Saturday, August 07, 2010

On Myers on Baber

PZ Myers has an amusingly bad post on a recent column by Harriet Baber. If you know anything about both of them, you know just how far Myers is out of his league in taking on Baber, particularly since Myers has, over the years, shown an increasing inability to apply even basic critical thinking skills to evaluating his own reasoning; but Baber is here working with a hand tied behind her back, explaining a sophisticated technical argument to a lay audience in a popular journalistic space, and Myers is working with every advantage, since he had every chance to look at Baber's argument with however much leisure he needed to come up with a devastating reply, and she's still running circles around him.

One sees the root problem right at the very beginning of Myers's post:

I know Pascal was a brilliant fellow, but his wager is bollocks — it's built on the premise of the unreliability of reason and the deficiencies of evidence, reducing our choices to desperate gambles, where we make decisions only on the basis of the desirability of outcomes — a strategy, by the way, that makes casinos rich and gamblers paupers. Accepting Pascal's Wager is admitting the defeat of reason, a very peculiar position for a philosopher.

What is remarkable about this audacious claim is how obviously false it is. Whenever people are talking about Pascal's Wager, one needs to distinguish between the Wager as actually found in Pascal's fragments, and probable interpretations thereof, and the more common decision-theoretical arguments (of the sort that Jeff Jordan discusses fairly well in his Gambling on God [sorry, that should be his *Pascal's Wager*, which is a different book]) that, while not Pascalian in the proper sense, belong to the same overall family of argument; but one thing that both the properly Pascalian and the broadly Pascalian Wagers share is that they are arguments for the reliability of reason even under the most plausible conditions that maximally favor agnosticism about reason in this area. That is, Wager arguments are, down to every single argument, arguments for the reliability of reason operating on practical considerations in light of the ends of inquiry. For instance, in the Wager fragments written by Pascal himself, Pascal explicitly argues against an agnostic who claims that our only rational option is to suspend judgment on questions of God altogether. Against this, Pascal argues (1) that even under the agnostic's own assumptions practical reason can still identify reasons for not suspending judgment; (2) that it can identify, in terms of the ends and aims governing rational practices of judgment in the first place, reasons for thinking particular options more fruitful; and (3) that it can give, even (again) on the agnostic's own assumptions, reasons for thinking that we should inquire without curtailing our inquiry with those agnostic assumptions in the first place. In Pascal's terms, we can still look for 'inside information' that will improve our gamble. What is more, any look at Pascalian Wagers shows that no one who has actually taken trouble to think through them critically could make the claim that their only consideration is "the desirability of the outcome". In typical Wager arguments, including Pascal's own, the desirability of the outcome is only relevant to determining the value of finding a means to obtain the outcome, if it can be obtained, and even then is always determined with regard not only to how nice things would be if things went well but also with regard to how much is risked and how serious those risks are -- a fact that Myers conveniently overlooks in pretending that the reasoning is the sort "that makes casinos rich and gamblers paupers." Likewise, I find it a bit amusing that Myers evaluates the Wager by taking it to propose a literal gamble, rather than formal structure or (in my own preferred interpretation of Pascal's own Wager) a series of formal structures connected dialectically; I expect him any day now to insist pompously, like some of the less clever internet ID theorists, that Dawkins's Weasel argument obviously fails to support its conclusion because it reduces natural selection to a program; this is precisely the shallow level of evaluative analysis we have here. Pascal, of course, uses the language of a Wager because of his intended audience: reasoning related to gambling was the most rigorous form of practical reasoning with which the sort of cultured skeptic who comes up again and again in the fragments would have been familiar; and other Wager arguments, when they have kept the gambling vocabulary, have done so because of Pascalian tradition. The sort of evaluation Myers gives us is the sort of thing that can be expected only from someone with a very limited acquaintance with Wager arguments, one in which Wager arguments are mostly known only through loose and uncritically accepted second-hand summaries.

