Friday, August 30, 2013

Evolution as science versus religion was a later invention

"It is very interesting to notice how far later tradition has exaggerated the Victorian dispute and distorted our view of its nature. As James Moore has shown, it certainly did not appear at the time as raging between science and religion, but as cutting straight across both. Darwin's most serious opponents by far were the official scientific establishment of his day, and many of his supporters... were clergymen." -- Mary Midgley, Evolution as Religion, p. 12

Mary Midgley on Methodological Pluralism

"There is a real difficulty in grasping the vastness of the subject, in seeing that distinct insights need not be rivals, but can explain different aspects of life, and can eventually be compatible." -- Evolution as Religion, p. 9

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A platonic argument for scientism?

"Now the full beauty of man's capacity to weigh, to measure, and to number comes to light. All are antidotes to error. They liberate our souls from illusory perceptions of what is greater or less or more or heavier, so that we may be governed by those things that we can weigh, measure, and reckon...

"Further: the best part of the soul is that which relies on calculation and measurement?

-- The Republic, Book X

Top that, Nostradamus!

Even my jokes come true: Honda is now working on the ability to alert pedestrians via text message when something in the external world like a bus is about to hit them.

You will never need to look up from your smart phone again. The Kingdom is truly upon us.

The Genius of Wittgenstein

The story goes that Wittgenstein asked, "Why did people believe for so long that the sun went around the earth?"

His interlocutor answered, "Well, because it looks that way?"

Wittgenstein paused for a moment. Then he asked, "And how would it look if the earth went around the sun?"

The book of thoughts (Croce)

"I libri dei Pensieri vari rappresentavano sempre un grado inferiore dell'intelligenza umana. Sono osservazione spicciole e imprecise, le quali, meditate da persona che pensa e ha testa filosofica, vengono a confondersi in certi più generali princìpi, di cui esse sono o facili corollari o inesatte applicazione. Dico che rappresentano un grado inferiore dell'intelligenza, appunto perché questa relazione di corollario o di applicazioni non è in essi vista né determinata. Il filosofo, che li legge, non ha niente da impararvi, se non forse un certo modo arguto ed epigrammatico di far quelle osservazioni. Modo che, quando c'è, ha poi soltanto valore artistico." -- Pensieri sull'arte (1885), XXVI

The "book of thoughts" always represents an inferior grade of human intelligence. They are penny ante, imprecise observations, the quality of which, meditated by a person who thinks and has a philosophical head, are conferred in some more general principles to which they are either easy corollaries or inaccurate applications. I say that they represent a lower degree of intelligence, precisely because this report of correlation or application is not seen nor determined. The philosopher, who reads them, has nothing to teach us, if not perhaps a certain witty and epigrammatic mode of making those observations. A mode that, when it is there, only then is there artistic value.

I Won't Take "No" for an Answer

Nor will I take "yes" for a question.

I just wanted you to know.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

The Bully!

A photographer is in legal trouble for refusing to photograph a lesbian wedding. According to Noah Smith classificatory scheme, the photographer is a "bully" for thinking she should not have to take part in events that run against her moral beliefs, while the couple who had her dragged through years of legal hassles, despite the fact that they easily found someone else to take the photos, are the poor downtrodden little folks.

I bet Noah Smith, when he was young, complained about the bullies whose chins got in the way of his fist.

In an interesting side note, Dreher points out that his freedom of conscience principles are not a matter of whose side he is on: "If a gay photographer believed in good conscience that he could not photograph the wedding of Christian fundamentalists, then I think he absolutely should have the right to refuse, on First Amendment grounds."

And finally, isn't Vanessa Wilcock an inapt name for a lesbian?

Philosophers as writers

In a conversation with Peri Roberts and Pete Sutch, we found that we all agreed that how well a philosopher wrote was surprisingly disconnected from how great a philosopher he was. Let's look at a few examples of philosophers of roughly equal stature, from the same centuries (three out of the four pairs wrote in the same language, in fact), one of whom was a great stylist, and one of whom was not:

Plato: He would be known as a great writer alone: the ship of state, the ring of invisibility, the shadows on the cave wall, Atlantis, his mythical vision of the afterlife, etc.
Aristotle: Aristotle would not.

Berkeley: Remarkably clear exposition.
Kant: This.

Nietzche: Superman. Need we say more?
Hegel: "Science exhibits itself as a circle returning upon itself, the end being wound back into the beginning, the simple ground, by the mediation; this circle is moreover a circle of circles, for each individual member as ensouled by the method is reflected into itself, so that in returning into the beginning it is at the same time the beginning of a new member."

Collingwood: I don't recall ever having to read a sentence twice.
Whitehead: Even Collingwood, who very much admired Whitehead, found his prose so difficult that he was never sure if he had fully understood what Whitehead was saying.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Desperate for cash...

I've begun money laundering operations:

I expect the Benjamins to be rolling in soon.

Gardening for Real People, Part VI

Got logs?

Have you taken down a tree but have no (known) use for the resulting logs? They work great for marking out a path through the woods:

And they can provide seating as well:

Monday, August 26, 2013

The mysterious hooded figures...

