Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Carnival of the Fraudless #1

The very first Carnival of the Fraudless has been posted. FYI, some material that Ron was reluctant to link to can be found with the help of leading anti-Scientology site Operation Clambake. Enjoy.

Monday, April 28, 2008

CotG 90

A new Carnival of the Godless is up.

Quote of the Time Being

"It's nonsense, it's nonsense, it's nonsense, it's nonsense, it's nonsense. I don't have anything additional to say. It's nonsense, it's nonsense, it's nonsense, I don't have anything more to say ... it's nonsense. I reject it categorically,"
-John McCain, on Hagee.

I'm getting this via Andrew Sullivan, and would just like to point out the marked contrast to Obama's inability to use words like "nonsense" in describing Wright.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Quote of the Time Being

When one analyzes [post-modernist and deconstruction] writings, one often finds radical-sounding assertions whose meaning is ambiguous and that can be given two alternative readings: one as interesting, radical, and grossly false; the other as boring and trivially true.
-Alan Sokal, via Massimo Pigliucci

The silliness of philosophy

In Peter Unger's Beyond Inanity, he makes a point of saying that the claims he's attacking are guilty of being insubstantial, not silly. However, it strikes me that an awful lot of what gets done in philosophy is silly. I've even suggested that philosophy is so silly, that an obviously silly paper is actually an improvement over one that tries to hide its silliness.

What, exactly, is the problem? I can think of at least two things:

First, there's a tendency to want to be rigorous, sophisticated, and scientific, and this leads philosophers to invent technical concepts and apply them in situations where they serve no purpose. Take, for example, the concept of a possible world. A possible world is basically a possible situation, except that its emphasized that it is a "maximal" situation, including or excluding every detail that the world might possibly have. Sometimes, it's a useful concept. Sometimes you want to imagine a hypothetical world exactly like ours, except for a short list of very specific changes. Or sometimes, you want to imagine a world with a very small number of objects and nothing else. That's all okay. (Or at least not as bad as what I want to complain about here.)

However, philosophers have fallen in love with the concept of possible worlds, and begin invoking the concept in situations where it's useless or counter-productive. Situations where, most importantly, they aren't really concerned to have every detail fixed. For example, last semester in philosophy of mind we encountered a theory of the relationship between mind and matter (I think it was called "global supervenience") that was explained in terms of possible worlds. It turned out that an immediate consequence of the theory was that the position of a hydrogen atom in a distant galaxy might be vitally important in determining our mental states (thanks in part to possible worlds emphasizing the idea of every detail being fixed). And this is a theory which philosophers had seriously put forth. They never meant to say something so absurd, but did so because they got using technical concepts when they didn't need them.

Another example in this problem is adequately summed up in the second quotation in this post. Basically: philosophers wasting a lot of time on the nature of a certain claim, when all that mattered is whether it's true.

The other thing that's silly about philosophy: philosophers taking themselves way to seriously. For example, in the metaphysics class I'm taking right now, we basically spent over a week discussing the transporters from Star Trek. This was done with minimal self-awareness and irony. Now, debates on Star Trek message board about what this or that piece of technology would really be like can get quite heated (or so I've heard). However, Trekkies are at least capable of keeping the MST3K mantra stuck somewhere in the back of their minds, even if it's at the bottom of a chest in the attic of their brains, with the path to said chest blocked by a pile of lamps, coat hangers, and bicycles. The point is, it's there, they know it's just TV. In philosophy, however, there is no equivalent to the realization that it's just TV. It's serious business. And that makes all the discussions feel very off.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

What matters: stuff

The trick is to know which books to read.
-Carl Sagan

When I reviewed Susan Jacoby's American Age of Unreason, I got a somewhat unexpected criticism: not so much that Jacoby was on-target in her worries about the use of the word "folks," but that I had no business agreeing that some thigns are better than others. Rather than reply immediately in the comments, I decided I'd bet better off replying in a series of blog posts.

This first post, I'll keep general. I want to point out that there are a couple things which can seem superficially an appropriate focus of life, yet pretty obviously aren't after a little reflection. A classic argument along these lines is Robert Nozick's "experience machine" thought experiment: would you take up an offer to plug in, for life, to a machine that would give you whatever good experiences you want? Most people say "no." An even worse answer than "good experiences" is "pleasure"--the idea of hooking up to electrodes to give a constant flow of intense pleasure isn't really all that far out, technologically speaking, but it's not something most people really want.

Once you accept that the truly good things in life are somewhat subtle, it becomes easy to see that it's worth putting effort into sorting out the truly good things from trash. Consider books, fiction or non-fiction (this is just an example, I'm hardly meaning to commit to anything on the value of books vs. TV or books vs. real world experience). In Cosmos, there's a great scene (in YouTube form at bottom of this post) where Sagan walks down the length of a few bookshelves, containing approximately as many books as a person could read in a lifetime. It's pretty good number, but it's only a fraction of the number contained in a good library. So assuming moderate variation in the quality of books, we've got good reason to be discerning. And this goes for TV shows and movies and websites and life experiences as much as books. Life's to short to watch "whatever's on."


