Friday, December 19, 2008

The Main Dilemma
And: Other Projects

I've got a certain type of mind, as do you. Mine has a knack for doing a couple of marginally useful things, like, e.g., analyzing logic problems. That might sound really useful, but, meh, not so much. It probably doesn't outweigh the downsides of my particular mind, which include all sorts of fascinating quirks like, e.g., an inability to sleep. (Let me say once and for all and in no uncertain terms: being able to sleep is more important than better-than-average analytical skills. So if you get reincarnated and get a choice between the two, take the sleep. For one thing, analytical reasoning requires sleep.)

Another little quirk of mine is that waving stupid arguments in front of me is like waving a red flag in front of a cartoon bull.* I cannot tell you how many hours of my life I've wasted arguing with utterly clueless theists, creationists, puritans, hard lefties, illiberal feminists, PC pod people, and Bush dead-enders. (And, note, I'm actually sympathetic to moderate versions of some of these positions--I'm o.k. with certain views that lean in the direction of an attenuated theism, including views about evolution that attract the scorn of orthodox neo-Darwinians. I recognize that certain common views about sex are vulgar and dehumanizing, I'm largely a liberal, egalitarian feminist myself when you get right down to it, etc.) But the more radical and moronic a position, the harder I find it to just ignore it and move on. This afflicts my professional research interests as well, and once prompted a colleague of mine to ask "Don't you ever get tired of taking out the trash?"

The main intellectual dilemma of my life has been: ignore the fools or take the time to defeat them in detail? It's a dilemma we all face, but it hits me in a particularly acute way.

Now, back when Bush was still the President (I wonder what that guy is doing now...?), and when his toadies were still spewing out their lame defenses of his pathetic and disastrous term in office at every opportunity, I felt like it might help to have another voice out there crying "bullshit!" on the bullshit. Now that we're moving into a new political phase, I'm wondering whether it might be wiser to just ignore whatever fools continue to publicize their foolishness.

I mean, we all know most of the pluses and minuses on each side of this question. But I've long worried about a certain dialectical dynamic, exacerbated a thousand fold by blogs, that goes like this: even if most people on side A are being reasonable, there will always be some idiots saying idiotic things on their end of the spectrum. Some people on side B focus on those idiots, and respond, invariably painting with a rather overly-broad brush and thus riling up some of the non-idiots on side A. Repeat until chaos ensues...

Eventually one even stops arguing against them, and just falls back on ridicule. Which is often all they deserve...but it reinforces a bankrupt dynamic.

So I've been wondering: might this not be the time to at least try ignoring the wingnuts at e.g. the Corner (let alone LGF, The American "Thinker," [Argh. See? How can one resist scare quotes there?] Confederate Yankee and so forth)? Might it not be better in the long run to emphasize the conservatives who have seen the light on all this? E.g. the ones who have begun to admit the truth about Bush, the ones who backed Obama, the ones who are praising his cabinet selections? It might not work. But it just might.

Anyway, as we prepare to bid the dark night of the Bush era farewell, and as other projects ignored for too long become more pressing in my life, I'm currently intending to throttle back a bit on the blogging. I'll be traveling to CO and MO for Xmas anyway, and so blogging will continue to be extra light for awhile. After that, I'm going to try to keep it down to a couple of posts a week for awhile and see how that goes.

And I think this is a good time to try to think hard about the future of blogging. Do people like us really want to spend thousands of hours of our lives responding to the sludge that builds up at the bottom of the blogosphere? Isn't it at best a waste of time? And at worst positively pernicious?

I think that's a question that's worth thinking about, and now's a good time to do it.

* As you know, actual bovines don't seem to be all that good at distinguishing among colors. I've spent a fair bit of my life around bulls, and have never noticed any antipathy on their part to any particular color. Some people think they're color-blind, but that's probably not true. Though they may be worse at such discriminations than we are. But we're obsessed with color.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

America The Torturous

The report.

This is a subject I've touched on less that you might think, but largely because words fail me, and I can't discuss it in anything like a calm or civil manner.

These people have spit on the Constitution. They've abandoned the very principles that make America worth defending.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Foreign Policy: Ten Worst Predictions of 2008

Here, via Metafilter.

Old friends Kristol, Krauthammer and Luskin make the list, but so does the Economist.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Carter: Restoring America's Moral Authority

IMHO Carter is right on the money here.

It's common to hear it said that most of the world doesn't blame America for the last eight years, but, rather, Bush and his supporters. Obama needs to make it clear to them that they're right by working immediately to put the country back on...well, I suppose I'm almost tempted here to say "the path of righteousness." Outlawing torture, especially of prisoners who have not had trials and are not known to be guilty would, of course, be a natural early step.

But "sending a message" to the world--important though that is--is, of course, less important than effecting the real changes that will get us back on track. Seeming good is good; being good is better.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008


WTF does one say about this?

My first thought was: Utterly outrage so outrageous as to be nearly comical.

My second thought was: Well, compared to the type of corruption in the Bush administration, this really isn't that bad. (Note: comparing types, not scope or actual effects; of course a President can do more actual harm than a governor. But merely selling a Senate seat seems almost quaint by comparison to shredding the Constitution.)

