Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category

William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008)

Posted by metaphorical on 28 February 2008

I suppose I’m not supposed to mourn the passing of William F. Buckley Jr. but I can’t help myself. Buckley was was a fierce proponent of a sort of spare, consistent arch-conservativism that one almost longs for in these days of big-government, big-business Republicanism.

Ryan Lizza’s New Yorker article this week, “On the Bus: Can John McCain reinvent Republicanism?” reminds us, as if we need it, that there are many types of Republican – the radical religious right-wingers who flocked to Huckabee; the strangle-government types such as Grover Norquist; the small-government Goldwater/Reagan types; the oddly pragmatic sort that Gingrich has turned into; the moderates in the tradition of Eisenhower and Nelson Rockefeller (it’s Lizza’s contention that McCain falls into this category); and the libertarians, such as Ron Paul (except that Paul is also a bat-shit-crazy conspiracy theorist).

While I’ve never been a connoisseur of conservatism, and so I might get this wrong, Buckley struck me as one who straddled the Goldwater and libertarian camps, reminding them both to be at once pragmatic and pure. And while he sometimes wore the same ideological blinders as, say, Reagan, he was also committed to reason in a way that few hard-core conservatives are. And so it is that the moment I remember best about Buckley was also one of his most rational and therefore also, surely, one of his finest.

I couldn’t have been more than about 16. It was, therefore, about 1972, and my grandmother had that still-rare commodity, a color television. I’m not sure that’s why I was downstairs, in her part of the house, while she was out, or whether it was just to watch some TV without arguing with anyone about what to have on. I don’t know why I would have stopped turning the dial at Firing Line, except that in the days of 9 channels and no remotes it was sometimes even harder to find something worthwhile than it is with today’s 999.

And so I sat on her worn couch, watching her Sony television. Any memory of her place necessarily includes the lingering smells of olive oil, chicken livers, overripe bananas, and Chesterfield nonfiltered cigarettes. If it was winter, then her place was also much warmer than the basement couch I slept on.

Certainly the topic itself was interesting – decriminalizing drugs. I’d certainly done my share already, but one certainly knew what a Buckley would think about them, and who needed to hear that? I guess the thing is, I don’t channel surf as quickly as most people do.

I don’t know who Buckley’s guest was. All I know is that he advocated decriminalizing drugs, and he had plenty of good reasons, and he was kicking Buckley’s ass, because he had none. And there was this moment somewhere down near the bottom of the hour, maybe at the 28 minute mark, when you could see this look on Buckley’s face as if he was hearing the guy for the first time and you could see that 2+2 was starting to equal 4 for him.

Wait, you could hear him think. A small government doesn’t care what adults do in the privacy of their own home. Wait, these people are only hurting themselves, if anyone, and a small government is okay with that. Wait, why should a government care about whether people self-medicate with cocaine instead of caffeine? Actually, that’s more of a 1980s thought. But I do think I remember his guest asking Buckley where he would draw the line: what if the government decided to consider caffeine a narcotic?

Right then and there I saw that rare thing, someone listening to the voice of reason enough to switch sides. On television, with millions (okay, some significant fraction of a million) watching. And a hard-line conservative to boot.

But Buckley wasn’t just any hard-line conservative. He was a thoughtful guy. He could hear, and even heed, the voice of reason. And forever that made him and me more alike than different. Farewell, WFB, Jr. Goodspeed.

Posted in language, philosophy, politics, pop culture | 8 Comments »

Fish I’s

Posted by metaphorical on 24 January 2008

Two news reports this week call into question the wisdom of eating fish, a small but important part of my diet, leaving me uncertain what to do.

Let me start by acknowledging that most people do not accept a fundamental premise of this post, namely the connection between reason and diet. Such people may pay lip-service to ideas (such as that animals think and feel and are generally sentient in a way fundamentally like ourselves) that should lead them to change their dietary habits. But the principles don’t in fact inspire any change. For most people, dietary change based on respect for animals is not, as William James put it, a genuine option. I’ll discuss that a bit later on.

I’ll start with the simpler of the two stories, reprised in an editiorial in today’s NY Times.

Tuna Troubles

Many New Yorkers have come to love the convenience, taste and aesthetic appeal of sushi. But as The Times reported Wednesday after testing tuna from 20 Manhattan stores and restaurants, sushi made from bluefin tuna may contain unacceptable levels of mercury, which acts as a neurotoxin.


If you regularly eat as few as six pieces of tuna sushi a week, you may be consuming more mercury than the levels considered acceptable by the Environmental Protection Agency.

As it happens, I might be one of those people. (It’s hard to say. I have sushi 2-3 times a week, and usually include one tuna maki in my order. Is a maki 1 or maybe 2 pieces, as the Times is counting them, or all 6? Who knows. This kind of imprecision in a investigative piece is maddening.) I also sometimes have fresh tuna in other forms, such as salads.

Why do I eat fish at all? I was a strict vegan for three years, with some of the usual reasons but not all of them. In addition to concerns about my own health and that of the environment, I objected on grounds of cruelty to how animals were reared, and how they were killed, and how many were reared and killed for food. But I didn’t object, per se, to the general idea of humans killing animals for food.

Fish by and large live in the wild, and the conditions of farmed fish, such as catfish, are not the miserable ones that cattle, hogs, and chickens endure. And while death by driftnet is surely painful, it’s probably not worse than the death a fish would experience naturally. Mercury concentrations raise a big concern, but otherwise, from a health point of view, I’ve found an enormous difference between fish oil and animal fats.

