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 (This was published in 1898, so as a history it's a little out of date.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 gĂ©nie 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.