Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Investigating a Murder Versus Getting Someone Convicted for a Murder

I want to make clearer my distinction between research and advocacy: It is similar to the difference between investigating a murder and trying to convict a particular of a murder.

The murder investigation may still go wrong, of course, and arrest an innocent man. And the person trying to get a defendant convicted may be absolutely correct in their conviction that the accused really is guilty. And we may all be happy if they get the conviction, and, say, a serial killer is put away.

Still, the distinction is important to keep in mind. And it is important to remember that in advocacy, people are not searching for the truth: they are promoting a point of view. (They may be promoting it because they think it is true, or they may not.)

Sunday, September 27, 2015

Programmers who just don't care

I'm trying to import a tab-delimited quiz file into Blackboard. I get this message:

"A parse error occurred on line 1. Processing of other questions continued uninterrupted."

The first problem with this message is that it is a lie: Blackboard failed to process any of the questions at all and produced no quiz.

The second problem is: "A parse error occurred..." A parse error? He couldn't be bothered telling me exactly which parse error, information that might help me to fix the parse error? And the programmer who was parsing my file almost certainly knew exactly what the error was at that time he detected it. For instance, perhaps he found a tab instead of a question type at the beginning of a line. In that case, he should have given the user feedback like, "Question type missing at beginning of line 1."

Very simple. Very helpful. But this joker couldn't be bothered.

And then he delivers the coup de grâce: "Review logs for details."

Without a hint about where these "logs" are, or how one goes about reviewing them.

Two Halves of One Coin

The great Patrick Deneen on why separating Catholic social teaching and Catholic morality is nonsense.

More on First Reality and Second Reality

Let us imagine a land called Aqua. Aqua is a desert land, but because water is so important to these desert people, their culture centers around its worship. And in Aqua, there are legends of a place, far across the desert, where water is abundant. (Somewhere, over the rainbow...)

Over the centuries, various Aquans attempt to cross the barren desert and find this place where water is plentiful. And, at long last, a few hardy pilgrims succeed. They find a place with a great lake, and, for the first time, some Aquans are able to plunge into a large body of water and swim. They directly experience immersion in water, the movements necessary to swim, the feedback one gets from the water as to when one is swimming well or poorly, what it is to flounder in the depths and nearly drown, and so on. And this immersion is a transformative experience for those who undergo it.

Those experiences are first reality.

Naturally, when these pioneers return to Aqua, they try to communicate their experiences to the non-swimmers around them. They create terms like "drag," "lift," "glide," "resistance," "propulsion," "buoyancy" and "sinking" to describe what they were doing when swimming. While this is a step removed from first reality, it is still discourse about first reality.

But now imagine that, water being so important to the people of Aqua, these reports of swimming by those who have actually experienced it attract adherents among those who have never crossed the desert, and who have never actually swum. Certain descriptions offered by the swimmers appeal to certain groups in Aqua, while other descriptions appeal to others. These groups form sects, and compete in Aqua as to which of their favored "doctrines" of swimming will gain official approval.

One group claims: "Swimming is all about propulsion, and the notion of drag is a piece of propaganda put forward by reactionaries who do not want the common people of Aqua to advance."

Another group asserts: "Swimming is concerned with gliding, and those who talk of propulsion merely are creating justifications for their own oppression of others in Aqua."

A third group argues: "Essentially, all those who try to swim are sinking. We in Aqua can all only achieve buoyancy together, as it is by the lift of our solidarity that we all support each other."

Each of these groups has some truth on its side: each one has abstracted some aspect of primary reality, and thus some aspect of its truth, but each is also engaged in falsehood, in that each tries to claim the aspect upon which it focuses is reality itself, rather than a mere aspect of reality. And generally speaking, none of these groups urges their followers to actually try to cross the desert and swim for themselves.

These doctrines are secondary realities, or "ideologies" of swimming. They are wars over differing descriptions of primary reality, rather than reports of primary reality itself. Nevertheless, the secondary realities themselves enter into primary reality: for instance, the cult of gliding may gain political ascendancy, and engage in the slaughter or imprisonment of the adherents of propulsion. The suffering of its victims is most certainly a part of primary reality, as is the dehumanization of the "victors" who are able to dole out this suffering.

Friday, September 25, 2015

The Wonders of Word

I was teaching a class on Microsoft Word today. I came to my office early and spent 45 minutes prepping the document I was going to work with. One of the things I would be showing the students was spell checking, so I deliberately introduced a number of errors into my document, which happened to be a paper I wrote. I spell checked it and everything worked as I expected. I posted the document to Blackboard, our online teaching tool.

Then I brought the document up live, on my smart board, in front of the class, and went to show them how to spell check it. (They also had the same document on their workstation so they could spell check along with me.) I launched spell checking, on a document I knew for sure had many errors in it, and immediately received the message:

"Spelling and grammar check complete. You're good to go!"

