Monday, April 30, 2007

Equality and Grammar

BKriplur asks,

Is it possible to affirm human equality without religion?
Sure. Indeed, it is often more difficult within religion. Jews consider themselves "the chosen people," in certain brands of Christianity like Calvinism there is the notion of "the saved," and in others the idea of being "born again" or "forgiven," all of which serve to priviledge those inside the group. One of the ways that religions as organizations increase and maintain their memberships is to offer metaphysical perks which require denying equivalence between those in the club and those outside. Without the artificial lines between groups imposed by religions, one can fall back on a species notion and affirm equality of everyone within the species.

Of course, the question is always, "What sort of equality?" In any multitude of fashions, humans aren't equal and that inequality is confirmed by observation. Some are taller, some are smarter, some are faster, some can roll their tongues, some get more dates,... If we are talking about equal rights under the law, then a social contract will do the trick. If we are talking about equal in terms of moral considerability, then something along the lines of utilitarianism would give you equality of considerability.

Soul Searcher asks,
How is it that I made it through 18 years of schooling (K-12, 4 undergrad, 1 grad school) and I am only now learning the proper usage of which and that when introducing non-restrictive and restrictive clauses?
Perhaps it is because Harvard is so restrictive.

The teaching of grammar has become less important as two things have happened: (1) as a society, adherence to grammatical rules has been greatly relaxed -- for example, splitting infinitives is no longer verboten, very educated people will regularly use the word "quote" as a noun, and "they" is widely accepted as a gender neutral singular third person pronoun. We have become much less interested in formalized rules of grammar and more with the style and effectiveness of communication. (2) When we teach nowadays, we are aware that students learn through writing and by hanging them up on grammar, we discourage them from seeing writing as a toolthey feel confident to use. As such, grammar classes have become language arts classes focusing less on grammatical precision than on ideas. This appraoch has been in place long enough that those who are grading the papers were schooled in that fashion and it has become standard that which/that confusion won't even be noted.

Language is a living thing. Grammarians are social scientists not usage cops; they catalogue what is considered a well-formed sentence. Liguistic rules change over time. That's not to say that there are not rules. Of course there are. There need to be in order to avoid ambiguitiy and facilitate clarity in expression. Having a firm grasp on grammar does make one a stronger, clearer, better writer. There are grammatical errors, but there are also situations in which violating the rule does not hamper the understanding of the utterer's meaning. Many which/that mistakes fall in that class.

UPDATE: While we're talking about grammar, check out on of my new favorites, The "Blog" of "Unnecessary" Quotation Marks. The ghost of Chris Farley lives on.

Up Yours, Loweheim-Skolem

Still plenty of time of get in other questions for this week. For those new to the Playground, we'll entertain any question at all, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. If there is anything you've always wanted to know and have never figured out where to ask, let 'er rip here.

For our first question this week, Hanno asks,

How can Skolem regard the upward L-S theorem as 'nonsense?'

Follow up: In what sense can a mathematical proof recognized by multitudes of mathematicians be 'nonsensical?'
I am a bit hesitant to take this question on as I know even bringing up the Lowenheim-Skolem Theorem tends to get people a bit riled. But please, remember, under control people, this is a friendly blog, no ad hominems in the comments. Tomorrow, I promise, we'll talk about something less controversial, religion.

The entire matter is embedded in the late 19th/early 20th century project to find a logical foundation for arithmetic. In the mid-nineteenth century, we had non-Euclidean geometry pop up. It worried mathematicians because it was stranger than they were and it really worried philosophers because euclidean geometry was the template many used for true justified belief, it was the bedrock example of non-trivial things we knew to be true with absolute certainty. If the upstart non-Euclidean geometries could be shown to be inconsistent, that is, to give rise to contradictions, then they could not be true and would have to be rejected, leaving Euclid as necessarily true thereby saving centuries of philosophical thought on knowledge.

Of course, it wasn't to be. Felix Klein, Eugeno Beltrami, and Henri Poincare (twice) produced relative consistency proofs showing that the only way the non-Euclidean geometry could be inconsistent is if Euclid was as well -- something no one wanted to contemplate. But, then, where was the proof that Euclidean geometry itself won't give rise to a contradiction? David Hilbert showed that Euclidean geometry was consistent if arithmetic was, thereby kicking the mathematical can a bit down the intellectual road. But how do we know that arithmetic won't, somewhere, produce a contradiction?

This was a huge question and starting with folks like Gottlob Frege and Bertrand Russell, the hope was to show that ultimately, it all boiled down to logic which could be shown consistent. A half-step in the process translated arithmetic talk to set theory and the idea was to show that we could come up with a consistent set of axioms for set theory that would allow us to derive all of the results of arithmetic as a model, that is an interpretation of the axioms of our theory about sets.

It was at this juncture that Lowenheim and then a few years later in a more elegant fashion, Skolem, came up with what we now call the The Lowenheim-Skolem theorem which states,
If you have a countable first-order language L and a theory T in that language, if the T has a model then it has a countable model.
Huh? The idea is that if you take a language of the sort that was supposed to be strong enough in which to express the basic axioms of arithmetic, any set of possible axioms would have a model, an interpretation about a set of things with the same number of members as the counting numbers 1, 2, 3,...

To proceed, we need to realize that while the number of counting numbers is infinite, there are sets of numbers that are bigger. Gregor Cantor proved (if there is interest, we could talk about this later) that the number of real numbers is larger than the number of counting numbers. (The real numbers are all the rational numbers -- those that can be expressed as fractions or alternately terminating or repeating decimals -- and the irrational numbers -- numbers like pi that cannot be represented as a ratio of counting numbers and are representable as non-repeating decimals [pi goes on forever with no pattern or end].)

The Lowenheim-Skolem Theorem has a couple of variants and results -- the upward and downward versions -- which gave rise to what is called Skolem's paradox. The idea is that if we have set of axioms that gives us a model of arithmetic for the real numbers (remember, this is the question that motivated the whole project), then Skolem showed that this theory, which has as a central result "there is an uncountable set (that is, as set of numbers bigger than the counting numbers)," must have a countable model. But how can you satisfy a theory with a domain that only has a countable number of numbers when that very theory posits an uncountable number of numbers? Nonsense, says Skolem, even though he just proved it. Skolem thought that this unintended model undermined the standard approach to set theory. Mathematicians don't share Skolem's concerns, but philosophers take it quite seriously.

How can someone take a recognized proof to be nonsense? First of all, remember the times. there were all sorts of odd paradoxes and contradictions showing up around set theory at the time, so skepticism would not have been unwarranted. But secondly, the notion of nonsense could also tie to the interpretation of the theorem; that is, someone could argue that the theorem could not really do what it seems to do and that once we get inside and do some fancy logical footwork, we'll realize that things aren't as bad as we first thought. For a nice piece on the routes around Skolem's paradox and whether they work, here's Timothy Bays' chapter from Jacquette's Philosophy of Logic.

Alternatively, Skolem could have been using the phrase "doing logic" in the same way Hanno has been known to, that is, as referring to, shall we say, acts of a certain non-logical nature. Perhaps Skolem was saying that it was nonsense for Mrs. Skolem to argue that any axiomatic model of "doing logic" could thus be satisfied by sets of larger cardinality. Adds a whole new dimension to the "axiom of extension," if you know what I mean...

So there's my two cents. For the comments, remember please be polite. If you can't say anything nice, don't say anything at all.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics

I have a schtick I do at the beginning of each class where I let the students ask any question, auto mechanics to quantum mechanics, we'll answer any questions you've got. Some former students asked me to revive it on-line, so occasionally I bring it out to the Playground and it's that time again. Leave any question or responses to questions in the comments and I'll get to as many as possible in this week's posts.

This time, however, I've got a couple questions for you, things that have been bugging me and I thought I'd throw them out to the hive mind:

-- What part of speech is the word "yes"? (I'm not talking about its usage as an exclamation in the deli scene from When Harry Met Sally Here)

-- If you take light of any two primary colors (red, blue, or yellow) and shine it at the same spot you get the secondary colors (orange, purple, and and green). Shine all three primary colors on a spot, you get white and shine none of them, you get black. How do you make brown?

-- When we smell something unpleasant, we say "p.u." what does it stand for?

-- One I've been playing with for years. The word "raise" and "raze" are opposites. "We raised the barn" means we put it up and "We razed the barn" means we took it down. Are there other pairs of words that are both homonyms and antonyms?

I've shown you mine, let's see yours. Any questions?

Friday, April 27, 2007

Teaching Reason: Maybe It's Not Pointless After All

In going over an exam last week, I had reason to discuss with my critical thinking class the difference between logic and rhetoric. There is a difference between what we have good reason to believe given a set of premises and what people will in fact believe given those same propositions. Logical relations between sentences are the sort of thing philosophers play with; rhetorical strength, on the other hand, is an empirical matter, something for the psychologists. And there has been much interesting work in the area of figuring out what convinces people and when.

I've made the argument before that there are two steps to acting ethically. The first is a rational one -- deciding what is the morally right thing to do in the situation you face. The second is not rational, but a matter of character -- actually doing what it is you know you should. As someone who teaches critical thinking and ethical theory, I've argued that I can influence the first but not the second. I can help make you a better, more careful and thoughtful decision-maker, bu I cannot make you a better person.