But this is actually the high point, rationally speaking, in Myers's post. From this point on, the looseness of the analysis increases and Myers even assumes that Baber's point is that "truth is unimportant to her". But this is not what she says; what she says is (1) that there are many truths (note the plural, which Myers conveniently drops) that are simply not of great importance; (2) that truth is overrated if it is taken to require that inquiry is optimizing of truth rather than merely satisficing; and (3) that, in fact, satisficing is a perfectly reasonable strategy for handling "the big questions". None of these three points imply that truth is unimportant; the only one that is even actually consistent with the claim that truth (no plural) is unimportant is (2), and (2) is the only one with regard to which Baber is insufficiently clear, and thus the only one which Myers has any excuse for missing. Baber, in other words, is (as she explicitly says) arguing that the best strategy with regard to truth when inquiring into "the big questions" is a strategy involving satisficing truth rather than optimizing it. Nor does her argument involve any sort of "casual contempt" towards curiosity about the world; rather, it simply points out that there are truths about the world that a person, depending on their particular background and interests, need not think important. And unless Myers thinks it is somehow a matter of crucial importance -- so much so that he must insist that everyone know it or be accused of contempt for curiosity -- to know how many socks I have in my sock drawer, or the traffic laws governing speed limits along stretches of 183 in Austin, Texas, or the standard Sikh view of the relationship between Islam and Hinduism, or (to use Baber's own example, which Myers, unsurprisingly, completely fails to grasp) the exact state of each and every one of Harriet Baber's teeth (the inquiry into all of which would involve discovering real truths about the world), then he is simply trying to build an argument on rhetoric that he has not properly thought through or else is using through deliberate dishonesty. There is no third option here. No honest person really believes that each and every single truth is crucially important; what determines whether a truth is crucially important is not its truth but its practical value. Likewise, no critical thinker holds that any and every choice between [possible -ed.] truths is equally valuable; and what determines whether a given choice is valuable is not that truth is at stake but practical ends and aims. Serious inquiry into the truth -- that is, inquiry that is real inquiry and does not simply use 'truth' in the incantatory way Myers is using it here -- is a practical activity, and as such is governed by practical goals. It takes no elaborately difficult effort to follow Baber's reasoning, even if one disagrees with it; the only possible way anyone could misinterpret Baber as badly as Myers has done here is if they really and truly do not care what Baber's argument, which (in the form here) is a fairly straightforward argument for a fairly limited conclusion, actually is, and therefore exercise no critical reading skills in handling it.

I said Myers's post was amusingly bad, and, given how completely off he is in his interpretation of a fairly elementary argument (since Baber is only giving a popularized summary of a more technical argument), it can be; but Myers's post is also to some extent a very sad thing, since it shows all the faults that have become increasingly common in Myers's reasoning. There was a time when he was a fairly sharp commentator, and would never have made the amateurish and in some cases, frankly, dimwitted maneuvers that he makes here. But reason is in great measure social, and that means it is heavily influenced by the company one keeps; and any look at the Pharyngula comment boxes or some of the places on the web Myers links shows exactly what the quality of company he has been keeping is. And, very noticeably, his arguments have increasingly taken on some of the worst features of the glib and mindless people with whom he is constantly interacting: the tendency to begin not with the actual arguments but with a simplistic caricature of them; the attempt to build an argument not on the basis of relevant examples but on the basis of vague, incantatory rhetoric; the tendency to assume that if his opponents argue for a qualification of some claim that they are arguing for the complete falsehood of that claim; the increasing framing of every particular point as an either/or between his preferred view and irrationality; the sneering at positions in ways that show clearly that no effort was actually made to understand the position in the first place; the appeals, which were always a weakness of Myers's and have only become more common, to pseudo-history rather than actual historical evidence; the increasingly common failure to consider that if he doesn't understand an argument that it might be better to raise an elucidating objection than to dismiss the argument out of hand. The list could be made much longer. We all have our faults when it comes to rational thinking, because real rationality takes a lot of work, some of it very difficult. But the faults exhibited on Myers's blog have slowly but steadily converged on the very worst traits of the internet kook, namely those that involve laying claim to rationality while showing clear signs of not having even bothered to try to do the work required to make that claim legitimate. There is, I think, hope for Myers yet, and hope that we might again get arguments from him that are actually worth intellectual respect and rumination rather than the laughable junk-food imitations that he has increasingly thrown out. I hope that at some point he again starts making an actual effort with respecting; he used to make them, and there's no particular reason why he couldn't start making them again. In the meantime he serves as a warning of how dangerous the internet can be to one's reasoning skills, and the importance of not being too glib in one's criticisms and of instead holding yourself to addressing the actual claims made by your opponent rather than some cartoon version of them.