And so did every student! Aaaaagh!

Luckily I recovered my composure and said, "Let's Google this problem." We searched for "Word won't spell check," or something like that, and found a tip to check our document language. I did so, and found that, because my co-author's street address, at the top of the document, is in German, Word had decided on the fly that the whole document was in German, and had switched the language accordingly. (Recall spell checking was working minutes earlier on a different computer, so at that point the document language was clearly not set to German.)

And because my college hasn't installed a German dictionary with Word, Word could not run a spell check at all on this "German" document. So instead of telling me, "Can't run spell check: no German dictionary," it told me "Spelling and grammar check complete. You're good to go!"

It is as though I brought my car to a mechanic for a tune-up. Once I left, the mechanic realized my car was a German model, and he didn't have the tools necessary to work on it. Therefore, when I arrived back later that day, he informed me, "Tune up complete! You're good to go!"

Was the Planned Parenthood videomaker "lying"?

I have been puzzled by what abortion advocates have meant by saying that the infamous PP videos are "lies," so when I saw someone promoting this view on Facebook, I asked directly what was meant by this. I was pointed to this webpage.

The page seems to center on two contentions:

1) The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) "selectively edited" the video to show the parts that made PP look worst.

Well, duh! This is a self-proclaimed advocacy group. Did abolitionists feature lots of stories of salves being treated kindly when they penned anti-slavery tracts? Do anti-fox-hunting groups feature foxes tearing out the throat of a little bunny when they make a video?

No, abolitionists highlighted the worst stories of slave mistreatment. Anti-hunting groups show hunted animals cowering in fear, or dying painfully. They are advocacy groups! Anyone who didn't already know we were being shown the worst bits (from PP's perspective) in the excerpted videos should call me, because there is a nice bridge near my apartment I would like to sell them.

And CMP did release the entire videos! This is more than some advocacy groups do.

2) It is a lie that PP profits from the sale of fetal body parts.

Here, the accusation seems to be that GOP candidates are saying this, which is not CMP's responsibility. (Although, of course, CMP may like it!) But what's more, it really amounts to verbal quibbling over what "profiting" means.

In the strict accounting sense, PP cannot profit from these sales, because PP is a non-profit, and cannot profit possibly from anything it does. In the accounting sense, profits are what is left over after a for-profit business pays everyone and everything (various accounts) else, and which flow to the residual claimants (the owner[s]): "Profit is an income distributed to the owner in a profitable market production process (business)." But a non-profit has no residual claimants, and thus cannot possibly profit, in the accounting sense, from its activities.

But in the ordinary sense of the word, a non-profit certainly can "profit," i.e., do better, from choosing one activity over another. Example: My college is also a non-profit. Enrollment has been down there, and there are classrooms sitting idle. If, at a meeting, I say, "We would profit from finding a way to put those rooms to use," unless there is an accountant present, no one is likely to object. Everyone will know that I mean: "We will do better by putting those rooms to use than we do having them sit idle." And this sort of profit can mean financial gains for employees of the non-profit: if my college president fixes the college's cash flow problems, his next contract most likely will be for a higher salary.

And, given the eagerness of Nucatola to sell fetal parts, it seems that she believes that PP will "profit" (sense 2) from the sales. As PP itself has said to its local clinics, these sales "will also be contributing to the fiscal growth of your own clinic." And Nucatola's several statements noting that PP is merely "covering its costs" just show that she is aware she is walking a legal fine line: after all, it would be a felony for PP to do more than cover costs with the sales! But any decent accountant could show her how to make sure that any particular sale only "covers its costs": just assign enough of the costs related in anyway to the sale to the sale in particular.

In short, if this article is the best case that CMP is "lying," there is not much of a case at all: they were acting in the exact same way that, say, a pro-abortion advocacy group would in creating its own partisan videos.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

"Refuting" Aquinas by citing his motivation

In a discussion thread, someone claimed all disapproval of any sort of volutary sexual activity is based on "superstition." I asked if he had ever read Aquinas's analysis of sexual ethics.

"No," he replied, "but Aquinas was trying to prove that the Catholic Church was right, so who cares?"

And Kepler was trying to prove Copernicus was right about heliocentrism, so who cares about his arguments? And that Darwin fellow, who was trying to prove evolution by natural selection: best ignore him as well.

