Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Albert Hoffman RIP

(UPDATE: Also check out David Gans' Cloud Surfing for more discussion.)

Last night, chemist Albert Hoffman died of a heart attack in his home in Switzerland at age 102. Hoffman changed the course of history with his synthesis of lysergic acid diethylamide, better known as LSD, while studying the medicinal properties of a fungus that grows on wheat.

A small bit accidentally spilled on his finger and he famously wrote afterwards,

Last Friday, April 16,1943, I was forced to interrupt my work in the laboratory in the middle of the afternoon and proceed home, being affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into a not unpleasant intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.
It was an experience that led him to try a self-experiment with a larger dose on which he had a terrifying experience,
By now it was already clear to me that LSD had been the cause of the remarkable experience of the previous Friday, for the altered perceptions were of the same type as before, only much more intense. I had to struggle to speak intelligibly. I asked my laboratory assistant, who was informed of the self-experiment, to escort me home. We went by bicycle, no automobile being available because of wartime restrictions on their use. On the way home, my condition began to assume threatening forms. Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot. Nevertheless, my assistant later told me that we had traveled very rapidly. Finally, we arrived at home safe and sound, and I was just barely capable of asking my companion to summon our family doctor and request milk from the neighbors.

In spite of my delirious, bewildered condition, I had brief periods of clear and effective thinking - and chose milk as a nonspecific antidote for poisoning.

The dizziness and sensation of fainting became so strong at times that I could no longer hold myself erect, and had to lie down on a sofa. My surroundings had now transformed themselves in more terrifying ways. Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms. They were in continuous motion, animated, as if driven by an inner restlessness. The lady next door, whom I scarcely recognized, brought me milk - in the course of the evening I drank more than two liters. She was no longer Mrs. R., but rather a malevolent, insidious witch with a colored mask.

Even worse than these demonic transformations of the outer world, were the alterations that I perceived in myself, in my inner being. Every exertion of my will, every attempt to put an end to the disintegration of the outer world and the dissolution of my ego, seemed to be wasted effort. A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul. I jumped up and screamed, trying to free myself from him, but then sank down again and lay helpless on the sofa. The substance, with which I had wanted to experiment, had vanquished me. It was the demon that scornfully triumphed over my will. I was seized by the dreadful fear of going insane. I was taken to another world, another place, another time. My body seemed to be without sensation, lifeless, strange. Was I dying? Was this the transition? At times I believed myself to be outside my body, and then perceived clearly, as an outside observer, the complete tragedy of my situation. I had not even taken leave of my family (my wife, with our three children had traveled that day to visit her parents, in Lucerne). Would they ever understand that I had not experimented thoughtlessly, irresponsibly, but rather with the utmost caution, an-d that such a result was in no way foreseeable? My fear and despair intensified, not only because a young family should lose its father, but also because I dreaded leaving my chemical research work, which meant so much to me, unfinished in the midst of fruitful, promising development. Another reflection took shape, an idea full of bitter irony: if I was now forced to leave this world prematurely, it was because of this lysergic acid diethylamide that I myself had brought forth into the world.

By the time the doctor arrived, the climax of my despondent condition had already passed. My laboratory assistant informed him about my self experiment, as I myself was not yet able to formulate a coherent sentence. He shook his head in perplexity, after my attempts to describe the mortal danger that threatened my body. He could detect no abnormal symptoms other than extremely dilated pupils. Pulse, blood pressure, breathing were all normal. He saw no reason to prescribe any medication. Instead he conveyed me to my bed and stood watch over me. Slowly I came back from a weird, unfamiliar world to reassuring everyday reality. The horror softened and gave way to a feeling of good fortune and gratitude, the more normal perceptions and thoughts returned, and I became more confident that the danger of insanity was conclusively past.

Now, little by little I could begin to enjoy the unprecedented colors and plays of shapes that persisted behind my closed eyes. Kaleidoscopic, fantastic images surged in on me, alternating, variegated, opening and then closing themselves in circles and spirals, exploding in colored fountains, rearranging and hybridizing themselves in constant flux. It was particularly remarkable how every acoustic perception, such as the sound of a door handle or a passing automobile, became transformed into optical perceptions. Every sound generated a vividly changing image, with its own consistent form and color.

Late in the evening my wife returned from Lucerne. Someone had informed her by telephone that I was suffering a mysterious breakdown. She had returned home at once, leaving the children behind with her parents. By now, I had recovered myself sufficiently to tell her what had happened.

Exhausted, I then slept, to awake next morning refreshed, with a clear head, though still somewhat tired physically. A sensation of well-being and renewed life flowed through me. Breakfast tasted delicious and gave me extraordinary pleasure. When I later walked out into the garden, in which the sun shone now after a spring rain, everything glistened and sparkled in a fresh light. The world was as if newly created. All my senses vibrated in a condition of highest sensitivity, which persisted for the entire day.

This self-experiment showed that LSD-25 behaved as a psychoactive substance with extraordinary properties and potency. There was to my knowledge no other known substance that evoked such profound psychic effects in such extremely low doses, that caused such dramatic changes in human consciousness and our experience of the inner and outer world.
The result of these experiences led Hoffman to consider the psychological potential of the substance when administered and overseen by mental health professionals.

To his dismay, it was a mental health professional, Dr. Timothy Leary, who would lead a movement advocating its use in less formal settings. The recreational use of LSD and the culture war of the 60s led to the substance being banned. Hoffman expressed deep regret that non-professional use led to the inability to determine whether it could have been fruitfully used in treatment or not and he strongly and explicitly opposed its use as a recreational substance.

His ambivalence about the substance's potential medicinal use and its limits remained with him throughout his long and thoughtful life as he makes clear in this correspondence:
Bottmingen, 16 December 1961

Dear Mr. Junger,

On the one hand, I would have the great desire, besides the natural- scientific, chemicalpharmacological investigation of hallucinogenic substances, also to research their use as magic drugs in other regions.... On the other hand, I must admit that the fundamental question very much occupies me, whether the use of these types of drugs, namely of substances that so deeply affect our minds, could not indeed represent a forbidden transgression of limits. As long as any means or methods are used, which provide only an additional, newer aspect of reality, surely there is nothing to object to in such means; on the contrary, the experience and the knowledge of further facets of the reality only makes this reality ever more real to us. The question exists, however, whether the deeply affecting drugs under discussion here will in fact only open an additional window for our senses and perceptions, or whether the spectator himself, the core of his being, undergoes alterations. The latter would signify that something is altered that in my opinion should always remain intact. My concern is addressed to the question, whether the innermost core of our being is actually unimpeachable, and cannot become damaged by whatever happens in its material, physical-chemical, biological and psychic shells-or whether matter in the form of these drugs displays a potency that has the ability to attack the spiritual center of the personality, the self. The latter would have to be explained by the fact that the effect of magic drugs happens at the borderline where mind and matter merge-that these magic substances are themselves cracks in the infinite realm of matter, in which the depth of matter, its relationship with the mind, becomes particularly obvious. This could be expressed by a modification of the familiar words of Goethe:

"Were the eye not sunny,
It could never behold the sun;
If the power of the mind were not in matter,
How could matter disturb the mind."