Some carnivals I haven't gotten around to linking yet:

--The 84th Skeptics' Circle at Archaeoporn\
--The 18th Humanist Symposium at Spanish Inquisitor
--Also, the 0th edition (i.e. initial annoucement) for an anti-Scientology carnival


Open Source Philosophy

The call for posts papers for the next Philosophers Carnival reads as follows:
This is a call for papers for the next Philosopher’s Carnival to be hosted here from April 28 to May 12.

The theme for our carnival will be ‘Open Source Philosophy’. This may relate to the Philosophy of Open Source or to Open sourcing Philosophy (or anything in between).

Entries from other fields of philosophy will still be most appreciated of course.
I'm inclined to take the second option. Honestly, though, I'm not sure what it means. Not that that's going to stop me.

The way I conceive of open-source philosophy (based on a half-baked guess about what the phrase means), it is the effect of rapid communication and digital technology on the way philosophical ideas develop. As early as 1991, Daniel Dennett was commenting on how e-mail was making the canonical, published version of a paper less important, and creating a situation where most of the people concerned would find out about a paper by reading a draft. (Dennett then famously suggested this as an analogy for consciousness, but that's not relevant to my post.) Now, that kind of interaction can happen before a paper is even written, thanks to blog posts. And websites that let you upload word documents and PDFs mean you don't even need e-mail to get a paper, you can just go to the relevant website.

I've actually done a fair amount of philosophical reading that way in the past couple of weeks. I read Richard Chappell's honors thesis, which I probably never would have gotten my hands on without the internet. I read the third chapter of Peter Unger's Beyond Inanity, and when I finish reading the last two available draft-chapters, I'll e-mail him with my thoughts. I also asked for the syllabus for a class on disagreement I didn't have the time to take, was warned some of the papers weren't published yet, and found them online anyway. That's the power of the internet for you.

All of this is very strange, in a way. There's nothing stopping me from citing any of the things I've read in what I write in the future, indeed one of those things, Thomas Kelly's Peer Disagreement and Higher Order Evidence cites an awful lot of papers as "forthcoming." The ideas in Beyond Inanity are compelling enough, and projected publication distant enough, that I doubt I'll be able to resist the temptation to cite (indeed, I just printed off a one-page piece solely for the purpose of getting teacher feedback, which referenced BI).

Another odd element is the idea of instant feedback, from anyone on the planet who wants to give it. The idea of a random undergraduate giving comments on a book draft to an established academic just isn't something that could have happened 30 years ago. I'm not sure what to make of it--I must face the possibility that the comments I send in will ultimately turn out to be drivel.

And aside from what you do with a draft after having read it, the experience of reading a draft is different than the experience of reading a finished product. The available BI drafts are things I would regard as frustratingly underdeveloped, if I encountered them as finished product, but as drafts I can get excited about what they do contain and the finished product that may one day come of them.

Having rambled on like this, I'm not sure what all of this means. That admission reminds me of the tag line of the great new blog Journal of Half-Baked Ideas, and it's almost tempting to submit this there, except it doesn't quite seem to be the sort of fare they're printing. Therefore I will just end this post without a definite conclusion. Except that the world is changing.

Sean Carroll on politicians and critics

While reading about the fight about how to fight Expelled, I came across a piece by Sean Carroll (prof here in Madison, gave a good introduction to Dawkins) titled Politicans and Critics. Honestly, I've sometimes felt things along those lines, and that they might be just to get the politicians and critics to ignore each other as much as humanly possible. However, the idealistic part of me wants to believe that the politicians can also be critics. Thoughts?

Monday, April 21, 2008

Quote of the Year

I have not read the news, watched the news, or read a blog for 48 hours, and it is kind of great. Hell, I have not even checked memeorandum to discover the latest ginned-up outrage of the week. The 98% of the world who don’t read blogs may be on to something.
-John Cole

Fuck you, Randy Olson

Last month, talking about the latest blowup in the Myers/Nisbet fight over framing, I wrote:... Continue reading at God is for Suckers!

Friday, April 18, 2008

Review: The Age of American Unreason

A review in which I explain what isn't wrong with modern culture and how we can fix it.

I bought Susan Jacoby's The Age of American Unreason as something of an impulse buy--it was prettily displayed in the store--but I had enjoyed Freethinkers, and am concerned about the sorry state of intellectual life in America (won't say "dumbing down," because I'm not sure it's really gotten worse).

Having read it, the nicest thing I can think to say about it is that I wonder if I would have enjoyed it more if Jacoby hadn't gotten off to such a bad start. And even there, I suspect the answer is "no," since there are enough things to dislike about the book throughout.

