Monday, January 31, 2011

The Answer to All Philosophical Problems

Words, meaning, and truth

Words are artifacts of human existence. When we first encounter them, they are not symbols for preconceived abstract ideas. Such ideas develop only in the course of time, as we connect various experiences in a network of associations. Words become associated with people, things, actions, and more generally patterns which can be perceived by the human mind. They then become symbols, but not merely so. To think of words as merely symbols is to falsely assume that language was designed for the purpose of representing a certain a priori cognitive framework.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Endless echoes of rhetoric

Carol Rose writes for the Boston Globe:
Two news stories this week serve as a good reminder of why abortion should remain safe, affordable, and legal.

The first was a story that detailed a “filthy house of horrors’’ and “barbaric conditions” where a Philadelphia doctor preyed upon poor, immigrant, and minority women in need of illegal abortions. The second is today’s release of a comprehensive scientific study debunking the myth that abortion is a mental health risk to women. In fact, the study shows, the opposite is true.


Yet, some 38 years after the Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade properly recognized that abortion is a private, personal decision that should be left to a woman and her physician, lawmakers around the country are still trying to impose their own individual religious or moral views on other people by passing laws that force poor women into back-alley abortions. These lawmakers (most of whom are men) want to make it nearly impossible for poor women to access safe medical care, while also making it more difficult for teenagers to learn about ways to prevent unwanted pregnancies in the first place.
Both the rhetoric and the facts of this piece are 40 years old, but does anyone care? For instance, it's odd that this "filthy house of horrors" would be cited as a defense of legal abortion, but that's always been central to the pro-choice argument. Equally central is the claim that the pro-life position is an "individual religious or moral view," as is the claim that pro-life lawmakers are mostly men who "want to make it nearly impossible for poor women to access safe medical care."

The frustrating thing about such empty rhetoric is how long it echoes. One wonders whether there's even a point in attempting to refute it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Reuters: mathematics is just opinion

Reuters reported last week on a Japanese man who reached a new world record for computing the digits of Pi:
Shigeru Kondo, a systems engineer in his 50s at a food company in the central Japanese prefecture of Nagano, in August calculated pi -- the ratio of a circle's circumference to its diameter -- to five trillion digits, almost doubling the accuracy of the previous world record.


Calculating a more accurate pi, which is believed to go on forever, has been a challenge for scholars for thousands of years, ever since the parameter was used in ancient Egypt.
It's "believed" to go on forever? Who knew the media was so skeptical of mathematical proof?

This makes me think about how I teach mathematics. Just because I've proved something rigorously, does that mean students believe me? That is, do they now accept it as genuine fact? How much of a difference is there, fundamentally, between not understanding a proof and doubting a proof? Things to ponder...

HT: Gary Davis

His logic is actually pretty sound

Not that I really need to encourage facebook addition.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

The Priests' Manual

Leviticus is often very boring, at times horrifying, and at certain rare moments satisfying. And that's no wonder: it's an ancient document about government. After the story of the Exodus, in which God leads the nation of Israel out of Egypt, declares them his people, and makes a covenant with them to be their king, a question remains: what is God's administration going to be like? There's no separation of church and state here; the priests are the ones who provide access to God, the king of Israel.

Caveat: Moses is not himself a priest, yet he is higher than all of them. The refrain of Leviticus is, "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying..." Although the priests are to minister more directly to God than the common people, there is yet a buffer even between the priests and God. The holiness of God is probably the key issue throughout all of Leviticus. Thus the writer is concerned with demonstrating how nothing tainted can come near him without following strict guidelines, not even the most holy of all the people of Israel.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

On Respecting Life

On the occasion of the 38th anniversary of the Roe v Wade decision cementing abortion rights into our nation's law, I decided to compose a somewhat comprehensive statement on respecting life. My goal is defend a set of principles explaining the meaning and value of human life, and how it ought to be treated. These principles not only form the basis for the "pro-life" position on bioethics, but also may be used as guiding principles on all political issues.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Liberty and Interdependence

Anyone who glances at election results during political seasons knows that there seems to be no truth more incontrovertible than that the more people a concentrated in a geographical area, the more left-leaning they become. I'm sure there are significant exceptions to this, but on the whole urban areas are far more likely to vote for the left, while right-wingers are much more common in suburbs, small towns, and rural areas. These facts seem paradoxical at first. Small towns, where everyone knows everyone else's business and all of life is built around the community, seem to be populated by people who vote for an individualistic "get the government off my back" agenda; whereas large cities, where no one makes eye contact and countless people rush on by homeless beggars, are populated by people mostly voting for more collectivist policies.