That lurk in the woods have requested that all posts on this blog that mentioned the forbidden dog park be removed. I have of course heeded that request, and so searching for them now will be of no avail. In fact, they have been purged from the Wayback machine as well.
If you happen to have read any of these posts, please remove them from your local cache. And then forget you ever read them.

Do not Google for information abou the forbidden dog park: the Night Vale Secret Police will not look kindly on such activities.

Press Announcements about Science, or Why Your Teen Can't Help His Criminal Behavior

Yesterday, two people told me that "A study showed that teenagers haven't yet developed the part of their brain that creates fear of bad consequences in the future."

Hmm... These are both bright people, but neither have been trained in the methods of critical history: In critical history, we don't believe our sources, we interrogate them.

And here we have a very good reason to interrogate. Let me relate a true tale: Years ago, my then three-year-old son saw a woodchuck in the backyard. "Can I go catch the woodchucker, Dad?" (Cute, huh? And Chomskean! The addition of the "er" recalls a story about Wabulon from a book on linguistics.)

"Sure thing." No harm, no foul: there was no way he would actually catch the thing, which would scamper out of the yard as soon as anyone walked into it.

But suddenly he stopped. He thought for a second and then asked, with a worried look, "Dad, do woodchuckers bite?"

You see, at three, he could envision catching the woodchuck, and it biting him, and he feared this consequence. So obviously, as stated by my friends, the new fact I was being told is false. But I am sure this is just what they heard or read. So how did this happen? Let's look for the original source of the story my interlocutors heard:

Deborah Yurgelun-Todd seems to be at or near the root of the story here. In this interview, she describes some of her groups findings:

"This is a really nice picture highlighting the fact that in an adolescent brain or a younger brain, the relative activation of the prefrontal region or this anterior front part of the brain is less it is in the adults."

So, they have this part of the brain, and it is active... just not as active.

"This is a small pilot study, so clearly if we added a considerably larger sample, we may have very different results. So I want to be cautious and not over-interpret these findings."

A small pilot study? Don't put too much weight on the findings?

"which would lead us to believe that they'd be more impulsive, because they're not going to be so worried about whether or not what they're doing has a negative consequence..."

More impulsive? Not so worried?

So what happened between Yurgelun-Todd and the story in the press which had inspired my friends?

Well, when a scholarly paper is written, an abstract is included. The purpose of this abstract is to grab readers' attention, so it tends to leave out all qualifications and state the conclusions of the paper fairly boldly. Then that paper may go to a university PR department, where someone will probably just read the abstract, and has a motivation to play up the novelty of the results even a bit more: this is a PR department, after all.

The PR person sends out a press release. Reporters scan these for something that will really gets readers or listeners or viewers juices going, and then probably make the news story even a little more spectacular and less nuanced than the press release. So we go from "Teenagers' brains are somewhat different than adults'" to "Teenagers lack the part of the brain that considers the future."

And really, who couldn't have guessed Yurgelun-Todd's result? After all, everyone -- materialists, Neo-Aristotelians, idealists, panpsychists, dualists -- acknowledges that there is a relationship between brain structure and thought, experience, and behavior.* And what is producing changing brain structures in a human already through puberty and essentially fully grown? Could it be, perhaps... experience? So moving from the brain to action, we might recast Yurgelun-Todd's result as, "Teenagers, lacking experience, usually don't exercise judgment as well as adults." Who would have imagined?

(And here is a test of my hypoethesis above, for all of you Popperians: may I recommend that Yurgelun-Todd perform a similar study of the brains of teenagers in a hunter-gatherer society, where at thirteen the boys are initiated into adulthood and then beginning taking part in very dangerous hunts? I bet by sixteen, it will be found that the "fearing the consequences of one's actions" part of the hunter-gatherer man's brain will be well more developed than a pampered 16-year-old American boy's.)

* Well, unless they are an eliminativist like Rosenberg, who thinks thought does not even exist.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gardening for Real People, Part V

An important part of garden maintenance is "Dead Heading" your roses:

(Although it is hard to capture in a photo, it is highly recommended that one douse oneself in patchouly oil before performing this operation.)

Saturday, August 24, 2013

My son is a point guard

I think most of you would agree that I am not speaking nonsense in saying this, or introducing some "magical" element into my description of my son. Is a straightforward statement of fact, of the kind that would usually pass without any notice.

But what I wish to note here is that no sense can be made of this statement without the larger context of the notion of "a basketball team." It is not possible for a human being to be a point guard in isolation. He might dribble a basketball around, and even pretend to pass to others. But without the larger context of a basketball team, he is not a point guard.

The truth of reductionism is that sometimes good explanations of something larger can be given in terms of breaking down that larger thing into smaller entities. I did this all the time in analyzing the workings of the programs I was writing: when I found a bug, I looked for a particular line of code to explain the bug. But if taken as a methodological dictate, which in the reductionist program it is, its falsity is demonstrated by the fact that sometimes the smaller thing can only be explained in the context of the larger thing.

