ChuckB's blog

Commenting on comments, v. 1

This anonymous commenter on Ed Feser's blog post "Stove on contemporary academic style" makes one common kind of bogus objection: he presupposes that one who affirms some of the ideas of Aristotle and Aquinas (where Aristotle and Aquinas can stand for any thinker) is committed to affirming them all. But unless he can show either that (a) Feser explicitly affirms Aristotle's views on the souls of animals and slaves, or (b) that it is logically inconsistent to deny Aristotle's views on the souls of slaves and animals, and simultaneously to affirm those views of Aristotle and Aquinas that Feser expressly does affirm, the objection lacks all traction. Suppose (as seems likely) that those parts of A & A that Feser does affirm do not logically imply Aristotle's views on the souls of animals & slaves, and suppose further that Feser does not affirm these views, or that he even condemns them outright; is Feser obliged to explain away crimes committed by those who follow views he doesn't affirm and isn't required to affirm? I think not. -- Read More

The Role of Testimony in Science

From "Augustinian Christian Philosophy", by Alvin Plantinga (on p. 24 of the PDF file):

For in most of the sciences we don't at all have the sort of knowledge we have of the Pythagorean Theorem or the Fundamental Theorem of the Calculus; we don't have anything like the sort of certainty we have in elementary logic and mathematics. Consider physics, for example. First, most of us who know anything about physics know what we know by way of taking someone else's word for it. How do I know that the velocity of light in a vacuum is about 186,000 miles per second? I read it in a physics text, or heard it in a physics class, or saw it in an article in Scientific American. I certainly didn't measure the velocity of light myself, and wouldn't have the faintest idea of how to do so. (I daresay the same is true for you.) How do I know that there are experiments that favor relativity theory over Newtonian mechanics? The same way; I learned it in a physics class. I didn't myself perform those experiments involving muon decay or the rapid transport of cesium clocks, or the measurement of parallax. Indeed, the same goes for most physicists: most of them, so far as I know, haven't performed those experiments either; most of them learned about them in class or from a physics journal. As a matter of fact, even those who did perform the experiments had to take a great deal on the authority of others: that the velocity of the plane transporting the cesium clock was in fact thus and so, that the plane flew the relevant distance and the right course, and so on. Anyone who makes an advance in science obviously stands on the shoulders of others, taking an enormous amount on their say-so--for example, how the earlier experiments relevant to his project turned out.

I post this passage in part because most of us, especially those of us who regard science as the highest or truest form of knowledge or way of pursuing knowledge, vastly underestimate the importance of testimony (including documentary evidence) in our knowledge and belief systems. Anything we believe on the say-so of someone else, whether it is an informal recommendation on a new car purchase, or an article in cosmology with a new measurement of the cosmic background radiation left over from the Big Bang, or Xenophon's account of the life of Socrates, is something we believe not because of our empirical observations of the matters in question, but because we trust the testimony we receive on the matter. Implicit in our believing a thing on the basis of testimony is the acknowledgement of the authority of the testifier at least as far as the thing believed is concerned.

Arguments from evil

From Alvin Plantinga's spiritual autobiography (pp. 29-30 of the PDF file):

It is indeed true that suffering and evil can occasion spiritual perplexity and discouragement; and of all the anti-theistic arguments, only the argument from evil deserves to be taken really seriously. But I also believe, paradoxically enough, that there is a theistic argument from evil; and it is at least as strong as the antitheistic argument from evil. (Here I can only sketch the argument and leave it at an intuitive level.) What is so deeply disturbing about horrifying kinds of evil? The most appalling kinds of evil involve human cruelty and wickedness: Stalin and Pol Pot, Hitler and his henchmen, and the thousands of small vignettes of evil that make up such a whole. What is genuinely
abhorrent is the callousness and perversion and cruelty of the concentration camp guard, taking pleasure in the sufferings of others; what is really odious is taking advantage of one's position of trust (as a parent or counsellor, perhaps) in order to betray and corrupt
someone: what is genuinely appalling, in other words, is not really human suffering as such so much as human wickedness. This wickedness
strikes us as deeply perverse, wholly wrong, warranting not just quarantine and the attempt to overcome it, but blame and punishment.

