Happy Halloween

It's an MRI of a pumpkin.

More veggies here.

The Point

This is what I've said, too. I've tried to point it out to a wealthy family member who says he's voting for Romney because he doesn't want to pay higher taxes. (He voted for Obama last time.) But, I pleaded, in voting for Mitt Romney you're empowering the anti-science theocrats in Congress that'd turn this into a bible-based, science-denying, woman-suppressing, environmentally-polluted backwater. He doesn't care. For him, it's about taxes.



I'm trying to decipher the message god sent us on the wind and rain of Sandy the Superstorm. Predictably, evangelical preachers are convinced it's god's punishment to all of us for tolerating certain sexual preferences among our brethren. Following biblical precedent, he's smiting people whose involvement in such tolerance is indeterminate; and rather than spelling it out clearly, he's wantonly destroying waterfront homes, dropping trees on heads, and rendering public transportation inoperative; sparing the casinos and wiping out poor neighborhoods. I'd take the good reverend's word for it if I were a little more convinced it made sense. Ham-handed, is the expression that comes to mind when contemplating the claim that god uses monster weather effects to make his point about sexual behavior. Not that I can entirely discount it.

The evidence suggests otherwise. Look at the reality of it. You don't have to get all symbolic to recognize that a frankenstorm is a very particular message. It's a storm, for gods sakes. It has both origins and consequences. If god is using it as his instrument, there are more obvious inferences to be drawn. For one thing, if it isn't crystal clear from the teachings of Jesus, god is a Democrat. As a criticism of the "homosexual agenda" Sandy is sort of tangential. What it is, one might conclude, is a clear commentary about ignoring the implications of climate change. If I wanted to point out climate change, I'd do something dramatic about the climate. (As opposed to making a point about homosexual behavior, where, given the obtuseness of the human mind I'd created and, being a little embarrassed about it, would do something pretty unequivocally unmistakable; something not subject to a lot of interpretation. Like making the dicks fall off of all gay men. Simultaneously. All around the world. With hidden cameras. For a guy who can do anything, that would not only be easy, but would provide zero confusion as to the point being made.)

If there's a divine message from an unprecedented storm, it's that it's an unprecedented storm. You're screwing up my planet, he's saying. Cut it out.

Not only that: he's saying something else pretty clearly, because he can't be unaware that the result of the storm would be a massive government response, at the controls of which would be the chief executive of the country most affected. That would be Barack Hussein Obama. Look, god must be saying; stop all this nonsense about ignoring the needs of the needy. Government is a good thing I created. It's there to help people. Watch how it works when the people in charge know what they're doing and are committed to doing it. Compare that to the response of the last guy on whose shoulder I tapped, to wake him the fuck up. He blew it; he made it clear what happens when government is incompetent and doesn't care. And the people you're about to put in charge? They want to cut funds for FEMA or eliminate it entirely. You think they blew my Katrina message? You ain't seen nothing yet. (Or, maybe: lo, forsooth, for thou hast not yet with thine eyes seen the works of those who wouldst ignore my me; nor hast thou felt the full wrath of a mighty and vengeful god met upon those who chose to ignore the teachings of his only begotten son, who, might I point out to you knuckleheaded imbeciles, chose not to waste his breath on the behavior of my children of the homosexual variety whom I've chosen to create across the sands of time.)

You want metaphor? god must be asking. Check out this storm and see what I think of a government that doesn't help people. You are having a problem understanding the obvious? Here it is: you screweth up my favorite planet and pretendeth not. In order to keep your ill-gotten gold, you acteth as if you oweth nothing to your fellow citizens, your country, your god. And you would rejecteth the one guy I sent you who gets it. Waketh ye up, ye headless and heartless heathens. Now. Before I smite your asses even harder.

As heaven-sent messages go, there's no degrees of separation between the storm and those conclusions. Gay people? Really? What kind of god is that obtuse?

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Warning To A Former Friend

Trust me for once, former friend: for your physical and mental well-being, don't look at the pictures here. The one above is just a tiny sampling. It's about early voting in Florida.

[Update: good news for you: the storm, sent by god because of gays and lesbians, as I assume you believe, has halted early voting for now.]

[Image source from the link. Duh.]