UPDATE: Baber shows up in the comments on Myers's post and notes, with the sarcastic brevity she often has, both the ignorance of Wager arguments and the incantatory use of truth I had mentioned:

Hello, PZ--pleased to meet you.

What amazes me about the comments I got at the Guardian site and elsewhere is how pious secularists are. I'm just a simple, self-serving hedonist.

For a nice discussion of Pascal's Wager, try the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy article at

UPDATE 2: Ophelia Benson also has a discussion of Baber's article, and while it's written in her usual drive-by-argument style, it's useful for showing the sort of post that Myers could have written (and which wouldn't have led to my writing an exasperated post). I think Ophelia reads Baber as arguing for a much stronger conclusion than Baber actually is, but even if that's right it's an entirely reasonable error; and she rightly sees that the primary issue with the article is the implicit theory of motivation. The comments discussion, with the exception of one or two dunderheads who have thought that insulting H.E. is an argument, has also been far more intelligent than anything you'd get at Pharyngula, too.

Moon and Waters

Now a cause is the higher the more superior its effect. And so those who wish to investigate certain effects in terms of causes that are inferior are deceived. For example, if one were to consider the movement of water in terms of the power of water, he would not be able to know the cause of the tides of the sea; to do this he would have to consider water in terms of the power of the moon. Thus, those people are even more deceived who consider the proper effects of God in terms of the elements of the world. But this is the reason for the seeming plausibility of what they say.

Thomas Aquinas, Commentary on Colossians, Fabian Larcher, tr. (Sapientia Press: 2006) p. 52 (section 92). I have modified parts of the translation.

Friday, August 06, 2010

Feast of the Holy Transfiguration

Now the Lord is the Spirit,
and where the Spirit of the Lord is,
there is freedom.
And we, who with unveiled faces
all reflect the Lord's glory,
are being transformed into his likeness
with ever-increasing glory,
which comes from the Lord,
who is the Spirit....
God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness,"
made his light shine in our hearts
to give us the light
of the knowledge of the glory of God
in the face of Christ.
But we have this treasure in jars of clay
to show that this all-surpassing power
is from God and not from us.

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Piglets and Stones

Sexual desire is a response to the other as perceived, not as anatomically described. It is the response to a person, perceived as the bearer of rights, responsibilities, and awareness. The other is not a means to my pleasure, still less something against which to scratch the itch of my lust. The point was made by Socrates, as recorded by Xenophon: 'Socrates...said he thought Critias was no better off than a pig if he wanted to scratch himself against Euthydemus as piglets against a stone.' We recognise in that picture of Critias' lust not true desire, but one of its infantile perversions. Yet this is the way in which desire is invariably represented by sexologists - in 'functional'terms which totally misrepresent its intentionality. The goal of sexual desire is not orgasm; nor is it 'sex', however described.

Roger Scruton, Modern Philosophy, Penguin (1996) p. 470.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

Maintaining Technological Civilization

Charlie Stross asks:

What is the minimum number of people you need in order to maintain (not necessarily to extend) our current level of technological civilization?

Some loose thoughts.

(1) This is a badly formed question, for two reasons. First, we can't talk about minimum numbers to maintain anything unless we know for how long. A generation or two? Then it might not be much. A thousand generations? Indefinitely?