But could there really be any such thing as horrifying wickedness if naturalism were true? I don't see how. A naturalistic way of looking at the world, so it seems to me, has no place for genuine moral obligation of any sort; a fortiori, then, it has no place for such a category as horrifying wickedness. It is hard enough, from a naturalistic perspective, to see how it could be that we human beings can be so related to propositions (contents) that we believe them; and harder yet, as I said above, to explain how that content could enter into a causal explanation of someone's actions. But these difficulties are as nothing compared with seeing how, in a naturalistic universe, there could be such a thing as genuine and appalling wickedness. There can be such a thing only if there is a way rational creatures are supposed to live, obliged to live; and the force of that normativity--its strength, so to speak--is such that the appalling and horrifying nature of genuine wickedness is its inverse. But naturalism cannot make room for that kind of normativity;
that requires a divine lawgiver, one whose very nature it is to abhor wickedness. Naturalism can perhaps accommodate foolishness and irrationality, acting contrary to what are or what you take to be your own interests; it can't accommodate appalling wickedness. Accordingly, if you think there really is such a thing as horrifying wickedness (that our sense that there is, is not a mere illusion of some sort), and if you also think the main options are theism and naturalism, then you have a powerful theistic argument from evil.

Note that Plantinga uses the term 'naturalism' in its philosophical sense: the metaphysical view that the universe comprises only material objects acting and being acted upon in accordance with natural law. A naturalistic stance rejects the reality of any supernatural entities or laws (God, angels, non-material human existence).

Lexington Green on prison reform

Read Lexington Green's post on prison reform at ChicagoBoyz.net (I hope especially that my fellow conservatives will do so). Here is a comment by Lex aimed at someone who suggested that prisoners brutalized by other inmates while in jail got what they deserved:

"they are getting what they deserve"

"240,000 brutal rapes occur in our prison system each year"

Deserve.

No. They are getting an anarchic, violent, dysfunctional environment which destroys the lives of the least dangerous and most vulnerable inmates.

Conservatives and libertarians need to see the prison system as what it is -- probably the most expensive, destructive, wasteful and counterproductive government agency we have. Prisons are factories which turn moderately dysfunctional people into violent, irreparable sociopaths.

And you are paying for it out of your own pocket. [emphasis mine--ChuckB]

Are you getting your money's worth?

Now, read this City Journal article on Michael Jacobson and Bernard Kerik's prison reform in New York City. Here's the gist, linked to from the blog posting:

Under their regime, inmate violence fell 90 percent in four years. Only 229 violent incidents occurred during the last fiscal year, and just 54 during the first six months of fiscal 1999, even though the number of inmates passing through the DOC continues to rise. Morale has shot up. Overtime costs have shrunk by half, and sick leave is down 25 percent as employee enthusiasm strengthens.

Being tough on crime does not entail regarding convicts as human refuse who deserve whatever comes to them within violent, dysfunctional, ill-managed prisons. It looks to me as if we are spending a lot more money than we need to only to create more efficient factories for producing better, more dedicated criminals. As Lex says in a further comment:

Prisons should be hard, unpleasant places which are still safe and orderly. That is difficult to do but it is achievable.

Let me also suggest that prisons that are safer for the inmates (at least for the non-violent ones) are also safer for the guards and other staff.

Anthony Flew's apostasy

Some readers of this journal will know that British philosopher Anthony Flew is one of the best-known contemporary atheists and philosophical critics of theistic religion.

It is now public knowledge that he has lost his faith--in the possibility of a strictly naturalistic, evolutionary explanation for the origin of life, that is.

It is important to note right off the bat that he is far from converting to some theistic religion like Christianity or Islam. He is calling himself a deist for the time being. This is not some coup for a particular organized religion. It is, however, a development of profound importance to the debate on intelligent design, since Flew now regards intelligent design as the best (and perhaps the only plausible) explanation for the complexity of life:

My one and only piece of relevant evidence [for an Aristotelian God] is the apparent impossibility of providing a naturalistic theory of the origin from DNA of the first reproducing species ... [In fact] the only reason which I have for beginning to think of believing in a First Cause god is the impossibility of providing a naturalistic account of the origin of the first reproducing organisms. [Letter to Richard Carrier; emphasis in original]

I don't think Flew is troubled by the Darwinian and neo-Darwinian accounts of speciation; rather, the problem he sees is in the origin of the first replicating life from pre-biotic elements.

You can read more at The Evangelical Outpost and Fides Quaerens Intellectum.

