11/30/11

More Wilco

Forget philosophy, let's have more Wilco.  They were fantastic at Fair Park Music Hall last night. (Not my video, by the way.) Next week, for something very different, we're seeing Kanye West and Jay-Z. Possible topic for my next column--Wilco vs. The Throne. Title: "The Rough and the Shiny"? Like "The Raw and the Cooked"? Right, well, I haven't had any coffee yet.  Too bad about the bad sound quality in the video, because they were amazing.

New Free Inquiry

I'm going to have to get my hands on the latest issue of Free Inquiry, which includes a forum on "enhancement."  Russell Blackford writes for the defense (his article is online), and Adrienne Asch for the prosecution (among other authors). There's also a column by PZ Myers on my favorite time-waster and yours, that elevator matter of yore.

11/29/11

Jesus, Etc.

Going to the Wilco concert tonight ...  grin!  You have to love this song--

11/27/11

The Power of "How?"


As a result of a recent column by Julian Baggini (lots of links here), I find myself thinking about the power of "how?"--as in, the power to induce skepticism that lies in there being no explanation how a purported event happens.

So ... Santa Claus supposedly circles the globe on Christmas Eve and invades houses through chimneys, leaving presents for good boys and girls.   I can't say how, since there are too many miles to traverse, and too many presents to bring, and the chimneys are too narrow, and some houses don't even have chimneys.  Smart boys and girls will, I think, reason that absence of "how?" is evidence of absence.  Santa Claus doesn't do any of these things, if he exists at all.

The same reasoning seems equally fair in the case of God creating the world by sheer fiat.  "Let there be light!" he said, and thus there was light. But how?  All there is to work with is the sheer content of the thought, since God is said to be immaterial.  Could the sheer content cause light to exist?  It seems awfully unlikely. 

So:  absence of a good answer to "how?" sometimes ought to induce skepticism.  But now here's the tricky thing. Lacking an answer to"how?" questions shouldn't always induce skepticism. I shall now do an experiment.  I will let myself have various thoughts, and see what the outcome  is.  The thoughts will be along these lines:  "I want a cup of coffee, I believe the coffee machine is in the kitchen, I intend to get up and make coffee ..." 

Tick, tick, tick.

OMG, there's now a cup of coffee in my hand!


It seems as if having a whole series of thoughts about coffee brought about the actions that brought the cup of coffee into being. Moreover, the content of the thoughts seems to have been critical. If the thoughts hadn't been about coffee, but about (say) orange juice, I would be sitting here with a glass of orange juice, not a cup of coffee.  So my thoughts, in virtue of their content, had a tangible impact on the world.

Right, but how?  We can tell part of the story by identifying thoughts with events in my brain.  We know from massive evidence of many sorts that my thoughts are actually complicated neural events.  That certainly helps us explain how the thoughts have a tangible impact on the world.  You'd expect the brain to have a tangible impact--that's not mysterious.  But how is it that the thoughts have a tangible impact in virtue of their content?  This isn't an easy question to answer--in fact, it's so elusive there's a vast and very complex philosophical literature about it.  (This, by the way, was my dissertation topic many moons ago.)

It wouldn't be the least bit silly to say we just don't know how thoughts have an impact on the world in virtue of their contents, and yet -- hark! we now get to the point! -- that shouldn't induce skepticism that they do, or at least not right away.  It would be reasonable to say the fact is robust (my thoughts about coffee simply have got to be part of the reason why I am now swallowing a gulp of coffee), but the "how?" question has yet to be answered.

So ... how is it that absence of "how?" is evidence of absence, where Santa Claus and God are concerned, but not where the explanatory role of mental content is concerned? Is it that we are (some of us, anyway) already very skeptical about Santa Claus distributing presents, and God making light by thinking "let there be light!"?  Is the absence of "how?" the straw that broke the camel's already over-burdened back?  Or is this it? -- The underlying processes in the Santa and God cases are too wildly at odds with the way we know the world works; but the way content makes a difference in our brains is genuinely a question at the frontiers of knowledge.  It could be some of each.

11/24/11

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm in "Happy Valley" for Thanksgiving--home of the infamous Sandusky mess.  Go ahead and judge me -- because yes, we did a little Sandusky tourism yesterday.  We call this place "MOP" for short (Middle of Pennsylvania) and absolutely nothing ever happens here, so it was amazing (amazing!) to see NBC news trucks downtown.  I hang my head in shame, but we did drive by Joe Paterno's house.  There was a reporter or guard or something stationed out there, so we felt completely foolish driving by.  The Paterno family lives on a road to nowhere, so we couldn't even zip by and pretend we were just going to  ... Wegman's, or some such.  No, we were going to gawk at Joe Paterno's house, for no intelligible reason.  You might regain just a touch of respect for me when I tell you we didn't go by Sandusky's house. Then again, was it for good reasons, or just because there are apparently roadblocks out there?  Ahem. 

