Friday, December 28, 2007

From the "Irony Can Be So Ironic" File

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Last weekend we wished happy holidays to all those non-Comedists celebrating the traditional holy days of their various faiths, and members of the Greek and Armenian Orthodox Churches responded by sending us a great big Festivus present:

Priests brawl at Jesus' birthplace

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) -- Greek Orthodox and Armenian priests attacked each other with brooms and stones inside the Church of the Nativity as long-standing rivalries erupted in violence during holiday cleaning on Thursday.

The basilica, built over the grotto in Bethlehem where Christians believe Jesus was born, is administered jointly by Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Apostolic authorities.

Any perceived encroachment on one group's turf can touch off vicious feuds.

On Thursday, dozens of priests and cleaners were scrubbing the church ahead of the Armenian and Orthodox Christmas, celebrated in early January. Thousands of tourists visited the church this week for Christmas celebrations.

But the clean-up turned ugly after some of the Orthodox faithful stepped inside the Armenian church's section, touching off a scuffle between about 50 Greek Orthodox and 30 Armenians.

Palestinian police, armed with batons and shields, quickly formed a human cordon to separate the two sides so the cleaning could continue, then ordered an Associated Press photographer out of the church.

Four people, some with blood running from their faces, were slightly wounded.
'Tis the season, indeed. Forget "deck the halls," deck the Armenians. Four right jabs, three left hooks, two upper-cuts and a hard kick right where you pee.

I suppose that is one thing that Comedism is missing, being such a young religion, we don't have sectarian hatred, yet. Muslims have the Sunni/Shi'a separation, Jews come in shades from Reformed to Conservative to Reconstructionist to Orthodox to Ultra-Orthodox, the Christians have fault lines to a fault with their Catholic/Protestant/Orthodox/Mormon divisions and then the sub-divisions within the divisions, but what about us? To be a real religion, it seems, we need silly, pointless, hate-filled blood feuds to divide ourselves, too.

So how do we draw the battle lines? What should make Comedist groups shout yo mama jokes at each other? Should we have a Grouchoist, Harpoist, and Chicoist schism? A Chris Rock/Dave Chapelle split? Help me out, my dear friends. I mean, if we can't all come together on a decision about what we should use to tear us apart, how are we going to get any respect as a legitimate religion here folks? Suggestions?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hell Comes to Baltimore

This weekend is the annual eastern meeting of the American Philosophical Association and this year it is in Baltimore. The APA has three meetings each year, the eastern, central, and pacific meetings, but the eastern meeting is where every philosophy department in the country that has a job opening and every philosopher in the country looking for a job come together in the world's most uncomfortable and ungraceful dance. You have intense vulnerability mixed with epic proportions of social awkwardness and incredible power imbalances.

You have grad students who haven't worn a tie since the high school prom trying to dress up and not look as stiff as they are, people who have been on the market for more years than they want to think about hoping beyond hope that the one or two interviews they have this go round will allow them to step into the position they've been working towards for over a decade, spouses trying to do whatever they can to get that position that will bring them within a couple hundred miles of each other, and those who despite sending out dozens of dossiers don't have a single interview and are plaintively searching every bulletin board and table top for the possibility of a last minute interview with some department, any department.

And then you have the departments. Some are up to their necks in internal politics. Others are small schools now feeling the power that they are generally denied and enjoying their Napoleon moment. Still others are from programs with few majors, feeling insecure around all the hot shots. All are exhausted from the process, the end of the semester, the holidays, the stream of nervous candidates blending into a blur, wishing that one of them will jump out as perfect (especially if it's the one he or she wants, not the one his or her colleague seems hell bent on bringing in). Of course, if the candidate is perfect, that candidate will probably have other offers and turn us down...again, so next year we'll be right back here.

The tension is horrible and all-pervasive. The eastern APA is, simply, hell on earth. It is a sad, uncomfortable place.

The papers read in the sessions (and yes, philosophers do actually write and then read word-for-word their papers to those sitting in front of them) are a mix of grad students trying to pad their job applications, junior faculty members trying to pad their tenure and promotion applications, and senior people just hanging out chatting with their friends. The smartest never really prepare anything intense and if they did, you'd need to sit down and work through it slowly to get anything out of it anyway. The sessions' q&a are then dominated either by long-standing inside arguments that can't be followed by anyone other than the two who have been disagreeing about the same point for ten years, angry comments that amount to nothing more than "how could you have possibly ignored MY paper on the matter which settled this years ago?", or bizarre remarks out of left field that have nothing really to do with the conversation.

Then there's the star gazing. Everyone looking each other straight in the name tag, especially anyone gray or balding, hoping it will turn out to be one of the towering figures whose work you've admired for years. Cornell West smiled and waved at me on the escalator in Boston a bunch of years ago. Of course, the physical manifestation is nothing like what you expect and here you are trained in the deepest sort of contemplative analysis and all you can think is "Oh my God, he's so fat." It is a curious, curious thing to be disappointed by the fact that your philosophical hero, the thinker who holds a herculean place in your field, turns out to be the short, bald, Jewish guy with thick glasses that, of course, he is. And there you are realizing that you are halfway to looking like that yourself, but nowhere near halfway to writing like that.

And I'll be in the thick of it all on Saturday. If you are there, find me and say hey. I'm the balding, nerdy looking one with glasses, just look for my name tag.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Religious Pluralism and Consistency

Enigmaman, over at Enigmania, has a very nice post up about the pragmatic need for inconsistency and motivates it with the question of religious pluralism.

We could take pluralism in the strong sense that Feyerabend, for example, does and think of it as holding mutually inconsistent views. Or we could think of it in the weaker sense of allowing that views other than those for which you deem yourself to have good reason to believe are still rational to hold. In other words, that both you and those you disagree with are all rational, even while you disagree. Enigmaman seems more interested in the former, while I've been interested in the latter.

