Tuesday, December 29, 2020

Your next purchase

My first book just came out in paperback. It's almost affordable now.

Saturday, December 19, 2020

Quentin Smith

I just learned that Quentin Smith passed away last month. He was an atheist philosopher that I respected greatly, despite his controversial claims about Kripke. Smith fully accepted Big Bang cosmology, but argued that the best explanation of it is that the universe just popped into existence without any kind of cause. In case this sounds like the theistic doctrine of creatio ex nihilo (creation out of nothing), the difference is that theism maintains that the universe has a cause -- God, in case you were wondering -- but that there was not some pre-existent "stuff" that the universe was made out of. That is, God didn't create the universe out of something else that was already there, he created the stuff itself. So the difference is in saying the universe has an efficient cause but no material cause (theism) and saying that it has neither (Smith). I find this implausible in the extreme, but Smith gave as good a defense of this as can be done. It's impressive. Adolf Grünbaum, a more famous philosopher of science, argued the same thing, but much less convincingly. Smith and William Lane Craig debated a few times (and were apparently friends) and they published a book together highlighting their disagreements, Theism, Atheism, and Big Bang Cosmology.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Quote of the Day

The idea of national repentance seems at first sight to provide such an edifying contrast to the national self-righteousness of which England is so often accused and with which she entered (or is said to have entered) the last war, that a Christian naturally turns to it with hope. Young Christians especially -- last-year undergraduates and first-year curates -- are turning to it in large numbers. They are ready to believe that England bears part of the guilt for the present war, and ready to admit their own share in the guilt of England. What that share is, I do not find it easy to determine. Most of these young men were children, and none of them had a vote or the experience which would enable them to use a vote wisely, when England made many of those decisions to which the present disorders could plausibly be traced. Are they, perhaps, repenting what they have in no sense done?

If they are, it might be supposed that their error is very harmless: men fail so often to repent their real sins that the occasional repentance of an imaginary sin might appear almost desirable. But what actually happens (I have watched it happening) to the youthful national penitent is a little more complicated than that. England is not a natural agent, but a civil society. When we speak of England's actions we mean the actions of the British Government. The young man who is called upon to repent of England's foreign policy is really being called upon to repent the acts of his neighbour; for a Foreign Secretary or a Cabinet Minister is certainly a neighbour. And repentance presupposes condemnation. The first and fatal charm of national repentance is, therefore, the encouragement it gives us to turn from the bitter task of repenting our own sins to the congenial one of bewailing -- but, first, of denouncing -- the conduct of others. If it were clear to the young that this is what he is doing, no doubt he would remember the law of charity. Unfortunately the very terms in which national repentance is recommended to him conceal its true nature. By a dangerous figure of speech, he calls the Government not 'they' but 'we'. And since, as penitents, we are not encouraged to be charitable to our own sins, nor to give ourselves the benefit of any doubt, a Government which is called 'we' is ipso facto placed beyond the sphere of charity or even of justice. You can say anything you please about it. You can indulge in the popular vice of detraction without restraint, and yet feel all the time that you are practising contrition. A group of such young penitents will say, 'Let us repent our national sins'; what they mean is, 'Let us attribute to our neighbour (even our Christian neighbour) in the Cabinet, whenever we disagree with him, every abominable motive that Satan can suggest to our fancy.'

Such an escape from personal repentance into that tempting region

Where passions have the privilege to work
And never hear the sound of their own names,

would be welcome to the moral cowardice of anyone. But it is doubly attractive to the young intellectual. When a man over forty tries to repent the sins of England to love her enemies, he is attempting something costly; for he was brought up to certain patriotic sentiments which cannot be mortified without a struggle. But an educated man who is now in his twenties usually has no such sentiment to mortify. In art, in literature, in politics, he has been, ever since he can remember, one of an angry and restless minority; he has drunk in almost with his mother's milk a distrust of English statesmen and a contempt for the manners, pleasures, and enthusiasms of his less-educated fellow countrymen. All Christians know that they must forgive their enemies. But 'my enemy' primarily means the man whom I am really tempted to hate and traduce. If you listen to the young Christian intellectuals talking, you will soon find out who their real enemy is. He seems to have two names -- Colonel Blimp and 'the business-man'. I suspect that the latter usually means the speaker's father, but that is speculation. What is certain is that in asking such people to forgive the Germans and Russians and to open their eyes to the sins of England, you are asking them, not to mortify, but to indulge, their ruling passion. I do not mean that what you are asking them is not right and necessary in itself; we must forgive all our enemies or be damned. But it is emphatically not the exhortation which your audience needs. The communal sins which they should be told to repent are those of their own age and class -- its contempt for the uneducated, its readiness to suspect evil, its self-righteous provocations of public obloquy, its breaches of the Fifth Commandment. Of these sins I have heard nothing among them. Till I do, I must think their candour towards the national enemy a rather inexpensive virtue. If a man cannot forgive the Colonel Blimp next door whom he has seen, how shall he forgive the Dictators whom he hath not seen?

C.S. Lewis
"Dangers of National Repentance"
In God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Right to left, left to right

Some people on the political left in the United States accuse the political right, or particular facets of it, of being Nazis and Fascists. The political right usually responds that both the Nazis and Fascists were effectively socialists, and therefore creatures of the left. My impression of this -- and that's all it is, I'm not a political thinker -- is that Europe and the USA define left and right differently. More specifically, the defining characteristic of left and right differ. Obviously, both sides have numerous elements, they exist on a spectrum rather than as mere points, so I'm radically simplifying the issue in what I'm about to say. Also, I'm not suggesting my comments are definitive or anything. It's my general impression; that's all.

My impression is that, in Europe, the definitive criterion of the political left is that they favor using government resources to pursue international concerns. The primary criterion of the political right is that they favor using government resources to pursue national concerns. The further right you are, the more you pursue national concerns until you get to the nationalist scenario that Hitler and Mussolini advocated. So by European definitions, Nazism and Fascism are extreme right-wing ideologies, whereas Communism is extreme left-wing.

My impression is that, in the United States, the definitive criterion of the political left is that they favor using government resources, period. The primary criterion of the political right is that they don't favor using government resources, period. The less government power you want, they further to the right you are. And Hitler and Mussolini advocated overwhelming degrees of government control over every element of society. As Mussolini put it, "Everything within the State, nothing outside the State, nothing against the State." Since they advocated for complete or almost-complete government control over society, by American definitions, Nazism and Fascism and Communism are all extreme left-wing ideologies.

Like I said, this is a radical simplification of the issues. Obviously, the political right in America is often patriotic or even nationalistic, at least much more so than the political left. But I think the issue of how big the government should be, how much control it should have, is the primary element of the left and the right in the United States. The American political left says the Nazism is NATIONALIST socialism while the American political right says Nazism is nationalist SOCIALISM. (Communism is international socialism.) Given their definitions, the political right sees socialism as the damning trait that applies to Communism, Nazism, and Fascism. The political left sees nationalism as the damning trait that applies to Nazism and Fascism, but many have a positive opinion of socialism, and even communism.

It's interesting that the furthest you can go to the political left is communism -- complete government control -- and the furthest you can go to the right is anarchism -- no government control. And who do you see protesting together? The communists and the anarchists. So the political divide isn't a spectrum after all, it's a circle with the extremists meeting at the top. Or, maybe, the bottom.

Monday, November 30, 2020

Monday, November 23, 2020

When both sides accuse the other of a coup d'état

Just in case it isn't clear, Calvin is the Democrat; Hobbes is the Republican -- except according to Rasmussen 25% of Republicans agree with Calvin that the election wasn't rigged and 30% of Democrats agree with Hobbes that it was.

Sunday, November 22, 2020

The Knowledge Argument

Say there's a woman named Mary who has monochromacy, or black/white color blindness, so that everything looks like a black and white film. Despite this disadvantage, Mary becomes a celebrated neurologist, and actually the foremost expert on color perception. She knows exactly what is happening in the brain when someone sees the color blue, for example, even though she can't see it herself.

