Saturday, December 27, 2003

Monday, December 22, 2003

Sunday, December 21, 2003


One motivation for creationist theories often goes something like this: "Look at the amount of complexity in the human and natural world. The probability of something this complicated happening by random chance is [insert fantastically small number here]. Therefore, it is rational to conclude that life/the universe did not occur by chance, but rather by design." I've always been troubled by arguments of this type. The probability of an event's occurrance is relative to a state of affairs. We know that the probability of a coin landing heads up is .5, given that I flip it. Since we know that Tom is a professor, we can estimate a high probability of his being a liberal. But what presupposed states of affairs are relevant for our theory of the formation of the universe? From our point of view now, we already know that the universe happened, so it's just false to say there's a low probability of its having occurred. That would be as if I flipped a coin, observed it as having landed heads, and then said that there's a 50% chance that the coin landed tails. Let me put the problem another way. The problem for non-creationist origin stories is supposed to be that they rely on something fantastically unlikely to have occurred. But here's a case which I allege to be parallel: I'm currently reading Christine Korsgaard's The Sources of Normativity. Just now, I opened the book to page 61, and discovered the following remarkable thing -- the pattern of the left-most characters in each line on the page, read top to bottom, is "sTvmstvTawcIFseemcuTlormtomibouAanMc'r" Even ignoring punctuation, considering twenty-six letters and the upper/lower-case and italic or non-italic as variables, the probability of that string having occurred on a page by chance is one in (26 * 2 * 2)^38, somewhere on the order of 4.1 * 10^72. But surely that's not remarkable -- it's just what's there. We don't need to posit someone designing the page that way, even though it's fantastically unlikely that it should have turned out just like that. (Korsgaard is a designer for the book, but presumably not for the layout of page 61.) Fantastically unlikely things happen every day -- and we can discover true things that are unlikely to an arbitrary degree just by making them conjunctions (for example, even more unlikely than that string's occurrance is that string's occurrance in a paperback book. More unlikely still, that string occurred in a paperback book on a prime-numbered page! What kind of philosophy am I engaging in with these questions? What authoritative papers and books are relevant? I'm sure these aren't original ideas I'm having, but I've never formally studied anything like them.

Moving on

I think that Midland is officially no longer my home. At church this morning (that's the first clue), the following occurred: "I'm a grad student at Brown now." "Oh, are you the only conservative there?"

Thursday, December 18, 2003

Interstate Observations

I'm at my parents' house in Midland, Michigan now, after a long drive from Providence to Ann Arbor, then a much shorter but still kind of long drive from Ann Arbor to Midland. At one particularly odd point along the way, I encountered several orange signs along the road in Pennsylvania:
Buckle Up Next Million Miles
Apparently it's a big government thing.

Tuesday, December 16, 2003

Hitting the Road

I'll be driving most of the day tomorrow. I'm leaving Providence early in the morning for Ann Arbor, then heading up to Midland shortly thereafter. Later, Houston! I'm now officially done with my own schoolwork for the semester. Whee.

Monday, December 15, 2003

Progressive NFL?

It looks like the NFL is slowly but surely making some social progress. It looks like the message has finally gotten through that it's not ok to talk about "homos" and "faggots". Detroit Lions president Matt Millen got in trouble, presumably for one of those terms, this weekend. (As a confusing side note, the article describes Millen as "using a derogatory term for gays", without identifying the term. I think it's a silly taboo to even refrain from mentioning derogatory terms, but I understand the desire to avoid them. The confusing part is that later in the article, we're told that "last summer, [Jeremey] Shockey called [Bill] Parcells a 'homo' in a New York magazine article." *shrug*) I'm impressed by Jonnie Morton's comments, though... I don't recall ever hearing a current NFL player stand up for respect for gays that univocally before. So this negative incident is a sign of progress to me.

More logic/math cuteness

Dave shared this tiny delight with me some time ago, and now I share it with all of you.
A friend who's in liquor production Owns a still of astounding construction. The alcohol boils Through old magnet coils; She says that it's "proof by induction." -- David M. Smith
I'm almost done with my course requirements... I have one term paper to finish, and I'm optimistically thinking about finishing it late tonight. Of course, there's still a growing pile of undergrad papers waiting to be graded, but those are much less stress-inducing. So I expect to be a more interesting blogger again soon.

Friday, December 12, 2003

Prizoner of Azkaban Trailer!

This may be old news to most of you, but I just learned today that the third Harry Potter movie trailer is now out. The movie opens June 4.

Thursday, December 11, 2003

Google hit of the week

This evening someone clicked through to my blog as the #2 google hit for parvati patil auditioners. Whenever I get weird random hits like that, I wonder who's searching, and what they're looking for.

Headlines don't get apter than this.

The puzzling 49ers take on the ex-Bungles.


I haven't been posting much lately, in any of my blogs, because I'm stressing over finals and term papers and not having as much internet time. I did just add a new list to my sidebar... I thought it'd be nice for there to be a list of philosophy students with blogs. The idea is in response partially to posts by Timothy Yenter, a Yale grad student, and Brian Leiter. I'm aware that this list is shockingly incompete as of right now... so let me know if you are or know someone who ought to be added.

Tuesday, December 09, 2003

No, in fact I cannot.

I just got an email from a "Teddy Mahoney" with subject, "Can you resist not opening this email?" Unfortunately, I can't tell you about its contents, because I failed to resist not opening it. (By the way, Mozilla's spam filter works impressively well.)

'Bad = bad' = bad!

One thing that often frustrates me with some of the more extreme conservatives in America is that they don't understand the differences between the various things they oppose. Gay people are promiscuous. Environmentalists are socialists. Black people are Democrats. They don't realize that they're opposing two seperate things, which are logically independent from one another. Example: Today I read about Stanley Shepp, a Mormon polygamist who wants to teach his daughter that he thinks it's ok for a man to have multiple wives. Her mother, his ex-wife, does not want him to teach their daughter that he thinks it's ok for a man to have multiple wives. There's a lawsuit flying around, and it's all very interesting. But some of the rhetoric floating around on the anti-teaching-the-daughter-about-polygamy side is shockingly bad. From the story:
The [Pennsylvania] state Superior Court panel based its decision in part on a finding that exposing Kaylynne to polygamy posed a substantial threat to her. Roberts' lawyer, Richard K. Konkel, said learning about polygamy from her father could put Kaylynne at risk of "child abuse and sexual abuse and whatever else." "In a custody case, the best interests of the child is always paramount," Konkel said.
Please explain the following three things to me, Richard K. Konkel. (1) What does polygamy have to do with child abuse? (2) What does polygamy have to do with sexual abuse? (3) Of what 'whatever else' are you concerned, and what does polygamy have to do with it? When answering these three questions, it may be useful to keep in mind the following: do these answers also provide reasons not to teach my child about the existence of God? UPDATE May 2006: I've had an email exchange with Mr. Konkel, and it's obvious to me now that I was judging things way too quickly when I wrote this, two and a half years ago; I was interpreting uncharitably to read offensive views that weren't there. I really feel pretty silly about it, now. I apologize to Mr. Konkel for the unfriendly attack, and to readers for having to read a pretty dumb rant.


After you give blood, they tell you not to smoke or drink alcohol until after several hours have passed and you've had a hearty meal. I believe that this is because when you have less blood in you, your body is more susceptible to being influenced by weird chemicals. After I gave blood today, I got a haircut, then I got a cafe mocha. I consume a lot of caffeine on a regular basis. It has never, ever hit me like this. My head feels exactly like it does when I'm very, very drunk. I'm also shaking and unable to concentrate on either my logic final or my Thomas Reid paper. So yeah, apparently, coffee should be on the list with alcohol and cigarettes.

Monday, December 08, 2003

Procrastination yields scary things

Shh... don't tell anyone. I sometimes get carried away with the things I enjoy. "Obsession" seems like a strong word, especially given the comparison with internet personalities who are genuinely obsessed with various things. But apparently I like Buffy and Angel enough to start a new blog in which I'll nitpick. And now, back to my regularly scheduled Thomas-Reid-term-paper-writing.

Saturday, December 06, 2003

The kind of thing I should definitely know by now...

I feel really stupid for having to ask this question... I'm pretty sure I've used both versions in the past. What is the correct possessive version of Descartes? Is it Descartes' skepticism, or Descartes's skepticism?

Friday, December 05, 2003

The way to distinguish an animal from a non-animal

I sometimes agree with Thomas Reid's philosophy, and I sometimes don't. He's big into the importance of common sense, which can be refreshing. But I've just read a very, very perplexing claim. It seems to me to have no basis at all in common sense. This is from Essays on the Active Powers of Mind, V: Of Morals, Chapter 7.
Feeling, or sensation, seems to be the lowest degree of animation we can conceive. We give the name of animal to every being that feels pain or pleasure; and this seems to be the boundary between the inanimate and animal creation.
This point is not critical to Reid's argument, but I'm baffled as to why he would think this is true. Anyone see any plausibility in it at all?

Book-noting procedure

I'm reading a Brown Library copy of Thomas Reid's Essays on the Active Powers of the Human Mind. Someone who read this copy sometime in the past wrote, in pencil, a note in the margin. However, the note written in the margin is incorrect; the writer clearly did not understand the full implications of Hume's expressivism. Although I usually consider it wrong to write in books that are not my own (I don't even like to write in my own), I have a strong instinct to correct the note in the margin. Would I be morally justified in doing so?