It seems that underdetermination is the easiest path to pluralism, that given the evidence, either of these positions would be possible and could be explained by conflicting hypotheses. There is evidence for each, but not evidence that either is conclusively determined. Hence, those with hunches in one direction can't look askance at those who work in the other direction and pluralism is the best approach since we really don't know which way lays the truth.

The other route is fallibility. The evidence we are using could be wrong. It could be that our instruments are faulty or there is some other effect that makes our measurements useless unbeknownst to us at the time. This evidence is likely to be true, but could be false and this means that we can be intellectually tolerant of those who discount some particular data points as problematic for the purpose of hypothesizing in novel directions.

But in the case of religion, you generally don't have that sort of underdetermination or fallibility. Revealed truth is supposed to be absolute truth. Where then is the space for religious pluralism? Is it in the Quaker-type sense of overdeterminiation, that that God speaks through all and therefore all must be listened to? Is it underdetermination in the Jewish sense that all must be interpreted and there is no unique interpretation? Does religious pluralism mean a lack of certainty in one's religious views, a lack of depth in the religious belief, or a different kind of belief?

Friday, December 21, 2007

Happy Festivus

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Yes, it is that time of year again. Happy Festivus, everyone. On these, the shortest days of the year, we recall the words of Steve Martin, "A day without sunshine is like...night."

I want extend a happy holidays to all of our friends in other religions celebrating your special times, although I've got to admit that not all of your rituals make a lot of sense to me. I mean the pagan party at the coldest darkest time of the year I get, but...

I've always wondered what would happen in the case of a child who misbehaved all year and wrote Santa to tell him that what he wanted most was a new addition to his coal collection.

Why isn't it considered lying to put out a stocking twice as big as anything that would actually fit on your foot and pretending it is yours for the sole purpose of fitting more loot inside of it? And on top of that, you have the chutzpah to lie to a guy who supposedly knows everything about your life. How do you get away with it?

So let me get this straight, Chanukkah is a celebration of the Jews being in the Middle East and not having oil.

The holiday is to commemorate a single day's supply of oil lasting eight days. A little bit of oil kept the flame going without stopping, yet the birthday candles they sell for menorahs today burn down in less than an hour and half.

Put all the questions about Christmas and Chunkkah together, however, and what do you get? This Festivus carol from Brandon Harris Walker: Once again, my fellow Comedists, happy Festivus.

Please use the comments for the traditional airing of the grievances.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Larceny Week: The Ethics of Talking Shop

To end up larceny week, I'm going to steal a post from Richard over at Philosophy, et cetera -- a blog that is one of my daily reads.

Some commenters here complain about how "Social misfits are really rife in philosophy." It can certainly be discomforting when the people around you do not share your social norms and expectations. But isn't it a bit quick to just assume that it's their fault (and so call them 'jerks', 'boors' and so forth)? Lack of fit is a symmetrical relation, after all. Consider the following complaint:

"How many times as a female professor have I gone out to dinner parties with visiting speakers where there were several philosopher’s wives present (my other colleagues mostly being males), where the entire dinner table conversation was devoted to philosophical issues that excluded them? As a woman, I or perhaps simply as someone socialized to be more polite and empathetic, I face the choice then: should I try to join in with “the guys” and prove my mettle, thus ignoring half the people present at the table, or should I attempt to be more congenial and polite and talk to the women?"

Now, from my perspective, the whole point of a bunch of philosophers going out to dinner with a visiting speaker is to discuss philosophy. That's what they're there for. To complain that "the entire dinner table conversation was devoted to philosophical issues" seems as bizarre to me as complaining that the entire seminar was dedicated to philosophy when some of the students might rather have discussed the local sports team. The problem does not necessarily lie with the topic of conversation; it could just be that the sports fans are in the wrong place.

More generally, it's nice to accommodate people and make them feel comfortable. But given that the lack of fit between 'nerds' and 'normals' is symmetrical, it's not clear why the norms of the latter group should always take precedence. I mean, there's no surer way to make me uncomfortable than to put me in a situation where one is expected to engage in small talk. That's just a fact about me and how I relate to others. Many people (outside of academia) seem to be just the opposite: uncomfortable with serious discussion, comfortable with small talk. That's a fact about them and how they relate to others. Each of these two personality types may find it difficult to relate to the other. Objectively speaking, that's the end of the story. But in practice the extroverts are socially dominant, so they lay fault on the nerds and introverts for failing to conform to their preferred (arbitrary) norms. What they don't seem to realize is that they are equally failing to conform to our preferred norms.
I must admit that the only after colloquium dinner that I attended as a grad student that had faculty wives ended up in a discussion that included stories of live chickens and flying underwear.

But if we take this question and extend it beyond dinners with philosophers, in general when is it ok and when is it rude to talk shop?

Larceny Week: Buridan on Fundamentalism

Jean Buridan was a fourteenth century thinker whose theory of impetus began the march away from Aristotelian physics and towards Newtonian. Consider an arrow. While the bow is pushing on it, we can understand why it moves forward, but the instant it leaves the bow, why does it still fly forward instead of falling straight down to the ground? Aristotle doesn't give us an answer (well, not a good one at least -- his line was that the displaced air from the front came around and pushed from behind), but Buridan argued that it was because the string had imparted impetus to the arrow, what we would later call inertia.

He was also famous for his illustration of the principle of sufficient reason wherein a donkey is placed at the exact center of a bridge with identical bales of hay at either end. What happens? Buridan argues that the donkey starves to death because the pull in both directions is equal. If one bale was larger or the distance shorter, then there would be reason to prefer one over the other, but complete symmetry would lead to an inability to choose.

This example goes by the colorful name, "Buridan's ass" which is also the name of one of my favorite blogs from which I have poached today's question that deals, funny enough, with what counts as good reason to choose.

The following is a disguised version of an actual comment from another blog. I changed the wording around (hopefully enough) so that it couldn’t be immediately identifiable but without drastically changing the substance.

Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not using this as an example of religious stupidity or to poke fun. Quite the contrary. This person was asking very smart questions, and I’m curious as to how you might answer them.

I’m not all that smart by your standards. I have a tenth grade education and usually don’t think very much about intellectual stuff but I do have some questions and opinions about certain things.

I know science has its way of looking at the world and does this according to certain rules and methods. It gives us a lot of useful information because of these rules and we all benefit from science in many ways. My question is why couldn’t there be another way of looking at the world that would give us just as useful results as science?

I believe in the bible and live my life according to its rules. I’m not a complete fundamentalist but I do believe that the bible has the final word on most things. I do think that there are other ways or rules that can lead to truth as well but not everything. Even so, sometimes the bible is very clear about a subject and if I have to chose between the bible and some other way, like science, I have to follow what the bible says, even if the scientific way says it’s not true. I do this because this is what my religion requires me to do.

So if I have an opinion about something and my opinion is based on my belief in the bible, why is it automatically dismissed by science because it follows different rules? What makes the rules of science that much better than the rules of the bible?
Ground rule for this discussion -- no snark. I know that is hard for this crowd, but this is an honest question that deserves an honest answer. Take the person listening to be earnest and legitimately open to other possibilities. What would a fair and persuasive response look like?

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Larceny Week: Trying Too Hard

Stealing today's question from former student Meg:

Why is it that when you try too hard, it means you're pretty much doomed to fail?
Seems to me that there is a distinction to be drawn between the pitcher who tries to put too much on his fastball and throws it into the dirt and the nervous teen with a crush who tries too hard to impress. Or is there?

Monday, December 17, 2007

Larceny Week: Gwydion on Dreams

One of the great things about having had a dear friend for thirty five years is that you can steal one of his really good blog posts and know that he won't get too angry at you. Now that Gwydion has taken his blog dark for a while, there's a wonderful post from a little while back that I've not been able to shake and would love to revive here if he doesn't mind (and if he does...sorry, love ya, man). It's about dreams.

Do dreams just happen to us, you think, or do we create them?

Let me ask the question again in a different way, because it has seemed rather critical to me this morning.

Which of the following descriptions of dreaming seems more accurate to your understanding, to your reality, to your experience of being a dreamer?

While sleeping, the “you” of who you are becomes passive or receptive while some part of your mind over which you have no control creates a story – the dream – and reveals to you.

While sleeping, the part of your mind that inhibits your thinking (or that edits your decisions) when you’re awake gets totally shut off, leaving you free to create whatever stories – dreams – you want.

Which is it, do you think? Is it either? Is it both?

Let me say that I’m not particularly interested in what scholars (especially Freud) have to say on the subject – I want to know what real, thoughtful people believe. I want to know what I believe, too, but I can’t seem to figure it out.

Why do I ask?

I ask because I’ve always thought of my own plays as dreams. All the characters, all their conflicting desires and personalities and speech rhythms and wounds and hopes: they’re echoes of parts of myself. All the symbols are very much dream symbols, laden with meaning. I really can’t see it any other way. And lately, as I’ve been working through the last scene of my latest play, I’ve noticed that I haven’t been able to decide yet how it’s going to end. How it’s “meant” to end, I should say. This isn’t usually true for me. Usually, by about halfway through the play, I’ve got the end in view, at least roughly, and the closer I get to it, the clearer it becomes, until the final notes of the play just seem inevitable. But not this time.

This time, even though I’m right up on it, the end is still quite blurry – sort of like the end of a dream in half-sleep, when something wakes you up before you’ve completed your REM cycle. Any good psychologist worth her salt would tell me I just don’t WANT to see it yet, that as soon as I’m ready it’ll come into focus, and hell, that’s probably at least half-true. But I do want to see this ending: I want to finish drafting the play. It’s very, very important to me, for many reasons.

Let me clear: I’m not actually feeling blocked at all, not in any way, not even a little. I’ve been writing quite smoothly and steadily all along. The play is emerging from me the way (when the biology’s perfect) a baby emerges from the womb. It’s painful, yes, and more than a little bit bloody, but the body’s been honed over hundreds of thousands of years to do precisely what it’s doing, just as my mind has been honed to deliver this story.

It’s just that for some reason, I cannot decide how to end it. I feel as if I want the end to happen, instead… which brings me right back to the question of dreams and what makes them. Will the end of the play just create itself, or do I have to make it?

Or is it both?
Now I know at least a couple of the regulars here are able to have lucent dreams where they can control them, but is this a difference in kind or just degree?

Larceny Week: Science Debates

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, so this week I'll flatter several blogs that have asked some interesting questions I'd be interested in proposing to those who hang out here.

Today, I'm wondering what you think of this idea -- a debate focusing solely upon scientific issues for the Presidential candidates. From John Timmer at Ars Technica:

As the US moves deeper into primary season, scientific topics have been sneaking their way into the presidential debates. Most have snuck back out quietly, as candidates provided bland and non-committal answers to questions about climate change and stem cell research (although a simple question about evolution triggered a spasm of clarifications). With the first primaries now only weeks away, a group is calling for the eventual candidates to hold a formal debate devoted to science.

The group includes a number of very prominent academics, including 10 Nobel Laureats, as well as a number of science writers and publishers. But it also includes a CEO, a theologian, and four members of the US Congress, two from each party. Among that group is New Jersey's Rush Holt, the only Representative that has a PhD in physics.

The group is apparently fed up with the piecemeal approach to science that's happened in the initial debates, and wants a full program devoted to something it suggests, "may be the most important social issue of our time." The website lists a number of topics it considers especially important, such as climate change, its impact on the oceans and water supply, and attempts to address it via renewable energy research. They also call on the candidates to discuss the relationship between economic growth and scientific progress and education. Another topic mentioned is the ability to preserve scientific integrity within a politicized government, an issue that has reached new prominence during the Bush administration.