But now I'm not so convinced. Confused, Maybe Not tipped me off to this very interesting survey article in Psychology Today setting out the landscape of psychological research connecting political views with personality type and experiential stimuli. Many of the results discussed are not earth shaking,

The most comprehensive review of personality and political orientation to date is a 2003 meta-analysis of 88 prior studies involving 22,000 participants. The researchers—John Jost of NYU, Arie Kruglanski of the University of Maryland, and Jack Glaser and Frank Sulloway of Berkeley—found that conservatives have a greater desire to reach a decision quickly and stick to it, and are higher on conscientiousness, which includes neatness, orderliness, duty, and rule-following. Liberals are higher on openness, which includes intellectual curiosity, excitement-seeking, novelty, creativity for its own sake, and a craving for stimulation like travel, color, art, music, and literature.

The claim that political affiliation is a function of personality type, however, is one of those scientific results that has to be modified with the rider, "all other things being equal." The wonderful thing about reality, of course, is that all other things are rarely ever equal. It turns out that when people are presented with stimuli that evoke fear, especially fear of death, people overwhelmingly become conservative. This conservatism is not necessarily political conservatism, but display a strong desire towards measures that ensure the stability of the status quo in a black and white fashion, whether it be American Republicanism or Chinese communism.
Jost believes it's more complex. After all, Cinnamon Stillwell and others in the 911 Neocons didn't become more liberal. Like so many other Democrats after 9/11, they made a hard right turn. The reason thoughts of death make people more conservative, Jost says, is that they awaken a deep desire to see the world as fair and just, to believe that people get what they deserve, and to accept the existing social order as valid, rather than in need of change. When these natural desires are primed by thoughts of death and a barrage of mortal fear, people gravitate toward conservatism because it's more certain about the answers it provides—right vs. wrong, good vs. evil, us vs. them—and because conservative leaders are more likely to advocate a return to traditional values, allowing people to stick with what's familiar and known. "Conservatism is a more black and white ideology than liberalism," explains Jost. "It emphasizes tradition and authority, which are reassuring during periods of threat."
At precisely those times when it is most important for us to think deeply and carefully about complex issues and the moral ramifications of our actions, our own psychology works against us trying to shut down nuance and subtlety in our approach to the world.

What to do? Is our reason then necessarily a slave to the gut? Is truth always to lose out to truthiness in times of fear? Fascinatingly, no.
If we are so suggestible that thoughts of death make us uncomfortable defaming the American flag and cause us to sit farther away from foreigners, is there any way we can overcome our easily manipulated fears and become the informed and rational thinkers democracy demands?

To test this, Solomon and his colleagues prompted two groups to think about death and then give opinions about a pro-American author and an anti-American one. As expected, the group that thought about death was more pro-American than the other. But the second time, one group was asked to make gut-level decisions about the two authors, while the other group was asked to consider carefully and be as rational as possible. The results were astonishing. In the rational group, the effects of mortality salience were entirely eliminated. Asking people to be rational was enough to neutralize the effects of reminders of death. Preliminary research shows that reminding people that as human beings, the things we have in common eclipse our differences—what psychologists call a "common humanity prime"—has the same effect.

"People have two modes of thought," concludes Solomon. "There's the intuitive gut-level mode, which is what most of us are in most of the time. And then there's a rational analytic mode, which takes effort and attention."

The solution, then, is remarkably simple. The effects of psychological terror on political decision making can be eliminated just by asking people to think rationally. Simply reminding us to use our heads, it turns out, can be enough to make us do it.
Maybe teaching philosophy does contribute to making this a better world. Who knew? Henceforth, I request that every conversation about politics begin with the sentence, "Please be as rational and careful as possible in thinking about this."

Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Is News?

Since Lindsay Beyerstein from Majikthise gave the Richardson lecture earlier in the semester, one thing she said has really stuck with me. News, she said, is not what is true, but what is happening. For a story to get reported, it needs to be connected to an event. Anything connected to an event, whether worthy or not, whether pushing an agenda or not, can be reported. If you have something that needs to be known, hold a press conference. Your issue is not enough, no matter how important, but if you have a press conference, that can be covered.

Of course, the problem is that our worldview is affected by the news that gets reported and unless we have the facts that allow us to (1) understand the context in which the event is happening and (2) have the full set of facts necessary to critically evaluate the report, this sort of news reporting is either pointless or misleading. If we don't understand the difference between Sunnis and Shi'as, we would be unable to really understand the sectarian violence in Iraq and therefore we would fail to really comprehend the meaning of any reports regarding, say, Muqtada al Sadr's folks leaving al Maliki's cabinet. The news may be the happenings, but if we are to understand the happenings, we need the context.

When we do get any background, it is from experts. Who are these experts? In some cases, they are authorities in the field. But how do they find them? Do they do a lit search? Ask for references from others in the field? They are often people with books on the topic or they are found through news services where they author press releases. I authored such a press release around the holidays, musing on the reason for the proliferation of gift cards. That press release was read by a reporter at the Sacramento Bee and suddenly, I'm an expert getting quoted in an article. It was also read by a writer for Ladies Home Journal and now I am again quoted as an expert in the current issue (page 16, right above the article on who buys into astrology). Now, I think there was some insight in what I wrote and I think it is part of a larger conversation about materialism and human connection that we should be having, but at the same time, I'm not doing research on gifts.

So if we need to be educated to make sense of the news, but the news will not provide what we need to be educated, how do we break the circle?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

On the Self-Righteousness of the Fit

There is a certain sense of moral superiority among those who do everything needed in order to keep themselves in good physical shape. Working out is hard and painful. It takes discipline in the gym and more importantly, to get to the gym. Not eating the junk that is constantly being shoved under your nose in reality and advertising takes intentionality. Surely, we have a moral obligation to our health. Does this justify a sense of righteousness (expressed or not) by those who treat their bodies like a temple or is it merely a reflection of our current fashion, what we deem physically attractive?

Bullshit or Not?: Steve Fuller Edition

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the sketches is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of...". In the sketch, the show is called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." So I've stolen it for what may become an occasional series of posts when I find a quotation I find interesting.

The first one is from the book Science, by sociologist Steve Fuller who some of you may recognize as an expert witness in the Dover trial called to support the intelligent design folks. Feel free to leave one word comments, "bullshit" or "not" or to explain your position in as much depth as you'd like, but I'd love to hear which way most of you are leaning. The one rule is "No ad hominem." The focus is not on Fuller it is on the claim made.

Here's the quotation:

Although 'science' and cognate terms can be found in most Indo-European languages, 'scientist' does not appear until well into the nineteenth century. The significance of this fact should not be underestimated. It is one thing to think of the organized pursuit of knowledge as something that can be analysed independently of other social practices; it is quite another to think of its pursuit as a full-time job, a profession that requires specialist credentials...the possibility of a 'scientist' suggests that only certain people have really applied their minds to fathoming specific domains of reality. Through their training and commitment, these people have supposedly acquired intellectual skills that make them exemplars of to whom other members of society should defer when seeking insight into these domains. The model for this development is clearly the priesthood, whereby a a society comes to accept the idea that its members cannot properly deal with their souls without third party mediation.
So by creating a class of professional scientists, have we thereby given rise to a new sort of Catholic priesthood wherein the secret knowledge of the universe is kept from the masses except through the approved channels of the hierarchical organization? Is this why scientific literacy is a problem? Is this why things like intelligent design seem appealing to those not inside the structure? Bullshit or not? You decide.

Extra credit
: Name the person in the nineteenth cetury who coined the term "scientist."

Monday, April 23, 2007

The Gender Genie, Artificial Intelligence, and Irony

I've been thinking about writing something on definitions of artificial intelligence since Christmas when my niece received a "toy" called 20Q. If you have not seen it, it is stunning. Seriously, check it out, it IS that weird. About the size of a tennis ball, it is a computerized version of the game twenty questions. You think of something and after twenty "yes or no" questions, it takes a guess.

My reactions to the toy were probably pretty standard. It went through three phases: (1) Hey, pretty cool, (2) oh my god, (3) this is eerie. When it guessed moustache, I was impressed. When it guessed head of lettuce, I was knocked out. But when it guessed electrical outlet, I was worried that it was some sort of NSA bugging device. This thing is unbelievable.

It is the result of an experiment in neural nets which the designer put on the web, so that it could play for 24 hours a day. Every game, it learns, making new connections. It makes "neural connections" in much the same way the human brain does and establishes a web of beliefs. As a result -- and this is what really impressed me -- it will guess correctly even if fed some wrong information. A portion of the resulting network of connections is put on a chip and forms the "mind" of the toy.

My niece was describing the way she and her friends at school reacted to the thing. They started making disguised hand gestures so that the toy couldn't see them or hear them in case there was a microphone or camera inside of it. At that point, an image of Alan Turning popped into my head. The machine had passed his test.

In 1950, Alan Turing published a paper in Mind called "Computing Machinery and Intelligence" in which he sets out the first definition of artificial intelligence. It is a phenomenological definition, that is to say, a definition based on human experience. The idea is that if a person interacts with the machine and after a significant amount of time mistakes it for a human interaction, then the machine is intelligent. These kids knew it was a machine -- they put in the batteries -- but still thought it had to be connected to a human mind in order to do what it did.