Lies As Truth

This is worth a read, not that it's saying anything I haven't pointed out a million times. The RWS™ and Mitt Romney version of President Obama has never existed. Blaming the failure of bipartisanship on him is like blaming floods on the land instead of the storm. This is why the election is so depressing. Lies win. Especially when repeated over and over by a cynical media complex, devoid of any desire for truth, believing they can't win on truth, committed to keeping the electorate as misinformed and fearful as possible. It makes me want to jump off a roof. (Mine, as it turns out, is only two stories high, and the ground is pretty soft right now. Probably just re-break my ankle.)
...Funny how the first group of non-pols that Obama sat down with were leading conservative writers, like Bill Kristol and Charles Krauthammer (the liberals came second); that he asked Rick Warren to give the invocation at his Inauguration; that his stimulus was a third tax cuts (the only big tax cuts Republicans have ever voted against in my memory); that his healthcare reform was not single-payer, but one modeled on Mitt Romney's moderate version in Massachusetts; that he has given Israel more military and technological support than any previous president... 
...Instead, they set out from Day One to destroy him, because they knew that if his moderation and modern cultural identity succeeded, their reactionary radicalism would be sidelined for good. And Rove's method is always to see what your party's own worst flaw is among the public and, with a straight face, accuse your opponent of it.You know what we're fighting in this election? That cumulative, snow-balling, post-modern, cynical faction of deceit and partisan amnesia. If we are to get past the Cold Civil War we are in, the defeat of the rigidly ideological and theological GOP is vital.
The writer is a conservative, by the way; and the article is a response to a right-wing hackette who blames Obama for not reaching out at the beginning, a view entirely untrue but, per usual, swallowed whole by the teabagging electorate. George Orwell, where are you when we need you??

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Decision Points

Here's a pretty good rundown, point by point, of the several of the significant choices between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in the form of ten questions. Whatever decision a person makes, they're pretty starkly worded, so coming up with a personal response ought not be hard (with the exception, perhaps, of question #10.) The article includes useful discussion of each. The questions, without the commentary, are:

1. How full is the economic glass?
2. Who will be tougher on China? .
3. Should tax rates be cut for the wealthiest and for capital gains?
4. Should responsibility for Medicaid and other programs be turned over entirely to the states?
5. Should Medicare offer a voucher option?
6. Should Obamacare be abolished?
7. Should Social Security be converted into a private-investment program?
8. Who is best (for you) on the social issues of abortion, contraception and gay rights?
9. Was the federal bailout of General Motors and Chrysler a good idea?
10. Who can end the gridlock in Washington? 

The commentary within is worth consideration, too. If I thought people addressed these questions with open minds and made their decisions based on the effort (which is not to say it's a comprehensive list), I'd be okayer with what increasingly appears to be a Foxorovian outcome. (I have a couple of friends who seem worried that I've lost my mind in thinking The Rominee will win; and I admit that paying too much attention to polls is unhealthy. But trends are trends, and they're all telling me people are, increasingly, buying the deliberate deceptions and shameless lies.)

When, as I wrote, the Des Moines Register endorses Romney, choosing a Republican for the first time in forty years, and does so for economic reasons (while expressing fears of social regression!), I find myself wondering whether I've stringed and quantummed my way into another universe. Maybe it's me. Maybe I'm just seeing everything wrong, my sense of being able to apprehend reality and to evaluate data is no more than self-deception. Maybe Mitt Romney isn't a liar, hasn't changed positions on every one of the most important issues of the day. Could it be that he really acted in a bipartisan way in Massachusetts?

Would he have saved the auto industry like Obama did, as he now claims? Maybe his budget plans do add up, and can be accomplished while maintaining the infrastructure necessary to a functioning society. Perhaps it'd be fine if we became a theocratic plutocracy, where moneyed interests pull all the strings and keep the rest of us happy by letting us (and by "us" I mean "them") enact biblical law on all things other than whatever it is that lets megacorporations keep their money and run the show. Or maybe there's actually no one in Congress trying to make it happen.

Being open-minded, I have to consider the possibility that I've been wrong about everything, and that Fox "news" and RWS™distortions and dissembling aren't outright Bolshevik-like propagandizing at all, but sources of truth and reason. The view of Barack Obama they've created -- the Communist Socialist Nazi America-hating gay Kenyan Muslim terrorist-enabler -- is the accurate one; and my view of him -- a moderate, left-wing-disappointing compromiser, a rescuer (if a little slowly) of the economy and of the auto industry, a promise-keeping ender of a bad war and initiator of very middle-of-the-road (conservative, actually) health-care reform, a believer in women's rights and same-sex equality as moral issues -- is just plain wrong.

