Saturday, January 30, 2010

Microcredit: yea or nay?

Readers, I need your input. I am considering participating in Kiva. I am aware of some of the criticisms of microcredit, but unable to assess them. Naturally, this means that I will try to research the matter as thoroughly as I can. However, given the realities on the ground, I think it probably will take a year or more before I feel I have anywhere near the information needed to make an informed decision. So, here is the question: in the meantime, do I contribute or not?

I am not so much concerned about inefficiency, even if my funds do end up primarily enriching lenders—as Peter Singer has pointed out, if the best available way open to me to save someone's life is one in which 90% of my funds get skimmed off the top, that just means I have an obligation to contribute ten times as much.

My worry is that I will end up trying to hurt the people I am trying to help. One of the criticisms of microcredit is that, in practice, it ends up working like a Ponzi scheme once one gets to the lender level. There is no reason why microcredit must work this way, but I also can see how it might: it seems that it must depend on the average success rate of the entrepreneurs' businesses. This, in turn, is something for which detailed empirical data must be marshaled (and has been—but that's where the disagreement appears to be, which is what makes it so difficult for a layman to wander in). If microcredit tends, in practice, to work like a Ponzi scheme, then it must hurt more than it helps. But if it usually does not work that way, then the time I delay is time that I am not helping people who need it.

What do I do while I am researching?

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The eternal war between physics and economics

Which field lends itself better to rap? The Keynes-Hayek rap clearly has much more money behind it; however, low production value may be a plus when one is trying to take the title in nerdiness.

Monday, January 25, 2010


Stupid me. I have been trying for about a decade now to figure out a secure, efficient way to keep track of the books I have read. Not once, in all that time, did it ever occur to me to just search for an online service that specializes in precisely that. In fact, there are at least three major ones.

I have chosen LibraryThing, since it looks to be the site built most around cataloging, and least around social networking. Now I just have to remember all of the books I have read. So far, I have recalled 1062 of them. I know I'm missing at least another 500, even with my decision to exclude most works of fiction. Anyway, LibraryThing—do it.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Schopenhauer's Prize Essay on the Fredom of the Will

I put off reading Schopenhauer's Prize Essay on the Freedom of the Will for a long time, just because I thought it a peripheral work in Schopenhauer's canon, and not likely to be off exceptional interest. But, as usual, library recalls motivate me where nothing else can, with beneficial results. As anticipated, most of the book adds little to the free will debate, but it is an absolute delight to read, and not entirely without striking novelty.

Schopenhauer is as competent as any of his predecessors in defending determinism and analyzing the sources of the misleading feeling that we have free will. Admirably, he does not hesitate to credit his predecessors; in fact, one of the most valuable and enjoyable sections of the essay (IV) is devoted in its entirety to cataloging them—philosophers, theologians, and poets, all.

And then, there is the characteristic Schopenhauer twist at the end, where he seems to turn around and contradict everything he has just said. He does not, in actuality, contradict himself, at least not quite so obviously as some might think (if there is a contradiction, it is deep in his metaphysics), but for readers with no prior exposure to Schopenhauer—readers who might have been seduced into reading the Prize Essay in a materialistic cast—the last chapter must come as a rude awakening. I do worry about the coherence of Schopenhauer's metaphysics, but I probably will continue to worry about it for a long time without resolution. The Prize Essay deepens my worries, and my interest.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Philosophy and Ethics

As promised, I am starting to post to some of the material I have developed for my philosophy courses. The first is Philosophy and Ethics, a slideshow I present in most of my classes on the first day, to give my students very basic orientation (since the overwhelming majority of them are not philosophy majors). For my site, I have disassembled the slideshow, and reassembled it into a document with commentary.