I was reminded of this last week when Lindsay and Aspazia both linked to the gender genie. It is a program designed to take a bit of text and determine whether the author is a male or a female. Amusing and cool, I'll grant you, but the real joke is somewhat obscure.

You see, in the 1950 paper, when Turing sets out to describe the test, he motivates the discussion by sketching out what he calls the "imitation game," something that could be played at parties.

The new form of the problem can be described in terms of a game which we call the 'imitation game'. It is played with three people, a man (A), a woman (B), and an interrogator (C) who may be of either sex. The interrogator stays in a room apart from the other two. The object of the game is to determine which of the other two is the man and which is the woman.
In other words, you take a man and a woman and put them in a room with a typewriter. One of the people, but you don't know whom, sits at the typewriter and types out responses to written questions slipped under the door. (The typewriter keeps you from being able to identify handwriting.) It might go something like this, according to Turing,
Q: Please write me a sonnet on the subject of the Forth Bridge.
A: Count me out on this one. I never could write poetry.
Q: Add 34957 to 70764
A: (Pause about 30 seconds and then give as answer) 105621.
Q: Do you play chess?
A: Yes.
Q: I have K at my K1, and no other pieces. You have only K at K6 and R at R1. It is your move. What do you play?
A: (After a pause of 15 seconds) R-R8 mate.

What the gender genie is, is a reverse Turing test built around exactly the example Turing uses to set up the Turing test. You are playing the "imitation game" with a computer, but now, instead of the computer being in the room, the computer takes over the role of the interrogator, trying to guess who is at the typewriter. In essence, artificial intelligence has come far enough that it has now gotten you to invite IT to the party.

If that wasn't weird enough, it's not only coming to the party, but getting picked up and taken home afterwards...

Friday, April 20, 2007

Feast of Saint Charlie

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we saw the birthday of one of the greatest physical comedians in history, the one and only Charlie Chaplin. Born in London, Chaplin's mother was institutionalized and he grew up poor becoming a performer at a very young age to support himself and his brother. He joined a comic troup with Stan Laurel that toured America and was seen by Max Sennett who signed him to a film contract.

The master of the silent comedy, Chaplin's character, the little tramp, was incredibly deep allowing him to do the silliest of sight gags, heart wrenching sadness, sly scams, and always with an incredible sense of humanity.

He was one of the first true superstars, ultimately using his fame, power, and wealth to become one of the founding members of United Artists, a studio formed to give artists more control over their work. At UA, he made his last great silent The Gold Rush and his two masterpiece talkies, City Lights and Modern Times.

These last two films clearly displayed his left-leaning political sympathies, which, coupled with his agnosticism, landed him on the wrong side of McCartyism. His power and stardom kept McCarthy from calling Chaplin before the committee, but when he returned back to England for a visit, J Edgar Hoover had his visa revoked and he never returned to the States.

To prove that Einstein can be worked into any conversation, one of my favorite stories about Chaplin comes from Einstein's arrival in the United States after fleeing Germany with the rise of the Nazis. Einstein's general theory of relativity had made him famous and when he came to California to speak at Cal Tech, he met Charlie Chaplin. When the car with the two of them arrived, it was mobbed, surrounded by screaming fans of the actor and the physicist. Einstein was flabbergasted and looked at Chaplin and asked, "What does this all mean?" Chaplin smiled and said, "Nothing."

So great was the admiration, that when he met Groucho Marx and told him how much he loved the Marx Brothers' movies, Groucho was humbled to receive such praise from the master. This was no mere clown, this was Chaplin.

In his honor, use this holiday to date someone half your age.

To the little tramp or great dictator in all of us,

Live, love, and laugh,

Irrevend Steve

What the Hell Just Happened?: US Attorney Scandal Edition

In light of the Attorney General Alberto Gonzales' testimony before the Senate Judiciary committee yesterday, this seems a good time for another installment of "What the hell just happened?" [For the full timeline of all of these events, see Talking Points Memo]

There are several moving parts here that are important to keep distinct: (1) the politicization of the Department of Justice and questions of the perceived legitimacy of federal prosecutions, (2) the cover up and lies to the American people about the planning, scope, and intent of these firings, and the degree to which elected officials and their political staffs played in them, (3) possible criminal acts of obstruction of justice by interfering in on-going investigations, (4) whether this was a part of a deliberate campaign to undermine our democracy by trying to suppress voting by traditionally Democratic-leaning communities, and (5) questions about the structure of government and the distribution of power.

What Happened to Start All of This?

On December 7 of last year, the Department of Justice fired eight of the 49 United States Attorneys. These are people who oversee offices that prosecute cases involving possible violations of federal law. The position is one standard route to becoming a federal judge. They were replaced with people who are very close to the White House, including Karl Rove's Special Assistant, by the administration without Senate confirmation in accordance with a little known clause in the USAPATRIOT Act which took that power away from the Senate. The House and Senate have recently voted to overturn the President's ability to appoint US attorneys without oversight.

Why Those Eight?

The original reason given for the firing was poor job performance. When their evaluations were examined, all eight were given high marks for their work. From there, the reasoning shifted to their execution of policy goals of the administration. It turns out that all of these attorneys had either brought corruption charges against Republicans or failed to bring corruption charges against Democrats. At this point, questions of the politicization of the Department of Justice erupted.

What did He Know and When Did He Know It?

A fundamental tenet of the American legal system is that everyone is equal under the law, as such, the work of the Department of Justice must be seen as non-partisan if the American people are going to maintain faith in the government's prosecutorial power. If people get the sense that cases in federal court are brought for partisan political reasons, this will have a chilling effect on our democracy. We need to think that enforcement of the law is a matter above partisan squabbles. For this reason, questions about the White House's influence in the matter.

Alberto Gonzales, before becoming the top lawyer for the country as a whole was the personal lawyer for the President. Those connections gave rise to speculation that this was an operation run out of the White House's political machine which would be deeply problematic for the Justice Department.

High ranking officials at the Department of Justice, the White House, and in the Congress denied any attempt to influence the matter.

Then the e-mails were released. It turns out that there was significant coordination between the White House, members of Congress, and the DoJ going back two years. These plans had been in the works for a long time and the list of attorneys to be fired was based on whether an attorney was "a loyal Bushie" (the phrase of Gonzales' deputy in one of the e-mails). Statements that Gonzales made to the Congress and at press conferences about having limited knowledge and involvement turned out to be completely false.

Hariet Meiers, Gonzales' successor as White House council, was set up biefly as a fall-gal to insulate Karl rove and President Bush himself, but questions still exist about their roles, questions continuing to be fueled by the fact that Rove and others in his office were using non-governmental GOP-based e-mail channels to discuss the matter, keeping it away from federal records which must be kept. Once the existence these e-mail accounts were discovered, it was also discovered that Rove had gone back and deleted many of them in violation of the order of the special prosecutor investigating the Scooter Libby and the Plame leak. Whether these e-mails can be recovered is a question being pursued.

Possible Crimes?

There is no doubt that under the reauthorized version of the USAPATRIOT act, the President did have the authority to fire the attorneys, so is it just a matter of undermining public confidence? It would be unless the firing of any of these attorneys was intended to derail an on-going investigation into a political ally of the administration. That would make those connected with the case guilty of obstruction of justice. This remains an open question related to the firings of the prosecutors who were engaged in pursuing Republican corruption.

What About the Talk of Voter Fraud?

When Alberto Gonzales speaks of attorneys being fired for issues "related to policy, priorities and management," what they are talking about is voter fraud. Voter fraud has been a major rallying cry for conservatives for many years, but it has become a major talking point recently. Why?

Elections are won when one candidate receives the most votes. You can seek election by only playing offense -- trying to convince as many people as possible who are voting to vote for you -- or by playing offense and defense -- trying to convince as many people as possible who are voting to vote for you AND trying to make sure that people who are most likely going to vote for your opponent don't vote. In the last several elections, margins of victory by candidates from either party have been razor thin, especially in certain states. In places where Democrats have won close elections, that very small margin of victory has often been provided by poor and minority voters. It is well documented that certain policies, requiring picture id's, for example, depresses voting in these communities.

The Bush administration's policies and priorities were directed to establishing high profile cases and convictions around voter fraud, especially in states like Wisconsin and New Mexico where minority votes were seen as the key to possible Democratic victories. Press coverage for such cases would allow the policies to be put into place which would benefit Republicans at the polls.

The problem was that the claimed wide-spread voter fraud was not to be found. Investigations turned up a few cases which mostly were honest mistakes (a legal alien filling out all the paperwork he was handed when getting a drivers license including the application for a voting card), bureaucratic mix-ups (someone who moved from one jurisdiction to another and whose name had not yet been taken off the voting rolls in his old district), or isolated examples of individuals voting twice.

A federal panel of expert was convened to examined this question, to establish the degree of voter fraud in America. When they submitted their report finding little voter fraud and no wide spread conspiracy to commit voter fraud, some editing changes to thier findings were made. From a New York Times story,

Though the original report said that among experts "there is widespread but not unanimous agreement that there is little polling place fraud," the final version of the report released to the public concluded in its executive summary that "there is a great deal of debate on the pervasiveness of fraud."...

The original report on fraud cites "evidence of some continued outright intimidation and suppression” of voters by local officials, especially in some American Indian communities, while the final report says only that voter “intimidation is also a topic of some debate because there is little agreement concerning what constitutes actionable voter intimidation."

