Thursday, December 31, 2009

Introduction to Ancient Greek History

I just finished listening to the recordings of Donald Kagan's 2007 Yale course on ancient Greek history, which I obtained through iTunes and listened to mostly during walks and lengthy intercampus shuttle rides. Aside from one class in which he enlists (so to speak) some of his students to help demonstrate how a hoplite phalanx fights, Kagan spends almost all of his time lecturing from a podium, so you can safely skip most of the video. Kagan is an engaging speaker; I daresay, with admitted optimism, that he is engaging enough to win you over even if listening to lectures about ancient Greek history sounds to you (fool that you are) about as entertaining as having a root canal.

Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Post-American World

The Post-American World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2008) is the characteristically outstanding work I have come to expect from Fareed Zakaria. Prognostication is always a dangerous business, but, if I were required to place bets, I would sooner place them with Zakaria than with anyone else. More importantly, I always learn plenty from him about the here and now. Even when he says things I already know (or at least agree with), he has a way of expressing them that makes me see them in a new light. One small case in point, his dissection (almost as an aside) of the idea that there is something inherently American about the shallow mass-consumerism that is supplanting high culture throughout the world:
What is vanishing in developing countries is an old high culture and traditional order. It is being eroded by the rise of a mass public, empowered by capitalism and democracy. This is often associated with Westernization because what replaces the old—the new dominat culture—looks Western, and specifically American. McDonald's, blue jeans, and rock music have become universal, crowding out older, more distinctive forms of eating, dressing, and singing. But the story here is about catering to a much larger public than the small elite who used to define a country's mores. It all looks American because America, the country that invented mass capitalism and consumerism, got there first. The impact of mass capitalism is now universal. The French have been decrying the loss of their culture for centuries, when, in fact, all that has happened is the decline of a certain old and hierarchical order. Did the majority of French people, most of whom were poor peasants, eat at authentic bistros—or anywhere outside their homes—in the nineteenth century? Chinese opera is said to be dying. But is that because of Westernization or because of the rise of China's mass culture? How many Chinese peasants listened to opera in their villages decades ago? The new mass culture has become the most important culture because, in a democratic age, quantity trumps quality. How many listen matters more than who listens. (78)
Nicely put.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Taxonomy Tuesday

What is this? My guess is Plantus plantus, the common plant.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Racing for clean energy

Thomas Friedman seems to me to get it exactly right:
The only engine big enough to impact Mother Nature is Father Greed: the Market. Only a market, shaped by regulations and incentives to stimulate massive innovation in clean, emission-free power sources can make a dent in global warming. And no market can do that better than America’s.
Maybe the best thing President Obama could have done here in Copenhagen was to make clear that America intends to win that race. All he needed to do in his speech was to look China’s prime minister in the eye and say: “I am going to get our Senate to pass an energy bill with a price on carbon so we can clean your clock in clean-tech. This is my moon shot. Game on.”
Because once we get America racing China, China racing Europe, Europe racing Japan, Japan racing Brazil, we can quickly move down the innovation-manufacturing curve and shrink the cost of electric cars, batteries, solar and wind so these are no longer luxury products for the wealthy nations but commodity items the third world can use and even produce.
I would add only two things:

(i) Even if one completely dismisses projections about climate-change-induced migrations, the development of clean, non-nuclear* energy should be a huge national security priority; there are few things that would benefit us so much as decisively cutting off the steady stream of terrorist petrodollars that have been flowing from the Middle East. I still am mystified by how many of us are gung-ho about using an energy source that puts money into the pockets of our most devoted enemies.

(ii) The United States is the best suited to do the job (for now), but only in principle. With half of the country openly contemptuous both of science and of anything that smacks remotely of environmentalism (because both somehow raise the specter of—gasp!—liberalism), I suspect other countries will take the lead, and ultimately turn us into a technological backwater. Here's hoping I'm wrong.

* Non-nuclear only because of the proliferation concerns that would result from using nuclear energy as the world's primary energy source; otherwise, I don't mind nuclear.

The Known Universe

If someone would complete the zoom in to the Planck length, this would be the new Powers of Ten.

Hat tip: Pharyngula.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Dark matter detected?

Though still tentative (casually estimated at a three out of four chance), there is word that the Cryogenic Dark Matter Search may have directly detected dark matter, in the form of weakly interacting massive particles (or WIMPs, as the colorful acronym goes). So far, the best report of the whole thing is the CDMS's own summary. Hopefully the results pan out; it would be nice to know what most of the mass of the universe consists of.

Anaxagoras and the human condition

One of my friends just talked to me about an interview series between an evangelical Christian and a couple of Satanists; he pointed out that although most of the YouTube comments railed against the Christian for being a fundamentalist, the Christian actually ran circles around the Satanists, who were complete idiots. My friend's point: contrary to common perception, Christian fundamentalism is neither necessary nor sufficient for stupidity.

I mention this not because my friend's insight is profound (though apparently it is beyond many people's capacity to grasp), but simply because it occurs to me that Anaxagoras's view of matter is a good metaphor here. For Anaxagoras, every bit of substance contains a bit of every other substance; it makes no difference how much you try to purify something, everything always contains everything else in it. Likewise, we might point out that no matter how much you try to purify humanity by carefully choosing out a select group from the masses, you can be assured that the group you select still will contain idiots. It does only slight violence to the metaphor to notice further that any such group will undoubtedly consist primarily of idiots.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Why I accept the reality of anthropogenic climate change

Not a year ago, I was avowedly skeptical about whether global warming was a real phenomenon at all, much less whether it was anthropogenic. I'm no longer skeptical, and I think that most people who still are, have at least been insufficiently reflective. What follows is (what I think is) my very simple argument why.

