Friday, September 29, 2006

Elmo, Plase Stop Tickling Yourself

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend's sermon centers around that red fuzzy guy with the high pitched voice. Kids ADORE Elmo. I don't know what it is. The story goes that Elmo was originally the project of another puppeteer who decided not to use the charactewr and it was given to Kevin Clash who came up with the idea of making him a three year old with a very high voice. He was quickly called in and told to lose the voice. He refused and the rest is tickle me history.

What brought this topic to mind was this this youtube link off of Beep!Beep!. It reminded me of my favorite Tickle Me Elmo joke:

A blonde needs some extra cash around the holidays and responds to an ad in the local paper about a manufacturing job. It turns out to be the factory where they make the "Tickle Me Elmo" dolls and she takes the position. A few hours into the shift, the supervisor who hired her decides to check up and see how her work is going.

He finds her with a tub of marbles and yards of red fabric. Stunned, he watches her cut out small squares of fabric, put two marbles inside, and sew the fabric with the marbles between the legs of each Elmo doll.

The supervisor looks at her and says, "Let me say it slower. We hired you for quality control. Your job is to give each Elmo doll two test tickles."

Live, Laugh, and Love
Irreverend Steve

The Process of Science

I'll never forget my "Wizard of Oz" moment with science. It was senior year (the first one of two). I was sitting in Robert Rasera's solid state physics class and and he was lecturing on surfaces (for geometric reasons, the physics of edges and middles are different). John Lau asked a good question and the response was shocking..."We don't know." Not that he didn't know, but that the big WE didn't know and then he sketched the competing approaches, both of which explicitly contained clear assumptions that had to be wrong, even if they were capable of generating good predictions in certain proscribed cases.

Before that class, all we were shown were special cases: free particles, particles in infinite potential wells, the harmonic oscillator. We learned when to change from rectangular to polar coordinates, when integrating by parts would help solve a problem, and other mathematical hints from Heloise that were sure to render every physical problem mathematically solvable. Or so we thought.

It was only then, in that solid state class that we realized that they had been clever in picking and choosing only the exactly solvable problems to present to us. The real picture, doing real science, was different. It wasn't so sleek and neat. It was messy. It was creative. It was not a set of methods, but a process.

That picture of science as a process is unfortunately all too rarely presented in popular discussions of science. We usually get either 1) dumbed down reporting of results that are very interesting to a portion of the scientific community and which get touted as breakthroughs in order to justify taking perfectly good space in the paper or on tv away from Brad and whoever Brad is now seeing, or 2) vague hints of some sort of controversy that we don't really understand, but which makes us feel superior for being able to say that those smarty pants scientists don't understand it either. The real scientific process never really seems to show up.

Of course, there are good reasons. First of all, both the consumers and producers of news reporting are largely scientifically illiterate. The craft of the modern day reporter is a combination of P.T. Barnum showmanship, Edward R. Murrow political coverage, and Rona Barrett sleaze-peddling. They need extended simple narratives with a hook, a good guy, a bad guy, and a plot twist. Science is so large and so complex, that you don't usually get that, at least not easily...and, let's face it, Brian Greene with his boyish good looks, clear well-spoken nature, and explicit love of physics may be this generation's Carl Sagan, but even he is no Tom Cruise.

The second reason is that science is politically loaded. You have forces from portions of the right who are openly antagonistic towards science reporting altogether because elevating science disadvantages their agenda and you have pro-scientific folks on the left who get very nervous when the messiness of the process of science is shown because it facilitates the epistemological relativist storyline in which science is in no way authoritative, is just another religion, and there is no more reason to believe in scientific results than in witchcraft, alchemy, or intelligent design. If science is portrayed as less than absolutely exact and rigorous, then all of science gets written off in the popular mind; so it is better to keep the puffed up fake intellectual superhero, than to risk showing the strong, but human face that is real science. Combine the fears of these groups and you have pressure not to show how science is actually done.

But every once in a while it does squeak out. The Pluto wars is a good example. While it generated some ridicule, I think the reporting of the debate over the status of Pluto gave a rare glimpse into the sort of process that is science. What was wonderful about it is that it was that the controversy was easy to explain, it was shown how advances in knowledge create problems for our old staid standard model, and because of the time we all spent in third grade memorizing the planets the issue was unusually personal to us in the way it usually only is for the actual scientists in the field. We were able to connect with this at an emotional level so that while we had to grudgingly accept that the ultimate result was rational, we still wished that it could have been otherwise.

James from my first year seminar, pointed me to another good example on Wired News about string theory. Peter Woit of Columbia has taken his longstanding debate with his Columbia string-theory colleagues out of the faculty club and into the popular press with his book, Not Even Wrong which argues that all the hype around string-theory as a means of reconciling relativity and quantum theory is not only not warranted, but ill-founded. Unlike the Pluto case, the physics here is intricate and the point of contention one unfortunately removed from the understanding of most people (despite being the center court match of 20th century physics), but Mark Anderson's article is wonderfully done because it not only sets the scene for the big game, but explains who the players are and why their records are strong enough for them to have made the playoffs. What Anderson does is to show how you can have passionate scientific debate over an issue far from resolved without having a breakdown into anyone's guess is as good as anyone else's. Wouldst we had more such writing.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

Conformity and Class

Last week, Aspazia had a post about hazing in fraternities and sororities. Bkriplur of Scriptorium, a beloved former student of ours, responded cynically to the suggestion that someone in the structure might stand up and oppose something they know to be immoral within it. He wrote,

"don't ever expect a Gettysburg student, particularly the frat or sorority type, to do this. They would do terrible things before letting that happen. As Nabokov put it, the bourgeois has a "passionate urge to conform...or to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club."A significant number of people I knew in frats in sororities feigned disgust for the whole thing, but they would never under any circumstances do anything that would alienate them from the group. Few have the strength to do that. People Gettysburg won't even go to cafeteria alone!! And you expect them to stand up to their peers? That's a tall order."
I've been thinking about this comment ever since.

The line "they would do terrible things before letting that happen," of course, brings to mind the experiments by Stanley Milgram in the early 1960s in which an authoritative voice was sufficient to make people do what they thought was a horrible thing -- administer painful and potentially lethal shocks to an innocent person. Milgram's subjects did cut across across socio-economic lines, so the usual interpretation is that this stance of bowing to authority is human, rather than sociological.

The same is generally held for the famous conformity experiment of Solomon Asch, where five people seated around a table were told they were participating in a perception study and were shown a set of lines and asked to say which was the tallest. All of the "subjects" were confederates except one and every so often, everyone else would assert a wrong answer and quite frequently, the real subject would go along, knowing it was wrong. People would rather go along, than say something they know to be true, but which makes them different. Now, I don't know about the socio-economic distribution of Asche's sample (any psychologists out there, Goddess o'the Universe?), but again the conclusion is usually asserted to be general.

But the Nabokov quotation takes the opposite line in attributing conformity to the bourgeois a "passionate urge to conform...or to belong to an exclusive set, to an organization, to a club." Here there is a clear sociological turn in Bkriplur's claim. Is there something about the upper-middle and upper classes that does lead to greater conformity, less expression of autonomy?

Gettysburg students are largely from these classes and I do see a deep sense of risk aversion. My guess is that this comes from a sense of non-inevitable entitlement that is socialized into them -- you will have a comfortable life as long as you don't fuck it up. Their mantra is not "do great work," but "don't screw up." They are on a sliding board to material contentment. As long as they just keep their heads down and slide along the path, they know they will be fine in the end. Rocking the boat, drawing attention to themselves -- good or bad -- is dangerous.

But is this pressure on white, well-off kids really any different from the pressure to conform on any other set? Is conformity based in general psychological aspects attributable to all people or do specific sociological factors play a larger role?

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Fact That We Didn't Find Any Means They Probably Were There

David Corn on Christopher Hitchens:

"When he did address the issue of the absent WMDs in Iraq, he took a strange turn. 'Doesn't anything ever strike you as odd," he said, "about the figure of zero for [WMD] deposits found in Iraq? ... Isn't it odd that none after all this? None? Doesn't that suggest a crime scene that has been pretty well dusted in advance, the fingerprints wiped? Well, it does to me.' Read that quote carefully. It is revealing. Hitchens was saying that the fact that no weapons had been uncovered in Iraq (after nearly three years of searching) was evidence that there had been weapons. How can one argue with a person of such intellectual prowess that he can turn absence into presence by mere deduction?
Ooooh, there's a great critical thinking example for arguing from ignorance.

Hat tip: Rob at LGM

The Aesthetics of Atheism

Philosophy proceeds through argument, but it begins with intuition. The sense that something in our understanding is not quite right and the vague idea of which intellectual direction the error emanates from are the basis for contemplation and exploration that after hard work and revision become philosophy. But while intuition may be the common starting point for everyone jumping into the project, one can never count on the universality of the starting intuition. This was made clear to me again when I was talking with Aspazia and one of her students. The conversation gave me cause to think about the aesthetic intuition that lays beneath a certain strain of atheistic worldview.

The discussion came out of Aspazia's class on the philosophy of psychiatry. She begins by considering the definitions of mental illnesses as given in the DSM IV (the handbook for diagnosing psychological problems) and whether they are what philosophers, following W.V.O. Quine, call "natural kinds," that is a group that is defined by nature itself and not arbitrary human choice. For example, biological species would be a natural kind. These are the joints where we can carve nature according to Plato's analogy.

The view that mental illness is completely reducible to biological and chemical causes is this sort of view. Aspazia argues that not only can we not reduce all mental illness in this way because there are implicit culturally defined notions like "normal" packed into the definitions in crucial places, but further that the whole idea of a natural kind itself is problematic. This is where the student, one with a natural scientific worldview, thought the train left the tracks. He saw no problem with natural kinds as a foundation for reality and all of Aspazia's arguments to the contrary seemed like well-intentioned sophistry. They had run into a clash of intuitions.