And though the days roll through my mind...

The everlasting universe of Things
Rolls through the Mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark – now glittering – now reflecting gloom –
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters, – with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume
In the wild woods, among the Mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap forever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves -- Shelley, Mont Blanc

Friday, August 23, 2013

Organs Are Explained by Organisms

And not the reverse. Livers don't go around detoxifying on their own, and occasionally bump into a heart and lungs and decide to make an organism. No, we only understand what organs do by seeing their role in the entire organism.

I mention this as part of the campaign to make the "mouth of truth" your anti-reductionist blog of choice. (Although Ed Feser is not bad either.) One interesting thing that has emerged is that some people are ready to deeply defend reductionism without apparently having any idea what it is. One commenter offered thermodynamics and Darwinian evolution as examples of successful reductionist theories, when, in fact, they are two prime examples of theories resisting reduction for over a century. For example, convection in thermodynamics is an excellent example of a theory which cannot possibly be reduced to the action of isolated molecules: what would it even mean for a single molecule to be undergoing convection?! It is a solid, scientific concept, but which has no meaning if taken below the level of a volume of a fluid.

In evolutionary theory, the reductionist program attempted to reduce evolution to genes and then hopefully genes to DNA. But that genes don't reduce to DNA has been know for a while, and the failure of the attempt to reduce inheritance to genes is becoming obvious.

Some commenters actually seem to think that if there is no reductionist explanation for something, there is no scientific explanation for it at all, and "magic" must be involved. Again, this is simply a failure of familiarity with the idea being so vigorously defended. Let me offer an example of a perfectly good scientific explanation which, I suggest, not only stands in no need of reduction to anything else, but also can't be reduced further without losing site of the phenomenon of interest.

Imagine that tensions between Israel and Iran rise to the point that war looks certain. As that rise occurs, oil prices soar, doubling in a couple of weeks. To explain this, economists say that the demand curve shifted rightward, in anticipation of coming shortages. This, I claim, is a perfectly sound scientific explanation.

Let us say that, in protest, Alex Rosenberg appears on the news and says this explanation is nonsense, and to really understand what is going on we need to trace the actions of all the subatomic particles involved. (I leave it to a reductionist to explain just how we determine which particles are "involved"!) And let us say that, miraculously, he has a vast database charting the momentum and position of all of those particles, within Heisenbergian limits. (I tip my hat to Michael Polanyi here.)

Does anyone really think that surveying that database, or watching simulations of various portions of it, or whatever else a reductionist imagines doing with it to "explain" the rise in oil prices is actually going to provide any explanation at all for that fact, let alone a superior one? In reality, what will happen is that Israel, Iran, speculators, oil companies, gas station owners, and so on -- all of them items that go into a valid explanation of the phenomenon -- will disappear from view. As the philosopher Donald Davidson would put it, we would merely have changed the subject, and certainly not have explained the original topic better!

Your psychic health

Far from reducing to just the state of your neurons, it turns out that your psychic health hardly depends on you alone: the trillions of microbes living in our guts apparently also play a keep part in our mental state.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Rootless speculation

For the bad translation files:

In Italian, the speaker says "What would a tree be without its roots?"

Then he answers his own question, "Nothing."

In the English subtitles, this was rendered, "What would happen to a tree without its roots? Nothing."

So I guess the roots are optional after all.

The Road Is So Froggy

This little guy made his way onto my porch tonight. As you can see, he's about the size of a fingernail:

Oddly, despite his diminutive stature, when he jumped down from the railing to the deck he made a distinct "plop."

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Psi power

The economists among youse certainly know of the gamma function, the analytic construction of the arithmetic factorial function: n Gamma(n) = Gamma(n+1).

How about this function: psi(n) = d/dn ln Gamma(n).

Why is it interesting? (Those of you who have memorized the Chemical Rubber Company Handbook of Mathematical Tables or a similar encyclopedia, please abstain.)

Pottery II


A renowned devotee of Terpsichore
Had a fourteen-inch dildo of hickory
     Which she rubbed with bay rum,
     Belladonna, old cum,
Oil of myrrh, and coffee with chickory.

Whitehead on the naïve faith of science

"Science has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the later Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti-rationalistic movement, based upon a naïve faith." -- Science and the Modern World, p. 16

Whitehead on the rise of science

"Science has never shaken off the impress of its origin in the historical revolt of the later Renaissance. It has remained predominantly an anti-rationalistic movement, based upon a naïve faith." -- Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 16

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Whitehead on the persecution of scientists

"In a generation which saw the Thirty Years' War... the worst that happened to men of science was that Galileo suffered an honourable detention and a mild reproof, before dying peacefully in his bed." -- Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 2

Whitehead on Bruno

"Giordano Bruno was the martyr: though the cause for which he suffered was not that of science, but that of free imaginative speculation. His death in the year 1600 ushered in the first century of modern science in the strict sense of the term. In his execution there was an unconscious symbolism: for the subsequent tone of scientific thought has contained distrust of his type of general speculativeness." -- Alfred North Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, p. 1

The Catholic Church was perhaps kinder to Bruno than the modern academy would be: While the church at least considered his ideas important enough to execute him, the modern academy would simply relegate his sort of speculation to the dustbin of "not worthy of serious consideration."