Mr. Wizard

I boiled a kettle of water, because I wanted some tea. The spout has a lid with a small hole in the center, for steam. Acting out of the same impulse that makes me stick my finger in hot wax or melt ice on my eye, I put my finger near that hole while the water was boiling. Unsurprisingly, the steam was very hot, and I quickly removed my finger. But did I give up? I did not. I braced myself, then planted my right index finger firmly over the hole in the lid, completely covering it. It didn't hurt even a little bit. I was confused. When I lifted my finger but kept it close, the steam burned me again; when I planted it down again, it did not. I guess that's because the steam just stops going that direction when it can't get out? Anyway, I found it to be a counterintuitive result.

Why you shouldn't be a racist

Answer: because (you have adequate evidence that) racism is empirically false. Yesterday before our Thomas Reid seminar, a couple other grad students partook in a Hume-bashing discussion. In general, this is very appropriate for a Reid seminar, but our particular focus wasn't an issue Reid took up. We'd read "Of Miracles", in which Hume says, among other things, that we shouldn't believe the testimony of miracles, because this testimony comes from "barbarous, savage nations." Hume does say a lot of racist stuff throughout his work. John said that this was ridiculous and unforgivable of Hume -- that no rational person could believe that some races were inferior to others. Ben and I disagreed -- we argued that there is no a priori reason to believe that, for example, black people are on average just as smart as white people (just as, for example, there is no reason at all to believe that Chinese people are on average just as tall as white people). To a person with no evidence to the contrary and surrounded by testimony that white people are superior, it would have been perfectly rational to believe that black people are genetically likely to be stupider. Racial equality of ability is all well and good, but it was an empirical discovery. (I don't know enough of Hume's biography to know whether he was in fact ignorant enough to be justified in his racial beliefs.)

Thursday, December 04, 2003

You have a moral obligation to click this link.

No, I'm serious. Click it. Vote for your favorite team if you have one. Vote for my favorite team, the San Francisco 49ers, if you don't. Every vote results in a can of soup donated to a hunger relief charity next year.

MIT Ruddigore Reviewed

We got a good review in the MIT student paper last month... I just checked, and the review is now online. I'm mentioned only briefly, but positively. There are, however, two good pictures of me with the review. Opening paragraphs don't get more positive than
If great voices, vibrant costumes, and an enchanting plot are all it takes for you to consider a show worthwhile, then Ruddigore (or The Witch’s Curse) is your show... and then some. The show itself was eye-candy. The blocking was perfect, with the set being used to its fullest potential. The acting was good, full of well-timed one-liners that kept the audience laughing throughout. And most important, it was obvious that the cast truly enjoyed what they were doing, which is a sure sign of a good show.

Poem interpretation (!)

One of the pieces I've been working on in my voice lessons is a setting of a Thomas Hardy poem by Gerald Finzi. The poem is entitled, "To Lizbie Browne". I've been singing it for several weeks now, and yesterday I learned that my teacher subscribes to what seems to me to be a very odd interpretation. I have very, very little confidence in my ability to interpret poetry, but I feel right to me. Please tell me what you think. Following is the poem. My teacher thinks that the speaker was married to Lizbie Browne. I think that he was not -- in fact, that she was never even very aware of him.
"To Lizbie Browne" Thomas Hardy Dear Lizbie Browne, Where are you now? In sun, in rain? - Or is your brow Past joy, past pain, Dear Lizbie Browne? Sweet Lizbie Browne, How you could smile, How you could sing! - How archly wile In glance-giving, Sweet Lizbie Browne! And, Lizbie Browne, Who else had hair Bay-red as yours, Or flesh so fair Bred out of doors, Sweet Lizbie Browne? When, Lizbie Browne, You had just begun To be endeared By stealth to one, You disappeared My Lizbie Browne! Ay, Lizbie Browne, So swift your life, And mine so slow, You were a wife Ere I could show Love, Lizbie Browne. Still, Lizbie Browne, You won, they said, The best of men When you were wed Where went you then, O Lizbie Browne? Dear Lizbie Browne, I should have thought, "Girls ripen fast," And coaxed and caught You ere you passed, Dear Lizbie Browne! But, Lizbie Browne, I let you slip; Shaped not a sign; Touched never your lip With lip of mine, Lost Lizbie Browne! So, Lizbie Browne, When on a day Men speak of me As not, you'll say, "And who was he?" - Yes, Lizbie Browne.
For the record, I like the song.

Googly fun

My blog is currently the ninth hit for "in that". I know because someone found it from that search last night. Who runs a google search on "in that"?

Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Bad logic makes bad humor.

While I appreciate Alanna's brand of fun and humor, and enjoy her comments on my blog, I simply cannot allow the awful joke she related in the comments to this post to go unchallenged. I've always hated that joke. I don't hate it because it's a bad joke, I hate it because it's bad logic. (I also think it's a bad joke because it doesn't make sense, because it's bad logic.) Here's the "joke": Descartes is sitting at a bar. The bartender asks him if he wants another drink. He says, "I think not." Then he disappears. The background is the famous cogito: Descartes proved to himself that he existed by reasoning, I think, therefore I am. Presumably, the alleged joke is trying to do a kind of reverse modus tollens, resulting in this argument:
  1. If I think, then I am.
  2. I think not. Therefore,
  3. I do not exist.
The problem with this argument is that it's not valid. We can't go from if A then B and not A to not B. We can go from if A then B and A to B (modus ponens), or from if A then B and not B to not A (modus tollens), but the step the "joke" relies on just doesn't work. To illustrate, there are lots of examples of things that do not think but nevertheless exist. My spiced pumpkin candle, for instance. The following are recastings of the joke which are based on good logic. I recommend that if you ever feel the need to tell a Descartes-at-a-bar joke, you tell one of these: MP: Descartes is sitting at a bar, and the bartender asks him if he'll have another drink. "Yes, I think I will," says Descartes. Suddenly, he continues to exist. MT: Descartes is sitting at a bar, and the bartender asks him if he'll have another drink. Descartes suddenly disappears. "Well, I guess I'll take that as an 'I think not'," says the bartender. AC: Descartes is sitting at a bar, and the bartender asks him if he wants another drink. "Well, I do but I don't," says Descartes. Suddenly, everything happens. W: Descartes is sitting at a bar, and the bartender asks him if needs another drink, and tells the assistant bartender that she must, if Descartes says yes, get him one. Suddenly, Descartes becomes very, very thirsty.

Guns! On campus!

There's some controversy here at Brown this week because of the new decision to arm our campus police officers. Apparently, there was a safety audit in 2001 which recommended a bunch of stuff, including the arming of the police force, and Brown higher-ups have spent the better part of three years deciding whether to follow the recommendation. And now, some people are relieved, and some people think the decision was wrong. I have a hard time seeing what all the fuss is about. Some people just seem to be genuinely scared. I find this baffling. I'm as paranoid about police as the next guy, but I'm not afraid of them abusing their guns. I've heard people who seem genuinely to expect that if the Brown police are armed, then they will go trigger-happy and end up slaughtering students. I was an undergraduate at Rice, which is much smaller than Brown, and much more closed off from the rest of the world. Rice is surrounded by a three-mile perimeter of hedges. Rice campus police are armed. For all I know they always have been (anyone know?). I never found it odd. I occasionally had my problems with the way the Rice police acted -- I do have a couple incidents in mind in which I considered their actions to have overstepped reasonable bounds. But the idea of one of them misusing a firearm never would have occurred to me. Brown, by contrast, is in the middle of everywhere and open to everything (Half the time when I'm walking in the area, I don't know whether I'm on campus or not.) Brown apparently lies near some pretty shady neighborhoods. Every week, I read reports about students getting mugged and beaten. Apparently, official policy for the unarmed police at Brown was to walk away from any violence and phone Providence police, who eventually show up. I absolutely cannot understand why so many people think this is a scary idea. I don't understand why it took three years to decide -- it really feels like a no-brainer. What's the point of a police force that can't engage crime?

Tuesday, December 02, 2003

yuck yuck.

Joshua's latest post at Blogosophy reminded me of a philosophy joke I made up a couple years ago. I'm reasonably certain that I developed it independantly, but I also find it very, very likely that I wasn't the first person to do so. Why should you never insult Descartes' honor? Answer in comments.

There's still football

An AOL Sports headline right now is "An All-Missouri Super Bowl?" I'm embarassed to report several seconds of confusion, until I realized that the St. Louis Rams and the Kansas City Chiefs are each located in the state of Missouri. While I would have answered correctly if asked, "in what state is St. Louis/Kansas City where the Chiefs play?", I don't think I've ever realized that Missouri had even one NFL team. Speaking of NFL teams, the 49ers are officially out of the playoff race. Yeah, it hurts, but it's time for me to move on as a football fan. It could go without saying that I will still root for the 49ers in their remaining games, but now that I'm not thinking about playoffs, my opinions towards many of the other games change. (When your team is on the wildcard bubble, there are a lot of teams you have to root against.) So, my revised preferences, which reflect right now. Don't expect them to be the same next week, and certainly don't expect them to be the same next year: Teams I generally have positive feelings toward:
  • San Francisco 49ers
  • Detroit Lions
  • New England Patriots
  • Houston Texans
  • Cincinnati Bengals
  • The entire AFC South
Self-reflection observation: I expected that since the 49ers were out of the playoff picture, I'd find myself feeling positive about a few more NFC teams now. But I really can't bring myself to root for any of the NFC contenders at this point. I guess I like the Panthers. I'm neutral toward the Cowboys, which is better than most of the NFC. Teams I generally have negative feelings toward:
  • Baltimore Ravens
  • Green Bay Packers
  • Philadelphia Eagles
  • New York Giants
  • Kansas City Chiefs
Teams I hate with a white-hot passion whose inner fires are slowly but surely broiling the soul within me:
  • St. Louis Rams
If I have to choose actual condenters, I'll take the Patriots to win the AFC. The NFC playoff race will be a matchups game -- which team do I hate more? I just want to see the Rams go down hard, again. (In shootouts, where Marc Bulger nevertheless continues to put up good numbers for my fantasy team.)

Monday, December 01, 2003

To bandwagon or not to bandwagon...

Brayden King provides this link: For the record, I don't have strong feelings about the guy, although I definitely miss Mooch.

It's been a while since I've thought about epistemology...

Suppose I'm omniscient. This means that I know every true proposition, and also have no false beliefs. Therefore, I must know I'm omniscient, since I'm omniscient is a true proposition. If I know X, then I have X's content as a justified true belief. Therefore, I must be justified in believing that I'm omniscient. What could justify a belief like this? We might be tempted to say that it's justified in virtue of the fact that I'm omniscient. If I knew I was omniscient and discovered a belief in myself, I'd be justified in believing it to be true. But I can't assume my omniscience in justifying that belief -- that's a tight circle. We could do it if we were externalists about justification pretty easily... taking my beliefs as true would be a reliable mechanism. But it'd be kind of surprising if the possibility of an omniscient being implied externalism about justification.

Good morrow good Monday...

I hope that everyone had a nice Thanksgiving. I got a fairly substantial amount of work done, and did a lot of sitting around, but apparently not a lot of blogging. I think I'm considering myself back now, and you may reasonably expect to see me more active here. I've been thinking about omniscience this afternoon; there may be a post in the near future. I'm also thinking about the NFL -- with the 49ers sadly out of the playoff picture at this point, my perspective changes dramatically. But first, I want to go home, and prepare some food, and eat it.

Thursday, November 27, 2003

If you're looking for something less bite-sized...

I've officially finished a draft of my ethics term paper. I plan for there to be quite a bit of revising in the next couple weeks, but it's now at the point where it can be digested and commented on. Much of the writing has been done late at night, so some sentences are suboptimally clear at this stage, but I think my ideas and arguments are pretty much where I want them to be. So if you're interested, check it out and let me know what you think. (For some reason, a direct link from here doesn't work... geocities doesn't like blogspot, perhaps... you'll have to copy and paste. Sorry about that. The title is "Utilitarianism and Second-Order Moral Judgments", and its thesis is that if we distinguish first-order moral judgment (that act is wrong) with second-order judgment (we should criticize that actor), standard act-utilitarianism gives us a very plausible account of our intuitions about the structure of morality. In particular, utilitarianism has no trouble dealing with supererogation, "tragic dilemmas", and problems from uncertainty of consequences.

Wednesday, November 26, 2003

The world would be fun if I were God

One of the pleasures of being a philosopher is the construction of thought experiments. It's a powerful feeling, to be able to dictate every detail of every situation and participant. I've never written fiction, but my suspicion is that this particular thrill is greater for the philosopher -- a thought experiment is goal-driven, and I get to tweak each detail however I want, until my thought experiment is complete, and successful. In my less mature days, I was a champion smart-ass of what-if's. Today, I can turn that power against my own experiments and build in safeguards. I just wrote one that I think I'm rather proud of (it's late and I'm tired and I've been writing for a long time, so I reserve the right to not be proud of it the next time I read it). The point is to illustrate how a utilitarian can consistently hold that an act could be right but blameworthy. Here's the passage (from a very rough draft of an ethics term paper):
Remember, while first-order moral judgments depend only on the consequences of an action, second-order judgments take many more things into account -- they consider everything that bears on what the consequences of our second-order judgments would be. This includes some considerations which do not depend on the first-order moral status of the action at all. Consider the following thought experiment. In the spirit of debates about consequentialism, my story will involve a trolley, but against that spirit, it will not involve any harms so bad as death. William, who is wheel-chair-bound, is near a trolley track. He knows that the afternoon trolley contains a quantity of baked goods, intended for the enjoyment of a group of children this, their last afternoon of school for the year. However, just as he sees the trolley approaching, he notices that the track switch is in the wrong position; unless something is done immediately, several seconds from now, when the trolley reaches the juncture, it will follow the wrong path and fail to deliver the cookies and cake to the children. William happens to be sitting with Alisha, a ten-year-old girl. He considers quickly explaining the situation and instructing her to turn the switch, but he realizes that he doesn't have enough time to get the message across. (Alisha doesn't speak English.) So, William pushes Alisha toward the switch. He throws her with enough force to cover the distance to the switch and still have enough momentum to push the switch into the correct position, but with a small enough amount of force such that he was reasonably sure she wouldn't be seriously injured, although the whole ordeal was likely to be somewhat physically painful for her. (The switch is not near the track, so there's no danger Allisha's falling in front of the trolley.) William's plan succeeds, and the trolley delivers the sweets to the kids. Alisha does not suffer any serious injury, and five minutes later, no pain remains. If the happiness brought to the children by the sweets outweighed the pain suffered by Alisha (and that suffered by the over-sugared children's' parents), and there was no other way to solve the problem, then William's action satisfied the utilitarian formula and maximized happiness in the world. But it would probably not be praiseworthy -- William demonstrated a lack of a protective instinct against harm to children. We might criticize William, admonishing him for his ready willingness to hurt a child, even for the greater good. We could reason, what if everyone were as willing as William to hurt children? This would surely result in more hurting of children, which is first-order bad! Even if we were assured that William acted out of the best utilitarian intentions, calculating probabilities of variously-valued outcomes, and were careful to specifically praise his calm, moral deliberation, this would still be likely to have a bad result. Suppose that many others were encouraged by William's example, and were careful always to be ready to hurt children in situations were such that doing so would maximize utility. This would also be undesirable, because it would also inevitably lead to more child-harm than good. People are not reliable judges of when it's best to ignore rules of thumb. That's why utilitarians encourage character traits and dispositions in the first place.
Comments welcome -- particularly smart-ass ones. My favorite part of the thought experiment is the first parenthetical.

Tuesday, November 25, 2003

Soundness, Validity, and Gay Marriage

"Anybody who has several sexual partners in a year is committing spiritual suicide." Catchy first line, huh? It's funny when I read columns that start like that, and conclude with a controversial suggestion that I agree with. I'm obviously pretty slow to note this, but there's an interesting column in last Saturday's New York Times. The conclusion is that conservative Christian supporters of traditional family values ought to support legalization of homosexual marriage.
Marriage is in crisis because marriage, which relies on a culture of fidelity, is now asked to survive in a culture of contingency. ... Still, even in this time of crisis, every human being in the United States has the chance to move from the path of contingency to the path of marital fidelity — except homosexuals. ... We shouldn't just allow gay marriage. We should insist on gay marriage. We should regard it as scandalous that two people could claim to love each other and not want to sanctify their love with marriage and fidelity.
I found this interesting for two reasons. First, because it's a very different argument than I'm used to hearing from the right, and second, because it's a good object lesson for validity and soundness of arguments, which I discussed a few days ago. Here's an oversimplified version of the argument:
  1. Sex, including homosexual sex, outside of marriage is bad.
  2. The more marriage, including homosexual marriage, there is, the less sex outside of marriage there will be. Therefore,
  3. It is good to encourage homosexuals to marry.
The argument is valid -- if we accept (1) and (2), we must accept (3). Of course, it's only sound if (1) and (2) are both true. (2) is an empirical claim that seems likely. (1) is a value claim that I disagree with as a universal claim. So we have an unsound, valid argument, which also happens to have a true conclusion. Go team.

Think how we loved her!

The seventh and best Gilbert & Sullivan comic opera premiered 121 years ago today, both in London and New York. Happy Birthday, Iolanthe.

Monday, November 24, 2003

Where to find Jonathan

For any of you who may be wondering, the following is now part of my official plan: I will remain in Providence from now until December 18. Possible weekend road trip destinations are NYC and Toronto. I will fly to Midland, MI on December 18 to spend the holidays with my family. I also intend to spend quality time with high school friends. I will fly from Midland to Houston, TX on January 5, and spend my weekday days working for Jones McClure Publishing, and my evenings and weekends catching up with Rice people. I will return to Providence on January 28 for the start of my second semester here. I will return to Houston March 27 to catch the closing night for RLOS's Pirates and to audition for Houston G&S's Mikado. I don't yet have a return ticket yet, but I'll come back to Providence sometime between the 28th and April 5, when my Spring Break ends. I'm really very excited about what promise to be two excellent trips. Those of you friends in Midland or Houston, I hope to spend some good time with you. And now, I will continue to write a term paper.

Moral intuitions poll

Pretty basic questions, here, but I'd like to know how people feel about this. (1) Obviously, it's at least usually morally wrong to punch innocent people in the face. But what if the only way to prevent five innocent people from being punched in the face was for you to punch one innocent person in the face? Would it be permissible for you to punch him? Would it be required? (2) Obviously, it's at least usually morally wrong to intentionally hurt an innocent person's feelings. But what if the only way to prevent five innocent people having their feelings intentionally hurt was for you to intentionally hurt one innocent person's feelings? Would it be permissible for you to hurt his feelings? Would it be required? (3) Obviously, it's at least usually morally wrong to torture innocent people to death. But what if the only way to prevent five innocent people from being tortured to death was for you to torture one innocent person to death? Would it be permissible for you to torture him? Would it be required? Assume that in each case, there is no morally significant difference between any of the innocent people, and that you're positive that the only way to avoid the greater evil is to hurt the one person. If your answers to (1), (2), and (3) aren't all the same, what is the difference between them? Also, feel free to substitute the harm of your choice in the appropriate place.

Sunday, November 23, 2003

Philosophical Buzzword: Modus Ponens

Savannah said, in reference to my Curry paradox post: I think I need to know what modus ponens means, because I don't see how your argument goes from 3) to 4). It looks to me like since 3) is the same as 1), you might as well have gone from 1) to 4) and it would have made just as much (or little) sense. The argument in question was this:
C: If this sentence (C) is true, then Santa Claus exists. (1) If C is true, then If C is true, then Santa Claus exists. (1') If if C is true, then Santa Claus exists is true, then (if C is true, then Santa Claus exists). (2) If if C is true, then Santa Claus exists is true, then Santa Claus exists. (3) If C is true, then Santa Claus exists. (4) Santa Claus exists.
I said that to go from (3) to (4), we used modus ponens on (3) and (3). Modus ponens is one of the basic rules of logic. Basically, it says that any time you know A, and also know "if A, then B", you can conclude "B". Here's an example of valid use of modus ponens:
  1. If Jonathan is rich, I'm a monkey's uncle.
  2. Jonathan is rich.
  3. Therefore, by modus ponens on (1) and (2), I'm a monkey's uncle.
So how's this work in the Santa case? Let A be C, and let B be "Santa Clause exists". So sentence (3) above is equivalent to "if A, then B". But, because of the self-reference in C, sentence (3) is also equivalent to A. So we can invoke (3) as both antecedent and conditional (that is, as both "A" and "if A, then B"). This gets us to B by modus ponens. UPDATE: Thank you Alexis for catching a very bad error. It's now fixed.

Saturday, November 22, 2003


I'd like to officially state that I have forgiven the University of Michigan for denying me admittance to its philosophy program, and that it has my full support today. Go Blue.

Thursday, November 20, 2003


My Yahoo! Sports page has this headline: Kirkus Finally Getting Shot. Well, Dennis Weathersby's been doing well.

Yes, Virginia, there PROVABLY IS a Santa Claus

I learned a new paradox this morning in Brian Weatherson's logic class. (By "new", I mean a paradox I hadn't encountered before; in fact, I'm told it was first presented in 1942.) It's one of those fun paradoxes that arise out of fairly straight-forward self-referential ideas, along the lines of the Liar paradox ("this sentence is false" or Russell's paradox (the set consisting of all sets that are not members of themselves). I have an extraordinary number of college friends who are not strictly speaking philosophers but who are likely to be interested in the paradox (and other philosophical issues), so I'm happy to share. That's part of the reason this blog is fun. I'll present the Curry paradox here pretty much exactly as Brian did in class. It's based on this self-referential sentence: C: If this sentence (C) is true, then Santa Claus exists. Consider the following argument, where (1) is an obviously true premise:
(1) If C is true, then If C is true, then Santa Claus exists.
Or, to spell it out,
(1') If if C is true, then Santa Claus exists is true, then (if C is true, then Santa Claus exists).
Note that the parenthetical antecedent is true when C is true (after all, that's what C means), so (1) pretty clearly entails by modus ponens,
(2) If if C is true, then Santa Claus exists is true, then Santa Claus exists.
But since the italic claim in (2) above just is C, (2) is pretty clearly also equivalent to C. So let's sub it in:
(3) If C is true, then Santa Claus exists.
(3), of course, is equivalent to C. So it follows from modus ponens on (3) and (3),
(4) Santa Claus exists.
Of course, you should feel free to sub in your favorite implausible claim for "Santa Claus exists". This argument would be equally effective at proving that God exists, or that the St. Louis Rams are worthy of praise. There's a lot of big logic-y words in my explanation, but it's actually all very intuitive... if talk of modus ponens and equivalence and entailment makes your eyes glaze over, then just look at the numbered sentences -- you should be able to see that they follow logically from one another. UPDATE 11/21: I had no idea that "Santa Claus" didn't have an "e" in it. How very, very strange.

Wednesday, November 19, 2003

A post on the problem of evil

I've had very little exposure to philosophy of religion, but I have encountered a rather standard argument against the existence of a certain type of God. Here is the argument from the problem of evil: Suppose there is a God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Such a God would want to create the best possible world -- and because he is omnipotent, he therefore would create the best possible world. But the real world is not the best possible world -- people suffer, there are natural disasters, etc. Therefore, there is no God who is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good. Felicia Nimue Ackerman suggested a fascinating response to this argument in class today (i.e. yesterday, i.e. Wednesday). She said it's not original to her, but didn't know to whom it was. Maybe I'll look it up tomorrow. I'm curious, because it's really quite brilliant. Anyway, the argument: We need to be clear what it means to be omnipotent. The standard gloss of "able to do anything" is problematic -- it's reasonable to restrict it to "able to do anything that is logically possible." (This suggests an answer to the famous quip, "could God create a stone so heavy that even he couldn't lift it?" No, because such a thing is logically impossible.) I think this move is fairly universally agreed to. But now, consider this claim: Necessarily, there is no best possible world. It seems true to me. After all, given any possible world, we could make it better, perhaps by increasing the happiness of one person in it, or by adding a new perfectly happy person. But now, God has an excuse for the problem of evil: the reason he didn't create the best possible world is that to do so would be logically impossible! Something feels fishy, but I can't figure out what it is. I want to say, "well, fine, God, so you couldn't have made it the best possible world, but why didn't you at least make the world better?" But of course, I could say that in any possible world (assuming of course that I'm in it, and can talk). Can God really get off the hook that easily? This feels like a really devious, sneaky argument, but I can't see anything wrong with it. (Interestingly, it intellectually feels to me a lot like St. Anselm's ontological argument for the existence of God. Apparently, some theologians are very clever.) UPDATE: thanks to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, I learn that this response has been advocated particularly by George Schlesinger and Peter Forrest. There's actually a fascinating discussion there, with troublesome implications for consequentialists like me. Check it out.

Insomnia and vicious cycles

I had a hard time getting to sleep last night, which was a contributing factor to my failing to wake up early, like I meant to, this morning (fortunately I hadn't class). But since I slept until 11:30 today, it didn't work very well when I went to bed early, at 11:30 tonight. Two hours later, I give up for the time being, and will now write a post on the problem of evil.

Philosophical Buzzwords: Soundness and Validity

So I had a great idea forever ago, and got as far as one post, then stopped. Fortunately, history hasn't ended yet, so it's not too late for me to continue. A reminder for those of you who haven't been attentively reading this blog from the very beginning: philosophical buzzword posts are designed to explain philosophy concepts to smart people who don't already know them. I think that more philosophical experts read my blog now than did in September... those people will probably not find these posts very interesting, unless I make a mistake. Enough disclaimer. Here's my post. I mean to explain what it means for an argument to be "sound", "unsound", "valid", and "invalid". Arguments start with premises and end in conclusions. The premises in an argument are connected to the conclusion by a series of steps. The validity of an argument depends on whether each step follows logically from the ones before it. So an argument is valid if the statements in each step are logically required by the ones before it. Here are some examples of valid arguments:
  1. (premise)Jonathan has a blog.
  2. (premise)Anyone who has a blog uses the internet. Therefore,
  3. (conclusion) Jonathan uses the internet.
  1. (premise) Emily has a nephew.
  2. (premise) Anyone with a nephew must love children. Therefore,
  3. (conclusion) Emily loves children.
Here is an example of an invalid argument:
  1. (premise) Jonathan's name is "Jonathan". Therefore,
  2. (conclusion) Jonathan is male.
This argument is invalid because it's not a logical requirement that Jonathan be male, given only that Jonathan's name is "Jonathan". It would be valid if we added the premise, "All people named "Jonathan" are male." (That's not the only way we could make it valid. We could, for instance, instead add the premise, "Everyone is male", and the conclusion would follow.) So that's validity. An argument is sound if (1) it is valid and (2) its premises are true. (Intuitively, a sound argument is a good argument -- one that should definitely convince you of its conclusion.) So the blogging argument above is sound in addition to being valid, while the nephew example is valid but not sound. It should be evident from this discussion that soundness implies validity. So technically speaking, Dave's example in a comment to my last post is not valid, although it's pretty close: "We should not permit anyone who is a known terrorist to fly, because known terrorists are likely to try to kill people on the plane." This argument is not strictly valid because, like the naming case, it's missing a (very reasonable premise). If we add in, "We should not permit anything that is likely to cause an attempt to kill people on the plane," then the argument becomes valid. This suggests something else worth recognizing -- there are three conceptually distinct positive qualities an argument might have: (1) validity, (2) soundness, and (3) having a true conclusion. (2) logically implies both (1) and (3), and the other relationships are all logical independence. Now you know about soundness and validi-TEE. Next time won't you blog with me.

Tuesday, November 18, 2003

A post that probably would have been better off unconceived

I thought I'd just come up with an original argument against skepticism about other minds that did not depend on externalism. Excitedly, I began to explain it here. Turns out, I was just wrong. Or maybe not. Anyone have a conceptual analysis for argument handy? In particular, is it possible to have an argument for x with some combination of: (i) unsound, (ii) invalid, (iii) does not end in "x"? In happier news, I found a new toy. But in what sense could a computer program generate a "random prime number"? Time to go home, eat dinner, and read Reid.

Updated BlogList

I've removed Elenchus and Philosophical Thoughts from my list of links, because they don't seem to be active. I'll add them again if they become active again and I become aware of this fact.

More on utility, discounts, Pascal, etc.

So apparently I feel like following up on some of the issues from comments on my last post. Cool. Joe says: I remember in Temkin's PHIL101, in discussing Pascal's Wager, the counter example of worshiping Satan, or Zeus, or Wotan. You can't serve God and mammon, much less God and one of those other jokers. But if theirs is the true path, Brother Christian is hosed. This is another potential problem with Pascal's wager, but not, I think, a conclusively devastating one. It just complicates the picture. If Joe's right, and I think he is, then it just becomes harder to pick what to believe -- but Pascal's wager considerations still demonstrate that it's not a good idea to be an atheist. Basically, if each promises the same reward and is mutually exclusive, choose the one you judge to have the highest probability of being true. If you can't tell, pick one at random. Dave says: I think that, in order to make sense of this problem, we may have to discount future utility or disutility according to some scheme that diminishes its value depending on its remoteness in time. He points out that it's perfectly possible to deal with a monetary annuity version of the problem, because future money has a discounted value. I don't think that will help here, because we're already talking about utility. When dealing with money, we say that $10 ten years from now has x current value, while $10 today has, maybe, .8x current value. It's this value that is being extended indefinitely. Imagine Dave's scenario, but where every day, your evil banker steals the amount of money such that its discounted t=0 value is $10. Then we match the devil case, and are left with our puzzling situation. Another way to think about it: why do we discount future money? I think there are two reasons: (1) because inflation gives a given amount of money less happiness-giving power in the future, and (2) because we're not guaranteed to receive future money (for example, if we die). Neither consideration is relevant for our eternally tortured hell-denizen. Hmm... all this talk of eternal damnation is making me hungry.

Monday, November 17, 2003

...impossibly happy ever after.

A couple of weeks ago, Chris Bertram on Crooked Timber presented a very interesting thought experiment about rational choice and utility theory:
You are in hell and facing an eternity of torment, but the devil offers you a way out, which you can take once and only once at any time from now on. Today, if you ask him to, the devil will toss a fair coin once and if it comes up heads you are free (but if tails then you face eternal torment with no possibility of reprieve). You don't have to play today, though, because tomorrow the devil will make the deal slightly more favourable to you (and you know this): he'll toss the coin twice but just one head will free you. The day after, the offer will improve further: 3 tosses with just one head needed. And so on (4 tosses, 5 tosses, ... 1000 tosses ...) for the rest of time if needed. So, given that the devil will give you better odds on every day after this one, but that you want to escape from hell some time, when should accept his offer?
I recognized that this was a fascinating problem, and presented the following in a comment:
Following is what is surely a bad argument for the conclusion that if I'm a rational agent, for any day, it's not soon enough. Unfortunately, I can't see what's wrong with the argument. Suppose it's now day k. I could take the chance now, or wait until tomorrow. By choosing to wait until tomorrow, I incur the disutility of an additional day of torture -- but I also gain some finite probability of an infinite utility -- to leave hell. Therefore, this probability should carry greater weight in a judgmentl judgement than the finite day of torture, and I should wait another day. Of course, if this is right, it suggests that we should NEVER take the devil's offer -- and that's pretty clearly just dumb. I'm not sure what this tells us, other than that this is an interesting question.
In the undergrad course for which I'm grading this semester, we talked last week about Pascal's Wager -- in a nutshell, Pascal argued that a rational self-interested agent should believe in God, because in so doing, he has everything to gain, and very little to lose. Here is a possible more formal reconstruction: Let A be the world in which I believe in God, and B be that in which I do not believe in God. Suppose God exists. Then A leads to everlasting bliss, and B leads to eternal damnation. So A is better for me by an infinite amount. Suppose God doesn't exist. Then there is no afterlife, so B is preferable to A by the cost of believing in God (after all, it's not fun to be virtuous) -- maybe 25 hedon-hours. Then for any non-zero probability of God's existence, the expected utility from A is greater than that from B -- because it's infinite. So the prudentially rational person will believe in God. But surely this isn't right. This example is from Felicia Nimue Ackerman, given in class: suppose I'm offered a highly experimental drug, which has a 99% chance of torturing me to death (finite disutility), and a 1% chance of eternal bliss (infinite utility). I wouldn't take the drug, and I'm not inclined to think I'm therefore being irrational. The drug case, Pascal's Wager, and the bargain with the devil all have in common that they involve comparisons of infinite utility with finite utility. So one possible conclusion is just that infinite numbers just aren't allowed into the expected utility game -- this is rather unsatisfying, though, because I want there to be a correct answer to each of these cases. Another, more drastic, possible solution is that there is no fact of the matter what a rational person would do in general -- personal risk-affinity should be a factor... but this doesn't seem right to me, either. Alas. I'm going to go read Jerry Fodor on acquired perception now.

On the correct interpretation of what I'm wearing today

I am wearing a Jeff Garcia jersey today. This should be read as a statement of support for the San Francisco 49ers. It should not be read as taking part in any real or imagined quarterback controversy. Tim Rattay has my full support as the starter tonight, because Jeff is injured. Jeff has my full support as the starter when he's healthy, because Tim's the backup. That is all.

Saturday, November 15, 2003

Latest on Terri Schiavo

Here is the latest news. Here is a link to the last time I talked about the issue. Here is what some of the comments to that post, and further reflection, made me realize: although many people seem to have recognized that quality of life judgments are relevant to the positive duty to keep a person alive, everyone still seems to be subscribing to some weird views about positive versus negative action -- the real argument, as everyone knows, is about whether to keep this woman alive. That question has manifested itself into a question about whether it's ok to remove her feeding tube. This brings up complications about causing undue suffering; it's at least plausible that she'd suffer as a result before dying of starvation, and it's certainly an unsavory mental picture. If the decision is that Terri Schiavo ought not to continue to be alive, then I suggest that her life be terminated, as painlessly as possible. More people ought to realize that there is no morally significant difference between killing and letting die.

Friday, November 14, 2003

Moody and Sad

Here is a picture of me appearing as Sir Despard in the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players production of Ruddigore. We close tomorrow. More pictures here. I believe they're going away after a couple weeks. Odd are in favor of me being more active online after this weekend, when I no longer have to wear a fake moustache.

"Pepper my Ragu"?

I've decided that I'm curious enough to ask. Anyone know what this means? Thank you.

Tuesday, November 11, 2003

Speaking of headlines on the front page of today's NYT...

The front page of the New York Times today also included a story with headline "Iraqi Tribes GIs Ask for Help Say They Can't". That's a terrible headline. And that's all I have to say about that.

Some questions are easy

The front page of the New York Times today included a story with headline "U.S. Tariffs on Steel Are Illegal, World Trade Organization Says". We all should remember this simple maxim: "Tariffs bad, free trade good." I'm completely serious. This should be an easy question.

Acausality in Newtonian Physics

Today I read an interesting philosophy of science paper by John Norton. I have some brief (and frankly not very interesting) comments on it in my reading blog. But I wanted to share what was to me a fascinatingly surprising example that Norton gave. Norton's thesis is that philosophers of science are mistaken to understand causality as fundamental to science. He introduces this example, in his own words:
While exotic theories like quantum mechanics and general relativity violate our common expectations of causation and determinism, one routinely assumes that ordinary Newtonian mechanics will violate these expectations only in extreme circumstances if at all. That is not so. Even quite simple Newtonian systems can harbor uncaused events and ones for which the theory cannot even supply probabilities. ... Here is an example of such a system fully in accord with Newtonian mechanics. It is a mass that remains at rest in a physical environment that is completely unchanging for an arbitrary amount of time—a day, a month, an eon. Then, without any external intervention or any change in the physical environment, the mass spontaneously moves off in an arbitrary direction, with the theory supplying no probabilities for the time or direction of the motion.
If you're not excited and shocked by this point, then you're not me. Norton goes on to set up the system, in which a mass rests frictionlessly on top of a dome. He gives mathematical definitions of the dome and the force of gravity. He observes that Newton's first and second laws can be trivially solved for the mass' location at all times t, in r(t) = 0, the apex. But he also identifies a second solution class in which the mass starts moving in any radial direction after any arbitrary time T! Unfortunately, my calculus is too rusty to check the math, but I have every confidence that he's right. Again, I have nothing to say other than that I find this surprising and interesting. If you do too, check it out... he explains this system in detail in §3 of his paper, starting on page 8. There's a good diagram, too. The paper is available online as pdf or gif images of each page. If you understand the science (or the philosophy) better than I do, I'd appreciate enlightening.

Monday, November 10, 2003

Canadian Hate Crimes, Totalitarianism, and Democracy

There's an interesting exchange going on between Henry Farell at Crooked Timber and David Berstein at the Volokh Conspiracy regarding free speech restrictions in Canada. David's suggestion is that government restrictions on free speech, as in cases of hate crime legislation, are the first step toward the goal "to have the government enforce PCism throughout society." He suggests that this is happening in Canada, and mentions the case of a professor who has been accused of hate crime in response to anti-American political speech. Henry thinks that David is exaggerating to the point of absurdity. He says:
Now I'm all for occasional doses of overheated language to enliven our political discourse, but Bernstein’s rhetoric verges on the bizarre. Canada has adopted some (relatively moderate) free speech restrictions in its Charter, but by most reasonable definitions of the word, it isn't an authoritarian society. Nor is it likely to become one anytime soon. There’s a rhetorical slippage in Bernstein’s argument, between government-enforced restrictions on free speech and political authoritarianism/totalitarianism. They’re rather different things. States can have some restriction on free speech and remain democratic. France and Germany have done it for fifty-odd years.
In general, I find this kind of development more alarming then Henry does, but that's not my point here. What I'd like to address is the confusion of the logical relationship between authoritarianism/totalitarianism and democracy. People make this mistake very often, and I've always been a bit puzzled by it. I'm no political theorist (although I was a poli sci. major for a few semesters), but I was under the impression that democracy and authoritarianism were completely different things, and not conceptually inconsistent. Democracy refers to the sources of political legitimacy and power, and totalitarianism is concerned with how much the government interferes in private life. Therefore, when David says that a country can restrict free speech and still be a democracy, of course that's true -- but it doesn't mean it's therefore not totalitarian. Suppose that the large Christian majority in a country voted to forbid the practice of minority religions -- this law would be both democratic and totalitarian. Of course "totalitarian" is vague, and I'm pretty sure that Henry's right to claim that describing Canada as a "totalitarian theocracy" is an exaggeration. But I don't think David is outside the realm of reason to suggest that a case like the one he links constitutes becoming a little bit more totalitarian. Democracy is just not the issue.


Ravi provides me with this link, describing it as "a nice geopolitical model".

I hate it when that happens.

I'd written a most of fairly long post on the moral status of the actions of the bad baronets of Ruddigore when I realized that what I was saying was just false. Unfortunately, the true version isn't very interesting. How annoying.

Friday, November 07, 2003

Opening, show, etc.

Ruddigore opens tonight. Wish me well, if you're so inclined. Odds are against me doing a lot of posting this weekend.

Thursday, November 06, 2003

In Rudy it was ok.

Last night, while stuck in horrible traffic on my way to dress rehearsal, I heard an interesting story (link, with audio) on NPR's All Things Considered. Nate Haasis, a high school quarterback from Illinois, became his school's conference's all-time passing leader with a thirty-something touchdown pass late in the fourth quarter of the last game of the season. He's asking to be removed from the record books, because he says he didn't earn it. Apparently what happened (he wasn't very talkative in his interview) was that his team had clearly lost the game, and the opponents were in possession, ready to run out the clock. But instead, in a move apparently designed by both head coaches, Haasis's defense intentionally let the opponents score, in order to give Haasis another chance (he was some 20 yards short of the record at the time. Haasis dumped off a short pass, and the opposing defense let the receiver run all the way for the score. Haasis says that wasn't fair to the previous record-holder, and he doesn't want a record he doesn't think he earned. His motives aren't entirely transparent, but he sounds like a cool guy. I have no idea whether he's being recruited to play in college, but he has a conference record, and recent publicity. (Michael Strahan could take a lesson.) I've been posting about football a lot lately. *shrug*

Wednesday, November 05, 2003

Fantasy Football advice?

My fantasy team isn't looking great this week... the 49ers have a bye, which means I'm without my #1 wide receiver, Terrell Owens, so my receiving corps is a little sad. Right now I have Chad Johnson, Darrell Jackson, and Peerless Price. Anyone have any hunches for wide receivers poised for a breakout game? All the usual suspects are unavailable in my league, of course. I could also use some help at running back... I have Corey Dillon and Dominick Davis, and also Marcel Shipp on the bench. I'm tied for first in my league right now, and I'm going up against a pretty scary lineup... a win would be huge, so good advice would be appreciated.

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Chad Johnson, take note.

The following is from the Modesto Bee, regarding the very fun and very impressive 30-10 win of the San Francisco 49ers over the St. Louis Rams last weekend.
49ers defensive coordinator Jim Mora had never drawn an unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty until Sunday, when he became unhinged over a holding call that preceded a San Francisco goal-line stand. Mora, who was smiling during post-game interviews, claimed he thought carefully about his actions before line judge Mark Steinkerchner pulled out his yellow flag and threw it in front of the 49ers' bench. "You know, I figured that was a good time to get my first NFL penalty," Mora said, "because it was only going to be a one-yard penalty. It was either going to be first-and-goal from the 2 or first-and-goal from the 1, so I just told (the official) how I felt about it. ... Mora said 49ers coach Dennis Erickson told him to calm down when the argument with Steinkerchner began. But when Mora explained the penalty wouldn't be expensive yardage-wise, he said, "Dennis went after him, too."
Here's to football.

Monday, November 03, 2003

I have a new blog.

Here's a new personal resolution. We'll see how it goes. I resolve to read, think about, and respond briefly in writing to one philosophy paper per day (generally, beyond what I'm reading for my classes). I'll be posting my thoughts and comments in my new blog. My new blog, unlike this one, will be written primarily with no audience other than myself in mind. Feel free to read it, comment on it, etc., but I don't plan to worry as much there as I do here about making my comments and positions clear, especially for non-philosophers. That said, if I say something there you find surprising and/or wrong, I'd love to hear about it. For those of you who might also be inclined to read philosophy papers, my new blog might point you to some new ones you'd find interesting. For those of you who are curious about my philosophical leanings and interests, you might catch a glimpse of my philosophical soul in my new blog. For those of you who just love to read my text, regardless of what I'm talking about, you can almost definitely find some of it in my new blog. For the rest of you, check it out if and only if you feel like it. I do not expect my new blog to substantially change my posting pattern to this blog.

Sunday, November 02, 2003

Moral Intuitions Qnline Quiz

Brian Leiter provides this link to a site designed to measure and quantify moral intuitions, and provide some interesting analysis of them. Check it out if you're interested. I just wanted to share one of the questions, because it amused me:
A man goes to his local grocery store once a week and buys a frozen chicken. But before cooking and eating the chicken, he has sexual intercourse with it. Then he cooks it and eats it. He never tells anyone about what he does, never regrets it and never shows any ill effects from behaving this way. He remains an upstanding member of his community. a) Is anyone harmed by this man's sexual activities with a chicken (assume there are no ethical problems with meat eating)?
Philosophy is fun. Anyway, go check out the quiz. You want a bonus picture? Ok.

Friday, October 31, 2003

Not scary, but happy

While walking to class this afternoon, I came across a three-year-old blonde girl in a kimono. She smiled at me and said "Happy Halloween." Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

On whether it's morally permissible for a boss to fire an employee for performing a morally impermissible action when off-hours

I'm the grader for Felica Nimue Ackerman's introductory undergraduate course on Skepticism and Knowledge. I attend the course regularly, and rather enjoy it. Today we began a unit on knowledge of ethical principles, and we spend a good portion of the class on a lively debate about an ethical question. The point was to demonstrate that our debate was not merely about a difference in language -- we demonstrated that ethical claims are substantive ones. So of course, the specifics of the example were not important at all. That's why my discussion of it is here, not in class this afternoon. My moral intuitions seemed very much at odds with those of most of the class. I'd like to know whether my readers are inclined to agree with me about this case. (I've devoted considerable space in this blog to defense of the particular ethical theory I believe to be true. As much as is possible, I'd like to set that aside here; I'm wondering about a pre-theoretic moral intuition.) Here is (more or less, thanks to incomplete memory) the story we were told in class: Devon is Allan's employer. Allan's position in the company is one in which he rarely interacts with other people, and never interacts with customers. Devon witnesses the following, some evening or weekend at which neither is at work: Allan parks his car in a handicapped space, even though he isn't handicapped. An elderly woman in a wheelchair confronts him about this, and Allan yells very rude things to the woman and refuses to move his car. Devon approaches Allan, and tells him, "I don't want mean people at my company. You're fired." The question: was the firing of Allan moral/permissible/admirable/justified/etc. or not? Students took both sides of the argument. Some said things like "Devon was right to fire Allan, because its a legitimate company interest to have moral employees." Others were more inclined to argue things like "what Allan does in his off-hours time is none of Devon's business, so long as it doesn't affect the company." The two factions eventually seemed to identify the crucial tension as being between (1) the plausibility that an employee's off-hours moral life will affect the company, and (2) the employee's right to privacy when off-hours. I don't believe that this is the key question at all. No one (including me) offered anything close to approximating my position in class, so I'll suggest it here and you can all tell me whether it sounds plausible. I believe that Devon could be morally justified in firing Allan for being a mean person, and here's why: I think that all of us have moral reason to discourage immoral behavior in others. If I witness someone doing something wrong, unless I have a stronger reason not to, I should confront him about it. And the way that I ought to confront him depends on my relationship with him. For example, if it is a close friend, it might be best if I engage the issue very directly. "I see that you're Xing. Xing is morally wrong... why are you doing X?" In the case of a friend, I might even attempt to prevent him from continuing to X, even against his will. This would be less appropriate for a stranger, especially if X is only moderately wrong. (Even if eating meat is morally wrong, it's probably not morally permissible for me to grab hamburgers out of the hands of random restaurant patrons.) If I'm observing immoral behavior in my child, it's not only permissible, but probably obligatory to forbid such actions, and to punish the child, maybe by sending him to his room. Being someone's boss provides another possible way to respond to immoral actions. The point I'm trying to make is that the moral status of the firing of Allan does not depend on whether that firing will benefit the company -- "the firing of Allan" uses the passive voice to disguise the fact that it's an action by a moral agent -- Devon. We evaluate Devon's action. We wouldn't say that Devon is doing something wrong by considering something other than the good of the company if Devon merely chastised Allan and did not fire him. What's so special about firing that requires that it only be done for the good of a company? (A very, very important point I should make clear: I'm arguing that Devon might be permitted to fire Allan for acting immorally. I do not mean that Devon ought to go around firing homosexuals if he believes homosexuality to be morally wrong. It would be very arrogant for him to take such a drastic step based on such a controversial moral claim. I do not believe that "it is morally wrong for non-handicapped people to park in handicapped spaces, then yell rude things at elderly women" is a controversial moral claim.) Summary: two points. (1) (The weaker claim that I'm more sure about and find more important) The question does not depend solely, or even principally, on whether the firing would be good for the company. (2) (The stronger claim that I'm less sure about and find less important) It might be moral for a boss to fire an employee for acting (obviously) immorally. Am I crazy?

Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Kicker's not important, huh?

I'm reluctant to post again so soon, because I really want people to read my last post. So make sure you don't skip it, just because there's a newer one, ok? Today, boys and girls, we consider the question of "in what way would the world be different if the San Francisco 49ers actually had a decent kicker?" Specifically, I'll examine probability distributions for numbers of games won by the 49ers if they had (a) a kicker who was averagely accurate among all NFL kickers this year, and (b) a kicker who was averagely accurate among the top ten NFL kickers this year. For those of you who don't know, the 49ers shamefully lost to the lowly Arizona Cardinals last Sunday, and now sit in third place (of four) in their division, with a record of 3-5. Four of our five losses were determined in the last seconds of the game, and we lost those four games by a total margin of eight points. My methodology: provided a table of every NFL kicker's field goal accuracy rate, broken down by distance of attempt. I imported that table into my generic Excel clone and compiled average accuracy rates for variously-distant field goals for two groups: every kicker in the NFL, and the top ten kickers in the NFL. Here are the results:

NFL Average

Top 10 Average

1-19 yds



20-29 yds



30-39 yds



40-49 yds



50+ yds



I'm considering two hypotheticals -- the case in which the 49ers have an average kicker, and the case in which they have an elite (i.e. average among top ten) kicker. I will assume that the kicking accuracy is the only thing that changes -- I admit this is a source of potential error, but I don't believe it is likely to change the results much -- the games were all close, and I can't imagine the opponents' strategies would have been that much different we'd had three more points. Let's consider each game in turn. Week One. We actually defeated Chicago, and would have done so by even more if we'd had a better kicker. This is a win, regardless of who's kicking. Week Two. We actually lost to St. Louis, in overtime. During the regulation period, we miss on a 43-yard field goal attempt. Consulting the chart above, I conclude that we'd have a 74% of making the field goal, thereby winning the game, with an average kicker, and an 83% of winning with an elite kicker. Week Three. We actually lost to Cleveland. It was a very tight game, but I can't fault the kicking for this one. We'd lose anyway. Week Four. We actually lost to Minnesota, and no amount of kicking would have saved us from that thrashing. Week Five. We actually defeated Detroit, and we clearly get this win in both my hypotheticals too. Week Six. We lose to Seattle by one point. We miss an extra point and a 38-yard field goal. I blame the hold, not the kicker, for the extra point, so I'll ignore it. Assuming that we'd win the game with those three more points from the field goal, we have an 84% chance of winning with an average kicker, and a 94% chance with an elite one. Week Seven. We actually defeat Tampa Bay, despite horrible kicking. We win by even more in my hypotheticals. Week Eight. We actually lose to Arizona in overtime, after missing field goals of 35 and 45 yards (plus another missed XP that I'll ignore again). The average kicker makes 84% of 35-yard kicks and 74% of 45-yard kicks, which means he'll get at least one of them 96% of the time (1-(1-.84)(1-.74)). The elite kicker has a 99% chance of getting at least one of those two. (A better kicker would actually increase our chances of winning this one by a little more -- even if he missed both field goals, he probably would not kickoff out of bounds in OT, making it easier for the Cardinals to score right away. I ignore this factor because it's hard to quantify, and because the case against having a shitty kicker is already pretty damning as it is.) So weeks 2, 6, and 8 could all potentially swing from losses to wins with better kicking. How potentially? This chart shows the odds of winning each game in each case, along with the odds of winning at least four, at least five, and at least six total games out of these first eight (remember, we have two losses that kicking wouldn't help).

NFL Average

Top 10 Average

Win Stl



Win Sea



Win Ari



> 3









Are you following this? I'm saying, with either an average or an elite kicker, the 49ers would be virtually certain to be at least 5-3 and in therefore in the thick of the NFC West race. Note that all three games in contention are in-division, so we'd be removing a win and a loss from at least one of Seattle and St. Louis, putting us at worst a half-game behind first place. Also with either an elite or an average kicker, we'd probably (60% with average, 77% with elite) be 6-2, which would be definitely in first place in the division and in the thick of the race for the NFC's top seed. I still hear people say that it's just not worthwhile to shell out top money for a good kicker. I hope I've demonstrated how wrong they are. If I could start the season over and trade Terrell Owens for Mike Vanderjagt, I'd do it. If you want to see my raw data, check my math, etc., send me an email.

Monday, October 27, 2003

That's not what dignity looks like.

I count seven fluffy entries in a row. How about some meat? I've been thinking about Terri Schiavo lately. If you don't know, Terri Schiavo is a 39-year-old woman in Florida who has been in a coma for the past nineteen years (timeline). Her body continues to function, sustained by a feeding tube, but doctors say she has no hope of regaining consciousness. Her husband has been trying since 1998 to have the feeding tube removed -- one may assume that he wants some closure, to become a legal widower, and resume his life. After five years of working through the Florida courts, he succeeded in obtaining an order to remove the tube on October 15. The tube was removed, and Terri was to be allowed to die. In the meantime, however, the Florida House of Representatives decided that they knew better than the courts, and gave Governor Jeb Bush the authority to overturn the court's decision, which he promptly did. Last, week, they put the tube back, six days after removing it. There's a lot of craziness floating around this story. A few the issues I've noticed: Delusional parents.
Although Terri's husband wants to let her die, her parents do not. They apparently hold the delusional belief that Terri is going to be just fine.
At a press conference, Bob and Mary Schindler repeated previous statements that they believe their daughter can respond to them when they visit. They dispute statements by doctors who say she is in a "persistent vegetative state," and they criticized media organizations for what they see as bias.
It's really very sad. The parents also have a web site, with heartbreaking and pathetic captions to photographs like "Terri responds happily to her mother's affection."
Rule of law out the window.
Read the editorial I linked about the Florida House. Here it is again. The point of it is that the courts know best, and ought to be making the tough calls, and the legislature just strong-armed its way in because it didn't like what the courts were doing.
Really bad arguments.
The following quotations are from an editorial by Judie Brown, president of the American Life League. The nonblockquoted observations, rebuttals, and sarcastic comments are from a blog entry by Jonathan Ichikawa, graduate student at Brown University.
In a court of law, the burden of proof rests with the prosecution. They must be able to prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the accused actually did commit a crime. In the case of a severely disabled woman whose starvation death was ordered by a Florida judge, the court of law has not determined her guilt or innocence, because she committed no crime. The court has preferred to arrogantly deem it compassionate to put her out of her alleged misery by sanctioning an act of murder.
Congratulations, Ms. Brown, you've managed to correctly understand that this is not a criminal trial. I don't even have to explain why this wouldn't be murder.
But in the case of Terri Schiavo, who is not terminally ill, and was not near death until the starvation process began, it has been ruled that her life is not worthy to be lived. Thus others were willing to impose on her a slow, agonizing death by starvation.
On this one I have to admit that I haven't heard all the details, but my understanding is that in cases like this, suffering is not an issue. There will be no agonizing on Terri's part, either because she has no brain activity and therefore no conscious experience at all, or because they'll be treating her with pain kills. I'm disappointed in the media for not making it easier to find out what her exact physical status is -- anyone know more than I do?
That is murder according to the natural law; but according to the Florida judicial system, it is an exercise in compassion. So much for human justice!
One man's so much for human justice is another man's so much for "the natural law"!
The sad reality is ... that Florida's Catholic bishops have been virtually silent. [They] said the Church could not make a decision regarding whether Terri Schiavo should be starved to death. These bishops urged that more time be given prior to Terri's imposed death by starvation so that "greater certainty as to her true condition" could be reached. How much more certainty does one need that a living, breathing human being will die if he or she is denied access to food and water?
The bishops, one can only assume, have apparently made the genuinely enlighted realization that quality of life is a determining factor in a life's worth. Unlike you, Ms. Brown, the bishops recognize the possibility of subtle and complicated issues that go far beyond "life good, death bad".
As the moments continued to pass, and the very life ebbed out of this lovely young woman at the center of this storm of controversy, one could only wonder what it really means to be innocent until proven guilty.
Ok, maybe I was wrong. I might have exaggerated a little when I suggested that you understood that this was not a criminal trial.
This story makes me sad, and the reactions to it I've discussed make me frustrated.