Last week, Ken had asked about my favorite passage from Robert Pirsig's Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and I replied that it was the distinction he draws between the classical and the romantic mind. Here we see an instantiation of that. Aspazia has a romantic mind. One of her favorite passages in the history of philosophy comes from Michel Foucault's introduction to The Order of Things, where he quotes Jorge Luis Borges' citing of an ancient Chinese encyclopedia's classification of animals:

a) animals which belong to the emperor
b) embalmed animals
c) tamed animals
d) milk sows
e) sirens
f) fabulous beasts
g) dogs without a master
h) those which belong into this grouping
i) those who behave like mad
k) animals painted with a very fine brush of camel hair
l) and so forth
m) animals which have broken the water jug
n) animals which look like flies from afar

The idea is that for any set of objects, there is a multitude of ways they can be categorized and these categories form the way we see the world, so it is impoverishing the universe to claim that there is a single privileged means of classification, that science provides the only or best way of understanding reality. Placing science on a pedestal as the only lens through which to see the world is to constrain the human mind, to deny the freedom that makes us human, to eliminate that which creates beauty. It is here that scientistic atheism is seen as removing what is most wonderful from the world.

But the student wasn't seeing an impoverishment of the world at all with its ability to be absolutely and naturally partitioned, quite the opposite. For him -- and me -- the idea that there is a real natural order to things is the source of overwhelming awe. Far from being constraining, it is the reason the universe is so beautiful. Human constructions are clunky, limited, and ad hoc -- to put them on a par with the real workings of the world is a grave insult to nature. It is to disrespect what should be marveled at. Nature is ultimately simple in all its stunning complexity. The 19th century scientist, historian, and philosopher William Whewell pointed out that the creative act in science is the bringing together of disparate facts that seem to live in different scientific houses under a single explanatory roof. When Newton brought together the falling of an apple, the orbit of the moon, and the tides; when Maxwell brought together electricity, magnetism, and the behavior of light; it was like the picture that is both the young and old woman -- you may only see one, but once you finally see the other one you can't help but see them both. Your way of looking has been forever altered. When we come to realize how the joints of nature dovetail so perfectly in unexpected ways, to chalk them up to the accidental human invention.

Einstein said it so wonderfully. When word arrived that the very first experimental confirmation of the general theory of relativity had been achieved with the observation of light-bending during an eclipse, Einstein was unmoved. This moment should have brought great excitement, and when his puzzled friend asked why he was not overjoyed, he responded that he already knew he was right. When she inquired about his reaction should the observation have discomfirmed the theory, his classic response was, "I would have had pity for the dear Lord. The theory is correct."

That perfectly illustrates the aesthetic foundation of scientistic atheism -- science has done so much and exposed so many things we not only could never have dreamt up ourselves, but more importantly it has allowed us to understand the simple, but intricate relations between them. Yes, science is built by human minds. Yes, scientific advancement is a result of accidental historical factors. There is a reason advances in different sciences happened when and where they did. The rise of Greek civilization, the Protestant revolution, the World Wars and subsequent Cold War all had stunning effects on what science was done, what presuppositions were challenged, what research projects were suddenly given material priority. But while science cannot be completely understood independent of sociological factors, the intuition of the romantic mind that science is merely one view amongst many and that beauty lies in letting a thousand flowers bloom strikes those of us with classical minds as bizarre because that point of view seems not to get the joke. You get a joke when you are able to reconcile the interpretation you had about the situation in the set up with what you are told in the punchline and for those of us who are inclined to naturally see structure and order, the scientific worldview makes reality a big universal joke.

Contrary to what the romantics may think, we don't miss the beauty and we see the attempts by some to shoehorn into it metaphysical entities with independent will and causal power to be like drawing a moustache on the Mona Lisa. It is so sleek and elegant, so tight and smooth, that introducing such chaos is to ruin what was so gorgeous. We don't claim to be Laplace's demon, we don't actually have the understanding of how it does actually work. Science is sloppy, its best current guesses will be shown to be sorely lacking in generations to come, we cannot see the actual workings of the machine. But we do catch glimpses and those fleeting images, when you suddenly realize what you just saw, are breathtaking.

None of this, of course, is an argument. I'm not giving grounds on which to privilege one way of seeing the world over another here, but I've always been struck by the way that the romantic worldview is able to frame the classical as cold, dispassionate, and empty when, in fact, the world we see is no less spectacular, no less filled with awe and splendor. Yes, sometimes the joke is told in a mathematical language with a very intricate grammar, but it is a great joke -- the kind that gets funnier every time you hear it.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Apropos of the discussion over the weekend:

Republican Congressman Peter Roskam of Illinois is in a tight race with Democratic challenger Tammy Duckworth. In a recent debate he accused Ms. Duckworth of wanting to "cut and run" on the issue of Iraq.

Nothing odd, there, a standard tactic for any Republican incumbent getting heat about the mishandling of the war.

But Ms. Duckworth is a veteran of this war in Iraq, having flown Blackhawk helicopters for the Army. Ok, it's cheap to accuse someone of running from a fight she actually fought, but mere rhetoric.

Then you come to realize that the person who is being accused of "running" lost both her legs in Iraq. Ugh.

Monday, September 25, 2006

I Made The Baltimore Sun

I've got an op/ed in Monday's Baltimore Sun about apologies. The discussion looks at what makes a good apology and what was lacking in the efforts of the pope, Mel Gibson, George Allen, and William Donald Schaefer. Check it out and if you don't agree with my treatment...excuse me .

RIP Popeye (1929-2006)

There was not a dry eye in Cartoonland when Bluto ended his eulogy,

"He met his finish,

'cause he ate his spinach,

he was Popeye the Sailor Man."

While the two played nemeses on screen, in real life Popeye and Bluto were the closest of friends, starting as a merchant marine's doodles back in the days of Vaudeville. After years, of clawing and scratching their way to fame together, Bluto shed a tear as he said, "I can't believe I'll never hear his 'gug-gug-gug' again. I'll miss that scallywag more than words can express."

While emphysema forced him to abandon his ubiquitous pipe decades ago, even through all years in the home for retired cartoon characters, Popeye never gave up his trademark vegetable, what an older Betty Boop would refer to as "forearm Viagra."

Indeed, after watching Wimpy slowly succumb to a horrible brain-wasting disease contracted from burger's tainted with mad cow disease, Popeye became an ever more determined champion of a diet based around dark, leafy greens. "He always said that they are chock full of vitamins A and D and enough iron to build little tanks in your biceps," recalled Poopdeck Pappy.

But as irony would have it, the spinach ended up being his toughest enemy.

Popeye is survived by his girlfriend Olive Oyl and Sweetpea, a child of ambiguous gender whom he may or may not have fathered.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Why Is This Funny? Jokes About The Disabled

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere:

A question about Comedist theology and its relation to morality this weekend. I received this picture in an e-mail, entitled, "If you laugh at this, you're a bad person." It's funny. Does this make us bad for laughing at it?

The fact that Ray Charles is blind is operative in the joke, but what's the rest of the explanation? There seems to be five reasons why this picture could be funny:

(1) We are simply laughing at the misfortune of someone else. Like third grade kids, we are picking on someone for being different, making ourselves feel superior. This would be mean, shallow, and nasty.

(2) This is not just any blind person, this is Ray Charles, a god. No one had soul like Ray, no one could play and sing like Ray. He was not only elevated as a celebrity, but also because of incredible talent. Yet, here he is doing something embarrassing and at the moment he doesn't even know how embarrassed he is going to be. There is a disjointed nature between who he is and what he is doing. So, like the Marx Brothers who specialized in showing those of great status being brought down a notch, it is the humanization of Ray Charles that makes it funny.

(5) Because we've all done really stupid things before without realizing at the time how dumb they were, in this picture Ray becomes the everyman. We can empathize with him because while we may not have done that exactly, we've done something equally embarrassing in our own lives. Contrary to (1), finding the picture funny is not mean, but empathetic.

Which do you think it is?

A second question because this touches on an issue I was discussing with BJ about offensive humor. What is it that makes jokes about the disabled offensive? In a joke about a group distinguished by race, religion or hair color, it is when the joke turns on some aspect of the negative stereotype about them. So if an Irishman is drunk or a blonde is stupid in your joke, then you are socially reinforcing false and harmful beliefs. When you say that a "Jewish man with an erection who runs into a brick wall breaks his nose" you are doubly harming the reputations of Jewish men. These properties really don't universally belong to the members of the group.

But jokes like the one above that turn on a blind person not being able to see or a midget being short, they really do all have the property. All women may not be bad drivers, but all blind people really can't see. Is the offensiveness, then, in pointing out someone's limitations? Are we supposed to pretend that those with disabilities don't have them and it is a social faux pas to even point them out, or is it that we are pointing them out to get a laugh? But just as being African-American, Jewish, blonde, Polish is not really something wrong, but rather something to be celebrated, ought not being part of the blind, deaf, or short-people's population also be a part of someone's identity that should be celebrated and we surely can celebrate it with humor. So when I say, "What is the definition of eternal love? A tennis match between Stevie Wonder and Ray Charles," is that offensive or merely absurd?

Along the same lines, would it matter if the picture were photoshopped and not an actual photograph? Would that make it better or worse?

What do you think?

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, September 22, 2006

More Answers

Zeek asked, "Along the lines of the base 10 question, why the 12 tone scale? Couldn't it be something else or is there some explanation from physics I should know about?"