As you might imagine, I'm strongly in favor of this effort. I agree that many of the major issues that future presidents will have to deal with will either be directly science and technology focused, or the Sci/Tech community will play a necessary role in their solution. It would be very reassuring to know if and how well the candidates have come to grips with theses issues, and what their general policies regarding research and technology will emphasize. I'm personally pessimistic that any debate will result, but I don't see any harm in focusing attention on the importance of a competent science policy for the US.
Good idea, partisan trap, or both?

Friday, December 14, 2007

Some Come to Laugh Their Past Away: Deadhead Jokes

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere:

Came across this story and just had to use it -- a combination of physics, Comedism, and the Grateful Dead. It turns out that the early universe was populated with stars that did not rely on nuclear fusion for fuel, but rather pair annihilation. The result being that they were haloed by dark matter. Scientists have termed these early inhabitants of our universe "dark stars" and are now wondering about the first ones. A forthcoming article in the journal Physical Review argues that they appeared 13 billion years ago, although others contend that it was, in fact, December 13, 1967 at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles.

In honor of the Dark Star anniversary, this weekend is deadhead jokes:

How many deadheads does it take to screw in a light bulb?

-- Two, one to twirl clockwise and one to twirl counter-clockwise.

-- Two, One to unscrew it and one to stand in front of the hardware store with a sign saying "I need a miracle."

-- Two, one to change the bulb and one to say that the bulbs at the Greek in 85 were much better.

-- None. Deadheads screw in sleeping bags.

-- None. They just wait for it to burn out, and follow it around.

How do you know when deadheads have been staying with you?
They're still there.

Why is sending DATs over the internet like putting Jerry, Phil and Billy in the front seat of a Volkswagon Beetle?
Neither one is going to happen because of bandwidth.

I went to a Grateful Dead Concert and they played for seven hours. Great song.

How many Deadheads fit in a VW bus?
Two more and a dog.


Have a great weekend everyone.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Is Philosophy Doomed to be Unpopular?

An interesting discussion of the Popular Culture and Philosophy series -- the series in which The Grateful Dead and Philosophy appears -- in the Chronicle of Higher Education a little while back by Stephen T. Asma. A fair and thoughtful discussion that ends with this argument:

[William] Irwin [the original series editor], whose writings on pop culture exude a somewhat charming and amusing sense of mission, sees the books as providing a significant service, "Citizens of a democracy are better citizens for the knowledge of of philosophy, as it teaches them to think critically and encourages them to dissent responsibly." He likens the pop-culture books to training wheels on a bicycle -- presumably readers will grow comfortable enough with The Matrix to read Descartes directly.

The track record for this sort of edutainment is dodgy and its future unclear. I remember, for example, curators at the Field Museum in Chicago once telling me that they had brought recent travelling exhibits about Harley-Davidson motorcycles and chocolate and couture jewelry and Jacqueline Kennedy's dresses in hopes that visitors would come to see the flashy stuff but then wander over to the more substantive permanent exhibits, too. The curators also spoke of sugar and medicine. Careful analysis of foot traffic, however, revealed that visitors came for the candy and exited the museum straight-way -- no additional nutrition was ingested.

In the end, I suspect that, despite the excellent new efforts, philosophy will remain intractable and estranged from popular culture. It will remain so not because it is biased or willfully elite, but because it is in an extremely self-reflective relationship with its own history, and it requires highly disciplined, systematic, abstract conceptualization, a skill that does not come easy to most people.

One can barely make a move within the oldest academic discipline without understanding its past. People who don't know its vast literature feel excluded from the import of any particular philosopher or problem. That kind of exclusion can be remedied by doing the requisite study -- by catching up, so to speak, on a body of knowledge. But philosophy is more than just a body of knowledge; it is an ability to examine the structures of thought itself. Simon Blackburn calls that "conceptual engineering," in order to distinguish it from regular empirical investigation. The requirement makes philosophy unpopular in the same sense higher mathematics is unpopular.
What do you think? Is this blog pointless, not making any difference, just pissing in the ocean, if the idea is to try to contribute some philosophical content to the larger cultural discourse? Is philosophy doomed to be unpopular despite any and all well-intentioned efforts?

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Another Grading Question

It is one of those unquestioned beliefs in the world of higher ed that grading is subjective. Some instructors are easy graders and others are hard graders and there is no fact in the world about what an assignment really deserves.

But I had an experience that seems to offer evidence -- albeit limited and anecdotal -- to the contrary. I was on a committee a few years back and a colleague who teaches music history conducted an exercise with us. She brought in three papers and asked us to grade them. We all assigned letter and plus/minus grades independently and then compared our grades to the one she actually assigned. The committee had me, a philosopher, a German prof, a Spanish prof, a sociologist, a physicist, an English writing prof, a biologist, and and an economist.

On all three papers, we were uniformly within a plus/minus grade of each other. I was stunned. It was clear that one paper was an A range paper, well-written, insightful, had a structure that clearly displayed someone who thought through what s/he wanted to argue before s/he started typing. Another was a sure B/B- paper. Someone who had clearly cracked a couple of books and had a sense of what they were saying, but added nothing of his/her own mind to the acceptably written paper. The last was a D-/F paper. The lack of grasp of the material was clear to even those of us who knew nothing of the material ourselves. The lack of citations, the lack of explanation of seemingly important points gave us no choice in the mark to assign. The grade of this paper, like the other two, jumped off the page.

So, was this a lucky chance case and grading really is a subjective matter of taste or is grading really more objective than we usually claim? Could it be that the difficulty of the assignments is what varies and not the grading?

Wednesday, December 12, 2007


I try not to make this blog about me, but today I'm going to indulge a bit and ask your opinion on something.

I started this blog at the time I was writing a manuscript for a pop ethics/politics book designed to respond to the then common notion that anyone with a homophobic agenda was a "values voter" which was a clear contrast to anyone who cared about, oh I don't know, helping the needy, protecting the environment, defending the rights of minorities, standing up for just and fair treatment under the law for everyone was clearly not someone who put moral values into his or her political views.