The original report said most experts believe that "false registration forms have not resulted in polling place fraud," but the final report cites "registration drives by nongovernmental groups as a source of fraud."

The Philosophical Question

When defending himself against the charges yesterday, Gonzales contended that he did nothing wrong, that the firings were justified and legitimate. The basis of this argument is what is called the "unitary executive theory." The idea is that as the chief executive of the government, everything that happens in the executive branch is under the control and direction of the President. His whim is sufficient reason for any action. Congress, on this view, has limited or no power to restrain or check the President in what he does or what happens in any of the agencies under him. It is in the name of this view that Bush and his folks have been usurping and limiting the power of the other branches of government.

But this view is not the mainstream opinion on the matter. The objection is that this mindset is based on an equivocation, failing to distinguish between three things: the administration, the government, and the country. In the run-up to the war, we saw the flourishing of the "anti-Bush = anti-America" sentiment, but more subtle is the version in play here where the administration is considering itself to be identical to the government. We see it in the use of signing statements where the President takes laws that are to be enacted and determines what he will mean by the law and which parts he contends do not apply to him. The Congress may pass laws for the rest of the country, but they have no power over the executive or those under him.

But the objection is that the government, and even the executive branch alone, has a structure and roles that are extra-administrative, that is, they do not change from administration to administration and while they are overseen and managed by the executive, they are not political tools of the administration. The EPA oversees the environment, the Department of Defense oversees the armed forces, the Social Security Administration makes sure the checks get out on time to the right people, the Bureau of Indian Affairs makes sure we continue to screw over Native Americans. These are jobs that have large numbers of people with years of experience who know the ins and outs, life-long civil servants who are professionals and make sure that these agencies perform their function.

When you start confusing the agencies of the executive branch with the administration who is temporarily in charge of making sure they get their jobs done, you limit the ability of them to do their jobs effectively. What happened with the firing of the US attorneys is in itself a worrisome action, but really it is a stand in for concerns around the entire governing philosophy of the Bush administration -- everything in government is political and by getting one more vote than the other guy, we have the right to use all of it to our political advantage. They see the governmental structure as nothing more than a means to acquire and maintain power, those on the other side see the government as a tool for the general welfare, parts of which must remain unpoliticized. Bush and his folks see precisely these functions to be not only superfluous, but things the government should not be doing in the first place and so have no problem turning them into levers at Karl Rove's command.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Free Advice

Thinking about the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten.

The first is to never do the same favor for someone the first two times they ask. After the second time, it will not be seen as a favor, but simply be taken for granted that you'll do it. It's no big deal, he likes doing it,... If you say no once, however, you can agree to do it every single time thereafter and the person will always be polite in asking.

The second was my grandfather's favorite, something he always attributed to Damon Runyon. If a guy wants to bet you ten dollars that he can put twenty nickels in your nose, don't take the bet or else you'll end up ten dollars poorer with a nose full of nickels.

My two cents: to anyone looking to increase the traffic on their blog, don't use spell check. I made a joke a while back that Bush's plan to escalate the war was to make up with the French and send some guy named Serge to Iraq. A few weeks later, I drew a distinction between misogyny (hatred of women) and massogyny (intense dislike of backrubs). Ever since, I've been getting several hits a day from people looking up "serge iraq" and "massogyny definition" on Google. Spell things right and you are in competition with everyone else, but spell them wrong and your site will appeal to misspellers around the globe.

So, what's the best piece of advice you've ever gotten?

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: It's a Wrap

I'm thrilled to say that the book is done and now in press. We have a new subtitle, so the book will appear as...

The Grateful Dead and Philosophy: Getting High Minded About Love and Haight

The book's official webpage is here.

I could not be happier with the way the volume turned out, there's a wonderful foreword by Steve Silberman and nineteen essays by philosophers across the intellectual spectrum. Each piece comes from a different angle, but all are beautifully written in a way that should make them both interesting and accessible to anyone who picks it up. I am extremely grateful to the writers of the chapters (including Playground regulars like Hanno, I, and Confused, Maybe Not), the essays are far beyond my expectations.

And you don't have to take my word for's what Phil Lesh has to say,

Who knew? The Grateful Dead, some of whom were voracious readers in many fields, including philosophy, never really thought too much about the implications of our music and the way we made it- we were too busy making it. Through reading this fascinating and comprehensive book, I've discovered deeper meanings in our work than I previously could have imagined. Many thanks to the authors, editors, and publishers.
Yup, Phil agreed to read the book and write a blurb for the cover. What a nice guy.

Indeed, one of the most amazing things about this process was having contact with members of the band and organization. I can say without exception, that everyone I had cause to talk to was incredibly supportive, generous, and kind. Alan Trist of Ice Nine publishing, the Dead's publishing company, went well beyond the call of duty. Bob Weir and Dennis McNally were unbelievably helpful in answering all our questions. You form ideas of the personalities of people and the institutional character of groups, but as you get older you become cynical when one by one they fail to live up to your naive hopes. In this case, it was exactly the opposite. The folks connected to the Dead have reinforced my idealism for the world we could have.

More happy news is that the book will likely appear on the new releases table of Borders and Barnes and Noble. So, please look for it or if you are interested, order it directly from Open Court.

The end of this long strange trip leaves such mixed emotions. On the one hand, I'm incredibly excited with what has come to be, but on the other hand there's that sadness at the process coming to a close. I don't know whether to listen to a rousing "One More Saturday Night" or a long slow "Brokedown Palace."

Again, deep heartfelt thanks for everyone involved for the work, support, and love in the book. It's true, "once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places if you look at it right."

Monday, April 16, 2007

In the Real World

We adults love to remind college students that things will be different when they get out there “in the real world.” But as a very wise colleague of mine is always quick to point out, college is very much the real world. People work and eat and sleep here. People fall in love here. And as we were tragically reminded by yesterday’s horrible events in Blacksburg, people die here.

That is not to say that the loss of these young lives is not particularly heart wrenching. There is something special about one’s years in college. Friendships have an intimacy that few are fortunate enough to experience afterwards. Late night conversations about philosophical topics are likely never to be repeated. Passions are uniquely fevered. And world events take on a special sense of urgency. Never again will pizza fill your soul as well as your stomach.

Aristotle held that all beings had within them a “telos,” an end goal, a potentiality that we actualized through living. The process of life unfolded who we would be from who we could be. A block of unhewn marble contains within it infinitely many statues, works of unsurpassed beauty, elegance, and depth that simply have yet to be carved. College is that magical period when we are freed from many of the more mundane tasks in life in order to focus on one’s individual telos, when our potentialities reveal themselves to us and our paths of self-actualization begin. We not only find out who we are, but begin to create who we would become. Students at university are both marble and artist. For those of us who are privileged enough to spend our adult years in contact with young, and not so young, people standing before this existential intersection, it is always tender and joyful to watch them struggle with the intensity of that coming to be. Even the most insignificant decision holds for them possibility in the chaos of living, the future still amorphous, but taking form in both concrete schedules and shapeless dreams.

It is that open-endedness of life that leaves your soul to weep for those students from Virginia Tech. While we mourn all unnecessary loss, to have the future taken from those who were so actively engaged in creating it is especially sad.

As a father, I cannot fathom the parents’ sense of loss. As a philosopher, I have no concepts that can make sense of this horrific event. As an empathetic being, I cannot pretend to have any words that could soothe such pain. But I hope that it is of some comfort to their loved ones to be able to think of all of the beautiful statues that these young people were in the process of creating from themselves, that their dear ones may remain forever in their minds the multitude of potentials they were bringing to the world, to this world, to “the real world.”

Intellectuals and Technicians

There are few questions that raise instructors' hackles like the deplorable duo, "Is this going to be on the test?" and "Why do I need to know this?". On our end, we take these questions as insults intimating that having dedicated ourselves to these questions, we are irrelevant wastes of time. Further the asking of such questions serve as an indicator that the students just don't get how intensely interesting and beautiful this subject is. It is the mark, in our minds, of the shallowness of the student's character to need to know the cash value of what we are teaching and not instinctively identify the intrinsic worth of the knowledge we are giving them privilege to glimpse. If they were true intellectuals like us, they would not ask such foolish, material-driven questions. You'll be a mindless middle manager soon enough, young grasshopper, for this moment try to open your mind to the glory I present.

This arrogance is based on a distinction we draw between the over-educated and the under-educated. Over-education requires an extended boot camp/hazing period called grad school wherein those who were sufficiently nerdy as undergrads are trained for admittance to the next level in the hierarchy. This is not to say that the training is not valuable -- grad school is a hyper-intense period of work and learning unlike any other, but all too often it leads us to exactly the place we ridicule the students for being in, it takes us away from being intellectuals. The Academy has become so specialized that like the student who asks, "What do I need to know this for?" we too only learn what we need for our sub-sub-sub speciality. And this has problematic consequences; we see ourselves as technicians in the business of training the next generation to work on the assembly lines of knowledge production rather than considering ourselves to be intellectuals whose job it is to open minds to wide ranges of ideas and methodologies that are designed to conflict and augment each other in interesting novel ways creating insight.

One of my sharpest memories of my undergrad education is the last day of my junior level quantum mechanics class. On that day, the prof finished up what he was doing a little early and then did something he never did before -- he asked if there were any questions. Knowing that there was one period left which would be a review for the final and that we had just finished the course material, I raised my hand. I asked him about the Bell inequalities.