A great question. On the one hand, there are non-western musical traditions that use other scales, but, on the other hand, it surely is not a matter of complete cultural convention that we use the scales we do. In fact, this is one of the most important questions in all of intellectual history. The ancients realized that certain tones are harmonious while others most definitely are not and that when played on stringed instruments, there were ratios between these notes with respect to where on the string one placed one's finger to generate them. The attempt to find a relationship between these ratios is what began the study of mathematics. You've got a tripartite relation here between (1) pleasingly harmonious music -- something experienced in the human mind, (2) the vibrations of strings -- a purely physical occurrence, and (3) abstract mathematics -- ideal relationships holding between abstract numerical concepts. When the ancients also observed regularities in the motions of astronomical bodies, this three part interrelation is what led to them to posit the existence of the music of the spheres -- if there was a mathematical relationship governing the physical motion, then that motion ought to produce sound and if the universe is so orderly and well-constructed, its music must be ultimately harmonious. The fascination did not stop in the ancient world. Descartes' first written work concerned this exact question as well and fueled his belief that all could be reduced to and understood by mathematical reasoning.

Unfortunately, I don't have much beyond history to offer as an answer, but my guess would go as follows: (1) sound travels in waves and waves can superimpose to create complex combined waves, (2) we hear because the soundwaves hit the eardrum which then vibrates itself in the same fashion, (3) cacophonous notes cause irregular waveforms where harmonious notes cause simpler,smoother waveforms on the eardrum, and (4) the brain interprets the complex non-regular waveforms as displeasurable music but interprets the smoother waveforms as pleasurable harmonious music. Anyone?

Gwydion asks, "Why do all of the ancient goddess statues from religions worldwide have gigantic hips and breasts?"

The ancients were fascinated by change -- physical motion, generation, growth, transformation, death. One doesn't need to explain why things stay the same -- that's just how they are. But so much doesn't remain the same and they were enthralled by the question why things change in the way they do and whether there is any way to predict and affect the change. The gods and goddesses were created to explain the changes. We can change things by the force of our will, so other changes must be the result of larger, more powerful wills. Since goddesses are female and the amazing change associated with women is birth, life being the greatest mystery, goddesses became associated with this great power. Wide hips generally mean easier birth -- and it is a recent phenomenon that surviving birth can be largely assumed, and breasts enlarge after birth with the coming of the milk. So since they are the givers of life, the goddesses ought to represent this change...oh, and it was Steve Landesberg who played Dietrich on Barney Miller.

MRW asks, " How big is a hydrogen atom?"

About one angstrom; that is, to line up just an inch of hydrogen atoms, you would need 254,000,000 of them.

Ken has several questions. (1) "Do you think we will see a "Copernican Revolution" like Kant described in the next 50 years. Something along the line of the age of discovery that brought on the renaissance?"

Yes and no. On the one hand, technological advance to speed up to staggering degrees. Calculations that used to be time prohibitive are now trivial. Computer modeling allows all sorts of new approaches which will lead to incredible discoveries. Communication allows scholars to transmit results and analysis to a worldwide community of peers, making collaborative work standard. BUT, a Copernican revolution is not mere progress, even great progress, rather it overturns the entire foundational structures of our understanding of the world, our basic categories that we use to make sense of reality. The intellectual world is now so fragmented in sub-sub-sub-fields which are becoming so intricate because of the progress that can be made, that we see micro-revolutions all the time, but it is so demanding to keep up with the rapid progress in any given corner of the academic universe, that we can't have the needed generalists who are able to gain a deep sense of the larger zeitgeist and undermine it with new worldviews. Because of the progress, I think that it makes big time revolution unlikely.

(2) "My alma mater has had a losing record in football the last two years and have had there ass kicked on national TV too. I have resigned myself to rooting whoever plays against us in hopes the coaching staff will get the Axe.( Mudbug says it's jumping off the bandwagon but I need a deeper meaning ) What philosophy would best describe this phenomenon?"

This is straightforward utilitarianism right out of Jeremy Bentham: the best act is that which brings about the best consequences. Like a painful needle that immunizes you against a horrible disease, sometimes a little pain now can afford a greater benefit later.

(3) "Every time I read your blog entries I always think of the book Zen and the art of motorcycle maintenance. What is your favorite lines from that book?"

The section where he distinguishes between the classical and romantic minds. The idea has been ingrained in Western thought since the Greeks and reinforced by Christianity that there is a single human nature, a single potential goal that we are all actualizing in our best moments. Pirsig, in that passage, does a wonderful job of demonstrating the different types of human natures, what some, especially German thinkers, have called archetypes. There are different lenses through which different minds construct the world out of the same observations. That insight is the basis for contemporary continental thought where it is historical, political forces that shape the lens and require deconstructing to see their influence, and contemporary analytic thought where scientific theories are seen as providing potential lenses as sets of models. That book is a wonderful way to open young minds to the world of philosophy, it combines the building blocks that come into play in hard core philosophy with the sort of Catcher in the Rye/James Dean romanticism that is attractive to us at that time of life.

Ilya asks, " What does "Carthago delenda est!" mean. The standard translation is "Carthago must be destroyed". I just read a site that suggests that it really means "If Carthagen is not destroyed we are all doomed" though I really doubt that can be expressed in three words. What is the context for the phrase and what does it really mean?"

It does literally mean "Carthage must be destroyed," but has a deeper connotation that has made it a cliche. As the Romans were building their empire, they worried about Carthage, a wealthy city nearby. They had not been able to defeat it militarily and as the Romans dedicated all of their resources to expansion, Carthage thrived on trade. The fear from some was that a prosperous Carthage would stand as a constant threat to Rome and so Cato the Elder coined the slogan "Carthago delenda est!" which he would repeat and repeat and repeat. Unless they engaged in a war of pre-emption to destroy Carthage, Carthage would no doubt ultimately destroy Rome, went the reasoning. Cato was so persistent that ultimately the Romans agreed and sacked Carthage in the Punic wars. It has been almost 2000 years since and the Romans still have yet to find the weapons of mass destruction that Dickus Chenius, assistant to Cato the Younger said were in Carthage as written in the scrolls "Meetus the Pressius". So "Carthage must be destroyed!" is a way of saying, it's a dog eat dog world and we need to attack to save ourselves.

Great questions everyone. Thanks!

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Feminist Family Values

It is nothing short of despicable to hide bigotry behind the fig leaf of the language of morality. "Feminism is destroying the family." "We oppose gay adoption because we care about children." The worst part of it is that the stance has been universally picked up by the media. To stand up for the rights of people and demand equal treatment has somehow become characterized as standing against morality.

But then there's the real world...

Researchers Dana Shawn Matta and Karman Knudson-Martin have a study out in the journal Family Process entitled "Father Responsivity: Couple Processes and the Coconstruction of Fatherhood" in which they look at fathers' responsiveness to their children, how much of an active part of their lives they are, how seriously they take their parenting role. What they find is either fascinating or banal based upon whether or not you actually live in the reality-based community. It turns out that across the board, regardless of socio-economic, racial, or geographic factors, there was a correlation in their sample between how connected a man is with his children and his views on gender roles.

Those husbands who were the most responsive to their children also were the ones who believed most strongly in gender equity in terms of division of household labor, who most valued the work of their wives, who were the most attuned to their own emotions and those of their wife and kids, and who were the most likely to make choices about work that privileged their family.

On the other hand, those who displayed low degrees of responsivity to their children were those who saw themselves as the head of the household and decision-maker because of their role as the primary breadwinner, who often displayed anger and aggression, and who thought their wives had it easy because all they had to do was to stay home with the children. These folks frequently cited inflexibility of work schedule as reasons to be removed from the family and that a man ought to expect this as part of being a man. Yup, it turns out that those who talk loudest about "family values" tend to actually value time with their family a whole lot less.

Surprise, surprise, surprise. Progressive attitudes tend to make men better dads. The feminist revolution was GOOD for kids. Imagine that. Who would have thought such a thing?

I have always been particularly annoyed by the "a child must have a male role model and a female role model" line that comes from this mistaken view. Good parenting is consistent parenting. If mommy and daddy -- or mommy and mommy or daddy and daddy -- aren't on the same page and sending competing messages, this ambiguity is bad for kids. The idea that as the father, I am supposed to be parenting in a masculine fashion unlike the namby-pamby, touchy-feely care they receive from their mother has never made sense to me. Both parents need to model, teach, and enforce good character, empathy, love, and care. Traditional gender roles do not dictate good parenting, it is an impediment to it.

So feminists, put aside the mommy wars for a moment and mark the victory in the daddy war.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Judge Not Lest The Enemy of My Enemy Be My Brother's Keeper, Unless He's A Complete Whackjob, That Is

From Hanno:

By now, most of us have read the PopeÂ’s denunciation of Islam. He quoted a 14th century Byzantine Emperor as saying

"Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman, such as his command to spread the sword by the faith he preached,"
the pope quoted the emperor, in a speech to 1,500 students and faculty. He went on to say that violent conversion to Islam was contrary to reason and thus "contrary to God's nature." In a story full of ironies, this was given in the context of promoting religious and cultural dialogue!

Some criticism of this passage has dealt with the fact that the Catholic church was, at that very time, converting people by the sword in Spain, among other places. This holy war did not even end in 1492, when the last Islamic kingdom fell. Instead, people who converted through fear were suspected of not being genuine, so they were persecuted anyway by the Inquisition for not really converting at all. Charming. But all that is beside the point. It is a form of Ad Hominem, tu quoque. What does this have to do with whether or not Islam preaches violent conversion, or if the prophet adds only evil and inhuman teachings to our understanding of the divine?

The Pope's own pseudo "apology" ("I'm sorry for the reaction my comments created") blamed the reaction not on his comments, but on his audience in the Muslim world. Like Nixon and Gingrich, both of whom were mystified that they were the target of such hostility from political opponents, apparently blind to the fact that their political careers were made tearing their opponents down, and apparently blind to the fact that this might create hostility among their opponents' faithful. You cannot quote someone calling the teachings of Mohammed evil and inhumane without being offensive to any Muslim, unless you are trying to show that quote is wrong. This was not the case.