So the same fish that get caught in those driftnets largely escape the net of objections that led to my veganism. Which brings us to the other report, also summarized in a Times editorial, this one from Monday.

Until All the Fish Are Gone

Scientists have been warning for years that overfishing is degrading the health of the oceans and destroying the fish species on which much of humanity depends for jobs and food. Even so, it would be hard to frame the problem more dramatically than two recent articles in The Times detailing the disastrous environmental, economic and human consequences of often illegal industrial fishing.

Sharon LaFraniere showed how mechanized fishing fleets from the European Union and nations like China and Russia — usually with the complicity of local governments — have nearly picked clean the oceans off Senegal and other northwest African countries. This has ruined coastal economies and added to the surge of suddenly unemployed migrants who brave the high seas in wooden boats seeking a new life in Europe, where they are often not welcome.

The second article, by Elisabeth Rosenthal, focused on Europe’s insatiable appetite for fish — it is now the world’s largest consumer. Having overfished its own waters of popular species like tuna, swordfish and cod, Europe now imports 60 percent of what it consumes. Of that, up to half is contraband, fish caught and shipped in violation of government quotas and treaties.

If current fishing practices are unsustainable, they are wrong. Period. And a consumer such as myself ought to consider his or her contribution to that wrong. Ultimately, it is our purchasing dollars that sustain any unsustainable practice, whether it is unsustainable in practical terms, such as mechanized fleet fishing, or in terms of cruelty, as the factory farmed cattle industry is.

The “ought” is a moral one, of course. For anyone to feel its force, however — for it to have any practical consequences on behavior — it has to be what William James called a genuine option. James, arguably the founder of modern psychology, spelled this out in a seminal essay, “The Will To Believe.” (There are copies of the essay here and here.)

Without delving too deeply into James’s theories (which deserve a post of their own, at the least), I’ll note that for him, a genuine option has to, first and foremost, be a live one. He describes live options this way:

Let us give the name of hypothesis to anything that may be proposed to our belief; and just as the electricians speak of live and dead wires, let us speak of any hypothesis as either live or dead A live hypothesis is one which appeals as a real possibility to him to whom it is proposed. If I ask you to believe in the Mahdi, the notion makes no electric connection with your nature,–it refuses to scintillate with any credibility at all. As an hypothesis it is completely dead. To an Arab, however (even if he be not one of the Madhi’s followers), the hypothesis is among the mind’s possibilities: it is alive. This shows that deadness and liveness in an hypothesis are not intrinsic properties, but relations to the individual thinker. They are measured by his willingness to act. The maximum of liveness in hypothesis means willingness to act irrevocably. Practically, that means belief; but there is some believing tendency wherever there is willingness to act at all.

The example an interesting one. My first year as a grad student, I taught discussion sections for the big Intro to Philosophy class. The instructor was the department chair, Laird Addis, a proselytizing atheist. Though an atheist myself, I found his hard-sell offputting and his condemnations of religion alienating. He did, though, offer our clean-scrubbed Iowa farmboys and -girls a useful thought experiment. “Would you be a Christian if you were born in India or Iran or China or Cambodia?” he asked. “Surely the odds would be a lot lower.”

Custom, culture, habit, and peer pressure combine to give us many of the beliefs we have. My own odds of being an atheist would surely be lower were I not a third-generation one.

James himself says,

It is only our already dead hypotheses that our willing nature is unable to bring to life again. But what has made them dead for us is for the most part a previous action of our willing nature of an antagonistic kind. When I say ‘willing nature,’ I do not mean only such deliberate volitions as may have set up habits of belief that we cannot now escape from,–I mean all such factors of belief as fear and hope, prejudice and passion, imitation and partisanship, the circumpressure of our caste and set.

I live eternally in the hope that my fellow humans can cast off our prejudices and passions, imitations and partisanships, and the circumpressures of caste and set, and see cows, hogs, and chickens as we see dolphins and dachshunds. For my part, I’m going to rethink the question of tuna, yellowtail, and the even the shrimp that go into my tempura rolls.

Posted in animal-rights, journalism, language, philosophy, politics, pop culture, religion, Times-watch | 6 Comments »

“Do we really want this—to live eternally?”

Posted by metaphorical on 16 December 2007

A reasonable question, but not one you would expect the Pope to be asking. Bob Parks noticed this in his unending and endlessly useful “What’s New” newsletter of 14 December.


Under Pope John Paul II, from whom so much was expected, there was little progress. However, in his second encyclical letter to the faithful last week, “On Christian Hope,” Pope Benedict XVI, reveals an unexpected side. As Cardinal Ratzinger, he had headed the Vatican office once known as “The Inquisition,” and was the defender of traditional Catholic doctrine. About “eternal life” he now asks: “Do we really want this – to live eternally? It appears more like a curse than a gift.” Elsewhere he finds: “The atheism of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries is – in its origins and aims – a type of moralism: a protest against the injustices of the world and of world history.”

Here’s more of what the Pope said, in his second Encyclical Letter, Spe Salvi, a title which apparently comes from Rom 8:24, “Spe salvi facti sumus”—in hope we were saved.” I’m quoting extensively, but it’s still only a little of a very long essay. Paragraph breaks are my own, for easier reading.

Perhaps many people reject the faith today simply because they do not find the prospect of eternal life attractive. What they desire is not eternal life at all, but this present life, for which faith in eternal life seems something of an impediment.

To continue living for ever —endlessly—appears more like a curse than a gift. Death, admittedly, one would wish to postpone for as long as possible. But to live always, without end—this, all things considered, can only be monotonous and ultimately unbearable.