Why Galileo Preferred Copernicus

He preferred Coperican orbits to Ptolemaic because... well, let's have him tell us:

"If God... had wanted the planets to execute spirals... he could have easily brought it about... "[But] what would God have preferred: that the planets should fly about in composite, ever-changing, and irregular curved motions... or that each should describe a circle, uniform and regular as possible...? There is no one who philosophizes soberly who would not affirm the latter opinion and altogether reject the former." -- quoted in Howard Margolis, It Started with Copernicus, p. 91

So, a major reason for Galileo's scientific choice here was his contemplation of what God would have preferred.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Callahan on Block on Callahan

Not some kinky threesome: instead it is a preview of my forthcoming paper in Cosmos and Taxis, where I respond to Walter Block's critique of my paper, "Liberty Versus Libertarianism":

________________________


Professor Walter Block has done me the honor of penning an extended critique of portions of my paper, “Liberty Versus Libertarianism.” His response which addresses my comments on the work of the professor himself, and on his mentor, Murray Rothbard. A vigorous attack being a much more complimentary response to a paper than is a placid indifference, my thanks are sincere. Nevertheless, I think Block has misunderstood the essence of my thesis, particularly in his contention that I am only arguing “utilitarian” points, and I contend that his reply would have been more cogent had he paid more attention to the other parts of my paper. In writing this response, I hope that I can motivate a mind as sharp  as Professor Block’s to actually engage with my entire argument, and not just those portions of it that explicitly address his own work.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

What About You Go Work for Some Group You Agree with?

Poor Alana Shultz: she apparently went to work for a synagogue that teaches members not to have sex before marriage, had sex before marriage, got pregnant, got fired, and is now suing the synagogue.

Hey, maybe I can work for AA and go in to work smelling of gin every day? Work for Geisinger Health System and smoke cigarettes, even in my own home? As Geisinger rep Marcy Marshall says, "We're not denying smokers their right to tobacco products. We're just choosing not to hire them."

So why can't the synagogue just "choose not to employ" people who have sex before marriage? Because discrimination against smokers is actively encouraged by our elite class, while discrimination against almost any form of sexual activity is now legally forbidden.

Making a cake versus re-boxing a cake

The people who embraced the "Islamaphobia" narrative concerning Ahmed Mohamed do not seem to have a clue what several electronics experts who have examined his "homemade" clock are actually saying. For instance, James Vincent writes, "Ignoring the fact that it is fine to say you 'made' something even if you didn't smelt all the original materials (would you tell a child off for saying they made you a cake using ready-made cake mix?)..."

Nope. The contention being made – – and I don't know if it is true or not, but it at least seems plausible – – is that Ahmed simply cracked open an existing digital alarm clock and put its innards into a pencil box, and then brought the pencil box to school. This is not like making a cake from a ready-made mix and then saying that you made it; it is more like taking a cake out of the box the bakery put it in, putting it in your own box, and then saying that you made it.

And why would this be significant? Well, if that is what Ahmed did, then it looks quite possible that he (perhaps with parental prompting) was deliberately trolling school officials. I mean, he is a bright kid: he would know quite well that dumping the parts of an alarm clock into a different case did not constitute "inventing" a digital clock.

What?! Am I saying someone might deliberately get themselves in trouble, even arrested, for the sake of publicity? Well, if you don't think that's possible, let me introduce you to my friend Duke Riley, who deliberately trolled the New York Harbor Police, knowing quite well that his "artwork" would get him arrested (he wound up surrounded by machine-gun-bearing police boats and helicopters). As a result of his "sub moronic" stunt, he captured the full front page of the New York Post and New York Daily News on the same day.

Duke's career took off after this episode. And I know he felt that the paranoid anti-terrorism attitude prevalent in New York City since 9/11 needed some trolling. Perhaps Ahmed, or perhaps his dad, and perhaps you too, believe that the paranoid attitude about weapons in public schools deserves trolling. (E.g., another kid, who was white, by the way, was suspended for chewing a pop tart into the shape of a gun.) And I probably would agree with you here. But it does move Ahmed from the category of "unwitting victim" to that of "clever provocateur."

And what's more, it shows how tied people can get to their initial narrative about some news event. Vincent is far from the only proponent of the "Islamaphobia" narrative who does not even appear able to grok what this new claim about the clock means. I believe that is because they are just not interested: They have their narrative already, and they don't need any damned facts interfering with it.

(By the way, I am not even saying that prejudice against Muslims was not a cause or perhaps even the major cause of Ahmed's troubles. I don't know the people involved enough to have any idea what their attitudes towards Muslims are. I do know I have run across plenty of Americans who are rabidly anti-Muslim. I just don't think that this means that every single time something bad happens to a Muslim in America, that the cause is Islamaphobia.)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Deontology and Utlitarianism

Deontology and utilitarianism are both abstract conceptions of ethics, and therefore, partial and defective. Their plausibility derives from two factors:
1) They each get at part of the truth: it is true, as deontologists insist, that principles are an important part of ethics. And it is true, as utilitarians contend, that the consequences of one’s actions are an important part of ethics.
2) Each approach is able to benefit from the defective nature of the other: so long as rationalism is understood as the only possible approach to ethics, then, to the rationalist, deontology appears to be the only alternative to utilitarianism, and vice-versa. So deontologists can strengthen their appeal by pointing out the obvious defects in utilitarianism (it ignores principles), while utilitarians do the same by noting the obvious defects in deontology (it ignores consequences). It is like a war between one’s right leg and left leg over which is the essential limb in walking: each leg can correctly note its importance to the activity, and also note the flaws in the argument of the other limb that it is exclusively essential to perambulation.