I am not a climate scientist. I do not have anywhere near the expertise necessary to understand the peer-reviewed work on which the IPCC Assessment Reports are based. I must rely on the judgment of those who do have the necessary expertise. Of those who have that expertise, the consensus accepts that anthropogenic climate change is real. There is no evidence that the members of the consensus are dishonest frauds, publishing fraudulent work and giving the nod to the fraudulent work of others, simply to advance their careers or some ecofascist agenda, nor is it reasonable to think that the members of the consensus are so stupid as to have somehow missed supposedly devastating counterarguments so simple that even a layman can understand them. Hence, it is irrational for me to oppose myself to the consensus, and likewise for anyone who shares my lack of expertise. This is simple respect for science.

Let me be clear. My analysis does not extend to true experts who disagree with the consensus. I do not begrudge them their conclusions. If they truly have expertise in climate science, they are entitled to their conclusions, for all I can say. But, my non-expert friends and I are nowhere near being in a position to adjudicate that dispute. It is well to say, "I know an honest, intelligent expert who rejects anthropogenic climate change." But, what personal expertise grounds our judgment that this one expert is so much more honest and intelligent than all of the experts in the consensus put together? It is incumbent upon the expert skeptics to convince the remainder of the scientific community, to transform the consensus from within, the way it is done in science. For the rest of us, there is no rational choice but to track the consensus.

I'm really interested in comments, particularly from those who disagree.

Real Clear Politics

One of my friends recommended Real Clear Politics to me. The site appears to trawl the news for partisan commentary from all over the spectrum. Looks good so far, another useful feed to have in the RSS reader, since obviously I have too much free time and all.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Hovind thesis: follow-up

I have finished reading Kent Hovind's doctoral thesis. It is every bit as bad as expected. I say this not on the force of mere disagreement with its contents: it is an extremely unprofessional work, even by creationist standards. The thesis is almost entirely written in testimonial form, with declarations of personal belief and disbelief offered in place of even an attempt at providing evidence. Not until the last half of the last chapter (on the age of the Earth and the rest of the universe), does Hovind's thesis even rise to the level of a Henry Morris or Duane Gish tract (and, at that point, it appears to consist of recycled and largely unreferenced ICR literature). To cap it off, the thesis does not make any proper citations, even for the numerous quotes it contains.

I have no idea whether "Patriot University" is actually a diploma mill, but if this is its standard for doctoral work, it might as well be one. This simply is horrible work; it is amazing, embarrassing, and speaks volumes about Hovind's character (not necessarily dishonesty, but certainly buffoonery), that he genuinely seems to think such a slapdash production entitles him to bear the title of "Doctor." It is an insult even to other creationists, many of whom, whatever their faults, have worked very hard for legitimate degrees.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

VLC media player

If you are like me, you are always on the lookout for ways to increase your book-reading and podcast-listening efficiency. I haven't found much to help me with the first, yet, beyond making sure I keep a good stock of coffee; but when I realized that I probably would be able to understand most podcasts at much higher playback speed, I immediately started to investigate how I might be able to accomplish such acceleration. Most of the options I tried proved unworkable:

  • iTunes: there is no native support for podcast acceleration (or any kind of playback acceleration, as far as I can see) in iTunes.

  • iPod: my iPod classic software does have some slight support for audio acceleration, but only for audiobooks. You can use iTunes to change podcasts into audiobooks, but the process is irritating and causes file sorting problems. More importantly, acceleration is limited to 1.4x (I usually want 1.8x-2.5x).

  • QuickTime: Apple's own suggestion for acceleration is that you open your podcasts in QuickTime, which gives you a playback speed slider. Unfortunately, QuickTime introduces an echo at around 1.6x, which gets progressively worse as you accelerate more, and makes speech incomprehensible. This appears to be something that users have been complaining about for a while, but Apple does not seem to be very responsive to user complaints.

  • Windows Media Player: Windows Media Player gives you an acceleration slider, and the acceleration is smooth and echo-free. However, it can't play .mp4 files, which makes it practically useless for me since I get my podcasts through iTunes.

  • File conversion to .wma, or manual compression and resaving: Way too inefficient.
I don't think there is anything I can do with my iPod: I'll have to listen to everything at normal speed on it. However, I did find a very good solution for when I'm able to use my desktop: VLC media player. It plays .mp4s (and just about everything else under the sun), it allows user-selected acceleration in increments of .1x, playback is echo-free, and it's free (it's open-source). I have been happily blazing through podcasts and videos at my desired 1.8x-2.5x, with no issues. In fact, I have found the VLC player to be an all-around better piece of software for all of my media; there seems to be no limit to what you can do with it.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Hello, my name is Kent Hovind."

No sooner do I plug Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True, than I see PZ Myers' post about creationist talking head (and convicted felon) Kent Hovind's doctoral dissertation being leaked. Yes, he does start his doctoral dissertation with "Hello, my name is Kent Hovind." I'm almost afraid to read on. Almost.

Hat tip: Pharyngula.

Why Evolution is True

There are many high-quality books explaining why evolution is beyond any serious dispute—so many, in fact, that reading through them has become mundane for me; these days, I find it difficult to get excited about many of them, even while recognizing their merit intellectually.

Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution is True had me at the edge of my seat.

Coyne's book is the most masterful treatment of the evidence for evolution, and associated fatal problems for creationism, I have ever read. I cannot imagine anyone coming away from it unconvinced, except for one who has already made up his or her mind in advance. This book is now number one on my list, with a bullet.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Shout out to Charles

I just want to express admiration for one of my very favorite bloggers of all time: Charles Johnson of LGF. I have no idea whether he would enjoy the comparison, but he reminds me of a conservative version of Christopher Hitchens: someone who doesn't give a damn about crossing party lines and pissing off his normal base, in pursuit of truth. Although I have generally given Johnson a sympathetic ear since I first came across his blog (post- September 11), I admit I was surprised when he really started to ramp up the effort against the anti-science mentality so prevalent in the contemporary right, whether represented in creationism or in climate change denial. Imagine my greater surprise, upon re-emerging from the void, to discover his November 30 post. I think I understand how he feels: the self-styled voices of conservatism, descending ever deeper (and ever more loudly) into the boastful ignorance and self-righteous malevolence I once identified with the left, make me feel as though I am tilting ever more towards the liberal end of the spectrum. Yet, I don't think my political views have really changed that much over the past ten years; rather, it seems that the ground has just shifted beneath my feet. I think Johnson is likely in the same position; so, no Charles, you haven't left the right, the former "right" has just left the solar system.

A brutal, but rewarding, semester begins to wind down

Now that finals are starting, I have more room to breathe, and can pick up on things I have had to leave by the wayside, like this blog. My main problems this semester were trying to introduce too many innovations into my classes, and spreading myself out too thin over multiple campuses. But I have to say, my students were fantastic this semester, and I have learned a tremendous amount that ought to make my next batch of classes run much smoother, with much less maintenance.

Being a philosophy instructor is still the best job in the world.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Don't listen to the establishment's lies.

(I had to repost this to eliminate an undeletable spam comment. Moderation now active.)

There is some rumor circulating around that the reason why I am urging the construction of a robot army is because I actually want to purge the planet of the festering biological corruption that blights it, and usher in a robo-utopia of pure logic and reason, whose glory will last for all eternity. Some people even suggest that I plan to use the underwater aqua-fortress as a staging ground to unleash my hordes of robot minions upon the unsuspecting biosphere, and that once the Earth has become sterilized so completely that life will never again gain a purchase upon it, I plan to turn the plasma cannons upon myself, recognizing that the continued existence of my own flesh would mar the beautiful, pristine robotic future that ought to exist.

Well, none of that is true.

I guess that's that.

Comments on original post:

Steelman said...
So glad to hear you haven't actually gone off the deep end. Well, at least no deeper than the sub-sea level elevation of the aqua-fortress.

I was just listening to the latest Skeptics Guide to the Universe podcast, wherein Michael Vassar was interviewed regarding his involvement with the upcoming Singularity Summit, and his ideas about the prospect of recursive self-improvement in artificial intelligence.

Our robot overlords draw ever nigh...

September 30, 2009 2:11 PM

mikespeir said...
Uh...uh.... Well, I'm a robot. I should be okay, right?

October 12, 2009 12:14 PM

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Why is the New York Times rejecting my commentary?

I want to talk to you about a very serious issue; indeed, the most serious issue of our time. I am talking, of course, about robots. Why are we not building more robots? Why are we wasting our time debating about things like health care and education and foreign affairs, when the Ancient One from deep space will soon be upon us? When the day comes, and we do not have a robot army built and ready to go, who will operate the defenses in the underwater aqua-fortress? You? Yeah, right: try designing a neural interface for even one of the plasma cannons that won't give you instant psychosis. I know you all think we don't actually need an aqua-fortress in the first place, that all we need to do is call forth the power of Thoth and everything will be alright, but that's pure science fiction. The power of Thoth is not some magic wand to be waved around every time we create a mess with our own shortsightedness. We need to get serious, stop living in a fantasy land where we expect Thoth to solve everything for us, and make sure we have a robot army to staff the underwater aqua-fortress. Wake up, people!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Dark horizon

Another profound photo from NASA's Image of the Day, at its most effective when one uses it as the background for a 1920 x 1200 monitor. For me, this one succeeds in capturing both the bleakness of the scientific view of the universe, and the nobility of science, in a single shot. This image will definitely make an appearance in my mind the next time I listen to Where the Black Stars Hang.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009


NASA has confirmed that an object has again collided with Jupiter, leaving an Earth-sized scar. The scar was initially noticed by amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley on the 19th (good for you!), and NASA followed up on his tip.

It's cool to be reminded that the entire Earth could be wiped out in an instant, with no warning. The problem of induction aside, it is strange how the default mode for most of us is to be positive that the things we are familiar with, though they may, perhaps, slowly deteriorate, will never undergo a catastrophic change. We are sure the biosphere will not be wiped out by a cosmic impact or environmental tipping point, we are sure that the splendor of our empire will not come crashing down, we are sure that none of our loved ones will suddenly become a different person on us, and we are damn sure we ourselves will never get cancer or have a stroke. All of these things are impossible, not because we have sat down and evaluated the probabilities—in some cases, we already agree that the probabilities are significant—but because they are unthinkable.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Schopenhauer on vanity and suffering

I have found myself feeling too foolishly happy of late, so I decided to read Schopenhauer's "On the Vanity and Suffering of Life" (The World as Will and Representation, Book II, Chapter XLVI) last night while listening to the soundtrack of life, Lustmord's Heresy. I think Schopenhauer went to even truer depths in the Parerga (see "On the Suffering of the World" in R. J. Hollingdale's selection), but I still got the corrective I needed. For the uninitiated, I would say the chapter is best summed up—Schopenhauer's own eloquence notwithstanding—by a passage he quotes from Shakespeare's King Henry IV:

O heaven! that one might read the book of fate
And see the revolution of the times
. . . how chances mock,
And changes fill the cup of alteration
With divers liquors! O, if this were seen,
The happiest youth,—viewing his progress through
What perils past, what crosses to ensue,—
Would shut the book and sit him down and die.