But now comes an unidentified "Muslim" group, affiliated with Al-Qaeda. This is much like the new fallacy "Argumentum ad Whackjob." CNN quotes this group with saying:
"Muslims would be victorious and addressed the pope as "the worshipper of the cross" saying "you and the West are doomed as you can see from the defeat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Chechnya and elsewhere. ... We will break up the cross, spill the liquor and impose head tax, then the only thing acceptable is a conversion (to Islam) or (killed by) the sword."

OK, now this quote is deeply confused. For centuries, non-Muslim people have lived in the Middle East. Conversion by the sword has been replaced with a "protection" fee. People of the Book (New and Old Testaments), and this took place well before the Crusades. As a token of subjection, people of the book pay a fee to the Islamic government for protection. In exchange, they recognize the authority of the government, and are allowed to practice their non-Muslim religion. This is sometimes called a "head tax". The confusion in the quote is then apparent: they will impose a head tax on worshippers of the cross, and force them to convert. Clearly this is not a group of deep thinkers, nor representative of current Islamic thought.

But by quoting these whackjobs, it makes it appear as if Islam were still in the business of converting by the sword. And this has the exact opposite effect from promoting cross cultural dialogue. We target our negative views on Islam, not recognizing that these whackjobs aren't worth our or anyelse'slses time.

In a story of ironies, the greatest irony of all is that this group of whackjobs plays directly into the PopeÂ’s speech. Few Muslims would agree, but these folks are defending violent conversion, just as the Pope said.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Moral Dilemma

I often get asked the old question whether you can teach character and if not what is the point of teaching ethics. I don't think you can train people to do what they should do, especially not at the college level, but then I also don't think that is the purpose of teaching ethics. Doing the right thing is a two-step process: (1) figure out the right thing to do, and (2) do it. Only step (2) has to do with character. Step (1) is the one I can address in the classroom.

In everyday moral conversation when we discuss what would be the right thing to do in a given situation, we get so wrapped up in the topic that we fail to realize what's really going on in terms of the actual descision making process. Usually step (1) is trivially easy, but unfortuantely, not always. There are always those hard cases where it isn't clear what we should do. It is our inability to think carefully and speak well in cases of hard moral questions that has led to widespread subjectivism. Because we don't know how to talk about ethics, and all we see is the yelling of intuitions/politically inspired rants, many are led to believe that that's all there is. But the great contribution of analytic philosophy is to make us realize that how we think is as important as what it is we are thinking about if we want to get things right, and this is the case with ethical discussions as well.

I've been thinking recently of a situation I faced regularly as a kid. We had a neighbor, an old widow, who was slowly dying of lung problems -- most likely cancer. She was a smoker, I mean she was a SMOKER. We lived in an apartment complex near a strip mall and I would regularly pick up things she needed from the grocery store or drug store when I was going. She would give me a nickel as a thank you -- these were not "the days when a nickel was a nickel," when I was young it was just a nickel. I was doing it to be nice to a sick old lady. When she became house-bound, having to wheel her oxygen around with her, she would ask me to also get her cigarettes. These were the days of cigarette machines and blind eyes to minors, so it was not hard. She was clearly lonely and depressed. I knew she was asking me to get them for her, not only because she couldn't get out, but because she wasn't supposed to have them and didn't want anyone else to know she was getting them. I did bring them for her a couple of times and then eventually found excuses not to and pretended not to hear her gravelly voice through the screen when she would call out for me. I was very sensitive when I was young and this situation really used to get me churning inside. I felt deeply conflicted and it's only now as a professional philosopher that I really understand why.

The reason is that moral judgments have several components and sometimes they conflict. This multi-faceted nature is different from other kinds of judgments, say, telling the color of a thing. I look at grass and just see it is green. There is one experiential meaning of "is green" and in good light it is a one step process to tell green from not green. But in ethical questions, the property of morally right has a bunch of different moving parts. In the great majority of cases, these parts work together so well that it seems as if moral judgments are as obvious, clear, and immediate as color judgments. I just "see" that murder is wrong in the same way that I see that grass is green. And because this happens so often, we begin to believe that we simply have a sixth sense, a moral "eye" that gives us direct access to the rightness or wrongness of an action. But in a few cases -- most notably, the hard, seemingly intractable cases -- the parts oppose one another, the machine freezes up, and we need to rationally pull the gears one way or the other to get it moving again, but we aren't sure which way to pull.

In the case of the old woman and the cigarettes, I felt pulled in different directions for a number of reasons, the first of which is that there are rules that, all other things being equal, one should follow: The rule I was taught was that a good boy does what his elders ask of him. If an adult asks you to do something, you do it. On the other hand, I was breaking a rule because it clearly said on the cigarette machine that I as a minor was not supposed to be buying cigarettes.

The second is virtue: Of course, all things weren't equal and it wasn't clear that the rules applied to me because I wasn't buying them for my own use, I was giving them to an adult who was entitled under the rule to have them. I was just being nice and doing a favor for someone in need. Concern for those who need help is virtuous.

The third component of moral reasoning is utility, the effect that an action has: Now I knew that these cigarettes were killing her and that I shouldn't be helping someone do something harmful to herself. On the other hand, the damage was done, she was in pain from her illness, she lost her husband, was living alone, and now was going through withdrawal. Didn't she deserve a little pleasure and would that pleasure really be so bad?

The fourth piece is rights: She is a person and who was I, a kid, to be determining what she could and could not have? For a twelve year old to act paternalistically and remove the autonomy of an adult seemed problematic (I didn't use quite those words at the time, of course, but the sense was there that it was not my place to tell her what she could and could not have.) At the same time, this was the most vivid example of addiction I had seen. She was dying from the things and still wanted them desperately. She had surrendered her freedom to the tobacco.

The fifth part is care: This was my neighbor. I didn't want to see her in pain. But it seemed damned if I do for her and damned if I don't.

A moral dilemma happens when we have a hard time resolving the pieces individually or when the parts conflict with each other. In this case, I had both. When you begin to understand where the source of the moral conflict lies, where in the structure of the reasoning, it makes it easier to think clearly about resolving it. It does not, by itself resolve it, hard moral questions are hard. But at least you know what it is you are troubled by and how to think more clearly about it. Eventually, my neighbor passed away, but those trips to DrugFair still make me uneasy and that unease is perhaps where all philosophy starts.

So, would you buy cigarettes for the old woman? Which factor trumps the others?

A Few Answers

Some really good questions this week. A few answered today, more later in the week:

Claude asks whether the Consular Information Sheets put out by the State Department contain an ideological bias. Is there any reason to suspect public documents from the US government may be used for propaganda purposes?

Short answer: Yes. On the softer side of the argument, it is not possible, of course, to write entirely without a point of view and given that these statements which call for analysis and judgment are written and/or approved by conservative appointees, they will shows marks of their authors/editors. The more pointed side of the argument is that all regimes realize the power of publication and use public announcements as rhetorical bullhorns to influence and not merely report, and this administration has taken that to previously unheard of levels. They have had former lobbyists restructure reports and statements written by scientists at NASA and the Environmental Protection Agency. One of the first hires they made when taking power was a woman who made commercials whose job it was to design and coordinate presidential appearances to make "selling the message" more effective. While the State Department will clearly want to play up risks to make sure that they are not played down in the mind of people traveling abroad, there ought to be a healthy skepticism in the mind of those who are reading these documents.

Cousin Sarah asks "How is it that we (Americans) have ignored the plight of inner city, poor children whose parents are either addicts or in jail, to the point that they need to leave the US and live in the bush of AFRICA, to find tranquility and heal themselves!@#$%^???"

It is unnecessary to lecture a former teacher in city schools on the plight of city schools, but it strikes me that there are reasons and rationalizations for what we have done. The reason is a combination of caring and uncaring. It is slightly oversimplifying to say that we realize that there is only so much pie to go around and we want the best for our kids and our kind, and so we make sure they we get as much of the pie as possible. The oversimplification is in the fact that we don't individually actually do it in a direct active sense, we just look the other way whenever it is pointed out that the sociological structure does it for us. The system has developed in such a way that it does the dirty work and those of us with privilege can pretend to have clean hands. Anytime the inequities are pointed out we can (1) throw up those supposedly clean hands and say, it's the system, it's too large to be fixed or (2) take the Ronald Reagan route and put the sociological issues in a cage, looking only at the individuals and proclaiming those individuals as a group to be morally undeserving of help or concern. Our kind behaves themselves and therefore deserves the treat, whereas they behave badly and therefore deserve a time out in public services (especially if it means paying taxes).

Hanno asks, " What kind of questions do you get?"

I get four general kinds: (1) science questions -- not sure if it is because they know I'll talk science for long periods of classtime if given any reason or whether students who would rather shove an ice pick in their eye really want to know about science, (2) current event questions -- they don't keep up on the news, know they should, and not having the background context to many stories find it unhelpful when they first try. I try to give full answers where I try to be clear what is fact, what is analysis, and why smart folks who disagree with me, do so, (3) settle an argument my roommate and I were having an argument last night,... and (4) smart ass questions -- if they want to try to out smart ass the master, bring it on.

Speaking of (4)... Nick asks, "Are the epistemic considerations underlying a realist conception of mathematics the same as a non-instrumentalist account of scientific truth or does the a priori nature of mathematical propositions force us to redefine what we mean by necessary truth?"

Come see me, we'll talk.

JK asks, " Why do humans use a base 10 number system?"

Ten fingers. Many of the ancients -- Babylonians, chief among them, used a base 12 system because it could be evenly divided into 1,2,3, and 4. This is why we have twelve months. Add in 5 and it takes you to base 60 which is why there are 60 seconds in a minute, and minutes in an hour and 6x60= 360 = degrees in a circle.

Erik asks, "Why did Americans go along with Coke and other soda companies switching from real sugar to corn syrup? Seriously, how stupid can the American public be?"

