Friday, November 30, 2007

Self-Fulfilling Procrastination

Every notice that the people who spend all that time and energy raking up every last leaf off the lawn in the fall are the same people who spend all that time and energy putting fertilizer on the lawn in the spring? Leave the leaves and what do they become? Fertilizer. That's self-fulfilling procrastination -- something that if you didn't actively do it, it would get done anyway.

I've always thought that drying dishes was an odd activity for exactly that reason. I mean if you didn't go through the hassle and just left those wet dishes sit out, why you'd just end up with dry dishes the next day.

Other examples of self-fulfilling procrastination?

Thursday, November 29, 2007

That's Edutainment

Edutainment: The act of addressing an audience with the dual intentions of having them enjoy themselves and leave with new knowledge, new questions, or a new way of looking at the world.

Thinking about my talk at the Grateful Dead conference in Amherst, my as of yet unoptioned manuscript Was It Morally Good For You, Too?: A How-To Guide For Ethics in Sex, Politics, and Other Dirty Words, and a performance I gave in my intro class yesterday with a couple of visiting high school guidance counselors, I realized that what I really strive to be is an edutainer.

Such a stance receives ridicule within the academy. It takes that which we do, something serious, and cheapens it. There is time for play and time for work and to treat work as play is to fail to be a serious teacher or serious scholar.

My response (in a tone dour enough for it to be deemed respectable) is that this argument equivocates upon the word "serious." One can be serious in the sense of being deeply committed to progress in one's field and in the teaching and training (two different tasks, I must stress) of students while resisting the call to be serious in the sense of having a heavy, staid air about oneself. Gravity is not necessarily antithetical to levity in the classroom. Thinking back, my favorite teachers, the ones I really learned the most from, were master edutainers.

Students learn for three reasons: love, fear, and utility. If students think that material will be useful and help them in the long run, they'll do the work. Similarly, if they have the sense that a class is really hard and needs the effort or else they don't have a chance of passing, they'll do what they need to do. But to get students really engaged, you need for them to be self-motivated, to have a sense that they really want to know this stuff for no reason other than they really want to know it.

And we all know this because at our best, that's us. We're teaching this stuff because we've chosen to dedicate our lives to it because we're the ultimate geeks who just think this stuff -- whatever it is we study -- is really, really cool. Why then are so many of us complete buzzkills in the classroom? Why are we so resistant to inspiring the love of a subject by associating it with a pleasurable time learning about it?

Is it a fear that fun will be confused with easy? If students have a good laugh during class time, do we really think they'll think you're a pushover? Of course, a bad grade on an early assignment enough to dispel that. Include jokes about how hard it is to do this sort of work and the message, "You can have fun and work hard at the same time" is quite simple to convey. So, then, what is it?

Is it an elitism where we don't want too many people interested, only the serious ones who love it for the right reasons? Or that the fun stuff is reserved for those who pass the initiation -- who successfully run the gauntlet of boring and still want in?

Is it laziness? It's just easier to phone it in and if the students weren't implicitly motivated to do the work, that was their fault not ours. I'm here to educate, not entertain. They are here to work, they should not need to be told why they are doing the work, they should just do it.

My biggest pet peeve as a student was being asked to learn something without it being explained why we were learning it. I don't mind doing the work, but I need a road map that tells me WHY I'm doing the work. Don't tell me, "Just do it, you'll see why in the end" -- I probably won't fully get it, no matter how smart I am. I'm not an idiot, but I'll fully admit I didn't understand much of the physics I had studied as an undergrad until I did my work in the history and philosophy of physics in grad school and after. That is a failing of the way we teach.

Students learn better if they have a structure on which to hang the new things they learn...and here's the punchline...building that structure means telling the stories, building the historical narrative around the study and those stories are incredibly entertaining. A funny story here, an unexpected twist there, a historical connection between two things students hadn't realized were deeply intertwined and suddenly they are at a place of deeper interaction. Edutainment makes for students who both are better equipped to really understand the material and who are more motivated to do the work needed to gain the knowledge.

And it's not only in the classroom that we need more edutainment. We need to find more Mr. Wizards and Carl Sagans. Students from the middle school classroom to college mention shows like Mythbusters and the Daily Show where they take away something from their entertainment. We don't need shark week to make science interesting, but we can engage and ramp up the theoretical content at the same time if we are smart and clever about it.

But what do we need to make this work? A farm system. We need a deep bench of professional edutainers. We need people across the academy who have great schticks and could be brought in on any topic. Build up the supply and then the demand will be there.

The problem, of course, is that the reward structure in higher education discourages edutainment -- even if it is what our students really want and need. So, the question then is how to go about changing the incentive system for professors to encourage edutainment? I'm not suggesting that everyone who teaches needs to be an edutainer anymore than one would suggest that everyone professor be a top-rate scholar, but in this line of work, we need more. How do we do it?

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Little Known Philosophers

Too often professional philosophers remain safely within the canonical offerings when discussing ideas, leaving lesser known writers to fade from the discourse. Today, I would like to reintroduce a few of these more obscure figures from the history of thought:

Mediocrates: A classical Greek rhetorician generally not considered wise enough to actually be a sophist. He was most famous for his semi-anthropic epistemological principle: "Man is the measure of a few things."

Marcus Nottrelius: A Roman skeptic whose arguments were so incredibly successful that, even today, no one believes he existed.

Heinrich Rottmann Puffenschtuff: A 19th century German romantic ethical nihilist who, being deeply influenced by the anti-rationalist undertones in Mozart's The Magic Flute, was led to argue that "one ought not do a little, as one cannot do enough."

Hermann Neutiks: A German philosopher of the early 20th century who contended with a raised eyebrow that everything appears meaningless unless it is all read at one time in its entirety in the original Greek. His writings were roundly dismissed, except by those who claimed with a raised eyebrow that they were deeply meaningful if read at one time in their entirety in the original Greek.

J.J.C. "Jean Paul" Smartre: A mid-20th century thinker who tried to bridge the analytic/continental divide by combining Heiddeger's notion of being with Carnap's analysis of time only to arrive at the idea of "der Neonsein" in which one experiences an alternating blinking in and out of existence.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Derrida, Global Warming, and Naomi Wolf

Over at Lawyers, Guns, and Money, d takes whack at Naomi Wolf:

Here she is in medias absurdum:

"In the Reagan era, when the Iran-contra scandal showed a disregard for the rule of law, college students were preoccupied with the fashionable theories of post-structuralism and deconstructionism, critical language and psychoanalytic theories developed by French philosophers Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida that were often applied to the political world, with disastrous consequences. These theories were often presented to students as an argument that the state -- even in the United States -- is only a network of power structures. This also helped confine to the attic of unfashionable ideas the notion that the state could be a platform for freedom; so much for the fusty old Rights of Man."

I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me how Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Derridean literary analysis were actually "applied" to American politics during the 1980s. Moreover, I'm curious to know how Wolf arrives the idea that these theories are to blame for persuading anyone that the state is merely an instrument of power or an on-shore holding corporation for late capitalism. Until the sun rises on that day, I'm going to assume that people who follow this line of argument either (a) haven't ever read Grapes of Wrath or (b) are simply taking advantage of the opportunity to cheap-shot the French and the English Department in the same breath.

I've tried to explain this to skeptical friends and colleagues over the years, but -- pass the smelling salts -- it was completely possible during the 1980s to receive an English degree without reading a single word of Continental literary theory. No, really. Aside from the point that there's nothing inherently corrosive about any of the intellectual tendencies Wolf mentions, the fact remains that with the exception of about a dozen or so students enrolled at elite universities, almost no one gave a gingersnap about Of Grammatology during the 1980s. If Wolf wants to understand why young people are supposedly feeling "depressed, cynical and powerless," I can't imagine why she'd include the reading list for the Yale English Department's senior seminar.
Gotta say, I think d missed the target on this one. Explain how Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Derridean literary analysis were actually "applied" to American politics during the 1980s? Easy. Two words...political correctness.