This would correspond to cracks which the radioactive substances constitute in the periodic system of the elements, where the transition of matter into energy becomes manifest. Indeed, one must ask whether the production of atomic energy likewise represents a transgression of forbidden limits.

A further disquieting thought, which follows from the possibility of influencing the highest intellectual functions by traces of a substance, concerns free will.

The highly active psychotropic substances like LSD and psilocybin possess in their chemical structure a very close relationship with substances inherent in the body, which are found in the central nervous system and play an important role in the regulation of its functions. It is therefore conceivable that through some disturbance in the metabolism of the normal neurotransmitters, a compound like LSD or psilocybin is formed, which can determine and alter the character of the individual, his world view and his behavior. A trace of a substance, whose production or non production we cannot control with our wills, has the power to shape our destiny. Such biochemical considerations could have led to the sentence that Gottfried Benn quoted in his essay "Provoziertes Leben" [Provoked life]: "God is a substance, a drug!"

On the other hand, it is well known that substances like adrenaline, for example, are formed or set free in our organism by thoughts and emotions, which for their part determine the functions of the nervous system. One may therefore suppose that our material organism is susceptible to and shaped by our mind, in the same way that our intellectual essence is shaped by our biochemistry. Which came first can indeed no better be determined than the question, whether the chicken came before the egg.

In spite of my uncertainty with regard to the fundamental dangers that could lie in the use of hallucinogenic substances, I have continued investigations on the active principles of the Mexican magic morning glories, of which I wrote you briefly once before. In the seeds of this morning glory, that were called otoliuhqui by the ancient Aztecs, we found as active principles lysergic acid derivatives chemically very closely related to LSD. That was an almost unbelievable finding. I have all along had a particular love for the morning glories. They were the first flowers that I grew myself in my little child's garden. Their blue and red cups belong to the first memories of my childhood.

I recently read in a book by D. T. Suzuki, Zen and Japanese Culture, that the morning glory plays a great role in Japan, among the flower lovers, in literature, and in graphic arts. Its fleeting splendor has given the Japanese imagination rich stimulus. Among others, Suzuki quotes a three- line poem of the poetess Chiyo (1702-75), who one morning went to fetch water from a neighbor's house, because . . .

"My trough is captivated
by a morning glory blossom,
So I ask after water."

The morning glory thus shows both possible ways of influencing the mind-body-essence of man: in Mexico it exerts its effects in a chemical way as a magic drug, while in Japan it acts from the spiritual side, through the beauty of its flower cups.
He lived a long, interesting life dedicated to science and medicine, thoughtful and cultured, he changed the way we see things and changed the course of history.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

The Blue (but not the brown) Books

The unexamined life is not living, but is the unexamined course worth giving? Is there any value in giving in-class blue book exams in philosophy? Let's exclude logic and critical thinking, what is the advantage to timed exams?

I give exams, but I've gotten away from in-class and gone completely over to take homes because it allows students the space to work out insights, to be able to quote and cite works they are engaging, and to print out the paper in a font that is much easier on the eyes than their hand-scrawled chicken scratch. The exercise seems a better facsimile of the philosophical process, although it does keep me from being able to ask straight forward knowledge recall questions like you get with matching, short answer, or fill in the blanks. But, let's be honest, in a week's time that short term info is gone anyway and it can be asked for creatively in a well-worded essay question.

So, is there value in a timed in-class philosophy exam? Is there a reason for the blue book blues?

Monday, April 28, 2008

What's Wrong With Being Lazy?

When I was in Lake Charles, Louisiana a few weeks back, a topic of discussion that came up in several different contexts was the way the local Cajun population was considered. They are a minority and are pejoratively labeled with many of the negative properties we find attached to other sub-populations, especially laziness. I began to wonder why it is that we consider laziness to be such a bad thing. Why do we vilify enjoyment of life, demanding a preference for toil over happiness?

This, of course, is hardly an original question. It is one discussed at length by Max Weber.

It was a well discussed fact of Europe in the late nineteenth century that a significantly larger percentage of high paying jobs, especially managerial jobs with authority, were held by Protestants, while Catholics tended to do the lower paying, dirtier, more physical labor. This regularity held across national borders in pluralistic societies with generally different cultural historical narratives. Much time and space, especially in Catholic publications, considered why this might be.

Max Weber, in his book The Protestant Ethic and the “Spirit” of Capitalism, takes up this question, deeming it to be the sort of issue designed for the sociologist. In the first part of the book, Weber begins by debunking a number of seemingly reasonable hypotheses that seek to explain the phenomenon. For example, one might suppose that the hierarchical structure of the Catholic Church, as opposed to the diffusion of power in Protestantism, might put religion in a prominent place that would leave little room for financial concerns. But Weber points out that while Protestantism has removed a central authority, it has in fact replaced one authority with another that puts a religious spin on every aspect of life. Similarly, one might think that the difference is one of theology, in which the doctrinal beliefs stemming from the Reformation encourage the sort of money-making interests that were reported in the Protestant community. But examinations of early Protestant doctrine, indeed shows quite the opposite. And so it goes with several possible explanations.

Weber took America, particularly the writings of Benjamin Franklin, as prime examples of the statement of the Protestant work ethic wherein making money is not seen as a means to a better life, but as a moral imperative that governs the very process of living itself. The Protestants made more money, but they did not seem to enjoy it; indeed, the enjoyment of the wealth they slaved so hard to achieve was seen as sinful. It is in the ethical framing of Franklin’s language that Weber finds the sociological clue for what he claims to be the best explanation for the capitalist leanings of Protestants and the non-material lifestyles of Catholics. As the Protestants gained political power, they began to frame those sorts of behaviors that benefited them as a group in moral terms and thus the basic concepts of capitalism became internalized within the structure of society and within the consciousnesses of its members. It was not the religious that determined the economic, but rather, the other way around. The interesting question for the sociologist, then, is how such normative structures that determine how a person lives, acts, and feels in society come to be.