Anyhoo, one day Mary is sitting underneath a tree reading a book about Isaac Newton when an apple falls on her head and momentarily knocks her out. When she wakes up her monochromacy is gone: she can see the green grass, she can see purple mountain majesties, and she can see the clear blue sky. She had never seen these colors before. She had never known what "blue" looks like. But she knew everything that happened in the brain when someone experienced the color blue. So the question is: does Mary know something now that she didn't know before? This is the Knowledge Argument.

This isn't as easy to answer as you might think. I've been asking my students this for years and it's usually a split vote. One point to make here is that knowing what blue looks like wouldn't be propositional knowledge, but does it count as knowledge then? Some people think it's obvious Mary knows something that she didn't know before (what blue looks like) and others think it's obvious she doesn't.

The issue here is about qualia (singular: qualium), the "what it's like" experiences. Thomas Nagel wrote an essay called "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?" which really brought this point home. Many philosophers of mind say that qualia are the heart and soul of the mind, and even human life in general. But the problem is that qualia can't be quantified and are effectively invisible to science. Science seeks to explain things from a third person perspective, but qualia are intrinsically first person in nature. Mary could describe color perception from a third person perspective but with no awareness of the qualium "what blue looks like". So the reason this is important is that, if Mary knows something after seeing the color blue that she did not know before, then there are important things -- foundational, fundamental things -- that science cannot address. If you had a complete physical, scientific description of the entire universe, it would be intrinsically incomplete, since it would not include qualia.

Moreover, the third person perspective is derived from the first person: to describe something from the third is to observe it from another standpoint, but ultimately this just means to observe it from what a first person perspective from that other standpoint would be. There can be no (to reference another Nagel work) view from nowhere. So science is utterly dependent on the first person perspective, and thus qualia, but cannot address them.

Naturally, all this is controversial. Some philosophers of mind, like Daniel Dennett, deny the reality of qualia. The philosopher who came up with the Knowledge Argument, Frank Jackson, eventually changed his mind about it because of the implications it had, viz., that there is more to reality than the physical world. Jaegwon Kim, who gives Nagel a run for his money as the greatest living philosopher in my opinion, fully accepts the reality of qualia and their centrality in human life, but still defends physicalism: see his books Mind in a Physical World and Physicalism, or Something Near Enough. And there's a collection of some of the most important essays about the Knowledge Argument which has the unfortunate title There's Something about Mary. So now you know what to read during the quarantine.

Your eyes are the darkest shade of light gray I've ever seen . . .

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Quote of the Day

I do not define the essence of religion as belief in God and immortality. Judaism in its earlier stages had no belief in immortality, and for a long time no belief which was religiously relevant. The shadowy existence of the ghost in Sheol was one of which Jehovah took no account and which took no account of Jehovah. In Sheol all things are forgotten. The religion was centered on the ritual and ethical demands of Jehovah in the present life, and also, of course, on benefits expected from Him. These benefits are often merely worldly benefits (grandchildren and peace upon Israel), but a more specifically religious note is repeatedly struck. The Jew is athirst for the living God, he delights in His laws as in honey or treasure, he is conscious of himself in Jehovah's presence as unclean of lips and heart. The glory or splendor of God is worshiped for its own sake. In Buddhism, on the other hand, we find that a doctrine of immortality is central, while there is nothing specifically religious. Salvation from immortality, deliverance from reincarnation, is the very core of its message. The existence of the gods is not necessarily decried, but it is of no religious significance. In Stoicism again both the religious quality and the belief in immortality are variables, but they do not vary in direct ratio. Even within Christianity itself we find a striking expression, not without influence from Stoicism, of the subordinate position of immortality. When Henry More ends a poem on the spiritual life by saying that if, after all, he should turn out to be mortal he would be

"... satisfide
A lonesome mortall God t' have died."

From my own point of view, the example of Judaism and Buddhism is of immense importance. The system, which is meaningless without a doctrine of immortality, regards immortality as a nightmare, not as a prize. The religion which, of all ancient religions, is most specifically religious, that is, at once most ethical and most numinous, is hardly interested in the question. Believing, as I do, that Jehovah is a real being, indeed the ens realissimum, I cannot sufficiently admire the divine tact of thus training the chosen race for centuries in religion before even hinting the shining secret of eternal life. He behaves like the rich lover in a romance who woos the maiden on his own merits, disguised as a poor man, and only when he has won her reveals that he has a throne and palace to offer. For I cannot help thinking that any religion which begins with a thirst for immortality is damned, as a religion, from the outset. Until a certain spiritual level has been reached, the promise of immortality will always operate as a bribe which vitiates the whole religion and infinitely inflames those very self-regards which religion must cutdown and uproot. For the essence of religion, in my view, is the thirst for an end higher than natural ends; the finite self's desire for, and acquiescence in, and self-rejection in favor of, an object wholly good and wholly good for it. That the self-rejection will turn out to be also a self-finding, that bread cast upon the waters will be found after many days, that to die is to live -- these are sacred paradoxes of which the human race must not be told too soon.

Sunday, November 15, 2020


Here's an article about a space company that plans to use the many discarded upper stages of rockets in orbit to make commercial space stations. That's awesome.

My posts on space science here are not consistent. I wrote a bit ago about a spacecraft that was going to momentarily touch down on a freaking asteroid, gather some stuff up, and then return to Earth. Then it actually did so, got more stuff than it was anticipating, everything's going great, and I didn't post about it. Not to mention the claims that they found some chemicals in Venus's atmosphere that, in our experience, are only produced by life, although it's possible for them to be produced by other processes. Didn't post on it. You'll notice I'm not providing links to those stories either. That's because it would have required effort on my part.

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Some more recent acquisitions


William P. Alston, A Realist Conception of Truth.

---,  The Reliability of Sense Perception.

Robert Audi, The Architecture of Reason: The Structure and Substance of Rationality.

Owen Barfield, Poetic Diction: A Study in Meaning.

Michael Bergmann, Justification without Awareness: A Defense of Epistemic Externalism.

Edwyn Bevan, Symbolism and Belief.

Roderick M. Chisholm, The Foundations of Knowing.

Paul Copan, ed., Will the Real Jesus Please Stand Up? A Debate between William Lane Craig and John Dominic Crossan.

Daniel C. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.

Alvin I. Goldman, Epistemology and Cognition.

George S. Pappas and Marshall Swain, eds., Essays on Knowledge and Justification.

Ernest Sosa, Epistemology.

Ernest Sosa and Jaegwon Kim, eds., Epistemology: An Anthology (1st edition).

Barry Stroud, Hume.

Peter Unger, Philosophical Papers, vol. 1.

---, Philosophical Papers, vol. 2.

Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus' Essential Teachings on Discipleship.

Charles Williams, The Descent of the Dove: A Short History of the Holy Spirit in the Church.


Italo Calvino, The Complete Cosmicomics.

Tony Daniel, The Robot's Twilight Companion.

Jack Dann, ed., Wandering Stars: An Anthology of Jewish Fantasy and Science Fiction.

Philip José Farmer, Night of Light.

Walter M. Miller, Jr., Conditionally Human.

---, The View from the Stars.

Kim Stanley Robinson, The Martians.

---, Galileo's Dream.

---, The Best of Kim Stanley Robinson.

Cordwainer Smith, The Rediscovery of Man.

Robert Charles Wilson, Spin.

Thursday, November 5, 2020

Oy vey

I don't write much about politics on this blog (for reasons), but I'm concerned about this Presidential election. I think we're heading to an Avignon Papacy situation. This is because I don't see any way for either side to back down.