To the first question, the switch from sugar to corn based sweeteners in soda is like when Brian Johnson was brought in to sing for AC/DC after Bon Scott's death -- devotees think it is hugely significant, but casual acquaintances would never know the difference. As for the second question, H.L. Mencken once remarked, "No one ever lost money underestimating the intelligence of the American people."

Friday, September 15, 2006

Happy Birthday Bob Newhart

This weekend's Comedist meditation focuses on Bob Newhart, whose birthday just past. Newhart has had a couple of very successful tv series and before that was a wonderful stand-up. Through it all, he was able to do something quite remarkable; he is world's funniest straightman. He has the magical ability to be very funny without actually saying things that are funny. He comes across as the world's last sane man and we laugh not at him, but at the absurdity of the universe we inhabit with him when he shows it to us through his eyes.

In both of his programs and his stand-up, Newhart was funniest when he said nothing. His foil would make some bizarre statement that begged for a clever retort and, instead, he would just let it hang there. With his furrowed brow, the pregnant pause was funnier than any snappy comeback ever could be. The humor was not in the actual response, but in the open potentiality for what it could be. His most classic stand-up bits were phone conversations where we would only hear his side of the discussion. The funnyman -- Newhart's Gracie Allen or Lou Costello --didn't even exist, yet he could absolutely kill. The joke was in the absence of the joke.

The 14th century German theologian, Meister Eckhart, is associated with has come to be called "negative theology." Eckhart argued that God was too big to fit into human language and that the real God exists not in what is said, but what is unsaid. With our language, we cannot say what God is, only what God is not. We learn the inexpressible affirmative through negating the expressible negative. Newhart is to Comedist theology what Eckhart is to Christian theology. Bob Newhart is the great negative comedian. He has been able to create magnificent humor with nothing but straight lines. From the denial of comedy, comes comedy. Only a true genius could operate in this fashion.

Thank you, Bob Newhart, and a heartfelt button-down birthday to one of the greats.

Irreverend Steve

Any Questions?

I have a schtick that I do at the beginning of every class where I will entertain absolutely any question and I get requests from some of my former students to bring back the offer, so here it is:

Auto mechanics to quantum mechanics...ask me anything.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

What Is Evidence?

Over at Beep! Beep! It's Me!, BeepBeep asks a good question -- what is evidence? It gives me an excuse to dust off the old philosopher of science hat...

Evidence-for vs. Evidence-that

Rudolf Carnap (the patron saint of rigorous philosophy of science) argued that the word "evidence" had several meanings, consider two. One is evidence in the sense that a lawyer building a complex case would submit some object as one piece of supporting evidence, or "evidence-for" the hypothesis the lawyer is trying to convince the jury of. By itself the lone fact doesn't make or break the case, but it is an important fact amongst facts that needs to be kept in mind. The other important sense is conclusive evidence or "evidence-that" the hypothesis is true. This is the bit of information that nails the case. When you have conclusive evidence, you have good reason to believe the hypothesis.

Probability Definitions of Evidence

Carnap works out definitions for both senses in terms of probabilities, that is how likely to be true the hypothesis is before and after you know the fact. In the case of evidence-for, Carnap argues that this is determined by an increase in probability. Evidence-for a hypothesis is any sentence whose truth makes the hypothesis more likely to be true than it was before we knew the evidence. If some fact increases the probability that the hypothesis is true of the world, then that fact is "evidence-for" the hypothesis.

Carnap's definition of evidence-that is that the fact makes the hypothesis likely to be true. If given the fact, the probability of the hypothesis being the case in the world is better than 50/50, that fact is conclusive evidence or evidence-that the hypothesis is the case.

Problems with Probability

Philosopher of science Peter Achinstein argues that there are problems here with both of these because in neither case is the probability relation sufficient -- we can have an increase in or high probability and still not have evidence. We can have an increase in probability where we don't want to call something evidence. If I am sitting inside a well-built house with a lightning rod and the walk outside on a beautiful sunny day, walking out does infinitesimally increase the likelihood that I will be hit by lightning, but surely you won't say that you have evidence that I will get hit by lightning because you see me walk out into the sunshine. If I buy a lottery ticket, that is too weak to be evidence that I am going to win the lottery even if my odds went from zero to something slightly above zero.

Similarly, high probability is not enough. In his example, the probability that Michael Jordan will not become pregnant given that you just saw him eat a bowl of Wheaties is very, very high, but the fact that the hypothesis has high probability given the observed fact is not enough to make the fact evidence. Something else guaranteeing relevance is needed.

Explanation and evidence

The other tradition in views of scientific evidence is that a fact is evidence for a hypothesis if there is an explanatory connection between them -- if the fact explains why the hypothesis is true, the hypothesis explains why the fact is true, or there is a common cause that explains both. The job of science is to explain the workings of the natural world and when a hypothesis succeeds in being able to do that, this success is what we call evidence. Einstein's and Newton's theories were attempts to explain how gravitation works, Einstein but not Newton could explain the significant bending of starlight near the sun, so the bending of light is evidence for and that Einstein is right.

Problem with Explanation

Achinstein points out the same sort of problem with explanation as with probability -- you could have a possible explanation and not have evidence. In an example I referred to a couple days back, if my car fails to start one morning, it would be explained by the fact that a monkey escaped from the zoo the previous night, syphoned the gas out of my tank and substituted crushed bananas. It would explain it, but surely my car not starting is not evidence for the bizarre idea. And so it is with creationism, intelligent design, and political conspiracy theories of all types -- simply being able to work facts into a story that if true would explain is not enough to have evidence.

The Reece's Peanut Butter Cup Approach

What Achinstein does is argue that only evidence-that is real evidence and contends that given the truth of the fact, it is evidence-that the hypothesis is the case if and only if it gives both high-probability and it is better than 50/50 that there is an explanatory connection between them. this complementary approach fixes the weakness in both views.

(Here's the part where you pretend to look impressed) In an article I published a few years back in the British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, I take issue with Achinstein's limiting of evidence to evidence-that and contend that we can expand his synthetic approach to also include evidence-for. A fact is evidence-for a hypothesis if and only if it either increase the likelihood of its truth or it increases the likelihood of an explanation including the hypothesis. With this view, I am stuck with the result that evidence-for can be an incredibly weak notion at the margins. I have to be willing to swallow that walking out of the house is some evidence of dying from a lightning strike, and also willing to grant that there is some evidence in favor of intelligent design -- just nowhere near enough evidence to make it anywhere near as likely as the alternative hypothesis (this is not necessarily true for versions of creationism, however).

The article also includes a case where you have explanatory relevance, but statistical irrelevance. Suppose you are an FBI officer working to bust a crooked casino. You have reliable information that of the six craps tables, three are fair, two use dice loaded to make throwing double sixes fifteen times more likely, and one table uses dice I saw in an old Abbott and Costello movie that have sixes on all faces. You walk up to a table at random. Due to homeland security cutbacks relating to non-terrorism cases, you have to use your own money. You are therefore concerned that you will throw sixes and lose money. When you do the calculation to determine the odds of picking a random table and throwing snake eyes in light of the distribution of types of dice, you realize that the odds of two sixes coming up is fifteen times normal, less than 50/50, so you believe it most likely won't happen. Walking up to the table, your training allows you to immediately spot the loaded dice. Knowing that throwing loaded dice makes the chances of double sixes fifteen times more likely, your degree of belief just happens to be the same as before. The new information does not increase the probability of your belief, but if asked for evidence in support of your belief that it is less than likely that you won't throw double sixes, not mentioning the fact that you know you have loaded dice, seems to leave out the operative fact. Hence, you can have some evidence that is explanatory, but not statistically relevant.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Economic Justice and Caging

Our friend Oxymoronic Philosopher has a very nice meditation on an editorial by Beth Shulman -- well worth the read. It was in thinking about a point made in Shulman's wonderful book, The Betrayal of Work, that I first realized the rhetorical trick I have come to call "caging."

Caging is a way to defeat policy proposals on a set of related issues by designing public discourse in a way that makes sure that those issues never get raised. This is the rhetorical version of an intentional walk in baseball -- you don't deal with the next batter in the order, you decide who you want to pitch to. You take a whole segment of the political discussion and put it in a cage, letting out only that single issue you want in front of the public. As long as the chosen topic has an air of contention and you can spark passionate debate around it (the louder, the better), the single issue will draw all the attention and no one will notice everything you've artfully kept off the table.

We discussed a couple of examples a few weeks ago (see the link for the difference between caging and framing). On the morally wrong side of the civil rights movement? No problem, just make sure that the only discussion around race and justice that you let out of the cage is affirmative action. That will be enough to use up all the activist oxygen in the room and the rest of the concerns just disappear. Getting your moral butt kicked over questions of gender fairness and women's rights? Just take all of it and put it in a cage, only letting out abortion. In order to defend abortion, women's organizations and advocates will devote all their time and effort to that fight and not push forward on other fronts. In fact, within the abortion debate itself, we've seen caging. Don't discuss all of abortion, the only procedure worth talking about is D&C that is done in the last trimester. Reduce the whole reduced matter even further. How low will you go? Seen as bad guys for preferring corporate profits at the expense of God's green Earth? No biggie -- just put all ecological issues in a cage and only let out National Parks and drilling in ANWR. All those green groups will have their focus pulled off of the other nasty things the contributor to your campaign are doing to save a piece of land in nowhere Alaska.

What Shulman points out in The Betrayal of Work is the caging that we see around questions of economic justice. She begins by pointing out that we have a whole slew of underpaid positions where people work hard for long hours and still are unable to achieve a humane standard of living. In the Clinton welfare reform mania, the argument peddled was Reagan's updated version of the Protestant work ethic -- all people who could work should work because working was the honorable way to feed one's family. Employment in the larger market economy was seen as a moral imperative. Any able bodied person who was not contributing to the marketplace, by virtue of not contributing to the overall financial structure of our nation, is a despicable person not deserving of concern or help regardless of personal circumstances. Using phrases like "family values," raising one's children was not seen as legitimate work because you were not punching a time clock and selling your labor to someone who could profit from it.