First the bad start: Jacoby spends five pages complaining that some people have begun using the word "folks" where they might have used "people." This is bizarre. Words go in and out of fashion all the time without consequence. What's her position: that there is a transcendental rule that only "people" can be used to convey that particular idea? Is she shocked by the idea of people in the Spanish speaking world conveying that idea with "la gente"? There are many troubling features of our intellectual climate, but a single point of word choice that doesn't create the smallest confusion in thinking isn't one of them.

As I read on, I could kind of convince myself this was a minor lapse. After the first chapter she launches into history reminiscent of Freethinkers. I had a lingering worry about history being used for propaganda purposes, but tried to suppress it. I ultimately failed at that. I gave out during the chapter on the 60's, which was dedicated to arguing that the American Left is not responsible for our current state of affairs. To this end, she trivializes major events from that period:
The problem with that argument is that radical New Left activists never came close to attaining a majority among students, much less faculty, on most campuses--including the elite institutions that were centers of student protest and garnered the most extensive national publicity. At Columbia University, where the administration closed the school in response to a student strike in April 1968, only about 1,000 of the 4,400 undergraduates were actually on strike, and many fewer took part in the occupation of buildings. (p. 141)
Are we seriously expected to believe that students shutting down a university would not have had broader aftershocks, just because the students involved were a "mere" large minority? The anti-war activists on my campus today can only dream of having over 20% of the student population backing their protests. This doesn't mean Leftist students are to blame for our problems: my response to hearing that story is curiosity rather than fury, but Jacoby can't find it in her to be even historically, curious, because that would undermine her rhetorical aims.

Once she leaves the history behind, the book becomes pure trash. The central motif that emerges from the book is snobbery. Reading Jacoby, I've come to see that snobbery is best understood as valuing the outward trappings of intellectual and cultural achievement, and feeling superior about it, while having no sense of what's really valuable in those areas. Such is the attitude required for mistaking a minor point of word choice for a sign of the End.

A major strand of Jacoby's snobbery is ungrounded rants against new media. I was initially puzzled by Jacoby's assertion that the internet would take time away from reading--made as if she is unaware that text comprises as solid majority of the internet's content. Then, on p. 262, she comes back from a section break by noticing this problem and giving signs she will issue a rebuttal. She even has the decency to provide a substantial excerpt from an enthusiastically pro-internet Wired article. Then she declares the excerpt "ghastly," and doesn't really bother to answer it. The final sentence before the next section break reads "I say readers get what they pay for--in time as well as money." Jacoby is too busy being impressed by her use of a cliche to see how stupid she's being. Literally, this statement is trivially true as long as one isn't defrauded or accidentally handed the wrong product. What she means to imply, though, is something along the lines of "new technology will never give us equal- or better-quality products more efficiently and at a lower price." Counter-examples to this claim are embarrassingly abundant, and include near everything that makes civilization possible.

On television, let me say this: yes, it's a tragedy that many people watch trashy TV shows when they could be watching great novels. But it's also a tragedy that Firefly got canceled, and just think: it probably would have survived if every hour spent reading trashy novels that year had been invested watching the show instead.

Not only is Jacoby snobbish, much of the book can only be described as anti-intellectual. Oftentimes, people with more academic qualifications than she disagree with her, and rather than providing serious intellectual engagement, simply acts shocked that an intellectual would disagree with her. This reaches its most absurd point when she mentions academic discussion of popular culture:
Courses in popular culture are extremely popular with students, and the faculty members who teach them argue that such classes enable students to "deconstruct" and think critically about mass entertainment. They are wrong. (pp. 314-315)
Though Jacoby continues to heap scorn on popular culture for a few more sentences, those last five words are the entirety of her response to her academic opponents. Here, as in many other places, it's clear Jacoby hasn't bothered learning enough about her targets to effectively critique them. Learn enough about popular culture, and it becomes pretty clear that it really is possible to deconstruct popular culture in a way that prevents anyone from viewing it the same way ever again.

If we want to improve the state of American culture, we need to be able to make a convincing case that life is too short to spend watching "whatever's on."* We need to be able to show people the world of first rate literature, philosophy, science, and history. But to that, we need to be able to explain what's valuable in it, and to do that, we need to understand ourselves what's valuable, moving beyond a mere snobbish exaltation of the superficially sophisticated.

*Perhaps the closest thing this book has to a redeeming feature is Jacoby's discovery of a statistic that something like 43% of Americans are willing to watch "whatever's on," a finding unfortunately not given the attention it deserves.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Quote of the Time Being

It appears to me that in Ethics, as in all other philosophical studies, the difficulties and disagreements, of which its history is full, are mainly due to a very simple cause: namely to the attempt to answer questions, without first discovering precisely what question it is which you desire to answer... At all events, philosophers seem, in general, not to make the attempt; and, whether in consequence of this omission or not, they are constantly endeavouring to prove that 'Yes' or 'No' will answer questions, to which neither answer is correct, owing to the fact that what they have beffore their minds is not one question, but several, to some of which the true answer is 'No,' to others 'Yes.'
-G. E. Moore, Principia Ethica

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Expelled continues to get kicked around

By Ed Babinski, Chris Heard, and Ed Brayton.