Second, there is no such thing as a "level of technological civilization". You see some of the absurdity of the notion in some of the commenters on the post, who take 'level of technological civilization' to be something that improves with every upgrade of Windows and every new improvement in cell phones and video game consoles. There is no single "level of technological civilization"; rather, there are levels of advancement for different technological fields. Civilization, even considered purely in terms of its artifacts (which is what we are doing when we are talking about 'technological civilization'), is an immensely complex thing even in very simple societies. When one artifactual lineage is progressing, another may be degenerating, and yet another may be static. Indeed, that's exactly what we have in any civilization. If you are talking basic, important for living at all technologies, you're talking a fairly limited set of things: many of the basic tools -- hammers and screwdrivers and running water and gardening implements -- haven't changed their basic forms for quite some time now because they already do exactly what you need them to do, and could be had even in a fairly primitive society if the raw materials and the know-how were available. Some of these would be perfectly serviceable in more primitive forms, with the difference only being noticeable in unusual circumstances or when it comes to very specialized tasks. We could have cars with steam engines instead of gasoline combustion engines; they would have quirks arising from the use of steam engines, but they would do what cars do. If everyone has access to walkie talkies with good range and to public phones, how often are they likely to feel the lack of a cell phone? And we see things like this on a smaller scale even in our own society: the toys of Manhattan that rural farm boys in some backwoods Podunk Hollow mostly only hear and read about, and the perfectly serviceable farm technology of Podunk Hollow that no one ever uses in Manhattan, are all part of the same 'technological culture'. Manhattan might have flat screens and Podunk might have boxy cathode ray tubes; they are the same technological civiliztion. Manhattan might have cable internet and Podunk might have dial-up; they are the same technological civilization. Podunk may have the technology to sustain itself agriculturally from here to the end of time while Manhattan need to pray that it never has to try; they are still the same technological civilization. At least, if you're going to say that they're not, you are committed to saying that there is no such thing as 'our' technological civilization, and that the Joneses have a different level of technological civilization entirely: after all, they just bought the latest cell phone. And if you are measuring civilizations by whether they have iPads or not, you might take time explicitly to reflect whether this is actually an appropriate metric for entire civilizations.

I was going to say that there were three reasons why the question wasn't well-formed, but I spent so much time on the second that I forgot what the third one was.

(2) But even badly formed questions can raise good questions. It does seem that there would be minimum populations needed to sustain particular technologies from one generation to the next. Obviously you'd need enough people for a breeding population: to carry anything over to the next generation you need the next generation. And there is a very good argument to be made that as the population involved in learning goes down the chances that the population's overall ability to learn and use what the prior generation did decreases sharply. Large populations allow for lots of redundant learning; redundant learning increases the chances that the next generation will learn the particular thing that needs to be learned as well. Smaller populations of students increase the risk of loss through accident, stupidity, or laziness. And if the population of students is too small, it might well be impossible for the students, even if very bright and diligent, to learn even most of the relevant and important things that a larger population of teachers knows. Some technologies are labor-intensive: it just takes a lot of people to make them, handle them, maintain them, period.

I actually have a fairly strong interest in this on the ideas side: in particular, what minimum conditions are needed for the kinds of social learning that carry philosophical ideas from generation to generation in societies with various kinds of educational institutions. A very tough set of questions to answer.

(3) Stross tries to extend the reasoning to colonization, but colonization by its very nature is a different story, for a number of reasons. (a) The colonies that belong to any technological civilization are, by their very nature, closer to the Podunks than the Manhattans. They would represent the same civilization as it operates under colonial conditions, which are vastly more restrictive. They can't be Manhattans, which draw on a whole society over a long history; they are starter kits rather than cities relying on full-blown, built-up-over-the-centuries infrastructure. Trying to colonize in such a way that all one's colonies are Manhattans is an insane idea: building a Manhattan on Mars all at once is prohibitively more difficult than building a Manhattan on Earth over three centuries. (b) Colonies are not completely isolated from their sources; even if it takes years of travel to get to the colony, any sane colonization plan would involve stocking up the colony as much as possible with useful technology from earth, and then following with at least occasional waves of resources until sustainability could be achieved. Full autonomy of a colony will be a long way off, yes, but full autonomy is hard to achieve even on Earth; relative autonomy does just fine for most purposes. You don't need to supply yourself if you can find some way to barter and trade, and obviously that would be one of the first thoughts of any plan for colonization. (c) Why in the world would you care whether the colonies have the same technologies as long as they have what they need to survive? People on Mars would not be one whit worse off if they couldn't play Wii or drive Ford Fusions or use Windows Vista. They would probably be just fine if they all had landlines instead of cell phones, and they might be so rebellious as to refuse to go extinct for lack of WiFi.