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Instructor ethics

The Conservative Deist/Fists in the Wind has a good post about teachers' responsibilities in the classroom, especially as pertains to not trying to browbeat or indoctrinate one's students. I'm not sure what my students think these days, but when I was a TA, I found out (through direct polling after philosophy of religion units) that about half of my students thought I was a gung-ho atheist, and about half thought I was a devout believer. I have never known quite what to make of that result: is it a good result because of the even split, or a bad result because virtually everyone thought my beliefs were polar?

These days, I'm experimenting more with letting my own thoughts out into the classroom, but I find I tend to do so only when my thoughts are either (i) so tentative that my students and I effectively are in the same boat, working together to try to figure things out, or (ii) so counterintuitive that all of my students effectively are working together to try to knock me down. They appear to benefit from both variations—I know I certainly do.

Monday, January 18, 2010

U.S. Military Weapons Inscribed With Secret 'Jesus' Bible Codes

Remember those weird conspiracy theories about coded Satanism references in the Proctor & Gamble logo and all that? Nonsense, of course. But, leave it to Christians to do exactly the kinds of ludicrous things of which they accuse their imaginary foes. Rifle scope manufacturer Trijicon has been tagging coded Bible verses to the end of the serial code inscriptions on ACOGs purchased by the military. Unfortunately, since the ACOG is not the kind of thing you mount on a SAW or an M9, I had to make it through Iraq without the benefit of Jesus-power. And, truthfully, the Psalm 91 "Shield of Protection" booklet went straight into the garbage, amidst copious laughter. No worries, though: I prayed to Crom all the time, and he granted me +4 on all of my saving throws against wands, staves, and IEDs.

I'm betting this is next:

Non-Believers Giving Aid

The Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science and others have set up a charity account called Non-Believers Giving Aid, to collect donations for Doctors Without Borders and the International Red Cross, in order to help alleviate the ongoing tragedy in Haiti. Richard Dawkins himself, in his characteristic altruism, is personally covering the PayPal fees deducted from everyone's donations, so that the entire sum one donates goes to the charity designated.

According to PZ Myers, the account raised "over $150,000 in contributions for Haiti within 24 hours, and at the last tally I heard was somewhere over $180,000."

I just made a donation, myself. I'm finding myself increasingly pulled along by Peter Singer's arguments in The Life You Can Save, and the example of great men like Richard Dawkins. I'm not yet ready to be optimistic again about humanity, not after everything I have seen, but I'm increasingly willing to fight as time goes by—just much more cautiously than before.

H/T: Pharyngula.

Update 1/19: Predictably, attacks and smug insinuations have already started to emerge from some religious quarters, where at least a few loathsome individuals are more upset by the compassion of nonbelievers, than by the suffering of Haitians. Even with my pessimism, I boldly dare to believe that such sentiments are in the minority.

Update 1/20: From some non-religious quarters, too! It's true, there are certain liberal circles in which it is fashionable to try to prove to the world what a class act one is by lambasting the "new atheists," even when the "new atheists" are raising aid money for people who will otherwise die. This just confirms what I have said all along: stupidity and corruption are human universals.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Species and cognitive enhancement

I'm having a very interesting conversation (for me, at least) with Richard Chappell over at Philosophy, et cetera about his post on species and cognitive enhancement. You may notice that my position flip-flops. I take that as a good sign. I think flip-flopping when one contemplates a difficult philosophical problem or puzzle often is an indication of critical engagement and learning.

I must, of course, contrast flip-flopping with waffling, which I take to be when one flip-flops rapidly for the purposes of obfuscation, to avoid responsibility for having taken any position at all. Waffling is when one tries to have one's pancake and eat it, too.

Saturday, January 16, 2010

A Theory of Justice

At long last, I have finally finished reading Rawls's A Theory of Justice (the revised edition, which appears to be out of print). Now, I just have to read it again, twice. Although I learned a lot that goes beyond the usually-anthologized material, the chief thing I learned is that there is much in the book that looks like it will repay slower, more cautious reading. The book's scope and detail certainly exceeded my expectations. Regrettably, I must now return my copy, since another patron has recalled it to the library—that's why I read the thing at such blinding, unscholarly speed—but I feel at least that I am now in a better position to work with the secondary literature.