The straightforward trash-nonsense strategy continues to work beautifully in this case.

Friday link bomb

A friend recently alerted me to this excellent essay on why journalism sucks. Said friend is going into radio.

At Vjack's place, we find Shelley the Republican is still fooling people/ S'ok, man, everyone falls for her!

The internet was sent into a flurry this week over a hoax. I'm glad it was a hoax, but I must confess to thinking: I wish I could think of shit that crazy. Also, I have no idea whether this is a hoax.

Greta Christina has an admirable post on lack of evidence backing up (some) pro-gay rhetoric.

Ed Brayton and Michael Shermer recently published very valuable criticisms of the new Expelled movie. The Discovery Institute has responded. There's at least one counter-response out there somewhere, but it's not worth the trouble of linking to, as the DI response seems to be based on the assumption that their readers aren't actually reading the criticisms of Expelled.

Also on the Expelled front, there's some debate about whether the makers of Expelled are going to lose their profits to lawsuits over copyright infringement. Brian Flemming, who knows the movie business pretty well, says yes:
Fair-use exceptions are possible*, but if the Expelled producers simply used "Imagine" and "All These Things That I've Done" to underscore the emotion of the film's images, which appears to be the case, well, that's not fair use. It's just...use. That's how all movies use music. Fair-use exceptions have to be, you know, exceptional.
Russell Blackford takes up the opposite position, in spite of his general dislike of Expelled. Personally, I suspect the argument might sort of work if they had explicitily said "this is how atheists think! They sing this song at their atheist summer camp!" But it sounds like they didn't do that, and their usage definitely falls under "underscore the emotion of the film's images."

Oh, and one last thing: Viva la Google bomb!:

Thought of the Time Being

We are the people the ironists warned us about: pretending to hate our parents by putting their old slogans on t-shirts.

People without vital force

In a previous post, I criticized the zombie argument for dualism on the grounds that a similar argument could be made for vitalism. In response, Richard directed me to a previous post which touched on the vitalism and zombies issue:
But 'life' can clearly be analysed in functional and structural terms. There is no sense to be given to the notion of something that is functionally and structurally indiscernible from a duck, having all the same kinds of relations to other objects as another duck does, and yet somehow fails to really be a living duck. To be a living duck just is to have the right kinds of functional relations and so forth. There's nothing more to it than that.
Here, Richard almost talks as if the problem with the vitalism analogy is that the argument for vitalism is wrong. But the key thing is why it's wrong. It's wrong because we have good reason to reject our the pre-theoretical intuitions about the nature of life that some people have in a powerful form. Spend enough time around creationists, and soon you realize that many of them have an intuition that life is non-physical, so it would be impossible in principle for unguided matter to give rise to life. Sounds stupid? That's the point. We often mistake stupid ideas for profound philosophical insights.

Richard says life can be analyzed in functional terms (patterns of causal relations and such). I agree. But this isn't obvious, built into our pre-theoretical intuitions, or any such similar thing. If you want to analyze life functionally, you admit our intuitions about these things don't always give us the right answer. Conversely, some people think consciousness should be analyzed in functional terms. If they're correct, then consciousness is once again in the same boat as life.

Perhaps you dislike whatever theory happens to be the currently reigning functional analysis of consciousness. Perhaps you do so with reason. Still, we're in the beginning stages of understanding the brain. It's a false dilemma to say "either we have the right answer to this key issue already, or we have to accept our intuitions and not take seriously the possibility of ever getting another answer."

The burden of proof is on anyone who thinks there could be no physicalist account of consciousness. In my last post, I suggested there might be a good argument for that conclusion. But if there were, the dualist wouldn't need a zombie horde to do his dirty work. Invoking zombies is a weird way around this--it assumes we have reason to think consciousness isn't physical without ever providing the reason.

Richard has also recently written a post challenging the idea that thought experiments are question-begging. On this point, he brings in the analogy with the common sense belief that the Pope doesn't count as a bachelor. There's a disanalogy here, though: we're in a reasonably good position to answer that question based on our experience with how the term is used. In the zombie case, I don't know how we could know such things are possibit's mainly a question of what convinces people, but his interactions with Eliezer Yudkowsky suggested he thought many people who aren't convinced should be.

The most frustrating post on the zombie argument, though, has to be how to imagine zombies. There, Richard suggests that a world microphysically identical to ours would contain things like David Chalmers' book The Conscious Mind. This is a claim that should sound a caution in any good dualist's mind: if there is non-physical consciousness, it seems plausible to think that it affects the physical world, and most importantly is the reason philosophers like Chalmers write books like The Conscious Mind. The view that consciousness exists but has no such causal powers is known as epiphenomenalism, and is quite popular today. Chalmers endorses it. But Chalmers admits he isn't entirely confident about it. Now: if even a big-shot dualist like Chalmers isn't entirely confident about the truth of epiphenomenalism, what business do we have simply intuiting claims that presuppose its truth? Richard talks about what a super-genius would calculate, but the conclusions of super-geniuses seem an even poorer candidate for intuiting than most metaphysical issues (why bother with smart people if they can be replaced by intuitions?)* If nothing else shows the doubtful, question-begging nature of the zombie argument, this point should.