This is probably not as paradoxical as it seems. Conservatives, at least, are not so hard to understand in this picture. It is probably just because people in small towns have already built up community and civic life that more or less works that they are skeptical of government intervention. Why should the federal government impose further mandates upon those who already take care of each other? In a small town or rural area, it is much easier to trust your neighbor, who is always close by, than the government, which is always far off. Since everyone generally knows each other, your neighbors are much less likely to be dangerous; in fact, they are likely to be quite helpful if you face an unexpected problem. Why depend on the state or federal government, which is made up of people you rarely see (if ever) and whom you have no reason to trust, when help is so close to home?

Monday, January 17, 2011

MLK, Hayek, and the pursuit of freedom

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail is a wonderful document for many reasons, especially for his theological opposition to the dualism so prevalent in his time (and still in ours, to some degree or another). But I was fascinated to read it again today and notice the political ideals King affirms. King passionately defends the idea of natural law:
One may well ask: "How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?" The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that "an unjust law is no law at all."

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Conservatives favor less compromise

A recent Gallup poll (HT: Marginal Revolution) shows that the more conservative you are, the more likely you are to favor politicians sticking to their principles rather than compromising, even if it means nothing getting done.
The differences among partisan/ideological groups reflect similar patterns. Conservative Republicans are the most likely to say leaders should stick to their principles. Democrats in all ideological groups are more likely than conservative Republicans to lean toward the "more important to compromise" position. Liberal and moderate Democrats are the least likely to favor a "stick to principles" position, while liberal Democrats are slightly more likely to choose a mid-range position on the issue than are other Democrats.
These results could probably be used by either side to blast the other: the liberals can call conservatives closed-minded and stubborn enough to halt progress in favor of principles, while the conservatives can call liberals wishy-washy and unprincipled.

Yet one would think it rather odd if two ideological groups were really so imbalanced on this question. Why shouldn't both liberals and conservatives on the extreme ends of the spectrum be more interested in sticking to their principles than compromising their values? Shouldn't it merely be that the more moderate you are, the less averse you are to compromise? The data don't bear this out.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

The myth of social determinism

George Will's recent column on the media's interpretation of the Tucson incident is as insightful as it is piercing:
A characteristic of many contemporary minds is susceptibility to the superstition that all behavior can be traced to some diagnosable frame of mind that is a product of promptings from the social environment. From which flows a political doctrine: Given clever social engineering, society and people can be perfected. This supposedly is the path to progress. It actually is the crux of progressivism. And it is why there is a reflex to blame conservatives first.
I have to agree, and not because of the particular issue at hand. This is a general intellectual tendency that has poisoned modern political philosophy.

Read the rest of the article here.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Abby Johnson's new book

This is worth taking a look at: is pleased to present the first chapter of Abby Johnson’s book Unplanned. Johnson is the former director of the Planned Parenthood abortion business in Bryan, Texas.

She had a change of heart after agreeing to a request to assist in an abortion procedure and has now converted to the pro-life position.
Read the first chapter here, or go buy the book here.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

A child's perspective on monetary policy

Last night I heard a wonderful anecdote from a friend about his six year old son:
Son: Daddy, who's Bill Gates?
Father: He's the richest man in the world.
Son: Daddy, someday I'm going to be richer than Bill Gates.
Father: Oh, well, then you'd better have some kind of plan for making that much money.
Son: I'm going to invent a machine that prints out money!
Father: Well, the government might not like that, because they're the only ones that can print money.
Son: Daddy, when I grow up, I'm going to be part of the government.
These kids just learn too fast...

Friday, January 7, 2011

Morals and morals

In the popular religion debate, one often faces the frustrating task of talking about where our morality comes from. The difficulty of this discussion arises from a lack of common understanding of the word "moral." There are two very different, but not mutually exclusive, understandings of morals, and when they get confused, the debate goes around in circles. This explains why atheists invent slogans like "good without God" and why Christians continue to claim that without God all things are permissible.