When post-structuralist thought leaked out of the philosophy departments and into the academy more generally, it got twisted and in one of the intellectual left's big interests at the time -- how to incorporate the experiences of oppressed groups into the national narrative -- the intricacies and complexities got stripped away leaving a naive doctrine that continues to have effects on our discourse. The interesting work in women's studies, African-American studies, and queer studies got dumbed down and the result was a charge against offensive speech, the very hallmark of the left in that period. (I wrote on exactly this question this a year or so ago over at Butterflies and Wheels if you want the long version.)

PC was the bastard stepchild of postmodern, post-structuralist, Derridian tide. No, the folks behind PC and speech codes were not well versed in it. No, you won't find a naive epistemological relativism in it (although there were some pieces in Social Text at the time...). But it was the one place in the 80s where the left had a big effect on the political climate and that is where it originated.

These days with right-wing fundamentalists pushing intelligent design and oil companies and their political puppets denying global warming, it's easy to forget that in the 80s and 90s, the science war was not being fought across the political divide. The attacks on science were coming from those on the left who had explicit desires to align their positions with precisely with Lacanian psychoanalysis, post-structuralism, and Derridean literary analysis. It was the need to push back against global warming deniers and intelligent designers -- something the humanistic left was unable to do -- that forced the pro-science left back into a place of prominence.

While the story Wolf tells is, of course, oversimplified, I don't think she was wrong with this point.

That's Professor SteveG, To You...Or Not

I teach critical thinking to a middle school class and the teacher has the students call me Dr. Gimbel. I've had my Ph.D. for almost a decade now, but it still sounds funny to my ear. Part of that is the fact that at work, my students all call me Steve (although I'm sure my logic students have several other more colorful names for me...).

an interesting post over at Adventures in Ethics and Science about titles in academia. It begins with an observation from ScienceWoman that students are much more likely to refer to a female prof as Ms. or Mrs. than they are to refer to a male prof as Mr., rather it is much more frequent that the more prestigious title Dr. or Professor will be used if the referent is a man. This is something that I've seen as well.

Indeed, some of my female colleagues tell me that they received explicit instructions from older female colleagues to demand that students refer to them by title in order to reinforce their authority, something they will not have, or at least have a harder time establishing, if they are allowed a more informal greeting.

I will freely admit that this is one place I undeservedly profit from male privilege. Not only am I male, but with the beard, small glasses, and greying ponytail, my goofy jokes and obscure references in the classroom, I am a walking caricature of the archetypal philosophy professor. I look like I'm right out of some sit-com about college life. As a result, I get instant recognition as "The Professor" and all of the respect that comes with matching up to the preconceived image.

That said, however, the whole title thing has always rubbed me the wrong way. Having to lean on the fact that you survived grad school for respect in the classroom frankly strikes me as cheesy. Maybe it's the liberal arts kool-aid kicking in, but creating a comfortable environment seems advantageous to learning and when the mode of address begins the student-teacher relationship with an explicit statement of "you are my inferior, linguistically bow unto me" it seems not to foster the sort of interactions that would be most conducive to growing and stretching one's mind.

Maybe it's because I have a skewed reference frame here because I work in a place where pretty much everyone has a Ph.D., so it just doesn't seem that big of a deal.(Everyone, that is, except the studio art folks and they DO get less respect in certain ways from some corners -- so that does seem to speak to a problem with my position.) Insisting on the title creates an alienation -- indeed, this distance is exactly why the senior profs insist upon it -- but that alienation does not seem to help in the learning process which is supposed to be our task.

I especially wonder about this advice coming from academic feminists, one of the central concerns of the field being the corrupting epistemological influence of uneven power structures. I fully get the irony that just when these women reach positions of power and prestige, we want to eliminate power and prestige; but the further irony is that their works document the harm from alienation based on power and prestige of being in a socially elite group which surely includes holders of a Ph.D., if it includes anyone. I'm not arguing that any professor doesn't deserve respect for their work and accomplishments, but to flaunt the title as a marker of superiority strikes me as unhelpful in getting students, who are just people (well, some of them anyway) like us to a place where it is most likely that they will see the world in new, wondrous, and disturbing ways. It seems to be emblematic of the old order where professors professed from behind a lectern, pouring their wisdom into the minds of those hearing their lectures -- a model of learning none of us thinks works very well.

Friday, November 23, 2007

If There is a Comic God, Show Me a Sign

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This weekend we talk about found comedy, those chuckles that one gets by tripping over something undeniably and unintentionally funny, specifically ones you find on advertising signs.

As a child, there was a local strip mall called "The Square" with a notoriously small parking lot. To keep those with business elsewhere from taking up needed slots, they posted a large sign that said "Parking for Square customers only." It caused me great distress as a child to know that as a family, we were not so hip as to be forced to find parking elsewhere.

Often the humor comes from malfunction. Burned out lights allow signs to say something completely different, such as the flea bag motel on the edge of Frederick that for the longest time had parts of its neon "M" burned out so it actually advertised itself as a "notel."

But my favorite was a grocery store, Foodarama, who simultaneously had a burned out d, r, and m, making the sign read Foo-a-a-a.

And then there are the signs that advertise businesses that are named in such a fashion that you cannot help but marvel. The greatest name of any business I've every come across is near Lexington Market in Baltimore, Horney's Hardware. The ads just write themselves, don't they?

So, funniest signs you've ever come across?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

What is the Function of Thanksgiving?

In one of my favorite passages from his writings, Peter Achinstein distinguishes between three meanings of the word "function,"

Suppose that a magnificent chair was designed as a throne for a king, i.e., it was designed to seat the king. However, it is actually used by the king's guards to block a doorway in the palace. Finally, suppose that although the guards attempt to block the doorway by means of that chair they are unsuccessful. The chair is so beautiful that it draws crowds to the palace to view it, and people walk through the doorway all around the chair to gaze at it. But its drawing such crowds does have the beneficial effect of inducing more financial contributions for the upkeep of the palace, although this was not something intended. What is the function of the chair?
Achinstein argues that the question is ambiguous and we need to look at three things. The design-function of the chair is to seat the king -- that's what it was designed to accomplish. The use-function is to block the doorway -- that is what it is intentionally used for. The service-function is to raise money for the upkeep of the palace -- that's what it actually does.

I want to ask the same question about Thanksgiving. Now, the design-function of Thanksgiving is tied up in the mythology of the supposed first feast with the Pilgrims and the Indians, it involves bringing people together and being thankful for the bounty we have received from the Earth. The use-function, I argued a few weeks back is to provide a safe social space for gluttony, a chance to indulge and not feel guilty. But what is the service-function? What do we actually get from Thanksgiving? In the end, what is the sociological pay-off?

Surely, family togetherness is a part of it. The regular high school football rivalry games enlarge the scope to reveal community togetherness. The long weekend including Black Friday helps the holiday serve a financial function. Others?

What is the service-function of Thanksgiving?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Saying Thank You For a Real Good Time

Someone there best described it as fantasy camp for Deadheads. The conference, Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead in Music, Culture and Memory, was truly amazing.

The conference opened on Friday morning with Rebecca Adams introducing her sociological studies on the Deadhead community. Doc Tour is the pioneer of Dead Studies, the first person to seriously do solid academic work on the scene, famous for taking her class on tour. The question she asked was how a community with no geographical home could survive for so long. Among the factors she identifies as the glue were shared love of the music, communal beliefs in concepts like synchronicity, a shared sense of being apart from the larger culture, but first and foremost, friendship. Touring created friendships that were deep and lasting, even among those who only saw each other on occasion by fortunate happenstance. It was the perfect opening as it simultaneously put out there exactly what makes the community so fascinating and wonderful, but also showed how smart, technical academic work could be done without stripping it of its magic, how legitimate analysis does not necessarily mean being dispassionately removed from it, something that would keep someone from getting it.

During the question and answer period, Rebecca was asked several questions about the uniqueness of the community and what other groups might compare. Conversation began around the fans of other contemporary bands and sports teams, but turned historical with Rebecca suggesting that a similar understanding might be set out for the Roma people of central Europe and someone else suggested early Christians at which point someone asked whether we ought to be worried that in a thousand years there might be killing in Jerry's name.