For more on this issue, I strongly recommend Siris' "Zombie Invasion" round-up. Especially the links there to the Brood Comb posts on epiphenomenalism. Oh, and be sure to check this out.

*As an aside: it matters a bit whether Richard means to say that the super-genius will know everything about a snap-shot of a world, or about it's causal processes and future as well. But it seems that "all there is to know" includes these things.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Go philosophy, or something!

Will Wilkinson posts a graph that should depress philosophy majors, and then explains why actually we should be happy. Meanwhile, Lester Hunt has a vaguely similar discussion.

Quote of the Time Being

Sweet suffering Jesus aren't you all just sick of it?

Actually, no: you're not. Not all of you. You all claim to be sick of it, but the Same Old Bullshit comforts people. The Same Old Bullshit is home for a lot of people. They like the Same Old Bullshit. Just like my dog, they eat, excrete, and redigest the Same Old Bullshit.
-Michael Reynolds

Useful things

Okay... tired, but will try to do this right:

1. Copy these instructions.
2. Link to the original 'useful meme' post.
3. Share 5+ things that may be of benefit to your readers -- useful facts, advice, product recommendations, etc.
(1) Bloglines.com Hard-core bloggers already know this, but if you don't know it, it will change the way you read blogs.

(2) TVTropes.org This will change the way you experience fiction.

(3) Various websites Judicious use of Google Scholar, Amazon.com, and even plain old Google will change the way you find dead-tree material. Find stuff. Find the stuff it cites. Find what other stuff people who've bought it have also bought. It's the only way to live.

(4) Stuff White People Like Didn't quite revolutionize anything for me, but did teach me a thing or two. If you're a typical upper-middle class first-worlder, this website will help you with that ever important task of griding your self-esteem into dust, something you really ought to be doing, no matter what your parents and teachers told you growing up. Really, you're way to full of yourself.

(5) Molecular biology This will change the way you see humanity. Everything in the human body is controlled by molecules. Want to control what your body does? Control the molecules. In practical terms, this means buy up biotech stock and psychologically prepare yourself for seeing the world transformed by ever more sophisticated manipulations of life at the molecular level.

And now the people I tag will be... Karl. Because I think he's the only person who responded to the last blog meme I tried to tag anyone with.

PS: Bonus sixth item: Notebooks Seriously, I have trouble remembering what I intend to do minute to minute, I almost forgot what I was going to say for some items on this list, as I typed it. Everything works better when you write things down in a notebook.

PC 67

The 67th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at KennyPearce.net. This edition's theme: idealism.

Monday, April 14, 2008

CotG 89

The 89th edition of the Carnival of the Godless is up, and consists entirely of posts by people who are bad representatives of atheism. (Non-jokey lead in: the host did a great job. Check it out.)

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Tolerating ourselves to death

Last week, I posted an embed of the video Finta, put together by Dutch politician Geert Wilders. The response to the film is provided a troubling reminder about the free world's very limited ability to stand up for itself... Continue reading at God is for Suckers!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Notebok: Beyond Inanity, chapters 2 and 3

I've previously blogged reading the first draft chapter of Peter Unger's Beyond Inanity. The draft chapters were up on his website, which is currently down, but check back there later, hopefully it will be back up soon. In this post, I'll be commenting on chapters two and three.

In these chapters, Unger delves in to exactly what parts of contemporary philosophy bother him. His central contention is that certain prominent philosophers, while purporting to offer concrete claims about the world, have only offered insubstantial ones (inane ones, in Unger's vocabulary). His first target is Donald Davidson's "Swampman" thought experiment, which imagines a man created by thermodynamic miracle. Davidson suggests that such a person, though by stipulation be an exact physical duplicate of some actual person, would have no beliefs, memories, friends, and so on. Unger's second target is Hilary Putman's claim that water could not possibly be anything other than H2O, so a person transported to a world where H2O was replaced by (superficially indistinguishable) XYZ would only make so many mistakes about thinking of that stuff as water. Finally, he takes on Kripke's claims about the essentiallity of origin, that an object could not possibly have originated in a different way than it in fact did and remain the same object.