Yum! Fresh Cream!

This just opened a little ways down the road from me:

I keep asking my wife if we can stop. "We'll pick up some fresh half-and-half for the coffee, and maybe some sour cream for the potatoes!"

But she just responds, "Don't worry, I'll be bringing you there real soon, once I work out the contract details with Luigi."

I don't get it: why would she need a contract with some guy named Luigi to go pick up some half-and-half?!

What work is biblical inerrancy supposed to be doing?

We have 5500 hand-written manuscripts of part or all of the New Testament in Greek. The earliest of them are from the second century A.D. Scholars estimate that they differ from each other in several hundred thousand places.

Of particular interest is the fact that the story of the adulteress, the one in which Jesus talks about whoever has no sin casting the first stone, does not appear in any manuscripts or in any commentary on the New Testament before about the 12th century A.D. (Bart Ehrman speculates that something like the following occurred: one scribe in reading John saw Jesus saying things about not judging others. He thought, "I know a wonderful story that's been circulating about Jesus that illustrates that point nicely." He then wrote the story of the adulteress in the margin. A second scribe saw that, and thought, "Gee, this guy accidentally left that part out, and then had to write it in the margin. Let me get it in the main line of the text.") In any case, it is nearly certain that the story of the adulteress did not make it into John until after 1000 A.D.

But why should this worry me one way or the other? It is a great story that teaches an important spiritual lesson. Isn't that what is important, rather than whether or not it was in the earliest version of John?

Worried about affordable housing?

Try allowing some development.

Here is an article describing how some residents in Queens are worried about their neighborhood becoming "unaffordable."

But it is often the very same people who fight tooth and nail against any high-rise development in their neighborhood.

If you want to keep a neighborhood affordable for the old residents in the face of newcomers desire to move there, you only have three choices that I can see:

1) Simply forbid people from moving where they want. That is obviously incompatible with being a liberal democracy.

2) Institute widespread rent control, with the usual bad results.

3) Allow new housing to go up to accommodate the newcomers, which, if built in sufficient quantity, will keep prices (and thus rents) down on the older housing stock. Once you add in the environmental advantages of dense urban dwelling, this even more so should be the preferred solution.

Of course, the owners in the neighborhood often hate 3, because it cuts into their profits from renting or selling.

The real problem is not the newcomers, but the rent-seeking of the current property owners.

Monday, August 19, 2013

The Scores of Scientists Who Suffered Severely at the Hands of the Church for Their Theories Include?

Over in the comments at Bob Murphy's blog, George Selgin writes:

"That many of the most illustrious members of this tiny group [of scientific thinkers] suffered severely at the hands of religious persecutors is (or ought to be) notorious."

I do not mean to pick on George, whom I regard as a very bright man, but here he is expressing a bit of "folk history" that I just don't see has much basis in fact. My interest is really about why this idea continues to circulate.

One of the first things our history of science lecturer at King’s College, John Milton, told us was that on the vast majority of scientific topics, the church simply did not care. So when Buridan and Oresme challenged Aristotelian mechanics: the church just did not care at all, one way or the other.

Secondly, on the very few topics it did care about, it was always prepared to regard scripture as figurative, if the literal interpretation could be proven false. (So, since everyone knew the earth was round, the church had done this with the biblical passage mentioning its "four corners": this was just figurative speech.) Thus, with Galileo, church astronomers examined his evidence and found it wanting. (Which it was, frankly: for instance, he thought the tides were caused by the earth’s rotation throwing the seas around, and that they had a 24-hour cycle. And Brahe's heliocentric theory accounted for the phases of Venus. Of course, Galileo was right, but he hadn't proved his case.) Thus they asked him to present heliocentrism as an hypothesis. He agreed, but then reneged, in a book in which he called the current Pope a simpleton. At that point he was subject to a fairly mild house arrest. (I think that was a mistake, but it is good to be clear on just what transpired.)

Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake, but for heretical religious views, not for his scientific ideas. (Again, I am not in favor of death for religious heresy, but it has nothing to do with persecuting scientists.)

Aside from those two, what important figures in the Scientific Revolution "suffered severely" at the hands of a Catholic or Protestant church for their views? Copernicus? No, the church never bothered him at all. Kepler? No, he suffered some by being in the midst of the religious warfare of the Reformation, but no one hindered his scientific work. Descartes? Nothing. Newton? Zilch. Boyle? Niente di niente. Hooke? Nada. Malebranche? Well, he was actually a priest, but he did have one work placed on the index of forbidden books. Huyghens? Died peacefully in his bed, never molested by any church. Halley? No. Leibniz? No persecution I know of.