We had just finished a second semester studying how to set up and solve Schrodinger's equation for various sorts of potentials -- free particles, particles in an infinite well, the harmonic oscillator,... -- we had learned that when the equation looked like this, we should use this coordinate transformation to allow us to integrate by parts, or that coordinate transformation to allow us to complete the square... We were trained, but we weren't taught. Frankly, I didn't understand very much at all about quantum mechanics, even though I did fine in the class.

But I read. I read lots of pop books about quantum mechanics. I read about something called the measurement problem and hidden variables and the EPR paradox and the Bell inequalities. It all seemed incredible. It made me jazzed to learn quantum mechanics. Yet, here I was supposedly learning about this magical theory and I knew nothing about it. If someone else, a student who did want to become exactly the sort of intellectual faculty members say they want, took it upon him or herself to read the same book and wanted to understand it, a sensible move would be to come to me figuring, "Hey, Steve's a physics major, he'll be able to explain it to me," sadly, that person would have been (and was) wrong.

The prof that day hemmed and hawed and wrote some things on the board that he never really explained. The gist of it was that we didn't know enough to really discuss it, so he wasn't really going to tell us what it meant or even why smart people would be interested in such a thing.

Looking back on the value of lab kerfuffle from a few weeks back, the comment that sticks with me comes from Chad Orzel, a physicist who writes the blog Uncertain Principles.

Mostly, though, this bugs me because it buys into the pernicious idea that what we really need to do is to re-shape science to make it more palatable to non-scientists. We're already expected to offer special classes with little or no math, lest we scare the humanities types away, and this just piles on an additional requirement that we make those classes convenient for non-science majors.

I have approximately zero sympathy for this mode of thinking. When the English department starts offering "Poetry for Physicists," in which science majors get to read literature without dealing with difficult critical approaches, then we can talk.

When you come down to it, students don't take more than the minimum required number of science classes because they don't want to take science classes. The minor inconvenience posed by scheduling lab classes is just a convenient excuse-- if you got rid of labs, there would be another reason why they just couldn't manage to fit in another science class.

The real problem is that it's become acceptable for people who are ostensibly highly educated to be largely ignorant of science and math. I've heard people with Ph.D.'s say "I just can't handle math" with a laugh, and that passes totally without comment, but if a science student were to say "Oh, I just can't deal with literature," that would be a major crisis. If students aren't interested in science, we go out of our way to accommodate that, which just reinforces the message that science is only for nerds and geeks, and that normal people can approach it only in a dumbed-down form.

What strikes me as deeply problematic here is this idea that there are two modes of teaching: A) there is real training which is hard core rigorous work that prepares you to be able to take the next step in the ladder towards being able to work in the field, and B) baby physics which is dumbed down training for those morons who will never be able to climb the ladder because they simply refuse to work hard enough to climb like those of us who have the upstanding moral character to have done it well. This is the mindset that leads to intro level science classes that are seen as "weed-out" sections. Need to get rid of that dead wood and narrow it down to those who are properly disposed to rigorous scientific training (after which, of course, we'll have a couple of beers with colleagues and alternate bitching about the fact that most people are scientifically illiterate and that we are being pressured to "re-shape science to make it more palatable to non-scientists").

This, of course, is an exercise in false dilemma. There is a third option, teaching that isn't training. A class about quantum mechanics that did explain the measurement problem and the EPR paradox and the Bell inequalities would be something that could be taught. It would not require much math and it would capture the imagination of science and non-science students alike. Students want to know about science, very much, but do not take the classes for the same reason they ask "What do I need to know this for?" The way we teach fosters that question. We are not focused on creating intellectuals who can discuss science or literature or current events smartly and intricately, we are training technicians. Yes, they get it from a culture that values monetary success more than intellectual achievement or well-roundedness, but we are reinforcing it.

Why? Because we are trained to be technicians and not intellectuals. I have a friend whose significant other is training to be a chemist. She teaches for the first couple years -- before she's had a chance to really be educated in grad school -- and then she is shut up in the lab. She gets a minor amount of coursework in areas of chemistry other than her specialization, but her qualifying exams and all of her work is narrowly tailored. If you are not even well-versed in your field as a whole, how can we expect that you will be capable of seeing the larger intellectual forest? Of course, folks will be reticent to try to speak in a way that piques the interest of the masses, the great unwashed, those who are not going to be pursuing additional training in our field of study, or (gasp) any field of study.

And it's not only the training. The entire reward structure of higher education is based around technical success in our intellectual community. To give public lectures is to waste your time, sell out, or stroke your ego. To work hard at developing a course for non-majors is to take time away from your "real work," what you should be doing. Grants, awards, promotions don't go to intellectuals, they go to technicians.

And it isn't only in the sciences. I have a dear colleague in the Spanish department who was telling me that she was loving this semester because she was teaching a course in literature from the Spanish revolution, she confided that she's only teaching it because of a sabbatical situation -- she's a medievalist, she sheepishly admitted, so really, it's not her field, she shouldn't be teaching it. OF COURSE SHE SHOULD BE TEACHING IT!!!! Not only is she a great teacher, but there is life in that classroom, a sense that there is real grappling with interesting questions, not a mere recitation by someone bored with the first steps of their specialty. It is stunningly pathetic when we in the Academy feel shamed for stretching ourselves, for being the intellectuals we want the students to be. We resist modeling the thing we claim to embody.

A modest proposal. Before giving an exam, a major paper, or any other sort of significant assessment, every instructor should have to answer to the satisfaction of the class, the question, "Why do they need to know this?" If you cannot explain in terms that they understand and can convey to friends and parents what is interesting, important, helpful, elegant, essential for living, and simply wonderful about what is in the study they are about to be assessed on, you have failed as a teacher and lost the right to judge them on whether they know it or not.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Don Imus, John Henry Faulk, Chris Rock, and Offensiveness

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week good brother Hanno asked "So where is John Henry Faulk in the pantheon of comic saints? And ought comics get more leeway when it comes to tolerating offensive behavior?" The question was asked in the context of the Imus firing. We can, therefore, take with these a second question with two parts, one ethical and the other theological -- is Don Imus a Comedist martyr, fired for trying to get a laugh, or was he a wayward sheep having lost the path?

John Henry Faulk is indeed a great saint. It was his lawsuit that started the unravelling of the blacklist in Hollywood that kept much wonderful talent from finding work. He started as a radio personality, but ended up working for years on the television program Hee Haw. Indeed, this week saw the seventh anniversary of his death.

If the work of Faulk -- who was blacklisted more for his union work than his entertainment work -- and those others who were blacklisted was offensive to McCarthyist sentiments of the red scare times, is the heroic stance he took any different from Imus' remark which was offensive to contemporary sentiments? Yeah, there's a difference and it goes beyond "offensiveness we like is ok, but offensiveness we don't like isn't."

The reason that comics ought and ought not get more leeway when it comes to being offensive is that there is nothing inherently wrong with being offensive. One of the unfortunate elements of the period of political correctness is that the immorality of the use of language as a weapon to reinforce unfair social structures somehow got translated into a false claim about the immorality of offending people. There is nothing wrong with being offensive. The most important and awe-inspiring contributions in every human endeavor were considered offensive by some, sometimes by many. As every good philosophy teacher knows, we need to be offended, it shocks us out of our usual state of intellectual complacency and forces us to examine beliefs we thought impervious to challenge or indeed beliefs so dear and basic that we never even thought to formulate them. Offensiveness is not problematic, we need gadflies if we are to make any progress.

This holds for intellectual endeavors and social issues. There is nothing wrong with being offensive about issues of gender and race. These are questions that we need to be provoked into discussion about. We do give comics more leeway because they provoke us in a way that seems on the surface safe. I think comics play a special role, like the fool in King Lear, often it is only the comic who speaks the truth, who can see things from a perspective free of the biases of those around him or her and express it in a way that is both thought-provoking and enjoyable. I don't think it is an accident that the only television interviewer who asks actual questions of today's newsmakers is Jon Stewart. Watch his interview with John Bolton and see if you can keep yourself from asking why no one else on the "serious" news programs, you know like Katie Couric, pushed him on the failures of policy.

Does this mean that Imus was just doing his job as a gadfly and should be applauded? Wasn't he goading us into talking about things that need to be talked about? Well, yes and no...but the no here is crucial. Imus certainly was being provocative and there is nothing wrong with that in and of itself. But Imus played a unique role in our popular discourse. Not only was he offensive, he had unique access to the mostt powerful of our decision-makers and to the elite pundits like David Brooks and Tom Oliphant.

He was a powerful man for the use of his comedy. That power comes with a responsibility -- to care about justice. What Imus did with the power his place and his humor afforded him was not to be offensive in the name of starting conversations we are not having, but should...rather he was using his power and humor to keep them from happening. What he did was to insult African-Amercian women in a way that makes them sure that they know their place which is inferior. The conversation was not problematic because it was offensive to women in general and African-American women in particular, but because it was designed to reinforce the structure in which these groups are held to be inferior and therefore not worth considering fully human. They were discussing these young athletes as pieces of meat and the conversation clearly labeled them not onnly as inferior for being female and therefore nothing more than eye candy, but as bad eye candy, completely dehumanizing them and making them the equivalent of untouchables in the American caste system. Imus was using his comedy to be a bully. It was the bullying, not the offensiveness that was his crime.