Closing the first session, at the request of Mountain Girl (Jerry's wife Carolyn Garcia), everyone joined together to sing Uncle John's Band led by the Kind Buds, a fantastic acoustic duo from Vermont. Hearing a couple hundred folks all singing "ain't no time to hate" raised the hair on the back of my neck. It really set the tone for the weekend.

From here, there were two to three simultaneous sessions, so sadly I can only report on those I attended (the group mind thing only works so well...). David Lemieux, the keeper of vault, discussed the moving of the Dead's extensive music archive from the Dead's own facility in Northern California to Warner Brothers' in Los Angeles. He actively sought to allay fears that the move is the disaster some portend. He says that the physical vault itself is a better one, that only two WB people have access and that it is a fine place where everything is safe and sound. Herb Greene then gave a stunning presentation of his photographs of the band (and others). His portraits are iconic and it was incredible to see shots from the same sessions as the ones that we all have burned into our minds. This one of Pigpen really got me.

Lunch brought with it a talk by Dan Healy, the master of the soundboard for so many years. He was sweet and funny, discussing the way that he was hired when he told Garcia that something had to be done to make the vocals clearer than the house PA systems were doing. Jerry told him, fine, do it. From there, he began experimenting with the electronics, working to create new sorts of amps since the commercially available technology had not advanced since the 1920s. The new ideas the Dead sound people were developing were poo-pooed by the industry, but once the wall of sound (described by Healy as "a pain in the ass") came around, things started to change and by the end of the run of the wall of sound, commercially available technology had caught up with the Dead's stuff and they were able to go back to doing things the easy way.

The next session brought together Natalie Dollar's discussion of Deadhead linguistic conventions, especially the way location gets referred to. Chaone Mallory looked at the question of the relation between ecological awareness and being being a Deadhead. Was there a implicit commitment to the environment within the movement? David Gans wondered aloud why he was there, but, of course, it was to do what he does so well, to call bullshit whenever something smells wrong to him and to provide his sharp and sweeping perspective on the scene.

The late afternoon session examined spiritual dimensions of the movement. It was chaired by Stanley Krippner, the psychologist who has worked on dreams and consciousness since the early 60s and was the one who conducted the famous dream/ESP experiments at the Dead shows in Port Chester in 1971. He discussed his relationship with the band members, including the use of hypnosis on the drummers to aid in their performative unity. Mary Goodenough discussed the dual notions of light and dark in the Dead, of being in and out of the Garden. It was a point picked up by Steve Silberman who also thought that the spiritual ecstasy experienced by so many at the shows was in part a response to the danger -- not knowing if you will in fact get your next meal, fear of local authorities -- that the middle and upper class kids on tour generally had never known in the safe bubble of their upbringing. John Dwork discussed the way that music and movement could be used to induce transformative experiences. Mountain Girl was asked when the Dead first realized that there was a spiritual element of the experience of the audience. She said that the first person to note it was Bill Graham and the when he put it that way, the band's uniform responses was "Like church? Ewwwww."

Dinner that night was followed by Dennis McNally's keynote address that examined how one could go from Ph.D. holding historian to rock publicist. He reflected wistfully on the way for years and years, no matter how much he schmoozed, no matter how clearly he tried to explain the depth of what was happening, no matter how much he tried to prep reporters from local rags to the New York Times, all he could ever get was "look at these damn dirty hippies" stories out of them. That is until Jerry's collapse from diabetes at which point the narrative changed to the Dead as beloved, if not quaint, American icons.

That night we were all wowed by The American Beauty Project which brought together long time Dylan sideman Larry Campbell, the amazing Catherine Russell, Jim Lauderdale, and Ollabelle along with David Gans to perform arrangements of American Beauty and Workingman's Dead. It was wonderful. The highlight for me was "Easy Wind," a tune I, of course, never got to hear.

Saturday arrived plenty early with the philosophy session following breakfast. After my stand-up silliness, Stan Spector gave a very clever discussion of Dead anti-rationalism through the lens of Nietzsche. I don't know how I never heard "Reason tatters, the forces tear loose from their axes" as a repudiation of Descartes before (who championed rational thought and introduced analytic geometry with its x and y axes -- Cartesian coordinates) but Stan has changed Dark Star for me forever. Jim Tuedio also focused on the Dead as performative and bodily, indicative of the reuniting of the body and life, where chance replaces reason allowing us to move beyond ourselves. He will forever be remembered as the author of the sentence: "Until I heard the band live, three years later, by which time I had stumbled onto a used copy of American Beauty and invested in a brand-spanking-new copy of Europe 72, I had no idea a song could manifest a life of its own, or that an entire crowd of transfixed auditory surveillance instruments could modulate to identical frequencies of dancing attunement without the slightest absence of personal engagement." I really love that sentence.

Stnaley Krippner and Sidian Morningstar, grandson of Rolling Thunder, then discussed the life of Rolling Thunder and his interactions with the band as well as his healing powers as a medicine man.

Lunch brought a panel with Dan Healy and Mountain Girl reflecting on the trip to Egypt until the arrival of Bill Walton whose joy turned the conversation inside out. He spoke of bringing the entire Celtic team to see the Dead in Boston -- with the exception of Danny Ainge, who wife wouldn't let him go. They had a special area on stage, but curtained off so the crowd couldn't see them. As the show is about to start, Jerry looks up at Larry Bird, winks, and mouths to him "This is what WE do," and proceeded to blow their collective mind.

After lunch was a session on the Dead and gender -- begun with a rousing full room sing-a-long to women are smarter. Rachel Gallop led a conversation on her research about the role and representation of women in the counter-culture. It was an interesting take, arguing that you cannot apply contemporary feminist analysis to the hippie chicks without anachronism sneaking in. Mountain Girl then reflected back on being a female Merry Prankster (a very egalitarian group where everyone had their turn to shop and cook, although she never did, to her regret, get to drive the bus), a brief period as a homeless mother, and then the woman of the house for the Dead's communal home at 710 Ashbury where she did all the cooking and "womanly" work. She reflected on her joy at Hunter's return to the gang at which point the songs became beautiful and less overtly sexist than the old rollicking blues standards. She was sweet, smart, and open in a touching way. What rounded it out though, was the response of Rony Stanley, Owsley's former wife, who discussed the crafts, the bead making, they would all do together, the way that even in a situation that was patriarchal the women still found ways to be creative and joyful. It was the session that most touched me.

The last panel of the conference brought together Christian Crumlish and Steve Silberman looking technology and Deadheads. It is amazing how the advance of computers and the internet at every step included Deadheads in significant places. Indeed, a running conversation throughout the weekend in several different informal conversations was why there are so many Deadheads with professional interests in physics.

That night Dark Star Orchestra performed 12-12-78. It was my first DSO show, something I had been putting off because I worried that a pale representation would feel hallow, but having the parking lot of the conference, walking to the show with my family of friends, it did recreate something I really thought I would never feel again.

A few memorable comments:

Stan in the hotel, getting off the elevator and seeing the "ice/vending" sign, said "Man, I expected to see someone selling t-shirts."

David Dodd tells me that Ripple will be in the next version of the Unitarian Universalist hymnal.

I must thank all those involved in putting it together -- especially Michael Grabscheid, Wesley Blixt, Rebecca Adams, and Nick Meriwether. thank you for all of your time effort, and care. It was truly a once in lifetime experience...unless you want to do it again...

Monday, November 19, 2007

Two Questions

Two quick questions today -- tomorrow, my reflections on the conference.

1) How much should you leave as a tip for the housekeepers in a hotel? Does it make a difference whether it is a swanky upscale hotel or a fleabag motel? Is it a function of the number of nights you stay? Does it matter if you asked for changes in linens daily as opposed to only having service after you check out?

2) Do elders deserve special respect by virtue of being elders? Does wisdom necessarily come with experience? Is an elder anyone older than you or is there a specific age at which one becomes an elder? Is it a matter of the difference in ages?

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Favorite Blog Names

Short post today because I am on the road. I'll be speaking this weekend at Unbroken Chain: The Grateful Dead in Music, Culture, and Memory -- it's being billed as the largest conference on the legacy of the Grateful Dead, and the first to be held by a major university. Starting tomorrow, I'll blog the conference, posting about the sessions as frequently as I get a chance for those who are interested.