My third thought: God, I hate it when people try to deflect attention from the sins of their favored party by pointing out that those of the other party are greater.

My fourth thought: Probably best to just shut up about this, then.

My fifth thought: just because we've been immersed in a stew of more heinous types of corruption for the last eight years in no way means that corruption of this type isn't outrageous, for it is, it is.

My sixth thought: Wonder how long it'll be before our friends across the aisle start tying themselves in rhetorical knots in an attempt to show how this entails that Obama is BAD? (Blagojevich is from Chicago and he is corrupt; Obama is from Chicago, so...)

My seventh thought: See fourth thought.
Keith Ward: Is Science The Only Sure Path To Truth?

Philosophy of science hits the mainstream?

Finals week--no time to read carefully or comment--but I thought this was interesting enough to post. (At a glance I don't see anything really novel, but I think it's interesting that this stuff is being discussed outside a philosophy department.)

One quick point. There are lots of slightly different ways to approach these issues (many of them being largely equivalent.) But here's Peirce in "The Fixation of Belief,"
To satisfy our doubts, therefore, it is necessary that a method should be found by which our beliefs may be determined by nothing human, but by some external permanency -- by something upon which our thinking has no effect. Some mystics imagine that they have such a method in a private inspiration from on high. But that is only a form of the method of tenacity, in which the conception of truth as something public is not yet developed. Our external permanency would not be external, in our sense, if it was restricted in its influence to one individual. It must be something which affects, or might affect, every man. And, though these affections are necessarily as various as are individual conditions, yet the method must be such that the ultimate conclusion of every man shall be the same. Such is the method of science. Its fundamental hypothesis, restated in more familiar language, is this: There are Real things, whose characters are entirely independent of our opinions about them; those Reals affect our senses according to regular laws, and, though our sensations are as different as are our relations to the objects, yet, by taking advantage of the laws of perception, we can ascertain by reasoning how things really and truly are; and any man, if he have sufficient experience and he reason enough about it, will be led to the one True conclusion. The new conception here involved is that of Reality. It may be asked how I know that there are any Reals. If this hypothesis is the sole support of my method of inquiry, my method of inquiry must not be used to support my hypothesis.
Peirce's point, roughly and stripped of detail: science can't secure its own foundations. In Peirce's way of casting the problem, the question is: how can we prove the fundamental hypothesis of science (described above)? Since it is a presupposition of all science, we can't prove it with science, unless we are willing (roughly) to countenance circular reasoning as valid. (As some people are; but they are in error.)

People tend to want to jump to solutions at this point, but I think that's a bad strategy. The thing to do at this point is to spend a little time with the problem. It's a genuine problem--which is, of course, not to say that it is an insoluble problem.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Welcome to the Wingnut Motel

Wow. This is some big crazy right here folks.
Carolina 98, MSU 63

Wow. These guys are good. And really, really, really fun to watch.

The peculiar thing is that the ACC-Big Ten Challenge now stands at 10-0 ACC. Now (despite some down years of late), the ACC is a better hoops conference than the Big Ten...but not that much better. Not 10-0 better. No way. I'd like to see the Challenge continue, but I'm guessing it won't be renewed again if this keeps up for the next couple of years.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008


Looks like certain boobs in Uganda are getting robbed by women with chloroform in their cleavage.

Must Read: "Matthew Alexander," "I'm Still Tortured By What I Saw In Iraq"

This is an astonishingly important op-ed, IMHO, by "Matthew Alexander," a pseudonymous interrogator with big experience and big successes.

The first 'graphs:

I should have felt triumphant when I returned from Iraq in August 2006. Instead, I was worried and exhausted. My team of interrogators had successfully hunted down one of the most notorious mass murderers of our generation, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq and the mastermind of the campaign of suicide bombings that had helped plunge Iraq into civil war. But instead of celebrating our success, my mind was consumed with the unfinished business of our mission: fixing the deeply flawed, ineffective and un-American way the U.S. military conducts interrogations in Iraq. I'm still alarmed about that today.

I'm not some ivory-tower type; I served for 14 years in the U.S. Air Force, began my career as a Special Operations pilot flying helicopters, saw combat in Bosnia and Kosovo, became an Air Force counterintelligence agent, then volunteered to go to Iraq to work as a senior interrogator. What I saw in Iraq still rattles me -- both because it betrays our traditions and because it just doesn't work.

Seriously--read it.

(h/t: Mystic)
Christianism In KY Homeland Security Law

A group of atheists filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to remove part of a state anti-terrorism law that requires Kentucky's Office of Homeland Security to acknowledge it can't keep the state safe without God's help.

American Atheists Inc. sued in state court over a 2002 law that stresses God's role in Kentucky's homeland security alongside the military, police agencies and health departments.

Of particular concern is a 2006 clause requiring the Office of Homeland Security to post a plaque that says the safety and security of the state "cannot be achieved apart from reliance upon almighty God" and to stress that fact through training and educational materials.