Inheriting the wind

Civic Biology by George Hunter was, I'm given to understand, the textbook to which William Jennings Bryan objected in the notorious "Scopes Monkey Trial". Here are some sample passages:

The Races of Man. — At the present time there exist upon the earth five races or varieties of man, each very different from the other in instincts, social customs, and, to an extent, in structure. These are the Ethiopian or negro type, originating in Africa; the Malay or brown race, from the islands of the Pacific; The American Indian; the Mongolian or yellow race, including the natives of China, Japan, and the Eskimos; and finally, the highest type of all, the caucasians, represented by the civilized white inhabitants of Europe and America. [pp. 195-96]

Improvement of Man. — If the stock of domesticated animals can be improved, it is not unfair to ask if the health and vigor of the future generations of men and women on the earth might not be improved by applying to them the laws of selection. This improvement of the future race has a number of factors in which we as individuals may play a part. These are personal hygiene, selection of healthy mates, and the betterment of the environment....

Parasitism and its Cost to Society. — Hundreds of families such as those described above exist today, spreading disease, immorality, and crime to all parts of this country. The cost to society of such families is very severe. Just as certain animals or plants become parasitic on other plants or animals, these families have become parasitic on society. They not only do harm to others by corrupting, stealing, or spreading disease, but they are actually protected and cared for by the state out of public money. Largely for them the poorhouse and the asylum exist. They take from society, but they give nothing in return. They are true parasites.

The Remedy. — If such people were lower animals, we would probably kill them off to prevent them from spreading. Humanity will not allow this, but we do have the remedy of separating the sexes in asylums or other places and in various ways preventing intermarriage and the possibilities of perpetuating such a low and degenerate race. Remedies of this sort have been tried successfully in Europe and are now meeting with some success in this country. [pp. 261-65]

Would you object to your child being taught from a textbook that included these passages? If so, why? If you were told that these notions were merely the rational implications of naturalistic evolution and speciation (as was certainly thought in Scopes's, Bryan's, and Darrow's day), how would you frame your objection?

Jonathan Last on _Closer_

I haven't seen the film, and I quite possibly won't. But this paragraph from Last's review is great, especially the last line:

Stripped down to its elements, Closer is the stuff of European bedroom farce--dozens, if not hundreds of French and Italian films have used the same basic engine. The difference is that the material in Closer isn't played for laughs. It is instead mined for psychological and epistemological truths. Earnest truths about innocence and need and fidelity and honesty. Not since American Beauty has a film wanted to dive so deep into so shallow a pool.

Nietzsche and conservatism

I thought this was interesting--perhaps you will too. Jonah Goldberg at National Review Online's The Corner asks if there are any American conservatives who were greatly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche.

Andrew Sullivan cracks a smile at the thought that the atheistic, Nietzschean Straussians (e.g. Wolfowitz) now draw evangelical voters.

Pejman notes Nietzsche's elitism (and even manages to connect it with The Incredibles).

In a follow-up post, Pejman mentions Judge Richard Posner as a candidate for a Nietzschean conservative. I also recommend Pejman's review of a Nietzsche anthology translated by Walter Kaufmann. Pejman cites this passage (among others) from Nietzsche:

At the risk of displeasing innocent ears I propose: egoism belongs to the nature of a noble soul--I mean that unshakable faith that to a being such as "we are" other beings must be subordinate by nature and have to sacrifice themselves. The noble soul accepts this fact of its egoism without any question mark, also without any feeling that it might contain hardness, constraint, or caprice, rather as something that may be founded in the primordial law of things: if it sought a name for this fact it would say, "it is justice itself." Perhaps it admits under certain circumstances that at first make it hesitate that there are some who have rights equal to its own; as soon as this matter of rank is settled it moves among these equals with their equal privileges, showing the same sureness of modesty and delicate reverence that characterize its relations with itself--in accordance with an innate heavenly mechanism understood by all stars. It is merely another aspect of its egoism, this refinement and self-limitation in its relations with its equals--every star is such an egoist--it honors itself in them and in the rights it cedes to them; it does not doubt that the exchange of honors and rights is of the nature of all social relations and thus also belongs to the natural condition of things.

Pejman finds the sentiment expressed here congenial. I don't. I wonder what Brian Leiter, a Nietzschean elitist of the Left would make of this passage?

Led Zeppelin interviews

Ed Driscoll has links to four Led Zeppelin-related interviews, at least two of which are genuine. Warning: the one featuring Robert Plant contains mature subject matter.

BTW, has anyone out there watched the new "Unledded" DVD yet?

Hating the U.S.: one view

Anne Applebaum:

The larger point, though, is that the "it's-all-an-American-plot" arguments circulating in cyberspace again demonstrate something that the writer Christopher Hitchens, himself a former Trotskyite, has been talking about for a long time: At least a part of the Western left -- or rather the Western far left -- is now so anti-American, or so anti-Bush, that it actually prefers authoritarian or totalitarian leaders to any government that would be friendly to the United States. ...
I certainly don't believe, as President Bush sometimes simplistically says, that everyone who disagrees with American policies in Iraq or elsewhere "hates freedom." That's why it's so shocking to discover that some of them do.