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

I Hate Paperwork

And it seems to be out to get me this summer. I have forms for parking permit requests and electronic access card requests (the form for that one isn't even completely intelligible, because it keeps referring to explanations that don't exist -- I mean, not that I just don't have them, but that aren't written anywhere -- the only explanations in existence are for the previous version of the form, which is out of date), because I need both for the new Round Rock campus of ACC. I'm teaching one course at a different school this term, so I've had to fill out transcript requests and the typical I-9 etc. forms. They do background checks, so I had to fill out a form authorizing a background check. I got my doctorate in Canada, and was a student instructor while I was there, so I now have to fill out five forms for an additional international background check. (Five! I could strangle someone.) I will need to fill out a parking permit request for them, too, and probably some more forms for other things. The Texas legislature has instituted a three-click rule, ostensibly for transparency but in the form that it was passed little more than busy-work that is unlikely to help anyone very much (as always happens when non-educators tamper with education), in which certain information for each course and instructor has to be available within three clicks of the homepage. So I will have to fill out and upload to the online form for that for three different courses, once things are finalized for them. And, of course, all this running around getting information about and finding and filling out and filing and sending in various required forms is eating into my grading time for my summer course and my actual preparation time for my Fall courses, which makes it worse.

And it's bad form-filling weather, too: hot and humid, with cicadas singing in the day and crickets singing in the night, so that you just have to look at a form in order to feel tired and fall asleep.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Wondrous Snow of Starry Blossoms

by Oscar Wilde

O that gaunt House of Art which lacks for naught
Of all the great things men have saved from Time,
The withered body of a girl was brought
Dead ere the world's glad youth had touched its prime,
And seen by lonely Arabs lying hid
In the dim womb of some black pyramid.

But when they had unloosed the linen band
Which swathed the Egyptian's body,--lo! was found
Closed in the wasted hollow of her hand
A little seed, which sown in English ground
Did wondrous snow of starry blossoms bear
And spread rich odours through our spring-tide air.

With such strange arts this flower did allure
That all forgotten was the asphodel,
And the brown bee, the lily's paramour,
Forsook the cup where he was wont to dwell,
For not a thing of earth it seemed to be,
But stolen from some heavenly Arcady.

In vain the sad narcissus, wan and white
At its own beauty, hung across the stream,
The purple dragon-fly had no delight
With its gold dust to make his wings a-gleam,
Ah! no delight the jasmine-bloom to kiss,
Or brush the rain-pearls from the eucharis.

For love of it the passionate nightingale
Forgot the hills of Thrace, the cruel king,
And the pale dove no longer cared to sail
Through the wet woods at time of blossoming,
But round this flower of Egypt sought to float,
With silvered wing and amethystine throat.

While the hot sun blazed in his tower of blue
A cooling wind crept from the land of snows,
And the warm south with tender tears of dew
Drenched its white leaves when Hesperos up-rose
Amid those sea-green meadows of the sky
On which the scarlet bars of sunset lie.

But when o'er wastes of lily-haunted field
The tired birds had stayed their amorous tune,
And broad and glittering like an argent shield
High in the sapphire heavens hung the moon,
Did no strange dream or evil memory make
Each tremulous petal of its blossoms shake?

Ah no! to this bright flower a thousand years
Seemed but the lingering of a summer's day,
It never knew the tide of cankering fears
Which turn a boy's gold hair to withered grey,
The dread desire of death it never knew,
Or how all folk that they were born must rue.

For we to death with pipe and dancing go,
Now would we pass the ivory gate again,
As some sad river wearied of its flow
Through the dull plains, the haunts of common men,
Leaps lover-like into the terrible sea!
And counts it gain to die so gloriously.

We mar our lordly strength in barren strife
With the world's legions led by clamorous care,
It never feels decay but gathers life
From the pure sunlight and the supreme air,
We live beneath Time's wasting sovereignty,
It is the child of all eternity.

Jotting on Identity and Relativity to Modal Domain

A rough beginning on an argument. Identity is a very difficult concept to pin down, and there is more than one account that can be given of it. One of the big disputes in this area is over relative identity. On a relative identity position, at least some cases of a and b being identical can only be properly understood if we make this relation of identity 'sortal-relative'; that is, a and b can't be identical, full stop, but only identical kinds of things. So, for instance, Mark Twain and Samuel Clemens are identical men, and if someone says that two things are really identical, we can reasonably ask, relative to what sort of thing?