Situation 1: Say the Trumpfolk are right and the Bidenkin are trying to steal the election. Honestly, I take it for granted that there are a lot of nefarious machinations behind the scenes like this. And while I'm not a Republican, I have noticed that when there's a close race and the Republican is slightly ahead, they often find a secret cache of votes that go disproportionately to the Democrat. I think it's generally accepted that the Democrats stole the 1960 Presidential election. In my own neck of the woods, Chris Dudley was ahead by about 30,000 votes in the 2010 race for Governor in Oregon, and then overnight they found more votes that made him 30,000 votes behind. In the 2008 Senate election in Minnesota, Al Franken was behind in the votes, although it was really close. As they recounted, they kept finding ways to include or exclude votes, and it just happened to skew to Franken until, ultimately, Franken was declared the winner. I'm not saying it never goes the other way, it's just what I've noticed.

So anyway, I don't think it's outrageous to suggest that's what's happening now. If so, then there's no way that Trump, being Trump, is going to let it go. I suspect a lot of the Trumpfolk wouldn't accept it, even it went to the Supreme Court and they found for Biden. Really, if the Bidenkin are trying to steal the election, then the Trumpfolk shouldn't accept the results. But I don't think the Bidenkin would let it go either. For them to let it go would be to tacitly admit that they cheated and tried to steal a Presidential election. They're not going to do that, they would lose authority and power for good. So if the Bidenkin really are cheating, neither side can back down under any circumstances.

Situation 2: OK, now say that they're not cheating, or at least their cheatings aren't consequential enough to change the election results. In this case, the Bidenkin wouldn't let it go for the same reason: it would be a tacit admission that they cheated. It's even worse here though, because it would have the same effects (a permanent loss of authority and power) but it wouldn't even be true. They wouldn't and shouldn't give in if this is the case.

Could Trump let it go? Well, I guess he could, but, y'know, Trump. He won't. I wouldn't trust him to let it go even if he came to genuinely realize that he legitimately lost (although I don't think he's unique in that regard). But there's more to it. If he let it go it would be a loss of prestige and authority for him. He could run again in 2024, but I think it would closer to a Teddy Roosevelt in 1912 scenario than a Grover Cleveland in 1892 one. So Trump wouldn't let it go. What about the movement that he represents? I'm not sure if they would lose power and prestige, but I don't think they would be willing to let it go either. Trump is their avatar.

So that's why I'm concerned. If the Bidenkin cheated, there's no way either side would back down. If they didn't cheat, there's no way either side would back down. I think Civil War 2.0 is starting, folks. But I really, really hope I'm wrong. The good news is that me being wrong is much more likely.

Update (Nov. 30): This article by a pollster sums up the reasons why people are claiming the election looks like it was rigged.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Lucas-Penrose Argument

Brace yourselves, this one can melt your brain.

In the early 20th century, it was thought that mathematics could be made into a complete formal system. This is a system in which every element has a complete definition, every entailment is deductive (so that conclusions necessarily follow from premises), and which contains no contradictions. But some basic concepts are unformalizable. "Truth," for example, allows us to form the Liar Paradox: "This statement is not true." If it's true, then it's false, and if it's false, it's true. So no formal system can have a truth predicate in it. (This isn't a mark against truth, btw.) One motive for this is a system with a contradiction leads to the principle of explosion, since ex falso quodlibet -- from a contradiction, everything follows.

Anyhoo, Kurt Gödel, inarguably the greatest logician of the 20th century, suggested we use a concept in place of truth that IS formalizable and doesn't lead to a paradox: provability. "This statement is not provable" doesn't lead to a problem like the Liar Paradox. But since such a statement can be made within any formal system, and since any such system must involve deductive provability, it follows that there can be no complete formal system. This is the intuition behind Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems. We'd been chasing a mirage.

This was around 1930. About the same time we had huge strides made in artificial intelligence by the likes of Alan Turing, Alonzo Church, etc. Turing came up with the idea of a Turing machine, which is an instantiation of a formal system, the cause-and-effect processes of the machine standing in for the deductive ground-consequent relations of the formal system. But since any formal system will have a statement within it to the effect of "This statement is not provable within this system" (called a Gödel sentence), such would also have to be the case for a Turing machine.

This is a problem because a Turing machine can only affirm provable claims, so any given machine will have a Gödel sentence which it cannot affirm. Human minds, however, have no such limitation: we can see that there is a Gödel sentence within our own systems of thought and affirm it, recognizing that it is correct. It is correct that "This statement is not provable within this system" is not provable within that system. This has two consequences: 1) Human minds cannot be reduced to Turing machines. They cannot be fully explained by the mechanistic cause-and-effect processes that are going on in the brain. There is an element of the mind that goes beyond it, and this element is truth-conducive. 2) Turing machines, and artificial intelligence in general, cannot fully duplicate the processes of human minds. They may be able to duplicate the end-products, but they can't produce them the same way that human minds do: through non-deductive (non-formal) reasoning. They can only do it via mechanistic cause-and-effect processes which don't have to be truth-conducive in order to arrive at those end-products.

This conclusion was reached by Gödel himself in his 1951 Gibbs Lecture, "Some Basic Theorems on the Foundations of Mathematics and Their Implications", but it wasn't published until the third volume of his Collected Works came out in 1995. J.R. Lucas -- who in writing this post I have learned passed away earlier this year, which devastates me -- however, wrote an enormously influential essay in 1961, "Minds, Machines, and Gödel" which presented the same idea. It motivated a lot of objections which Lucas responded to in philosophy journals, and then he published his book "The Freedom of the Will" in 1970, the last third of which is on the implication of Gödel's Incompleteness Theorems for the mind and AI. You can read most of his essays online at https://web.archive.org/web/20160718073705/http://users.ox.ac.uk/~jrlucas/. Later, mathematical physicist Roger Penrose defended the argument in his own way in his books The Emperor's New Mind and Shadows of the Mind.

Simple, no?

Monday, October 19, 2020

Quote of the Day

Christopher Columbus was one of those Genoese navigators who, when Genoa's Asiatic lines of trade were broken by the irruption of the Turks (see p. 467), conceived the idea of reaching India by an ocean route. While others were endeavoring to reach that country by sailing around the southern point of Africa, he proposed the bolder plan of reaching this eastern land by sailing directly westward. The sphericity of the earth was a doctrine held by many at that day; but the theory was not in harmony with the religious ideas of the time, and so it was not prudent for one to publish too openly one's belief in this notion.

P.V.N Myers
A General History for Colleges and High Schools (1889)

Jim's comments: This is a clear and widely-read statement of the flat earth myth -- the idea that, prior to Columbus, people (or at least Europeans) thought the earth was flat on religious grounds. It's false: the sphericity of the earth had been the almost universal view in Europe for two millennia by the time we get to Columbus. Perhaps we can give Myers some grace since the flat earth myth was very common at the time. I wrote about it before here. The best book on it is Jeffery Burton Russell's Inventing the Flat Earth: Columbus and Modern Historians. Another interesting book is Christine Garwood's Flat Earth: The History of an Infamous Idea, although only the first chapter is on the flat earth myth, with the rest on the flat earth movement in the 19th and 20th centuries.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Metallic rules

(Metallica rules too, but that's a post for another time.)

There are five basic rules that are the font of all possible moral positions, and they are often associated with particular metals. They are:

The Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you -- treat people the way you want to be treated.

The Silver Rule: Don't do unto others as you would not have them do unto you -- don't treat people the way you don't want to be treated.

The Platinum Rule: Do unto others as they would be done by -- treat people the way they want to be treated, not the way you want to be treated.

The Brass Rule: Do unto others as they have done unto you -- treat people the way they treat you.

The Iron Rule: Do unto others before they do unto you -- might makes right.

So the Golden Rule is primarily associated with Christianity, although you can see it in other contexts. The Silver Rule is much more common. It's basically the negative form of the Golden Rule. The difference is that the Golden Rule requires you to actively do something positive while the Silver Rule requires you to refrain from doing something negative. The latter is saying "Don't do something bad" while the former is saying "Do something good." That's a significant difference. Personally, I'd be happier with just the Silver Rule: I don't want to actively involve myself in the good of others and I usually don't want them to involve themselves in mine. Just leave me alone. But that only works until I need help, and then I come crawling back to the Golden Rule. Regardless I see them as two sides of the same coin, although there would be qualifications to that.