Conceit

This posting from the Knowledge Problem blog is in my view right on target for much of the post-election complaining.

UPDATE: I should add that it is quite one thing to try to persuade Bush voters that they were not voting in their own interests; it is quite another simply to dismiss them with condescension as too stupid to see their own interests.

BTW, has anyone out there read The Wisdom of Crowds? Care to comment?

KNOWING WHAT'S BEST

Pat Lynch

Have been consistently surprised and disappointed by the extended public and private mourning period the American left is wallowing in. The public hand-wringing over the values debate has obscured a more disturbing trend I've seen among Democrats - conceit.

Implicit in a lot of the complaints from the left has been the notion that "dumb" voters made the "wrong" choice. How dare they not see that more government sponsored economic management would be better than the values and tax cuts of the Bush administration? How stupid can people be to vote for a guy who can't finish sentences?

Well this George Will column from Newsweek does a nice job getting to the core of those complaints. More generally, if you haven't seen Jim Surowiecki's book The Wisdom of Crowds you should. And recommend it to any leftie friends you have. It might wake them up to the silly idea that people know their own best interest and are probably closer to getting things right any some group of blue state intellectuals.

James Earl Jones on Kubrick, Scott, and Strangelove

Professor Bainbridge points us to a column in the OpinionJournal by James Earl Jones, in which he reminisces about the making of a great American movie, Dr. Strangelove. I recommend it heartily if you are interested in film.

Starbucks gets roasted

... and deservedly so, in my view. Via Jonathan Last's Galley Slaves, Kathleen Nelson spanks Starbucks (and also James Lileks). So I was right: Starbuck's does roast their coffees too dark, which obscures what varietal character the beans may have. I also dislike the "faux bohemian" aesthetic of their stores and other products.

Nelson used to be a manager of a store in a coffee chain called Caribou (Canadian?). Anyone ever been to a Caribou coffee store? As for non-Starbucks, I have always liked Diedrich's coffee.

Famous last words ...

... from the Man from Flint. Condolences and encouragement can be sent to MMFlint@aol.com.

CNN, Fox: Ashcroft likely to resign

Both CNN and Fox News are reporting that John Ashcroft is likely to resign from the Bush Administration. You'll need to scroll down in both articles.

I submitted a LISNews story on this, but the event may have occurred by the time it gets accepted, so I decided to go ahead with a journal entry as well.

Via The Command Post, in turn via Instapundit.

Further note on Kristof column

I thought that the column by Nicholas Kristof cited by birdie was generally perceptive: he understands that contemporary liberalism has (for good reason) come to be seen as an elitist upper-middle class movement. However, early in the column, he shows that he still fails to grasp a fundamental part of the problem:

I'm writing this on tenterhooks on Tuesday, without knowing the election results. But whether John Kerry's supporters are now celebrating or seeking asylum abroad, they should be feeling wretched about the millions of farmers, factory workers and waitresses who ended up voting - utterly against their own interests - for Republican candidates.

Kristof's assertion that the blue-collar workers are voting utterly against their own interests makes sense only if you grant two assumptions:

  1. these people don't know where their real interests lie, and
  2. Kristof does.

Nothing better expresses the elitism at the very heart of contemporary liberalism than this kind of "I know better than you how you ought to perceive your interests" attitude. So deeply entrenched is this mindset that I am convinced that Kristof was unaware that he was manifesting the very problem he sought to point out. It would never occur to him that a person's or a group's interests could be construed in any way other than in economic terms--that a person might be persuaded of the real existence of a God, for instance, and that as a rational consequence of that persuasion she might pursue a course of action that did not maximize her economic well-being, but instead contributed to some other form of well-being she believes to have a higher claim.

Until Kristof can understand and accept that these persons are in a better position than he is to define and pursue their own interests, he still doesn't "get it". Close, but no cigar.

Tom Wolfe interview in The Guardian

Here it is.

Of the politics of his novels:

[Wolfe] is "proud", he says, "that I do not think any political motivation can be detected in my long books. My idol is Emile Zola. He was a man of the left, so people expected of him a kind of Les Miserables, in which the underdogs are always noble people. But he went out, and found a lot of ambitious, drunk, slothful and mean people out there. Zola simply could not - and was not interested in - telling a lie. You can call it honesty, or you can call it ego, but there it is. There is no motivation higher than being a good writer."