 And yet, the idea still floats around that many of the leaders of the Scientific Revolution "suffered severely" at the hands of the church. This ought to be notorious.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

The primacy of the concrete

"The explanatory purpose of philosophy is often misunderstood. Its business is to explain the emergence of the more abstract things from the more concrete things. It is a complete mistake to ask how concrete particular fact can be built up out of universals. The answer is, 'In no way.'" -- Alfred North Whitehead, Process and Reality, p. 24

Abraham Lincoln

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Confusing reductionism, determinism and materialism

One can hold one or two of the above doctrines without holding the other one or two. Some commentators here seem confused about this.

To get this clearer it may be helpful to consider the case of Hayek. He was certainly a materialist, and probably believed in physical determinism as well. But he was definitely anti-reductionist. He believed that due to complexity, there existed emergent properties at higher levels of organization that could not be reduced to the sum of their parts. But he still thought that they were material in nature through and through (there was no new substance like spirit or mind that entered into the picture to create the emergent level), and that their behavior was probably deterministic, even if impossible to predict exactly.


Several recent posts suggested to me that I should share this important Gedankenexperiment (I was about fifteen when it occurred to me).

Half time at the Superbowl. The President of the United States takes the stage and addresses his fellow Americans: "I ask you all to participate in an unprecedented and important scientific experiment. Without your cooperation, this vital research cannot be carried out, etc. etc." The country's most popular sports figure then takes over to explain the details. Roustabouts bring out a large fluorescent orange tarpaulin and place it in the exact center of the field, brilliant against the green. A small cage is placed in the center of the tarpaulin. In it is a hamster. Most popular sports figure: "OK, everybody, now, HATE THAT HAMSTER!"

Friday, August 16, 2013

What dialogue in Jesse Stone!

A little while back, I posted a translation of Croce discussing how the dialogue in Corneille was "false from top to bottom."

I've just found a modern example of this: the Jesse Stone movies that CBS made last decade. Tom Selleck and his interlocutors continually talk "how one talks when, while feigning to have a confidential word with another, one has every intention of letting a third person overhear."

It is very grating after a little while.

Contemplating a name change

Hmm... What if I legally change my name to "Pulitzer Prize-Winning Writer Gene Callahan."

That might generate an edge in marketing book signings, hey?

The Failure of Reductionism in Biology

From Charney and English, "Candidate Genes and Political Behavior," American Political Science Review, Feb. 2012:
Hence, a single gene can code for multiple proteins, something that is estimated to occur in 90% of all human genes. We cannot equate a particular allele straightforwardly with the production of a particular form of protein and from that with the production of a particular physiological effect and corresponding phenotype.

Once considered the paragon of stability, DNA is subject to all manner of transformation. For example, we retrotransposons or "jumping genes" comprise 45% of the human genome, that the genome play copy-and-paste mechanism changing DNA content structure, are regulated by the epigenome (and hence are potentially environmentally responsive), and appear to be particularly prevalent in the human brain...

"The dogma and collect their genetics until the 1990s was the genotype would predict phenotype. We thought that once we cloned and characterized the gene, the nature of the mutation in the gene would specify the individual's phenotype... This concept celebrated reductionism. However, nature had not informed the patients and their biology of this belief system..." (McCabe and McCabe, 2006, 160, emphasis mine)
It turns out that the trying to reduce everything to genes failed, and that one has to see genes in the context of the entire organism and its environment to understand their role. Rather than reducing to genes, the whole organism is in a real sense more fundamental than its genes.

But this is just what the actual scientists* say. What do they know?

* The authors of the paper quoted are not biologists, but they have four densely covered pages of citations from Human Genetics, Biological Psychiatry, Journal of Neurochemistry, Behavior Genetics, Journal of Medical Genetics, Biometrics, Human Molecular Genetics, Genome Biology, etc. etc.: They probably cite 200 papers from genetic literature defending claims like the above.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Orson Scott Canard

He gained fame by writing a novel arguing that tricking children into committing genocide could be a good thing. But apparently over time he has become even more unhinged: he now believes Obama is preparing to train a military police force of minorities who will assault anyone who disagrees with his policies.

But this one really got me: "There are still people... who believe that Richard III murdered his nephews..."

Yes, Orson, and those people are called "historians."And just why do these nasty historians believe this? "That's because politically useful lies are treasures, not to be easily given up by those who benefit from them."

Ah, it's all the people who "benefit" today from smearing Richard III who are selling us these "lies." Like... like...

What is the point of blatantly public marriage proposals?

You know, the kind of thing when someone puts their proposal up on the scoreboard of a baseball stadium, or something like that?

It strikes me that the point is to bully the person being asked into saying "yes," by enlisting thousands of people on the side of the proposer, rooting for a yes.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Noah Smith's Car?

Yes, let's "coexist": unless we disagree about politics, in which case you are automatically a racist and homophobe! (I don't doubt for a moment that there are plenty of racists and homophobes in the Tea Party. But I am also sure there are plenty of people who are neither: their main interest is in lower taxes, or less gun control, or less regulation of building, etc. etc. What this person is doing by sporting this bumper sticker is the same thing racists do: taking a selection from a group and stereotyping the whole group as having the properties of the selection.)