Lots of people find relative identity weird, and I am sympathetic, but I always find that many of the arguments against it are just obviously bad. And I think the problem is that people attack its relativity; but this is not the right piont at which to attack the account. The reason is that even 'absolute' or 'classical' identity, as it is usually understood, exhibits relativity; and this is uncontroversial, in fact, although how to handle it is not.

Identity is usually described as a logical relation exhibiting the following features:

(1) It is symmetrical (if A is identical to B, B is identical to A).
(2) It is reflexive (everything is identical to itself).
(3) It is transitive (if A is identical to B, and B is identical to C, A is identical to C).
(4) It follows 'Leibniz's Law' (if A is identical to B, then if anything can be predicated of A, it can be predicated of B).

(1)-(3) make identity a kind of equivalence relation; there are lots and lots of different kinds of equivalence relation, so we need to add something else to talk about identity in particular. Leibniz's Law is the least controversial proposal for this. (Incidentally, Leibniz's Law is not found in Leibniz at all. Leibniz does say things that sound somewhat similar, and you can get Leibniz's Law from things Leibniz says, but only if you make logical assumptions Leibniz did not make, and, indeed, would probably have thought dubious.) What's important for our purposes is that Leibniz's Law is known not to apply under every circumstance. To take an elementary instance, Hesperus and Phosphorus both name the same star. So Hesperus and Phosphorus are identical. But Fred thinks that Hesperus rises in the evening and thinks that Phosphorus is a completely different star. The result is a violation of Leibniz's Law: A and B are identical, but something can be predicated of A ("thought by Fred to rise in the evening") that can't be predicated of B. If we were to take this as a sign that A and B were originally not identical at all, it turns out that if we were consistent in doing that sort of thing, it would mean that almost overwhelmingly most of the things we call 'identity' turn out not to be identity at all. If we deny that a predicate "thought by Fred to rise in the evening" is not right kind of predicate, we make identity relative to kinds of predicate. And if we reject Leibniz's Law altogether, we need something better to put in its place. The first option simply changes the boundaries of disputes; so we usually aren't talking about identity in the strict sense, but we still would be talking about something, and the same questions would arise under a different name. It's really just a purely verbal solution, not a real one. If we take the third option and reject Leibniz's Law, then one of the main reasons not to accept relative identity as a genuine account of identity disappears. And if we take the second option we already are conceding that there is some sort of relativity built into the logical relation of identity, namely, relativity to what might be called a modal domain. And, indeed, any account that makes use of Leibniz's Law must distinguish between the right kind of predicate and the wrong kind of predicate even to get off the ground. This is widely recognized; it is often formulated explicitly to do this: if A and B are identical, then if anything non-intensional is predicated of A, it is predicated of B. The 'non-intensional' here makes the Law trivially true for identity, because it essentially means in this context that the predicates that are allowed are those that won't lead to the Law being violated. The only way to identify non-intensional predicates is by taking predicates with identical extensions and showing that substituting them in and out doesn't change the truth values of statements; so to identify whether something is non-intensional or not, we already have to know what identity is. In any case, we can only take Leibniz's Law to apply if we aren't moving across modal lines (like the lines between different things that Fred can believe).

If classical identity is relative to a modal domain, however, the only difference between classical identity and relative identity, then, would be that the latter takes every sortal concept (every kind of thing) to be a distinct domain, whereas the former only does this for certain modal groups of predicates. In other words, the relative-identity theorist takes there to be intensional or modal barriers between every sortal concept, every kind-of-thing concept, and their opponents do not. But the existence of the relativizing barriers in the first place cannot reasonably be put in dispute; the only question is where they are.

Sunday, August 01, 2010

On Tenure and Power

I should say right here at the beginning that these are only half-formed thoughts, and should not be taken as anything more than a bit of worrying at the bone of the problem.

Timothy Burke nails the root problem of the tenure system:

Contemporary American universities are decentralized by their very nature, and by and large that decentralization is what allows them to be as excellent and productive as they are. Individual faculty and groups of faculty share very significantly in the management and custodianship of their universities and colleges. When that managerial share declines and administration becomes more centralized and hierarchical, the quality of a university falls in proportion to that shift.

