georges' said he had read Summers' remarks, and gave the impression that they were even milder than many news reports would suggest: Summers was merely suggesting a possible area of research.

The other controversy about a single person discussed was that of Ward Churchill, who made inflammatory remarks about the September 11th attacks. De George suggested the university had handled it on its own well enough. He also came out in opposition to the Academic Bills of Rights that David Horowitz has been promoting, saying that students have no right not to hear views with which they disagree. Finally, he addressed the claim that all knowledge is somehow subjective or politicized, making the obvious point that this view appears self-defeating.

Then came time for questions. One student asked about the appropriate response to a professor discussing the September 11th attacks in class (say, political science). The response was that the attacks make an excellent example for all kinds of issues, though if a professor spent fifty minutes haranguing his students, it might be grounds for a complaint to the department chair.

My question was about how realistic the assumption of adult reasonableness and scholarly competence was. I mentioned continental philosophy in literature departments. This prompted both De Gorge and Hunt to discuss a case that they both knew of where someone in a literature department had almost been denied tenure, not by people within his department, because "this postmodernism thing has had its day." Once the rationale was publicly known, it was taken as obviously illegitimate and the guy got tenure. Hunt commented that he thought the key thing was freedom of academic departments.

Other questions dealt with political correctness, diversity training, and how to teach critical thinking. The final couple of questions dealt with the question of what if someone outside a department knows that someone in the department is wrong. That part of the discussion seemed a little muddled and I tried to jump in, but there wasn't enough time.

At the end, I agreed with a lot of what De George said, though I'm skeptical of the idea of the department as sovereign, at least as a foundational principle. It suggests, for example, that say if a physics department were split into experimentalists and theoreticians, that would inherently change who ought to have power. It may be that in practice we can't do much better than letting each department tend to its own affairs, but I can't see the principle as sacrosanct.

More on how not to write: review of The Great Divorce

Unlike Fahrenheit 451, when I recently picked up C. S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, I had no particular expectation that I would find something painful to read. What I had heard about the book made it sound like a genuinely interesting read. Here, a long aside is unfortunately necessary: the book has become a common debating point among Evangelicals, to show that the doctrine of Hell is not so horrible. Typically, the people who make these appeals are advocates of belief in the accuracy of every jot and tittle of the Bible, provided you interpret it right, and want to use Lewis as an authority on interpretation. Why they should do this, when Lewis openly rejected inerrancy and many favorite doctrines of the inerrantists, I do not know. In any case, the picture Lewis paints in The Great Divorce is pretty clearly inconsistent with Biblical accounts of hellfire. The most commentators have been able to say about the relevant passages in terms of allegorizing them away is that they are metaphors for something even more horrible than what they literally depict. (Clark Pinnock, semi-heretic of modern Evangelicalism, has some great riffs on this point which I unfortunately don't have handy for quoting.)

Now with that out of the way, here's what's good about the book: the book starts out with the narrator finding himself placed, without explanation, in a "grey town" (hell) full of departed spirits waiting to get on a bus. Their society is presented as a parody of life in the England of Lewis' day, and it's a good parody. The narrator manages to move up in line when people remove themselves from it for petty reasons. When he talks to some of his fellow travelers in greater depth, he encounters a few cases of delusions of grandeur. These first few chapters are undeniably worth reading: Lewis shows a certain talent for observation and characterization of people, and he doesn't try for anything more than that.

Then, however, the bus reaches heaven, and the whole course of the book changes. At that point Lewis begins staging encounters between blessed and lost spirits, with the blessed not merely (or even much at all) serving to showcase human virtues, but rather spending their time dispensing heavenly wisdom at the lost. Forget about whether Lewis was right about God: let us assume that his theology was in the main right. Even assume, if you like, that he was a competent philosophical thinker. Even on those assumptions, did it really make the slightest bit of sense for him to suppose that he could write all heaven's wisdom? Hardly.

The process becomes more painful as the ideas become more half-baked: towards the end, one of the lost wants to know whether he was missed. His saved dialog partner is evasive in a way that struck me as embarrassing, though Lewis gives no hint that he fails that way about the behavior. After some prodding, the blessed spirit finally explains that in heaven, no one feels such sorrows in the slightest. There is to be no regret at the fate of the damned, and the sorrows of Earth are to be made to look good in retrospect. This would have been an interesting idea had Lewis been willing to tolerate the slightest bit of moral ambiguity, but the blessed spirit simply beats its conversational partner over the head with it from its comfortably superior position.

It is very easy to imagine how Lewis would have responded to such criticism: he would have put it in the mouth of one of his damned, and then have a blessed spirit dismiss them without real engagement. This is what is so wrong-headed about the whole set up: declaring the character expressing your views to be saved and the opponent to be damned is a good way to rhetorically coerce your reader into agreeing with you via show of brute strength. It naturally breeds intellectual laziness; I dare say the philosophy in The Great Divorce is even sloppier than that in Lewis' nonfiction.

The lesson for story-tellers should be simple enough: as a straightforward corollary to "write what you know," don't try to have characters expressing wisdom far beyond your own. What this means in practice varies a little from author to author. The introductory essay to vol. 6 of Neil Gaiman's Sandman comic raves that Gaiman manages to make his hero sound wise not by writing wise sounding nonsense, but though actual wisdom. I'm sympathetic to this point of view, Gaiman is a first-rate writer, but even he limits himself: he writes Morpheus tight-lipped, dispensing only the occasional insight, and doesn't try for a moment to make the character perfect, but instead shows him frequently arguing on roughly equal terms with his sister Death.

All in all, The Great Divorce leaves me feeling that Lewis could have produced much better fiction than he in fact did, if only he had known his limits.