This is precisely the point made, for example, by Saint Ambrose, one of the Church Fathers, in the funeral discourse for his deceased brother Satyrus: “Death was not part of nature; it became part of nature. God did not decree death from the beginning; he prescribed it as a remedy. Human life, because of sin … began to experience the burden of wretchedness in unremitting labour and unbearable sorrow. There had to be a limit to its evils; death had to restore what life had forfeited. Without the assistance of grace, immortality is more of a burden than a blessing.”

A little earlier, Ambrose had said: “Death is, then, no cause for mourning, for it is the cause of mankind’s salvation.”

To some extent, this is simply the usual confusion about infinities. We can no more imagine living forever than we can imagine a set of infinite numbers, to say nothing of a set of numbers even greater than a set of infinite numbers.

Then there are the additional puzzles about eternity. During this eternity – and the word “during” is already misleading, as if it has an endpoint – would we have new experiences? Or simply relive the old ones? If the latter, than every experience we could remember would be remembered an infinite number of times, which certainly seems unpleasant, even if each of them were pleasant in an of themselves. After all, even a great experience could have been made better by just the right choice of word, by a look, by a gesture. An eternity of remembering seems like an eternity of remorse and regret.

This Pope is willing to squarely face this hard truth:

To eliminate death or to postpone it more or less indefinitely would place the earth and humanity in an impossible situation, and even for the individual would bring no benefit. Obviously there is a contradiction in our attitude, which points to an inner contradiction in our very existence. On the one hand, we do not want to die; above all, those who love us do not want us to die. Yet on the other hand, neither do we want to continue living indefinitely, nor was the earth created with that in view.

I have always found all of Christianity’s talk of infinities to be meaningless, and this is the wellspring of much of my atheism. Omnipotence and omniscience are incompatible with one another; the classic paradox along those lines has never been effectively resolved. And if an omniscient Christ, knowing how many people would eventually die in his name, for naught, as the Calvinists battled Roman Catholics, and each enslaved the Africans, and on and on, chose to die on the Cross anyway, then wasn’t he the morally worst human being to have ever lived?

Eternity have always been impossible to imagine, as has a disembodied soul. The soul, after all, is the form of man; as such, it is indistinguishable in you and in me. Only the body differentiates. (Hence, as Aquinas argues, each angel is its own species, since they are distinct souls yet disembodied.) The idea of each of us, individually, sitting at God’s side, for all eternity, is, then, doubly meaningless.

It’s nice to see this Pope address some of this, and I like the way he does it. After quoting Augustine, he says,

I think that in this very precise and permanently valid way, Augustine is describing man’s essential situation, the situation that gives rise to all his contradictions and hopes. In some way we want life itself, true life, untouched even by death; yet at the same time we do not know the thing towards which we feel driven. We cannot stop reaching out for it, and yet we know that all we can experience or accomplish is not what we yearn for. This unknown “thing” is the true “hope” which drives us, and at the same time the fact that it is unknown is the cause of all forms of despair and also of all efforts, whether positive or destructive, directed towards worldly authenticity and human authenticity.

The term “eternal life” is intended to give a name to this known “unknown”. Inevitably it is an inadequate term that creates confusion. “Eternal”, in fact, suggests to us the idea of something interminable, and this frightens us; “life” makes us think of the life that we know and love and do not want to lose, even though very often it brings more toil than satisfaction, so that while on the one hand we desire it, on the other hand we do not want it.

To imagine ourselves outside the temporality that imprisons us and in some way to sense that eternity is not an unending succession of days in the calendar, but something more like the supreme moment of satisfaction, in which totality embraces us and we embrace totality—this we can only attempt.

It would be like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time—the before and after—no longer exists. We can only attempt to grasp the idea that such a moment is life in the full sense, a plunging ever anew into the vastness of being, in which we are simply overwhelmed with joy.

To some extent, the Pope is simply substituting one infinity for another – the infinite ocean of love for eternity, and, for the infinite number of natural numbers, perhaps the infinite number of numbers between 0 and 1.

But he is onto some poetical, if not analytical, insight when he talks about both desiring and not desiring life. We push on in life, even knowing that it’s end is death.

We cling to life, without knowing why. We do so out of fear, but also out of hope, unjustified hope. In our ambivalence, time stops. Yet it starts again, and for no reason at all. And yet, could it be any other way? Life is meaningful only if it ends, love is meaningful only if it can be lost. And yet a single moment of joy can give us hope, a reason to reject death or statis in each moment of life. For each moment of life, we hope for a next one, just as, for each number, there is a next one. It is an infinity of hope, which is faith.

Posted in language, philosophy, religion | 5 Comments »

Kitsch & Culture

Posted by metaphorical on 25 November 2007

If you need to encapsulate the entire American Christmas experience in 20 minutes, you could hardly do better than to spend your time at Fountains of Wayne.

In turn, the Fountains of Wayne experience is so weird that if you have to describe it in a sentence, you could hardly do better than the one above. It’s a place that sells outdoor furniture and other stuff during the regular year, and Christmas stuff during the season. But 30 years ago it began to create life-sized Christmas-themed dioramas. The served their intended effect — to get more people into the store — and then took on a life of their own. Downstairs there’s a fairly normal set of incredibly crafted displays.

But upstairs, the displays are beyond kitsch. Not all are about Christmas — a Parisian rodent chef cooks dinner; a pirate cove paradise hideaway, repleat with grass-skirted women. But most are.