Or, at least, I have to get used to the idea that it doesn't matter one way or the other whether I'm right or not. Because the other view is winning the argument.

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Tough Choices

Andy Borowitz is a funny guy, mainly because his humor only slightly exaggerates rather than distorts the truth. Here are links to two of his recent observations.

The first one concerns the difficult choice facing Rs heading down the stretch to election day: whether to emphasize misogyny or racism. It ends with this:

Hoping to heal a possible rift with so little time left until Election Day, the R.N.C. chairman Reince Priebus said today that there is room for both views in today’s Republican Party: “Our ‘big tent’ message to voters should be this: come for the misogyny, stay for the racism.”

The other addresses the possible difficulties that Frankenstorm might engender:

But even as the Romney campaign expressed outward confidence about its ability to maintain an uninterrupted flow of whoppers, some Republicans privately feared that a major power outage could disrupt its ability to lie, distort, and exaggerate in the crucial days ahead.
“If Fox News gets knocked off the air in some of these states, we’re certainly going to be down a quart in terms of falsehoods,” one insider said.

I'd laugh harder if they weren't so close to the bone.

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The Truth Shall Set You Free

On his way to the nomination, Mitt Romney made a career of lying, and he's doing it still. Presumably, he always will. What lies will he tell us as president? Willing to say anything to advance his self-interest, and doing so all his political life (I say "political" because I don't know about the rest, although he's told some whoppers about his status with Bain), Mitt Romney, one would have to assume, could make LBJs Vietnam lie and George Bush's Iraq lie look like words from the mount. That would, so you'd think, scare the crap out of anyone.

Doubled the deficit. Fifty percent of green investments failed. Apologizes for America. We need more teachers, we need fewer. Time for talk with Iran is over, time for talk. War, peace. War is peace. Peace is war.

It's usual that candidates run to the extremes to get their party's nomination, and then to the center if they get it. But Mitt Romney has been unique. He's run on lies, continuously. And, while doing so, appealed to the furthest right, right up to the debates when, suddenly, he materialized as someone else entirely. I assume his calculus is that, having nailed the teabaggers to his wall of lies, they'd never leave.  Information, to them, is like garlic to vampires. And he -- correctly, evidently -- figured that people who saw the debates as a way to decide for whom to vote (i.e. people who simply weren't paying attention till then) would buy whatever he chose to sell, no matter how opposite from what he'd been saying mere moments before.

And guess what: he's right. He and Fox "news" treat voters like the sheep they actually are. Because it's true, and it works. Surrounded, in my life, by people who think and who pay attention, to whom politics is a topic of conversation all the time, not just once every four years, for a minute or two, I've gotten a very skewed idea of how Americans think. Or that they think at all. This election, if nothing else, has proved that you can win by banking on stupidity and inattention. And by "banking" I mean billionaires bankrolling the effort.

Speaking of which, right on cue, some Rs are now talking about limiting money in elections.* Once they get what they want, ie a Supreme Court for decades, as far right and politically active as Antonin Scalia, they'll wrap it up and make sure rich Ds can't do the same.

Buh bye democracy. Buh bye education. Been nice knowing you.
* I read that somewhere recently and now I can't find a link. Maybe I'm starting to hallucinate. Next thing you know, I'll be claiming Romney told the truth about something.

Romney's Economic Guru

It's a guy named Glenn Hubbard, George Bush's key adviser as well. Famous for getting everything entirely wrong, economy-wise. Or unwise.

 On August 22, 2001, he published anarticle in the Wall Street Journal entitled "Tax Cuts Won't Hurt the Surplus." Oops. In the article, also, Hubbard predicts that his tax cuts would preserve the Clinton budget surpluses by causing GNP to grow 0.3 percent per year faster.
... Hubbard wrote that "The ascendancy of the U.S. capital markets" had yielded "enhanced stability of the U.S. banking system... more jobs and higher wages... less frequent and milder [recessions}... a revolution in housing finance." Later in the article: "The capital markets have helped make the housing market less volatile... " Next, "Credit crunches... are a thing of the past... " and my personal favorite, "The revolution in housing finance has also... been important in making the economy less cyclical." In other parts of the article, Hubbard and Dudley specifically praise credit default swaps for their role in reducing and spreading risk. (emphasis mine, in case anyone missed the significance!)