My name is Gene Callahan, and I am…

reading Malcolm Gladwell.

There, now you all know: I hope by going public, I can finally put the shame behind me.

In any case, the book is Outliers, and it is about what I expected: a very readable but probably overhasty and overgeneralized survey of a bunch of serious research.

But this passage definitely caught my attention:

"[Practical intelligence] is procedural: it is about knowing how to do something without necessarily knowing why you know it or being able to explain it. It's practical in nature: that is, it's not knowledge for its own sake... And, critically, it is a kind of intelligence separate from the sort of analytical ability measured by IQ. To use the technical term, general intelligence and practical intelligence are 'orthogonal': The presence of one doesn't imply the presence of the other." (That last bit is a little sloppy: what he really means to say is that the presence of high analytical intelligence does not imply the presence of high practical intelligence: of course, anyone not brain-dead has at least some of each.)

There are two things of note here I think:

1) Scoring highly on an IQ test does not mean that one is intelligent about dealing with life; and
2) The two types of intelligence, having been named by people with high IQs (who are good at the analytical bits), are named backwards: Clearly, practical intelligence is the far more general capability, while what is called "general intelligence" is a very specialized skill, namely, the ability to engage in abstract, symbolic reasoning.

In the developed world, we have created an environment teeming with abstract symbolisms, the mastery of one or more of which can yield tremendous financial gain: Think of computer programming, law, accounting, the creation of financial derivatives, architecture, advertising, etc. When researchers measure the IQ of people in, say, a tropical rain forest, living as hunter gatherers, and come up with some absurdly low score, all they have really demonstrated is that, in that world, abstract, symbolic reasoning is far less useful than in ours, and so has been developed far less. If the dwellers of the rain forest designed IQ tests, those tests would no doubt involve things like tracking animals through the forest, and the hunter-gatherers would score very highly, and we would do very badly indeed.

(And to forestall the objection that, "Well, we developed these abstract symbolisms because we are more intelligent": No. It is almost entirely the proximity to and frequent contact with an early civilizational center that has determined which groups of people have developed these skills the most: the people of northern Siberia are not that genetically distant from the Chinese, but they were culturally isolated from them. Meanwhile, northern Europeans did not develop any aspects of high civilization -- agriculture, animal husbandry, writing, monumental architecture, institutional government -- on their own, but happened to be near societies that did, along an easy path of transmission, and so got in on this game fairly early.)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Left Terrible Bugs in the Program? Issue a Stern Warning to the User!

I just found this in a test creation module of some course management software:

"If students are in the process of taking a test or have already taken a test, questions cannot be changed except for minor text editing, for example to correct typos. Attempting to change the number of points for a question, adding or removing answers, adding or removing feedback, or changing attached files could invalidate existing test attempts and corrupt the entire assessment and its Grade Center entries."

Weeeeeell, programmers, if the user doing this could "corrupt the entire assessmen"... perhaps the user shouldn't be allowed to do that?

Who Pulls John Gray's Strings?

My review of John Gray's most recent book is online at The American Conservative.

The Two Uses of the "N-Word"

The "N-Word" has a sense 1 and a sense 2, like many words in any language do. The sense 1 usage, the way it would be used by a southern lynch mob, is quite rightly condemned.

But there is a sense 2 for the word. Some recent events in my life illustrating it:

1) I was riding the NYC subway. Four private school teens (or so I judged by their uniforms) were sitting across the aisle from me, engaged in animated conversation. I did not do a genealogical survey of their ancestry, but I'd guess that between the four, they might have had a couple of black grandparents and a couple of black great-grandparents. (In other words, they all looked pretty white, but any one of them might have claimed, "My grandma was black," and it would have been believable.) As they conversed, their constant term of endearment for each other was "n*&&^r": "Yo, n*&&^r, no way you got 98 on that test." All four will probably wind up at Ivy League or equivalent schools.

2) I was walking down the street in Brooklyn. A black guy was biking towards me. I saw he was a Rastafarian (not just sporting dreadlocks, but an actual Rasta). I always try to greet people I meet on the street in a friendly way, but when I meet a Rasta, there is a little something extra in the greeting: I've been to Twelve Tribes gatherings, I've been in a circle of dreads passing around their chalice, I've performed many Rasta songs of worship, and so, beyond our basic bond as fellow human beings made in the image of God, I also have shared a particular style of worship with them on many occasions. So I gave him a familiar nod of recognition. He responded, "Yo n*&&^r, what's up?" as he passed me.