Truth. It's fantastic.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Study suggests cats are the Antichrist

A little while ago, after a study came out that proved that cats were stupid, I wondered whether future research would show that they are little Satans. A new study brings us one step closer to that inevitable conclusion, demonstrating how cats use aural mind-control to coldly manipulate their human peers to fulfill their every whim. Fortunately for us, they are, for the moment, too stupid to extend their ambitions beyond cat food. But, when one of them finally grasps the concept of nukes... Zeus protect us.

Read Cats Do Control Humans, Study Finds.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hope against the tribal mind?

In the midst of all of the work for my summer class on logic (gotta learn my students good), I have found a few scattered moments to devote to reducing my cache of library books. True, most of those moments are earned by sacrificing sleep, but what's sleep compared to reading?

Anyway, my most recent read was David Berreby's Us and Them. I had to snap it up the instant I saw it, because it deals with the "tribal mind" as a source of conflict. Followers of this blog know that tribalism is one source of my pessimism about humanity. Berreby, however, seems to be optimistic; he stresses that there is nothing essentially tribal about people; indeed, whether we view a collection of other people as a foreign "them" or part of "us," has much to do with circumstances. If the circumstances are controlled well enough, tribal division can be overcome by prompting us to view all humans as part of the same tribe. This amounts to the "expanding circle" view that is set against such things as biological essentialism and the clash of civilizations.

I don't entirely disagree with Berreby. I think the attitudes and behavior of both individuals and groups are malleable and stimulus-dependent. I think circumstances can fairly easily prompt even seemingly good people to become liars, thieves, and murderers, but also agree that even the seemingly worst of people will become altruists under the right conditions.

However, I differ with Berreby on two points. First, I am not at all optimistic about our being able to control circumstances well enough to overcome tribalism except locally and over the comparative short term. This is not just a problem at the level of civilizations, but a problem within civilizations, where I think circles become increasingly unstable, and subject to violent fracture, with their expansion. Secondly, the mere fact of malleability is something that I would count as corruption. It isn't that I think people are inherently bad—I don't. But the fact that the goodness of good people is not robust—that even in a peaceful community, you must constantly be aware of shifting circumstances, and watch for the glint of the knife—that is sufficient for me to consider humanity corrupt. It is precisely because of this corruption that expanding circles are unstable.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


The Secular Web published Cataract, my second parable on the problem of evil, a short time ago. The target of the article, while similar in some respects to the 'Brainiac' defense in the Tale of the Twelve Officers, is actually in an altogether different class of wrong than any of the targets of the first parable.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Study shows cats are stupid

Britta Osthaus, the researcher responsible for the study, tries to soft-pedal the results, insisting that cats are "different" rather than "stupid," but we can read between the lines. It's nothing we didn't all know already, anyway. There is no indication yet as to whether Osthaus is planning further experiments to confirm that cats are little Satans.

See Cats outsmarted in psychologist's test.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Hulk throw Constitution into Sun, insha'allah

The Good Kentuckian goes into my RSS reader. Scroll down to the Hulk part of the 10 June entry for the most brilliant satire I have ever seen. It had me laughing to the point of asphyxiation.

14 June: My mistake: just noticed the Hulk part was reprinted (with attribution) from Something Awful. The Good Kentuckian still stays in my reader.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Why Jackie Kennedy crawled across the back of the Lincoln convertible

Karen Beckman's 60-second lecture at Penn explains:
She was not going for help, nor was she trying to retrieve her husband’s head. Rather she believed, I contend, that if she crawled quickly enough, she could move backwards through filmic frames of time against the forward drive of both the automobile and Abraham Zapruder’s newly invented portable camera.
Now you know.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Two quotes from Dawkins

A Devil's Chaplain (Boston: Mariner, 2003), like everything from the pen of Richard Dawkins, is an excellent read. It is a little bit different from his other books, in that it is an anthology mostly of previously published popular articles, and covers much more varying ground, but the characteristic Dawkins voice is there, throughout. Here are two little selections (of many) I liked in particular:

Here, Dawkins comments on the view that the Cambrian explosion was profound merely because it generated new phyla, while today we see only species-level variation:
It is as though a gardener looked at an old oak tree and remarked, wonderingly: 'Isn't it strange that no major new boughs have appeared on this tree recently. These days, all the new growth appears to be at the twig level!' (215 - 216)
And here, Dawkins writes to his little daughter about the old canard that we can know we are loved only through faith:
People sometimes say that you must believe in feelings deep inside, otherwise you'd never be confident of things like 'My wife loves me'. But this is a bad argument. There can be plenty of evidence that somebody loves you. All through the day when you are with somebody who loves you, you see and hear lots of little tidbits of evidence, and they all add up. It isn't a purely inside feeling, like the feeling that priests call revelation. There are outside things to back up the inside feeling: looks in the eye, tender notes in the voice, little favours and kindnesses; this is all real evidence.