But for today, here's a quickie for you folks to bat around. Until recently, I thought Axis of Evel Knievel would forever remain unchallenged as the cleverest blog name to play off a celebrity. But I've recently come across one that gives d a run for his money -- Deutschland uber Elvis.

As a big fan of extreme cleverness, what are your nominees for funniest, wittiest, or cleverest blog names? (Please include links to give these folks the little extra traffic which they deserve.)

Bullshit or Not: Feyerabend Editon

There's an old sketch film called Amazon Women on the Moon and one of the bits is a parody of the old Leonard Nimoy show, "In Search Of..." called, "Bullshit or Not?" with the tagline "Bullshit or not? You decide." It's a line I like so much that I've stolen it for a regular series of posts.

This week is philosophy of science's bad boy, Paul Feyerabend.

a little brainwashing will go a long way in making the history of science duller, simpler, more uniform, more ‘objective’ and more easily accessible to treatment by strict and unchangeable rules.

Scientific education as we know it today has precisely this aim. It simplifies ‘science’ by simplifying its participants: first, a domain of research is defined. The domain is separated from the rest of history (physics, for example, is separated from metaphysics and from theology) and given a ‘logic’ of its own. A thorough training in such a ‘logic’ then conditions those working in the domain; it makes their actions more uniform and it freezes large parts of the historical process as well. Stable ‘facts’ arise and persevere despite the vicissitudes of history. An essential part of the training that makes such facts appear consists in the attempt to inhibit institutions that might lead to a blurring of boundaries. A person’s religion, for example, or his metaphysics, or his sense of humour (his natural sense of humour and not the inbred and always rather nasty kind of jocularity one finds in specialized professions) must not have the slightest connection with his scientific activity. His imagination is restrained, and even his language ceases to be his own. This is again reflected in the nature of scientific ‘facts’ which are experienced as being independent of opinion, belief, and cultural background.

It is thus possible to create a tradition that is held together by strict rules, and that is also successful to some extent. But is it desirable to support such a tradition to the exclusion of everything else? Should we transfer to it the sole rights for dealing in knowledge, so that any result that has been obtained by other methods is at once ruled out of court? And did scientists ever remain within the boundaries of the traditions they defined in this narrow way? To these questions my answer will be a firm and resounding NO.
So, is the scientific method a myth created to assure science a privileged place in society, but one that ends up destroying science in the process?

As usual, feel free to leave comments ranging from a single word to a dissertation. So...bullshit or not?

Monday, November 12, 2007

Defining Torture

MT asks,

What does it mean or what ought it to mean when we say that either an experience or an act is torture? (Have you blogged on this yet? I wouldn't be surprised, but don't remember). If torture in either of these senses could--say, in an isolated and even secret instance--ever be ethically apt, then is there something like it, which you could articulate, that we'd be better off denouncing or prohibiting--at least regarding the reasonable goal of speaking with precision, consistency and truthfulness about atrocities. (BTW, not trying to foment anything between you and Helmut)
This is a fantastic question, especially in light of the Mukasey equivocation on waterboarding.

It is probably worth looking at a few standard or significant attempts to define the term. The Geneva Convention disallows torture explicitly in several places, but never offers a definition of the term.

The UN's definition from the ratified "Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment" is:
For the purposes of this Convention, the term "torture" means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
What is interesting here is that the notion of torture is defined in terms of (1) the severe consequences of the act, (2) the intentions of those perpetrating the act, and (3)the consent of a government official.

The McCain amendment uses this definition augmenting it with the provisions from the fifth, eighth, and fourteenth amendments basically adding cruel and unusual to the definition.

The Rome Statute that sets up the International Criminal Court, gives a more stripped down version:
"the intentional infliction of severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, upon a person in the custody or under the control of the accused; except that torture shall not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to, lawful sanctions"
Here we have (1) the severe consequences, but no specification of intent and no mention of official sanction.

The Bybee memo which the Bush administration uses to define torture is broader still:
"certain acts may be cruel, inhuman, or degrading, but still not produce pain and suffering of the requisite intensity to fall within Section 2340A’s proscription against torture...for an act to constitute torture as defined in Section 2340, it must inflict pain that is difficult to endure. Physical pain amounting to torture must be equivalent to intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death. For purely mental pain or suffering to amount to torture under Section 2340, it must result in significant psychological harm of significant duration, e.g., lasting for months or even years. We conclude that the mental harm also must result from one of the predicate acts listed in the statute, namely: threats of imminent death; threats of infliction of the kind of pain that would amount to physical torture; infliction of such physical pain as a means of psychological torture; use of drugs or other procedures designed to deeply disrupt the senses, or fundamentally alter an individual’s personality; or threatening to do any of these things to a third party. The legislative history simply reveals that Congress intended for the statute’s definition to track the Convention’s definition of torture and the reservations, understandings, and declarations that the United States submitted with its ratification. We conclude that the statute, taken as a whole, makes plain that it prohibits only extreme acts."
Here the only criterion is the severity of the consequences and the bar is significantly raised on the meaning of "severity."

From these three, the Rome Statute strikes me as the most appropriate. One could imagine torture without official sanction and for no seemingly coherent intent. Likewise the Bush administration's definition is appallingly narrow.

The second part of the question is whether or not we can concoct a situation in which an act satisfying this definition is morally permissible or morally necessary. This is a classic game in which you take an act that a deontological or duty-based ethic rules out and see if you can create conflict by designing a scenario where the utilitarian calculation makes not doing it so unpalatable that everyone has to say it is the lesser of two evils.

One way to avoid the game is to load the definition like we do with murder. Murder is by definition immoral killing. If we make torture by definition immoral treatment of a prisoner, then the problem is solved but only because we beg the question. Being the sharp one that MT is, the framing of the question ruled out this fallacious move from the start.

So could we come up with a situation that would allow or require us to torture? Of course we can, but it is a bullshit game. This is the standard move, the Dershowitz ploy, the rhetorical scam for those who want to defend the use of torture. The real question we are faced with is "In the context of the world we are living in, with the actual dangers we face, and with the actual resulting harm that torture does to the torturing society, in the cases we will actually have to consider will there be a plausible case for torturing people in our custody?" But pulling the bait and switch, the question they then answer is "Is there a possible world in which some situation can be artificially created which ignores the larger ramifications of torture on the broader society and only looks at the hypothetically immense harm caused by an unrealistic fabricated threat in which that threat could be avoided by torture?" Is there an affirmative answer to the Dershowitz ploy? Of course, it isn't hard to come up with one at all. If you are a Supreme Court Justice, you might even look to a series on Fox to provide them for you.

The real question is whether there is an affirmative answer to the real question of torture and not the strawman version. And here, when you look not only at the duty-based approach that says, "Never torture" but also realistically look at the actual lingering effects that permitting torture has on the torturing society, when you look at the inability of torture to provide reliable information, when you look at the destruction of moral authority and the subsequent inability of the nation to be taken seriously in international forums concerning geopolitical affairs, when you add upall of the actual harm that torture does to us the answer is no.

The way the pro-torture arguments work is with a trick I've mentioned many times on this blog -- limiting the scope of discussion. Notice that the only harms the defenses of torture allow into the discussion are those potentially done by the tortured person if he is not tortured. Putting aside the fact that they have the deck stacked by setting up the game so that they can inflate beyond comprehension the damage done since the situation is their hypothetical, they pull another fast one by allowing under consideration only the harm that gets written down on their side of the ledger and conclude by arguing that the numbers add up to support them. OF COURSE THEY DO, THEY COOKED THE BOOKS TO GET THOSE NUMBERS! The only thing on the anti-torture side of the argument they allow is the good of following duty, they completely eliminate all of the real long-term costs of torture by drawing a line around the situation and not allowing any thought beyond the question of allow or prevent hypothetical terrible act x. So, if you ignore all the harm torture does, then yes, of course, torture is harmless and only does good.

It's intellectual three-card monty. It's a logical scam, a rhetorical game you can't win. It's a game we shouldn't play because what it really does is not only make you lose, but allow them to cage off the real question, the actual question we ought to be thinking about.