There’s Santa playing poker at a casino; snorkling in shark-infested waters; running for political office; sleeping in on Christmas Eve (as Ms Santa waves a calendar at him to no avail); surviving on the tv show “Survivor”; and riding a jetski while Ms Claus sunbathes. You can find Santa waiting for dinner at a sushi bar that’s also, for some reason, a hangout for Harley Davidson bikers.





Fourtains of Wayne is such a weird place that a rock band chose its name for its own. (I don’t know how well-known they are nationally, except for a 2003 breakout hit, “Stacy’s Mom.”) The place itself has been featured on Roadside America.

The thing that makes Fountains of Wayne such as exceptionally weird place for me, and ultimately representative of more than just a uniquely American blend of kitsch and commerce — and make no mistake about it, a place that sells $1200 artificial Christmas trees is about commerce — is that its owners care almost as much for the religous meaning of Christmas as the commercial and kitschy ones. Various other dioramas depict the Three Wise Men and Joseph and Mary in the stables.


I don’t really know what to make of it. I generally don’t have much regard for Christian values as such. They’re either the right values to hold or not, and if right, they’re only degraded by not being held for their own sake.

Then too, some people find out-of-control Christmas-shopping-mania to be inconsistent with the core Christian values behind the Bible stories of respecting the poor and throwing the moneylenders out of the temple. Fountains of Wayne doesn’t have that problem. There are collection pots to help the local poor, and for the rest, their Christmas values can presumably be discounted 15% — 20% with an Internet coupon — along with everything else in the store. Come on down.

Posted in philosophy, pop culture, travel | 1 Comment »

Political correctness and Virginia Tech

Posted by metaphorical on 24 April 2007

The other day, Digglahhh closed a comment by saying

I’d like to thank our junior high English teachers in advance for reacting to this story without sufficient expertise and ensuring that we will not produce another Edgar Allen Poe or even Charles Bukowski.

Now comes news, via Inside Higher Ed, of such an overreaction. As it happens, Digglahhh couldn’t have been more wrong in the details: it was a college, not a junior high school; it was the administration that overreacted, not a teacher; a teacher was the victim of the overreaction, not a student. Yet Digglahhh’s point is made, though it has to be said that many of the facts of the case are somewhat murky.

First let me point out that at least one regular visitor found Digglahhh’s point confusing, not without justification, so let me first say what I understand it to be saying. It’s that the first impuse for many junior high school English teachers is going to be to report to the authorities or otherwise quash any student whose writing was at all weird or different. In this way, a future Poe or Bukowski would have his or her wings clipped, one way or another, say with Prozac, public humiliation, or expulsion.

With that understanding, let’s take a look at what happened at Emmanuel College last week.

Emmanuel College last week urged all professors to talk to students about the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech. One adjunct who did so for about 10 minutes — but not in the way Emmanuel envisioned — was promptly fired and barred from the campus.

The teacher was Nicholas Winset and it was an accounting class, of all things.

Winset’s course was in financial accounting and he brought up Virginia Tech Wednesday because the Boston-based college was urging instructors to discuss the situation to reassure students. Winset, who is in a transition from a business career to one in academe, said that he tells students on the first day of class that he’s not the most formal of professors and may swear in class from time to time, and that if they aren’t comfortable with that, other sections of the course may be better. On Wednesday, he said that he started class by saying that there would be an exercise related to Virginia Tech.

Here’s the rest of Winset’s version of his story.

During a period of about 10 minutes of discussion about Virginia Tech, Winset said he picked up a marker and made a “bang bang bang” noise, and that a student made a “bang bang” noise back at him. During the discussion, Winset said he told students that “his heart goes out” to the victims’ families, but that he didn’t agree with the idea that this is a national crisis for students.

He said that students do not face a real danger of being killed by a mass murderer any more than they are in danger of being hit by lightning. He said his students were scared by the Virginia Tech killings, and that’s because people who run places like Emmanuel and the national press like to focus on tragedies like the one last week, rather than talking about issues like rape or AIDS, which pose real dangers to many college students but don’t tend to make CNN much. Further, he said that he suggested that press accounts of the victims have focused on those viewed as most photogenic and tragic (which he said has a strong correlation with being white in American society). He told his students, he said, that if all of the victims had been poor, minority individuals, press interest would have been lessened.

The risks of a Virginia Tech event probably is an appropriate topic for an accounting class, though maybe not financial accounting. It sounded a bit crazy to me, until I remembered my own days of college teaching. It’s hard not to discuss, at least briefly, the events of the day, if they’re big enough news. I remember talking about the Iranian hostage crisis in a introductory ethics class in 1980. Of course, you can discuss almost anything in an ethics class.

Anyway, here’s the important thing.

Winset said that the college never asked him what had happened in class, but that he suspects that the reports the college received about it came from a student who is failing. (A college spokeswoman said that Emmanuel tried to call him on Thursday and Winset, who was away from his home number on Thursday, said that when he arrived Friday, he had messages from late Thursday afternoon and his dismissal notice.)

The college, for its part, has this to say.

Emmanuel first released a statement saying that it responded to “an inappropriate incident” in which “an adjunct faculty member made statements regarding the shootings at Virginia Tech University which prompted students and parents to contact the administration with complaints.”

It’s astonishing that a school would dismiss a professor without any kind of hearing, or due process, or at least getting the professor’s version of the facts. I can remember serving in the Student Senate of my undergraduate school; the rules of the school, which heavily favored the faculty and the administration in administrative matters, still required a hearing before a student was expelled. Can it really be a member of the faculty —even if merely an adjunct member of the faculty—does not receive the same right, or at least courtesy?