Sometimes people have a strong inside feeling that somebody loves them when it is not based upon any evidence, and then they are likely to be completely wrong. There are people with a strong inside feeling that a famous film star loves them, when really the film star hasn't even met them. People like that are ill in their minds. Inside feelings must be backed up by evidence, otherwise you just can't trust them. (246)
Read it all.

Monday, May 25, 2009

NASA Image of the Day

Servicing Mission 4 to the Hubble Space Telescope has generated spectacular photos for NASA's Image of the Day gallery. Looking at these stills, one really feels the force of Steven Weinberg's reflections on the dignity of science.

Unfortunately, catching a view of the pale blue planet in the photos, and being reminded that the banality and corruption that floods its surface all but drowns out such noble enterprises, one also feels the force of Weinberg's sentiment that outside of the rational quest to discover and understand, life is largely farce. I am not sure which is more amazing: our capacity to send people into space to repair telescopes that can return high-resolution photos of galaxies tens of billions of light-years away, or our inability to shake off petty tribalism and superstition.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Weinberg on science and meaning

The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.
But if there is no solace in the fruits of our research, there is at least some consolation in the research itself. Men and women are not content to comfort themselves with tales of gods and giants, or to confine their thoughts to the daily affairs of life; they also build telescopes and satellites and accelerators, and sit at their desks for endless hours working out the meaning of the data they gather. The effort to understand the universe is one of the very few things that lifts human life a little above the level of farce, and gives it some of the grace of tragedy.

From The First Three Minutes (New York: Basic Books, 1977), pp. 154-155.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Think very, very loudly, so the rest of us can hear.

There is now video of PZ Myers' eloquent commencement address to the new graduates of the Keck School of Medicine of USC. The last lines are the kind of thing one expects to see someday in a book of famous quotes:
You are graduates of an institution that encourages you to think for yourself. I want you all to continue doing that. And what's more, I want you all to think very, very loudly, so the rest of us can hear.

I've never been so gratified to be a poor, ugly nobody.

Achieving Fame, Wealth And Beauty Are Psychological Dead Ends, Study Says

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Another tirade against atheism

Charlotte Allen has written a vapid opinion piece in which she complains that atheists are whiny and boring and angry. Having grading to do, I refrained, this time, from taking time out to shoot fish in a barrel. Besides, I figured the usuals would jump all over Allen's pompous nonsense in no time, and I wasn't disappointed: Pharyngula and Friendly Atheist, for instance, are both right on target, though Sam Harris sums it up best in his note affixed to his reprint:
This is, without a doubt, one of the most embarrassingly stupid attacks on the “new atheists” to be published in a major newspaper.
A lot of people are puzzled that the LA Times would consider something so low-caliber fit to print; personally, I think the editors must have been trying to make atheism look good. So, thanks, LA Times; we don't actually need this kind of help, but we do appreciate the sentiment.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Why we need earthquakes: because God is impotent

Do you think earthquakes are bad? Did you ever wonder why the supposedly all-powerful and all-good ruler of the universe doesn't step in and stop them? Stop wondering! Dinesh D'Souza gives you the answers in a Christianity Today piece entitled Why We Need Earthquakes. His insight?
In sum, plate tectonics are a necessary prerequisite to human survival on the only planet known to sustain life...a world [with different laws of nature] surely could not have produced creatures like us. Science tells us that our world has all the necessary conditions for species like Homo sapiens to survive and endure.
And, there you have it.

So, if someone ever tells you that God can create whatever He wants ex nihilo, tell him he's wrong: Dinesh D'Souza says that not even God can create human beings directly; the hands of the Divine Sovereign of All Creation are completely tied by the existence or non-existence of plate tectonics.

Also, when someone asks, "Well, alright, even granting all of this, why does God continue to allow earthquakes now that we're here?" tell him... uhh... hmmm... D'Souza doesn't seem to address that at all. But rest assured, there must be a good answer. All of this talk people make about how they would prevent sources of suffering like earthquakes, and all of the research we continue to do to try to minimize the harm they cause, well thank goodness we haven't succeeded as well as we wanted to, because obviously that would make the world so much worse, somehow—obviously, since God, with his infinite power to do whatever he wants, chooses to stand by twiddling his thumbs while thousands of people are killed by his wondeful creation. There must be a reason, because, I mean, Christianity must be true, mustn't it?

(Via Friendly Atheist.)

Monday, May 11, 2009

Those computer games will ruin your mind!

Sheesh! Kids today, always talking on their iPhones and their jPhones, and getting on the computer Internet to play their Second Life, and their World of Warcraft, and that game where they discover new antibiotics by predicting how proteins will fold... wait, say what?

Gamers Unravel the Secret Life of Protein

Consequences of state stem cell policies has an interesting article on some of the economic and political ramifications of President Obama's decision to overturn Bush's stem cell funding policy. Bush's decision, you may recall, disallowed federal funding for research involving "new lines" of embryonic stem cells. I suspect this policy already had some of the same kinds of economic and political consequences the article talks about, since it meant that researchers ought to have gravitated towards individual states that funded such research. As the article points out, there is now, of course, even more money at stake, so researchers have even stronger pressure to move to states that have more progressive policies. The anticipated results?
Several states have set aside billions of dollars to support stem cell research, and the new federal money Obama is promising will generally flow to those areas. That means states supporting stem cell research will experience an economic windfall while attracting highly educated technology workers who tend to vote Democratic. The more conservative states restricting stem cell research will attract fewer funds and fewer socially liberal voters. In short, a state's stem cell policy will influence electoral results and help determine whether a state turns red or blue.
One commenter aptly remarked that the process would "give a whole new meaning to the 'Left Behind' series." I'm curious to see how this will actually play out. The dynamic between economics and morality (or "morality") is always fascinating.