That manuscript, for which I have a draft, was never picked up. The response from a number of publishers was that they didn't see the natural connection between ethics and politics. They liked the voice and the style, but the political side seemed forced. Add to that the fact that in the last two and half years, the social/political climate has changed considerably, the manuscript as written seems a bit out-dated.

I'm rethinking the project in a couple ways. It was written with a bit of a sharper, snarkier tone aimed at the Daily Show crowd, but I'm planning on making it less overtly partisan, still political, but not in your face about it, and smoothing the prose out a bit, giving it more the feel of my writing here which tends to be more Mr. Rogers than Chris Rock. It'll be a book that will be a popular introduction to moral deliberation with a discussion of contemporary ethical issues that anyone could pick up and enjoy and learn from, but which could possibly also serve as an intro level course text. Edutainment is really what I have in mind.

So what I want from you folks is your thoughts on the new proposed title:

Open-Minded Morality: How to Think Rationally about Ethics without the High Horse
What do you think? Better ideas? Too wordy? Thoughts?

The title of the old project, "Was It Morally Good For You, Too?" will be recycled as the chapter title for the chapter on the morality of sex and/or marriage.

So, what do you think of the title and what issues would you think belong in such a book?

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Charity for Romney

I've been thinking about Mitt Romney's claim from his religion speech the other day, "Religion needs freedom and freedom needs religion." It has been largely written off as a sop to the religious right, a slap to secularism designed to do nothing more than shift the focus of evangelical hatred from the Mormons to the atheists, a not so subtle, "it's ok, I'm one of you, I hate them too."

In logic, however, we have the principle of charity which demands that one interpret an argument in the strongest possible formulation. While I will grant that the standard interpretation is far and away the most likely intended meaning, is there a way that the claim could be understood in which it isn't blatantly false in either direction?

Let's take the two propositions one at a time. "Religion needs freedom." If by "freedom" he means the freedom of religion, then the fact that the notion is an Enlightenment concept derived in the last couple hundred years might mean there's a little concern there. Additionally, I don't think Christianity was suffering during the Inquisition, or the Crusades, or the pogroms, or the forced indoctrination of Native American children, or, or, or... Islam seems to be doing ok in Saudi Arabia. So, it doesn't seem that religion does need freedom in the standard sense.

So what else might be meant by this claim? The word "religion" is a multiply ambiguous term, it means many, many things. It refers to social institutions, that is we use the word "religion" to mean The Church as an entity. We use "religion" to mean a theological doctrine including an anthropomorphic deity. This is the sense people employ when they say things like "I'm not religious, I'm spiritual." The word "religion" is used to express a sense of awe and wonder at the majesty of the universe as a whole and the connections of the things within it. This is the sense that we get from Spinoza, Einstein, and in Christian theologian John Haught. Even Richard Dawkins says that he can buy into this stripped down version of the concept. Finally, there's another way that Einstein uses it that is a bit unusual, he uses the word "religion" at times to refer to the value side of the fact/value distinction. Religion in this sense is anything value-laden.

So, do any of these senses of religion require freedom? The institution often thrives as we pointed out above when there is a lack of freedom, especially when it is religion that is constraining the freedom.

Similarly, adherence to a monotheistic dogma doesn't seem to require freedom, unless of course, the monotheistic doctrine you want to believe in is not officially sanctioned. This is likely what was meant by this part of Romney's quotation. It was a reference to Communism and the Soviet ban on religion, a rekindling of the Cold War, 'merka is a Christian nation standing up to those Godless commies. Of course, this is a post-Constantine Christian view. Jews, for example, have an entire theology based on being a persecuted minority. So, if we take "religion" to be officially sanctioned Christianity, then, yeah, it's true, but tautologous. The same treatment seems relevant to the last version, ethics doesn't seem to require political freedom. One could still be kind even if one lives in a brutal dictatorship.

That leaves us with religion as a sense wonder at the vastness, complexity, and interrelatedness of reality. Does this require freedom? Well, if one lives under repressive conditions, one may have more pragmatic concerns and therefore less time to truly revel in the glory of the world. Scientific results which enlighten us to the structure and the deep interconnections between all things would be censored or curtailed. Relativity theory, evolution, science of all sorts that differ with officially dictated doctrines would make it more difficult to feel that sense of awe and joy that comes with approaching the intricate unity of all things. In this sense, then, perhaps, religion does need freedom.

What about the converse? Does freedom need religion? Again, this is likely in part an attempt to vilify those horrible, evil atheists (scary, scary) and in part to try to tie them to the Soviet menace making them (read, us) anti-'Merkan. But, in the spirit of charity, is there an interpretation of this sentence that is more reasonable, that might actually be true?

It depends upon what we mean by "freedom," of course. If he means freedom in the metaphysical sense, of the lack of deterministic factors forcing us to act certain ways, then surely human beliefs, attitudes, or institutions would be irrelevant because they, too, would be predetermined. If he means freedom of religion, then, yeah, I'll grant you that freedom of religion requires religion or else it's not freedom of anything. But surely, he means more than that. If he means political freedom writ large, that seems empirically false. There are plenty places much less religious than the US in Europe who have more civil liberties than we do, especially after the last several years.

So, what sort of freedom would require what sort of religion? Perhaps, he means freedom of thought, the ability to undermine cultural preconceptions, the ability to have a truly open-mind without the constraints and biases that are stuck into our minds by the historical context we live in. Does that need religion? If we take religion in the sense we used above, it seems true. The ability to be free thinkers is certainly facilitated by a sense a wonder and awe at the interconnectedness of nature. A love and appreciation of science and the workings of the natural world, especially when we look at quantum mechanics, natural selection, plate tectonics, big bang cosmology, and other advances that are far from intuitive, but for which there is overwhelming evidence, we do find that the freedom of thought really does need this religious inspiration we get from the world.