I have heard many conversations where people defending Imus say something along the lines of "Black comedians use language like that. If a black comedian had said it, it would have been ok. Isn't that unfair?" No, it isn't. What Chris Rock does is not to reinforce a social structure where minority groups know they have less power, to the contrary, when he uses it, it is designed to begin to give voice to the hard questions of race that we are not discussing. Now, Chris Rock is extremely funny. I think he does offer insightful critiques of the approach of the older generation of civil rights activists in today's world. At the same time, he does make some overly simplistic claims, but he forces us to formulate clearly why things are more complicated than that. He does the job of the offensive comic well in really getting the issues out there that had been swept under the rug because they make many people uncomfortable.

"But he uses the 'n' word. That's worse. Why does he get to stay on tv?" Yeah, Chris Rock can say things that Chris Matthews can't. Is that unfair? Well, maybe, but it only comes about because of the historical legacy of much larger unfairness. The "n" word was a weapon used to keep black folks down, in the 60s, comedians Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor tried to blunt the force of the weapon by appropriating it. If they could use it with a different sense of meaning that wasn't violent, then maybe it wouldn't beat the sword into a plowshare, but at least it would dull the edge so it could no longer be an effective weapon. It worked...almost. Turns out it is a double-edged sword and this only blunted one edge. It still cuts when used from those outside the community, but no longer does inside the community. This should not strike us as strange, of course, words mean different things when used in different contexts. When a waitress in east Baltimore calls me "hon," it just means I'm human -- they call everyone hon. When my wife calls me "hon," it means she loves me, that I'm a special person and if she were to call someone else hon, we'd have to have a talk because that means something where hearing the waitress also call the woman at the next table hon does not.

Humor is powerful as a weapon. It can be used for good or for evil. Imus' crime was not that he offended people, nothing wrong there. Offensive humor is a means, the real question is what is it a means to. In Chris Rock's case, the humor is geared towards opening up a conversation that includes more voices. For Imus, the power broker, his offensive humor was designed to keep the conversation limited to his little cohort over which he ruled. He didn't invite black women's perspectives in or offer a scathing critique of a standard view heard from black women, he made sure they were seen as inferior based on harmful stereotypes. He was a bully with humor, and that was his ethical transgression and his Comedist sin.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Vonnegut, Einstein, Dawkins, and the Public Face of Atheism

There's been a lot of talk around lately about what is termed "radical atheism," "evangelical atheism" or "fundamentalist atheism." Generally associated with Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, but also with atheist bloggers (some of whom play here from time to time), the talk is of those who not only hold no faith in an All-being and defend the view, but folks who put forward polemical writing arguing that religious faith is dangerous and harmful to society, and therefore to be actively opposed. With the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., an outspoken secular humanist, this seems as good a time as any to engage the question.

These non-believers are compared with fundamentalists by opponents for a couple of reasons. First, because there is a some sense in which there is a conversion type mission -- they are trying to convince people of something. But secondly, because it's a cute cheap shot that the opponents know will really piss off the atheists -- see, atheism is just another faith and you are the worst kind of them.

A more subtle version was given by Kerry last week, attacking what he termed fact fundamentalists who reject the idea that there are truths that are not facts, that is, not open to confirmation or empirical evidence. The basis for this rejection he argues, is that it is "spawned by the modern era's (1) emphasis on scientific ways of knowing, (2) its insistence that all truths can be precisely expressed in some kind of language, and (3) its depreciation of nonscientific ways of knowing (insight, intuition, imagination) and nonempirical modes of expression (metaphor, poetry)."

This is a strawman. When you look at the scientific project, there is great room insight, intuition, imagination, and metaphor. Indeed, you would be hard pressed to do science without all of them. Science relies on models which are nothing more than intricate metaphors. Some of the metaphors are mathematical (mathematics is nothing but a language with an incredibly intricate and malleable grammar), others are scale models, some are metaphors to common everyday objects -- for example, Thomson's "plum pudding model" of the atom. The greatest scientists are the one's whose insight and creativity took us beyond our dull mechanistic picture of the world to one that is more fantastic than any sci-fi writer could invent.

But the difference is that in the scientistic approach, one is not allowed to simply stop there and accept the really provocative, really intriguing, really moving idea. History is littered with really provocative, really intriguing, really moving ideas that turned out to be wrong. I am not at all sure what Kerry means by "truths that are not facts," (cue Confused, Maybe Not telling me that he believes his father loves him without believing "that his father loves him" -- never understood that one either), but it seems that if there are some truths that are not facts, that these truths would have to be a subset of all possible non-factual beliefs, only some of which are true. So, is there a means of separating the wheat from the chaff? How do you tell the non-factual truths from the non-factual falsities? We get mesmerized by our ideas, sometimes we are wrong about what we "feel in our heart" and we need what we call in the biz, criteria of theory choice, that is, ways to tell the ones that we just want to be true from those that likely are.

Some of those criteria for those of us scientistic folks are the sort of empirical confirmations that Kerry refers to. We do take a true statement to be one that is consistent with our best observational data. But there are other criteria as well and here's where Kerry's poetry comes back in. Elegance, simplicity, and coherence are taken to be indicators of better theories. If there are fewer ad hoc, seat of the pants patches needed to account for the world, then you have a better account. There are aesthetic qualities that count towards truth in science.

The greatest example of this comes from Einstein whose general theory of relativity had little empirical verification beyond being able to account for everything Newton could and one thing he couldn't -- the way Mercury's orbit shifted slightly each time it went around the sun. When word came back from an expedition to view a full eclipse headed by A. E. Eddington that verified Einstein's prediction that light would bend noticeably around massive objects like the sun, it was seen as a great triumph. When informed of the confirmation, Einstein was unmoved. Shocked at his lack of interest, his assistant asked him what he would have done if the observation had turned out the other way. Einstein's response, "I would have had pity for the dear Lord, the theory is right." It was simply too beautiful, too elegant not to be right.

Ah hah! So you atheists do have faith -- it's just faith in a beautiful universe, something for which you have no evidence and accept uncritically! Gotcha!

Well, no. Imre Lakatos talks about research programs, sets of beliefs that form worldviews. These consist of what he calls the hard core -- proposition you are loathe to change, things you will try to save at all costs -- and a protective belt -- propositions you believe, but are willing to jettison if needed to save the hard core. In the face of the world we live in, research programs are always forced to change, we acquire new beliefs, alter or reject old ones. If you are clever enough, you can always readjust and reconstitute your protective belt to save your hard core. You will never ever be forced to give up the heart of your beliefs.

But that doesn't mean that we can't see one set is better in a real sense than another. Some sets of beliefs will become progressive, that is be able to account for new things that you never even thought about with no modification to your collection of other beliefs at all. When things you believe can effortlessly account for more things you never considered, that coherence, that unity is a sign of truth.

On the other hand, some sets of beliefs will become degenerate, they will require all kinds of shifting and stretching and playing to finesse new things that pop up. This doesn't mean that you have to give up that set of beliefs, but it is certainly an indication that in its advancing clunkiness, it is showing intellectual weakness.

Einstein's theory was progressive, it was able to maintain its intellectual integrity and coherence without ugly add-ons. It is not faith, just reason to think it is a better made intellectual garment. Similarly, we can look at the set of beliefs at the heart of the scientistic atheistic approach. In the same way, we can look at its trajectory historically, see whether it is progressive -- able to account for more and more things we never thought to be within its realm -- or degenerate -- needing more and more awkward add ons as time goes by. It seems pretty clear that what we have is a rather progressive set of beliefs. We are able to make sense of things now that a decade, much less a century ago were thought to be well out of the circle of things science could talk about. Is that a guarantee that the program won't go south and begin to become degenerate? Of course not. But what it does mean is that the view is not mere religious zealotry.

But these folks are strident like zealots. Damn right. Why? I think for the same reason that Don Imus just got fired for saying something no worse than what he's been polluting our airwaves with for years. There is suddenly, with the loss of political power by the right, a sense that oppressed groups can speak up for themselves and atheists are an oppressed group. No matter how threatened the religious community feels by "Enlightenment values," the fact is that atheists are despised for holding a set of beliefs that is perfectly rational. Think that is an overstatement?

"A 1999 Gallup poll conducted to determine Americans' willingness to tolerate a Jewish president (Joseph Lieberman was the Democratic candidate for Vice President at the time). Here are the percentages of people saying they would refuse to vote for "a generally well-qualified person for president" on the basis of some characteristic; in parenthesis are the figures for earlier years:

Catholic: 4% (1937: 30%)
Black: 5% (1958: 63%, 1987: 21%)
Jewish: 6% (1937: 47%)
Baptist: 6%
Woman: 8%
Mormon: 17%
Muslim: 38%
Gay: 37% (1978: 74%)
Atheist: 48%"

More than African Americans, more than Muslims, even more than homosexuals, almost half of the country would not vote for a qualified candidate simply because he or she is an atheist. And if you think that stops at the ballot box...