Thursday, January 14, 2010


From The Theory of Moral Sentiments, by Adam Smith:
Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befal himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own. (III.I.46)
Exaggerated, but not much.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Spring 2010

A new semester starts at ASU next week, and I am right now putting the finishing touches on my syllabi, and working to make sure my Blackboard sites are all ready to go on Friday, when they're supposed to become available to my students. This looks like it will be an exciting semester. I will be teaching two 100-level courses (Introduction to Ethics, and Introduction to Medical and Bioethics), one 300-level (Applied Ethics), and one 400-level (Environmental Philosophy and Policy). As always, I wish Philosophy of Science were in the list, but, alas, as the philosopher House says, you can't always get what you want.

Because I'm getting back to work, my blog may slow down a bit once again, but I don't expect it to be nearly as bad as last semester; I think I have everything arranged much better this time. I will try to post at least five days per week, and hopefully share with you some of the things that come up in class.

Monday, January 11, 2010


Paul Krugman says Europe is not an economic hell-hole. I have no idea how to assess his article or counterclaims—I might as well try to evaluate the Riemann hypothesis—but it interests me because in the circles I travel, it is taken practically as axiomatic that Europe is a disaster, and that any policy that makes the United States one bit more like Europe is bound to destroy our country. In fact, it seems that literally everyone except for me understands exactly how the economy works.

What confuses me most about the economy is that when the economy is good, it's always the result of your guy's actions—right now if he's in power right now, the last time he was in power otherwise; and, when the economy is bad, it's always the result of the other guy's actions—right now if he's in power right now, the last time he was in power otherwise. But this general truth does not change, regardless of which party I talk to—and it must be true, because everyone is so damn sure. So, neither party ever gets the economy wrong, and both parties always get the economy wrong. There seems to be some kind of tension, here. But then, my problem surely is that I'm trying to apply logic to politics—always a losing proposition.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

Totten-Hitchens interview

This great interview with Hitchens is making the rounds. Totten describes Hitchens as a man who "no longer fits in anyone's convenient box." That's about accurate. My favorite part of the interview is actually in the scene-setting, when
A tall and slightly disheveled man in his fifties rudely interrupted our conversation outside the bar at one point and said "I can't remember your name, but I recognize you from YouTube."

"You should read more," Hitchens said. He didn't remind the man of his name.
Not two minutes later, an attractive young woman walked up to him, squeezed his arm gently, and said "I love you."
"How often does this happen?" I said.
"This," he said and smiled at the pretty young woman, "doesn't happen nearly enough. But that," he said and gestured to the man who recognized him from YouTube and would not go away, "happens too often."
Update 15 Jan: Part II is available.

You just have to laugh

Politifact: Rudy Giuliani says we had no domestic attacks under Bush. This is even more ridiculous than the cowardly Dick Cheney's tirade about Obama pretending we're not at war with terrorists. Is Giuliani angling for his own Fox News show, or what?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Carl Sagan? More like Carl Awesome.

This video has a higher proportion of outrageous awesomeness than the leading brands. Pale Blue Dot, by the way, is a fantastic book.

H/T: Pharyngula.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Focused reading time

The computer gets shut off after this post. I am devoting the rest of the day to trying to finish A Theory of Justice, the classic by the late John Rawls. I consider it a scandal—an absolute scandal, I tell you—that I have not yet read the book in its entirety. There are a few other books on the scandal list, too; I seem to have a disease which makes me want to get all of the less important stuff out of the way first, before tacking the really heavy-duty, critical work. The less important stuff, of course, is undying.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The government we deserve

I should clarify something, so readers of my "Business as usual" post don't misunderstand me. Do I think there are pirates at the helm? Yes, I stand by that claim. But I wouldn't want anyone to come away with the impression that I think the crew or passengers are any better. This is a democracy: we have the government we are willing to settle for.