When I was in high school I read Illusions: The Adventures of a Reluctant Messiah by Richard Bach the same guy who wrote Jonathan Livingston Seagull, and this introduced me to the Platinum Rule, although I didn't know it by that name yet. It seemed to me a huge step further than the Golden Rule: Of course you shouldn't treat other people the way you want to be treated, you should treat them how they want to be treated. At the time it really blew me away. It wasn't until I studied ethics many years later that I realized its fatal flaw.

The genius of the Golden and Silver Rules is their universality. Treat others the way you want to be treated, because they are another you. Whatever your differences are, the similarities are enough so that you can put yourself in their place and act accordingly. The other person isn't you, but whatever it is about you that makes you want to be treated well and not badly is also true of them. Use the value you apply to yourself by treating yourself the way you want to be treated and apply it to everyone else.

So now you see the problem: the Platinum Rule erases that universality. All three rules say to treat people well but the Golden and Silver Rules give you a reason to do so. The Platinum Rule takes away that reason, and thus the rationality and justification for itself. Treat other people the way they want to be treated? Why? What's my reason or motive for doing so? What if I don't want to treat them the way they want to be treated? What if I want to treat them badly?

When I teach ethics, I use Nina Rosenstand's The Moral of the Story which is just about the best textbook I've ever read. She comments on this as follows:

Recognizing the wisdom of the Golden Rule is perhaps the most important early stage in civilization because it implies that we see others as similar to ourselves and that we see ourselves as deserving no treatment that is better than what others get (although we would generally prefer it -- we're not saints). However, the Golden Rule may not be the ultimate rule to live by because (as we discuss further in Chapter 11) others may not want to be treated as you'd like to be treated. Then, according to some thinkers, the "Platinum Rule" ought to kick in: Treat others as they want to be treated! Proponents of the Golden Rule say that this takes the universal appeal out of the rule. The spark of moral genius in the rule is precisely that we are similar in our human nature -- not that we would all like to have things our way.

This raises another issue: a lot of people don't view these rules as rules for themselves but as rules for others. When they say "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" what they mean is "do unto me as you would have me do unto you." The Golden and Silver Rules, however, give us a reason to apply them to ourselves, although we can ignore it: why should people treat me well (or at least not treat me badly)? Because they would want me to treat them well (or would not want me to treat them badly). But then this immediately brings up the self-application of these rules, that we should treat other people well, not just expect others to treat us well. They trigger us to apply the rules to ourselves. The Platinum Rule does not. If we apply it to others, by telling people to treat us how we want to be treated, it just means we want to have things our way. There's no motive to apply it to ourselves. And even if we do, we do it blindly, without any reason or justification for it.

Another issue is that the Platinum Rule is already contained in the Golden and Silver Rules. Treating other people the way you want to be treated would include the idea that you don't want others to indiscriminately assume you want the same things they do. Treating others as you want to be treated is a general statement about what we share as human beings -- that's the universality again. And one thing we share as human beings is the desire to be treated as individuals. This means that we should take into consideration the specific things individual people want that we may not want ourselves, because we would want them to consider the specific things that we want regardless of whether they want the same things.

The Brass Rule is probably the human norm: treat people the way they treat you. Return good for good and evil for evil, although we'd always be looking for ways to avoid having to return good. This is often how people treat the Golden and Silver Rules: I'll treat other people well, but if they don't treat me well the system breaks down. But that's a bad approach. Your job is to treat people well. If others don't treat you well, that's on them. You just keep treating them well. "I'm sacrificing all this time and effort for them and they don't appreciate it. They don't even notice it." Yes, they're failing to follow the Golden and Silver Rules. That doesn't provide a reason for you not to follow it. If your adherence to the rule is contingent on their adherence to it, you're following the Brass Rule, not the Golden or Silver Rule.

The Brass Rule is tangentially related to the Prisoner's Dilemma. The idea here (roughly) is you have two people and they can vote one of two ways, say A or B. If they both vote A, then they share a reward (or avoid a punishment). If they both vote B, they don't get the reward. But if they split the vote, the one who votes B gets the reward all to himself. So it's a good idea to vote A as long as you know the other person's voting A too -- but you don't. So how do you proceed? The optimal response is to vote A initially, to split the reward, and to continue doing so until the other person takes advantage of the situation and votes B to win the whole thing. Then you respond by voting B until the other person becomes willing to sacrifice a few wins to get you back on the sharing track.

Well, actually, this is the optimal response:

You see how this is similar to the Brass Rule. Do unto others as they have done unto you. But it's not exactly the same since the Prisoner's Dilemma is about decision theory while the Brass Rule is about ethics. Granted, there's a lot of overlap between the two -- ethics involves deciding how to behave -- but they aren't coterminous.

And then we come to the Iron Rule. Use any advantage you have over others to put yourself in a position where they have no power over you. If someone treats you well but your interests are best served by ill-treating them, then you should return evil for good. But why wait? Start by visiting evil on people before they even know you're there. In the aftermath of Game of Thrones this makes me think of the iron throne, since many of the people vying for it are clearly following the Iron Rule.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

Reaction videos

I don't know why they're appealing, but I sometimes enjoy watching reaction videos -- people listening to music outside their usual interests for the first time, that sort of thing. It's not something I could ever do because I never appreciate music the first time I experience it. In the last few days I've discovered Shan Watches Movies where he watches an entire film, but obviously only showing 15 or 20 minutes worth of clips while giving his commentary. But this is different: Shan knows how film works, and his comments are about the directing, the acting, the cinematography, the music and sound, the lighting, etc. These aren't reaction videos, they're analysis videos. Watching them I found myself wishing my dad was still alive so I could tell him about it, since he loved movies on that level too. I actually have a folder filled with his movie reviews, although they weren't always generous. E.g., his review of Pretty Woman was just two words: "Whore movie." But I imagine if he could watch Shan, he would have immediately become a fan -- a Shan fan. Here's his review of John Carpenter's The Thing which I think is the greatest horror film ever made. Shan has his criticisms.

Friday, September 25, 2020

Space news

A probe will touch down for just a few seconds on 101955 Bennu, an Earth-crossing asteroid, in less than a month, collect some samples, and then return to Earth in 2023. That is pretty cool. It'll look something like this (try to ignore the soundtrack):

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Searle contra Dennett

In 1992 when John Searle published The Rediscovery of the Mind. Daniel Dennett reviewed the book in The Journal of Philosophy, and you can read his review here. Then Searle published a critique of several then-recent books on philosophy of mind, including Dennett's Consciousness Explained in his column in The New York Review of Books, which you can read here: scroll down to the bottom, or do a page search on "Quotes 11".

Here's where it gets interesting: Dennett then wrote a letter to the NYRB blasting Searle, to which Searle responded, and you can read both here. Prior to this, Searle and Dennett were, I think, friendly rivals. Not after. Dennett writes, "Searle doesn't have a program of research. He has a set of home truths to defend. They land him in paradox after paradox, but so long as he doesn't address the critics who point this out, who’ll ever know? ... There is not room in these pages for Searle to repair fifteen years of disregard, so no one should expect him to make good here, but if he would be so kind as to tell us where and when he intends to respond to his critics with the attention and accuracy they deserve, we will know when to resume paying attention to his claims."

I have to agree with Searle's assessment of Dennett's accusations: "Dennett’s letter has a peculiar rhetorical quality in that he is constantly referring to some devastating argument against me that he never actually states. The crushing argument is always just offstage, in some review he or somebody else wrote or some book he published years ago, but he can’t quite be bothered to state the argument now."