Of his estrangement from the liberal elite:

"Here is an example of the situation in America," he says: "Tina Brown wrote in her column that she was at a dinner where a group of media heavyweights were discussing, during dessert, what they could do to stop Bush. Then a waiter announces that he is from the suburbs, and will vote for Bush. And ... Tina's reaction is: 'How can we persuade these people not to vote for Bush?' I draw the opposite lesson: that Tina and her circle in the media do not have a clue about the rest of the United States. You are considered twisted and retarded if you support Bush in this election. I have never come across a candidate who is so reviled. Reagan was sniggered it, but this is personal, real hatred.

"Indeed, I was at a similar dinner, listening to the same conversation, and said: 'If all else fails, you can vote for Bush.' People looked at me as if I had just said: 'Oh, I forgot to tell you, I am a child molester.' I would vote for Bush if for no other reason than to be at the airport waving off all the people who say they are going to London if he wins again. Someone has got to stay behind."

Wolfe's comments in this interview dovetail nicely with the Kristof article cited by birdie, and they provide something of a response to it. I would love to hear birdie's (and anyone else's) thoughts on the Wolfe interview, whether here in a comment on this entry or in her own journal.

Guantanamo in France

In the WaPo, "French Push Limits in Fight On Terrorism":

PARIS -- In many countries of Europe, former inmates of the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been relishing their freedom. In Spain, Denmark and Britain, recently released detainees have railed in public about their treatment at Guantanamo, winning sympathy from local politicians and newspapers. In Sweden, the government has agreed to help one Guantanamo veteran sue his American captors for damages.

Not so in France, where four prisoners from the U.S. naval base were arrested as soon as they arrived home in July, and haven't been heard from since. Under French law, they could remain locked up for as long as three years while authorities decide whether to put them on trial -- a legal limbo that their attorneys charge is not much different than what they faced at Guantanamo.

The whole article is worth reading. It notes that some of France's anti-terrorism tactics would be illegal in the U.S., and that it "has embraced a law enforcement strategy that relies heavily on preemptive arrests, ethnic profiling and an efficient domestic intelligence-gathering network."

There is even evidence of John Ashcroft's baleful influence in France:

The French anti-terrorism judge overseeing both cases is Bruguiere, an investigating magistrate who under French law is granted great prosecutorial powers, including the ability to sign search warrants, order wiretaps and interrogate suspects.

Over the past decade, Bruguiere has ordered the arrests of more than 500 people on suspicion of "conspiracy in relation to terrorism," a broad charge that gives him leeway to lock up suspects while he carries out investigations.

The French government also has wide powers to deport noncitizens for speech that incites hatred or intolerance against any group.

"Focus Shifts to Arafat's Digestive Track"

The above is the headline of an article at The Guardian. Is it correct to refer to the 'digestive tract' also as the 'digestive track'? Perhaps this is another way of referring to the digestive tract that I just haven't encountered before.

Unix and the culture of the word

birdie's question about 'grep' and djfiander's and Blake's replies reminded me of Thomas Scoville's article bearing the above title.

At the heart of Unix, Linux, and related languages is not the graphical user interface, but the command line, and the command line is a space for textual interaction with the computer. To master the command line, one learns a large number of commands, each with their own semantics and syntactic options. There is even a syntax for joining a string of commands to one another, such that the output of one command becomes the input of another. Thus, rather than presenting you with a vendor-defined GUI with a fixed combination of operations, the Unix command line lets you construct a myriad of unique "sentences" out its commands, each suited to a particular set of tasks.

This linguistic character of the operating system doubtless contributes greatly to its reputation for complexity, and not altogether without reason. It is complex, but its complexity, once mastered, also offers flexibility and power. I like to compare Unix/Linux servers to Windows NT servers by saying that Unix machines are like sailing ships, while NT machines are like motorboats. Looking at a sailing ship, you know you have to learn a great deal about rigging, sails, and winds in order to get anywhere with it. A motorboat encourages you to think you can just hop in, turn the key, and drive off, even if things really aren't quite that simple.

Scoville contends that, because Unix is language-centric rather than image-centric (as GUI-oriented OSes are), its devotees are disprortionately drawn from liberal arts backgrounds, and they are more likely to approach their work with a linguistic and literary mindset.

This article may seem a bit dated now that Linux is making a serious play for the desktop, with dozens of window and desktop managers to choose from, and with an increasing number of user-friendly desktop distributions. For those of us who cut our teeth on the command line, however, its text-oriented character remains an important strength of the Unix/Linux family of operating systems, and an essential part of our computing worldview.

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