There was more to this statement, but I want to get to two other things first. The school issued a second statement:

This statement said that Winset “was dismissed because he was reported by several witnesses to have violated the standards of conduct and civility we require of all members of the college community. According to students in his class, Mr. Winset staged a dramatization during a financial accounting class, mimicking the shootings at Virginia Tech and disparaging the victims as rich white kids combined with an obscene epithet. He did not do this as part of an open debate with his students. His insensitivity toward the students who were murdered at Virginia Tech expressed during class time, but far afield from the subject matter of his course, and his use of obscene and discriminatory language which is not tolerated from students, faculty or staff at this institution, led to his dismissal from his adjunct position.”

The school has turned the spin machine to its highest setting, if it were a blender the dial would be pointed to “Puree.” Of course there’s another side to it:

Winset’s students are angry — not about his lecture, but about his removal. Peter Muto, a sophomore business management major, said he wasn’t at all offended by the discussion, and wonders why more students weren’t asked for their views on what happened that day. “I have numerous friends in the class, and none of them took offense to this, nor were any of them scared or freaked out,” he said.

Who’s right, the administration or Muto? Who knows?—and that’s precisely the point: in a classroom situation with ambiguity—and most classrooms are rife with ambiguity, both good and bad—each side can put its best face on when describing what happened. That’s why we have quasi-judicial processes.

Emmanuel also released a statement from the head of the Faculty Senate, who, sad to say, is in the department of philosophy.

“This is not an issue of academic freedom. In my 38 years at Emmanuel College there has never been a case in which academic freedom has been violated. In fact, Emmanuel has a broader sense of academic freedom than many institutions since we encourage the discussion of controversial issues in all of our disciplines — as long as the discussion is carried out in a fair and civil manner. This was decidedly not the case in Mr. Winset’s class. Creating fear and anger in his students with outrageous and disrespectful behavior and language is clearly about power. In no work place would such behavior be tolerated.”

Winset “objected to the language in Wall’s quote,” saying

Wall’s reference to Emmanuel as a work place was telling. “They think it’s a business and if you offend the clients, you’ve done something wrong,” Winset said. “Well it’s not just a work place. It’s a university, and universities are different.”

Let’s turn back, finally, to the continuation of the very first statement by the college.

The statement went on as follows: “Emmanuel College has clear standards of classroom and campus conduct, and does not in any way condone the use of discriminatory or obscene language by any member of the college community. Emmanuel College, like other colleges in the country, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of or mimics the terrible tragedy at Virginia Tech. At Emmanuel College, the well-being of our student body is a primary concern, and the action taken, which was to dismiss the adjunct faculty member, reflects this belief.”

It’s a pretty revealing thing to say, and the heart of it is the idea that Emmanuel College, cannot tolerate any behavior or action which makes light of what happened at Virginia Tech.

If that’s true, it’s arguably a position that the school is entitled to take. But it’s also a position that others are entitled to judge the school on, making it a place that Winset is likely to never want to teaching at again. (According to the article, he’s already taken an adjunct position at another college.) It also makes it a place that students ought to think twice about attending. Students already there might be best off staying there. But high school students considering Emmanuel ought to take this into account; if they’re comfortable with this kind of—it really seems to be the right term for it—political correctness, so be it. Many, hopefully, will not be.

Posted in education, language, Orwell, philosophy, politics | 6 Comments »

What the other 85 U.S. Attorneys were doing “right”

Posted by metaphorical on 21 March 2007

Gonzales will be out as soon as he can be replaced, (details here, thanks, Terry C, for the link) but the Attorneygate scandal just keeps getting more scandalous. While I was writing about the Gonzales’s Orwellian utterances, our Innocent Abroad, Andrew W, was looking for the bigger picture. He found it with a study that shows

the offices of the U.S. Attorneys across the nation investigate seven times as many Democratic officials as they investigate Republican officials, a number that exceeds even the racial profiling of African Americans in traffic stops.

It just stands to reason. If the seven U.S. Attorneys were fired because, as Andrew put it, “they were not pursuing corruption cases against Democratic public officials with sufficient zeal,” then apparently the others were.

Andrew’s fine discussion and a link to the study are here.

Posted in journalism, language, Orwell, philosophy | 3 Comments »

Democracy, science, and the Golden Calf

Posted by metaphorical on 11 March 2007

One of my best friends’ daughters had her bat mitzvah yesterday. At their synagogue the initiate picks the day’s reading from the Torah. She then gives a talk about it—the morning’s sermon, if you will (though most rabbis annoyingly can’t keep themselves from commenting on it afterward, making sure we know who has the upper hand in their houses. This one was no exception.)

Her reading was the story of the Golden Calf, from Exodus.

To refresh your recollection, Moses is up on the mount with God for longer than the Israelites expected, and it’s the last straw from some of them. Moses has dragged his people out Egypt (from slavery, sure, but it’s the only home they know). He’s insisted they worship this totally inanimate insubstantial God. And now he has seemingly abandoned them in the middle of the desert, somewhere between home and promised land. So they complain to Aaron, Moses’s nebbishy brother. Facing a revolt, Aaron has everyone give him their gold earrings, which he melts down into the Golden Calf. God sees his people worshiping an idol, which is a pretty serious offense. He and Moses are quite upset. God tells Moses to get some folks together for some smiting. Moses has his people, the Levites, punish the people.