Now, those people who insist that all people work jobs -- any jobs -- in order to support their families, must surely also argue that anyone who follows their advice and works full time in a position in the marketplace should be able to feed his or, more often, her family, right? I mean if you are arguing that working any job is imperative for living a decent life, then one ought to be able to live a decent life while working any job. It seems logically and ethically necessary for those who championed welfare reform to also stand strongly in favor of a mandatory livable would seem that way wouldn't it...

But those folks, in fact, are by in large not in favor of progressively dealing with these questions and oppose remedies for purely financial reasons (follow the money...follow the political contributions...(cough)Chamber of Commerce(cough)morally bankrupt?(cough)...). How should we deal with this moral hotspot?

Why, cage it, of course.

The only issue we will allow on the floor is worker retraining. If people are in dead end low paying jobs, we'll talk about nothing other than how to get them more education so they can get better jobs. This seems caring, this seems compassionate. We are giving them a hand to reach the ladder so they can climb up the social hierarchy by themselves. We are teaching them to fish. What could be nicer?

But notice what is left in the cage... Let's set aside all of the problems of child care, how they can afford to go without a paycheck while training, their anxiety towards schooling in the first place,..., and say for the sake of argument that these job training programs are successful for many of these workers and they do leave to become data entry folks or nursing assistants and get slightly higher pay. Do the dead end jobs they left suddenly vanish like Siegfried and Roy's scantily dressed assistant?

Of course not, they are filled by someone else who is now caught in the horrible situation of the working poor. There will always be people in these jobs. Training some people to do other jobs is a red herring that takes our eyes off of the questions about how to humanely treat those who fill these jobs. Those poorly paid jobs, many with no benefits, will always have people in them and instead of asking the hard question about economic justice, we are led to questions of job training and whether it ought to be church-based groups that offer it, tax credits,... Et voila, POOF, what happened to the discussions of minimum wage increases, about mandatory livable wages, about guaranteed health insurance,...? Where are they? You'll find them, of course, in the cage, right where they know you won't look.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The Dangers of Teaching

Erik, over at Alterdestiny, has a fine post about bleeding all over the classroom on the first day of class. After reading it, I tried to think of my strangest or most embarrassing educational moment. So many to choose from...The time I accidentally put my foot through a wall while teaching Descartes, the time I got locked inside a classroom with a hundred person intro class, or the time I thought I was sitting in a beginning German class but accidentally sat in on advanced French (I thought she had a lousy German accent); but I think the best one ends up being the time I almost accidentally ended my academic career.

I was teaching an introduction to philosophy course at the University of Maryland Baltimore County at 8 am. It was late in the semester and I was teaching Nietzsche. I was trying to make the point that rational thought is different from instinct and it was one of those mornings where you wish you had a switch that would send a quick jolt of voltage through the seats because your class is just dead. Tell a great joke, jump on the table, ain't gonna matter. So, I ask the class, "What is instinct?" Nothing. I ask again. Nothing.

Now I often carry with me into class a hard plastic camping mug with water to drink because chalk dust in the throat makes it hard to lecture. I had finished the water and in the front row sat a guy who always wore sweats and a baseball hat. He looked athletic, most likely a baseball player. So, I thought I might illustrate the point, if they were not going to answer. I picked up the mug and chucked it at the kid figuring that if you play ball, and someone tosses something at you, you naturally just reach up and catch it.

Well...I put a little more on it than I intended and the mug goes speeding towards this kid's head. Instead of instinctively putting his hands up to catch and throw it back, his eyes just get wide and his jaw drops open, completely stunned. Now, it is absolutely true that at moments like this, time goes into slow motion. I am watching this deer caught in the headlights as the very hard mug speeds right for his noggin. I see the campus paper swirling with the headline, "Adjunct assaults student in philosophy class." I see my contract terminated. I see having to explain the criminal proceedings at all future job interviews.

But at the last moment, his hand comes up in front of his face deflecting the mug. The lid flies off in another direction as it slams into the wall with a loud clatter. I don't know if you remember that shot in The Producers panning over the audience right after "Springtime for Hitler," but that was what my class looked like. Immediately, I realize I can save the point. Figuring he is going to say something like, "I didn't think, I just reacted," I asked the kid what was going through his mind as he deflected the mug. He looks up and says, "The only thing I could think is, 'That's the last time I fall asleep in this class.'"

So, as a student or teacher, what's your funniest or most embarrassing classroom story?

Remembering September 10, 2001

As we see the yearly politicization of September 11th for partisan gain -- especially vicious this year with the desire to change the subject from remembrances of the administration's reaction to Katrina and the up-coming midterms not looking good for the GOP -- there is something worth keeping in mind when one gets accused of having a pre-September 11th mindset and that is the actual pre-September 11th mindset of those who will accuse you of having a pre-September 11th mindset.

On September 11, 2001, Condoleezza Rice, at that time National Security Advisor, was slated to give the Rostov lecture at the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced international Studies. The topic of the talk? "The threats and problems of today and the day after, not the world of yesterday" What is the biggest threat we faced on September 11, 2001? According to Condoleezza Rice, it was a nuclear missile launched by north Korea or Iraq. The first and far and away most important item on the foreign policy agenda was hyper-funding that boondoggle which is the missile defense shield.

So, here was the person whose job was to understand where the threats to our national security were coming from and despite explicit warnings, did not see it coming from where it was, in fact, coming from.

"As he prepared to leave office last January, Mr. Berger met with his successor, Condoleezza Rice, and gave her a warning. According to both of them, he said that terrorism-and particularly Mr. bin Laden's brand of it-would consume far more of her time than she had ever imagined.''

When I hear about the piece of historical revisionism that ABC is considering with its hit piece written from and designed to push clear partisan interests and then I think of what could have happened if those whose job it was to keep their eyes on the ball had actually done their jobs, it just makes me want to cry all over again.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Grateful Dead and Philosophy -- The Covers

So the folks at Open Court have worked up two cover ideas. In a non-binding referendum, which do like better?

We're also deciding on the subtitle. The nominees are...

“Thinking Man’s Dead”
“Some folks trust in reason”
“Nothing left to do, but think, think, think”
“I’m just thinking with the band”
“A thought came by and I got on, that’s where it all began”
New one from Ruby: "Crazythinkers"

Votes? Suggestions?

Tautological Wishful Retroduction and Progress in Iraq

While we're on a roll of new fallacies...

Heard a general interviewed on Morning Edition this morning and when asked why the number of improvised explosive devices (also known as bombs designed to kill American troops and set off in attacks on American troops) have been increasing each month, he gave the party line (guess which party) that the number of attacks were increasing because we are making progress in Iraq -- this progress, he cited the election as the central example, makes the members of insurgency nervous, sensing their days are numbered and they are thus forced to "put the pedal down" (his words).

What we see here is an example of what I call "wishful retroduction." Retroduction is a legitimate form of reasoning proposed by Charles Sanders Peirce in which the explanatory power is take to have logical force. It works this way:

Curious phenomenon e occurred
If hypothesis h were true, it would explain why e occurred
Therefore, there is some reason to consider the possibility of h being true

Notice that retroduction is a very weak form of inference. We do not get that h is true or even probably true, but that h is worth considering, pursuing, keeping in play. the weakness comes from a fact pointed out by John Stuart Mill that there are always more possible explanations that can be thought up. To steal an example from Peter Achinstein which I love very much...if I walk out to my car in the morning and it won't start, it might be true that a monkey escaped from the zoo that night, siphoned the gas out of my tank and substituted crushed bananas. But simply because it would explain if it were true, doesn't by itself give me warrant for believing that it is in fact true.

The fallacy of wishful retroduction is taking a possible explanation and asserting it as THE explanation because I want it to be. And this is what the general is doing. He gives one possible explanation among several. Another might be that the insurgency is getting stronger. A third would be that the insurgency is remaining at the same strength, but acquiring more materials. A fourth would be that the insurgency has been defeated, but Oliver Stone has found financing from the Freemasons and the Elders of Zion in order to make it seem as if there was an insurgency just to distract attention away from the fact that he really killed JFK. His explanation may, in fact, be right, but for that we would need additional evidence that his explanation is the most likely to be true. One concern for his line is that he'll need to find support for the claim that an election that happened quite a while ago continues to have the causal efficacy needed to continue to give rise to greater and greater stress amongst insurgents.

But this case is even more interesting because the explanation he cites, progress in Iraq, would be a possible explanation not only for curious event e, but also a possible operative explanation for a world in which e was false. On twin Earth, the general's doppelganger was asked why IED attacks were not increasing in Twin Iraq and he cites progress in Twin Iraq, especially the elections. So if the attacks increase, it is to be explained by the fact that we are making progress and if the attacks decrease it is to be explained by the fact that we are making progress.

Of course, this is putting words in the general's mouth, he could say that a decreasing number of attacks would be a sign of a strengthening insurgency. This sort of reasoning is not unknown. In the writings of Samuel Hahnemann, the creator of homeopathy, for example, there is the "law of infinitesmals" wherein the more diluted a homeopathic remedy gets, the more curative power it possesses. When there is not even a detectable trace of the active chemical agent, the diluted solution is at its strongest. In the same way, perhaps an insurgency that did not attack at all would be the sign of complete failure in Iraq.