Piracy and the Writers' Strike

R. Porter asks,

Steve, this is really late, but I was wondering if you could address the interesting ethical questions raised by this suggestion regarding piracy during the WGA strike.
Where this suggestion refers to
Kay makes this point about piracy in a time of war:

What I don't want people to do, however, is download episodes from iTunes or watch episodes on a network's website. WRITERS DO NOT GET COMPENSATED FOR THAT. Our "Moonlight" episode was one of the most popular downloads of the week and we get nothing.

When you illegally download something and the network doesn't get any money for it, they call it piracy. But when you download something or watch streaming video with commercials and the writers don't get any money for it, the networks call it promotion. DON'T LET THEM GET AWAY WITH THIS. Steal from the networks. You KNOW how much they hate it. But we're not supposed to hate it if they steal from us. Somehow, that's their logic. If you don't know how to use Bittorrent, go read up on it. It's very simple, and you can find anything you're looking for [on sites like Torrentz and MiniNova]. The quality of Bittorrent downloads is, ironically, FAR better than the downloads you can get at iTunes or the streaming video on the networks' website. So if it's not out on DVD, don't let those bastards make one red cent off the writers, directors and actors. Because they're STEALING from us.

Piracy in a time of war is known as privateering.
Before I comment, here's a primer on the writers' strike -- So, the writers whose work it is profited upon by the networks with no compensation to those whose labor and intelligence produced the work. The work can be acquired without compensation to the networks and so the writers are asking people to treat the networks as they treat the writers, something the networks deplore when they are on the short end of the stick, but don't mind when on the long end.

The easy part is to condemn the double standard. Yeah, the networks are corporate scum, we should all be supporting the writers here.

The question is whether there is something wrong with the downloads. The obvious argument against doing it is that the writers begin by admitting it is morally problematic because it forms the basis of their grievance and two wrongs don't make a right.

The arguments on the other side are three: (1) You are not just randomly downloading these things and not compensating the owner of the intellectual property for personal gain, but rather doing so as a stand against injustice, you are acting for the greater good, (2) You are doing this with explicit permission from the person who created it and therefore has the right to give it away if he or she chooses, therefore it is not stealing, (3) invoking the "in a time of war" idea, there are certain situations where the social contract is no longer in enforcement because of a revolution which requires destroying the old institutions and rebuilding from the ground up which is what is happening now with the strike.

I will leave Hanno to reply to 3 and whether it fits this situation (it's one of those issues he's thought a whole lot about). I'll simply look at whether 1 and 2 override the argument on the other side. The first one seems weak to me as the downloading may be a symbolic act and it may feel good to give someone a taste of their own medicine, but it really is not something that is truly contributing to furthering the cause.

The second argument on the other hand is interesting because it considers the questions of the distribution of rights for intellectual property. The reason I so dislike the notion of intellectual property is that it applies 16th century ideas that make sense when talking about material goods and tries to apply them to non-material ideas. The whole thing stinks of a category mistake and this is exactly the sort of case that shows it. Who has the right to the thing created? Surely, one has rights to the fruits of one's labors and these would be alienable rights that the writers could distribute to any or everyone if they choose. But suppose exercising those rights conflicts with the rights of the benefactor, in this case, the networks. Do they even have these rights or did they wrongly appropriate them because they have money and power? And if they exercise their rights by violating those of the writers, does that then allow the writers to respond in kind because of a broken contract -- implicit, in this case, the explicit one being negotiated by this process.

Gotta say, I don't know, but the writers here have a point in making the whole morass visible in this way. It is a great illustration of the murkiness and trouble that surrounds the entire notion of property rights.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Commercial Comedy and the Problem of Seriousness

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week a couple of deep philosophico-theological Comedist questions were raised by good brother Hanno -- well, brother Hanno, anyway. So let's consider them both.

Brother Hanno asked,

How can an all perfect God allow unfunny things to happen?
Ah, the Comedist version of the problem of evil. This is a matter of some debate amongst Comedist theologians (or at least will be when there actually are Comedist theologians...) One view is that all Creation is part of a great inside joke that only the Cosmic Comic understands and what we see as unfunny is actually funny to one with infinite humor. Another blames human free will for that which is unfunny. A third view is that a joke requires a set up which is not funny in order for there to be a punchline which is, so that all of the unfunniness you see in the world just proves that reality is not a one-liner. A fourth response is to simply laugh at the person who asked the question.

It was also asked,
What is the status of humor used in commercials? Is it a sin before the comedic God, the use of something holy to feed rampant consumerism? Or is it a mitzvah, making bearable though humor what is a fact of life, the commercialization of everything?
A complex case indeed. On the one hand, we must remember "Render unto Sid Caesar, that which belongs to Caesar, and render unto the Lord that which belongs to the Lord." Only the Cosmic Comic stands outside of all historical context, we limited finite beings must understand that we are to be funny wherever we are. Comedy is not incompatible with capitalism, especially small scale markets where consumer and producer meet face to face. Bargaining, if done well, can be frickin' hilarious (no, no, no, you're supposed to 'aggle).

That said, humor is a powerful weapon that can be used for good or ill. Comedy can be misused to lead people into oppression and large scale corporate capitalism can lead to lives devoid of the joy and laughter that Comedists see as the well-lived human life for all. The idea of a sweatshop, for example, can be pretty funny:
Clerk: And what about this one?
Customer: No, too gym sockish, I was looking for something a little more musky.
But what we've done with the Marianas Islands, for example,is a disgrace and humor used to contribute to or divert concern from this deliberate destruction of human joy and well-being for profit would be very much counter to Comedist teachings.

But, then, there are some really really funny commercials. I've found some of the "Need to get away?" spots particularly amusing. What do you in the congregation think are the funniest commercials ever?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, November 09, 2007

Not So Deep Thoughts

Gwydion asks,

If you could pick three comic actors from throughout history to star in a new "buddy picture," who would you pick?

Here's the catch: the film has to be titled "I Nearly Killed Him."

For my money, I'd like to see John Cleese, Robin Williams, and Groucho Marx... with Mel Brooks as director.
A comedy dream team. Fortunately, a number of them already exist -- Jimmy Durante, Buddy Hackett, and the Three Stooges -- It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Rodney Dangerfield, Bill Murray, Chevy Chase -- Caddyshack. Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor co-wrote Blazing Saddles.

I like your thought, but Robin Williams tends not to be so good in an ensemble -- you have to let him roll. But you've claimed Cleese and Groucho making it even harder. I would want "I Nearly Killed Him" to be the long lost Pink Panther film starring Peter Sellers, Marty Feldman, and Steve Martin.

C. Ewing writes,
Which is cooler, the JSA or JLA? Why?

If you could join either of the above (but obviously not both), which would you choose and why?
JSA far and away. It is not even a competition when you compare the Jewish Snowboarders of America with the Japanese Lawyers Association. The members of the JLA all passed the bar, but the members of the JSA never do...

Another from C. Ewing,
As what might be an aside: how many pickled herrings can you eat?
Half of my wife's family is from Lithuania and every time we eat at her grandmother's, I have a chance to beat my personal best. Now, the answer, in part depends on whether it is with the cream sauce or with stewed tomatoes. But most importantly whether the potato-based dish has been served.

Soul Searchers asks,
I'm about half-way through my graduate school education. What should I do when I graduate? There are many options, but I don't know where I'd like to start.
Well, my car needs washing and with a Ph.D. from Harvard, I'm sure you'll do a fine job.

wayoveryonderintheminorkey asks,
I'm still wondering where Number One hid her candy. Where's a good hiding place for a pillow case a third full with candy?
The trick is it wasn't hidden, there's a reason she hasn't eaten dinner in a week...

There were so many juicy ones this week that I'll pick up next week with some of the others.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

The Bell Curve and Logical Positivism

Two more today.

Continuing on in the line of favorite former students, bkriplur asks,

What do you think of Herrnstein & Murray's The Bell Curve? You mentioned it in one of your earlier posts and I was curious about your opinion on it.
It's a good thing you asked me, bkriplur, because according to Charles Murray a couple weeks ago, those of us from the Jewish community are innately smarter.