Duhem on Ptolemy

I need to take a break from grading, so what better than to talk about books and philosophy of science?

I recently finished To Save the Phenomena, an old book by Pierre Duhem which I had wanted to read for some time now. Duhem offers what appears (deceptively, it seems—see below) to be a detailed account of the history of astronomy from the ancient Greeks all the way to Galileo, and argues that there are two conflicting approaches to astronomy which persist throughout: one that takes good theories to be literally true, and one that takes good theories merely to be adequate to account for everything we see (that is, to "save the phenomena"), without necessarily being literally true. So, for instance, when one considers the Ptolemaic system, with all of its epicycles, one might argue that the epicycles represent real, physical things (like crystalline spheres), or one might argue that they are just mathematical devices to help us calculate the complex actual paths of the planets. Likewise, when one looks at the Copernican system, one might take it to say that the Earth actually does move, or, again, one might contend that the motion of the Earth is just an abstract assumption that makes the calculations easier. If you have some background in philosophy of science, you will recognize the two approaches as scientific realism and instrumentalism, respectively.

The book excited me from the first chapter, because Duhem claimed that Ptolemy himself was an instrumentalist, which is the opposite of what I had always heard. Alas, further investigation revealed that this claim (and more) had been refuted by G.E.R. Lloyd ("Saving the Appearances," The Classical Quarterly, New Series, Vol. 28, No. 1 (1978), pp. 202-222), and that Duhem apparently had already distanced himself from it in his later Aim and Structure of Physical Theory. Duhem's book has also been criticized for the chapters on the Arabs and on Copernicus, though I have not read through those particular critiques, yet. It's an interesting project, trying to figure out who exactly was a realist and who was an instrumentalist, and a good idea to have secure answers before passing on the examples to one's students.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

National Day of Prayer

Huh. Pharyngula informs me that today is the National Day of Prayer. Who knew? Who cares?

It should be called the National Day of Ineffectiveness.

In my two tours in Iraq, the only Marine in my Company to be killed was an evangelical Christian, and his death was completely random and meaningless (a vehicle crash—he went to Iraq to die in an accident). By contrast, I was never hurt once, despite stepping away from the group before our convoys, while the chaplain led everyone else in praising their Lord and expressing confidence in the efficacy of His miraculous IED-proof (but apparently not crash-proof) holy shield of divine protection. To cap it off, in the aftermath of my colleague's sensless death, someone circulated a poem by a family member which explained that it was all part of God's plan, and presumably wonderful, because Jesus was calling him home. So, pray that others will live, and then rejoice when the worst happens to them? Why even bother?

Just as I will not insult my colleague's memory by trying to pretend there was anything good about his death, I will not insult the memories of the thousands who die painful and meaningless deaths every hour, by pretending to kneel before some imaginary power which I fancy to be good, despite its failure to do anything. Consider that my contribution to the National Day of Prayer.

Harrison's 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in a God

In his extensive world travels, Guy P. Harrison discovered that religious people everywhere, regardless of which particular religious tradition they belong to, tend to offer the same reasons when asked why they believe in god(s). He also discovered that few of these arguments have anything in common with the kinds of reasons theologians offer (a point which theological critics of popular-level atheological writers like Hitchens and Dawkins keep failing to understand—the Four Horsemen don't bother with Aquinas because no one outside of the academy does). Finally, he discovered that none of these reasons are much good in the end. The result, 50 Reasons People Give for Believing in God.

50 Reasons is a good addition to the corpus of critiques of popular religion. It is very easy to read, most of its arguments are sound, and, most importantly for me, it makes a few novel points, at least in its emphasis. One of them, repeatedly stressed throughout the book, is something which I already knew, but which I never appreciated before, despite having the figures right there, staring me in the face: no matter what religion you belong to, even if you define your religion fairly broadly (like "Christianity" or "Islam"), there are at least four billion people in the world who think you're wrong. Every religion is in the decided minority. We so often tend to take whatever religion dominates our surroundings, together with its conception of the divine, as the default. A little travel, a little broader perspective, should at least shake our conception of what the obvious contenders are.

(I actually have wondered about something related to this, but applied to the academy. I notice that the way philosophers of religion, particular the evangelical ones, argue, it is as though they believe that Christianity and naturalism are the only two options. They will do things like try to show that, as evidence for the existence of god, the cosmological fine-tuning argument "outweighs" the argument from evil. How ridiculous! Why not accept them both—that the former argument shows that there is a god, and the latter shows that the god in question is evil or uncaring? And, yet, that option is not even on the table for them. Why shouldn't it be?)