Anyhow ...

I hope you are feeling thankful today -- for good things large and small.  I wanted to thank readers of this blog for being readers, and for leaving comments.  I read all the comments, but don't always take the time to comment on comments. Sometimes I don't because it just seems unnecessary to write "Hmm, interesting, I'll think about it."  I'm hoping that response is somehow understood, even when not explicit. But if not--this "thank you" is for you (and that means YOU).  Thank you for reading my sometimes-long posts and making thoughtful comments.

11/21/11

What Science Can't Know

This short column by theologian Keith Ward generated a sprawling discussion at atheist blogs over the weekend. Let's see if I can summarize the discussion in less than 10,000 words, and maybe clear up a few things.

Ward's main assertion was this:  "many religious statements are naturally construed as statements of fact...."  More precisely, they're naturally construed as purporting to be statements of fact.  You can't state a fact if it's not a fact--so the "purporting" part is important.  Like (Ward's example): "Jesus healed the sick, and rose from death." Obviously, we can all agree only that this purports to state a fact.  So that's stage 1 of the argument:  religious statements purport to be fact-stating.

Stage 2 is this:  "A huge number of factual claims are not scientifically testable."  Why?  "Many historical and autobiographical claims, for instance, are not repeatable, not observable now or in the future, and not subsumable under any general law."   Somebody a long time ago saw something, and told someone else, and we've been playing whisper down the alley for 2,000 years.  Science can't go back and confirm or disconfirm.  According to Ward, whether we believe the report--for example, about Jesus healing the sick--will depend on "general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment."

I read Ward as allowing here that someone like me is going to reject Jesus healing the sick as having occurred, because I'm philosophically disinclined to believe in miracles.  But someone open to the possibility of miracles might think there really is a reliable chain of reports going back to Jesus healing the sick, and so may think "Jesus healed the sick" not only purports to be fact-stating but states a fact.  At any rate, our reasoning about this long ago event falls at least partly outside the domain of science.  That's the main assertion in the column--Ward is not here trying to defend specific Christian beliefs.

Stage 3 gets much more exciting. Now Ward says that "God created the universe for a purpose" purports to be fact stating as well, and says that science has nothing to say about that. "The physical sciences do not generally talk about non-physical and non-law-like facts such as creation by God."

My take on all this is--  Stage 1, check.  Stage 2, check. Stage 3, groan.


Jerry Coyne (11/6) reacts very differently.  Stage 1, check.  Stage 2, groan.  Stage 3, groan.  Stage 2 doesn't pass muster because --
All “facts” must be empirical facts, susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, and the possibility that the claim can be falsified.  That goes for the claim that Ward was in Oxford the night before he wrote this [this is an example of Ward's].  There are many ways to investigate that question, including eyewitness accounts, travel receipts, videos, and so on.
He then issues a challenge to Ward--
I challenge Ward to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.
Coyne's response strikes me as being off the mark for two reasons:

First, the challenge is odd.  That quoted bit from Ward was merely an allowance that a person's receptivity to testimony about past events will depend on their general philosophical views, etc.  He never said those views and judgments could be formed "without any verifiable empirical input."  In fact, most people will form those views with input.  My "no miracles" view is partly based on my observations, and someone else's "yes, miracles" view will probably turn partly on their observations.  Ward's point is only that these views, whatever they are, will influence whether a person believes testimony about the long ago event of Jesus healing the sick.

Second, Coyne's paragraph about "facts" is perplexing.  What are these "facts" that must be "susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence, etc."?  If by "facts" he means states of affairs in the world, then all that's obviously false.  Ward could sneak into Oxford unbeknownst to anyone.  That state of affairs doesn't hinge on anyone being able to confirm it.

What Coyne really seems to mean is something like "known facts." But known by whom?  A fact known by all of humanity might need to be "susceptible to empirical investigation, confirmation by several lines of evidence," etc. We're not going to put Ward's trip to Oxford into the common repository of knowledge unless it measures up to those kinds of intersubjective standards.  But someone could personally know about the trip with much less ado. Like Ward, for example, and he could share that knowledge with anyone who has good reason to trust his veracity.  It would be extraordinary if nobody could ever know any facts in the absence of "confirmation by several lines of evidence," etc.