It was clear to me this was an entirely friendly greeting.

3) Tonight as I walked home I saw a "couple"? arguing on the street. The black woman said to the white man in front of her, "N*&&^r, donchoo ever put your hands one me!" ("Donchoo" is Brooklyn English for "don't you": it is said that way by native Brooklynites of any race.) Pretty clearly, in the "racial insult" sense of the N-word, this made no sense at all.

Now, I never use the "N-word," as the sense 2 usage arose after my youth, and I think if I tried to use it in sense 2, it would be very easily misinterpreted as sense 1 usage. But sorry, politically correct language police, sense 2 is widespread and here to stay, at least for many decades to come. When the Rasta biker greeted me as "n*&&^r," he was not hurling a racial epithet at me, he was acknowledging a bond. So sure, keep condemning sense 1, but do try to recognize that sense 2 of the "N-Word" not only exists, but is today probably more common than sense 1.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

What Were They Thinking?

Microsoft Office checks for updates and offers the opportunity to install them when the user starts an Office program: "Yes, now that I've finally sat down to work, I would like to delay another five minutes while you download and install some software!"

What about checking when the user exits an Office program, i.e., when they are done working and the computer will be free for a while?!

Monday, September 14, 2015

More on Say's Law

Preparing to teach macroeconomics today, I read the following:

"It is worthwhile to remark that a product is no sooner created than it, from that instant, affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value. When the producer has put the finishing hand to his product, he is most anxious to sell it immediately, lest its value should diminish in his hands. Nor is he less anxious to dispose of the money he may get for it; for the value of money is also perishable." -- J. B. Say

Two things came to mind:

1) "affords a market for other products to the full extent of its own value."

But the point that Malthus and Sismondi were making was that the producer might have been mistaken about what the "full extent" of the market value of his product would be, so that he could only sell at a loss... at which point he might decide to sit on the product and hope for a price increase. This can be translated as: Say's Law holds under conditions of general equilibrium. Otherwise, there is no telling.

2) "Nor is he less anxious to dispose of the money he may get for it; for the value of money is also perishable."

Say here appears to explicitly rely on inflation for his principle to hold true! If deflation is occurring, the producer may not be at all anxious "to dispose of the money" he gets for his product, as it is increasing in value.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Research versus advocacy

In an online discussion, someone recently asked me, "Well, if the Singapore government is so interventionist, why do they rank near the top of the Index of Economic Freedom?"

"Do you think that index is research into economic conditions in different countries?" I replied. "It is a piece of propaganda, intended to demonstrate a pre-existing conclusion: more laissez-faire == more prosperity."

A lot of ideologically driven "research" is like that: the "scholars" doing it are not setting out to find out anything. Instead, they want to martial support for what they already believe. Have you ever seen a Marxist professor publish a paper entitled, "In that instance, the capitalists were actually pretty cool"?

I have begun doing a research into distributism, to see if it is a workable economic program. I don't know the answer; I hope it is, but if it turns out it doesn't work in practice, I would much rather find that out than promote something unworkable. An ideologically "hardcore" distributist would, instead, set out to show that distributism works, and would only "find" things supporting distributism. This is why Rothbard would only tolerate "hardcore" libertarians: those were the ones who had completely stopped asking genuine research questions, and whose "research program" had become, "How can I advance anarcho-capitalism?"

How to Choose Your References

I am working on a paper with a co-author. Last revision, he took out section X that was referenced by section Y. I thought Y needed to reference X, so I put it back in. But this meant getting all the works cited in section X back in the bibliography. So I scanned it for references, and to my happy surprise found three: Gracia, Graham, and Greenwald. This meant that the three references I needed would all occur together in the earlier version of the bibliography, and so could be copied and pasted as one unit!

Lesson learned: for each section of your paper, carefully plan your references to that the authors' last names all fall in the same narrow section of the alphabet. E.g., if you have already referenced Trotsky in the section on communism, you'll just have to find someone other than Marx for a definition of class conflict.

Advanced work: In fact, going even further would probably be a good idea: Arrange all references alphabetically throughout the paper. In section 1.1, you can reference, for example, Aquinas, Aristotle, and Augustine. Section 1.2 can contain Bede, Boethius, and Bruno. Section 1.3 might include Caldwell, Collingwood, and Croce. And so on.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

Universities' Strange Obsession with Research

My math tutor is great: I spend a couple of hours banging my head on some dense mathematical text, and he shows up and explains it to me in about two minutes. And although he hasn't finished his PhD yet, he was recently hired as an adjunct by a top New York university because of his outstanding teaching reviews.