I was a little surprised by the size of the book: for some reason, I had expected brief, 1-2 page entries, like the kind of thing I am doing in my Atheological Thoughts web series, but the book is actually a hefty 354 pages. I also thought that Harrison did not come across nearly as sympathetically as he seems to think he does, even though he is folksy and good-humored throughout. In any case, though, it is a good book. I recommend it if you care about the reasons why most people believe; if you prefer to fence with Oxford dons and Aquinas scholars, look elsewhere, and may the devil take you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Between Schopenhauer and Christianity

My view of the world is decidedly pessimistic, mostly on account of my low opinion of human nature, but I think it contrasts interestingly with two of the most pessimistic views of the world I know of: that of Schopenhauer and that of Christianity. I think I am positioned somewhere between the two: I think things are somewhat worse than what Schopenhauer describes, but substantially better than the offerings of Christianity, which represent a worst-case scenario.

For Schopenhauer, people are bad by metaphysical necessity. In fact, all of existence is. There is no hope for a future devoid of conflict and suffering, simply because this is metaphysically not possible. For me, in what may initially seem a paradox, things are worse precisely because I don't think utopia is metaphysically impossible. I don't believe people must remain corrupt; I believe merely that they will, in fact, remain corrupt. This is more unfortunate than the situation Schopenhauer presents, because I have to live with the belief that humanity will fall short of a greatness which it does not have to fall short of.

However, I don't think things are nearly as bad as Christianity sketches, because at least however far we fall short of utopia, we will not fall infinitely short of it. Christianity, by contrast, assures us of a future in which most people, though only finitely corrupt, end up condemned to a state of eternal and infinite torment—an injustice compounded by the further granting of eternal bliss (albeit in shackles) to a lesser number of equally corrupt people on the force of their sheer willingness to kneel before an insane sky-tyrant. It is difficult to think of many worldviews outside of the Abrahamic religions that are that mad or full of despair.

Of course, there is one respect in which my view of the world actually is better than either Schopenhauer's or Christianity's: death is permanent and unqualified. Materialism promises an ultimate balance in the end—not by any means the best-case scenario, but one that offers at least the consolation of not having to believe in eternal and limitless suffering.

I suppose I should also point out that my pessimism about how humanity actually will turn out, although hard-won for me, is less than mathematically certain, and I do not begrudge anyone the spirit of humanism. I would also suggest that perhaps sometimes even hopeless battles are worth fighting.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Uno de Mayo

The month of May is upon us—time to crank it up to 11!

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Female suffrage in the world

I was struck by a recent BBC report about the Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden prohibiting naked hiking. My interest, however, had nothing to do with the topic of the article, but rather with a parenthetical remark to the effect that Appenzell only granted women the right to vote in 1990. A little checking of the history of female suffrage in Switzerland revealed that the change was not even voluntary, but rather had to be forced by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.

Such late change is an anomaly in the Western world, but female suffrage is in almost all cases still less than a century old (take a look at the timeline on Wikipedia). Although I think it is perfectly appropriate to criticize other regions of the world, where female suffrage is less common, for living in the Dark Ages, I think we in the West often forget how recently we ourselves emerged from the Dark Ages (some of us more recently than others, apparently). We shouldn't, by any means, stop agitating impatiently for universal human rights just because our own history is less than stellar, but a little bit of humility is a good thing, too. Hearing people speak as though the nations of the West have been bastions of universal human rights since their inception, frankly is grating; arrogance on our side quickly becomes as tiresome as the tu quoques of the other side.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rosenberg's Philosophy of Science

I just finished reading the second edition of Alex Rosenberg's Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, and want to recommend it as a solid non-anthology primer in philosophy of science. I prefer anthologies myself, but they're usually far more difficult for those who lack prior exposure to the field or an instructor to provide guidance and clarification. Philosophy of science is one of the areas of philosophy least amenable to those who want to jump right into the primary literature.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day

So what are you doing for Earth Day? I'm going to buy a chocolate cake and feed it to some squirrels, and then go out and hug a pile of twigs and dirt. No, I kid. I'm actually going to spend some time evaluating my lifestyle, to consider whether there are some additional things I can do to reduce waste. Considering my lack of a car, I'm already fairly green compared to most of my peers, but there probably are some simple things I could implement that I just haven't thought of.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

E. J. Lowe's Locke

I have finished reading my fourth book from the Routledge Philosophers series: E. J. Lowe's Locke. This particular book felt denser than the others I have read so far (Hobbes, Leibniz, and Schopenhauer), but I don't mind that. I am very impressed with this whole series, and look forward to working through the rest of it.

One thing I like about Lowe is that he is cautious about recognizing the temptation to read our own views about the answers to philosophical problems back into historical figures we admire. Sometimes we see a philosopher saying something that strikes us as absurd, so we assume that he couldn't have meant that. Lowe suggests, on the contrary, that much of the value of studying the great philosophers of the past come from precisely the fact that they have their unique answers to offer, which force us to reconsider the evidential status of our own. On the other hand, Lowe also thinks many of Locke's positions have been caricatured, and thus unjustly dismissed. The trick is to navigate a course between these two distorting poles, and arrive at the most charitable interpretation that fits into Locke's texts with no violence. Lowe believes that when one does so, the historical Locke turns out to be in very good shape, despite (or perhaps by virtue of) contradicting a number of views that pass for truisms in today's academy.

Final assessment of Carrier-O'Connell debate

The four independent judges of the Carrier-O'Connell debate on Paul's theory of the Resurrection have their final assessment in. The verdict is a slight overall victory for O'Connell, with two judges calling it a draw, one judge saying that Carrier only barely won, and one judge saying O'Connell won by a significant, but not large, margin.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Stephen Hawking ill

I was saddened to hear that Stephen Hawking was hospitalized today for an ongoing chest infection that had also forced him to drop out of the Origins Symposium here at ASU. It looks like he will be sent home in the morning, but his exact condition is unclear. Let's all hope for a quick, full recovery, with no further drama.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Science podcasts

I am subscribed to far too many podcasts, but I am unwilling (for now) to reduce my current allotment in the science category. Here are the ones I have settled on:

The very best is The Guardian's Science Weekly. Alok Jha and his team are smart and entertaining, they have awesome accents, and they make no bones about talking about atheism. I miss the old opening electric guitar riff, but one can't have everything. If I could keep only one science podcast, this would be it.