There've been conflict-of-interest issues, too:

... On his CV, Hubbard lists The Analysis Group as a consulting client. That is misleading at best. The Analysis Group is one of a half dozen major firms that specializes in matching private companies and lobbying groups, who are the real clients, with professors who they pay to support their positions in regulatory, policy, Congressional, and legal disputes. It was The Analysis Group, for example, that arranged for Hubbard to testify on behalf of two Bear Stearns hedge fund managers who were prosecuted for securities fraud in 2009. Hubbard was paid $100,000 for his testimony.
Oh, yeah, and here's a bit on another of Mitt's economic powerhouses, dubbed "the world's worst economist." (Among Romney's guri, that's gotta be some competition.)

Prior even to “Dow 36000″ Hassett had co-authored a paper exploring the question of what to do with Clinton’s budget surplus making the implied case that the best option was to use it to pay for tax cuts. There wasn’t enough to fix Social Security for good, he argued, and Clinton’s proposals to invest at least half the surplus in initiatives in “health, education, childcare, transportation, school construction and the environment do not appear to contain meaningful cost-benefit analysis.” 
Excerpts from Hassett’s 2001 testimony make for amusing reading today. President Bush’s “relatively cautious” plan would dedicate about half of the surplus to tax relief. But no worries about damaging the fiscal integrity of the U.S. government — according to Hassett, the surplus was likely to grow even faster than currently predicted, even if a recession came to pass. 

How is it that anyone (much less that Iowa newspaper) could claim Romney would be better for the economy? The economy which is clearly, if slowly, recovering under Obama, and the plans for which espoused by Romney 1) don't add up by any known math and 2) are exactly those that caused the crash in the first place and 3) if enacted would devastate domestic spending. Really? On what planet? (Oh yeah, the one of which Mitt will be king when he dies.)

Phew. Got that out there just in time. With facts like these...

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Sunday Sermon

Life, death, the universe, meaning. All of it. Good stuff. Too hard and too easy. But wouldn't it be nice....


Nope, No Racists Here. Move Along

This is in reference to The Rominee's main surrogate, the greasy ooze named John Sununu (a horrible sleazeball person the choice of whom says much about Mitt Romney) claiming Colin Powell endorsed Barack Obama because they share a skin color. The speaker is a Republican (or, shall I say, a conservative: there's a difference nowadays), Powell's former chief of staff.

It came on the same day, I believe, that Mr Romney corralled the most important endorsement of them all. Has anyone said it came because of dermatologic similarities? (Not that it didn't, of course.)


No comment needed.

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Nagel and his critics, Part II

Whereas my First Things review of Thomas Nagel’s Mind and Cosmos accentuated the positive, the first post in this series put forward some criticisms of the book.  Let’s turn now to the objections against Nagel raised by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg in their review in The Nation.  

First some stage setting is in order.  As I indicated in the previous post, Mind and Cosmos is mostly devoted to the positive task of spelling out what a non-materialist version of naturalism might look like.  The negative task of criticizing materialist forms of naturalism is carried out in only a relatively brief and sketchy way, and here Nagel is essentially relying on arguments he and others have developed at greater length elsewhere.  Especially relevant for present purposes is a line of argument Nagel put forward in what is perhaps his most famous piece of writing -- his widely reprinted 1974 article “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” -- and developed further in later works like The View From Nowhere.
Nagel on appearance and reality

Nagel’s argument in the article in question is often discussed in conjunction with Frank Jackson’s “knowledge argument” against materialist theories of the mind.  Naturally, attention also often focuses on the ideas referred to in the article’s title -- on Nagel’s theme that there is “something it is like” to be conscious, and on his example of the bat as a creature whose conscious states are radically unlike our own.  But the heart of Nagel’s argument really goes much deeper than any of this, to the nature of scientific method itself as that has been understood since Galileo and Descartes.  