I should also point out that I tend to agree with Searle's argument:

An intuition in [Dennett's] sense is just something one feels inclined to believe, and such intuitions often turn out to be false. For example, people have intuitions about space and time that have been refuted by relativity theory in physics. In my review, I gave an example of an intuition about consciousness that has been refuted by neurobiology: the commonsense intuition that our pain in the arm is actually located in the physical space of the arm. But the very existence of my conscious states is not similarly a matter for my intuitions. The refutable intuitions I mentioned require a distinction between how things seem to me and how they really are, a distinction between appearance and reality. But where the existence of conscious states is concerned, you can’t make the distinction between appearance and reality, because the existence of the appearance is the reality in question. If it consciously seems to me that I am conscious, then I am conscious. It is not a matter of “intuitions,” of something I feel inclined to say. Nor is it a matter of methodology. Rather it is just a plain fact about me—and every other normal human being—that we have sensations and other sorts of conscious states.

However, I am suspicious of making it into an argument because it allows Dennett and others (like the Churchlands) to argue that you can make a distinction between appearance and reality with regards to conscious states, and their philosophies of mind explain how. All they have to do is deny that premise. Certainly that's not a very plausible option, but they could do it. I'm not sure if you could prove Searle's point via an argument to someone who was dead-set against it.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

Arguing from Authoritah

I sometimes get frustrated by common logical misunderstandings. Here's one that just boils my butternut squash: when people think that, since there are fallacies of appealing to authority, all appeals to authority are fallacious. This is not the case. In informal logic (inductive and abductive inference) appeals to authority are fallacious when the authority is an authority in an unrelated field. The fallacy does not rest in the appeal to authority per se but it in the irrelevancy of the authority's authority. For example, if you want to find out whether Newton or Leibniz discovered calculus first, I wouldn't ask someone who's an authority in pharmacological science. Of course, this person may have researched the subject such that they are uniquely situated to answer the question, but if we appeal to the fact that she is an authority, by virtue of her standing in pharmacology, we commit a fallacious appeal to authority.

That may seem easy, but people tend to strongly react against it. Here, for example, is a standard example of a fallacious appeal to authority. 

See, Einstein was a physicist. His area where he could speak as an authority is physics and other closely related fields. He was neither an expert nor an authority in political science or international diplomacy. Was he really, really smart? Yes, of course. Shouldn't we accept his claims about political science and international diplomacy by virtue of his extreme smartness? NO. That is a fallacious appeal to authority. His statement might be right (spoiler: it isn't), he might even be in a good position to affirm it, but it is outside his field of expertise. This is precisely why he declined the offer to be one of the first presidents of Israel.

But there are valid appeals to authority. Traditionally in Western civilization arguments from authority have been considered the weakest possible type of argument, at least according to the medieval Christian theologians. The reason it's extremely weak is because it doesn't involve you coming into direct contact with the truth of a matter: you're just accepting it because someone else has supposedly come into contact with it. But it's still a valid argument merely because, well, let's let Asimov say it:

What this counts for is a matter of dispute among philosophers. There are plenty who say that it only has relevance alongside other arguments. Others say it has strength by itself, but not so much to overturn an assertion. And some just reject the whole shebang.

Where people tend to gloss over the distinctions between valid and invalid appeals to authority is in appeals to science. Authority, supposedly, is of the old system, but science and a rejection of authority is the new system. Ignoring the point that the old system explicitly specified valid arguments from authority as the weakest of all arguments, science is completely beholden to authority. The glory and strength of science comes from its ability to challenge authorities -- background assumptions, traditional modes of understanding -- but of course the individual scientist cannot challenge all authorities. In order to get any work done, she has to accept the vast majority of claims on the basis of the authority of those who made them. She has to build up from what others have already accomplished, and this requires her to accept their claims on the basis of their authority. And of course the non-scientist has to accept scientific claims on the basis of the authority of the scientists who make the claims and the strong authority of science in general. I'm not challenging science at all, by the way, I'm just pointing out that a) appealing to authority isn't intrinsically bad and b) appeals to authority cannot realistically be removed, even from science. If your concept of science doesn't allow this, you're probably thinking of it as fundamentally iconoclastic rather than truth seeking. (Having said that, I'm writing these posts because I thoroughly enjoy telling people that they're wrong. So maybe we're even.)

The rabbit hole goes much deeper, of course. Does all this apply to individual authorities, or should it be reserved for the consensus of authorities? Can the collective efforts of the scientific community avoid appealing to authority even if the individual scientist can't? And who gets to decide who qualifies as an authority -- and who gave them that authority?

Monday, September 7, 2020

The Modal Ontological Argument

Arguments for and against the existence of God constitute one of the main topics in philosophy over the last few thousand years. By far, one of the craziest family of arguments is ontological arguments. They claim that the concept of God entails his actual existence. God is, by definition, the supreme being, the greatest conceivable being, the maximally great being, the perfect being, the being greater than which none can be thought. But if our conception of God is that he doesn't exist, he wouldn't be the greatest conceivable being since we could conceive of him existing and hence being even greater. Therefore, God must exist. Right? Anyone? Hello?

Ontological arguments sound like riddles, but some of the greatest intellects throughout history have defended them. Just in the last 100 years we've had Kurt Gödel (inarguably the greatest logician of the 20th century), Norman Malcolm, Alvin Plantinga, and Charles Hartshorne all defending versions of it. The standard objection to ontological arguments, from Kant, is that they treat existence as if it were a property a being could have or fail to have. But a being that failed to have existence wouldn't be a being at all. The recent counterargument is that this would only apply to Descartes's ontological argument, not to those of others, like Anselm's (or, for that matter, Kant's).

The contemporary versions use modal logic. This is basically the logic of possibility and necessity. If it's logically possible for you to do or be something -- say, waking up one morning as a giant cockroach -- then you have the modal property of "possibly existing as a cockroach." The weird thing is that, if it is possible for you to wake up one morning as a cockroach, then this modal property would not itself be a possible property you may or may not have, it would be an actual property. If something is possible, then its possibility is necessary (possible in all possible worlds), and if it's necessary, it's actual. So if it's possible you may wake up as a cockroach, then you actually have the modal property of "possibly existing as a cockroach." This sounds weird but it's a basic premise in modal logic (axiom S5) and as far as I know, it is uncontested in logical and philosophical circles.

So: say God is the maximally great being -- he has all positive properties, has them without limit, and has no negative properties. If this is logically possible, then God exists in at least one possible world. Now say God exists in only one possible world. Then he would lack the modal property of "possibly existing in world 2," and so wouldn't be maximally great. OK, so he has the property of possibly existing in worlds 1 and 2 and that's it. But then he lacks the modal property of "possibly existing in world 3." Now say he has the modal properties of "possibly existing in all possible worlds but one." Then he would lack the modal property of "possibly existing in that one world," and by lacking that modal property, wouldn't be maximally great. So if God exists in one possible world, he exists in all possible worlds. And the real world is a possible world, since if something is actual, it must be possible. Another way to say this is that any maximally great being worth its salt would exist necessarily, not just contingently; and if a necessarily existing being exists in one possible world, it exists in all possible worlds. Here's a rundown.

1. A maximally great being (God) is logically possible.
2. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in at least one possible world.
3. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in all possible worlds (otherwise he wouldn't be maximally great).
4. Therefore, a maximally great being exists in the actual world.
5. Therefore, a maximally great being (still God) exists.

There are some very interesting things about this, each one leading to the next. First, virtually every step in this argument is uncontroversial among logicians and philosophers, including atheists. But, second, there's a way to avoid the conclusion: deny the first premise. Deny that God, a maximally great being, is logically possible. Then God doesn't exist in any possible world. In fact, Plantinga, one of this argument's advocates, explicitly makes this point. Third, this means that God either exists in no possible worlds or all possible worlds. He either can't exist or can't not exist. He's either logically impossible or logically necessary. Fourth, since in order to say that God does not exist we have to say God cannot exist, the atheist bears the burden of proof. They must show that it is logically impossible for God to exist, that a maximally great being entails a logical contradiction. The theist only has to maintain that it's logically possible. But you don't have to prove something is logically possible unless you have a reason to think it may not be.