Unger argues that these claims, if true, would fail to make any difference about the concrete world. I think it's pretty obvious he's right about this. Furthermore, it seems obvious to me that there is at least something strange about philosophy focusing on such insubstantial claims. But I think Unger makes some doubtful assumptions about how philosophers would likely respond to his criticisms. He seems to assume that fans of Davidson, Putnam, and Kripke believe their claims are concrete and would be embarrassed to admit they are insubstantial. I suspect, though that these philosophers would continue insisting on the importance of these claims in spite of their insubstantial nature. For one thing, philosophers often talk about abstract objects, which by definition aren't concrete, yet they seem to think it terribly important to understand abstract objects correctly. Mathematical objects are taken to be abstract, yet mathematics is important, that is one argument philosophers might use to justify their position. Philosophers have also long worried about understanding properties, which are also taken to exist as abstract objects. And some of the ideas that Unger dismisses as too absurd to be what philosophers have in mind, I unfortunately suspect they may have them in mind. Unger tries to deflate Kripke's claims about the origin of tables by inventing terms like "lables" (lot to be confused with "labels") and comparing the nature of tables with lables and such. Kripke suggests that no one could think that the essence of tables exists in any deeper sense than the essence of "lables," though after reading many of the philosophers he talks about, I wonder.

In spite of these criticisms, with more work on what Unger's targets are trying to say (and I don't claim to really understand them), I think Beyond Inanity could turn out to be a very interesting book.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Oh, and Chris...

A message for Chris Mooney: I'm pretty sure PZ's "call them out on their lies and stupidity" approach is working for fighting Expelled. Via Andrew Sullivan, even Fox News is signing on to that line.

Other bad publicity can be found from Chris Heard, Scientific American, and Michael Shermer (last two via PZ).

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Framing is dead

Those of you here who are fans of Pharyngula will know about the "framing" controversy that has played out in a number of places, mainly ScienceBlogs.com, over the past year. "Framing" is an idea that has been promoted by communications prof Matt Nisbet, with journalist (and The Republican War on Science author) Chris Mooney providing significant support. What the idea actually entails remains unclear to this day... Continue reading at God is for Suckers!

Quote of the Time Being

Warrantless wire-tapping shall be henceforth known as "chocolate chips." Disappearing and imprisoning known innocent men in secret dungeons for years on end without trial can be called "Fraggle Rock."
-Daniel Koffler, via Andrew Sullivan.

The above quote was an exercise in angry sarcasm, but I for one think it would be amusing if the word "chocolate chips" took in sinister connotations.

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Zombie cage match

Two of my favorite bloggers, Richard Chapell and Eliezer Yudkowsky, recently duked it out over reductionism and zombies. (The zombie issue in a nutshell: supposedly, it's just obvious that we could have people physically identical to us but not conscious, so dualism is true). Richard started out with Arguing with Eliezer, part I and Arguing with Eliezer, part II, then Zombie Rationality. Eliezer carried his part of the discussion in Hands vs. Fingers, Zombies! Zombies?, Zombie Responses, and The Generalized Anti-Zombie Principle. The discussion mostly took place at Eliezer's, and Richard complained his opponents there had nothing but "mere ridicule and sloganeering."

In spite of agreeing with Richard about reductionism, in the narrow disputes that got raised, I'm with Eliezer. For one, the idea of conceivability Richard appealed to is weird--it's a sense which entails possibility, but if you take that use of the term, we have no defense against the worry that we often think we're conceiving of something when we are not, in fact, doing so. Yes, I realize an awful lot of philosophers have used "conceivability" in Richard's way, but just because philosophers do it doesn't mean its a good idea.

Richard's other line was to ask for a proof that zombies are impossible. But this is silly. A useful parallel case is that of "vital-force zombies," imaginary people physically identical to us only not alive. In the 19th century such an idea might have seemed possible, but the inability to provide some conceptual disproof didn't make vitalism right. Really, 'nuff said.

If you want to argue for dualism, appeals to esoteric possibilities don't do much good. The way that makes sense, I think, is to appeal to our direct acquaintance with consciousness, and point out that we have there something just not covered in our current theories of physics.

Lee Strobel takes questions

It's organized by The Friendly Atheist, though many of the questions (including my own) aren't so friendly.

Monday, April 07, 2008

Will Wilkinson on immigration

Libertarian Will Wilkinson has been doing some really good posts defending free immigration. I've been puzzled by why the Republicans have been anti-immigration and the Democrats pro-immigration. Immigration boils down to economics. From our point of view, it's a question of cheap labor for consumers vs. higher wages for workers. You'd expect the free-trade folks to be pro-immigration, with the anti-globalization folks being anti-immigration. The moral considerations Wilkinson brings up are also worth considering, of course.

Quote of the Time Being

Once again, I don't know what I'm going to do this year when I enter the voting booth. Although McCain used to be appealing to me back in 2000, his support of the Iraq war and his increasingly anti-science bent, coupled with his pandering to the religious right, have become profound negatives. Meanwhile, I fail to see what is so compelling about Barack Obama as a potential President, given his glaring lack of experience, and I never liked Hillary Clinton, who's always struck me as a cynical opportunist who seems to think she's entitled somehow to the Presidency.