Take a stock example of reductive scientific explanation like the reduction of sound to compression waves, color to surface reflectance properties, or heat and cold to molecular motion.  The way these explanations work is by treating the appearancethat sound, color, heat and cold present to us in conscious experience as mere appearance, as a projection of the mind that corresponds to nothing in objective, mind-independent reality.  What common sense understands by color, sound, heat and cold -- the way red looks, the way a musical note sounds, the way a hot stove feels, and so forth -- is held to have no objective reality, any more than the redness a person unknowingly wearing red-tinted contact lenses thinks he sees in all the objects around him really exists in those objects.  Instead, color is for scientific purposes essentially redefined by the method in terms of the surface reflectance properties that cause in us the subjective appearance of color; sound redefined in terms of the compression waves that cause in us the subjective appearance of sound; and heat and cold redefined in terms of the molecular motion that causes in us the subjective appearance of heat and cold.  

Thus, as common sense understands color, sound, heat and cold, etc., the reductive method ends up treating the world as essentially colorless, soundless, devoid of temperature, etc.  What the method calls “color,” “sound,” “heat” and “cold” is in fact something different from what the man on the street thinks of when he hears these terms.  The “red” that the method says exists in the material world is just the tendency of an object to absorb certain wavelengths of light and to reflect others.  The “red” that the man on the street thinks exists in the object does not really exist in the object itself at all but only in his perceptual experience of the object.  The “heat” that the method says really exists in the material world is just the motion of molecules.  The “heat” that the man on the street thinks exists in the object does not really exist in the object at all but only in his perceptual experience of the object.  And so forth.

Now, Nagel’s point is not that there is something wrong per se with overthrowing common sense in this way.  It is rather that whatever value this method has, it cannot coherently be applied to the explanation of conscious experience itself.  If the reductive method involves ignoring the appearancesof a thing and redefining the thing in terms of something other than the appearances, then since our conscious experience of the world just is the way the world appears to us, to ignore the appearances is in this case just to ignore the very phenomenon to be explained rather than to explain it.  Consciousness is for this reason necessarily and uniquely resistant to explanation via the same method scientific reductionism applies to everything else.  For the application of the method in this case, writes Nagel, “does not take us nearer to the real nature of the phenomenon: it takes us farther away from it.”  To treat the appearances as essentially “subjective” or mind-dependent is precisely to make them incapable of explanation in entirely “objective” or mind-independent terms.

Hence “in a sense,” Nagel continues, “the seeds of this objection to the reducibility of experience are already detectable in successful cases of reduction.”  As I have put it myself in several places, the reductive method in question is like the method of getting rid of all the dirt in the house by sweeping it under a certain rug.  While this is a very effective way of getting rid of the dirt everywhere else, it is not a strategy that could possibly be used to get rid of the dirt under the rug itself.  On the contrary, it only makes the problem of getting rid of that dirt even worse.  And that is exactly why the mind-body problem as it is understood today essentially came into existence with Galileo, Descartes, and Co. and has remained unsolved to the present day.  What these early modern thinkers wanted (for certain practical and political ends) was a completely quantitative, mathematical description of the world.  Irreducibly qualitativefeatures -- secondary qualities, final causes, and the like -- since they would not fit this model, were thus essentially defined away as mere projections, “swept under the rug” of the mind as it were.  But that only makes the idea of dealing with the mind itself in the same manner even more hopeless.  For these early moderns, the mind just is, you might say, the holding tank for everything that doesn’t fit their quantitative method.  Naturally, then, that method cannot coherently be applied to the mind itself.

Now the lesson Nagel drew from this in the 1974 article was not that physicalism is false so much as that “physicalism is a position we cannot understand because we do not at present have any conception of how it might be true.”  But the early moderns who inaugurated this conceptual revolution tended to draw the stronger conclusion.  Indeed, writers like Cudworth and Malebranche saw that the method in question can be used to argue for a kind of mind-body dualism.  For if you maintain that color, sound, heat, cold, odor, taste, etc., as common sense understands these features, do not exist in matter, then they do not exist in the brain or body any more than they exist in the material world external to the brain and body.  If they do exist in the mind, though, then the mind must not be material.  Dualism can hardly be refuted by the reductive method, then, precisely because dualism follows from that method.