So, in the end, I whole-heartedly agree with Mitt Romney. Religion does need freedom and freedom does require religion. For this reason, I am sure that Romney will support rethinking our old biases against gays and lesbians and granting them the freedom to marry. In light of this wise sentiment he has expressed, I'm sure he'll find the teaching of science and science alone to be appropriate for science classrooms. He's right and surely now he'll repudiate the policies of the last several years that have so horribly undermined both freedom and religion.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Grading Thought Experiment

This is one of the times of year when those of my ilk turn from teachers into graders. A colleague of mine proposed an experiment the other day and I'm interested to see if your intuitions are the same as mine.

Take a stack of papers, grade just the first sentence, then go through them again and grade just the first paragraph, finally grade the whole paper. Will there be a difference in the grades?

I bet the first sentence grade would be irrelevant since it takes students a while to learn not to begin papers with annoying, banal, and completely meaningless or utterly false first sentences like, "Since the beginning of time, people have argued about (insert philosophical problem student had never heard of before)." No, they haven't -- people weren't around at the beginning of time and even after homo sapiens arrived, it took them quite a while to formulate this little intellectual nugget.

Although I would bet that there would be little difference between the paragraph and paper grades. If the person thought about the topic before writing, there would be a thesis sentence and something resembling a claim in the opening paragraph. Generally, this means there's actually a coherent argument in the paper. If they are handing me a discovery draft -- a piece where they think through their keyboard, the first paragraph will contain only vacuous claims like "Rene Descartes was one of the most important thinkers in history." Blah, blah, frickin' blah... Maybe at the very end, they'll find something that would have made a nice paper, but that would mean starting over and actually writing a good paper, but since it was written the night before, that's all she wrote -- or he wrote, depending upon the writer, of course.

So, any relation between these three hypothetical grades?

Saturday, December 08, 2007

Feast of Saint Richard

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists everywhere,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Richard. It would have been Richard Pryor's 67th birthday this week. It would not be a controversial claim to say that no one shaped comedy in the second half of the 20th century like Richard Pryor. Starting in the vein of Bill Cosby, Pryor developed into the comedian who would inherit Lenny Bruce's place as the voice that would tell us what we knew but didn't think we would hear. But unlike Bruce's unrelenting hard edge, determined to make sure you always remained off-balance, Pryor always -- even at his most shocking -- always had a humane touch. Whether it was self-reflection or through the voices of his characters like Mudbone, there was always a sense of empathy, even in his most pointed critiques.

As society itself wrestled with its own problems in the 60s, Pryor brought them out in a way that was clever and clear, forcing white people to understand that they could not remain in their perspective and giving voice to truism the black community had been trying to introduce into the conversation for a long time. Along with Dick Gregory, he consciously introduced the word "nigger" into his act. It was a political move. The word had so long been used as a weapon against African-Americans, the hope of Pryor and Gregory was that by appropriating the word themselves, they could blunt the weapon. By using it in a way that was clearly not intended to denigrate, they could blunt its force, perhaps not beating the sword into a plowshare, but at least rendering it something other than a weapon. After traveling to Africa, a trip that was transformative for him, Pryor changed his mind and explained why he would no longer use the word.

His stand-up was masterful, but he was also influential as a writer, writing for the sit-coms Sanford and Son, The Flip Wilson Show, and co-wrote one of the all time funniest movies ever, Blazing Saddles.

His addiction to cocaine nearly took him several times, setting himself on fire while freebasing being the most spectacular of them. But ultimately it was MS that got him, something he said God gave him to save his life. It's hard to believe it's been two years now.

A few lines from the man:

I'm not addicted to cocaine... I just like the way it smells.

It's been a struggle for me because I had a chance to be white and refused.

I'd like to die like my father died... My father died fucking. My father was 57 when he died. The woman was 18. My father came and went at the same time.

Thank you, Saint Richard. Happy birthday from Comedists everywhere up there to Comedy heaven.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, December 07, 2007

Bullshit or Not: End of the Semester Plato Edition

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 an irregular series of posts.

This week it's Plato on education. In The Republic, Plato argues that it is a fool's errand to try to educate those of age 18-20. They are at the age where the body is of their concern, not the mind, and therefore any training ought to focus on the body.

And, therefore, calculation and geometry and all the other elements of instruction, which are a preparation for dialectic, should be presented to the mind in childhood; not, however, under any notion of forcing our system of education...because a freeman ought not to be a slave in the acquisition of knowledge of any kind. Bodily exercise, when compulsory, does no harm to the body; but knowledge which is acquired under compulsion obtains no hold on the mind.
Once, they've reached twenty, they can begin work in mathematics, but philosophy should not be taught to anyone under thirty:
Therefore, that your feelings may not be moved to pity about our citizens who are now thirty years of age, every care must be taken in introducing them to dialectic...There is a danger lest they should taste the dear delight too early; for youngsters, as you may have observed, when they first get the taste in their mouths, argue for amusement, and are always contradicting and refuting others in imitation of those who refute them; like puppy-dogs, they rejoice in pulling and tearing at all who come near them...But when a man begins to get older, he will no longer be guilty of such insanity; he will imitate the dialectician who is seeking for truth, and not the eristic, who is contradicting for the sake of amusement; and the greater moderation of his character will increase instead of diminishing the honour of the pursuit.
So, college aged students are doomed to be less than successful because their nature at that age is working against them. Acquisition of wisdom, and therefore fruitful education, should wait. Should we require some sort of bodily activity, be it military or other sorts of public service, during the years 18-20 because the body is in such a state that studies would not take?

Bullshit or not? As usual, feel free to leave a one word response or a dissertation.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Job Interview Tips and Stories

I'm giving a talk today to the philosophy grad students at Johns Hopkins about job interviews. Any helpful hints or horror stories?