The Bell Curve is a massive book designed to provide support for an updated version of Herbert Spencer's social Darwinism. The idea is that intelligence as measured by IQ is a functional fact that determines one's ability to contribute to the society, that IQ is both (a) fixed and immutable and (b) a heritable property, and that there is a significant evolutionarily derived difference in mean IQ across different subpopulations, so that certain groups of people are smarter than others and therefore inherently better contributors to society. As such, the distribution of wealth and social power that we see is a socio-biologically explainable (and therefore morally irrelevant) fact and social programs designed to raise the poor will necessarily fail because it would be throwing money at people who simply are genetically inferior, designed so that they cannot as a group contribute to society as well as other groups.

One must avoid the temptation to poison the well and simply argue that the political agenda behind the argument undermines it. There is no doubt that it informs it and guides it, but the question is whether there is independent warrant to believe it.

Turns out there is significant trouble at virtually every major point in the argument. The idea to begin with that IQ is a meaningful property, much less one that is one-dimensional and measurable like weight, is deeply problematic. Let's start with the idea that there is one kind of smart. Surely some people are innately more gifted in certain sorts of intellectual tasks. Some people pick up languages like nobody's business, others have complex problems solved before their mind's eye by just looking at them, yet others are capable of deep insights that cut to the foundations of our beliefs, and others still are creative in ways that boggle the mind. But most who excel in one sort of intellectual endeavor are hardly superior in the others. Insightful critics are often terrible artists, those who are incredible big picture folks tend to be sloppy with details, while those who are wizards with the nitty gritty are frequently impatient with analyses of foundational conceptual concerns. Which of these, then, ought we privilege and try to measure as IQ? All are factors that allow for positive social contribution, which one alone do we mean by intelligence?

Even if we could answer that question, the problem of immutability and measurement both create problems. Can't one increase their abilities to more quickly acquire understanding with work and training? To use an analogy, I am hardly a naturally gifted athlete, yet I figured out ways to compete at the level of NCAA division I athletics, playing respectably against the best players of my generation (some days more than others...). In terms of "Athletic Quotient," I was far below those against whom I was competing, yet I was able, through work and training, to contribute on the lacrosse field. Why shouldn't the same be true of those who need to work harder to develop problem-solving, creative, or conceptual skills?

Measurement is yet another classic black hole. For a wonderful history of the social biases in measuring native intelligence read Stephen Jay Gould's The Mismeasure of Man, one of the best pop science books ever written.

Then we come to the questions of heritability of significantly differing IQ levels (if we take IQ to be meaningful for the sake of argument). Is intelligence or social properties like aggressiveness something that is inherited or socially influenced. One of the temptations we frequently fall into these days is to conflate the notions of biological and genetic. Not everything that is biologically explainable is the result of genetic determination or even predisposition. It is certainly true that behavior is a result of brain activity and brain activity is a function in part of neuroanatomical factors, some of which are innate. But the brain is shaped by all sorts of environmental factors, starting in utero (think of fetal alcohol syndrome in which the mother's drinking will effect the intellectual capacities of the child). The brain is such a complex thing so deeply effected by environmental stimuli that separating out the genetic from the environmental may not be possible, much less meaningful.

And then there's the claim that they are not only heritable properties, but that differences between subgroups exist and are the result of evolutionary pressures. This claim is problematic for a number of reasons. Evolutionary change is a slow gradual process, especially when it comes to complex, subtle things like the working of the brain. Humans are slow to reproduce and the division of the "races" is a fairly recent occurrence in our history. There is good reason to think that even if the claim that these differences exist is meaningful that there has been sufficient time for natural or sexual selection to account for them. If you compare social reasons (human behaviors can be changed incredibly rapidly by social factors alone as anyone in marketing knows) with biological ones, the former gives a much more likely explanation.

So, The Bell Curve is, like Ayn Rand's objectivism, a flawed attempt to justify in the minds of smart privileged white people why they shouldn't feel guilty about the inequities of society and would be wrong to lift a finger to help those who need it.

SteveD asks,
What are the differences between the logical positivists and the logical empiricists?
The logical positivists were a subset of the logical empiricists. The distinction is meant to differentiate what Moritz Schlick, Rudolf Carnap and gang were doing in Vienna from the broader contemporary movement of scientific philosophy that included the goings on in Warsaw, Prague, France, Scandinavia, and especially Berlin.

Logical Positivism can be sketched as having four central pillars. (1) A criterion of cognitive significance, that is, a rule that separates sentences that mean something from those that sound like they do, but don't, (2) The synthetic/analytic distinction, that is a rule that separates the meaningful sentences into those whose truth or falsity can be shown by nothing more than formal logic and those that require observation, (3) A philosophy of math/logic to show how to tell the true analytic sentences from the false ones that followed from the logicist approach of Russell and Whitehead, and (4) a philosophy of science to show how to tell the true synthetic sentences from the false ones that allowed for the reduction of complex empirical claims to logical combinations of simple observation reports.

If we take Hans Reichenbach in the early to mid 20s as an example of a Logical Empiricist who was not a Logical Positivist, he bought into (1) thinking that we could meaningfully distinguish the real questions from the pseudoquestions, but his conventionalism posited a much more slippery line between analytic and synthetic sentences, not an absolute partition, his philosophy of mathematics was much more in the Hilbert formalist camp than the Russellian logicist one, and his philosophy of science made observation reports theory-dependent in an interesting neo-Kantian way that is clearly not there in Carnap. Subtle differences, but there and show why Reichenbach, while a major figure in Logical Empiricism was not a Logical Positivist.

Further, once problems arose for all four pillars -- (1) they never succeeded in actually formulating a functional criterion of cognitive significance, (2) Quine's argument in "Two Dogmas of Empiricism" undermines the notion of a strict meaningful synthetic/analytic distinction (3) Godel's Incompleteness theorems show the sort of complete and sound formal criterion for sorting true from false mathematical and meta-mathematical statements impossible, and (4) the problems of induction and evidence (e.g., Hume's, Goodman's, and Hempel's) give fits to the attempts to formalize scientific inference in the way Carnap and company were trying -- the movement still persisted attempting to figure out ways around the problems. It was therefore a continuation of the project at large without the strict positivist commitments, so it needed a different broader name.

Fun ones tomorrow...

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Grade Inflation, Baseball, and the Semantic View of Theories

Got a whole bunch of good questions from former students. Here's a couple more.

Soul Searcher asks a number of questions. Here's one,

What is the best way to combat grade inflation? I'm teaching a course (first semester organic) right now for 265 undergraduates. Traditionally an average score in this course earns you a B+. Even more ridiculously, based on the last three years, being two standard deviations below the mean will generally earn you a C. There is no such thing as a D (or failure), assuming you sit for one (of three) midterms and the final.
Best way to combat grade inflation? Teach logic.

There's much hand wringing in the academy these days over grade inflation. There's all kinds of evidence that average grades are going up. Is this a question of students getting smarter? Unlikely. Are they coming up through a testing culture where what they've really learned is how to beat assessments? Maybe. Are faculty grading easier in order to appease students and keep them out of their offices so they can do their "real work"? Likely part of the conversation. Are profs trying to give their people an extra little boost to help them get into grad schools? Also likely part of the question.

The best way to combat it is by clearly setting out course goals and expectations. I know it sounds like the dreaded edubabble, but by being clear about what skills and understanding students are expected to acquire, you can stick to your guns in testing those proficiencies and understandings.

My real question though is whether there really is something to be concerned about here. Grades are going up, so what? But if they are inflated, they become meaningless. Yeah, but let's be honest, weren't they meaningless to begin with? With the exception of the occasional student looking to go on to grad school, GPA means absolutely nothing. Grades serve one purpose, to give power to the instructor. Maybe we use it to try to coerce students into doing work because we haven't motivated it well enough in the classroom to make them want to learn it, but in the end what does it really mean? Take a random course from your college career and change the grade down a letter grade, much less a +/- interval. Would your lived life now be any different? For all the anxiety over grade inflation, I wonder whether it's really just profs worrying that they are making our weapon less effective because for some of us, that's all we have in trying to gain respect from students.