It's looking more and more like yet another election where I have to hold my nose and pick the lesser of two evils. Sadly, the lesser of two evils is still evil.

Vote Colbert, man! And you know, there is a candidate who's running on not being the lesser of two evils.

More framing

You can get more of the framing controversy from PZ here, Nisbet here, and Mooney here and here. You can see I've gotten down in the comment threads, and have tried to get more creative in my responses. Feel free to join in if you like.

Friday, April 04, 2008

Getting in the news

Hey everybody, the campus atheist group that I'm involved with got covered in one of the student papers!

Not that you care.

Seven things

Michael Reynolds has tagged me with a meme. Here it goes:

1. Link to the person who tagged you

2. Post the rules here

3. Share 7 random or weird facts about yourself.

*1. I see the alphabet in colors. Seriously.
*2. The day before the start of seventh grade, I clunked my head on a playground and had to have it stapled up. Yes, stapled, not stitched. For several years after the fact I treated it as the most interesting thing about myself.
*3. I'm currently reading a biography of H. P. Lovecraft, and being made to feel inadequate because I didn't become a prolific, locally recognized science writer by the end of high school.
*4. On the other hand, I have already written an entire book and gotten a number of editors and agents to ignore it.
*5. Recently got the idea of reading every entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy over the course of the next couple of years. Then realized no purpose would be served by this exercise.
*6. I keep my books organized by sticking mailing labels on them with Library of Congress call numbers.
*7. I was recently hit with a blog meme by a kid lit author who's books I read an awful lot of in middle school.

4. Tag 7 random people at the end of the post, linking to them.

*1. Vjack
*2. The Barefoot Bum
*3. Vastleft
*4. Hemant Mehta
*5. Greta Christina
*6. Karl
*7. Richard Chappell

5. Leave a comment on their blog so that they know they’ve been tagged.

Vastleft gives up on Obama's book

Corrente's Vastleft, having previously pledged to review Obama's The Audacity of Hope chapter-by-chapter, has given up, after reading the chapter on bipartisanship. He provides a condensed version of Obama's thesis supported with fairly detailed notes, and I can make it ever shorter: "Republicans have been doing horrible things, but it would be wrong of us to say what the Republicans have been doing is horrible."

In a way, it's surprising I agree so much with VL's conclusions, as I'm more of a centrist than he and wouldn mind certain sorts of bipartisanship and moderation. The problem is the book amounts to a storm of contradictory cliches. They could be turned into something nuanced, but not by Obama. There is nothing that approaches the wisdom, say, of trying to move away from the tendency to stick strictly to the party line on some issues, or on trying to find a reasonable minority among today's Republicans, or using them as a check on Democratic blindness on some points.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Notebook: What is it like to be a neurological patient?

Right now, I'm reading Oliver Sacks' bestselling book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, which details various cases Sacks' has dealt with as a neurologist. The titular patient was utterly unable to take in visual images as whole objects, leaving him to guess at the identity of objects based on individual features, and sometimes getting it wrong. In many ways, he's representative of the patients Sacks deals with. However, while that first patient was aware of his troubles, many patients are unable to comprehend what is going on with them. For someone intensely interested in consciousness like me, it would be very interesting to know what kind of conscious experiences those people are having. But it's hard to know what to make of their uncomprehending statements. However, in the process of reading Ned Block et. al.'s anthology on consciousness, I came across this quote from another one of Sacks' books. Sacks here is reporting his own experience:
I didn't care to tell Nurse Sulu that she was bisected and half of her was missing. And then suddenly with a most enormous and wonderful relief, I realized I was having one of my migraines. I had completely lost my visual field to the left, and with this as would sometimes happen, the sense that there was (or ever had been, or could be) any world on the left.
Some neurological patients seem to have exactly the experience Sacks describes, only permanently. Sacks' report, I think, provides some reason to be willing to take the alien reports of neurological patients at face value. Maybe not all of the time, but much of the time.

Thought of the Time Being

If you think all those people out there making fun of you are morons, find smarter people to make fun of you.

Quote of the Time Being

Philosophy is at once the most sublime and the most trivial of human pursuits.
-William James, Pragmatism, second page.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Quotes from Pinker's How the Mind Works

Previously, I criticized critics of evolutionary psychology, and critics to read and critique Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works. Richard Chappell showed up to comment on a spate over the SEP article on evolutionary psychology. I'm not quite sure what his point is: on the face of it, he seems to think that special qualifications are needed to merely describe the contents of a book, which is absurd. But maybe he only wanted more details about what the book said. In that case...