He traces the move to Luther’s notion of calling. In Catholicism, one’s calling takes one out of the world. The secular is to be left behind, to be transcended. But Luther elevates the secular to the status of the sacred. All work can be divine and this change permeates the boundary that the Catholics had placed between inferior worldly work and that which was Divine, now the Divine was contained within the ordinary and this meant that even the economic could be brought under the umbrella of the religious. Hence one was not working for the earthly rewards (those were to be avoided), but rather working for the sake of working, a notion to be encouraged by the nature of the social relations in an emerging Capitalist society.

The ethos of hard work for the sake of hard work then becomes internalized so that even the "colorless deist" as Weber refers to Franklin, has been sociologically conditioned to approach labor as an act with a degree of fetishism.

Certainly the long way around the barn to ask the simple question, is there anything virtuous about the person who works hard and is there anything morally wrong with the slacker?

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Feast of Saint Carol

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Carol. Carol Burnett turns 75 this weekend. She was born in Texas, but raised by her grandmother in Hollywood. Working her way up through small parts, she met Lucille Ball who took her under her wing. The two became dear and close friends and with her advice and help, she became more and more successful, gaining bigger and bigger roles on Broadway and in television.

When she was ready for her own show, Lucy proposed a sit-com which Desilu would produce, but Carol's idea was for a variety show, and what a show it was winning 22 Emmys over its run from 1967-1978. Starting with a monologue and ending with her famous signature ear tug (which began as a signal to assure her grandmother that she was doing well), the sketches including Tim Conway, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Vicki Lawrence were as funny for the interactions and attempts to stifle their own laughs as they were for the writing. Some of them, however, were just plain funny.Favorite Carol Burnett moments?

Thank you for all the laughs Carol Burnett. Happy birthday.

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 25, 2008

Floyd Landis, Hypotheticals, and Cheating

In my class Wrong Science, Bad Science, and Pseudoscience, we've been looking at science in society and last week the question turned to sports-based applications and cheating. One can cheat with technology if one gains an unfair advantage. The question then becomes determining what makes an advantage unfair.

There are plenty of fair advantages -- those that come from unequal skill or innate ability, superior training and preparation, more effective execution, to name a few. But what is it that makes an advantage unfair?

Two options that seem obvious, but have flaws are asymmetrical advantage and advantages that break the rules. First, if one competitor has access to something the other doesn't that is not fair and therefore cheating. This does not seem to really be a necessary or sufficient condition because there are fair asymmetric advantages (me and Michael Jordan playing one-on-one) on the one hand, and on the other, it makes sense to say in certain circumstances, "They were both cheating." If both runners leave before the starting gun goes off, it is a double false start not a fair start. But if asymmetry was sufficient for cheating, that would make no sense.

Second, while it may certainly be cheating to break the rules, it doesn't seem necessary. That is, we can think up new ways to cheat that haven't been encoded in the rules of the game. Indeed, there must be a non-rule-based notion of fairness to guide the way we make the rules. Rules are not capricious, we don't just make them up willy-nilly. Rather, we understand that some act violates a pre-existing sense of fairness and then make a reasonable rule to explicitly rule out the act. The unfairness doesn't come from breaking the rule, but the rule comes from recognizing and wanting to call out the unfairness.

We were playing with the case of Floyd Landis, the cyclist who had a sample come back testing positive for steroids during the Tour de France. His previous samples had come back clean, but a sample from late in the course of the race tested positive. His argument in his defense was that he is rational and understands how steroids work. Steroids give an advantage if used while training in order to build muscle mass. They convey no advantage in the middle of the race when one is looking for endurance. Steroid use by cyclists is against the rules and at the time he supposedly took them would convey no advantage, therefore a rational person would not take steroids in the middle of the Tour de France.

I don't know whether he is being truthful or not, but let's work with the hypothetical that he did take the steroids late in the race. Given that they convey no real advantage, would it have been cheating? It did break the rules, but gave no asymmetric advantage. Would it be different if he wrongly believed that he was going to gain an advantage? Suppose someone gave him a placebo which he willingly took thinking it to be steroids which he wrongly believed would give him an advantage?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

I Weep For The Onion

How does one write satire when this is reality? (hat tip to Chet at Shakesville for the story and YKW for the image link)

U.S. Congressional candidate Tony Zirkle is facing criticism from one of his primary opponents, and a host of people on the Internet, for speaking at an event over the weekend that celebrated Adolf Hitler's birthday.

Zirkle confirmed to The News-Dispatch on Monday he spoke Sunday in Chicago at a meeting of the Nationalist Socialist Workers Party, whose symbol is a swastika.

When asked if he was a Nazi or sympathized with Nazis or white supremacists, Zirkle replied he didn't know enough about the group to either favor it or oppose it.

"This is just a great opportunity for me to witness," he said, referring to his message and his Christian belief.

He also told WIMS radio in Michigan City that he didn't believe the event he attended included people necessarily of the Nazi mindset, pointing out the name isn't Nazi, but Nationalist Socialist Workers Party.
"he didn't believe the event he attended included people necessarily of the Nazi mindset, pointing out the name isn't Nazi, but Nationalist Socialist Workers Party." I thought they were celebrating ADOLPH Hitler, not ADOLF Hitler. The mind simply boggles.

But if that isn't enough. In defending his speech to this wonderful group of upstanding (and goosestepping) white activists,
Zirkle said he feels he was misunderstood. His real mission, he said, is to rid the country of pornography, and that's what he was saying at the ANSWP gathering. So how did his comment about Jews fit in?

"Most of the male porn stars were Jewish at the beginning," Zirkle explained.

Now the male porn stars are mostly black, he claimed, and the women who appear in pornographic works tend to be "young, white, Christian women."

If people think he is targeting the Jews, he said, they are misinterpreting his position. He is targeting, Zirkle said, the "porn dragon" that inspires Jews to get involved in pornography.
From there he goes on to...
The references to prosecuting Jewish and Zionist gangs, Zirkle said, come from his days as a deputy under former St. Joseph County Prosecutor Chris Toth.
Jewish gangs, huh? Yeah, I remember my roughian days as a young Jewish delinquent. To get into the gang, you had to prove how tough you were by sneaking into a store after closing and altering their books so that costs associated with overhead were no longer deductible unless prorated according to an algorithm that would not allow for depreciation at the standard rate. Man, you didn't mess with the Yids back in those days.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

The Tragic Wisdom of a Broken Heart

Last night, we had our annual event in remembrance of our former department chair Norman Richardson and one of the speakers was an alum who had Professor Richardson back in the late 50s. He recounted that he wished two things for his students -- one of which was that they suffer a broken heart.