Naturally, one of the main objections to God is precisely that a maximally great being entails logical contradictions. For example, such a being would be maximally merciful but also maximally just. But these are, allegedly, incompatible since perfect justice would conflict with perfect mercy. Some individual traits are accused of being incoherent: could a maximally powerful (omnipotent) being create a stone so big that even he couldn't move it? If he can't, then there's something he can't do: make that stone. If he can, then there's something he can't do: move that stone. Either way, there's something he can't do and so omnipotence is a chimera. Naturally again, there are plenty of counterarguments and countercounterarguments and countercountercounter . . . . etc. Regardless, the modal ontological argument is fascinating, not least because it makes denying God's existence much more problematic.

Wednesday, September 2, 2020

The Burden of Proof

It seems like everyone has a simplistic idea of who bears the burden of proof and it drives me freakin' nuts -- almost as much as people using "begs the question" to mean "forces us to ask."* The simplistic idea is that the person making a claim must bear the burden of proof, while the person who denies the claim does not. This is the standard in formal debates to keep them from going too far afield. Courts of law apply it as well because our justice system is premised on the "innocent until proven guilty" standard. So it's not unreasonable to mistake it as the universal standard, but it's still a mistake.

In philosophy burden of proof issues are notoriously difficult. Sometimes the person making a claim bears the burden of proof, but sometimes the person denying a claim bears it. Sometimes all parties bear it. It depends. And there's no absolute standard agreed upon by philosophers, although there are some clear examples. One traditional philosophical issue is the problem of other minds. How do we know that other people are really sparks of self-consciousness? The simplistic idea of burden of proof would say the person who denies other minds exist (solipsism) does not shoulder any of the burden of proof, but in this case he shoulders all of it. The person who affirms that other minds exist does not need to prove anything.

One objection people raise is that you can't prove a negative. Except you can. Of course you can. I can prove there is no full-sized elephant in this room right now. I can prove that there is not an army of fifty foot tall badgers ransacking downtown Portland as we speak. In fact, Karl Popper's philosophy of science says that all science can do is falsify claims, not prove them, in which case, science only proves negatives. It can't prove the positive claim "All swans are white" but it can prove the negative claim "Not all swans are white" by finding one example of a swan that isn't white. What you cannot do is empirically prove a universal negative. But you can still empirically prove a non-universal negative (like "Not all swans are white") and you can logically prove a universal negative (if it's a logical contradiction).

Another objection people raise is Bertrand Russell's suggestion of a teapot orbiting the sun between Earth and Mars. The person making this claim shoulders the burden of proof because in the absence of any evidence or reason to think such a teapot exists, the rational response is to disbelieve it, not just to be agnostic about it. We don't need a reason to disbelieve it, since in the absence of evidence we don't shoulder any burden of proof. But we do have a reason to disbelieve it: it's completely ad hoc or contrived. The more ad hoc a suggestion is, the less likely it is true. The teapot apologist must provide evidence to overcome the ad hoc-ness of the claim. Contrast this with the problem of other minds: there the solipsist is making the ad hoc claim and so must bear the burden of proof.

Most claims end up somewhere in between orbiting teapots and other minds (orbiting minds?), meaning that burden of proof is difficult to establish. The more ad hoc a claim is, the larger the share of the burden of proof one has, and sometimes denying a claim is more ad hoc than affirming it, not least because denying some claims can have repercussions that are outrageous. Carl Sagan said, "Incredible claims require incredible evidence," which is also simplistic and false, but if we restate it as "Ad hoc claims require sufficient evidence to counter their ad hoc-ness" then it can be salvaged, although it may not work as well as an aphorism.

* Incidentally, "begs the question" means you're arguing in a circle. You are assuming (begging) what is at question. So if I said "Trump is the most honest President ever," and when you asked why I believe that, I said, "Trump said so, and the most honest President ever wouldn't lie about something like that," I would be begging the question. The question is whether Trump is honest and my reasoning assumes he is in order to conclude he is. It argues in a circle, it begs the question. I actually wrote about this on Quodlibeta back in the day.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

Some recent acquisitions


William Alston, Perceiving God: The Epistemology of Religious Experience. (I should have read this one years ago. Written by one of the most important epistemologists of the last hundred years.)

Nathan Aviezer, In the Beginning: Biblical Creation and Science. (A Jewish perspective.) 

Raymond E. Brown, The Virginal Conception and Bodily Resurrection of Jesus

Frederick Copleston, Aquinas: An Introduction to the Life and Work of the Great Medieval Thinker

Charles Darwin, From So Simple a Beginning: Darwin's Four Great Books (Voyage of the Beagle, The Origin of Species, The Descent of Man, The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals), edited by Edward O. Wilson. (Unfortunately, it doesn't include The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms, with Observations on their Habits, so I'm kinda bummed.)

Cardinal Avery Dulles, A History of Apologetics. (I've been wanting this one forever.)

The Interlinear NIV Hebrew-English Old Testament. (Almost 3,000 pages. Got it for about $25.)

Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers. (I had this years ago and it was lost in shipping when we moved back to the States.)

John Lennox, God's Undertaker: Has Science Buried God? 

C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature. (One of the few Lewis books I didn't have, although I've read it more than once.)

Alister McGrath, Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. (OK, this one I've really wanted forever)

_______, Darwinism and the Divine: Evolutionary Thought and Natural Theology.

_______, The Science of God.

Arthur Schopenhauer, The World as Will and Representation, 2 volumes. (I love Nietzsche, and my impression of Schopenhauer is that he's a forerunner of Nietzsche who was more pessimistic.)

Wilbur Marshall Urban, The History of the Principle of Sufficient Reason. (This was published in 1898, so as a history it's a little out of date. I'm just a big fan of Urban.) 


Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions. (This is all of his short story collections in one volume.)

Fredric Brown, From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown. (Gold.)

Ted Chiang, Exhalation. (Short stories, and the ones I've already read are amazing. The title story is incredibly relevant to philosophy of mind.)

James S.A. Corey, Leviathan Wakes.

_______, Caliban's War.

_______, Abaddon's Gate. (I've watched The Expanse, the show based on these books, and loved it, but the books were expensive. I got these first three as a boxed set for about $20 which is much cheaper than I've seen any of them.

Cixin Liu, The Wandering Earth. (His short stories. I've loved everything I've read from him.)

Ken Liu, Invisible Planets: Contemporary Chinese Science Fiction in Translation. (Chinese short stories that Ken Liu translated and edited. He also writes his own books and stories, so I'm going to give those a look in the near future.)

Fred Saberhagen, Love Conquers All. (Same author as the Berserker series. I wanted this one because Saberhagen was a Catholic and from what I understand, this is his version of Brave New World.)

John Scalzi, Redshirts.

Lucius Shepherd, The Best of Lucius Shepherd.

Michael Swanwick, The Dog Said Bow-Wow.

John Varley, The Persistence of Vision.

Peter Watts, Blindsight. (This supposedly has some philosophical relevance to the Chinese Room argument.)

Andy Weir, Artemis. (Same author as The Martian.)

Robert Charles Wilson, The Harvest.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020


Today I read two articles critical of Alvin Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument against Naturalism. The first was an exercise in frustration. It took passages in the Bible which say God sent a deceiving spirit or something similar, and use this to argue that the Judeo-Christian God lies. In this case, Judeo-Christian theism gives one a defeater for the belief that their cognitive faculties are reliable just as much as naturalism allegedly does. It was exasperating to read this just because the authors' exegesis was so painfully bad. One of the foundational rules in exegesis -- in exegeting any text, not just the Bible -- is to interpret the unclear in light of the clear. These authors never mention the explicit passages in the Bible that say unequivocally that God does not, will not, and cannot lie. They just superficially accept what they want the text to mean. They go on to suggest that allowing miracles opens the door to chaos, although they condescendingly invite theists to provide some sort of repeatable, predictable evidence of miracles. It was just so incredibly superficial. It reminded me of a fictional conversation between Carl Sagan, Sylvia Plath, and Allen Carpenter in Escape from Hell by Larry Niven and the late great Jerry Pournelle

"I'm still getting used to this," Carl said. "Allen, you must have thought about this a lot. How can you justify keeping people in Hell? What gives God the right to demand we worship Him?" 
"Come now," Sylvia protested. "Where does right come from? You're going to judge God? By whose standards? You say yours, but what makes yours any better than anyone else's?" 
"I mean it, Allen. You two are smarter than almost anyone I ever met, but you sure have awful educations! People have been arguing about this for thousands of years! And you act like you've just thought of the questions." 
"I notice you never answered my question," Carl said. "What gives God the right to demand we worship Him?" 
"I haven't heard any such demand," Sylvia said. Maybe we just need Him, and we're miserable if we don't have Him."