Now the plot thickens.  Jim Houston, a blogger at Talking Philosophy, passed along Coyne's challenge to Ward, who said he'd never said anything like that. Ward reiterated his points from stage 2 of his argument, giving an example of "personal knowledge" that can't meet scientific standards.  His father told him, and him alone, something on his death bed.  Since he has good reason to trust his father, he can know X, but it doesn't follow that X should wind up in the common repository of knowledge.  It's not susceptible to enough scientific corroboration for that.

Jerry Coyne responded here, saying "A 'fact' is not a fact if all the evidence supporting it has vanished or is inaccessible."  Further down, he writes--
I repeat again for philosophers like Ward and Houston: factual claims are not facts.  It is possible that Ward’s father was a double agent, but I won’t accept its truth until there are independent ways to show that.
(Not to be fussy, but I don't think either Ward or Houston are professional philosophers. One's a theologian and the other is a philsophy blogger.)

He then excoriates people who come to the defense of theists like Ward--
Increasingly, I find philosophers like Houston presenting claims of theologians like Ward sympathetically.  It’s almost as if there’s a bifurcating family tree of thought, with philosophers and theologians as sister taxa, and scientists as the outgroup.  That seems strange to me, as I understood that most philosophers are atheists.  I’m not clear why I’m attracting increasing opprobrium from philosophers, though one reason may be their irritation that I am encroaching on their territory.
And then we get some more scolding--
Back in the old days of the Greeks, philosophy was supposed to be part of a well-rounded life; now any scientist who engages in the practice is criticized for treading on the turf of professional academic philosophers.  Suck it up, I say to these miscreants.
Finally, the challenge is repeated, despite the fact that it has no connection to anything Ward said, as Ward already explained--
And I invite readers again to give me just one reasonably well established fact about the world that comes from “general philosophical views, moral views, personal experience and judgment” without any verifiable empirical input.

Let's skip the challenge, because, as I said, it's a red herring.  Furthermore, I think very few philosophers see much of their reasoning as being entirely a priori -- free of "any verifiable empirical input." Third, to understand how philosophers make progress and "establish facts" would take deep involvement in the discipline. You can't answer this challenge effectively in the space of a comment at a blog, or even a lengthy post.

I already responded above to the business about facts.  Discussing Ward, stage 2, becomes hopelessly confused and confusing if we don't carefully distinguish facts (states of affairs in the world), from knowledge-claims.  I also think we need to distinguish personal knowledge claims from knowledge that's the common possession of humanity--stuff that goes into science and history books.  I know what my father said to me in private conversations he can't remember, like Ward knows what his father told him.  We all (uncontroversially) have lots of unsharable, not-scientifically-confirmable knowledge like this.

So what's left is Coyne's puzzlement that atheist philosophers come to the defense of people like Ward.


Well, it's like this:  when I teach a philosophical argument, I take my task to have two parts.  First, I've got to fairly represent the argument, capturing exactly what the philosopher had in mind.  It's a deep-seated occupational habit, I think, to take this duty very seriously, and try to execute it without regard to whether I'm for or against what the philosopher is arguing for.  So: we've got to understand what Ward's saying, before we object.  Second, it's a sacred duty to be adversarial--strongly inculcated by the guild of philosophers.  We need to figure out if there are problems with an argument (whatever we think of the conclusion), and if so, exactly what they are.

In light of all that, if Coyne misrepresents Ward and misidentifies the problem with his argument, a good philosopher is going to say so--even if, ultimately, they're closer to Coyne's intellectual outlook than to Ward's.

"Opprobrium"?  Well maybe, just a bit.  Because running through some of Coyne's posts is an intermittent skepticism about the value of philosophy. And yet this whole debate about Ward makes it clear why philosophy is so valuable.  To discuss all these things productively, we need to have a good grip on: facts, claims, knowledge-claims, evidence, scientific knowledge, empirical knowledge, a priori knowledge, etc.. Whose job is it to sort out how we think about and talk about all of those topics?  It's the job of a (wait for it) ... philosopher!

In fact, all this confusion about facts (and the irrelevant "challenge") distracts attention from what's really wrong with Ward's view.  I think what's really wrong with it is that while he does show there could be facts (states of affairs) that are known about by some people, but not susceptible to scientific confirmation, he does nothing to show any of these science-eluding facts are "religious facts."

There are lots of good philosophical arguments establishing interesting categories of science-eluding facts*, but also good philosophical arguments establishing that these are not about gods or souls or miracles and such.  So: atheism will win in the end, I think, but we don't need to be sloppy about what Ward really said, or discredit everything he said, to make that case.

* Reading suggestion:  Frank Jackson, "What Mary Didn't Know"

11/19/11

Everyone should see ...

... this terrific news report about factory farm egg production.  I have the greatest admiration for people who go undercover like this. So much for Sparboe eggs--no longer bought by McDonalds or sold at Target.