Downright, flat-out insanity. There's no way this law can stand.

Look, I'm o.k. with ceremonial deism. I don't even much care about having "in God we trust" on the money. Heck, if anything, it's Christians who should object to that. But stuff like this is entirely unacceptable. This is Christianists forcing their metaphysical views onto the State, pure and simple. It accomplishes nothing other than giving them the satisfaction of having their private beliefs affirmed in State documents. This is just a kind of bizarre power trip.

Atheist though I am, I can't stand American Atheists. But they're obviously right about this one.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

T. Tomorrow:
The Bush Years: A Look Back

If only...
The Bush Recession
The Clinton-Obama Responsibility Boundary

So looks like the recession started a year ago. Now, you might think that this would make it more difficult for buffoons like that Limbaugh fellow to blame it on Obama...but, look: once you've accepted the possibility of backwards causation, how far back the effect occurs doesn't really matter. That's just quibbling over details.

We really should try to figure out how far back Obama's insidious (and magical) causal influence reaches. I expect that it goes without saying that Bush is not responsible for anything bad that happened during his administration. Clearly everything was Clinton's fault until it started being Obama's fault...though it would be interesting to find out where exactly the Clinton-Obama responsibility boundary lies. I mean, history will want to know whether to blame Clinton or Obama for going into Iraq, for the response to Katrina, for shreading the Constitution and so forth.

Just to be clear: Bush would be responsible for anything good that happened during his administration...if anything good had, in fact, happened. However, he will be responsible for anything good that happens during the Obama administration, and I see that our friends across the aisle are already gearing up to chant their predictable chants about that.

Details about who exactly gets the blame for which of the myriad disasters during his administration are, however, as yet unclear.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Famous Idiots
Slvoj Zizek Edition

Adam Kirsch discusses that Zizek guy at TNR.

Let me note that I don't personally know any philosophers who take this guy seriously. In fact, most analytic philosophers (who, let me admit, have their own problems) wouldn't even recognize the guy's name. So don't blame us.

I had never heard of him until I was watching the special features on the Children of Men DVD. Some guy comes on and starts spewing complete nonsense. I mean, seriously: he made no sense whatsoever. The disk identified him as a philosopher, so I looked him up. Otherwise, I'd have never heard of Zizak at all.

Guys like this--and I'd put e.g. Derrida and Foucault and Lyotard in this camp--present us all with a dilemma. Prima facie, they sound like kooks...but, hey, lots of good philosophers sound like kooks on first contact. Kant comes to mind. So you can either ignore them or dig in and really try to figure them out. Thing is, life is short. After awhile in this biz, you can get fairly good at doing triage. I write guys like Mr. Z off fairly quickly because they are bullshitters. No doubt there are some decent points buried in their thousands of pages of published work. But folks like this are just fundamentally unserious. They are screwing around, studying, as Peirce would say, in a literary spirit, more concerned with saying things that are novel and provocative than in saying things that are reasonable and true. This "philosophy" is really a kind of mixture of philosophy and literature. Now, some literature aims at truth in some way, but often in an oblique, allusive way. These Po-Mo-ish Continental types seem are probably trying to get at the truth in some way and to some extent, but they are just to unserious and undisiciplined. They are bullshitters in Harry Frankfurt's sense--they don't care enough about the distinction between truth and falsehood

My view is that, if I'm going to spend thousands of hours studying somebody's writings, I've got to have some assurance that they're trustworthy, some reason to believe that I'm not just wasting my time. Without some such assurance, you are just buying a pig in a poke. Given the fact that life is short and intellectual energy is radically finite, this would not be an intelligent way to conduct your affairs. Kant is damnably difficult, and he may be completely wrong, but at least he's putting his heart and soul into trying to be right. His mistakes are honest mistakes. The same, I believe, cannot be said about many of the folks in Mr. Z's camp. This is something you can discern without reading the entire ouvre. And the clearer it becomes that you're reading a bullshitter, the less rational it becomes to keep going, even though there are bound to be bits of non-bullshit here and there.

If you want a taste of Mr. Z's "philosophical" antics, just check out, for example, this gem and I think you'll see what I mean.

You might think that this guy is just a harmless buffoon, but I assure you, such folks are turning the minds of thousands of English (and LitCrit, etc.) students into mush. Reading guys like this actually makes you dumber, and I, like many other people, fear that it's not uncommon now for people to come out of many LitCrit and so-called "theory" classes being worse reasoners than they were when they walked in the door.
Go Green, Go Blue!

Those clever folks at the University of Michigan may have solved a good bit of our energy problem. Nice work, Wolverines!

[via Kleiman]
The Mumbai Attacks and Evil

In case you have somehow managed to forget what kind of people we're up against, Sullivan links to a story noting that the hostages were brutally tortured. Presumably no sane person will try to make excuses for this instance of mass murder. And presumably no one around these parts has any inclination to make such excuses. Still, perhaps it bears saying, no matter how obvious it is: the people who planned and carried out these attacks were/are evil. There is no plausible excuse for such mindless, soulless brutality.