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Advice you will need

"Yields a falsehood when appended to its own quotation"
yields a falsehood when appended to its own quotation.

-- Quine

Youth sports build character

I was at the lake Saturday, which turned out to be the day the swim team was having their end of season party. This is a team of kids from age 6 to 18, but mostly concentrated in the younger part of that range.

Here is a sample of the DJ's playlist, in fact, three consecutive songs from it:

I've Got Friends in Low Places
I Love This Bar
Let's Get Drunk and Screw

Ah, the character building nature of youth sports on display at its best!

Monday, August 12, 2013

Pursuing the dream of reduction...

Quantum physics wound up turning on the dreamers.

If reductionism were true, then quantum physics ought to be its apotheosis. But essentially all of the founders of the discipline, as far as I can tell, at some point or another clearly expressed the non-reductionist nature of their findings. The little "bits" the identification of which was supposed to result in an explanation of everything else turned out to be nothing at all in isolation: only in their relations to other particles could they even be given meaning. (This is a far cry from the self-contained and self-existent billiard balls that materialists had imagined would make up the atomic level.) In fact, given the reality of quantum entanglement, what any particular particle is up to turns out to depend on the entire state of the universe. Far from supporting reductionism, this discovery simply reeks of absolute idealism.

The strange paradox of the reductionist individualist

Those who cling to the ideology of reductionism and yet hold to a libertarian or semi-libertarian position really present a strange paradox: They are insisting upon the importance of individuals in politics while at the same time holding that individuals don't really exist at all. After all, nothing bad happened to the electrons and protons and neutrons that made up Alexander Solzhenitsyn when he was thrown in the gulag. So what was the big deal?

Mid-August Garden


...from a comment by Mr. Fetz, this has, I think, a larger relevance and so should be promoted to a posting of its own:

I said that I know "a few" have. If a few Americans are murderers, are all Americans murderers?

And my reply: In a certain sense, Yes.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

The Role of Law

"We come here to one of the key concepts Oakeshott's later work -- the conception which he finds pre-figured in the thought of Hobbes and Hegel, of society as a civil association -- an association among persons who, having no ends or purposes necessarily held in common, nevertheless coexist in peace under the rule of law... the [role] of law in a civil society is not that promoting general welfare or any other similar abstraction (such as fundamental rights), but rather of securing the conditions in which persons may themselves contract into mutually chosen activities." John Gray, Liberalisms, p. 207

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Hanging out in the country

Where, as Noah Smith tells us, we white people go so that we need not have any contact with nonwhites.

Man, somehow I haven't quite got the hang of this country thing yet:

Friday, August 09, 2013

Wingnuts over America

The insane Washington Times blames our withdrawal from Iraq for leaving the "door open to [a] sectarian battle for power."

Right. It wasn't invading the country and toppling the government that opened that door, it was withdrawing when we agreed to withdraw.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Feser Nails It

Here, discussing Alex Rosenberg:
The first argument claims that “neuroscience makes eliminativism about propositional attitudes unavoidable.” A propositional attitude is a relation between a thinker and a certain proposition or content. When we say that Fred believes that it is raining, we are attributing to him the attitude of believing the proposition that it is raining; when we say that Ethel hopes that it is sunny, we are attributing to her the attitude of hoping that the proposition that it is sunny is true; and so forth. Neuroscience, Rosenberg tells us, shows that there is no such thing as believing, hoping, fearing, desiring, or the like.

Now in fact, it takes very little thought to see that “neuroscience” shows no such thing. For there is nothing in the neuroscientific evidence cited by Rosenberg that couldn’t be accepted by an Aristotelian, a Cartesian, a Wittgensteinian, a Whiteheadian, or an adherent of some other metaphysics. What Rosenberg should say is: “Neuroscience, when conjoined with the specific version of naturalism taken for granted by many (though by no means all) contemporary academic philosophers of an analytic bent, makes eliminativism about propositional attitudes unavoidable.” That claim is plausible, if, for obvious reasons, not quite as earth-shattering as Rosenberg’s way of putting it was.
Rosenberg's argument is on a par with Ken B.'s contention here that the fact of evolution somehow refutes idealism, despite the fact that idealists were suggesting evolutionary biology before Darwin and that no idealist after 1858, of whom I am aware, ever rejected Darwin or saw any problem at all for idealism in his findings. Except at least Ken B. has the excuse that he is not a professional philosopher.

How to Bond as a Family

I just had a Facebook chat with all three of my kids at once.

And we are all in the same NYC apartment, no one more than thirty feet away from anyone else.

Hey, it worked.