"People have been arguing about this for thousands of years and you act like you've just thought of the questions." That pretty much sums up the article.

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Unconscious Violinist

The pro-choice position is that women have the right to do what they want with their bodies, but the pro-life position claims that the fetus is not the woman's body; it's the fetus's body. Since the right to swing your arms ends where another person's nose begins -- that is, your right to do what you want with you body ends where your use of your body harms someone else's body -- then if the fetus is an actual person, this would bear on whether a woman has the right to abort it. One problem with this is that the the woman and the fetus are organically connected, so the relationship between the mother and the fetus would be a unique one (really, the only example I can think of that's even remote comparable is conjoined twins), and that's a detail that could potentially change the equation.

Judith Jarvis Thomson is a moral philosopher and she came up with an argument that has greatly influenced the abortion debate. She grants these pro-life claims for argument's sake in order to construct a thought experiment. Say you wake up in a hospital bed and discover you're hooked up via tubes and whatnot to another person who is unconscious. Then you're told that this person is a famous violinist, a great artist, and has a kidney disease or something, and the only way to save him was to hook him up with someone else who closely matches his various biological conditions so that this other person's kidneys will filter his blood as well as your own -- and congratulations! your kidneys fit the bill. After nine months, everything can be disconnected and the violinist can be woken up, cured of his disease or condition. So do you have the right to refuse to take part in this procedure?

Thomson says yes. Granted, the unconscious violinist is a person; granted he will not survive without this procedure, this does not entail any responsibility on your part to allow your body be used as an object or tool to keep him alive for the next nine months. As a person, the violinist has the right to live, but he does not have the right to use someone else's body for his own purposes. So even if the fetus is a human being, a person, it does not have the right to the use of the woman's body.

Some people have raised objections to this. For one thing, at best, it would only apply to pregnancy by rape. Thomson argues that the fetus is using the woman's body in a nonconsensual way, but if the woman chose to have sex, the parallel between Thomson's thought experiment and abortion doesn't hold. We could add the detail that the woman attended a party with the understanding that there was a nontrivial chance of her being hooked up to an unconscious violinist for nine months afterwards. But this muddies the waters enough so that it isn't obvious that she has the right to unplug herself from the violinist. She knew that was a possible outcome of going to the party. Honestly, the first time I heard the Unconscious Violinist Argument, I thought it was an argument against abortion because of this point.

Another question we can ask is, how long is too long? What if she only has to be hooked up to the violinist for nine days? Or nine minutes? We can stand on principle here so that no amount of time is acceptable, but would you really think not having your autonomy overruled for nine minutes is more important than the violinist's life? What about nine days? Nine weeks? Or, to add another wrinkle, what if it's only nine hours but you know you only have fifteen hours to live and this will prevent you from accomplishing what you want during this time?

Again, this is all granting the pro-life position that the fetus is a person which is eminently contestable. I would conclude that the abortion issue does not have an obvious solution one way or the other, and if you're really confident of your position, maybe spend some more time thinking on it. I actually grew up with one side being the obvious, unquestioned one and then had some ideas presented to me which had never occurred to me, and after some contemplation, I switched teams.

Tuesday, August 18, 2020

This is interesting

 Entire cities could fit inside the moon's monstrous lava tubes. The lower gravity means the tubes are significantly larger than on Earth.

"The largest lava tubes on Earth are maximum [about] 40 meters [130 feet] of width and height," said study co-author Riccardo Pozzobon, a geoscientist at the University of Padova, Italy. "So like a very large motorway tunnel."

That's certainly big enough space for some people to fit inside. But on Mars collapsed lava tubes tend to be about 80 times larger than Earth's, with diameters of 130 to 1,300 feet (40 to 400 m). Lunar lava tubes seem to be still larger, the researchers found, with collapse sites 300 to 700 times the size of Earth's. Lunar lava tubes likely range from 1,600 to 3,000 feet (500 to 900 m).

A lava tube on the moon, Pozzobon told Live Science, could easily contain a small city within its walls.

Yes, I know, my love of science is fueled by my love of science-fiction. I just like the idea of giant caves on the Moon and Mars with cities inside them. Sue me.

Monday, August 17, 2020

I'm very happy

 I just got a book I've been wanting ever since I heard about it: From These Ashes: The Complete Short SF of Fredric Brown. I'm delighted to see how many of these stories I haven't read before. Fredric Brown is one of my favorites, he wrote flash fiction before it was called that. He was science-fiction's O. Henry. I've read two stories so far: "The New One," which has the same general idea as one of his other stories, "Murder in Ten Easy Lessons"; and "The Angelic Angleworm," which was delightfully weird. So, sorry, I'm going to be busy for the rest of the day reading.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Lottery Paradox

Henry Kyburg was a philosopher who developed a theory of probability called statistical (or epistemological or sometimes just Kyburgian) probability, in contrast with Bayesian probability and logical probability. He's famous for coming up with the Lottery Paradox. Say there's a raffle with one million tickets, so one of the tickets between 1 and 1,000,000 will be picked. Since ticket 1 only has a one in a million chance of being selected, rationality requires us to believe that ticket 1 won't win. What is the probability that ticket 2 will win? Well, the same, one in a million. So rationality requires us to believe that ticket 2 won't win either. In fact, since every individual ticket only has a one in a million chance of winning, we should believe that every individual ticket will lose. But of course, we also know that one of those tickets will win. So rationality requires us to believe that ticket 1 will lose, ticket 2 will lose, etc. all the way up to ticket 1,000,000, but also that one of those tickets will win. This is a contradiction, there is no possible world where all the beliefs are true, yet it is irrational to deny any of them.

Kyburg was pointing out that there are three rational principles that lead to contradiction, and so we must reject one of them. First, if a proposition is probably true, it is rational to accept it. Second, if rationality requires us to accept proposition X and rationality also requires us to accept proposition Y, then rationality requires us to believe X and Y. Third, it is not rational to accept an inconsistent proposition. The Lottery Paradox shows that the second principle would mean we should accept that each ticket will lose and that one of them will win. This contradicts the third principle. To avoid this, we need to reject one of the three principles. Kyburg advocated rejecting the second: just because it is rational to believe ticket 1 will lose, ticket 2 will lose, etc., it doesn't mean it's rational to believe every ticket between 1 and 1,000,000 will lose. Many logicians, however, argue that we should reject the first principle: we shouldn't believe that ticket 1 will lose, we should believe it is very improbable that ticket 1 will win, but it might. Another possibility is to just throw up your hands and accept that an ideal form of rationality would still be imperfect and could entail contradictions. This is a rejection of the third principle. But accepting all three is not an option.

I'm inclined to reject the first premise -- or rephrase it so that instead of saying rationality requires us to believe a low probability entails falsehood, we say rationality requires us to believe a low probability entails ... wait for it ... a low probability. But regardless, the Lottery Paradox shows that logic, rationality, and probability are not as simple as they may appear.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

Descartes's Evil Demon

Descartes was a 17th century philosopher, mathematician, and scientist. Once, in his early 20s, he went into a small cabin to stay warm. When he came out the next day he had invented analytic geometry. It's people like that who make you realize how little you've accomplished.