Soul Searcher's second question was,
What is the basis of the baseball rule that requires a batter to be tagged out if he/she strikes out and the catcher drops the pitch? What does this rule accomplish? I can see the logic behind the fourth out rule. I can also understand the infield fly rule. However, I have no idea why a batter is not out until tagged when first base is open and the catcher drops the third strike pitch.
The rule does seem odd in that once the batter swings and misses, his turn at bat should be over, yet play continues beyond the strike. It is odd to think the ball is still in play after the whiff, although the foul tip is still in play with two strikes and the catcher holding it is sufficient for a strike out, too. Yet, it is only with two strikes that the ball is live if it gets away from the catcher, the batter only becomes a base runner after he is seemingly out and not before. Yeah, sporting rules are arbitrary, but generally there is a coherent logic to them. I'm with you that this seems a bit bizarre.

Jeff Maynes asks,
In the semantic view of theories, how are we take the word "model"? Set theoretically? If so, what advantages does that give us over the syntactic view?
The semantic view of theories is a position that derived from Bas van Fraassen's constructive empiricism in the 80s and was championed by a number of really smart philosophers of science like Nancy Cartwright, Patrick Suppes, Frederick Suppe, who argued that the traditional view of scientific theories as sets of sentences that were individually testable or testable as a group was wrongheaded. Science is not about finding true statements about the world, but about finding models that fit well and scientific theories were to be thought of, not as set of true or false propositions, but as sets of models. Better theories represent the natural system better, but it becomes a question of usefulness, not of correspondent truth.

So, the question is what is meant by "model," a very ambiguous term. There is the technical sense in logic in which a model is a set of sentences that satisfy an axiom set. There is the sense of model, as in model car, which is a representation of a different scale. There is the sense of a fashion model, an idealized image, someone who wears clothes and looks better in them than you will but you buy them hoping to approximate what you've seen. There are computer models, which are partial specifications of operative factors designed to see what would happen if those were the only aspects of the system. I think that semantic theorists play off of all of these senses. Here's Ronald Giere, one of the major names associated with the semantic view from his book Explaining Science,
I propose that we regard the simple harmonic oscillator and the like as abstract entities having all and only the properties ascribed to them in the standard texts. The distinguishing feature of the simple harmonic oscillator, for example, is that it satisfies the force law F = -kx. The simple harmonic oscillator, then, is a constructed entity. Indeed, one could say that the systems described by the various equations of motion are socially constructed entities. They have no reality beyond that given to them by the community of physicists.
I suggest calling the idealized systems discussed in mechanics texts “theoretical models” or, if the context is clear, simply “models.” This suggestion fits well with the way scientists themselves use this (perhaps overused) term. Moreover, this terminology even overlaps nicely with the usage of logicians for whom a model of a set of axioms is an object, or a set of objects, that satisfies the axioms. As a theoretical model, the simple harmonic oscillator, for example, perfectly satisfies its equations of motion.
The relationship between some (suitably interpreted) equations and their corresponding model may be described as one of characterization, or even definition. We may even appropriately speak here of “truth.” The interpreted equations are true of the corresponding model. But truth here has no epistemological significance. The equations truly describe the model because the model is defined as something that exactly satisfies the equations.
The statements used to characterize models come in varying degrees of abstraction. At its most abstract the linear oscillator is a system with a linear restoring force, plus any number of other, secondary forces. The simple harmonic oscillator is a linear oscillator with a linear restoring force and no others. The damped oscillator has a linear restoring force plus a damping force. And so on. Similarly, the mass-spring oscillator identifies the restoring force with the stiffness of an idealized spring. In the pendulum oscillator, the restoring force is a function of gravity and the length of the string. And so on.
So I think that the logician's notion of a model is not far from mind and in the case of formalizable mathematical models like we see in physical theories, it is exactly what they mean, but I think the idea is kept looser to account for things like scale models in chemistry and computer models.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Poverty and Good Intentions

Jenn Barron asks,

The Washington Post recently had an article called, "Fulfillment Elusive for Young Altruists In the Crowded Field of Public Interest" which discussed the problems faced by young, professional world-saving idealists like myself. We graduate college with a philosophy-like degree, interested in volunteer work, serving overseas or in my case, urban America, and find ourselves confused. We have an education, and want to continue learning, but we see such a need to be immersed in poverty to really reach the population we serve. We find ourselves in a catch 22, as any semi-stable paying job in this field requires us to have higher degrees, and we can not gain paid experience in the field to determine what graduate work we like to commit to or find ways to pay for this schooling. We start as volunteers, and quickly learn that this lifestyle is an endless, unstable way. My question revolves around this concept of "poverty"- what is it in terms of physical, emotional, and spiritual needs?- I feel unfullfilled in life without investing in serving others, and yet here I start on a path of my own "poverty". This avenue for young adults creates a deep internal problem for us, causing us to ask the question, how can we understand poverty without being immersed in it? Is this the choice we have to make?
Before I add my two cents, check out what Helmut over at phronesisiacal had to say about this question. His somewhat dispiriting conclusion is
My worry is when people with good minds, thoughtful goals, and who are driven to contribute in meaningful ways to society discover that the inherited world has little space for such things. Further, future generations won't inherit a world of decency and opportunity because the people who could help create such conditions encountered insurmountable barriers to doing so.
As a rule, I tend to side with cynics, only because they're usually right, and in this case I think there are a couple of other factors at work here.

First, the problem is that the root of problems that affect the everyday lives of so many people are only in part personal problems, but for the most part are societal structural problems, problems that arise because the structure of our cultural institutions are designed to inequitably favor a few privileged members of the society. To help, then, you could be part of a band-aid which will take a lot of effort and while you will have a truly positive effect on some people, the flow will never decrease much less end. This tends to lead to exhaustion and bitterness. You can beat your head against a wall for only so long.

The other option is to work not in the trenches where you have a direct impact, but in the structure trying to change it from the inside. This means meetings if you are lucky enough to make it that far up in the structure of your well-meaning non-profit, but most likely menial tasks generally associated with raising money. You don't get the sense that in supporting a lobbying organization, you are really having an impact on those you really want to help and you don't get the sense of personal growth, of intellectual challenge, or the satisfaction of seeing the world better off even in small ways at the end of most days.

And then there's the other problem. When you work for positive change, you work for cheap. The source of your paycheck tends to be donations and when people donate to a non-profit designed to help end poverty, save the rainforests, or some other needed change, they want most of their money to go to helping those in need or planting trees, not administrative costs. If administrative costs get to be a sizable percentage of expenditures, they take their dollars elsewhere. Of course, those administrative costs are your salary. Hence, those dedicated to helping out are paid very, very little. So little that you can afford to live like a college student, but not the adult you are now supposed to be. That gets old after a while, especially if you want a family and there are other options out there. Further, you are expected to not mind working for peanuts because you are dedicated to the cause, not to personal gain. As a result, we drive out those with experience, those who would be the greatest assets to helping the cause.

The other side has no such problem. Because self-interest and greed are seen by them as virtues and because the corporate interests have plenty of money and realize that they will see a return if they spend it on people, they have well-paid positions up and down the ladder. As such, those who seek to maintain the inequities that create the problems you are trying to alleviate have yet another advantage over those trying to help those who are voiceless and suffering.

Man, I need a drink. Sorry not to be more uplifting here, Jenn. There are chances to make a real difference and I'm sure there ways to live the life while still having a life, but it ain't as easy as it should be. Somebody say something hopeful in the comments please.

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Couple of Ethics Questions

Some great questions as usual. Let's start with the ethics ones.

Kerry asks,

That infomercial thing at the beginning of rented DVDs--"you wouldn't think of stealing a car! ...or a wallet! ...or shoplift!"--all of which culminates in a warning against illegally downloading movies. Know the one I'm talking about? My question is this: is this really a good analogy? Is downloading a movie REALLY the same thing as heisting a car or a wallet?
The analogy is strained. One the one hand, you are acquiring something created by the labor of someone else without compensating that person for his or her work. In that sense, video piracy does seem problematic, but the problem with the analogy comes from trying to take the language of property rights and attach it to non-material things. In this way, unlike SteveD, I do see a difference between heisting a DVD from a store and copying one -- namely, the store still has the same amount of inventory to sell. They may be out one customer who might have otherwise legally obtained the movie, but they haven't also lost the thing they bought wholesale to sell retail. With a bootlegged copy, I don't have thing that someone else now doesn't have. No one is missing their analogical car or wallet.