Does a broken heart impart insight that is not accessible in any other way? If so, what? Is it a breaking down of artifices, a shaking down of us to our cores making those painful places full of baggage and insecurities unavoidably open to us forcing us to deal with that which we can usually sweep under the psychic rug? Does it make us radically reconsider our paths forward opening us to possibilities we were blind to before? Is it a time to reclaim autonomy, to be forced to feel comfortable in our own skin without the crutch of another's personality to lean on?

That horrible feeling of devastation, what is the silver lining?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008


Guest post from C.Ewing today:

Let us say that we have a person H. Person H happens to posses a wondrous technological device, which for any given morally pertinent situation will provide the proper steps/actions to resolve the situation/dilemma/problem in the moral fashion. H uses this iEthics device (yes, it is obviously prioritized) in order to determine proper tipping occasions, and amounts. Now, H doesn't like tipping. Indeed, H rather resents the very concept, much less the practice of tipping. It's a chore, but H does it anyway. In this scenario, the proper amount to be tipped in order for it to be considered "generous", we shall say, is $12.19.

A, is quite behind the times, as unfortunate as that is, and does not happen to have an iEthics. Indeed, we shall say that such a handy trinket, for our poor person A, is entirely inaccessible. A used to work as a server and in the same (or effectively similar enough) situation is, naturally, also obligated to tip $12.19 in order for it to be considered "generous". A, however, lives on a budget, and though A realizes that the service was excellent, and thoroughly enjoyed the meal, leaves a less impressive $8.00. A takes the opportunity to also thank the server for the excellent service, and says that the restaurant will be recommended to friends, due in part to the excellent service. A couldn't leave a better financial compensation, and so feels compelled to help in another way.


1. Was H generous?

2. Is A being generous?

3. Do other avenues contribute to the fulfillment of the moral obligation (i.e., can other actions effectively "compensate")?

1. Here, we need to define generous. In tipping, to be considered "generous" one typically tips %20. This is a rule of etiquette, and thus can be debated, but for our purposes that doesn't seem terribly important. H tipped precisely the right amount, and so the financial compensation is indeed, precisely the right amount to be considered a "generous" sum. However, H resents the very concept, and thoroughly suffered through the process. Now, we might say that this simply indicates a dedication to one's moral obligations. It was imperative, given the situation, that H leave the proper tip. H did so. Done. But this doesn't actually answer the question. The question is not whether or not the action was undertaken. The question is whether or not the action was generous. This is a descriptor regarding the action, and thus seems to require additional information beyond merely answering, "Did H do it?" The question seems to instead be, "Did H do it generously?" For surely, if something (some action) is kind, then it must be done kindly. And if something is done as generosity, then is must be done generously. But what does that require?

When something is done kindly, it cannot be the manner in which it is done which makes it kindness, for a kind demeanor can be faked. We can never know whether the person is sincere, or whether the person is merely an excellent actor. If H masks the contempt for tipping, then it might appear that H is a generous person, acting as a generous person acts. This does not seem sufficient, for to be moral is a metaphysical statement of the reality of the person ("H is being moral") and does not ask for the mere appearance. A paper flower may look quite real, and be realized as a fake under closer observation. The closer observation required here is not open to us, but this does not dismiss the requirement. In order to be generous, the action must be done generously, otherwise it simply does not posses that quality, and surely generosity requires that it be generous. For lack of a better term, the nature or spirit of the action must then be one of generosity. When it is generously given, then it becomes an act of generosity, and when done from a miserly sense of obligation, it cannot be generous.

The answer is then: No.

2. A is surely giving from a sense of generosity. A is giving as much as is feasible, and though unable to financially meet the %20 which propriety and Miss Manners might demand, is doing it in the proper spirit. The additional attempts at other forms of compensation readily reinforce this understanding.

The answer then seems to be: Yes.

3. It may be that certain obligations can only be met in a certain way i.e., with a certain thing or a particular action. However, it does seem that most allow some area of leeway in meeting them. Indeed, certain forms of comfort may be inappropriate when comforting a friend, and may even conflict with other obligations. A hug may be one person's way of giving comfort, while another might treat to a beer or a night out. Listening may be one avenue in a particular case, whereas giving advice might also be adequate. While the monetary compensation in the above case might be the most common means of generosity, the service of praise and (hopefully) future monetary goods does not readily appear to be improper. Generosity is a means of giving another their due, but going above and beyond the minimal. If that is the case, then A is being generous, by giving what is able to be given monetarily, and making up the "difference" with what other means are readily available.

The answer is then: Yes.


Monday, April 21, 2008

Big Brass Payola

For those who didn't catch the New York Times' article, it turns out that the retired military leaders who were being used by virtually every major American news outlet, almost every single one parroting administration talking points word-for-word in the lead up to and during the war, were on the payrolls of defense contractors who stood to make massive amounts of money...say it with me...because of the war. Yet, these folks were put forward as independent, objective voices and repeatedly quoted as if they were autonomous authorities.

Arguing by authority, of course, is fine. But as any good critical thinking students knows there are three components to being someone legitimately cited in an argument from authority. (1) Actual material existence in the real world -- none of this "You know, I read somewhere that..." nonsense. (2) Expertise in the field in question -- an authority needs to be someone we have indubitable reason to believe would actually would know the answer to the question at hand because of experience and education. (3) Independence -- it must be someone who does not stand to profit from having us believe one way or the other, even a perceived conflict of interest is enough to rule someone out as an authority.

Here were people who were getting a significant sum of money in order to do PR for the defense contractors they work for and who were being fed talking points from the administration and yet are willingly given rhetorical camouflage by those people whose job it is to be critical investigators. A working democracy requires a well-informed electorate and instead we get deliberate deception.

Yet, as Glenn Greenwald (the smartest man in the blogosphere -- and one heck of writer) points out this made not a single Sunday news show nor was commented upon by none of the major news outlets -- including the New York Times itself.

After Judith Miller, the staged toppling of the Saddam statue, Pat Tillman, Jessica Lynch, the fake Falloujah announcement,...and now this, at what point does the American media simply become obsolete? At what point do our main media outlets simply become noise that fails to be taken seriously?

Saturday, April 19, 2008

It's Springtime for Hitler

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Today is Hitler's birthday. A less funny man, perhaps, never walked the face of the earth, Dick Shawn, however,...Comedy has powers that few other modes of human expression can claim. We can use prose or visual arts like photography to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the horror, but it is maybe through comedy alone that we can reclaim our humanity in the face of it. We can own it, we can make it mean something that does not ignore it, but rather allows us to live with it.