My favorite job interview story was when I brought in a friend to fill the adjunct spot I was leaving at the United States Naval Academy. He got a migraine so severe that after his job talk he went straight to the men's room to throw up. He became dehydrated and was in so much pain that he left the interview in an ambulance. The department, primarily ethicists, felt so bad that they gave him the job. He's a brilliant man and a great teacher, so he no doubt would have gotten it anyway, but it was an interview like no other. It's the sort of thing that gives a department a reputation...did you hear about the last guy who interviewed here? They had to take him to the hospital in an ambulance!

Other stories or tips for those looking to get a job?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Ethics of Letters of Recommendation

Interesting ethical question that arose in a conversation the other day and figured I'd throw it out there for you folks to bat around -- is it immoral to have a friend look at your confidential letters of recommnedation to make sure one of your recommenders isn't shooting down your applications?

We were discussing the case of an acquaintance of a friend who seemed to have a very strong track record, but wasn't even getting interviews much less job offers. There are any number of factors that could explain this: typos in your cv (academic resume), a lousy cover letter, poorly chosen writing sample are but a few. But it could be in the letters.

When applying for a job as a professor, you have people send letters of recommendation. The candidate generally does not see the letters, but it is a standard, understood practice that if you cannot write a strong letter in support of the person, you decline to write. If a person gets a bad letter, it is taken very seriously -- especially given that the number of academic jobs is incredibly small compared to the number of applicants for them. A bad letter could mean that the applicant had no better options and that would mean trouble. It could be that there is a personality conflict with the letter writer and the writer agreed to write in order to torpedo the person's application making sure that no other department makes the mistake of hiring this trouble-maker. Or, it could be that the recommender is simply tone-deaf to the job process and is too oblivious to realize that he is doing harm, not helping the applicant. In a competitive job market, one bad letter can sink you and keep you from being able to pursue your life's work.

But you cannot ask to see your letters. They are suppose to be confidential. But if you knew that you had a bad letter from him or her, then you could help yourself by not asking that person to send a letter in the next go-round.

Suppose that you have a friend at a college with an opening you could apply for and that friend was willing to read the letters and tell whether there is one that you should not send out henceforth. Is that acceptable? You have not seen the letters, but a sympathetic eye has vetted them for you in order to make sure no one is doing you dirty. To agree to write a letter and then write a weak or negative letter without telling the applicant is akin to lying. It is a standard community practice that you should not agree to write the letter or make clear that it would not be the strongest letter if it will not be a good recommendation. So what you are doing is just making sure you weren't wronged. At the same time, the writer is writing under the assumption that the content of the letter would not be communicated to the applicant. While you are not getting details about the specific content or wording, you are getting some vague sense of it. Is that enough to put it over the confidentiality line? Does it matter whether the position was really one you were interested in or whether it was a straw-application for the purpose of checking the letters?

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Assessing Frames

In discussing yesterday's diatribe, Kerry was exactly right to bust me on a bit of inexcusable sloppiness:

You surprise me here when you write that "THAT [ID as a political, not scientific issue] is the frame we need, because that is the truth of the matter and the frame that gives us the real advantage." My question is: how can a frame be "the truth of the matter"? I'm probably just not understanding C&F (although you've given me plenty of opportunity in past posts), but for me, "frame" suggests a perspective, a heuristic specially chosen because of the particular spin it puts on things (I take it that's what you're getting at when you say that thinking of ID as political "gives us the real advantage"). In fact, I take the act of "framing" to be always perspectival, sometimes polemical, sometimes benign. So frames can be interesting or uninteresting, agreeable or disagreeable, coherent or incoherent, dangerous or innocuous. But true or false?
This is dead on right. I committed a category mistake. Sentences are true or false, frames are not sentences and therefore not to be labeled true or false.

At the same time, there do seem to be notions like inappropriate or misleading that are applicable. Can we judge frames? If so, on what criteria?

All conversation must occur within language and George Lakoff's notion of "frmaing" brings out the point that the words we use in couching our debates are not neutral, but bring with them pre-suppositions, connotations, and other question-begging elements. They lead our minds in a direction which will affect how we approach and ultimately decide the question posed. Those who frame the debate very often win the debate and that victory is only partly on the merits of argument, the framing gives that side an advantage. He points out that Democrats have for a while now allowed Republicans to frame debates and have played within the frame (and lost most of the time), instead of attempting to fight the frame and reframe the questions in a more friendly fashion.

Since we will always use words, there will always be a frame. it is not a trick design to skew a conversaiton, but a strucutral aspect, the constitutive ground rules of the conversation. As such, the frame is not a set of propositions that we can judge, but a constructed playing field on which we go through the process of consideration. But that does not mean that frames are not capable of being assessed and some preferred on non-pragmatic grounds (that is, grounds other than "it best suits my political interests") and others condemned.

The best place to look for a similar case is scientific explanation. We can say a lot of things about a given scientific explanation -- that it is true or false, that is is god or bad, that it is complete or incomplete,... If I have a given phenomenon that I want explained, there is a complete explanation of it. But that complete explanation includes every operative factor, every relevant law of nature, and will be so complex and speecific to the details of the situation that it will really not explain much in the sense of providing an understanding (this is Nancy Cartwright's famous argument). Indeed, not only is a complete explanation not desirable, it is not even possible. Yet, we can think of what it would look like and following Peter Railton, call it the "ideal explanatory text." It is a complete explanation.

When someone asks for an explanation of a phenomenon, she is asking for a part of that ideal explanatory text. Different contexts, say a five year old asking why the sky is blue and a geophysicist considering light scattering in the atmosphere with all its pollution may both pull from the same ideal explanatory text, but what is pulled will be very different in the two contexts. What is a good or appropriate explanation in one case will not suffice in the other. Context determines what is an acceptable or appropriate explanation.