A second difference is the victim. In the case of the car or the wallet, it is an individual whose car or wallet it was. Who is the victim in the case of making a copy of a CD for a friend? Is it the director? The producer? If we are talking about a single copy, not large scale reproduction, then the amount of damage is so small as to be unnoticeable. In the aggregate, on the other hand, it may be more significant. At the same time, it was selling the video rights where they got the bulk of their compensation, not in the sales of individual copies. So it really is the media corporation that is the victim here. Large corporate entities who have the influence to continue to get Congress pass longer and longer periods on copyrights until for all intents and purposes nothing will ever pass into the public domain. It is their property that you are wrongfully acquiring.

Is it harming them? On the one hand, you are taking something of theirs in the form of content that you have not paid for and that seems a harm. On the other hand, as Aaron Barlow cogently argues in his book The DVD Revolution: Movies, Culture, and Technology, the bootlegging of movies with the introduction of the VCR was a significant factor in saving Hollywood. Movie ticket prices were going up and crowds going down and the easy copying of tapes was thought to be the end of the movie theater by many in the industry until what Barlow calls "The Grateful Dead effect" saved them -- the easy copying and distribution of bootleg copies reinvigorated people's interest in movies and crowds started to grow again. So, in the overall scheme of things, it may be well to their advantage. If that is the case, would it still be wrong? Good question. From a rights based perspective, yes; from a deontological perspective, yes; from a utilitarian point of view, no. Which one gets the nod here? Since the concern really is one of utility since the harm would be to a corporate entity whose entire existence is predicated on utilitarian grounds, I'd say it wouldn't be a problem, but you would HAVE to demonstrate that copying the DVD is in their long-term interest.

pm asks,
Thinking specifically of Kant's "postulates of pure practical reason," insofar as Kant (following Aquinas) argues that in order to be moral, we must think "as if," act "as if," and, ostensibly, speak "as if," (though this last dictate is less clear, to my mind), is there a point at which heuristic moral devices (like Kant's postulates) become simply elaborate self-deceptions? And if so, what are the consequences to morality if its basic structures were to be exposed as a lie?
I've always taking Sartre's writings on ethics to address exactly this question. He wants to say that the lived life is so full of confounding details that the "as if" aspect, which would hold all other things being equal, never actually holds because in the complexities of real life everything else is never equal. I think there certainly is a point to be made there. But, in the end, I'm not sure it's as big a point as it might seem. It rules out the sort of simplistic duty-based approach that a Kant or Aquinas would be pushing, but in real life no one really buys into that nonsense anyway. Even the righties who argue so vociferously against "situational ethics" argue in a much more complex situational way when you look at the arguments they really put forward.

It is true that the "as if" move is bogus if you lean hard on it, but at the same time, it is an important move at the beginning of robust moral deliberation. when you come to a hard ethical conundrum and need to begin thinking deeply about it, you do start with the "as if" claim and then complicate matters from there. Think about how we talk to children who have just done something wrong. We start with precisely that sort of "as if" proposition and explain what situations would call for a move away from it, but how this situation was not one of them. So, in the end, I buy your skepticism about the move when it is substituted for a fuller more realistic picture of ethical decision making, but think that it would be throwing the baby out with the bath water to say that the move is worthless in that process. It is a good way in, a good first order approximation which can than be beaten viciously about the head and neck by the fickle circumstances of the real world...should one exist.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Auto Mechanics to Quantum Mechanics: Any Questions?

It's that time again.

For those new to the Playground, I have a schtick I do at the beginning of each class where I let the students ask absolutely any question they have, any question at all, from auto mechanics to quantum mechanics. Some former students asked me to revive it on-line, so every couple of months I trot it out here. So, if you've ever had a question you always wanted to ask or something that's just been stumping you, here's your chance. Ask away and I'll get to as many as possible in this week's posts.

Here's one for you: Why is pink the only pastel among the primary or secondary colors to have its own name? (Grey and tan don't count here) Why would make sense to say, "That's not red, that's pink," but not "That's not blue, that's baby blue"?

So, any questions?

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Reflections on the Third Time Meta-Obligation

Channelling Miss Manners today. (I've actually met Miss Manners, but that's a story for another day...)

The hecticness of life feeds on itself. With so much going on and so much to do coming from every direction, too often we have to pass on things we really want to do. Sometimes the social world lines up in such a way that conflicts force you say, "Wish I could, but I just can't" to an invitation from a friend. A while later, the friend invites you again. "Cool, this'll be fun," you think to yourself, then checking your calendar, you think, "Shit!" and explain in as regretful a tone as possible that you do really want to go, but you have something that you are committed to that just can't be moved. And with the explanation comes a sense of foreboding because you know there will be a third invitation to do something in the months to come and that third invitation will be different, it is no longer just an invitation, it is an obligation. No matter how silly or trivial the day's activity, you will have to rearrange and reschedule, move things seemingly much bigger out of the way because you CAN'T say no again.

The fact is, you really like this person, enjoy his or her company, and all other things being equal would have much preferred to have accepted all three invitations. But you couldn't and now, backing out on this one would not just be backing out. One is just the reality of a busy life, two is an unfortunate coincidence, three is a pattern. After three excuses, no matter how valid, no matter how substantiated, that third "sorry" in a row sends a message that you don't mean to be sent, that you don't want to spend time with them, that they are not important enough to fit into your life, that they are unacceptably low on your list of personal priorities. The first two are about your schedule, but the third one is about your relationship.

The third invitation, even if it is no so intended, is a meta-invitation and it comes with a different level of obligation. The question now is not merely "do you want to go do this?" but becomes interpretable as "aren't we friends?"

One interesting exception to this scenario, however. If between the first and the third invitation, you've extended an invitation to them, the point becomes moot. By showing that you're also making an effort to spend time together, you've undermined the concern that you are avoiding them even if, indeed especially if, they had to bail on your suggestion. At that point, the inability to find a mutually open spot on the calendar becomes an inside joke.

Is there another way to handle the third time meta-obligation?

Holidays and the Seven Deadly Sins

Halloween's a weird one for us. The shorties don't eat candy, but we feel like we're depriving them of the experience not taking them trick or treating. So they get to go door to door having friendly people give them brightly colored wrappers filled with delights they can't enjoy. Kind of like taking a eunich to a strip club. At the end of the evening, they did each get an organic peanut buttercup to try to alleviate some of the guilt and they genuinely enjoyed the experience.

But watching the amount of candy flowing into the bags and baskets, I was left shaking my head and my mind went to Kerry's seminar this semester where they are considering the seven deadly sins. Then it hit me, they are exactly what our holidays celebrate. We set aside time from our daily grind where most people work jobs they don't really like in order to afford houses that are too big and bad health insurance in order to revel in the mortal sins.

I'm not saying this is a bad thing. On one hand, I'm not convinced that the old conception of a life well lived is accurate and that these are always bad things or that they are the worst characteristics of people living badly. On the other, I think we need time to blow off steam and it's good to have social permission to let our hair down. But that being said, it's still pretty funny how well they match up.

Here's how I would map them:

Gluttony: Halloween (kids), Thanksgiving (adults)
Greed: Christmas
Lust: Valentine's Day (Halloween is moving into this slot for adults)
Sloth: Labor Day (irony can be so ironic)
Pride: July 4th
Wrath: September 11 (our newest holiday)
Envy: April 15

Then if we were to include drunkeness/acting without responsibility we could include New Year's Day, and a series of mini-New Year's days we've sprinkled through the year including, but not limited to, St. Patrick's Day, Cinco de Mayo, and Mardi Gras. Guilt would include Mother's Day and Father's Day. And intentional obliviousness, perhaps our worst collective sin in this day and age, would be surely represented by Columbus Day.

Miss any?