"Hitler" was not actually his birth name. It was his stepfather came from a family named "Heider" which turned into "Hitler," but for a while he carried his mother's maiden name, Schicklegruber. I guess we see where teasing on the third grade playground can lead...

And here's Hitler himself doing stand-up at the ReichstagA genocidal evil maniac, sure, but you try getting laughs like that out of Estonia and Yugoslavia. Fortunately, he has all of eternity to work on his timing...during the credits as he is forced to watch infinite re-runs of Stop or My Mom Will Shoot in comedy hell.

Have a nice weekend, and please people, no brown shirts.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Through the Looking Glass

John McCain said,

"We can look back at the past and argue about whether we should have gone to war or not, whether we should have invaded or not, and that’s a good academic argument."
Let's set aside the idea that anything academic is trivial because, you know, people who are trained to understand things like history, ethics, and political science to the highest degree possible certainly wouldn't have anything meaningful to contribute to conversations about policy.

Instead, we can just look at the idea that the train wreck on the ground in Iraq has no history, there's no cause and effect, after all no one actually made judgments in that case, right, judgments that might say something meaningful about one's ability to make good judgments about topics like, say, I don't know, foreign policy.

This, of course, is not to say that there are not important markers concerning one's capabilities of deciding on important issues concerning foreign affairs. It just turns out that they have nothing to do with actual foreign policy decisions. The place to look for such crucial indicators is, of course, a matter of flag pins.

Stupid has become institutionalized.

Best Book About Philosophy for Non-Philosophers

So, I got asked this question a couple of times and had no good answer. "I'm interested in philosophy, but never took any courses in college. What would be a good book for beginners that exposes them to what philosophy really is?" Suggestions?

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Do Teachers Really Learn From Their Students?

I had an older colleague who used to bristle at the old platitude "I learn so much from my students." He argued, "I had years of graduate training. I've been reading these texts for forty years. I know the secondary literature and all of the conversation around them. They are looking at these complex conversations for the first time and don't really understand the basics, much less the subtleties or the historical context. It is absurd to think they teach me anything."

Curmudgeon, but correct or misguided and misanthropic?

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

A Gratuitous Question About Gratuities

So I am in Lake Charles, Louisiana to give a talk tonight about Einstein and the wonderful lecture series folks have provided me with a very posh room at a hotel in town. I go down stairs for breakfast yesterday morning when the woman at the cash register asks me whether I want to put the gratuity on the room bill. I said no.

I had no problem with the lecture folks picking up the tab for my breakfast, meals were a part of the contractual understanding, but there seemed to be something odd about having them pick up my tip since that was something I was leaving in part out of expectation, but in part out of thanks to my waitress. Leaving a tip seemed to be not only the sort of thing that I needed to make sure was done, but the sort of thing that I had to actually be the one to do.

Hanno, on the other hand, argued (1) that tips are no longer thank yous but rather an excuse to limit the pay of wait staff and (2) the waitress' life is no different since she gets the same amount of money without knowing the source, so if she doesn't know the source, she can't feel slighted in any way and therefore there can't be a problem. If she doesn't care as long as she gets tipped, why should I?

We had a question a little while back about the ethics of having maids and whether cleaning up after yourself was something that merely needed doing or whether you acquire a responsibility to be the one to do it if you are physically able, and this seems a similar interest. There are acts like apologizing that I have to be the one to perform in order to have discharged my duty to do them. Accepting punishment is another. No matter how rich I am, I cannot rightfully pay someone else to do my prison time for me or to stay in my room without supper.

Three questions: (1&2) what belongs in this category and why? (3) Is tipping in there?

Monday, April 14, 2008

Are Certain Groups Comedically Out of Bounds on Ethical Grounds?

I was having a conversation last night with Hanno and C.Ewing and my routine came up. Hanno raised questions about the end portion -- the Eskimo jokes. Having had friends who spent time in Alaska, he was well aware that, unbeknownst to me (although a moment's consideration should have brought it to mind), that Inuit women are considered far and away the lowest rung of the social ladder and have it quite bad.

General agreement was reached that there is no problem with jokes being offensive per se. That offensiveness can be used to stir the social pot where there is unjust stasis, it can be used as a tool to undermine discrimination and structural social unfairness, it can effectively call attention to injustices we work hard in more "serious" ways to avoid coming to grips with.

But jokes can be used as weapons to strengthen unfair social systems as well. Jokes that reinforce false stereotypes can be used to keep groups down. The problem with certain jokes is not that they are offensive or unfunny, but that they are used in a form of bullying. If a group is secure in its social place, a given joke about them will not be harmful or even could be appreciated. But the same joke, told about a group that is more vulnerable or possessing of little social capital can be harmful and unnecessarily painful.

In my routine, I was not furthering any negative stereotypes of eskimo women -- indeed I had no clue what they were. I was being playful, connecting in an absurdist way the use of the nose in Eskimo kissing and images of other anatomical parts that tend to be used in moments of passion. The question then is whether the mere act of picking a group that is low down on the social hierarchy is not merely picking, but picking on. Should unfair social status convey "off limits" status for joking for anyone outside of the community as it could reasonably be seen as piling on even if the jokes themselves are not reinforcing of negative stereotypes?

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Feast of Saint Dudley

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

This week we celebrate the feast of Saint Dudley. Unfortunately, in America we tend to think of Dudley Moore in terms of the silly films Arthur and 10, but he in fact was quite the comedian in England for decades before.

Always short -- reaching only 5'2" in adulthood -- and having been born with a club foot, he was picked on mercilessly as a child. This led to his quick wit as a defense and, as a result of his inability to run and play like the other kids, taking up music seriously. He was a gifted pianist, something often featured in his later comedy.

His comedy career started with the British satire troupe Beyond the Fringe where he met Peter Cook. Later Moore had a BBC series called "Not Only...But Also" on which he had Cook as a guest. The two recognized the chemistry and saw each other as great talents and formed a comedy team that would last decades.

At first, they called themselves "Pete and Dud" and did some classic straight ahead sketch comedy. Moore from a working class background and Cook from a bourgeois setting found that they could play off of their differences in ways that were both funny and socially relevant. Their most well known bit was "One Leg Too Few"

In the 1970s, they transformed the act into Derek and Clive, a British shock comedy act well known for its use of foul language and incredibly funny and inane conversations on all sorts of topics that would inevitably turn sexual or scatological. It was often improvised and one could see them vying for the opportunity to crack each other up. It was like watching a competition between them. Moore and Cook were the British equivalents of Carlin and Pryor, pushing the boundaries, testing the limits of expression in a way that threw light on the politics of times.