We the people hate lobbies. Really? Even the ones that advance our special interests? We the people are disgusted by pork barrel projects. Really? Even the pork our legislators bring into our states, our districts? We the people think big business has too much power. Really? The same big businesses we readily stoke with our cash day after day? We the people are tired of being manipulated by the media. Really? The same media we tune out whenever it doesn't tell us exactly what we want to hear?

If there is no true accountability in our government, that's because we don't really want it.

Don't think I don't blame the people in power. I do. The people in power—that's us. We have exactly the government we deserve.

Is causal interaction a problem for materialism?

I've noticed a lot of recent posts on philosophy of mind by Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher. One post that really caught my eye was "Causal Interaction: A Problem for the Materialist Too!" I was so excited when I saw the title that I put off reading the post until I had real quiet time to sit down and digest it properly. It turns out that Vallicella went in a completely different direction than I thought he would, but in an interesting direction nonetheless.

Here's the crux of Vallicella's case:
Vallicella appears to me to be offering one, maybe two, arguments here against (token-)identity theory, my unsatisfying default position out of a boatload of unsatisfying alternatives. I'm far from thinking that I can make a great case for identity theory, but I don't think either of Vallicella's arguments make a good case against it, either. Naturally, my assessment depends, in part, on whether I have understood him correctly in the first place, so here's my reconstruction of the arguments I think he makes:

 Argument 1:

(For reference, my premise labels stand for: MPI = mental-physical interaction, MN = mental nonexistence, MS = mental superfluity, AI = anti-identity.)

First, let's be clear that MN and MS cannot simply be read off of identity theorists' beliefs; that is, they are not propositions which an identity theorist would accept. As Vallicella points out earlier in his post, (token-)identity theory identifies physical and mental tokens with one another. That is not eliminationism—identity theorists accept the existence of both the physical and the mental, as one [but, see update below]. So, identity theorists would reject MN. Identity theorists also believe that physical tokens are causally efficacious. Eo ipso, identity theorists believe that mental tokens are causally efficacious. So, identity theorists would reject MS.

All this means that Vallicella must offer further argument to show that the identity theorist is wrong about MN and MS; and this he does, at least for MN, by using the familiar first-person vs. third-person argument (I forget what it's called in the technical literature):

 (FPP) Pain sensations have a first-person mode of existence.
 (ETPB) Brain events have only a third-person mode of existence.
 ∴ (NI) Pain sensations are not identical with brain events.*

(FPP = first-person nature of pain sensations, ETPB = exclusively third-person nature of brain events, NI = non-identity between pain sensations and brain events).

I'm not going to try to assess this argument in it's own right; ETPB certainly doesn't seem obvious to me, but suffice it to say that there's a huge literature on the topic, and I am content remain agnostic for the present. All that I would like to point out with respect to Vallicella is that reliance on this line of argument renders his causal interaction argument superfluous. NI is inconsistent with identity theory, so, if the first-person vs. third-person argument works, it demonstrates that identity theory is false. No further work is done by arguing, effectively, that because a theory is false, it cannot explain certain kinds of causal interactions.

How about MS? I see no further argument for it, so I presume that, if Vallicella accepts it at all, he must offer the same NI argument for it, which would make it equally superfluous. However, I'm not sure Vallicella accepts MS; I can read him as having already dismissed identity theory by the time he gets to the second quoted paragraph, and instead turning his attention to a form of property dualism, in which physical objects possess nonphysical properties which are not identical to physical properties. If that is Vallicella's target at that point, then I quite agree with his conclusion; I think the causal closure of physics is sufficient to justify our dismissing such metaphysical danglers. All I would emphasize for the reader is that the argument really would have no bearing on identity theory: identity theory is not property dualism (indeed, the latter is not even materialistic). In identity theory, mental properties are not nonphysical at all—they are physical. They are identical to, and therefore must have exactly the same causal power as, particular physical properties. Is such a contention plausible? Well, it gets us right back to arguments about things such as ETPB, where the literature is crushing and the answers not obvious to me. (Not that Vallicella is oblivious to the literature—check out his archived posts on mind. By the time I get through all of them, I may be a dualist.)