But more or fewer are not the only possibilities. I wonder what he would say if the number of attacks happened to be exactly the same month after month after month. Of course, that would be weird, Oliver Stone knows better than that.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Fallacy: Pulling a Falstaff or Attacking a Blogger

There is a standard rhetorical trick called "Attacking a Strawman" in which an opposing view is claimed to be refuted by ignoring the actual counter-argument, and instead creating a weaker, more easily attacked version of their position which is then attributed to them, and by tearing down the misattributed position, victory is claimed over the critic. The name is based upon the idea that it is easier to beat the stuffing out of a scarecrow than a normal person.

We see this move all the time, but an interesting twist has begun to appear. The arguer can now seek protection from the fact that he is not creating the strawman, but responding to a real critic whom he can quote advocating some absurd view. Indeed, such critics have become incredibly easy to find. Not that they haven't always been around -- Rene Descartes said that there was no position so absurd that some philosopher somewhere hasn't held it. If this is true, the blogosphere is full of "philosophers." The wonderful thing about the internet, of course, is that anyone can say anything; the worst part about the internet, on the other hand, is that they usually do.

It has been alledged on major left-leaning blogs like DailyKos and Atrios that Joe Lieberman's campaign has set up a blog with the intention of trolling for nasty, especially anti-Semitic, comments that could then be used to tar Lamont's supporters in general. "Look at the horrible things they say, you wouldn't want to be associated with them would you?" I don't know if it is true or not, but, if so, the idea would be that it is not exactly a strawman because some of the people you are arguing against actually are putting forward these positions.

While it is perfectly acceptable to argue against all comers, the fallacy is in running roughshod over the principle of charity. If you want to claim to have undermined an objection, you must have shown a fatal flaw in the strongest version of the objection. This is a deliberate attempt to avoid the most effective counter-argument, while appearing not to. It is akin to the standard misquoting of Shakespeare's, "Discretion is better part of valour," which comes out of the mouth of Jack Falstaff in Henry IV when he is found to have pretended to kill an already dead warrior in order to seem brave, when, in fact, he had been cowardly hiding from him only moments earlier. This is the logical version: finding a position that is already logically DOA and then claiming it was the dangerous, strongest view from the other side.

One prominent example occurred a couple of months ago when Representative Jack Murtha called for a draw down of troops in Iraq. In response, the President and many prominent Republicans decried the Democrats who wanted to bring all the troops home immediately leaving a vacuum in Iraq that would no doubt be filled with violent thugs who probably should not be the ones in charge. This was not at all what Murtha was calling for. But, there are those who could be cited as having advocated that position. He never mentioned Murtha by name, so he wasn't directly misattributing a view, but in the context of the discussion, it was clear that it was Murtha's proposal that was on the table. Instead of dealing with it, he found a substitute view held by people with a connection to Murtha, but which he found easier to attack.

This move gets easier and easier and for this, your one stop shopping will quickly become the blog comment threads. Want to attribute a horribly anti-religious, anti-Semitic, ill-reasoned, hateful, foul-mouthed view? You can find it on-line, no problem. For this reason, I'm proposing we refer to the move either as "Pulling a Falstaff" or "Attacking a Blogger."

The problem is that with the use of hyperbole, it is easy to facilitate this sort of move. Zeek in the Klan march thread a couple of days ago points out that some environmental activists help do this. Cindy Sheehan unwittingly walked right into it. The ease with which we pop of on threads that blow off steam we are feeling as well, primes the pump. A call for discretion is likely to be utterly ineffective, so my proposal is that we name the move and discredit it. When a student turns in a research paper with web only resources and has no real books in his or her bibliography, he or she is mocked. The same should become true of anyone who cites web content in support of a "they say" claim because it's pulling a Falstaff when you attack a blogger.

Wednesday, September 06, 2006

Pity Party: Who Do You Feel Sorry For Today?

I feel sorry for Dick Durbin. Having your intellectual property stolen by George Allen is like getting mugged by Steven Hawking.

On that note, I feel sorry for Macaques. Being associated with George Allen is a terrible insult to one's primate status. What's next in his move to court bigoted voters, is he going to pick on the Rhesus monkeys and take a stand against inter-racial marriage?

I feel sorry for Idina Menzel. Sure she won a Tony Award for playing the Wicked Witch, but Katherine Harris got to go to Congress.

Speaking of Oz, I feel sorry for the crocs down under. For years they saved face by saying the guy was untouchable.

Who do you feel sorry for today?

Steve Irwin, RIP (from Hanno)

From Hanno:

Much has already been said about the death of Steve Irwin, The Crocodile Hunter. In tribute to the many hours of entertainment and education he provided by sons and myself, I wanted to share this story. When my first son was three, we were watching an episode, one of many we had seen together. My son loved the show. At one time, the crocodile hunter was doing something that appeared to be very dangerous. So dangerous, it seemed stupid. True to my smart ass nature, I said something along those lines. My three year old became very, very angry at me (very unusual for him). His brow was furled, and he snarled at me: "Dad, it is not stupid! He is saving us from crocodiles!" I then realized he was watching the show from a very different perspective than I was. Then I could not help but laugh. For that moment, and many others, I will always be thankful. RIP.

Monday, September 04, 2006

When the Ku Klux Klowns Bring Their Circus to Town

Being a philosopher in Gettysburg is interesting. It is a place that is by nature introspective. The past lives here and the questions of life and death, of race and politics, of symbol and meaning that come from our past remain palpable. If there were any attempt to remove oneself from the past here, one is aided by a constant flow of re-enactors in period costumes to remind you of where you are. We are used to throwbacks and we are used to being forced to think about hatred and freedom. The Confederate battle flag flies all over this town. It is no surprise that this would be a desirable site for the Ku Klux Klan to hold a rally.

Like the re-enactors, the Klan is a throwback, old school racism. They come in and create a circus, but what does it really mean? I think the true meaning is something rather complex in the current situation because racism is not as simple as it once was. The Klan march, in fact, complicates our understanding and our ability to face down contemporary approaches to putting forward bias because it now comes in five different flavors:

(1) Say it loud, I'm a bigot and I'm proud
The old days of Archie Bunker, out in the open racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism... are mostly gone. Sure there are pockets. Not far from Gettysburg are areas where if you go in to buy sheets, they don't come in full, queen or king, but 42 medium. This sort of white pride nonsense still exists in largely white areas – a lot of it working class although recent studies by sociologists find thriving pockets in upper middle class areas. But the even to hard core conservatives who may favor the rolling back of legislation that forged the civil rights movement, this sort of thing is an embarrassment. One of the great successes of the liberation movements is to have removed these folks from the mainstream. This brand of hate is open in word and deed.

(2) Wink, Wink, Nudge, Nudge, Say No More
No one thinks that bigotry is gone from the hearts of Americans. But what we've seen is a sort of political correctness emerge around hate. Those whose politics are guided by bigotry have resorted to dog-whistle politics. Following Reagan, the use of dual meaning phrases would be used to disguise bigoted sentiments, wrapping them in language cleansed of overt reference to any specific group, but clear to those who hear it what the actual intended reference is. We don't say "blacks" or "African Americans," we say "welfare queens," but, of course, everyone knows what color said royalty really is. In this brand, hate is about the word, not the belief or deed. It's ok to say it, just be oblique about it. Some saw Senator George "Macaca" Allen's gaff as having said it, not having thought it.

(3) Tokens as Bullet-Proof Vests
The result of the second sort has given rise to a fascinating new brand that moves to a new level of subtlety. I can tell a joke making fun of Jews, if I am one. I can tell blonde jokes and get away with it if I am blonde. We can oppose everything that would contribute to civil rights advancement if we have a diverse group around us supporting the policy. Tokens provide cover. This is why the GOP LOVES Michael Steele, Condaleeza Rice, Clarence Thomas, Paul Wolfowitz, Zalmay Khalilzad, Ken Mehlman,... If he has put African Americans, women, Arab Americans, and Jews in prominent positions, he couldn't be racist, sexist,... The move here is to exploit the identity politics that the left largely clung to for two decades. Progressives would try to make claims of bias stick by pointing to the lack of a given group in positions of power. Now we have those pushing the exact same lines, only they have found representatives of all of those groups to back the policies. Now, those policies, regardless of how they actually affect different groups, cannot be opposed on the grounds that they are exclusionary or intentionally harmful to selected groups. One can put forward policies that clearly harm a specific group, but because that group is represented in the defense of the policy, its bias becomes rhetorically irrelevant.

(4) Them-ism
Psychologists speak of a phenomenon called the general attribution error. If someone in a group to which you belong or aspire commits a problematic act, the flaw in his or her character is attributed to the individual; but if the errant agent is of a different group to which one does not aspire, the character flaw is considered a property inherited from being part of the group. "Typical for one of them." We see this sort of move frequently whenever some group is part of an oppressive relationship. Suddenly in the eyes of those who are harmed or offended by the injustice, members of the oppressive group become the target of derision. This is often the type of bigotry we see on the left. The sort of schadenfreude that results from a conservative Christian minister arrested on charges of some sexual impropriety or the death of Israeli civilians that you find in quarters of the progressive conversation illustrate this sort of bigotry.

(5) Who D'Man? No, I Mean, Who Is "The Man"?
One of the differences between right and left leaning thought is the role of sociological factors. One of the moves of both libertarians and conservatives is to limit the explanatory power of large scale social influences on behavior, looking only at individual agency. People are rational agents who are free to choose what they want to do at any given time. All blame for any improper choice belongs squarely and completely on the shoulders of the person. The left, on the other hand, is deeply committed to considering how large scale social factors play into people's decisions. We know that poverty, wealth, amount of education, social expectations,... all play important parts in why people act the way they do. There are important parts of the explanation for why someone does something in the structure of society. As such, bias and bigotry may be embedded in that structure without having to be the result of a single person with an intention to harm those rotten (insert slur). Much of contemporary racism, sexism, homophobia,...doesn't require some Snidely Whiplash twisting his moustache. Institutional racism, sexism,....does exist. Yet, since there is no individual to point to as the evil discriminator, it is often portrayed as not existing. When the old model of bigotry, (1) above, is taken as the sole model of immoral bias, then he more complex forms, especially this one can be written off.