The act became strained and the competition turned nasty. Cook had acquired a drinking problem and resentments between began to come out in the bits which had taken on a much nastier tone. Ultimately, it led to a complete falling out between them. The two would come back together in the late 80s occasionally, but they were never to pick up with any new material.

When Cook died in 1995, it hit Moore hard, and he himself became sick with terrible degenerative disease that claimed him in 2002 on the same day as Milton Berle.

Thank you Saint Dudley for all the laughs.

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 11, 2008

Gender and Violence

Guest post from C.Ewing

What initially shocked me about this and this is how strongly I reacted to them, as opposed to how I would react were it to be an all male scenario.

There was a local occurrence here some time ago, where a group of girls sliced another girl's face at the mall. Perhaps I am biased being male, and thus not often privy to the goings on in the female segment of the population, but what strikes me as...well, wrong, is that there is a sentiment that "girls just don't do that sort of thing", which I'm not thinking is particularly uncommon. Indeed, we have the UFC and Pride Fighting, which are both male dominated arenas for violence. Boxing, kick boxing, etc., are still predominantly male. We've long now had the adage that, "boys will be boys", which makes us more forgiving when they turn to violence as an expression of anger or a solution for disagreements. But I think this is wrong. We are moving in the wrong direction. We should not be getting more accustomed to female examples, but less tolerant of them all.

Or am I being overly idealistic? I'm not saying boxing, etc., should be made illegal. Not only do I think that's an inappropriate reaction, but it seems foolish to disallow something, which is harmless to the uninvolved, and freely entered into with knowledge of the consequences, when the problem lies with that, which is beyond regulation and not consensual in the least. Have we started to lose problem solving skills and socialization? Surely, that can't be the case. But I do recall a seminar, where statistically it was stated that we are a more violent society here in the U.S.A. The question is two fold. First, why is that the case? And second, how do we counter the trend?

I'm the first to say, God bless Youtube. It's a wonderful website by far and large. But have we become so enamored with our fifteen minutes of fame that we think this is an acceptable way of getting it? Have we become so unaffected by violence that we think this is an acceptable way to resolve our differences?

I don't want to be a knee-jerk reactionary, my appreciation for Punk aside. But we have so many crises in this country and the world at large already, that we simply don't need one more. Our young women should be embracing the positive aspects of quote-unquote "masculinity". A strong work ethic, a no-nonsense attitude, and an appreciation for stout are all respectable, even admirable. But brawling is not an acceptable resolution, and it is certainly not commendable.

I love horror flicks. I've, oddly enough, never liked gore. I'm all for free sparring, but I haven't been in a fight since grade school. Maybe I'm just an oddity (well, o.k., I am, but still...), but I think our gender-biased gut reaction to female-on-female violence of such a vicious sort should be our reaction to all of it. This is unacceptable. Sure, massive explosions are wonderful in movies, but 9/11 was not amusing. This is not entertainment. This is not a claim to fame. We already have metal detectors in schools. Do we now need filters to get rid of violent content as well as pornographic? But surely this is just an appeasement that doesn't impact the fundamental problem. Where is this anger coming from? Why don't our young people (or most of us?) have a healthy way to channel it, and why is it a source of amusement/entertainment when it seems so appallingly apparent that it should be no such thing?

Are we going to be throwing our Wiccans to the lions, next?

I know this is horribly reactionary, but that video disturbs me deeply, and I just had to get this out somehow. My apologies for the rambling.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

And Now For A Candidate Who Is Completely Different

So I came across this:and lo and behold, whom do I spot amongst the Obama supporters but Gary Hardcastle. Yes, some around here believe that he is a figment of my imagination, my invisible friend, a created fiction, but now we have empirical evidence of his material existence -- he's the guy with two stickers on his sweatshirt.

Gary also happens to be the co-editor of the fantastic book Monty Python and Philosophy. He is not, however, the only person with some connection to Python who is supporting Obama. Indeed, word comes out of the LA Times that none other than John Cleese himself has offered to collaborate with Obama:

Barack Obama's skills as an orator already have left enraptured audiences in his wake from coast to coast. Now comes word that if he's willing to expand his circle of collaborators, the act he takes on the road could forever redefine the boundaries of political speech.

We gush, of course. But it's hard not to be agog when contemplating the final product that could result if Obama's rhetorical talents get teamed up with those of John Cleese.
The article, of course, mentions the possibility of a new cabinet post for silly walks and gratuitously links to famed Flying Circus sketch in the on-line version. My guess is that rather than a cabinet post, he would make a fine Ambassador to Germany -- just don't mention the war.That was for Hanno.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Oh Well, A Touch of Gray Kinda Suits You Anyway: Reflections on Forty, Joy, and Privlege

Rarely does a day go by when TheWife doesn't make some comment about the notable gray patches in my beard or what hair that's left on my head (the back and ears are a different story altogether). With average life expectancy right around 80, sitting here today at 40 makes a philosopher introspective about the first half.

On the one hand, it makes me humbled at how fortunate I am to have all I have and to have experienced all I've experienced. I have a wonderful life partner whom I love dearly and who loves me as much. Two joyful, healthy children whose lives enrich me to no end. Generations of family around me who are a deep part of my life. Parents who created a nurturing and functional environment that allowed me to explore aspects of myself wherever they led knowing that I was loved and supported in all of my endeavors. An ever-enlarging circle of dearly loved friends that still includes my best friend from first grade and folks from every stage of my life. A job with colleagues and students -- present and past -- whom I include amongst my friends that not only is incredibly fun on a daily basis, but that challenges me and allows me to continually grow intellectually and personally.

My father taught me a lesson in the backyard that has served me incredibly well. He taught me that if you're solid in the execution of the fundamentals of something, doing the basics well, you will be able to do that thing -- be it a sport, a job, or anything else -- at a level where you can really experience the essence of it and put yourself in a place that on a good night you will be able to reach just beyond yourself and transcend to a place that you never thought you could get to. Train yourself to do the little things right and the big things will occasionally enough fall in your lap that you'll understand when you are in a new and marvellous place.

I've ridden that train to some wonderful experiences. I've played lacrosse against some of the best players of my generation in crowded stadiums. I've played music in smoky dives. I've done stand-up in a bar full of drunk people. I've run rapids, climbed mountains, crawled through small holes in caves, hang-glided off of sand dunes. Gotten a Ph.D. Placed articles in prestigious (and largely unread) journals. Had a book on the front table at Borders. I've danced rapturously many times, selling t-shirts in parking lots across the country.

I've also had my heart broken. Been both team captain and bench scrub. Had dreams shattered and periods of emotional darkness. Gone through times tough enough to be able to have empathy for those whose lives are so much harder all the time.