His own research? I have no idea about it; why should I care? I am not asking him to train me as a mathematics researcher, just to help me grasp the ideas I need for my work. Focusing on publishing when hiring faculty makes sense for positions at research universities where training graduate students who are going to specialize in the field, i.e., do their own research, is the main responsibility. But for faculty at liberal arts schools teaching microeconomics I, or calculus, or intro to chemistry, or basic Italian, it makes no sense at all. What does it matter to any student taking Calculus I how often the lecturer has published?

The Empirical Truth of Revelation

"The experience of transcendence, as previously defined, is a movement of the soul that may culminate in an act of transcendence. In the optimal case, as it brings to acute consciousness the relation between God and man, it will reveal the presence under God as the truth of human existence. An experience of this type would in any case be of importance to the person suffering it; but if the description were exhaustive, if the experience did not contain an additional factor, it would not be a constituent of history. The historian would have no occasion, for instance, to attach relevance to such an experience unless he were writing the biography of a person to whom it occurred--and quite probably he would never write the biography because persons plagued by such oddities would be devoid of historical interest... This additional factor that makes the experience historically relevant is the truth of order that it reveals with a obligatory force for every man. The obligatory force the experience establishes, in addition to the new relation between God and the man who discovers the truth, a new relationship between the discover and his fellow men: the nature of the truth revealed obliges the discoverer to communicate to the men among whom he lives, while it obliges those within hearing to listen to and receive the truth, as an ordering force, into their own existence. By virtue of its obligatory force, the truth of the experience becomes the center from which radiates a new order for the existence of man in society." -- Eric Voegelin, "What Is History?", Collected Works Vol. 28, pp. 47-48

This explains why the empirical historian, while not able to confirm or deny the literal truth of scriptural assertions such as the virgin birth of Christ, can quite definitely, unless his whole enterprise is shackled by positivist presuppositions, confirm the fact of a "spiritual outburst" in first-century Israel: whatever precisely occurred then and there, it established a "new order for the existence of man in society," namely, both Western civilization, as well as Eastern Orthodox civilization! The Gospels, far from even possibly being "made up," express the emergence of this new ordering force into human consciousness.

This point of view is consistent with a belief that scripture is literally true, but it does not assume that it is: it is an entirely empirical look at the facts of the matter. We might compare this situation with the complex containing the historical conclusion that the understanding of science fundamentally changed between, say, 1200 and 1700, i.e., that there was a Scientific Revolution, but which also contains the sort of historical nonsense that asserts, e.g., that Galileo proved that the Earth revolves around the Sun. The fact that the latter sort of nonsense exists is, in fact, good historical evidence of the change in consciousness that occurred at the time: that change was so profound that people express the transformation with stories that literally speaking are quite false. (Again, I am not trying to say anything about the historical veracity of any parts of scripture, but merely noting that even proof that some part of it is not a literal description of what occurred would not diminish the historical importance of the fact it was put forward as expressing a truth: it is then the job of the historian to ask why this literally untrue story gained wide acceptance.)

To conclude, I offer a very crude and highly simplified schema of what I am saying here that compares two "visions":

St. Paul

Vision: the resurrected Christ.

Result: Western civilization, great cathedrals, music of Bach, art of Michelangelo, universities, modern science, a reform of pagan ethics, increased respect for women, the gradual abolition of slavery, Dante, Shakespeare, etc.

Empirical, Historical Conclusion: vision of St. Paul = True.

Karl Marx

Vision: the communist utopia.

Result: Stalinism, Maoism, the Gulag, the Iron Curtain, show trials, mass starvations, The Killing Fields, etc.

Empirical, Historical Conclusion: vision of Marx = False.

Please, as I note, this is a crude, highly simplified expression of this idea, so yes, there was an Inquisition, and Communists sometimes did good things, so please don't bring up such quibbles in the comments, as I won't post them.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Beating about the Bushes

Jeb Bush should adopt the campaign slogan, "Not as bad as my brother."

It would win my vote.

Oh, a Bulls&*t Artist!

Dole Office Clerk: Occupation?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher.

Dole Office Clerk: What?

Comicus: Stand-up philosopher. I coalesce the vapors of human experience into a viable and meaningful comprehension.

Dole Office Clerk: Oh, a *bullshit* artist!
-- History of the World: Part I

Although mathematics presented a problem for establishing the sovereignty of doxa in Western culture, there was an even bigger problem: philosophy. Mathematics, after all, could be roped off as a specialized area that need only concern mathematical geniuses, too difficult for the average person to bother with. But ordinary people, back in the day, used to actually read philosophers. And the problem was that all of the best philosophers, almost without exception, if they paid serious attention metaphysics, wound up arriving at the conclusion that there is some unifying intelligence grounding the universe that we directly perceive. Parmenides, Pythagoras, Plato and Aristotle all arrived at this conclusion despite the fact that their cultural background was hardly monotheistic. Plotinus, Augustine, Aquinas, Maimonides, Averroes, Avicenna, all reached similar conclusions despite their cultural differences. The onset of the Scientific Revolution altered the tone of philosophy, but still, Descartes, Berkeley, Leibniz and Spinoza arrived at an idea of God. Even as atheism became fashionable in intellectual circles, the best metaphysicians... Green, Bergson, Whitehead, Collingwood... were still coming to similar conclusions.