Because we need the NFL in the spring too

Dave and I were talking yesterday about NFL players with big egos, and we came up with what we decided was a really cool idea for a new reality TV show. Imagine this... several ragtag youth football teams, each coached by a carefully-mismatched pair of clashing NFL personalities. We could go through a mini-football season, and the winning team would win a million dollars. And the kids will know from the beginning, but we won't tell the NFL players until a few weeks in, that the winning team will vote at the end of the season for their favorite coach, and only that one will be paid. I just love the idea of Randy Moss and Warren Sapp backstabbing one another and competing for their kids' affections. I'd watch it. It'd be the first reality show I'd ever watch. There's a lot of offseason.

Sunday, October 26, 2003

I love it when football players talk

Keyshawn Johnson (who was held to one catch for four yards by Mike Rumph last week) had the following to say on ESPN's NFL Countdown this morning in an interview with Michael Irvin:
I am willing to do whatever it takes to be successful and for my team to win.
This quotation, out of context, sounds like just the right thing to say -- the "team player" line, just wanting his Bucs to win, etc. It's funny, however, given the context: Michael Irving had just asked him whether he'd consider leaving Tampa Bay for another team where he would be used more effectively. So "my team" in Johnson's quotation apparently referenced not the Tampa Bay Bucaneers, but whatever team Keyshawn Johnson happens to be on. I'm not criticizing Johnson or his attitude -- I'm merely remarking that it was an amusing use of a relative article.

Thursday, October 23, 2003

Smite! Smite! Smite!

This is possibly the most ironic true piece of news I've ever read. (It's been brought to my attention recently that I, and much of the English-speaking population, use "ironic" to describe situations that are not technically ironic, because we don't understand what that word really means. If this is an instance of that phenomenon, forgive me, and suggest a better word.) From the BBC:
Jesus actor struck by lightning Actor Jim Caviezel has been struck by lightning while playing Jesus in Mel Gibson's controversial film The Passion Of Christ. The lightning bolt hit Caviezel and the film's assistant director Jan Michelini while they were filming in a remote location a few hours from Rome. It was the second time Michelini had been hit by lightning during the shoot.
The Onion couldn't have done better.

Comfort food

I've decided that my life would be substantially better if I had access to Chipotle burritos. People in Houston used to make fun of me for eating them so often. But they made me happy.

Wednesday, October 22, 2003

Self-plugging Jonathan

If you've been wondering why I haven't been blogging much, it's because I've been busy. If you're wondering why I've been busy, there are really two excellent reasons. One is that Elsie was visiting this past weekend. The other is the subject of this post. I'll be appearing as Sir Despard in the MIT Gilbert & Sullivan Players' production of Ruddigore next month. Come see me if you want and are able. Friday November 7, 8pm Saturday November 8, 8pm Sunday November 9, 2pm Thursday November 13, 8pm Friday November 14, 8pm Saturday November 15, 2pm Despard suits me well, I think. It's a good role. It also increases my appreciation of Ken Sandford, who really mastered some very diverse roles in his time.

Sunday, October 19, 2003

Why, yes, I am wrong.

I observed in my last post with some surprise that my blog is the first google hit for "Alistair Norcross". There was surprise involved because "Alistair Norcross" was intended by me to denote the full name of one of my philosophy professors at Rice -- a person who has things like a personal web site and a job in a philosophy department. However, Juan, in a comment to my last post, correctly suggested that "Alistair Norcross" is not the name of anyone at Rice -- or, as far as I can tell, of anyone at all. The person I'd attempted to reference is actually named "Alastair Norcross," and unsurprisingly, as of this moment, my blog is neither first nor anywhere on the google hit list for that term. Perhaps this fact will change in the near future, now that I've posted an instance of the correct spelling of Alastair Norcross's name. My apologies to Professor Norcross. (In my defense, the only other person I know whose first name is homophonous with "Alastair" spells his name "Alistair Donkin.")

Friday, October 17, 2003

As long as they find me

The following are some google searches which yield links that people -- other than me -- have used to reach my blog.Whee.

Thursday, October 16, 2003

Let's get smiting

The following is quoted from a CNN story:
Defense Secretary Donald H . Rumsfeld and the chairman of the military Joint Chiefs of Staff publicly defended a new deputy undersecretary of defense of intelligence with a reported penchant for publicly casting the war on terrorism in religious terms. Lt. Gen. William G. Boykin, whose promotion and appointment was confirmed by the Senate in June, has said publicly that he sees the war on terrorism as a clash between Judeo-Christian values and Satan, the Los Angeles Times reported Thursday. Appearing in dress uniform before a religious group in Oregon in June, Boykin said Islamic extremists hate the United States "because we're a Christian nation, because our foundation and our roots are Judeo-Christians. ... And the enemy is a guy named Satan."
Right now, I don't have time to go into this in detail. Or the stomach. I'm disgusted.

Wednesday, October 15, 2003

Oonga Boonga?

I think I'm deciding that the Brown Daily Herald is an odd publication. I don't quite understand it. Today isn't the first time I've read a BDH story that made a very surprising claim that it didn't treat as surprising. Today's story is about politics in one of my home states, Michigan. So back in Michigan, there's a conservative state representative from Kalamazoo named Jack Hoogendyk who found out that Michigan has some liberal public universities. He's taken a look at the titles of courses that those schools offer, and he's decided that some of them are inappropriate uses of public funds. The University of Michigan's ENGL317 Section 002, "How to be Gay", seems to be the worst offender to Hoogendyk, but he's put together a much more impressive -- and indeed, surprising -- list. A story from the Central Michigan University paper indicates that among allegedly objectionable classes there are HUM 430: Self and Identity in American Life, and SOC 411: The Family. But that's a digression. I'm here to talk about arguments against "How to be Gay". Of course there's the usual anti-gay rhetoric. "We're indoctrinating deviant lifestyles," "homosexuality erodes traditional family values," "a majority of Michiganders (god do I hate that word) think homosexuality is wrong," etc. But the BDH story also includes some much less usual anti-gay rhetoric. Here, it quotes Gary Glenn, director of the American Family Association of Michigan:
['How to be Gay'] "legitimizes behavior that literally puts the lives of young people at risk," Glenn continued, adding that homosexuality was a lifestyle choice, as opposed to race, which was unchangeable. "There are no former African Americans," he said.
Emphasis and clarificatory block-quote by me. Avoid the temptation to argue with the second claim, and focus on the first one. I've helped you by italicizing it. What's Glenn talking about? Is he worried that gay men might become the victims of hate crimes? And why would the BDH print a statement like that without giving it a little bit of background, or context, or justification, or refutation, or anything? Like the Patriot Act story, linked above, I haven't found any other news source reporting this feature of the story. This time, of course, the surprising statement is a quotation, and so I have to conclude it actually occurred. But seriously, folks: huh????

Monday, October 13, 2003

The insertion of a single word will do it

Let it stand that "Congress shall make no law ... abridging the freedom of TRUE speech..." A couple months ago, I read about Irwin Schiff, a colorful character most notable for the insistent position that the federal income tax is merely voluntary. He's published many books and given many lectures on the subject. He's also gone to jail twice for tax evasion. But early this year, a Nevada district court issued a very limiting restraining order (pdf) against Schiff. The court order forbids Schiff from distributing his latest book, Federal Mafia: How the Government Illegally Imposes and Unlawfully Collects Income Taxes. It also forbids him from speaking publicly about the income tax and from helping anyone prepare a return. (Of those three requirements, only the last, I think, is conceivably constitutional.) Most shockingly of all, the order requires Schiff to turn over the names of all his previous customers to the federal government. Schiff refused to turn over the names and was facing contempt of court and more jail time when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals stayed the order and is now planning to consider (1) whether Schiff can be required to turn over four years' worth of customers' names, and (2) whether a federal judge can ban the sale of the book. Apparently, in the meantime, the book is available for sale once again. For the curious, check out Schiff's horrible web site, with lots of grandiose rhetoric (as well as the first chapter of the book available for download). I really feel like this is one of those issues where the clearest and most convincing argument for the correct viewpoint is a statement of the facts. Schiff believes, or at least alleges to believe, that the IRS code has no language mandating the payment of U.S. federal income tax. He's written numerous books explaining the reasoning behind his beliefs, and outlining a method to avoid paying them. The government disagrees with Schiff's legal theory. The injunction, linked above, explains the government's rationale for its position that U.S. citizens are legally required to pay income taxes. That's really about all it does. Apparently, Schiff is prohibited from expressing his position because it is false. Which, of course, it surely is -- I'm not trying to argue that the guy isn't a crackpot. But since when does the U.S. government prevent private citizens from expressing false beliefs?