Everybody is a poet (Croce)

"Si suole comunemente concepire la poesia come una sorta di sesso intellettuale. Poeta nascitur. Niente di più falso. La produzione poetica proviene da un stato dello spirito eccitato da certe condizione ed occasioni: Stato a cui chi è disposto molto, che poco, e chi quasi nulla ma non mai nulla. Sìcche tutti gli uomini hanno la possibilità di trovarsi in uno stato poetico, e nessuno ci si può provare sempre. La parola 'poeta' del linguaggio comune ha valore semplicemente quantitativo: Chiamiamo poeta chi nella la vita è più specialmente noto perché compone poesia. Intendente sanamente." -- Pensieri sull'arte (1885), XXIII

The common conception of poetry is as a kind of intellectual sex. Poets are born. Nothing could be more false. Poetical production comes from a state of spirit excited by certain conditions and occasions: A state to which some are much disposed, others little, and others almost not at all, but never not at all. So that all people have the possibility of finding themselves in a poetic state, and no one finds themselves in it always. The word "poet" in common speech has a quantitative value: We call poets one who in life is especially known for composing poetry. Intended wholesomely.

NOTE: "e chi quasi nulla ma non mai nulla" was very hard to phrase in English. What I have now is still awkward, but the best I could do so far.

The Sun Was Once a Planet

As Thomas Kuhn noted, in 1400, both the Sun and the Moon were planets, while the Earth was not one.*

But if today you were to campaign for calling the Sun a planet, you would be campaigning to redefine the term planet. The fact that once upon a time that definition was current makes no difference. So Blackadder is right.

Also curious in Murphy's post is this: "I agree with the standard Austrian position on this," i.e., that inflation is an increase in the money supply. Let us set aside the question of what it means to "agree with" a definition, rather than simply employing it, and focus on the word "standard": we have here a definition of inflation offered by Mises, and adopted by Rothbard and his followers. Has it ever been used by Hayek? Lachmann? Kirzner? Horwitz? White? Selgin?

Not that I know of. Apparently, what makes something a "standard" is its use by a small Austrian splinter group.

* And note, this was a matter of definition: what it meant to be a planet in 1400 was "a heavenly object that wanders among the fixed stars from the point of view of Earth." The Moon and the Sun were planets by this definition; it was a change of definition that made the Sun not a planet, not an empirical fact. (Of course, newly discovered empirical facts had a role in changing the definition!)

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Nice idea for a modernization

I'm usually not impressed with attempts to modernize Shakespeare, but this one intrigues me: making Romeo and Juliet an interracial couple seems a very natural update of the bard.


Wikiphobia (noun): the terror high school teachers experience at the thought that their students might look up something on Wikipedia.

Defining Inflation into Existence

Jonathan Catalan tries to defend the Misesian approach of defining inflation as a rapid increase in the money supply. His tactic is to say it really is no different than the monetarist approach, which sees inflation as always a monetary phenomena, but that Mises simply emphasized the cause while price indices focus on the effect.

This won't do. Once we adopt Mises' definition, we're going to have to say that we can have inflation even in a period when all prices are falling. No monetarist is going to call that inflation!

The fact is, while most or perhaps all periods of price inflation can traced to increases in the money supply, not all increases in the money supply lead to periods of price inflation. And the fact is, what people are interested in is "Why are prices going up?" and not "Is there more money around then there used to be?" Or, they are interested in the latter only in that it causes the former. It is analogous to our interest in germs: most of us have no interest in them at all, unless they are making people sick.

To extend the analogy, there is a very significant difference between saying exposure to germs causes the flu (analogous to the monetarist position) and saying that exposure to germs is the flu (analogous to the position of some Austrians). The first variant allows that if, say, the person has been vaccinated against the flu, they might not come down with it. (Or, analogously, if we are in a demand-riven slump, printing money may not cause is inflation.) But in the second view, the vaccination is irrelevant: if you were exposed, then you have the flu, period, even if you are entirely asymptomatic.

Now, no definitions are wrong, but the first one appears more useful to me, besides being common usage.

If a foreigner does not know a word...

The best thing to do is say it over and over again. Eventually, I guess, the meaning will become obvious to them. Or so thought the lady at the diner today, who kept saying to the Hispanic busboy, "Crackehs. Crackehs. Crackehs! Crackehs! Crackehs!" (This being Brooklyn, that final 'r' is not pronounced.)

Farce (Croce)

"Per farsa io intendo una rappresentazione comica della vita, non sussistente per sé ma avente la sua radice nei gusti e nelle disposizione particolari di un determinato uditorio. È il comico, non quale deve apparire all'universale coscienza estetica, ma qual appare ad una coscienza individuale. E la farsa non è perciò rigorosamente un genere artistico. Come non è genere artistico il romanzo del Montépin o del Boisgobey, che leggiamo dopo pranzo, e che pure ci aiuta ad ammazzare il tempo." -- Pensieri sull'arte (1885), XXII

By farce I intend a comical representation of life, not self-subsistent but having its roots in the tastes and particular dispositions of a certain audience. What is comic is not what appears in the universal aesthetic conscience, but that which appears in an individual conscience. And therefore strictly speaking farce is not an artistic genre, as the romance of Montépin or of Boisgobey, which we read after lunch to help kill the time, is not an artistic genre.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013


I. Limerick

A computer with nothing to do
Was extracting the first root of two.
   After ten thousand pages
   Of zeros, the sages
Said, That's quite enough out of you.