This would hardly do! If there is a supreme intelligence at the foundation of the universe, that might imply that there are, for instance, standards flowing from it against which we must measure our opinions and actions. The solution, arrived at by people like the logical positivists, was stunningly simple: if metaphysicians keep reaching the "wrong" conclusion... well, just ban metaphysics! Create a climate of opinion in which anyone doing metaphysics is viewed as a "bullsh&*t artist," and it will no longer matter what conclusion they reach: no one will be paying attention.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

The Revival of the Polis

Russell Arben has a nice piece on Front Porch Republic on the city as the proper locus of communitarian concerns. A key passage:
In his wonderful and too-little read second book, The Good City and The Good Life, Daniel Kemmis hardly made any explicit reference at all to communitarianism or republicanism or any other type of philosophical orientation–and perhaps, exactly because he didn’t, going back to that book provides an insight to civic developments which those of us often too enamored of theory miss. His discussion of citizenship and the “civic wholeness” that a proper relationship to one’s local natural and social environment–one’s polis, in other words–effectively closes off any of the grand cultural narratives which came to warp much communitarian thinking, instead grounding the pressing need to belong in one’s locality: “states and nation-states are abstractions to which we cannot easily apply any of the key concepts discussed here: not wholeness, not presence, not grace, and therefore not…citizenship” (pg. 25). Kemmis’s arguments in favor of relocating our sense of attachment to the active, participatory city seem to anticipate the political dysfunction that, over the past decade, has come to seem normal for large, overburdened democratic states. For him, art and governance and a sustainable economy were most authentically realized in a city (preferably a small to mid-sized one), wherein “the web of culture comes down to earth in countless ways, situating people in a dynamic balance between their innermost aspirations and struggles and the world they find themselves inhabiting” (pg. 69). He was, in other words, years ahead of many others in looking back at Jane Jacobs to find his own particular kind of communitarian inspiration, predicting “the postnational renaissance of the city” (pg. 139)
Yes, I think Aristotle was correct: a polis with an extensive division of labor but in which one knows most people by sight is about the right size for true political participation on the part of the whole citizen body. Above that level, the ideal is federations of poleis.

Back in the day...

even when they were unemployed, men wore ties:

(Photo from The American Conservative.)

It reminds me of the photo at FEE of Mises, Hazlitt and Read at a barbecue in Hazlitt's backyard, and all three have three-piece suits on.

Mocking Mathematics

It's a common theme in TV shows and movies to see people positively boasting that they are "terrible at math." This is interesting: you don't see anyone boasting that they are terrible at reading, or terrible at choosing breakfast.

But mathematics displays the reality of objective, transcendental truth. And this is a serious threat to the world of doxa, of mere opinion. So it is best to portray it as something only an elite few can possibly understand.

Wednesday, September 09, 2015

A New Day...

And a new semester. So, my apologies I haven't been blogging much: my focus has been on getting my classes going. I'll be around more anon.

Tuesday, September 08, 2015

Visual Studio: Evaluation

Visual Studio (VS) is really huge and complex. But it does a lot for the programmer. (Sometimes way too much: I had a student assign a variable name to the wrong field, so her code was trying to fetch the text of a label instead of an input box. When we changed the name of the label, VS automatically changed the code to match the new name, keeping her initial error in place!)

I have had my students build a mini-calculator in a window with buttons and input fields in their first week of programming. That's not bad: it would take me a few months to get them there without something like Visual Studio. And it now supports Python! I may give my agent system a GUI interface using VS.

Monday, September 07, 2015

That's *Exactly* Who They Want!

I was talking with a friend who works for [MAJOR INVESTMENT BANK X]. He said he had just interviewed a very bright fellow from [AFRICAN COUNTRY Y]. He asked the young man what his career goal was. The young man replied "I want to be president of Y."

My friend said, "Well, that is a great goal, but don't mention that to people at future interviews. Say something in the nearer future, like, 'I want to be a stock analyst.'"

I was perplexed. I told my friend, "I'm pretty sure your bank would love to have the president of Y on their payrol!"

Open a bar in Brooklyn!

The Basic Dualism in the Psyche

"Autonomous man can order himself and society either by orienting himself toward transcendence or by emancipating himself as a world-immanent existence. In Augustinian language: Man can live either secundum Deum or secundum hominem." -- Eric Voegelin, What Is History and Other Late Unpublished Writings?, p. 32

Thursday, September 03, 2015

The Weirdness of University Computer Science

I am looking over some syllabi of introduction to programming courses for ideas, and something that is stunning is that typically, 60% or 70% of a student's grade is based on written tests, while only 20% or 30% is based on... programming!