One understanding of morality is exclusively political. (Edit: I suppose "social" might be the better word here, but I prefer "political" because it indicates that people are subject to rules, not merely interconnected. Still, one should not necessarily think merely of government, but of all social pressure to adjust one's behavior.) Under this view, individuals are subject to certain rules because they are accountable to people around them. Put an individual in total isolation from everyone else, and there is no reason to talk about morality. On the other hand, put an individual in society, and talking about morals still makes sense even without divinity: morals are the rules we follow in order that we, our at least the community as a whole, may survive.

A compatible yet fundamentally different understanding of morality is one that holds each individual to absolute moral standards, regardless of his relative isolation to the community. Thus Jesus insisted that even a man who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery: the outward act is not the only thing that is blameworthy. In this view the life of each individual has moral value on its own, and morality is not strictly about existing in community, but also about developing one's individual life in the right way, becoming what one is "meant" to be. To have such an idea of individual development presupposes the existence of God, since otherwise individual development need not have any particular objective goals. Someone who holds this view of morality will often (thought not always) function in society as if he held the first view.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

The one who draws out

Although I was not able to get through the book of Exodus in one sitting, I did it in four, and I highly recommend reading it in as few sittings as possible for full comprehension. There are many ways, I'm sure, to approach the interpretation of this cornerstone in biblical theology. The approach I want to take is to briefly recall the story of Genesis, and then look at what Exodus says in response. To briefly summarize Genesis, God created the world and gave humans dominion over it, but humans became estranged from God, sinking deeper into depravity. The question then becomes, how does an estranged God bring his presence back into the world as it was in the beginning? In Genesis, this question receives a partial answer in Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph. It is through these men that God intends to make his presence known.

Exodus gives a fuller answer to the problem of God's estrangement of the world. The story of the Exodus is the story of God's kingdom being established on earth. We can break down the book first into two parts: Exodus 1-19 and Exodus 20-40, with Exodus 20 being at the center of the whole narrative. In the first part, God liberates his people from Egypt and brings his people through the wilderness to meet him at Mount Sinai. In the second part, God establishes his kingship over his people in recognition of the work he has just accomplished.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

It does take a while to assemble...

epic fail photos - Puzzle Book FAIL
see more funny videos

"Small government" doesn't mean much these days

The New York Times reports on a proposed budget cut in Congress:
The incoming Republican majority in the House is moving to make good on its promise to cut $100 billion from domestic spending this year, a goal eagerly backed by conservatives but one carrying substantial political and economic risks.

House Republican leaders are so far not specifying which programs would bear the brunt of budget cutting, only what would escape it: spending for the military, domestic security and veterans.
Let's do some math. The total government expenses for 2011 are currently budgeted at $3.7 trillion. A cut of $100 billion is a measly 2.7%. The total deficit for the year is about $1.1 trillion. A cut of $100 billion will only alleviate about 9% of that. We're not making much progress, are we? And that's even if the Republicans are successful.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Joseph, the dreamer

The book of Genesis is about a God who gets his hands dirty. The prologue that unfolds in Chapters 1-11 shows how God creates the universe through an extended process, how he welcomes his creatures into the process of caring for an maintaining his creation, how he watches as his creatures grieve his heart, and how he purifies the world in search of a new start. The story of Abraham in Chapters 12-25 show how God creates for himself a people out of an old man and his barren wife. The story of Jacob in Chapters 25-36 show how God chooses to continue his people through a fierce struggle between two brothers, and how the ancestor of God's chosen people must be one who wrestles with God and with man. The final section (as I read it) comes in Chapters 37-50, and focuses on Joseph, and how God uses the envy and hatred of Joseph's brothers to bring about his plans for Israel.

In other words, God is not immune to difficulties. His plan progresses through pain, destruction, separation, and confusion. God is not afraid to put himself, and those whom he has chosen to be his people, in compromising positions. Basically, the character of God in the Bible is consistent with reality. It is impossible to believe in a God who makes everything pristine, because no such God exists.