II. Beholding Dürer

Some think God made us
As His hands, tools for doing
What He wished done,
Making what should be made.

By this thesis, Dürer's work,
Since it does not seem to be
A series of instructions,
I judge to be finished.

(c) 130806 by W. Bloch

Monday, August 05, 2013

Sincerity in art (Croce)

"La sincerità naturale, lo 'scrivete come parlate', in arte, è qualcosa di molto simile ai famosi diritti innati, spiritosa invenzione dei filosofi del secolo scorso, nell'etica: quei diritti innati, che'erano, viceversa, il frutto di lavoro di molte centinaia d'anni di storia, e che supponevano innati sol perché si metteva al posto dell'uomo naturale reale l'uomo ideale. La gente meno sincera, a che scrive meno come pensa, è la gente poca colta. E la pìu sincera, e quella che pìu ritrae nello scrivere del proprio pensiero, è la gente che ha ingegno e studio. Perché la sincerità (che in fatto d'arte è espressione metaforica = bellezza) è cosi fatta che, per arrivarci, fa d'uopo un lungo e tortuoso viaggio." -- Pensieri dell'arte (1885), XX

Natural sincerity, the "write as you speak" in art, is very similar to the famous natural rights, the witty invention of philosophers of the last century, in ethics: the natural rights were, instead, the work of many centuries of history, and were supposed innate only because they replaced the natural man with the ideal man. The less sincere people, who write less as they think, are the uneducated. The more sincere, who more closely portray in their writing how they think, are the people with talent and education. Because sincerity (which in art is in fact a metaphor for beauty) is such that, to arrive at it requires a long and torturous voyage.

Rationalism in Kitchen Design

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Noah Smith, take you head outta you..

I stopped by my local "redneck" bar in rural PA last night. As I came back from the can, I snapped this shot:

What?! Non-white people in a rural, blue-collar bar? Just look at the white people around them, all in a panic, fleeing into the woods!

Wait: they're chatting with the non-white people, having a good time! In fact, my friend Tito, looking at the camera, is pretty much the most popular guy in the bar. It seems about 90% of the people who come in know him, and walk up and shake his hand when they arrive.

In fact, for most of them, the thing they want to avoid about cities is not non-white people, but slums. And what do you know, that is the very thing Tito was seeking to get away from when he moved into the country. And, I bet, the same thing the black guy sitting next to him moved into the country to avoid. And probably the same thing the black guy who was DJing is living out here to avoid.

Friday, August 02, 2013

Noah Smith Offers a Hand to Blue-Collar, White America

"Hey," Noah writes, "you stupid, anti-reason, racist, fearful, mouth-breathers, I of the liberal elite will benevolently make an effort to save even such scum as you!"

I can't see how anyone could possibly ignore his advice!

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Smartphone mania

(Hat tip to my student, Catherine Rios-Lunarejo, for alerting me to the web site collecting these photos.)

Sure, Tom, just 1%:

Bob Murphy Sings "I Will Go Down with This Schiff"

And he won't put his hands up and surrender.

Here, in the latest of his series of Karaoke hits, Bob has decided to side with the flat-earth Peter Schiff in his war against empirical reality. Some excerpts with commentary:

"For what it’s worth, Scott doesn’t just take the BLS’ word over the experience of average Americans..."

The consumer confidence index, which was as low as 25 in 2009, now stands at around 80. It has been rising throughout most of this year. The experience of average Americans is very clearly that we are not in a "bad recession"! But I bet when Bob thinks of "average Americans," he is thinking of "the people I met at Porcfest," who have the same ideological bias towards seeing a bad recession that he does. (Of course, for the too many people still unemployed, the economy doesn't look great.)

"So: If all of the above just causes some sluggish growth in the economy, such that Peter Schiff doesn’t even pass the 'laugh test' for suggesting we’re still in a bad recession..."

It doesn't pass that test, Bob. Constructions projects are restarting, the Dow is hitting all-time highs, new construction is beginning again, rents are soaring. I told my wife two years ago we were out of the woods when work started again on the giant pit in our neighborhood that had sat unworked on for four years. The recovery is weak, but it is real.

"then why the heck are so many of us interested in free-market economics? It clearly doesn’t make that much of a difference, right?"

The economy can do fine with a fair amount of intervention, yes. How much can be absorbed, of what type, and so on will be a matter of historical circumstances. Some interventions might even improve things.

This is the corner Bob has painted himself into: if he accepts the facts, he has to give up an ideology. And that is painful. So it is better to claim that Mount Everest is actually a hill, one that just looks large due to the optical lenses the government has installed nearby, than to admit that it really is a largish mountain.

(And lest you think I am mocking Bob, I am not: I spent about five years trying to learn to see Mount Everest as really just a hill before I finally admitted it was a mountain. And man was it painful. One very real pain: you will discover that some high percentage of people you had thought were friends were actually merely allies! On the flipside, you will also find some were real friends.)

Old-fashioned excuse: "The dog ate my homework."

Modern excuse: "Dual-factor authentication ate my ability to do my homework."