It's like "teaching" someone to swim by making sure they can answer questions about swimming.

Not Getting It

I was talking with someone who had recently sent a child off to university. He mentioned that he had told a colleague that he had cried a lot since his daughter had left home.

His colleague replied, "Why have you been crying a lot? Don't you know it is good for her?"

Um, could there possibly be a stupider take on this? The problem my friend was having was not that he thought college was bad for his daughter, but that he missed her.

Now compare atheists who say, "If Christians really believed in heaven, they would not cry at funerals."

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Oh Microsoft!

My experience with Microsoft products is that they are typically as "helpful" as a three-year-old working on the car with you: occasionally they really do help, but most of the time their well meaning efforts are just in the way. For instance, they seem terrified that if they do not fill in a default name for every form, field, file, project, button, slider, and so forth, that the user will be come completely disoriented, freeze up, and be unable to continue. But because there is always a default, you can easily miss the fact that you have not chosen the names, and windup working with "Button1," "Slider1," "Form1," and "WindowsProject1." And, I would suggest, these are examples of names that you would never, ever want to give to your buttons, sliders, forms, and projects! If there is a manual of horrible naming out there, certainly naming a button "Button1" is in it. (You want to name it after what pressing it causes, e.g., "CalculateTaxButton".) In some cases,  such as a button or slider, these can be very easy to change, but with a Visual Studio project things are not nearly so simple.

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Plato Had No "Doctrine" About "Ideas"

Eva Brann makes the point I have been trying to about "Plato's philosophy":
My subject, as proposed, is “Plato’s Theory of Ideas.” Whether that subject actually interests you, or you think that it ought to interest you, you will, I imagine, regard it as a respectable topic. And yet I have to tell you that every term in the project is wrong-headed. Let me therefore begin by explaining why that is.

First, Plato’s Theory of Ideas is not a subject at all. I mean that it is not a compact mental material to be presented on an intellectual platter. Plato himself refrained from making it the direct theme of any of the twenty-five or more dialogues which he wrote. Instead, the ideas appear in the context of conversation, incidentally, and in scattered places. He gives the reason directly in a letter:

"There is no treatise of mine about these things, nor ever will be. For it cannot be talked about like other subjects of learning, but out-of much communion about this matter, and from living together, suddenly, like a light kindled from a leaping fire, it gets into the soul, and from there on nourishes itself." [Seventh Letter 341 c]
It is the experience "like a light kindled from a leaping fire" that "gets into the soul" that is important, not some "doctrine."

But that can't be put on a syllabus nor a multiple choice exam, so what we get in today's universities is generally more like an autopsy on the corpse of Plato's thought.

Strange ci-tations cita-a-ate

On this Wikipedia page, I find the following strange citation:

"George Clooney to Receive Cecil B. DeMille Award at Golden Globes 22 hours ago". IMDb. 1 September 1973. Retrieved 16 September 2014.

OK... Clooney is to receive it... 22 hours ago?! And in 1973.... when he was 12?!

I haven't clicked yet to see what this is about. Wanted to send it to you all first.

Looks What's Happening on the Streets...

Would outright rebellion be justified today in the United States?

If the answer is "no," it is not because our current government is perfectly just or even largely just. The United States essentially leads the world in incarcerating its own citizens. Our police forces shoot more people per day than the combined forces of England and Wales shoot per year. We routinely launch wars of choice against nations we find somewhat offensive. The political state of the country is so far gone that people are regarding Donald Trump as a possible president.

But the answer is still no. Why?

One very strong reason is that any such rebellion today stands about a 0% chance of actually making things better, and absent that condition, rebellion is never justified, since every rebellion holds the possibility of making things much, much worse. The U.S. is not today Syria... but it could be tomorrow.

Documentary nonsense

So, I thought I'd try the documentary on Alexandria offered on Netflix.

First I learned that "Alexander united the Greek city-states." Um, did the writers mean that his father, Phillip, conquered them?

Next, the film shows Alexander's conquests as including the whole Persian empire, after which he "finally" had to conquer Egypt. Oy vey!

Then, the narrator describes Hypatia, who made "monumental breakthroughs in geometry and astronomy." Well, she clearly was an important thinker, but what "breakthroughs" did she achieve? There really doesn't seem to be any record of anything like a breakthrough by her.

And finally, as I feared at this point, the narrator misdescribes the death of Hypatia and finally blames a Christian mob for the destruction of a basically intact library at Alexandria, which is almost surely complete nonsense.

Don't rely for "historical" documentaries for your knowledge of history!

Current review queue

Pearce: British Journal for the History of Philosophy Deneen: The American Conservative Chao-Reiss: Computing Reviews