The bat mitzvah girl thought God was overly harsh. Her first argument was that they were still worshiping God, just differently. Her second was that since the 10 commandments weren’t yet received, the people weren’t sinning, since they hadn’t really assimilated the rule against idol-worship. They didn’t really know better yet, was her argument.

She and the rabbi then debated the issue, in the sense that he told her what he thought, and she stood there and listened. If I understood him correctly, the rabbi said that the punishment of the people was really God teaching Moses a lesson. Neither of them mentioned what that punishment consisted of—the slaughter of 3000 people, including friends and neighbors. Some lesson. God was ready to kill everyone and start over, as with Noah, but Moses persuaded him otherwise.

Whatever you believe or don’t believe about the Judeo-Christian God, I myself find the Golden Calf pretty hard to understand as a religious story. One of my college teachers read the Bible as a collection of political lessons, and for me, this is a great place for that.

God in the Bible is always the source of legal authority. In a democracy authority comes from a free people coming to an agreement with one another about what the law is, but for an authoritarian society, such as that of the Israelites, a ruler’s authority comes from God. In a democracy, God is the social contract and the law is a covenant with one another. For Israel, the covenant was between God and Moses and the law was handed down from God. Moses was in charge because he had God’s ear.

On this understanding, Aaron, Moses’s delegate while he was on the mountain, faced a revolt. He forged a compromise. Moses returned in time to reassert his authority. He killed his enemies. Perhaps Aaron would have been amenable to democratic rule. We’ll never know. Moses returned and his authoritarianism persisted for many generations.

It’s no coincidence that the Bush administration is the most authoritarian this country has had in decades, probably ever, and that it is the most religious. It’s also no coincidence that it is opposed to science.

Science, as it was invented by the Greeks and has been perfected over five centuries since the Enlightenment, is the democratic process of determining what it is rational to believe. It is an agreement we have made with one another to share our perceptions and intuitions, and to reason from them, all in a way that can be shared, which is to say published and replicated.

The opponents of science would rather get their standard of belief from authority. The fundamentalist Christians choose a book, the fundamentalist Muslims do the same (but a different one); other anti-science people can choose yet a third and a fourth authoritative source of belief. It doesn’t much matter.

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The banality of courage

Posted by metaphorical on 19 February 2007

I guess I’ve been walking around in some kind of dream state for 50 years. A number of people, it seems, are far more callous and cruel than I’ve understood. Have I been side by side to what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil” all these years? A innocent-looking thread on a mailing list forced the question upon me.

One list member threw out a simple question: Does economic inequality matter?

After the usual fits and starts with an open-ended query like that, one member stated the case for lessening inequality with this:

> For crying out loud, even if we tax someone making a million dollars 50%,
> how morally impoverished do they have to be to complain they are as
> “wretched” as a family living on $15,000 a year?

To which another member, R., wrote the following (reprinted here with permission):

> > Whose morals are you using? I frankly don’t give a damn about the
> > family living on $15K – or $50K – a year.
> > You want to steal – via armed robbery – half of what I make, or
> > more. That is wrong. Government *has* to treat me equally to all
> > others. That means a either a flat tax or a sales tax.
> > This progressive BS has to stop.
> > Must we terminate all the progressive tax advocates to make this go away?
> > We can do that. No guns required.
> > When are the “progressives” going to get *it* that their position is
> > armed robbery?
> > When we nail them to an “X” and leave them out to die, Roman style?
> > Yeesh.

There’s so much to be repulsed by here it’s hard to know where to begin, but “I frankly don’t give a damn about the family living on $15K – or $50K – a year” is as good a place as any.

Now R. happens to be a very pleasant guy on the mailing list most of the time. While you never know who’s really sitting at the other end of a keyboard located deep in cyberspace, he comes across as a member of a type you see often enough if you’re on-line often enough, for long enough: a Rocky-Mountain-state engineer or other professional, white, upper-middle class, middle-aged and almost always divorced.

The R.’s of the world are politically libertarian, though usually making a good living off the government teat indirectly as an employee or consultant for some large corporation with big defense or, nowadays, homeland security contracts. They hunt and fish, seemingly build their mountain redoubts by hand themselves, and extol the virtues of every self-sufficiency from dressing their own meat to home-schooling their children, two activities that can sound frighteningly similar when they brag of them. (Elsewhere in the thread, R. blamed the inferiority of inner city schools not on poverty or inadequate funding, but on teachers’ unions.) They have almost as many guns in the home as books and the 2nd Amendment is by far the most important, since we can recover from the loss of all the others by using our home armories to “take back the country” whenever necessary.

And yet, it’s hard not to find an R. entirely unlikeable. They’re usually excellent raconteurs who seem to find on-line discourse difficult owing to the impossibility of reaching through cyberspace to refill your glass from their own bottle, which is likely to be a well-chosen, well-aged single-malt. And they’re usually men (R.’s are uniformly men) of responsibility and honor. If they’re quick to go to war, at least they’re veterans themselves, and while it’s difficult to turn their minds around, it can happen from time to time when you least expect it.

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God, the universe, and nothing else

Posted by metaphorical on 17 February 2007

The juxtaposition earlier this week of atheism and Andzrej Mostowski (my Berkeley math logic professor) proved surprisingly combustible, igniting some new thoughts last night. I don’t know what Mostowski’s feelings about religion were; I assume, but have no way of knowing, that he would have been some sort of nearly-agnostic Deist, along the lines of what I understand Einstein to have believed.