To sum, it would have been very interesting to show that identity theory, like dualism, has a causal interaction problem even if true—that's why I got excited when I saw the title of Vallicella's post—but that's not what Vallicella has shown. All he has shown is that identity theory has a causal interaction problem if it is false, which we already knew. Interaction truly is a fundamental (though not fatal) problem for dualism; it is not a fundamental problem for identity theory, whatever other problems the theory might suffer from.

* * *

OK, but one more thing: identity theory does have a causal interaction problem. At its root, all causal interaction is mysterious. I'm with Hume: I don't understand why things in the same ontological category can interact with one another. It's not that I think they shouldn't be able to, but search me if I can explain why they should. It's just one of those things that feels natural, because it's what we see.

At the level at which philosophy of mind is pursued (the level at which it is, for instance, appropriate to use Occam's razor), this argument is of no interest, but it goes to show you (or at least me) that when one pushes deep enough—when one refuses to bracket certain questions and work on an as-if level—then everything becomes deeply, deeply mysterious.

* You may notice that NI is not the same thing as MN, and a non-truth-functional form of MN (I take it to be expressing a subjunctive) would not necessarily follow from NI. That's another way of making my point, and perhaps more rigorous, but I think my way will be easier for most readers to follow.

Update (17:29): Poking around in some of Vallicella's older posts, I see that he does believe that "token-token-identity theory in the philosophy of mind collapses into eliminativism about mental items" (scroll to the last paragraph of the immediately linked post). I'm sure he has an argument for that claim in one of his older posts; I'll link to it when I find it, or when he lets me know where it is. Suffice it to say, again, that if he has a good argument for that claim, it would render further argument about causal interaction superfluous, since no identity theorist (correct me if I'm wrong) would endorse eliminitavism.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Business as usual

Politifact's latest:
Obama promised an end to closed-door negotiations and complete openness for the health care talks. But he has failed to deliver. When Crist says "President Obama has broken his pledge to the American people to be transparent throughout this process," he's right. We rate Crist's claim True.
Compromise with the other team, I understand—I prefer my government mixed. But there's no compromise here, except with corruption.

It reminds me that when I cast my vote for Obama, the only thought going through my head was, "Time to take the country in a different bad direction." Well, my wishes and predictions both have been fulfilled: the supreme arrogance of the Republican Party was punished (for about two seconds), and pirates still are at the helm, doing their thing, and occasionally producing some good almost by accident.

Blaming the victims

Wow, this opinion piece by Holm is just revolting. I wonder whether the "gender jihad" book she's working on blames rape victims for inflaming men's passions by not wearing the niqab? After all, all of women's talk about freedom, well, you know, it's only a smokescreen for a deeply rooted lust for all kinds of sexual immorality.

Jesus and Mo

Jesus and Mo quite often hits the nail on the head far more effectively than a thousand syllogisms:

Monday, January 4, 2010

The Conservative Deist

Via Maverick Philosopher, I have discovered my good friend Michael Valle's blog, The Conservative Deist. Mike must have been too shy to tell me about it (or perhaps I forgot—Mark brain no always work good).

Mike and I have been moving away from one another politically at a 150° (±0.35°) angle at least since my second tour in Iraq, with him shifting to the right, and me shifting to the left. Peruse his blog for a few moments, and you will see definite differences in our views, with a couple of points of concord. That's fine: obviously, neither he nor I choose our friends on the basis of ideological, philosophical, or even factual agreement.