"But these uppity atheists are abrasive, shrill, and in your face. They only serve to alienate people. Why do you have such zealots as the public face? Wouldn't it be strategically better to have more Vonneguts and Einsteins?" I think we need both Malcolms and Martins. True, we could use more of an Anthony sometimes when the media only shows Stantons. But then, I think Daniel Dennett is taking that role quite admirably, but yes, we do need more Asimovs, more Sagans, more people like Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. who we miss in many, many ways.

RIP Kurt Vonnegut

We lost a giant. Kurt Vonnegut is dead. A man of sharp intelligence and even sharper wit, his books were smart and clever, always with an edge but always human. Colored by his experience as one of the seven American prisoners of war in Germany during WWII to survive the Dresden firebombing, after which he was put to work collecting dead, burnt civilian bodies, there was always a sense of shock and sorrow in his works, a darkness around the edges, even when he made you laugh out loud.

A secular humanist, Vonnegut was fascinated by relativity and quantum mechanics and he was one of the few who could translate the strangeness of modern physics into the structural elements of a plotline in a way that was not artificial. He truly was one of the first to write science fiction in a way that took it beyond cheesy dime store novels. Incredibly insightful in realizing that Einstein's relativistic notion of time challenged not only the linear structure of story-telling, but also the elements of the created world itself, Vonnegut made time and causality central characters in some of his best works -- Slaughterhouse Five and The Sirens of Titan, for example.

The Sirens of Titan, Vonnegut's second book was optioned for film rights by Jerry Garcia who worked on the project for many years, writing a screen adaptation for it and trying to get it produced. Sadly, it never happened and after Jerry died, Vonnegut bought the rights back. Mary Eisenhart has a wonderful interview with Jerry about Vonnegut and his love of his writing.

My favorite Vonnegut story comes from my dear friend and occasional playground commenter Frank who lives up in Manhattan. Frank is a life long Vonnegut fan and one day after walking his dog Scarlet, he was leaving the local dog park and at the entrance passes none other than Vonnegut himself. Stunned, he says to Vonnegut, "There's a question I've always wanted to ask you, but I can't remember it." Without missing a beat Vonnegut looks at him and replies, "That's ok, i've forgotten the answer," and walks away. Certain people just are the way you wish them to be.

From an interview in the Paris Review:

INTERVIEWER: What is a twerp in the strictest sense, in the original sense?

VONNEGUT: It’s a person who inserts a set of false teeth between the cheeks of his ass.


VONNEGUT: I beg your pardon; between the cheeks of his or her ass. I’m always offending feminists that way.

INTERVIEWER: I don’t quite understand why someone would do that with false teeth.

VONNEGUT: In order to bite the buttons off the back seats of taxicabs. That’s the only reason twerps do it. It’s all that turns them on.

From a commencement address at Agnes Scott College:

But about my Uncle Alex, who is up in Heaven now. One of the things he found objectionable about human beings was that they so rarely noticed it when they were happy; He himself did his best to acknowledge it when times were sweet. We could be drinking lemonade in the shade of an apple tree in the summertime and Uncle Alex would interrupt the conversation to say, "If this isn't nice, what is?" So I hope that you adorable women before me will do the same for the rest of your lives. When things are going sweetly and peacefully, please pause a moment, and then say out loud, "If this isn't nice, what is?"

From "Knowing What's Nice"

Do you know what a Humanist is? I am honorary president of the American Humanist Association, having succeeded the late, great science fiction writer Isaac Asimov in that functionless capacity. We Humanists try to behave well without any expectation of rewards or punishments in an afterlife. We serve as best we can the only abstraction with which we have any real familiarity, which is our community.

We had a memorial services for Isaac a few years back, and at one point I said, "Isaac is up in Heaven now." It was the funniest thing I could have said to a group of Humanists. I rolled them in the aisles. It was several minutes before order could be restored. And if I should ever die, God forbid, I hope you will say, "Kurt is up in Heaven now." That’s my favorite joke.

You will be missed, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., now that you are up in heaven...

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Imus and Freedom of Speech

There's a new webforum that just started called the Citizens' Symposium. The idea is to take a topic and ask a couple of bloggers from different points of view to write a short essay and respond to the others, then throw it open to general discussion. It's a wonderful concept and the first one is up. It's topic is free speech and in this initial symposium, I play Agathon. Please take a look at the essays, they are quite interesting.

It has had me thinking about free speech again. In my piece I ask whether free speech is an end or a means. I argue in line with the classic Enlightenment view that it is a means to good political discourse which is necessary for a functioning democracy. As such, we allow all all voices a seat at the table until what they are saying proves false. Then it works like March Madness, it's a single elimination tournament, get falsified and you're eliminated, voted off the intellectual island.

But one of the other commenters has me thinking about the virtues of false statements. There is always the epistemic reason given so eloquently by William Whewell in the 19th century who argued that falsehoods are the gateways to truth, that they may not bring together the right facts for the right reasons, but they just might bring together the right facts in a way we had never considered before. Logically, even the loser get lucky sometimes.

But then there is the thought that we build up immunity to a disease by being exposed to it. If we live in a germ free environment, we make ourselves more susceptible to illness. This virus metaphor seems the perfect segue for consideration of Don Imus. In my symposium essay, I argue that we need to encourage a wide variety of viewpoints by limiting free speech -- eliminating both falsehoods and bullying speech. This is where Imus gets condemned. But could it be that I'm wrong and the best way to eliminate the power of the bullies is not to eliminate the bullies, but to have them around in order to learn how to fight back effectively? By keeping around a few germs, does it keep us on our intellectual immune system and allow our public discourse to remain healthier or are they more like a cancer and if any is present will it just keep multiplying, pushing all other cells out of the way until it takes over the space held by authentic civil discussion, killing the body politic?

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Meta-Faux Pas: When Do You Say Something?

Last week, I taught the fallacy tu quoque in my critical thinking class. The idea is that just because you do it too doesn't mean that I should disregard your advice not to do it. I reinforce the point by asking the students if any of them have done something REALLY stupid. Of course, every hand goes up. It started me thinking about embarrassing things.

It seems like there are three categories of embarrassing acts. The first is the "oh shit" moment. It's like being in third grade and leaning just a little too far back in your chair and there is that instant when you suddenly realize that no matter how hard you swing your arms in large circles, you are going to tip over backwards. You say something and the very second it comes out of your mouth, you realize that it was entirely inappropriate and wish you could grab the cartoon balloon out of the air.

The second is the "your fly is down" category, the sort of thing that you do and go on embarrassing yourself until someone points it out to you. Of course, in these situations, the right thing to do is to casually hint or whisper to the person that there is a piece of spinach between their front teeth. Indeed, we have a whole vocabulary of euphemisms and little behaviors to indicate these things subtly.

But the category that interests me most is the third one, cases where the person is not only embarrassing himself and unaware of it, but is completely oblivious to the fact that the action is, in fact, embarrassing. The problem is not only the action itself, but at the next level up. It is a failure to understand the context and meaning of the action. It is a meta-faux pas.

Often this happens because someone has a mistakenly inflated image of himself or grossly underestimates the difficulty of some question. When I was adjuncting for a large state university in grad school, there was a bar around the corner from the campus and some of us used to have a beer and shoot some pool occasionally. One day, there was a guy at the table next to us who had struck up a conversation and when he learned I was writing my dissertation on aspects of relativity theory proceeded to tell me that he had disproved Einstein. He was a nice guy, certainly not stupid, but he had graduated high school and never gone to college. It was clear, he didn't really understand the theory, but had constructed an intricately detailed conversation about what the theory of relativity supposedly entailed and where it's logically flaws laid. His conversation was absolutely wrong, start to finish, but he was deeply passionate about it. It no doubt came from some bad pop science books he no doubt read and reread.

What do you do with a meta-faux pas? It is not like you can simply whisper, "the train is leaving the station" and the person will flush as they glance around and quickly zip their fly. The person is obtuse in a way that will take time and probably great effort to dispel. It will cause more than a moment's "oops," but likely will induce some sort of existential crisis because now you are touching what they consider a central part of themselves. Very possibly, they won't accept your correct diagnosis because they have so much invested in their self-image. At the same time, they are embarrassing themselves. Shouldn't you try to help them?

So two questions then. 1) When should you step in with a meta-faux pas? How far does out responsibility go to help people not make fools of themselves? and 2) What's the most embarrassing thing you've ever done?

Here's my story for #2 (not the most embarrassing, but a good story): It was after a Dead show and I was heading home with You Know Who and a car full of other friends and I could not figure out why my lights were dimmer than usual. The car had started ok, so there didn't seem to be a problem with the battery and I wasn't getting a warning light on the dash about the alternator. I got out and checked to see if one of the headlights had burned out, but they were both on, just dim. I was worried because it was a long line of traffic and getting late. After about ten minutes of fretting, I suddenly realized that the lights in the car were was my own headlights that were a little dim -- I had forgotten to change out of my prescription sunglasses which I put on that afternoon. As a subtly tried to change my glasses, blushing, You Know Who busted me. Man, did I feel like an idiot.