As Mostowski explained Intuitionism, it too was agnostic, at least about some mathematical entities and ideas. Among them are infinities; it didn’t disbelieve in them so much as withheld belief. And from infinity, it’s just a short hop, at least when you’re drifting off to sleep, to God.

The Wikipedia entry on Constructivism (Intuitionism is a form of it) is helpful here:

In fact, L.E.J. Brouwer, founder of the intuitionist school, viewed the law of the excluded middle as abstracted from finite experience, and then applied to the infinite without justification.

[The law of the excluded middle says that for every proposition p, either p or not-p (in logical notation, p v ~p) is true. It seems even more obvious than Euclid's parallel-line postuate, so it's unsurprising that everything changes when you don't accept it. We'll come back to the topic of infinity in a minute.]

For instance, Goldbach’s conjecture is the assertion that every even number (greater than 2) is the sum of two prime numbers. It is possible to test for any particular even number whether or not it is the sum of two primes (for instance by exhaustive search), so any one of them is either the sum of two primes or it is not. And so far, every one thus tested has in fact been the sum of two primes. 

But there is no known proof that all of them are so, nor any known proof that not all of them are so. Thus to Brouwer, one cannot say “either Goldbach’s conjecture is true, or it is not.” And while the conjecture may one day be solved, the argument applies to similar unsolved problems; to Brouwer, the law of the excluded middle was tantamount to assuming that every mathematical problem has a solution.

Atheism is sometimes seen as a macho version of agnosticism, but this is a burly agnosticism that anyone could be proud of. Imagine withholding not just belief, but a truth value, to a proposition simply because we cannot construct a proof!

To jump ahead for a moment, I call myself an atheist, but this industrial-strength agnosticism is probably more to my liking. I’ve said in the past that I find the proposition “God exists” meaningless, in the literal sense that I can’t assign meanings to the constituent words. It’s probably more accurate, though, to say that I don’t assent to the proposition that “God exists or God does not exist” (p v ~p), because I cannot imagine how to construct a proof of either side of the disjunction.

Mostowski spent a lot of time talking about infinity and what the Intuitionists think about it. He said pretty much what the quote above says, that mathematicians sometimes say things about finite sets and then say the same things about infinite sets as if the difference didn’t matter. One example is the different “sizes” of different infinities—Cantor “proved” that while the set of odd numbers is just as large as the set of odd and even numbers, even though it is a proper subset of it. He also “proved” that the infinity of the real numbers is fundamentally larger than the infinity of whole numbers. I put the word “proved” in quotes here because these are not necessarily proofs that all mathematicians would be happy with.

As I understood it from Mostowski, the Intuitionists weren’t very comfortable with talking about infinities at all, and they could be quite circumspect about it. “For every number x, there is an x+1″ is a sentence an Intuitionist is very comfortable with. “There are an infinite number of numbers,” is not, and they would recast the one into the other. “Add 1″ is a clear (and finite!) method of construction.

My point here isn’t to examine those proofs or Intuitionism itself, but to draw from it the basic lesson that, to paraphrase the description of Brouwer, we cannot take ideas abstracted from finite experience and then apply them to the infinite without justification.

I think the same can be said of “the universe,” a concept much related to that of infinity. We sling the word around as if it were a finite concept, like “the White House” or “the Earth.” Physicists in particular have put ideas out into the world that make it easy to talk this way. “The universe is 14 billion years old,” “The universe is largely composed of dark matter,” “The universe is expanding.”

Physicists have a technical sense in which they are using the term “universe” (at least I hope they do), and these sentences can make sense, they can be true or false, evidence can be marshaled in favor or against, in that technical sense. But the sentences bleed out into ordinary speech, and once the enter the atmosphere of everyday life, the meaning of the term “universe” loses whatever spark of precision it had within the Leyden jar of the physical sciences.

And so we talk of the universe as if it were one thing in the world among others, instead of as the totality of all things. Read the rest of this entry »

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Creationism, geology, and a scientist’s soul

Posted by metaphorical on 14 February 2007

At first, I thought Marcus Ross was an idiot and the University of Rhode Island was wrong to grant his Ph.D. in geosciences. But then I started to think about my mathematical logic professor, Andrzej Mostowski, and I’m not entirely sure.

As described the other day in a NY Times article (“A creationist takes a place in the world of fossils,” reprinted in the International Herald Tribune here):

Ross is hardly a conventional paleontologist. He is a “young-Earth creationist.” He believes that the Bible is a literally true account of the creation of the universe and that the Earth is at most 10,000 years old.

For him, Ross said, the methods and theories of paleontology are one “paradigm” for studying the past, and Scripture is another. In the paleontological paradigm, he said, the dates in his dissertation are entirely appropriate. The fact that as a young-Earth creationist he has a different view just means, he said, “that I am separating the different paradigms.”

A friend of mine believes this to be possible to do, comparing it to believing “both Euclidian and non-Euclidean geometries as valid in their own contexts.”

Of course, on the face of it the paradigm talk is absurd, and the comparison to geometry inapt. Plenty of people, such as another friend, a retired geology professor in Connecticut, believe the Bible and contemporary ideas of evolution and geologic history to be true, but they believe the Bible to be allegorically true, or true in principle, but not literally. To say you are a “young-Earth creationist” and the Earth is at most 10,000 years old is to believe that the Bible is literally true. And if the Bible is literally true, it’s not just one of several paradigms in the sense of alternate geometries, it’s true, as in a-man-is-on-trial-for-murder-and-you-as-a-witness-have-to-tell-the-truth true.