An appropriate explanation may be true or false. If the phenomenon involves the thermodynamic properties of a gas, I may explain it using the ideal gas law, eventhough I know that the gas in question is not ideal (indeed, there are no ideal gasses). As such, I know that the operative principle is not descriptive of the real system, but it is a good heuristic device. If the law is a good approximation, then it will still be a good explanation if it gives me a sense of what the ideal explanatory text contains, even if it is not there. The solar system model of the atom, the flowing river of electrons picture of electric current are similar falsehoods that explain well.

But I could also give a coherent explanation that does not approximate, model, or resemble what is in the ideal explanatory text. If I talk about heat flow in terms of phlogiston, a heat liquid, then I am giving a heuristic device that I know leads us away from what is in the ideal explanatory text. In this way, I can use the word "false" for the explanation.

It is in this sense that I was considering a false frame. When we consider a policy issue, the question, like the explanation of a physical phenomenon, is inextricably entrenched in a myriad of complex interrelated factors. It is not possible for us to consider all of the social, political, economic, and personal effects that a decision will really bring about. We need to simply, we need to make a choice about which of these factors we will bring out on the table as the main considerations and this is the choice we make when we frame an issue.

In the case of intelligent design creationism in the classroom, there is the scientific question about the relative weight of the evidence, on one hand, and the political question about how we view science and its role in contemporary society, on the other. The frame that we saw in yesterday's news out of Texas is one that sets the question of openness in scientific debate and the relative confirmation of the theories as the central question. However, this is not actually the operative factor in the debate. It is misleading to present that debate as one that is ongoing among those who have training in the field. Instead, the real question here is one of political wrangling for power between those who have a particular religious conservative agenda and those who do not. To try to take this conversation and portray it as one about biology or about intellectual open-mindedness and fairness instead of being about political power is not merely to use words with one connotation instead of another (pro-life instead of pro-choice), rather it is to completely misrepresent the actual ideal explanatory text of the policy debate itself. In this way, the frame is a false frame because it not only distorts the conversation in the way that any framing does -- the act of choosing certain components over others will always warp the conversation -- but it is a red herring in placing the discussion on ground that is not actually relevant to the real issue at hand.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Intelligent Design is a Political Question, Not a Scientific One

This article is unbelievable. Christine Castillo Comer, the Texas Education Agency’s director of science, was forced out of her position for forwarding an e-mail to a list-serve for science educators announcing a local talk by Barbara Forrest. Let that sink in -- forced out of her job for forwarding an e-mail about an upcoming lecture.

Barbara Forrest is co-author of Creationism's Trojan Horse: The Wedge of Intelligent Design a book that chronicles the rise of the intelligent design infrastructure from a group of creationists seeking a sleazy way around church/state separation. She was a star witness at Dover -- the transcript is well worth a read.

So, the talk was not even one that examined science, but exposed intelligent design for the politically-based position it is...and Ms. Comer was not even giving the talk, just alerting people to it. So, even mentioning the fact that someone else will be talking about the truth about intelligent design is sufficient to get yourself fired from a position in science education in Texas.

And the line of these creationist folks, of course, is that they aren't trying to tell anyone what to think, they are trying to be fair and objective and let people make up their minds...unless, of course, you think it is a good idea to make up your mind once you actually have an understanding about the matter. That would be a case of bias.

Let's be clear, the debate here is NOT one of science; it's one of political power. Creationism/evolution is the next step after abortion -- which, again, is not about abortion, it's about a first step in Christianizing American law. Abortion was selected as the issue to put on the table because it was the easiest for the radical Christian right to frame to their advantage. The trick is to realize that they want to play the game on a pseudo-scientific ground stressing methodological issues like intellectual fairness while eliminating the real questions of science and certainly hiding the fact that this is at its heart a political issue, not a scientific or epistemological one. As such, it needs to be fought on our side as a political battle.

The move to place creationism up there with abortion and gay marriage as their political front line, however, is a major mistake. Since the end of WWII, we have been sold on the idea that science and technology are essential puzzle pieces in terms of our national security and our economy. We need to stop making the case in terms of the science. It is not a debate within the scientific community, it is a debate about whether science should be taken seriously in the political community. Once the debate is framed that way, they get hammered. That is exactly the line that Gross and Forrest take in Creationism's Trojan Horse and the line we ought to follow. the ID folks lost and lost big in Dover because it stopped being a discussion about science and became one of politics. THAT is the frame we need, because that is the truth of the matter and the frame that gives us the real advantage. These are political people trying to lead a revolution that would harm this country deeply. They seek to remove anyone who has political power who is not their advocate. These people are not concerned about science, they are concerned about power and we need to play hardball too. We need to fight back in the most advantageous way -- and it means exposing the man behind the curtain. We win the science battle if you are talking to science people, we win the political battle if we fight it out on political grounds.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Feast of Saint Zeppo

This week we commemorate the passing of Herbert Manfred Marx, best known as Zeppo. He is the Comedist version of Saint Jude. Often called the funniest of the Marx Brothers off-stage, in the act he was the straight man, always setting up the jokes, but never making them. Indeed, he even starred as the love interest in "Horse Feathers."

In admiration and recognition of his fine and necessary work, good brother Hanno sends this message:

An organization known as the Society for the Prevention of Abuse to Zeppo (SPAZ) has arisen to highlight the importance of Zeppo to the act.

"There is a common assumption that Zeppo = Zero, which this scene does its best to contradict. Groucho dictating a letter to anybody else would hardly be cause for rejoicing. We have to believe that someone will be there to accept all his absurdities and even respond somewhat in kind before things can progress free from conflict into this genial mishmash. Groucho clears his throat in the midst of his dictation, and Zeppo asks him if he wants that in the letter. Groucho says, 'No, put
it in the envelope.' Zeppo nods. And only Zeppo could even try such a thing as taking down the heading and the salutation and leaving out the letter because it didn't sound important to him. It takes a Marx Brother to pull something like that on a Marx Brother and get away with it."

In honor of straightmen everywhere (even those who are neither straight nor men), happy day of Saint Zeppo.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve