Saturday, November 22, 2008

Of Fundamentalist Platypodes

In jumping around from link to link in an idle moment, I came upon The Skeptic's Annotated Bible. I had known it had existed before, but I hadn't really bothered to read any part of it before; it turns out I was missing out on an interesting specimen of the quirks of human thought. Here, for instance, is what the SAB says about "What the Bible Says about Non-Christians":

They are without God.

"Whosoever ... abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God." -- 2 John 9

They are all antichrists.

"For many deceivers are entered into the world, who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh. This is a deceiver and an antichrist." -- 2 John 7

They should be shunned. Neither marry nor be friends with them.

"Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? ... Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord." -- 2 Cor.6:14-17

They should be killed.

"If thy brother, the son of thy mother, or thy son, or thy daughter, or the wife of thy bosom, or thy friend, which is as thine own soul, entice thee secretly, saying, Let us go and serve other gods, which thou hast not known, thou, nor thy fathers; Namely, of the gods of the people which are round about you ... Thou shalt not consent unto him, nor hearken unto him; neither shall thine eye pity him, neither shalt thou spare, neither shalt thou conceal him: But thou shalt surely kill him; thine hand shall be first upon him to put him to death, and afterwards the hand of all the people. And thou shalt stone him with stones, that he die." -- Dt.13:6-10

Never mind, of course, that the people discussed in II John are specifically people claiming to be Christians -- hence the warning about people who 'confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh'. The letter, like all of the Johannine epistles, is about distinguishing what merely claims to be Christian from what really is. There is no suggestion that all non-Christians are antichrists; nor, in fact, would this fit with the probable meaning of the term 'antichrist' in this context. The real claim is that some who claim to teach Christian doctrine are antichrists, i.e., people who are setting themselves up in the place Christ alone should stand. Never mind, again, that the Deuteronomy passage isn't about non-Christians at all. Never mind, yet again, that the separation in II Corinthians is explicitly about behavior linked to pagan, and particularly idolatrous, practice.

I'm not really interested in criticism here, which I imagine would be pointless. It is interesting, however, as a specimen. What this is, of course, is not a skeptical reading of the Bible; rather, it is an uncritical collecting together of various fundamentalist and fundamentalist-like readings of passages without regard for the actual context of the passages, either the immediate context or the context of the whole work, in order to reject the interpretation that arises from this sort of approach. This fits with the thrust of the work, a counterattack on fundamentalists that is based on the assumption that only fundamentalists read the Bible correctly:

I don't insist on a literal interpretation, but only that all of the Bible be taken seriously and that none of it be ignored. It seems to me that most non-fundamentalist Christians don't really believe in the Bible; they only pretend to do so. Some don't even pretend -- yet all claim to base their beliefs upon it. This seems dishonest to me.

Thus the SAB is a fundamentalist interpretation of the text; the only difference between itself and the fundamentalists it opposes is that whereas the latter assume a posture of deference, the former assumes a posture of defiance. In that sense it serves as a sort of platypus of order Fundamentalista: entirely within the order as to the essential matter, the manner of reading, despite the possession of features that deviate sharply from quotidian expectations.

Notes on the Incantatory Use of the Word 'Truth'

A general form of argument I've seen a number of times in the past year: The difference between my opponent and myself is that whereas my opponent is concerned with (some practical thing, like consolation, charity, fairness, etc.), I'm interested in the truth. This appeal to truth is incantatory: it is not an argument but a rhetorical ploy that usually involves a false dichotomy. By ritually displaying one's 'interest in the truth' in contrast with someone else's interest in something else, one simultaneously paints oneself as in possession of the truth and the other person as compromising the truth in favor of something else; when, of course, it is entirely possible that their concern with whatever it may be is itself a form of interest in the truth. Certainly, nothing says that you can't simultaneously be interested in the truth and interested in other good things as well; and there is no reason to think that truth excludes every other good thing there may be.

It is also ironic, in that someone who appeals to truth this way is usually showing that they do, in fact, have other interests; one of which is to be superior to their opponents when it comes to the reputation for the truth. There are no doubt innocent uses of the argument. But usually you can almost guarantee that the person who uses it is merely posturing to win an argument; they may be generally interested in truth, but they are gunning for a victory

Except in rare cases we can assume that everyone is interested in the truth. But interests in truth pave the road to irrationality in much the same way good intentions pave the road to hell. Indeed, wanting to do good and wanting to find truth are closely related; and the same thing can be said of both. Interest in the truth is pointless without the rightly ordered pursuit of truth. That is not a formula you say but a way you go about things, and the fundamental irrationality in arguments like the above is that someone acts as if you could show that you pursue truth well by saying you pursue it, and this is as absurd as thinking you could show that you are virtuous by insisting that you are virtuous in public. (Since the right sort of interest in truth is a virtue, it is in fact the same thing.) That way lies hypocrisy, not virtue.

There are other incantatory uses of the word 'truth'. Are any of them rational? Perhaps when they are deployed like Socrates's rhetoric -- to hold oneself to a standard and to encourage oneself to do better. But is there any other case where it would be rational?

Friday, November 21, 2008

Complex Things Using a Lot of Concepts

This blog is:

INTP - The Thinkers

The logical and analytical type. They are especialy attuned to difficult creative and intellectual challenges and always look for something more complex to dig into. They are great at finding subtle connections between things and imagine far-reaching implications.

They enjoy working with complex things using a lot of concepts and imaginative models of reality. Since they are not very good at seeing and understanding the needs of other people, they might come across as arrogant, impatient and insensitive to people that need some time to understand what they are talking about.


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Plagiarism and Humiliation

Janet has mentions an instructor who, to deter plagiarism, put the following in his syllabus:

No form of dishonesty is acceptable. I will promptly and publicly fail and humiliate anyone caught lying, cheating, or stealing. That includes academic dishonesty, copyright violations, software piracy, or any other form of dishonesty.

When he found six students plagiarizing on an assignment, he followed through. The university fired him. I'm with those who say that, as a matter of university policy, it was obviously right for them to do so (but see below, because it is not merely a matter of university policy); it was a pretty clear violation of FERPA regulations as they are usually understood, particularly without a hearing being called, and universities simply cannot overlook something like that, however unfortunate the results. (Even setting FERPA aside, it is a violation of professional academic ethics. Public humiliation is not something that can be called back. If you give a student a zero for cheating, the student has means of appeal, and can make a case for guaranteeing that the zero does not appear on the record, no harm to the student. But if you humiliate a student in public, you are giving a punishment that cannot be undone before a student has the means to see that his or her case has been reviewed and rights protected. You could later apologize, but that's not undoing the punishment. In any case (not that I'd expect most people to be moved by the point), things like this also come dangerously near the sin of detraction. Deliberately damaging someone's good name, even for something you are fairly sure is true, is not a minor matter; it is one of the most serious punishments you can inflict on an individual. It is a massive harm in itself, and its effects are extremely difficult to predict; and it should be treated accordingly, like the dangerous weapon it is. And this is particularly important for people in academia, since in our hands it can be even more dangerous. Not every case of public humiliation is detraction, but there must be safeguards in place to prevent it from becoming so. There are reasons that students are protected from this.)

But I don't actually blame the adjunct professor here. Just from what I've read about and by him, he seems like someone who was genuinely trying to build the best course he could. It's important to note that he had never taught before and is not a professional academic: he was a qualified professional asked by the department to teach a course in his area of expertise, and who agreed because he thought it an opportunity to give back to the community. His syllabus was reviewed by the department chair, who did not catch the ethical risk in the provision. Befor posting the grades, he gave the university forewarning and was not corrected. It's unfortunate that someone who, to all appearances, had an enthusiasm for the course and a genuine interest in giving his students the best course he could was put in this position. I hope that this doesn't discourage him from continuing to take an interest in education, since we could use more of him; I don't think there was anything else the university could have done, but he seems to have been put in a very unfortunate and ethically risky situation through no fault of his own. You can get his side of the story here, and his argument that plagiarism should be brought out into the open in the same place.

Actually, I'm not convinced that even academics are given what they need to fulfill their professional ethical responsibilities. Before anyone is allowed near a classroom, they should be made to sit in a class and learn, quite clearly, all principles governing the professional ethical issues that are involved in being a modern instructor: ADA, sexual harrassment, FERPA, student rights, academic rights, university policies, &c. A lot of schools get part of this in already with their professional development requirements; but doing it that way guarantees that it is piecemeal.

'a phantom to be slain, a rock to be dashed against'

There has been some excellent discussion of women in science around the science blogs recently, in which Zuska and a few others are setting out to try to kill another Angel in the House. As Zuska says (in the post below):

The problem, you see, is that women aren't really allowed to be ANYTHING in science. If you are a hot goddess then you are Not Serious and Not A Real Scientist and you are Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Serious and so on. If you are just a regular goddess (like Zuska) then you are an ugly hairy-legged man-hating feminazi who needs to get laid and Not A Real Scientist and Ruining Science For Other Women Who Are More Reasonable. The mythical More Serious, More Reasonable, non-hairy-legged, non-high heels-wearing Real Scientist woman has, alas, rarely, if ever, been seen. Because women can't be Real Scientists, no matter how Reasonable and Serious they are.

Notable posts:

On the Need for Women to Defend Women in Science.... (On Becoming a Domestic and Laboratory Goddess)
The Proper Way to be a Woman in Science (Thus Spake Zuska)
Women, Scientists, and Ordinary Human Beings (Adventures in Ethics and Science)

Intueri, Admirari, Adorare

To understand what Descartes is doing in the Meditations, we have to be able to see why he was regarded as a purveyor of a 'new philosophy', but we also have to know something of what links him to the ideas of Bonaventure and Anselm before him. Thus the voice that rings out at the end of the Third Meditation--in a passage that most modern students probably would not recognize as by Descartes at all, since they would be encouraged just to skip it--speaks in a language redolent more of the early Middle Ages than of the early modern revolution. 'Let me here rest for a while in the contemplation of God himself and gaze upon, wonder at, and adore the beauty of this immense light' (immensi hujus luminis pulchritudinem...intueri, admirari, adorare). The meditator's voice here is the voice of the worshipper rather than the philosopher; or perhaps we should more aptly say that Descartes is adopting a modality of thought vividly exemplified in the writings of many of the Christian Fathers, a mode which mixes critical reasoning and devotion, one in which philosophizing and religious contemplation are inextricably intertwined.

John Cottingham, "Why Do History of Philosophy?" in Analytic Philosophy and History of Philosophy, Sorell & Rogers, ed. Clarendon (Oxford: 2005) 36-37. I wouldn't put everything exactly the same way, but this is quite right. (The link, by the way, linking Descartes to Bonaventure and Anselm is Augustinian thought, which is part of the very atmosphere of thought in seventeenth-century France.)

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Mill on the Art of Life

Philosoraptor called my attention to the following chapter in the System of Logic:

Text not available
A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation By John Stuart Mill

So, in effect, utility is the theory of all practical reason, the departments of which are ethics, politics, and aesthetics (where the last is understood as encompassing all matters of good and bad taste). What I find particularly interesting is that Mill uses this as an argument against intuitionists:

Text not available
A System of Logic, Ratiocinative and Inductive Being a Connected View of the Principles of Evidence and the Methods of Scientific Investigation By John Stuart Mill

This is a fascinating (although I think somewhat implausible) argument. There is nothing about intuitionism as such that requires that it apply only to moral judgments, and certainly Whewell's intuitionism, which is the major contemporary rival to Mill's utilitarianism, does not. But it is notable that Mill here uses a failure to allow for a non-moral aspect to human life against the intuitionists -- which is a criticism he had also made, in slightly different form, against Benthamite utilitarians.

Useful Information

I could survive for 1 minute, 3 seconds chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor

Created by Bunk


Dooyeweerd and Cognitive Science

An interesting paper at PLoS One (by Colzato, van den Wildenberg, and Hommel):

We investigated whether Calvinists and atheists, brought up in the same country and culture (the Netherlands), differ with respect to the way they attend to and process global and local features of visual stimuli. Cultural (and, possibly, other) differences in perceptual processing and attentional emphasis are assumed to be produced by social practice that provides selective reward for attending to particular stimulus features and adopting particular attentional control settings. We speculate that practicing a religion and being exposed to particular religious practices may lead, among other things, to a chronic bias towards particular attentional control parameters. In particular, our study was inspired by the Dutch neo-Calvinism concept of sphere sovereignty, which emphasizes that each sphere or sector of society has its own responsibilities and authorities, and stands equal to other spheres. If Dutch Calvinists, as compared to Dutch atheists, have been rewarded more for adopting a processing style that emphasizes a rather independent view of the self, this would be likely to induce an attentional set that facilitates the processing of the local details.

It did turn out that the Calvinists were more likely to focus local rather than global aspects of the scene; or, more strictly, they were consistently quicker at identifying small shapes, in a way consistent with being less distracted by the context of the shapes. The explanation given for this in terms of Calvinist view of self (or, rather, what they attribute to the Calvinist view of self) strikes me as a bit implausible (I would want first to rule out that it is not something specific in Dutch Calvinist religious practice that trains the attention in this way), and it's absurd to pin anything in cognitive science on a single experiment; but it would be interesting to see how it holds up under further testing, and also how Calvinists compare with non-Calvinist non-atheists and with Calvinists from other cultures.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Mill Against Bentham

I've been re-reading a lot of Mill lately, and one thing that jumped out of me this time was that a major element of Mill's rejection of Bentham is that he doesn't think Benthamite utilitarianism can function as an ethics. This is a repeated criticism in the essay on Bentham. I thought it might be interesting to collate some of the passages in which he points this out.

(1) Man is never recognized by him as a being capable of pursuing spiritual perfection as an end; of desiring, for its own sake, the conformity of his own character to his standard of excellence, without hope of good or fear of evil from other source than his own inward consciousness. Even in the more limited form of conscience, this great fact in human nature escapes him. Nothing is more curious than the absence of recognition in any of his writings of the existence of conscience, as a thing distinct from philanthropy, from affection for God or man, and from self-interest in this world or in the next. There is a studied abstinence from any of the phrases which, in the mouths of others, import the acknowledgment of such a fact. If we find the words ``conscience'', ``principle'', ``moral rectitude'', ``moral duty'', in his ``Table of the Springs of Action'', it is among the synonymes of the ``love of reputation''; with an intimation as to the two former phrases, that they are also sometimes synonymous with the religious motive, or the motive of sympathy. The feeling of moral approbation or disapprobation properly so called, either towards ourselves or our fellow-creatures, he seems unaware of the existence of; and neither the word self-respect, nor the idea to which that word is appropriated, occurs even once, so far as our recollection serves us, in his whole writings.

(2) Morality consists of two parts. One of these is self-education; the training, by the human being himself, of his affections and will. That department is a blank in Bentham's system. The other and co-equal part, the regulation of his outward actions, must be altogether halting and imperfect without the first; for how can we judge in what manner many an action will affect even the worldly interests of ourselves or others, unless we take in, as part of the question, its influence on the regulation of our or their affections and desires? A moralist on Bentham's principles may get as far as this, that he ought not to slay, burn, or steal; but what will be his qualifications for regulating the nicer shades of human behaviour, or for laying down even the greater moralities as to those facts in human life which tend to influence the depths of the character quite independently of any influence on worldly circumstances,---such, for instance, as the sexual relations, or those of family in general, or any other social and sympathetic connexions of an intimate kind? The moralities of these questions depend essentially on considerations which Bentham never so much as took into the account; and when he happened to be in the right, it was always, and necessarily, on wrong or insufficient grounds.

(3) That which alone causes any material interests to exist, which alone enables any body of human beings to exist as a society, is national character: that it is, which causes one nation to succeed in what it attempts, another to fail; one nation to understand and aspire to elevated things, another to grovel in mean ones; which makes the greatness of one nation lasting, and dooms another to early and rapid decay. The true teacher of the fitting social arrangements for England, France, or America, is the one who can point out how the English, French or American character can be improved, and how it has been made what it is. A philosophy of laws and institutions, not founded on a philosophy of national character, is an absurdity. But what could Bentham's opinion be worth on national character? How could he, whose mind contained so few and so poor types of individual character, rise to that higher generalization? All he can do is but to indicate means by which, in any given state of the national mind, the material interests of society can be protected; saving the question, of which others must judge, whether the use of those means would have, on the national character, any injurious influence.