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

11/18/11

Procreative Beneficence

the perfect baby
ANNIE
We all think a pregnant woman should protect her probable future child, A.  Annie should get good prenatal care, stop smoking, absolutely not engage in binge drinking, go on bed rest if needed to avoid premature delivery, etc.  She ought to try to bring A into the world without any abnormalities she can prevent.

BETTY
Now suppose Betty isn't pregnant yet, and she's taking a drug that could cause fetal abnormalities. Her doctor says to delay conception until she's off the drug. Once again, there's a very strong impulse to say she should avoid those abnormalities. This seems just like the first case, but on closer inspection there's a big difference. This is not a matter of protecting a probably future child, but of having one child or another. Her doctor is really telling her not to have A (with abnormalities) but to have B (without).

It seems, despite the difference here, that essentially the same duty is involved.  We  ought to do our "personal best" where creating offspring is concerned.  Julian Savulescu defends a principle of this sort*, The Principle of Procreative Beneficence (PB):


If you think of Annie as choosing between two versions of the same child (A and A*), then she is covered by PB, and so (more obviously) is Betty.  Furthermore, Cathy is covered as well--

CATHY
Cathy and her husband are trying to conceive using IVF, and have 5 embryos sitting in a laboratory.  Using pre-implantation diagnosis (PGD) it's possible to tell if any of these embryos are abnormal.  PB says Cathy ought to avail herself of this technology, and select the child (the embryo) with the best potential to have a good life.  Intuitively, PB applies to Annie and Betty, but about Cathy we're not so sure.

I would like to  understand why we're not so sure about Cathy, but let's start with Betty.  I think it would be possible, and not flat out irrational, for someone to be not so sure about Betty.  Or rather, they could be not so sure about Betty if they've squarely faced the fact that Betty is choosing between two different children.  That's a "buried" truth that doesn't immediately meet the eye.

OK, but it's clearly true.  Betty is choosing between two different children, A and B.  Derek Parfit argues that the difference between A and B "makes no difference"--and in fact Betty's case is just like Annie's.  But this is not inevitable.  Suppose I think the creating a child is beneficial to the child--it saves them from the very bad state of non-existence.  On this view, if A is created, A is lucky to be born, and B unlucky.  If B is created, B is lucky to be born, and A unlucky.

If I seriously do think this way, then Betty's situation is very different from Annie's.  Annie has to decide whether it's better for A to come into the world with or without the abnormality.  The obvious answer is "without."  Betty must think about a completely different question: whether the abnormality in question makes B more worth saving from non-existence than A.

THE LIFEGUARD
This would be a not completely different situation-- a lifeguard sees two swimmers drowning.  They're the same age, and otherwise not remarkably different.  One has an abnormality and the other doesn't.  Of course it's better to lack it than have it, but that's not the issue. The lifeguard has to decide whether the abnormality makes the abnormal swimmer less worth saving from non-existence than the normal swimmer.

I think the lifeguard could, would, and should think the abnormality makes no difference to how much a person is worth saving from non-existence.  Likewise, if I seriously see creating people as benefiting them, I can coherently think Betty has no duty to avoid A and have B.

Maybe, though, we should "modus tollens" the last paragraph.  Obviously (we might think) Betty does have a duty to avoid A and have B.  So creating people doesn't benefit them, and is nothing even remotely like saving people from drowning.  Maybe so.  My point is that there's at least more to think about in the case of Betty, and there's no immediate and quick route from an Annie judgment to a Betty judgment.

REPRODUCTION
OK, so what about Cathy?  The above has been a warm up exercise.  Now that you see there's no immediate step from Annie to Betty, I'm hoping you'll agree there's no immediate route from Betty to Cathy either.

Now, I'd very much like to comment on Cathy without sounding even remotely like Michael Sandel, in his book The Case Against Perfection. Let's not talk about the evils of mastery, or the wonders of beholding instead of molding; I promise not to say life is a gift, and we should be open to the unbidden.

Let's talk instead about reproduction--the basic "what?" of it.  Reproduction is an essentially "agent-centered" act. The couple thinks "let's have our own child."  The first-person pluralness of this is crucial.  The reproductive state of mind is completely different from a third-person managerial state of mind. Your goal is not to fill the earth with the best possible creatures--the ones with the highest possible quality of life, but to have children who are your own (for better or for worse!). 

Now, delaying conception until Betty's off the drug doesn't compromise "our own"-ness in the slightest bit. Betty and her partner can have children that are "our own" in January or in March. 