This is why the Klan march is devious. Not because the Klan are a real threat. Their day is gone. The Klan demanded extra protection because they were afraid for their safety. The Klan is no more likely to roll back civil rights legislation than Hezbollah is to eliminate Israel from the map. That's not to say they shouldn't be opposed, but they are not a force that could be decisive. But what the Klan does do is create cover for those using the other more subtle approaches to bigotry. By coming out and condemning the Klan march, they can now claim the high ground and quote Dr. King in defense of their own approach to hate. What the Klan does in bringing their circus to town is district us from the real problems, allowing those who would oppose justice and equality to claim to support it. The Klan is dangerous, but not because they themselves pose a threat, rather because they are clowns and allow the real threat to remain hidden where it is much more dangerous.

Philosophers Carnival #35 (Back to School Edition)

Welcome to the back to school edition of the Philosophers Carnival. Sharpen your pencils and tie up those bright white brand new tennies. It's time to register for classes and what a course catalogue we have for you! check with your advisor before adding classes, but feel free to audit as many as you'd like.

Epistemology 107: Belief Goggles
Room: Obtusely, Instructor: Staff
They say that breaking up is hard to do, and I know, I know that it's true...well, at least according to the coherent knowledge structure built with that tart who left me. Now that she's gone, my world just isn't the least not the a priori categories...

Logic 506: Paraconsistency and Dialethism
Room: What Is It Like To Be a Blog?, Instructor: Colin Caret
Paraconsistent logic is the view that a contradiction does not imply the truth of all sentences. Dialethism is the view that there are true contradictions. The two are consistent, but neither requires the other. If you were walking down the street and found a random paraconsistent logician, what would you need to do say in order convert her to dialethism? Would it require dinner and a movie? Dinner or a movie? Not (dinner or not dinner) and (movie and not movie)?

Epistemology 214: Myth or Reality?
Room: Scientia Natura, Instructor: Shalini
We may look at the development of beliefs, both scientific and religious, over time through the lens of adaptation. Belief structures of all types evolve based on the real life experiences of people who hold those beliefs. As such, the picture of theological truth as eternal and unchanging is purely a myth. Karl Popper was right when he said that every hypothesis was born refuted, all beliefs are subject to change and therefore challenge...and lay off the instant ramen.

Epistemology 312: Contradiction as Distinction
Room: Path Effect, Instructor: Staff
Given that Gödel has shown formal axiomatic languages to be insufficient for capturing all truths, is there a way to augment formal languages to include semantically meaningful uses of contradictions?

Epistemology 432: Sentence-Like vs. Map-Like Representations
Beliefs require some sort of representation in the mind. Are these representations map-like or sentence-like in structure? If they are map-like does that mean that men will not pull over and ask for help at the cerebral filling station when trying to figure out where their beliefs are going?

Metaphysics 544: What Physicalism Can't Allow
Room: Guide to Reality, Instructor: Steve Esser
Terry Horgan argues that “…an account of genuine ontological emergence…must fail, given an assumption of physicalism.” To save emergence, an additional ontological postulate must be added. The punchline: a robust physicalistic materialism must therefore posit an additional metaphysical conception to augment physical theory. Oh, the irony!

Metaphysics 561: Phenomenal Realism and Empirical Depth
Room: BrainHammer, Instructor: Pete Mandik
The rising tide of dualism floating David Chalmer's boat leaves questions about the value of realism. Pete argues that one advantage is that it buys you the excess meaning needed for scientific explanation, but it is not always something worth the metaphysical expense...especially if you want to become an expert nice-shirtologist.

Metaphysics 312: Time in Chinese
Room: Lemmings, Instructor: Brit Brogaard
Not all languages, Chinese for example, have forms for verbs that indicate tense. But speakers of these languages are still able to indicate time order and temporal relations. Are tense indicators necessary? We indicate future tense in English without changing the structure of verbs, so why should we have needed to have done it in the past (or for that matter in the past pluperfect)?

Metaphysics 313: Time as Abstraction
Room: A Brood Comb, Instructor: Tanasije Gjorgoski
The phenomenological experience of time is something different from the physical quantity of duration. Metaphysical muddles arise when one considers the physical concept to be the notion of time in cases where one is really referring to the phenomenological, whereas certain longstanding temporal puzzles cease to be puzzling when we view the notion of time in them as the phenomenological version.

Metaphysics 119: South Park and Religion
Room: Siris, Instructor: Brandon
Is atheism all it is cracked up to be? Consult the generally underappreciated text "Red Hot Catholic Love" for a new perspective. Kenny as Christ figure? Hmmmm....

Ethics 312: Suicide vs. Endless Detention
Room: Left2Right, Instructor: J. David Vellemin
If one has no hope of living a life in which one realizes one's true personhood and there is little to no reason to believe that one's circumstances will change, is it morally acceptable to use ending one's life as a statement. Would such a suicide lend meaning to a life whose meaning is attempting to be stripped away?

Ethics 421: Posner's Pragmatic Moral Skepticism
Room: Leiter Reports, Instructor: Thomas Nadelhoffer
Richard Posner, writing as an outsider to academic philosophy looks at ethical theory and contemporary theorists and says, "Who cares?" If the goal of moral philosophy is teach people how to alter the behavior of others, then it is failing miserably. But is that really the goal?

Ethics 365: Acts and Omissions
Room: Unified View, Instructor: Pejar
Peter Singer uses his utilitarian intuitions to make the claim that we are morally responsible to help fulfill the needs of others when we can. But his argument ignores the crucial role of causal agency in moral responsibility. Pejar argues that when we restore causal responsibility as a condition of moral obligation, Singer should not make me clean up a mess that I didn't have a hand in making.

Ethics 267: Feeling, Action, and Context in Ethics
Room: Stop That Crow. Instructor: JeffG
Classical ethical theory has been based on a false dichotomy between reason and passions. Ethics, on this view, is meant to be rational guide for behavior that conquers mere emotional desire. But when we come to see emotions as having intellectual content, the need to include passionate factors in ethical deliberation undermines the old skool picture needed by utilitarians and deontologists.

Ethics 255: Ethics of Activism
Room: Philosophy, et cetera, Instructor: Provost Chappell
Civil disobedience has been glorified by those seeking to change the world for the better. But there is a cost to attacking evil from outside the system when the system itself is largely a good and in the case of liberal democracy, it is. The process needs to be protected as well as innocent beings and so one ought to be very careful in considering the use of means outside of the law.

Ethics 156: Civil Disobedience
Room: Generative Transformation, Instructor: Brandon Peele
Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience" contains deep insights into the limits of government. But unlike conservative libertarians who want the minimal amount of government possible, there remains a need for a robust governmental structure to meet the needs of the least among us to guarantee their freedom. Sometimes freedom comes from the lack of government and sometimes freedom requires government.

Ethics 119: No Commandments
Room: Daylight Atheism, Instructor: Ebonmuse
Morality may not be devoid of rules, but there are no commandments. Without a Divine will dictating codes of behavior, rationality is the source of moral rules. Further, reason will allow for the flexibility needed for rules to apply to an ever-changing and morally complex real world.

Aesthetics 210: Artiste de merde de vache
Room: Humbug! Online, Instructor: Theo
Tolstoy argued that there are two central distinctions in aesthetics: between art and non-art and between good art and bad art. Of course, Tolstoy was writing before modern art, found art, performance art, and the artist known, once known, and then again known as Prince. Theo, on the other hand, reconsiders the question like it's 1999 (or seven years later). We say that Roger Federer plays tennis artistically, is this a metaphorical use? If it is a literal use do we have to allow that which shocks for the sake of shocking?

Metaphilosophy 411: The Future of Philosophy
Room: Philosophy Talk, Instructor: Ken Taylor
Philosophy, though fragmented and often difficult, has an important role to play in the larger society and how we deal with real life issues that face us. When seen by those outside the academy, philosophy seems aloof, obtuse, and irrelevant. Yet, we know that we are needed. It is the job of academic philosophers to make themselves relevant.

Metaphilosophy 119: Act Your Age, Uh Education, Young Man
Room: Hell's Handmaiden, Instructor: The Maiden
Philosophy is impoverished by professionalization and being locked away like Repunzel in the Ivory Tower. Get out there, damn it, and DO SOMETHING!

Metaphilosophy 215: The Purpose of Philosophy
Room: The Web of Belief, Instructor: Blakely
Ok, so you could live without philosophy, but would you want to? Ok, maybe you would want to, but you shouldn't want to. Why not? Gotcha! That's a philosophical question.

Philosophy of Mind 314: Competence, Computation, and Mechanistic Levels
Room: Brains, Instructor: Gualtiero Piccinini
David Marr's distinction between computation/algorithm/implementation is sometimes mapped onto Chomsky's competence/performance distinction. But this is a mistake, we need to distinguish the distinctions and clean up Marr's concepts if his approach is to illuminate the question of mind at all. Once we've done the clean up work, we see that we no longer have a nice neat distinction, but that doesn't mean the notions aren't useful.

Philosophy of Mind 356: Inversion and the Way Things Seem
Room: Brain Pains, Instructor: Clayton Littlejohn
Is it possible that Laverne's perceptions are inverted in the mind of Shirley? Some say no, but it seems entirely possible. Schlamiel, Schlamazel, Block and Fodor Incorporated.

Philosophy of Education 317: No No Child Left Behind
Room: Sportive Thoughts, Instructor: Jared
A close reading of Dewey's "Education as Growth" gives us a picture of education in terms of increasing relative maturity. This lens through which to view the educational process has implications for how we view the contemporary education policy debates, especially in light of No Child Left Behind. Dewey or don't we want to create intellectually mature citizens?