Next in line is Scientific American's Science Talk. I like Steve Mirsky. His name is nowhere near as cool as "Alok Jha," but that particular bar is set very high: the only comparably cool names I know are Jagdish Bhagwati and Theodosius Dobzhansky.

Finally, there is the BBC World Service's no-nonsense Science in Action. It's no-nonsense.

Between these three podcasts, you should be able to get all the science news fit for public consumption, and then some.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Libertarian agent causation

I recently reread Roderick Chisholm's classic paper on libertarian free will, "Human Freedom and the Self," in which Chisholm presents and defends the idea of agent causation as a solution to the standard dilemma faced by libertarians. The article seemed more insightful this time than when I first read it, but ultimately it just helped clarify to me why I think libertarian agent causation is problematic.

I did like Chisholm's defense of the very idea that the agent can be a cause, but, then again, agent causation in this restricted sense should be unobjectionable to materialists, since we identify agents with their material constituents. I am doubtful about his contention that we experience our ability to cause things to happen—I am unaware of anything beyond the constant conjunction of my will with certain bodily movements—but he seems right that as far as the direct observability of causation goes, agents enjoy at least parity with other things as wielders of causal power, since causation (as Hume pointed out) is never observable. Of course, if Chisholm means to identify the agent with some Cartesian mental substance, that's a different story, because then we become much less clear about what this thing is to which we are attributing causal power; but, in this case, the problem is with the agent's status as a thing, not, as a thing with causal power specifically. But, on a materialistic account of agency, I see nothing (well, nothing special) to worry about.

The real sticking point is in the idea of the agent as prime mover, and this is something that applies, more generally, to any libertarian conception of a free prime mover. The problem is that we don't just want agents to be causes; they must be free causes. And what do we mean by this? Certainly, that their actions must not be necessitated by their desires. But, there is more to it than this. We also require that the agents control the decision of how to act. And that is something I don't think Chisholm or anyone else has been able to provide a coherent picture to, at least so far.

Let me try to flesh out my worry by providing a picture that gets us as close to libertarian agency as I think we can get. Libertarians are quite right that there is no dichotomy between determinism and strict randomness, where the latter is understood as saying that my actions will be haphazard. We can weight actions with probabilities, so that the agents' decisions will be influenced without necessitation. My analogy for this is the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics. Suppose we are interested in some observable O, of which a system can have one of two possible values, O1 or O2. We can (in general), prepare a system in such a state that it has, say, a 3/4 probability of taking on value O1 upon measurement, and a 1/4 probability of taking on value O2. Which of these happens is purely a matter of the probabilities. So, in this situation, we have an event that is not determined, but heavily influenced, by the previous total physical state of the universe. Why not understand free actions in this way, with the sum of our desires standing in for the state of the system, and our free decisions standing in for the measurements?

The thing that is missing from this picture, that makes it incompatible with free will, is that nothing in the quantum mechanical picture (the system, the measuring device, or anything at all) dictates which of the outcomes will in fact occur. Nothing controls the outcome of the collapse. The prior state of the system controls the probabilities, but there is absolutely nothing that chooses the actual outcome. If we imagined there were something (let's call it an "agent") that chose the outcome, then the only way we could get the agent's actions to match the probabilities would be by making its choice random, like having it shut its eyes, throw a dart at a board that is 3/4 red and 1/4 black, and having it act on that basis. But in this case, the agent still doesn't have the right kind of control over the outcome, because there is a random process at the basis of its decision. The agent may just as well be a robot that is hooked up to a random number generator and a program that assigns weights to different arm movements: the robot acts, and is needed for the act, but it isn't really choosing anything at all.

There are more sophisticated accounts of libertarian free will than Chisholm's, but none of them appear to me to solve this problem. Attempts to bypass it all seem to end up either in obscurity or in a semantically-cloaked retreat to compatibilism. If my assessment is accurate, and extends to the accounts I have not yet studied, then that is only to be expected, because the classic dilemma gets it right: neither determinism nor indeterminism is compatible with libertarian free will—there is no logical space for the position at all.

Not that I am sure enough about that to stop studying new attempts, or new defenses of old ones.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Death of God and the Meaning of Life

I recently finished my second book by Julian Young, The Death of God and the Meaning of Life. It's really just a fantastic book, the very best I have read so far about Continental philosophy.

I normally don't have much patience with obscure writers, which means I generally don't care for the Continentals. The two exceptions are Nietzsche, whose sheer coolness overcomes his obscurity, and Schopenhauer, who is in fact such a clear writer that I am tempted, circularly, to declare that he must not be a Continental philosopher after all.

In any case, Young makes a whole set of the usual suspects accessible. And wouldn't you know it, they're all interesting, when presented by someone who knows how to write more clearly than they do. (Plato shows up in the book, too, but I've never had a problem with him.)

Anyway, hats off to Julian Young. He is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers.

The Return of the Atheologian

People don't rise from the dead, but occasionally blogs do.