With Cathy, it's just a bit different.  True, she's still using her own and her husband's gametes.  But opting for PGD shifts her into the more managerial state of mind.  Suddenly, what would have been good enough in an ordinary couple (whatever sperm-egg combination has transpired, in the darkness of the womb)  isn't necessarily good enough.  The ordinary couple is permitted to act on the self-affirming thought that their offspring is overwhelmingly like to be fine, but Cathy is supposed to scrutinize, compare, and optimize.  She's being turned into a "who exists?" manager, when she and her husband only wanted to create "our own."

THE DONORS
Now, I think Savulescu does recognize "our ownness" as a consideration, though not in the Cathy type of case.  In a footnote, he clarifies that PB is only meant to apply in cases where a couple are using their own biological material.

He's thus pre-empted a case like this-- Cathy and her husband do opt for PGD, and they're about to implant a terrific embryo, when the clinic tells them they have some leftovers from the world's most fantastic couple. They're gorgeous, brilliant, disease free for generations, etc.  If Cathy has little baby C, the child will have longer, higher quality life.

Perhaps Cathy and her partner do have some reason to have C instead of B, but their urge for "our ownness" has to be considered legitimate and overriding.  So "our ownness" is a factor in competition with PB--the only question being whether it really ought to count for Cathy.  May she have the self-affirming thought (like any ordinary couple would) -- "Our embryos are all (probably) fine"?  Or must exercise managerial control, use PGD, and opt for the best of the lot? 

You can't say the "soft" considerations about "our ownness" don't count at all, if you think Cathy may obviously decline the splendid couple's leftovers.

* Savulescu, "Procreative Beneficence: Why We Should Select the Best Children." Bioethics, 2001. Savulescu and Kahane, "The Moral Obligation to Create Children with the Best Chance of the Best Life."  Bioethics, 2009.  The quote and the later footnote are from the second article.

11/16/11

Everyday Rebellions

From David Brooks:
First came the atrocity, then came the vanity. The atrocity is what Jerry Sandusky has been accused of doing at Penn State. The vanity is the outraged reaction of a zillion commentators over the past week, whose indignation is based on the assumption that if they had been in Joe Paterno’s shoes, or assistant coach Mike McQueary’s shoes, they would have behaved better. They would have taken action and stopped any sexual assaults.

Unfortunately, none of us can safely make that assumption. Over the course of history — during the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide or the street beatings that happen in American neighborhoods — the same pattern has emerged. Many people do not intervene. Very often they see but they don’t see.

Some people simply can’t process the horror in front of them. Some people suffer from what the psychologists call Normalcy Bias. When they find themselves in some unsettling circumstance, they shut down and pretend everything is normal.

Some people suffer from Motivated Blindness; they don’t see what is not in their interest to see. Some people don’t look at the things that make them uncomfortable.
Right. Many people don't intervene.  But does that mean that each one of us has no idea what we will do?  In fact, no.  We each have a past history we can look back on. We can see what we did in past crises--whether we were willing to cry foul, make waves, speak up, make a phone call--or we were passive.  We don't know for sure based on our past history, but we have some indication.

Furthermore, we can prepare for the day when we might be in Paterno's or McQueary's shoes.  We can start speaking up about small things now, so we're in shape to take action when something big comes along.   A few rebellions--  My father was in the hospital and one of his nurses was a gruff, insensitive jerk. I immediately went to his supervisor and had him put on another floor.  My cat was in an emergency hospital having seizures, and the vet tech handled him roughly.  I said, instantaneously, "Don't do that!"  How rude of me.  Well right, sometimes that's necessary.  The elementary school invited a clown from McDonald's to give a presentation at my kids' school on health--preposterously enough.  I called and complained.  They held an assembly for an unpublished writer of children's books to do a reading, and sell the children book afterwards. Another call.  Bigger stuff-- The quarterback of the school football team, on a major scholarship, cheated egregiously in a class of mine, and also assisted in others in cheating.  I turned him in, and he was expelled.  And on and on ....

If you are well-practiced in the art of everyday rebellion--if you take the trouble to do the right thing on a regular basis--I don't think it's true that you're just anyone in the total set of people, of whom it can be said "many people do not intervene."  You're in the subset of people who do intervene, routinely, and as needed.  Continually putting yourself in that subset surely increases the odds that you will do the right thing, if you're ever in Paterno's or McQueary's shoes.

11/13/11

Pinker on Violence (4)

I'm busy today, so I'm going to let Steven Pinker write a post for me.  Here's a really interesting passage from The Better Angels of Our Nature (highlighting unintended)--









When I call myself a moral realist, it's this kind of a picture I have in mind.

11/12/11

Why are there so few women in philosophy? (again!)