Tenure was a stopgap measure designed to compensate for what was perceived as the increasing powerlessness of modern academics in their own milieu. It is difficult to convey to people who strange and upside-down certain features of our academic system are when compared to many prior stages of it: we live in a time where the people who are doing the actual work of education are not in charge of guiding education. This happens occasionally; it is not the only way to do things, and in general it has not been a way of doing things that works consistently. But it is the system we have: many of the academic systems we have are structured on the assumption that academics cannot be trusted, that they must constantly meet standards other than their own. Historically there were reasons for this, some very good, some not very good at all, but it is the system we have. Tenure was an attempt to reform things to return a bit of power to the academics themselves; chiefly to protect them from the regents and trustees to whom the college or university is beholden. How effective it has been in practice is difficult to determine, and seems to be a matter of some controversy; the tenure system for much of its history looks very much like the system it replaced. In any case, we can say that it didn't make things worse with respect to the problem it was intended to solve, and that, at least, is something. The real sore point in the whole tenure controversy is not whether tenure does what it is supposed to do but the charge that, as economics have placed pressure on the structure and organization of schools, the tenure system has created a system of haves and have-nots, and that as time has gone on the line between have and have-not has become less and less accountable to standards of real merit.

This is why the argument is not going to go away. I suspect Burke puts his finger on the strengths of tenure:

Where I do feel protected by tenure is with regard to institutional policy and action, in the autonomy I have to shape my courses, participate in governance, enforce what I see as due diligence, have opinions about administrative policy.

And this is a genuine strength. But we are in a stage of the argument where the strengths of tenure are precisely a sore point; one can't appeal (as some do, although not Burke) to these in order to argue for tenure, because it's like saying that the reason we need a large disparity between rich and poor is because somebody has to have health care, freedom to make their own way in life, and not have to worry all the time about how they are going to feed themselves. Yes, these are all strengths of being rich; they are not strengths of the system, though. And the strengths of tenure are not strengths of the tenure system. If in a political revolution you were to try to defend the status quo by insisting that there are advantages to being on top, that is the sort of 'defense' that would get you put up against a wall and shot. And when people appeal to the advantages of tenure in order to defend the tenure system, it just makes their opponents more angry. The only possible defense of the tenure system (if any is possible) is what advantages it offers even for academics who don't have tenure.

The ultimate problem, I think, is that both sides are trying to demand of the tenure system something it cannot in any case do. There is a deeper pathology, and the deeper pathology is the one identified by Burke. If that were to get fixed, tenure would soon be seen to work splendidly -- some would still complain, but overall no one would have a problem with it. If it doesn't get fixed, you can make all the changes you want to the rest of the system and it won't do a single thing. Unfortunately, every sign I can see signals that thing are going in the wrong direction: centralization, not decentralization, is the trend. The administrators are not always the culprits, it should be said (since it is often easy for faculty to think that they are, and it doesn't help that some administrators have a bad habit of thinking of themselves as the college or university, full stop, with any problems had by the faculty as problems between the college, i.e., themselves, and the faculty, who are somehow the college when convenient and other than the college when inconvenient -- you think I am kidding, but look for it and you won't have difficulty finding it); legislatures sometimes are, and sometimes the faculty themselves are (Dean Dad notes some ways). Some factors, perhaps, are such that sometimes no one is to blame. The result regardless is that the actions of those directly involved in the work of education are increasingly at the mercy of those who have a more remote connection to it, and the disparity of power this creates grows and grows.

And so the real question is how to fix the disparity. It's possible that abolishing tenure is part of the solution; regardless of how it should work, some argue, under the current conditions it only exacerbates it. I don't know; I confess that personally I'm indifferent to the tenure system in either direction. What I think we ultimately need are completely different educational institutions, built on a different model; unfortunately, I don't know how that can get off the ground. It could no doubt be done; universities first sprang up in one of two ways, either teachers getting together to pool resources and students, or students getting together to bring in teachers. How one would do it today is another question. It's a maze of mazes; I don't see my way through. I'm pretty sure no one else does, either: tenure defenders offer no genuinely workable solutions to the have/have-not problem, and tenure opponents always seem to propose as an alternative making the haves more like the have-nots, which is hardly attractive. The whole point of tenure is that it is supposed to protect the power essential to teaching and inquiry; what is needed is not a system that takes away that power but that makes its distribution more responsive to actual merit (whether or not we keep tenure as one means of distributing it). I see no proposed solutions that have any promise of doing this.