So really, for Ross only the paleontological paradigm is a paradigm, something that can be supposed for the sake of argument to be true, in the same way that when Hilbert came along with non-Euclidean geometries at the turn of the 20th century, everyone still believed Euclidean geometry to be true-true, while Hilbert spaces were “interesting” and “valid,” meaning self-consistent and internally coherent.

And so I thought the paradigm talk to be bullshit, and a smokescreen, and the university to be complicit and culpable.

But then I remembered Mostowski. When I met him, it was the summer of 1973, between my freshman and sophomore years of college. For some reason I had got it into my head to spend the summer at Berkeley. Mostowski was teaching a math logic class, which I was utterly unprepared for, even more than I knew beforehand. I also signed up for an epistemology class, which I wasn’t worried about it, but the math class had me terrified as well as excited.

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Separating the animal-rights activists from the spiritualists

Posted by metaphorical on 7 February 2007

What if we could create meat without raising and killing animals?

Most vegetarians have more than one reason for not eating meat. Two of them concern the rights of animals: killing animals is morally wrong, and the ways animals are reared are unjustifiably cruel. Other reasons aren’t about the animals so much as us; concerns range from health (meat is bad for you) to the environment (factory farming ruins land and water, it emits greenhouse gases, and by using 10 pounds of grain to make one pound of meat, it wastes resources). Vegetarians may have other reasons as well, but they usually aren’t articulated.

Whenever a bunch of contingent concerns coalesce in one conclusion (“don’t eat meat”), there’s the possibility of new events or technologies to bifurcate them, forcing us to decide what’s really important. If scientists figure out a way to grow a slab of meat the way we grow a plant in a hothouse—without, that is, a sentient animal being involved, would any vegetarians eat it?

Popular Mechanics is reporting that scientists are not only chasing that goal, they’re getting much closer to creating “giant sheets of grayish meat grown on factory racks for human consumption.”

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Posted in animal-rights, food, language, philosophy, politics | 24 Comments »

The nature of parenting, the nurturing of children

Posted by metaphorical on 23 December 2006

The nature/nurture controversy is always going to be with us, and it’s never going to get simpler. It would be nothing more than interesting philosophic challenge or academic exercise, except that it has all kinds of implications for right action and moral judgment. Nowhere is this more apparent than the context of behavior-altering drug therapies.

The NY Times reported yesterday that for children with ADHD and similar behavior disorders, a strict behavioristic form of parenting can augment drug therapies and do more for children than just drugs alone; can help kids lower their needed drug intake; and in some cases can even eliminate the need for drugs.

In a comprehensive review, the American Psychological Association urged in August that for childhood mental disorders, “in most cases,” nondrug treatment “be considered first,” including techniques that focus on parents’ skills, as well as enlisting teachers’ help. [....]

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Posted in philosophy, politics, technology | 2 Comments »

The brain, memory, and learning

Posted by metaphorical on 19 December 2006

It sure would be nice to know how memory works, especially if you’re write memoirs or autobiographical fiction, or even if you’re just a journalist.

Yesterday, the NY Times reported that, “In Memory-Bank ‘Dialogue,’ the Brain Is Talking to Itself”:

New recordings of electrical activity in the brain may explain a major part of its function, including how it consolidates daily memories, why it needs to dream and how it constructs models of the world to guide behavior.

Brain researchers have long assumed that immediate memories are laid down in the hippocampus and later transferred to the neocortex for long-term storage. Dr. Wilson said the process was not just a transfer of memory, however, but more probably a sophisticated processing of data in which the neocortex learned selective information from the hippocampus.

“The neocortex is essentially asking the hippocampus to replay events that contain a certain image, place or sound,” he said. “The neocortex is trying to make sense of what is going on in the hippocampus and to build models of the world, to understand how and why things happen.”

That’s consistent with a hierarchical view of how the brain works. In a hierarchical model, low-level cells in the neocortex recieve data from sensory cells, process it a bit, and send it up the hierarchy to cells that get data, process it a bit, and keep sending it up the line. At each layer, more and more abstracting is done, until at the highest levels, completely abstract manipulation of concepts is possible. At each level, there’s a lot of feedback going on, with the higher layers helping the lower ones do their data processing by providing context gained from their wider perspective.

In hindsight, you would expect something just like the latest finding—a short-term storage bank, which can function as an ongoing repository of sensory-like data, for more detailed processing, being queried by the neocortex to create stable, long-term memories.

That still doesn’t provide a clear picture of any of the details of how memory works—and how it fails to work, when it doesn’t. Nevertheless, for those us introspecting and trying to figure things out, it’s a great starting point.

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The origin of life?

Posted by metaphorical on 17 December 2006

Harry at the Infinite Bliss factory found this the other day. From the current Journal of the American Chemical Society:

New insights into the origin of life on Earth

In an advance toward understanding the origin of life on Earth, scientists have shown that parts of the Krebs cycle can run in reverse, producing biomolecules that could jump-start life with only sunlight and a mineral present in the primordial oceans.

The Krebs cycle is a series of chemical reactions of central importance in cells — part of a metabolic pathway that changes carbohydrates, fats and proteins into carbon dioxide and water to generate energy.

This is potentially a very big deal. Scientists and philosophers have worried for quite some time about the paradox that you need enzymes to make enzymes.

Jacques Monod, who won the the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1965, wrote a book in 1971, Chance and Necessity, that convincingly laid out the case against all design arguments and in favor of chance, or randomness, as the basis of evolution. In it, he carefully and inconclusively considers the enzyme question as the last remaining puzzle about the origin of life.

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