The powerpoint (you-tube-ized) from my talk a couple of days ago is here.  I presupposed a picture of female attrition that I'm now less sure of.  Based on this graph from "Gender and Philosophical Intuition" (Buckwalter and Stich), I assumed women are less attracted to philosophy classes starting very early on.


Then there's also attrition after the undergraduate course series. You see it on the right in the graph above, but also in the figure below, from a paper about women in philosophy in the UK (Beebee and Saul).


The reason why the left side of the first graph seemed important is that it suggests something is going on in the lowest level undergraduate classes on up to drive away women, or at least attract men more than women.  Buckwalter and Stich claim one factor is that philosophy classes are highly intuition-driven, and male students find their intuitions in synch with the instructor's more often than female students.

My colleague Justin points out that the pattern on the left side of the first graph could actually just be due to the fact that male and female have the same course requirements.  If all have to take one lower level philosophy class (or even if they have a choice of philosophy or something else), lower level philosophy classes are bound to be more gender balanced.

That's significant, because attrition at the lowest levels would have pointed to there being something about the classes themselves that attracts men or repels women.  Attrition at the higher levels doesn't point so unambiguously to the classes themselves as attracting or repelling, since now there's a new factor--the way males and females view choosing philosophy as a major and pursuing it as a career.  If we're explaining later attrition, the intuitions-out-of-synch theory starts to have a lot more competition.

Which makes me think about philosophy as a career choice, and how that looks to men and women.  Philosophers spend most of their time on their own, thinking intensely, addressing huge questions, coming up with their own rigorously supported answers, but with the awareness that general acceptance is unlikely, and that people will keep addressing the questions for hundreds of years, as they already have for thousands of years.  There is something just a little Sisyphean about the whole endeavor, and is that more troubling for women than for men? I would at least throw it in the basket with various other hypotheses.


picture credit:  http://christinelebrasseur.blogspot.com/

11/11/11

Where were you at 11:11:11 on 11/11/11?

People will no doubt be asking you that in years to come, so I suggest making a mental note of it now. I was having a nice chat about music with my physical therapist. (I'm getting cured of the weird affliction known as "frozen shoulder".) It's always fun to discover someone who likes the same music. Thumbs up: Arcade Fire, Wilco, Fleet Foxes, Decemberists, Kanye West, Jay-Z, and (yes) Coldplay. Not so sure: Animal Collective. What/huh?: Lady Gaga. Recommendation from him: Neutral Milk Hotel, In the Aeroplane Over the Sea. And also: Hearts and Minds.

Thank god for my teenage children, nieces, and nephews, or I'd be listening to Neil Young and Joni Mitchell full-time. Not that that would be such a bad thing! In honor of the date, let's have a great song--

11/10/11

"Crowds Riot in State College"

You can't imagine how bizarre that headline sounds - to someone who grew up in State College and went to Penn State.  They literally call it "Happy Valley" and it's happy (and just a tad boring) 99.999% of the time.  Perhaps they were right to fire Joe Paterno, tragic as that is--certainly they had to if he knew what his graduate assistant coach had witnessed, and did no more than report it to the director of athletics. 

11/8/11

I Like the Cat

I like the cat's tail
It goes swish, swish
I like cat's whiskers
They go twitch, twitch.
I like cat's eyes
They go glisten, glisten.
I like cat's ears,
They listen listen.
I like cat's fur
It's so soft, soft.
I like when cats jump
They go aloft, aloft.
I like cat's paws
They go pad, pad.
I like mysterious cats
They make sound just a tad, tad.
I like cat's mouth
It goes yawn, yawn.
I like all cats
This poem is gone, gone.

by bg, age ?
posted today in memory of Snowchin

11/7/11

Ways of Silencing, Reasons for Outing

For my course on procreation and parenthood, tomorrow's reading is a chapter from Jenny Saul's book Feminism.  It's about "the politics of work and family" and starts with an important distinction.  A workplace can be discriminatory on the "difference model"--that involves blatant discrimination on the basis of gender.  A workplace can also be discriminatory on the "dominance model."  Everything appears to be egalitarian, but policies have the impact of excluding women.  For example, a company might demand that managers work erratic schedules, so that primary parents (more often women) can't rise to that level.

Lately women have been writing about being excluded in another "place"--the internet.   Much of the time the exclusion works on the difference model.  Women are targets of overtly sexist and misogynistic attack.  They start withdrawing from participation to reduce stress and anxiety.  The amount of this that goes on is appalling, and more apparent to me now than ever before, thanks to last summer's "elevator-gate" controversy.   

In order of importance, perhaps the overt misogyny comes first, but I submit that there's also a lot of exclusion on the dominance model.  People who want to devote time to exchanging juvenile insults are more often male, I think, and so even if the insults are all-purpose, women wind up being driven away from conversation.  I am the target of that kind of thing pretty regularly, and I think that's a feminist issue too. 