I'll start with a nice survey quote:
The premises of this book are probably not what you think they are. Thinking is computation, I claim, but that does not mean the computer is a good metaphor for the mind. The mind is a set of module, but the modules are not encapsulated boxes or circumscribed swatches on the surface of the brain. The organization of our mental modules comes from our genetic program, but that does not mean that there is a gene for every trait or that learning is less important than we used to think. The mind is an adaptation designed by natural selection, but that does not mean everything we think, feel, and do is biologically adaptive. We evolved from apes, but that does not mean we have the same minds as apes. And the ultimate goal of natural selection is to propagate genes, but that does not mean that the ultimate goal of people is to propagate genes. (pp. 23-24)
On adaptationism:
Natural selection is not the only cause of evolutionary change. Organisms also change over the eons because of statistical accidents in who lives and who dies, environmental catastrophes that wipe out whole families of creatures, and the unavoidable by-products of changes that are the products of natural selection. (p. 36)
More on modules:
The word "module" brings to mind detachable, snap-in components, and that is misleading... [Among other things] mental modules need not be tightly sealed off from one another, communicating only through a few narrow pipelines. (That is a specialized sense of "module" that many cognitive scientists have debated, followiwng a definition by Jerry Fodor.) Modules are defined by the special things they do with the information available to them, not necessarily by the kinds of information they have available.
On the question of hypothesis testing, Pinker shares in condemnation of "glib and lame" explanations of behavior, and goes on to give, as an example of evolutionary psychology done well, describes the case of a scientist who "synthesized hundreds of studies, done independently of each other and of her hypothesis" to support a particular explanation for morning sickness. (p. 37-40) In light of these things, I feel confident saying that the "one size fits all" approach of the SEP, hastily painting all evolutionary psychology as, say, adaptationistic, is not defensible.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Scientific literacy and cognitive shortcuts: a reply to Mooney

Okay, so Chris Mooney has just put a post with a numbered outline of his position on framing. In the comments he does two noteworthy things: he admits a lot of mistakes, including that Nisbet was wrong to tell PZ and Dawkins to be quiet, and asks for the numbers of points of disagreement.

It's hard to find a single numbered point that's definitely false. However, there are mistaken notions that seem implied in some of them, particularly 3, 5, 6, and 8. The two mistakes are:

(1) Thinking cognitive shortcuts are an incompatible alternative to science and evidence.

(2) Ignoring the lack of evidence for the claim that a strategy not based on science and evidence will accomplish much of anything (and ignoring the clear evidence that a science and evidence strategy works to at least some extent).

On (1): Even scientists use cognitive shortcuts. No scientist can do even a fraction of the experiments establishing the conclusions of his sub-discipline. They use the cognitive shortcut of trusting their colleagues have gotten things mostly right--and gotten them right by honest, able handling of the evidence.

We should work to convince people that scientists can be trusted to handle the evidence. And one way to do this is explain just enough of the science and evidence to show them how scientists get it right. I know in my own personal experience, what sealed the deal for me on the creationism issue was seeing how creationists regularly misrepresented the second law of thermodynamics. My impression is that a lot of people have had experiences like this.

This brings me to my second point: there's no reason to think we can get away without talking about evidence. What are the purely moral, religious, and economic arguments for, say, evolution or global warming? Where are the people actually persuaded by such arguments? Somewhere out there, Michael Shermer has a piece trying to provide conservative and Christian rationales for evolution, they come off as painfully lame. And while some people have come to accept evolution by thinking about moral and religious issues in the sense of removing barriers to trusting the scientists, I doubt these have ever been anyone's primary reason. Notably, it is scientists and not theologians who led the way in figuring out how life on Earth came to be. The only arguable examples of people accepting evolution for economic (or political) reasons typically involved highly dubious ideas about what the science showed, not something we want to be promoting. We can bullshit on these points, sure, but so can our opponents, and that leaves us with no rational expectation of coming out ahead.

If Mooney wants to help on the creation issue, and is worried about people just taking cues from their religious leaders, here's what I'd recommend he do: do some serious journalistic legwork, documenting the misinformation being spread by Evangelical churches and similar local groups. (For background, read an article I wrote about this problem here.) Put it in a book with accessible explanations of why what they're saying is false. While recognizing the need to keep it accessible, you need to actually explain what wrong with what's being claimed and not merely assert that it's wrong if you want to win anyone over. Then go around promoting the book with a focused message designed to reach people who may not buy it. If you like, think of it as framing the issue in terms of "religious hucksters vs. honest scientists." This is what I'd do if I were a journalist with one high-selling book already under my belt.

Why take this strategy? Well, for one thing, good science is what people actually care about, a fact the creationists understand surprisingly well. You don't hear them going around emphasizing the God & morality aspect of their position. Rather, their line (again, "frame," if you like) is that closed-minded members of the establishment are trying to supress the next big thing in science. We can't take for granted that Evangelical leaders can be talked into giving up on misinformation: Some parts of their world view clash too painfully with reality, and attacking science allows them to monger mysteries which, supposedly, only God can fill. Also, those Evangelical leaders who've softened their line on evolution seem largely motivated by a desire not to damage their own credibility, so turning up the heat on this front may actually push them onto your side. This solution would cut right to the root of the problem, do so in a packageable way, and keep you from being just another viewpoint shouting "God and morality!" to support your view.