He wanted to explore the nature of knowledge, so he came up with several methods allowing him to hypothetically doubt even the most obvious truths, such as that other people exist, that the physical world exists, that he has a body, etc. Again, this was all hypothetical. People often mistake him as actually calling these things into question, but Descartes explicitly says you'd have to be a lunatic to seriously doubt them. He was engaged in an exercise to see if there was some belief he could not doubt in a logical sense.

To this end he came up with the Evil Demon. That's how English speakers refer to it. In French it's mauvais génie which can mean evil genie or genius.

The evil demon has the power to manipulate your thoughts so that falsehoods seems obviously true. Descartes used this to ask whether he could doubt that 2 + 3 = 5. It's logically possible that such a demon exists (that is, it's not a logical contradiction) so it's logically possible for Descartes's belief that 2 + 3 = 5 to be one of those beliefs that seem so blatant and obvious because the evil demon is messing with his mind to make it seem so. Ex hypothesi, 2 + 3 does not equal 5, it's just the evil demon's machinations that make it appear so. With this scenario, Descartes realized he could doubt that 2 + 3 = 5.

At this point, Descartes is (theoretically) denying the existence of other people, his body, the physical world, and even the obvious truths of basic mathematics and logic. There doesn't seem to be anything he can't doubt. But this is where he reaches what is called the cogito: he's doubting, so he can't doubt that he's doubting. But doubting is not an event, it is an action, and so it requires an actor, a subject that is doing the doubting. Since doubting is a form of thinking, Descartes concludes "I think therefore I am" (Latin: cogito ergo sum). I can't doubt my own existence, because in order to do so, I have to surreptitiously affirm my existence. I am the one who doubts my own existence. So it is impossible to doubt one's own existence. On a practical level, he can't really doubt that 2 + 3 = 5 either, but there is a logically possible scenario that allows him to do so. There is no such scenario where he can doubt his own existence: in every possible world where he tries to doubt his existence, he exists.

From this foundation, Descartes tries to reestablish his beliefs about everything else, but on a much surer footing. He goes from his own existence to God to the physical world and other people, etc. It is at this point that many philosophers reject his arguments -- not that they necessarily deny these things are real, but that Descartes can't really prove them. And of course, there have been plenty of philosophers who have argued that one can deny one's own existence, such as David Hume and Peter Unger. Nevertheless, Descartes's evil demon argument has been one of the most influential ideas in philosophical history.

Saturday, August 1, 2020


I really dislike the charge of whataboutism, partially because there's already a fallacy addressing the issue with a glorious Latin name: tu quoque ("you too"). The idea is that you justify an action by saying other people do it too -- perhaps even the person accusing you -- and it's a fallacy because pointing to other people who have committed the same action doesn't say anything about whether said action was appropriate or not. So what if someone else did it too? So what if the person accusing you has done it too? Couldn't the action still be inappropriate? Granted it's insanely frustrating when someone who swears like a sailor gives you grief for calling someone a poophead, but that doesn't mean it was OK to call them a poophead.

The problem is how whataboutism is being used today in political discourse. One side says J is doing something bad. The other side says H did the same thing. Pretty straightforwardly fallacious, no? Well . . . no. In most cases, the second side is not defending the action or behavior -- they're not even really addressing it's rightness or wrongness. What they're doing is accusing the first side of hypocrisy: "Your guy, H, did the same thing and you didn't object to it. Therefore, you are selectively applying your moral outrage." And that's a completely valid point to make. It might be true, it might not; perhaps the two cases are not similar enough to make the case. Or maybe the first side did object to it, or never heard about their guy doing the same thing. The point is that tu quoque/whataboutism only becomes a fallacy when you use the "your guy did it too" objection to say that the action is acceptable. But if you're just countering with "If you were really offended by this, you would have been just as offended when your guy did it -- but you weren't," you're not addressing the rightness or wrongness of the action but the moral consistency of the accuser. So yes, the tu quoque approach can be fallacious, but it can also be perfectly justified. There are plenty of valid tu quoque arguments.

At this point another fallacy raises its ugly head: ad hominem ("to the person"). Here, one argues that a person's claim is false because the person is bad in some way, like they're untrustworthy or they have ulterior motives, etc. But of course untrustworthy people with ulterior motives can say true things; we're still not addressing the alleged truth of the claim. So using the tu quoque/whataboutism fallacy to accuse someone of hypocrisy is supposedly an ad hominem: it's arguing against the person instead of the claim.

But once again, this doesn't work, for pretty much the same reason. The second side isn't arguing against the person in order to say that the action in question was justified or appropriate. They're still just arguing that their interlocutors are hypocrites, and that can be a valid point. They're not addressing whether the action was unjustified, they're saying, "Whether it's unjustified or not, YOU don't believe it's unjustified because your guy did the same thing and you had no problem with it."

I'd like to stop here, but someone could still say that the second group is committing a fallacy of irrelevance, like ignoratio elenchi ("ignoring refutation"), which basically means they're ignoring the argument. Instead of addressing the actual subject -- whether the action was justified -- they're changing it to whether the person arguing that it wasn't justified is being hypocritical. But why would the first person to speak get to decide what the debate's about? Refusing to accept the conditions of an assertion is not the same thing as committing the ignoratio elenchi fallacy. It's perfectly appropriate (or it can be perfectly appropriate) to accuse one's interlocutor of hypocrisy. It's not really changing the subject -- both sides are still addressing the appropriateness of an action -- but one side changes the focus of the subject to whether the other person believes the action is inappropriate or not.  How could rational conversation even be possible if we weren't free to change the focus like this?

Here's the bottom line: we already have names for informal fallacies, they're usually Latin and sound really cool, so don't go around making up other names for them that sound stupid.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The Consequence Argument

The issue of determinism and free will have always been at the forefront in philosophy. We are inclined to define them as opposites: determinism means we have no free will and having free will means we are not determined. However, the majority view in contemporary philosophy is called compatibilism (or sometimes soft determinism) which tries to walk a middle path. If we define free will in the right way, then no conflict between it and determinism arises. So if we are free to do what we want, that's enough freedom and it's compatible with determinism. Whatever determines our actions also determines our desires so that our actions and desires match up -- or alternately, our actions are brought about by us in accordance with our desires, and our desires are determined by other forces. As Schopenhauer put it, "We are free to do as we will, but not to will as we will."

The motivation for compatibilism is to allow for moral praise and blame. If our actions are determined, it is difficult to see how we can be held responsible for them. Hard determinism accepts this and rejects moral responsibility. Libertarianism (NOT the political position) also accepts this and accepts moral responsibility. But if we are free to do what we want, then we can still say we are responsible for our actions, and so moral praise and blame is possible. Supposedly.

Peter Van Inwagen is one of the most important living philosophers. He earned his Ph.D. in 1969 and has began publishing on determinism and free will ever since. Eleven years into his academic career he converted to Christianity, which is interesting but unrelated to what I'm talking about. He also came up with the Consequence Argument which is essentially an argument against compatibilism. It argues that the free will of compatibilism does not allow for moral praise or blame, moral responsibility, and this takes away any motive for accepting compatibilism in the first place. We should either be hard determinists or libertarians.

The argument in a nutshell: if determinism is true, all of our actions are entirely produced by events in the remote past plus the laws of nature. But we have no control over events in the remote past or the laws of nature. Therefore, we have no control over our actions. If we have no control over our actions, we are not responsible for them, in which case praising us for our good acts and blaming us for our bad acts makes no sense.

Van Inwagen affirms free will, but also points out that it is a mystery. It has yet to be made into a coherent idea, despite the facts that we have an intuitive understanding of it and it has been something people have been discussing for as long as there's been people. Simply saying our actions are not determined is not enough, since we could hardly be held responsible for actions that just occurred spontaneously with no cause. Nicholas Rescher, another Christian philosopher and probably the most influential philosopher of science after C.S. Peirce and Karl Popper, published Free Will: An Extensive Bibliography, which is exactly what it says it is: over 300 pages of references. So I don't think the issue is going to be resolved anytime soon.