What to do?  Here's a post and long conversation about outing anonymous and pseudonymous commenters who are misogynistic abusers.  My vote: yes, in some cases that's justified.  I would enlarge the category of people who deserve to be "outed" to include people who exclude women on the dominance model, instead of the difference model.  (And then I'd enlarge once more--if I am personally being excluded by some anonymous abuser, I'm entitled to do something about it, even if I can't establish a larger sexist pattern.)

People hide their identities to free themselves to speak out more openly.  They can be extra uninhibited, because what they say has no impact on their reputation.  If they exploit their anonymity to rob me of my voice, I'm entitled to self-defense.  Surely.

Now, I shouldn't use unnecessary force. If I can just warn them or ban them or stop the problem without exposing them, then  going further is unjustified.  I also ought to be careful to unmask only someone who's truly silencing or excluding me.  We shouldn't publicize names just to punish people for the content of what they write. But in principle, outing anonymous people is sometimes justifiable.

Periodically I get curious about anonymous commenters who are abusive (rarely here, I'm talking about other blogs), so make use of the powers of Google to figure out who they are.  I am sitting on three, count 'em three, identities.  One day, if the need arises, I might reveal them.  Or might not.  I think people who are abusive behind the mask of anonymity ought to at least be on notice. You can lose the right to be anonymous, if you exploit it to deny other people a voice.

11/5/11

The Evolutionary Psychology of Gender

Wednesday I'm giving a talk about why there are so few women in philosophy, so I've been reading around, thinking about various hypotheses.  For people who find the question interesting, this report by Helen Beebee and Jenny Saul is a must-read (I wrote about it here).  They draw on the book Delusions of Gender: How our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference, by Cordelia Fine - especially on the notion of stereotype threat discussed in chapter 4.  I read it for that reason, and also because I'd just read Simon Baron-Cohen's book The Essential Difference. That book deserves a drubbing, and Fine delivers (though possibly she makes some mistakes--see Baron-Cohen's review of Fine here).  She also does an excellent job of excoriating other gleeful "vive la difference" books like The Female Brain, by Louann Brizendine.

The critical parts of Delusions of Gender are valuable--and I do highly recommend the book--but I find myself unable to swallow the positive picture, which is conveyed by the subtitle:  "how our minds, society, and neurosexism create difference."  I started getting nervous as early as chapter 3, which begins, "Pick a gender difference, any difference. Now watch very closely as--poof!--it's gone."  Throughout the book, there's a lot of "poof!" and much of it's convincing, but deep down I'm resistant to the message.  I keep asking myself why, coming up with reasons, discarding them, and then coming up with more reasons.

Ultimately, I think I'm inclined to believe in some innate gender differences because I don't see how it could be otherwise, given evolution, and the basic facts about human reproduction.  Imagine (per impossibile) that once upon the time there was no gender. There was just the all purpose Human, who reproduced by cloning.  Maybe we started off on another planet, with very advanced technology. The Human arrives on earth, and miraculously becomes more human.  Randomly, Humans are endowed with male and female reproductive systems, etc. etc.  Mothers gestate babies for 9 months, then lactate, so children (born every immature) are especially dependent on their mothers.  In the beginning, we are imagining, males and females are exactly the same apart from their reproductive systems, and then they're let loose in the world.

Question: will the reproductive differences trigger gradual change over time, so that male and female brains come to differ from each other?  I would think that, given the different roles played in reproduction by males and females, the males would seek females with certain psychological traits, and the females would seek males with other traits.  And so over time, due to sexual selection, there would be hidden brain differences to go along with the visible body differences.

Of course, this is just a ridiculous thought experiment, and male and female reproduction systems actually evolved alongside the brain.  But maybe there's some value in thinking about what would inevitably ensue, if humans started off with genderless brains, and gendered bodies. 

Of course, if we have gendered brains, it could still be that "minds, society, and neurosexism" play a big role in constructing gender differences.  Fine is very convincing on a variety of ways in which this happens.  The evolutionary story only conflicts with Fine's rejection of all innate differences-- "Pick a gender difference, any difference. Now watch very closely as--poof!--it's gone."  

Furthermore, whatever distinguishes male and female brains could have no relevance to why there are more men in math, or engineering, or philosophy.  It could be the explanation for only the most crude and obvious differences--why there are more men in the military, for example,

But the "poof!" approach seems out of the question.  It fits in better with the antiquated view that the mind is a pristine soul, and totally protected (by our thick skulls?!) from the forces of sexual and natural selection.  But then--I am no expert, so I say all of this with humility.  Next on my reading list:  maybe Matt Ridley, The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature. I want to know more about the evolutionary psychology of gender.