It really brings home the notion of privilege. I have much of what I have and I've been able to do much of what I've been able to do because I am who I am through no effort of my own. I am white, male, from a place that was financially stable and grew up in a school with great teachers, surrounded by incredibly smart people who allowed me to grow into my mind without feeling insecure about it. I had a personal life that was not marred by violence or illness, in which I was well-fed and cared for. If I am the set of my experiences, who I am must in significant part be attributed to the set of accidental circumstances that allowed me to have those experiences and to experience them in the way I did through the lens I have. I am deeply grateful for all I have, all I love, all I know, and all I've done, but I am aware that all of that was only available to me because of a situation that was not of my making, a situation in which my privileged places was created through the sweat of others and to the detriment of others.

I do hope for forty more. I do hope they will resemble the first forty in their richness. I also hope that I may use them in a way that allows the world to be a better place.

Driving in this morning, I randomly grabbed a disk for the drive and put in a Jerry Garcia Band show from '89 that I was fortunate enough to attend with a few that haunt this playground. Halfway to Taneytown, this came on. (Struck me a poignant)

May the good lord be with you
Down every road you roam
And may sunshine and happiness
Surround you when you're far from home
And may you grow to be proud
Dignified and true
And do unto others
As you'd have done to you
Be courageous and be brave
And in my heart you'll always stay
Forever young

Tuesday, April 08, 2008

Bullshit or Not: Arthur Danto 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.

Today's quotation concerns the work of art critics. In an interview here, philosopher of art Arthur Danto said this:

"I think, art critics these days increasingly find themselves explaining rather than judging art. What a work means is not always obvious, and one has to find that out. Identifying the meaning is what I would call an “interpretive hypothesis.” The justification for the hypothesis means: showing how the meaning is embodied. That too is a hypothesis, since others may find alternative interpretations. This is in my view the way art criticism works. There is a further set of questions whether the work was worth making, whether the embodiment was well chosen etc. But the main work of the critic is interpretive understanding."
So, is the job of the critic to explain or judge? Once we moved to contemporary art which is often reflexive in meaning, referring to itself, the process of making art, or contexts in the world, so that we can only get the sense of the work by understanding its place in the history of contemporary art, does that merge the job of critic and historian? Is the value of art context-independent or does it require conceptual understanding? Is criticism a merely judgmental act or is it meaning creation, and thereby a second-order artistic act itself?

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

(I've always wanted to write a paper discussing Danto's take on Plato's views on art entitled "Plato on Art and Art on Plato")

Monday, April 07, 2008

The Limits of Rational Discourse: When Do You Shut Someone Up?

Last Friday, the post was a meditation on race, looking at the loss of Dr. King and the changes that have occurred since. We had a horrible comment leading off the discussion and the responses were harsh.

I stepped in to stop the ad hominems and Kerry's response was that sometimes, that's the appropriate response. Reason is fine if the other side disagrees with you and is willing to be reasonable, but if they opt out of civil rational discourse, the rules no longer apply. If you have a bully, the line goes, they don't deserve the same courtesy you offer to those with whom you have a rational disagreement. the only appropriate response is STFU.

Is this the case? Or have you allowed them to bring the whole discourse down into the gutter with them? Is it better to show "intellectual class" even if it won't affect the bully, if for no other reason, for the sake of the forum? When do you silence people or should the conversation be left completely open to even the least well-thought out, over-the-line, anti-rational sentiments? At what point are you prizing tolerance to the point where it endangers tolerance?

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Jokes for the Overeducated

Brothers, Sisters, and Transgendered Comedists Everywhere,

Further reflection upon my stand-up experience has led me to the realization that there is a certain segment of the humorous world that tends to be underserved by contemporary comedy -- the overeducated. Not that these folks don't appreciate jokes in the "I'm so drunk" or "I wish I could get a blowjob" categories, but they also have other comic interests as well.

So for them, I've been trying to write a few new jokes:

Position and Momentum walk into a bar. The bartender says, "What can I get you observable quantities." They respond, "We think we'd like a beer, but we're not certain."

Why did the Freudian chicken cross the road? It was envious of the cock.

What were John Maynard Keynes' dying words? "Look I'm finishing a marathon."

What's poor, solitary, nasty, brutish, and enlarged? Hobbes' prostate of nature.
What are your favorite jokes for the tragically overeducated?

Live, love, and laugh,

Irreverend Steve

Friday, April 04, 2008

Honesty and Race

It was forty years ago today that we lost the Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He was only 39 years old. It is amazing to think about how young he was. He came about at the historical moment when the nation was in transition. Racism was official sanctioned policy, written in law, enforced by agents of the government and non-governmental mobs with equal brutality.

The non-violent movement serving as a lid on the simmering anger that threatened to -- and did -- turn violent was part of the reason explicit racism was removed from the letter of our legal code. This was a victory of historic proportions. It is something to reflect proudly upon.

But, of course, it is not the end of the story. Racism still exists in society, in the law, in the institutions of this culture. Only now, it is not explicit. The lack of overt statement means it hides and can remain as a part of the structure without an author. No one is directly responsible and therefore pointing it out and pointing out the privileges for some that come from it gets dismissed with shock and indignation -- how dare you say I am a racist.

This is what we saw from Geraldine Ferraro, this is what we see in the conservative rhetorical use of the phrase "personal responsibility." No one denies that individuals choose to act the way they do and therefore are responsible for those actions, but it is either naive or disingenuous to assert that those choices do not occur in a social/historical/political/economic context, that sociological facts about the structure and institutions of our society play no role whatsoever in making certain choices seem more or less desirable to those in different contexts. People are responsible for their chosen actions, but those choices are made in part as a result of a situation hat we could all have a hand in shaping for the better if we had the political will.

But that political will requires honesty and this is what is lacking in our current conversation about race. When the Apartheid government of South Africa fell, the response was a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Many on the ground in South Africa and elsewhere argued that by granting immunity from prosecution to many of those guilty of horrible, racist motivated crimes only to have them confess and give details was trading justice for truth. It was a sacrifice of, an affront to justice.

But it was, in fact, a result of the most wise vision. Unless there was an open and honest confronting of the legacy of racism, there would be no possible way for the future to avoid reliving, rehashing in slanted propagandized ways the old injustices used for nefarious rationalization of future injustices. The new structure would begin infected with the old disease and it would fester beneath the surface.