All that matters in friendship is whether you're on one another's side, and that, strange as it may seem, can happen even when you agree about far less than Mike and I do. Besides, in our own ways, we're both extremists: I want to destroy humanity and usher in a perfect world of logic and robotics, and he's a fan of Sarah Palin. Come to think of it, I was considering voting for Palin in 2012, myself, in a bid to fulfill the first part of my plan.

Hey Mike, I know you have The Atheologian in your Google Reader. You better get over here and start ripping into my blog. Thor knows I won't balk at systematically tearing to shreds your puny beliefs. Should you need any incentive, I leave you with this:
A little philosophy inclines man's mind to conservatism, but depth in philosophy brings men's minds about to liberalism.
See? I can invent aphorisms, too! And I don't need to lend a false sense of profundity to my words with the addition of some pseudo-archaic "th"s, either. Wooooooooo! It's on!

No thanks, I'm already getting part of a dead Nigerian millionaire's fortune.

I just got this e-mail:
Confirmar mensajes

We are please and indeed grateful to inform you that You've won 891,934.00 pounds Send Necessary information:name,age,country
¡Que fant├ístico! I am please and indeed grateful, too!

Hey, wait a minute... this isn't one of those scams, is it? Oh ho ho, you try to trick Mark!

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Ten philosophical questions (with answers!)

I have posted a new, brief article to, in which I very quickly survey the ten philosophical questions that have exercised me most since I first became interested in philosophy, provide my own (sometimes tentative) answers, and rate my level of confidence in those answers. I like doing this kind of thing from time to time, with philosophical, political, and ethical questions alike, since I otherwise tend to lose sight of the forest for the trees; collecting everything together forces me to think about how to reconcile two answers or probability assessments with one another, often with instructive results.

What questions, philosophical or otherwise, have drawn most of your attention?

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Science, religion, and fundamental values

I just finished watching a 2004 video of presentations by three Templeton Prize winners (Ellis, Polikinghorne, and Rolston III), on "Science and Religion Dialogue: Why It Matters."* One thing that interested me about the video is that all three speakers agreed that science could benefit from dialogue with religion, because science cannot talk normatively (only descriptively) about values. This is a common sentiment, but it strikes me as wrong. To be sure, the second part of the claim is mostly (though not entirely) true—science cannot, at least, tell us what our most fundamental values ought to be. However, the fact that science is the wrong kind of enterprise to answer normative questions about fundamental values, does not show that religion is the right kind of enterprise.

I understand the tendency to assume that religion carries authority in the arena of values—it's one of those false "common-sense" beliefs that we adopt just because everyone else says it—but my reaction always is to wonder whether ethics isn't, rather, the domain of philosophy, which at least tries to utilize reason and evidence (religion being subsumed into philosophy on the occasions when it uses those tools). And if there are no answers to be had through philosophy—that is to say, reason and evidence can yield no answers—then I would wonder why anyone would think there is an answer to be had at all.

I presume that the speakers in this video all have reasons, grounded in philosophy, for claiming that religion does have the requisite authority, but they never tell us what those reasons are.** For the rank and file, religion, unfortunately, often functions as an excuse for laziness—one merely waves one's hands and says "faith" or "mystery," as though that explains anything. Presentations such as these, unfortunately, only encourage such laziness.

* As usual, I downloaded it through iTunes and listened to it through VLC player at 2.5x to 3x speed—listening to things at normal speed has become excruciating for me.

** Polkinghorne tries to argue that the intelligibility of the universe is best explained by the existence of a Creator, but this argument is irrelevant to the ethical authority of religion.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Happy New Year

A very happy New Year to all of you who follow and The Atheologian. Hume imagined us counseled by nature: "Be a philosopher; but, amidst all your philosophy, be still a man."* I have to disagree with the good David. My resolution for this year is the same resolution I have tried to reaffirm daily for the last several years: be more of a philosopher, and less of a man. Who wants humanity? Personally, I'm hoping for the most robotic decade ever.

* An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993, p. 4