11/4/11

Who's Being Indoctrinated?

I'm starting to contribute to The Secular Outpost, starting with today's post about indoctrinating children. Next week that will be the topic in my class on procreation and parenthood, so stay tuned (maybe) for more on the subject.

If you're wondering, Kitty is resting comfortably.  His surgery went well, and now we're waiting for the pathology report.

11/2/11

Animal Ethics Comes Home

For the past 6 weeks or so, we've been struggling with one of our cats' health  - he vomits about once a day, eats little, hides under beds. He's lost a lot of weight, and this is clearly life-threatening.  We started with blood tests and x-rays, which didn't identify the problem. Then our vet put him on the steroid prednisone, which helped a lot for a few weeks, but the problems came back. Next question was whether to use ultrasound to diagnose the problem, at a cost of ...$Alot. 

Throughout all of this, all the issues of my book about animals have become real life issues.  I'm glad to say that I don't find the perspective of the book academic or useless. I do (emphatically) think it's important not to be a speciesist about our cat--we are not going to dismiss this illness because our cat is "just an animal."  At the same time, our response should be "appropriate." If we would obviously spend  $Alot to diagnose a problem in one of our children, that doesn't immediately tell us what to do for our cat.  Loss of life for our cat is not morally equivalent to loss of life for our children.  If you think that's speciesist, you (with all due respect) don't understand the term. 

If the cat's demise isn't the same as a child's demise, it's not nothing, either. I don't buy the idea that individual animals are replaceable, or that painless killing of one animal can be canceled out by creating or saving the life of another. I can't make up for my cat dying by rushing from the morgue to the animal shelter, and rescuing a different cat.  There is a certain cold logic to letting him die, and donating $Alot to the shelter to save 10, but no.  When we adopt an animal, we make him or her like a family member, and I think we have to stay the course.  We can't suddenly shift from being this-cat-fanciers to being every-cat-fanciers.

Everything gets even more complicated considering that we have children who are deeply attached to the cat.  (We adopted him and his brother as kittens nine years ago.) Whatever we do teaches them a lesson about how we regard animals, but also about "the virtues".  Are we committed and faithful, or are we fair-weather friends?  On the other hand, are we extravagant and wasteful, or are we logical and reasonable?

Sigh!  So, we did spend the money for ultrasound, and the vet found a region of intestine that suggests maybe (but not certainly) lymphoma. However, when he aspirated some cells and sent them to the pathologist, that diagnosis was not confirmed.  Now we face a new dilemma.  To definitively diagnose the problem will require surgery that costs another $Alot.  If he has one kind of lymphoma--the one the vet suspects--the prognosis is very bad. If another, it's not quite as bad. Medicine night keep him going for a few years. There are other possibilities with better prognoses.

We thought about this for several days, and by the end of the thinking phase, the cat had lost more weight.  When push comes to shove, we don't have it in us to watch him slowly die, and then "mercifully" accelerate the process at the very end.

So--surgery's tomorrow.  If you believe in The Cat Goddess, don't hesitate to petition her for a happy outcome.

11/1/11

Hammers and Songs


So, seven billion ... and counting!  I really enjoyed Toby Ord's recent lecture on population (here) and find much that he said convincing, but what about the hammers and songs? 

Ord argues that there are advantages to there being seven billion people, not just disadvantages.  One of the advantages comes to light when you contrast hammers and songs. One hammer is not easily shared with an extra billion people, but one song goes a long way.  In fact (it is amusing to contemplate--and this is my example, not his), the Beatles repertory was enjoyed by about 3.5 billion people when it was completed around 1970.  Now it's enjoyed by twice as many people.  The songs have thus gained in value--in fact, they've doubled in value.

I'm not sure if that's supposed to be a complete argument, but in addition we're to consider that the shareability of a song translates into leisure time.  When you double the population you need a lot more hammer-makers, but you don't need more song-writers.  So as the population increases, everyone gets to enjoy a more leisurely way of life.

Never fear, much of the video is more down to earth, and deals with diminishing resources and other tangibles. But the songs argument is something new and different, to me anyway.  Good video. I showed it to my class on procreation and parenthood this afternoon and someone made an interesting point: that songs are  shareable, but bad things are shareable too. Indeed! Bad news, instructions for making bombs, crazy superstitions.  Because of the shareability of destructive information, large populations may not need more song-writers, but they do need more police officers, bigger armies, more therapists, more skeptics.  I'm not sure the songs are really in the ascendance, not the bomb-making instructions.

Number Magic

Something interesting and important is bound to happen today, don't you think?