That is what has happened here. We have never been honest in facing the true extent and horror that was and remains American racism. We think it will just go away by ignoring it. We didn't do it, so why should we have to consider it, apologize for it, act to remedy it? This turns into white resentment which only further entrenches the problem -- something well-known by conservatives who based their Southern strategy on the fact. There was a reason why Ronald Reagan began his campaign for President in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where three civil rights workers had been murdered for daring to try to enfranchise African Americans, and spoke of his support for "state's rights" a thinly veiled term for allowing legally sanctioned racism. There is a reason why Bill Clinton tried to tie Barack Obama to Jesse Jackson after his win in the South Carolina primary. Racism is still here and is still incredibly useful to move people in politics. This is not to say that these folks are endorsing racist policies, but they understand that racism is alive and is useful as a tool. Rather than trying to expose and rid us of it, they would instead employ it for their own gain.

We refuse to be honest. Inner-cities are not safe and white flight and middle-class African American relocation has helped to undermine densely populated areas by undermining the tax base, overwhelmed social services that are understaffed and under resourced, underfunding schools for those who most need good education, indeed who need more resources, smaller classes, more and better trained teachers. And we respond with "personal responsibility," which as everyone knows is code for "not my problem."

We have had in the last couple weeks a call from a Presidential candidate to say "not this time" to the old dodges and authentically bring the question out in the open. Yet, all we get is the same old nonsense. "Why did he stay in that church if it is anti-American?" Could the herring be any redder? Could we just one time try not to find the easy way out and seize a non-issue in order to allow ourselves to not have to be honest about race?

In the forty years since the death of Dr. King much has changed. I taught as an adjunct at Towson University and my cubicle was across from an English prof, an older white woman who was married to an African American English prof. she had a young African American student railing in her office that nothing had changed. Exasperated, she looked at me after he had left, and shaking her head simply said "He has no idea what it was like to be in a mixed marriage in the late 50s and early 60s." Things are different. Things, in many ways, are better. We have a leading contender for the highest office in the nation who has an African father less than half a century since the voting rights act.

But, the old disease is still there. We've not lanced the boil. We've not been honest. And until we understand our own history honestly, until we allow ourselves to understand how the crack in the windshield continues to grow even if we are no longer pelting the glass with stones ourselves, it will not get better.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Science and Framing

Interesting conversation going on over at ScienceBlogs. Ben Stein's anti-evolutionary biology film Expelled is coming out soon and Chris Mooney (author of The Republican War on Science) and Matthew Nisbet are arguing that scientists need to be more aware of the way that the intelligent design creationist folks are framing the debate and that our most public spokespeople -- Richard Dawkins and PZ Meyers -- may not be the most effective folks to lead the charge at this point. Indeed, their overtly combative style may play right into the rhetorical trap at the heart of Expelled, that is, those scientists are a bunch of religion-hating zealots doing everything they can to stifle free thought and free speech for those who disagree with them, there is no rational reason to keep intelligent design creationism out of the schools and academy, it's all politics power play.

Others in comments and have a clear allergy to the concept of framing, seeing it as at least unseemly, at worst unethical; as marketing ploys instead of respectable argumentation. Dr. FreeRide and Hallq have both weighed in on this side arguing that we need to be focusing on critical thinking skills and on being clearer in presentation of the evidence and the theoretical machinery that we use to make sense of the evidence.

I think Mooney is right on this one. Framing is not a technique, it is a linguistic necessity that we are waking up to belatedly.

Step 1 -- Think Kant's epistemology. The world is not given to us in an unmediated fashion. the mind plays an active role in making sense of the input it gets from the senses. The categories are the concepts we add to raw data to make sense of the world.

Step 2 -- Think Nietzsche. In the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche points out that these concepts are not innate, embedded in the mind, but come from the language we use. It may be true that "science is premised on the view that we're all living in the same reality (a reality which is susceptible to empirical investigation)," but the language we speak, the language of the body politic is not value neutral. Language not only denotes but is pregnant with a world view. Those in power get the privilege of setting the language.

What George Lakoff pointed out with the notion of framing was that linguistically, this MUST happen and that liberals were getting suckered into allowing conservatives to do all the framing, thereby putting us in a place where we begin with an instant disadvantage because we are allowing the other side to tilt the rhetorical playing field. To use a sports metaphor, one team is going to be the home team and have the home field advantage and we have been unknowingly giving that away. Frank Luntz, the Republican wonderboy showed that you didn't need a complete revolution to control the language, you just had to be clever in getting it out there.

The whole point of this discussion is not a scientific issue, it is a political one. The scientific issue is settled, (that is, after all, the point we are trying to make). But we insist on bringing a scientific knife to a political gun fight. Mooney just thinks we need to be smarter tactically, that does not seem inappropriate if we want not only to be right, but to win the game. They've set a rhetorical trap and we need to be savvy about it. There's nothing dishonest or dishonorable in that.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Moral Obligation and Surrogate Motherhood

Another question from C.Ewing:

This brought up the periodic question you seem to have of just where the moral imperative line is drawn. It seems to me that "super" just can't be applied to ethical mandates. At any given time you either are or are not meeting your ethical obligations, and often enough times we all fall short, but we weigh what seems "most" important, and those which we deem too bothersome, we let slide. Of course, in this process it seems obvious that we're opting not to do things that ultimately we really know we should be doing.

This, however, seems an exceptional case. When your friend wants a bit or your ice cream, even if you really loves you some ice cream, you let him or her have a taste. You let your little brother (thanks, Mike) borrow your SNES on Saturday morning, even when you would rather sleep, because you know he just has to beat that next level. We will readily be "put out" so to speak, when we are able to do so, because we know we can do so, and should. But this is all stuff. These are mere inconveniences at best.

But can you be obligated to "loan" your body? This seems downright bizarre. On the one hand, when a couple really wants a child, our hearts ache for them. I'm not even a parent, and I sympathize with the plight of a childless would-be mother. But it seems--at least, I think--a different sort of case here. Surely, we should always do what we can. But giving someone a lift home from the bar, and loaning out your womb seem to be wholly different things. Are they? Do we draw the line when it comes to borrowing bodies? The only things I can think of which are similar to this are organ donation and giving blood. But giving blood is, again, seemingly just an inconvenience, save for those few of us who have genuine health related issues with doing so. Organ donation occurs post-mortem, and so that hardly seems an issue unless religious questions come into play (same with blood in some cases). But, foregoing Jehovah's take on this: what about your womb? If it's not otherwise occupied, is there any way in which we can fathom an obligation for surrogation? Sorry, I just had to use that one.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

Happy Saint Shecky's Day

A sacrificial offering to the Cosmic Comic:Infinite thanks to LilBro, a man of great technical skill, caring, and funny as they come, for taping and getting this up on YouTube. If officiating the first Comedist wedding wouldn't get you into comedy heaven, your other service would.