Here's my favorite student story for #2: The kid had gotten a little bored after finishing a drink and took the empty glass, put it up to his mouth and sucked out some of the air. The partially evacuated glass stuck to his face like a suction cup. Thinking this was cool and being really bored, he continued sucking the air out of the glass for quite a while even though it was getting progressively more difficult. After a while, he blew air back in and released the glass, not realizing that the more air he had sucked out, the greater the pressure applied to his face by the glass. He had created such a vacuum that the forced had broken all of the blood vessels immediately beneath the rim of the glass and for about a month, he had to walk around with a bright red perfect circle around his mouth.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

Help Me Design My Mid-Life Crisis

So, today is my 39th birthday and I've decided to take the George W. Bush approach to aging. Rather than let the mid-life crisis sneak up on me, I'm going with a pre-emptive strike. Unfortunately, the usual contenders are out: I'm happily married and a sports car wouldn't work for a couple of reasons (one is the environmental impact, the other is that I drive slowly -- actually, I've had Amish people give me the finger). The question, therefore, is what else to put on the list. What have you done or always wanted to do that everyone should do before they turn forty?

Friday, April 06, 2007

Happy Keister

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we celebrate our holiday in honor of the moon, Keister. Of all the parts of the human anatomy, none is more inherently funny than the backside, the gluteus maximus, the heinie. We see it in the references: you can be the butt of a joke, one who makes jokes is a smart ass.

What is it about the tushy that is so funny? Why does mooning get laughs that exposing any other part of the body does not? Is it the shape? Puffy, fleshy, and round with a vertical crack. It does look kind of silly. If the body is a temple, the butt is like hanging a black velvet dogs playing poker over the alter.

Is it that it is associated with the passing of gas. Farts are funny on a number of sensory levels, the sound, the smell -- consider the classic beans scene from Blazing Saddles. The butt is the spatial representation of the floating air biscuit.

Could it be that it is always covered, a forbidden part that is shocking when made public. Backsides are only funny because they are something we don't usually see.

Or is it a combination of the two: because the tuchus is on the flip side of the more regal genitalia, it is treated with the same nobility, while all the time being the source of flatulence and fecal matter, amongst the least majestic of bodily functions. Is the humorous nature of the rear end to be found in this incongruous juxtaposition?

I leave you with a couple of jokes on the backside:

Did you hear about the woman who backed into an airplane propeller? Disaster.

What do you get if you sit on a waffle iron? Hot crossed buns.

Your momma's butt is so big that she is actually taller when she sits down.

Any others, my friends?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Pity Party: Who Do You Feel Sorry For Today?

I feel sorry for Monica Goodling, the former aide to Alberto Gonzales who has to plead the 5th in her bid not to testify before Congress in the US Attorney scandal. A member of the Bush administration's Department of Justice going to the Constitution for protection must be like Ken Lay asking a former Enron employee to lend him five bucks 'til payday.

I feel sorry for Rush Limbaugh's fact checker. I mean, c'mon dude, if you are going to be a non-existent being, at least be an intersting one like a unicorn, Iraqi WMDs, or John McCain's chances of winning the Republican presidential nomination.

I feel sorry for Terry Anderson. This guy must be PISSED. I mean, not only was he held for 2,454 days by the Iranians, but when they released him, he didn't get a gift bag and a free suit.

Who do you feel sorry for today?

Why I Oppose Impeachment

There has been a constant buzz for a very long time about impeachment and when Nancy Pelosi assumed the speakship and announced that the question was off the table, some consternation in the liberal blogosphere. But I think she was right for three reasons.

Impeachment Ought to be Reserved for Extreme Cases

Impeachment is a special type of process that is connected with considerations of the removal of the cheif executive for high crimes and misdemeanors. The Founders created a high bar intentionally. In parliamentary systems they have a no confidence mechanism that can bring down the government when there is widespread dissatisfaction or a loss in trust of the nation's executive. Ours has no such mechanism, in part because the Founders wanted to move away from a parliamentary system with powerful parties. The idea was to make the elections of individuals, not parties, the key. On these grounds, impeachment is truly a metagovernmental process, one that requires the legislators to suspend the regular working order of our governing structure. It does paralyze the government. As such, this should be something that is not entered into lightly, but only pursued when the government is itself paralyzed without such procedures, when the government and governmental structure as a whole -- and not a time limited administration -- is in danger of losing the popular support of the citizens.

Nixon was never impeached because it was ultimately clear that he would be and the government was saved paralyzation. Bush has displayed monumental lapses in judgment, politicized parts of our government that are to be non-political and thereby undermined their work and confidence in them, and started a war on false pretenses, and there are historians evaluating whether these rise to what the Founders were thinking when they wrote "high crimes and misdemeanors," the fact that there is not widespread support for impeachment -- calls coming from and echoes across vast stretches of the political landscape -- indicates that there is not fear of the governmental structure having lost its popular support. As such, unless there is a smoking gun, impeachment would not be warranted.

The Impeachment Process Has Been Injured

This also is happening in an historical context. The fact is that the last President of the United States was impeached by a highly partisan House on charges that did not meet muster. The impeachment procedure was abused by the Republicans, who did try to treat it as a no confidence mechanism, but were not honest about it. As such, any use of the mechanism would be easily cast as merely retaliatory and this would only injure it further. The GOP attempted to undermine this part of our democracy and have made it vulnerable. Are there grounds for impeachment? I don't know. But unless the case is cut and dry, invocation of it would only serve to lower the bar further and make it more trivial. So even if there were grounds, all other things being equal, given that the abuses of the process are so recent so that the wounds on the process are still healing, it seems that impeachment at this time is not desirable.

Impeachment is Politically a Bad Move

On pragmatic political grounds, impeachment is a bad idea. The old adage in politics is "if your opponent is about to jump off the roof, don't push." Bush is the lamest of lame ducks with his popularity dangerously teetering around the 30% mark. Reality has cut him down to size, impeachment wouldn't help but only hurt. The image conjured is the scene in All the President's Men where Woodward is talking to Deep Throat after their published claim that John Mitchell, Nixon's attorney general (the Cheneyesque character in the Watergate saga) was publicly undermined by their source. Deep Throat says, "You screwed up. If you shoot too high and miss everyone feels more comfortable. You've got people feeling sorry for John Mitchell. I didn't think that was possble." If it is not an open and shut case, what we'll see is the same rebound Clinton got. People will feel sorry for that poor persecuted Bush because those mean old Dems are playing politics. Going into the next Presidential season, a weak Bush is best for the Dems and impeachment that isn't a foregone conclusion would backfire, warranted or not.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

The Nature of Soul

On a listserve I subscribe to concerning the academic study of the Grateful Dead, there's been an interesting conversation around the nature of soul, not in the sense of an immaterial essence that survives the body, but soul in art, specifically, in music. The conversation began as a discussion differentiating the lived experience of people who had attended shows by both the Dead and Phish, many (but not all) of whom saying that while they enjoyed and appreciated the latter, there was something different, a depth, a spirituality, something that didn't quite touch them deep down in the same way.

Hypotheses to account for this difference looked at the subject matter and lyrical qualities of the words of the songs, at the musical influences, at the times from which the bands emerged, and their biographical details.

There seems little doubt that some music "has more soul" than others. A rough necessary, but not sufficient condition for "soul" seems to be the ability to invoke an emotional response through empathy with the performer. If someone is being a jerk and their art is insulting and obnoxious, it may cause strong feelings, but that is not soulful; yet, if the performer is angry or portraying anger towards something in the song and it causes you to experience the same sort of emotion, that would be soulful.

Now the standard cliche is "You have to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues." So is soul something that is more than technique, more than the musical equivalent of method acting? Is it something that itself requires the lived experience of strong emotions? Do you have to have been in dire straits and come out the other side to acquire soul? Is it something like, "Once one has felt emotions in a deep place, it is then possible to communicate emotionally in a different way, but trying to copy someone without having 'been in that place' makes it inauthentic and ineffective"?

The music we tend to associate with being soulful does seem to come overwhelmingly from oppressed minorities. Is this a function of the suffering that social and political alienation and violation bring with them? Is soul the artistic version of post-traumatic stress disorder? Those in the group wielding the most power not only have many fewer opportunities to experience great joy or suffering, but tend to be suspicious of strong emotions since they rock the boat, they are a first step towards challenging the structure that gives them their power. Systemic control and self-control seem related and this would mean that those in control would prefer a music that emphasizes self-control -- technical virtuosity and lyrical cleverness instead of emotional amplification.

And in our two bands, we seem to see something similar. Phish's music was certainly different from that of the Dead exploring tone and tempo in interesting ways that were much different from the Dead. Lyrically also, the Dead tend to come from the folk/bluegrass tradition with songs of betrayal and mortality where Phish's lyrics tended towards the ironic and off-beat. This shouldn't seem odd when the Grateful Dead arose from the Beats into interesting times as the ancient Chinese curse would have it, a period of war, assassination, and the struggle for rights, but also a time when there was a belief that the younger generation could change the world with music, love and chemical substances. The music contained, often mournfully, the residue of the times.

But Phish came out of the Reagan years into the era of irony, from a generation that traded scornful glares with the baby-boomers, a time when naive optimism had frayed and a different ethos was running amok in the suburban world of those drawn to scene. When double-speak became the coin of governance and a love/hate relationship emerged towards complacency. The vague fear of losing the comfortable lifestyle always loomed, but the milquetoast existence also repressed. The key to dealing with this sense of the bifurcated neurotic self was musical dada, controlled chaos, safety in rebellion. But to paraphrase Nietzsche, it was upon these grounds that the mind became interesting. Maybe distance is needed for playfulness. The Latin word "esse" gets translated as both mind and soul, but the two seem to be different.