(4) In so far as Bentham's adoption of the principle of utility induced him to fix his attention upon the consequences of actions as the consideration determining their morality, so far he was indisputably in the right path: though to go far in it without wandering, there was needed a greater knowledge of the formation of character, and of the consequences of actions upon the agent's own frame of mind, than Bentham possessed. His want of power to estimate this class of consequences, together with his want of the degree of modest deference which, from those who have not competent experience of their own, is due to the experience of others on that part of the subject, greatly limit the value of his speculations on questions of practical ethics.

(5) He is chargeable also with another error, which it would be improper to pass over, because nothing has tended more to place him in opposition to the common feelings of mankind, and to give to his philosophy that cold, mechanical and ungenial air which characterizes the popular idea of a Benthamite. This error, or rather one-sidedness, belongs to him not as a utilitarian, but as a moralist by profession, and in common with almost all professed moralists, whether religious or philosophical: it is that of treating the moral view of actions and characters, which is unquestionably the first and most important mode of looking at them, as if it were the sole one: whereas it is only one of three, by all of which our sentiments towards the human being may be, ought to be, and without entirely crushing our own nature cannot but be, materially influenced. Every human action has three aspects,---its moral aspect, or that of its right and wrong. its aesthetic aspect, or that of its beauty; its sympathetic aspect, or that of its lovableness. The first addresses itself to our reason and conscience; the second to our imagination; the third to our human fellow-feeling. According to the first, we approve or disapprove; according to the second, we admire, or despise; according to the third, we love, pity or dislike. The morality of an action depends on its foreseeable consequences; its beauty, and its lovableness, or the reverse, depend on the qualities which it is evidence of. Thus, a lie is wrong, because its effect is to mislead, and because it tends to destroy the confidence of man in man; it is also mean, because it is cowardly; because it proceeds from not daring to face the consequences of telling the truth; or, at best, is evidence of want of that power to compass our ends by straightforward means, which is conceived as properly belonging to every person not deficient in energy or in understanding. The action of Brutus in sentencing his sons was right, because it was executing a law essential to the freedom of his country, against persons of whose guilt there was no doubt; it was admirable, because it evinced a rare degree of patriotism, courage and self-control: but there was nothing loveable in it; it affords either no presumption in regard to loveable qualities, or a presumption of their deficiency.

Some brief comments.

(1) We get some notion of the shape of ethics as Mill sees it: it accepts the existence of conscience, moral aspiration, self-respect, and duty as facts of human nature, and reasons accordingly.

(2) Self-education, as one might expect, plays an extremely important role in Mill; and, indeed, the whole of Mill's deviation from Bentham is arguably summed up in the second passage above: he regards it as essential to moral theory. If your moral theory says nothing about self-education, about cultivation of character, about training of will, it is not moral in the strictest sense at all, but something else; it is missing what is required for handling morality as such.

(3) I find the 'national character' bit interesting. This used to be quite the common concept. Whewell, Mill's rival in moral philosophy, talks about it; Hume has an essay on it in which he tries to pin down the best way to account for it. But it tends to be out of favor today, largely, I think, because it has always been used in an ambiguous way, as part descriptive and part normative. If I say 'candour', i.e., honest forthrightness, is part of the British national character, this needn't mean that I am saying that all of the British are candid, nor even that the majority are; rather, it probably means that candour is (so to speak) part of the goal of being British. It's a public standard, a shared value, a continual task being British gets you. But I could also use the phrase descriptively, and say, the British national character has deteriorated from the days when candour was the national virtue. Here, clearly, we are making a descriptive claim rather than a normative claim. But Mill gives what can be seen as a sort of account for the duality of the term: namely, the national character is a generalization of individual moral characters (it is unclear whether it is a generalization from all the individual characters, which seems unlikely, or, much more probably, a generalization from the characters of prominent individuals); a sort of moral fact about a society that emerges from considering the moral character of the people in it. Thus Mill's use is purely descriptive, in the way I would say, "Each person should work on what will improve their character."

(4) The three-aspect thesis is striking; and, ultimately, what it amounts to is that Mill recognizes that in addition to the standard moral ideas (obligation, etc.), it is necessary to have room for the cultivation of moral taste.

Public Land Management

Alex Tabarrok proposes selling federally-owned Western lands (there is discussion at Matthew Yglesias). The problem with the proposal is that it would be extraordinarily difficult to do. It is not, however, as many commenters have been suggesting, because the land is not valuable; rather, it is because the rather considerable value of the land is based in part on its being administered in a way that (at present) could hardly be done by anyone other than the government.

The clearest way to see this is to look at what the Bureau of Land Management actually does, because the BLM is far and away the major adminstrator. (The other big land administrators -- the National Park Service, the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service, and the General Services Administration -- are dwarfed by the BLM in this respect and, in any case, except for the GSA, which manages things like federal buildings, mostly deal with lands that could only seriously be sold with massive restrictions.) The BLM handles (on its own) about 260 million acres. (I say 'on its own' because it also tends to handle mineral rights for land managed by other agencies.) About 160 million acres of this is used as public rangeland; about 45 million is leased for oil and gas production; some is leased for coal, some for geothermal, some for wind and solar, some for wood; all save a small portion of this land is available for recreational activities like camping, horseback riding, hiking, hang gliding, etc. In addition, the BLM manages right-of-way licenses. Suppose you want to string a cable for some important reason across the West; the existence of public lands allows you to do so, by getting a permit, without having to buy or pay hundreds of private owners or push the state for eminent domain. And the uses multiply.

When we look at what the BLM does, we see part of the problem with selling off the land. The land, or much of it, at least, is genuinely valuable, contrary to what some have suggested; a rather hefty portion of the American economy is affected by the management of these lands. But the chief value of the land is precisely that it stays open for any sort of use that might reasonably come up: it gets used for grazing if you can use it for grazing; if its mineral estate suddenly becomes economically viable, it is available for use; if it is suitable for a certain form of outdoor recreation, it can be used for that; if you need it for right of way, it is there for that; if there's a byproduct of production (like helium from natural gas), you can make sure that this byproduct doesn't go to waste but is actually diverted to a useful market; if solar and wind require massive amounts of land, there's plenty of land to choose from; and so forth and so on. And precisely because it is managed to be public land it retains its general-use value, and functions as a land and resource reserve for anything that might come up. But much of this land could only be useful to private owners if they managed so much of it as to be doing, effectively, what the BLM does for it: using it for whatever seems a good use, and (if none seems available) setting it aside until some good use comes along (which it often does). People primarily buy land, however, not to add to their general land reserve, but to serve some very specific range of functions; and, while you can use Nevada desert for a lot, it's hard to see how it could possibly be economically viable for anyone to use it for just a few things. Thus most of the land is very difficult to sell to anyone who can't, in fact, do what the BLM alread does with it; and very few people can seriously do that.

Which is not to say that you couldn't sell some of it. Some of the land is reasonably well-suited to particular uses, and you could sell some grazing land to ranchers, some oil production land to oil companies, some forest land to lumber companies, etc. The land you'd be selling is often more difficult to develop than the kind that such companies would prefer, but it would be economically viable. However, it's not really clear what you'd gain from the sale. Managed by the BLM, such brings in an income of several billion a year; companies can make use of the resources more cheaply if they pay permits rather than own it; you encourage competition by making access to the resources generally available; you guarantee that the land is not bound up for a single use if it could be used for several things; etc. Most of this would be lost on sale.

Devil's Hide and Seek

"Lack of character--" All too easily we confuse a fear of standing up for our beliefs, a tendency to be more influenced by the convictions of others than by our own, or simply a lack of conviction--with the need that the strong and mature feel to give full weight to the arguments of the other side. A game of hide-and-seek: when the Devil wishes to play on our lack of character, he calls it tolerance, and when he wants to stifle our first attempts to learn tolerance, he calls it lack of character.

Dag Hammerskjöld, Markings, Sjöberg & Auden, trs. Alfred A. Knopf (New York: 1964) p.64.