Now that conclusion is actually a bit too strong, though the Cudworth/Malebranche style of argument has had defenders down to the present (e.g. Richard Swinburne in The Evolution of the Soul).  For one could argue instead, as Berkeley did, that only the qualities we know of in conscious experience are real and the mathematically-redefined material world is a mere fiction -- idealism rather than dualism.  Or one could argue, as Russellians do, that the sensory qualities presented to us in conscious experience are what “flesh out” the abstract structure described by physics -- thereby putting something like color, sound, etc. as common sense understands them back into matter after all, but in a way that is very different from the way common sense supposes them to be there.   (As David Chalmers suggests, though, this really amounts to a kind of riff on property dualism.)  And of course, we Aristotelian-Thomistic philosophers would reject the assumptions that lead to this tangle in the first place, dismissing Cartesianism and materialism alike as riffs on the same fundamental error of treating what are really just physics’ useful mathematical abstractions from concrete material reality as if they were the whole of concrete material reality.

What you cannot coherently be, consistent with the reductive method described, is any sort of reductive materialist, which has been at least historically the standard form of materialism.  And this, I would say, is why materialism was so rare in modern philosophy before the late twentieth century.  It takes real historical ignorance seriously to think that the scientific revolution somehow supports reductive materialism and that Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, et al. were non-materialists merely because they didn’t have the courage and/or foresight to follow out the implications of that revolution.  In fact, they were the ones who were consistently following out those implications, while materialists like Hobbes were the wishful thinkers.  Perhaps the proud ignorance of the history of philosophy that some (though by no means all) of the early analytic philosophers exhibited made it possible for materialism widely to come to seem plausible by the 1960s.  (To paraphrase Newman, to be deep in the history of philosophy is to cease to be a naturalist.  That’s certainly what led me away from naturalism, anyway.)  

Be that as it may, the only way to be a materialist consistent with the method Nagel describes is to be a materialist of the eliminativerather than reductive kind.  Contemporary non-reductive materialism fails as a third option because it fails to be materialist.  To acknowledge that higher-level features of the natural world are as real as the lower-level features but irreducible to them is either property dualism or an implicit Aristotelianism -- essentially a recapitulation of Aristotle’s critique of the ancient atomism that is the ancestor of modern materialism.  

The most perceptive naturalists -- Nagel, John Searle, Galen Strawson, David Chalmers, and Alex Rosenberg, for example -- see that the only real choice is either to embrace eliminativism or give up materialism in anything like the extant forms.  Rosenberg takes the first option, while Nagel, Searle, Strawson, and Chalmers in their different ways take the latter.  Eliminativism, however, cannot possibly be right.  Insofar as it denies the existence of intentionality, it cannot so much as be coherently formulated.  Insofar as it denies the existence and/or reliability of conscious experience, it undermines its own evidential base (a problem which, as I noted in an earlier post, Democritus saw over two millennia ago and Erwin Schrödinger and E. A. Burtt saw in the 20th century).  That leaves us with the latter option -- which in Searle leads to an implicit property dualism, in Chalmers to an explicit property dualism, in Strawson to panpsychism, and in Nagel to an implicit Aristotelianism.  But whether any of these views are in an interesting sense “naturalist” is something both naturalists and non-naturalists might doubt.  And the Aristotelian option is, as I would argue, when followed out consistently going to lead to a Scholastic form of theism. 

Leiter and Weisberg on science and common sense

But that is an argument for another time.  Let’s turn now to Leiter and Weisberg, who write:

Nagel opposes two main components of the “materialist” view inspired by Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The first is what we will call theoretical reductionism, the view that there is an order of priority among the sciences, with all theories ultimately derivable from physics and all phenomena ultimately explicable in physical terms. We believe, along with most philosophers, that Nagel is right to reject theoretical reductionism, because the sciences have not progressed in a way consistent with it. We have not witnessed the reduction of psychology to biology, biology to chemistry, and chemistry to physics, but rather the proliferation of fields like neuroscience and evolutionary biology that explain psychological and biological phenomena in terms unrecognizable by physics. As the philosopher of biology Philip Kitcher pointed out some thirty years ago, even classical genetics has not been fully reduced to molecular genetics, and that reduction would have been wholly within one field. We simply do not see any serious attempts to reduce all the “higher” sciences to the laws of physics…

So far so good, though Leiter and Weisberg do not seem to realize how large a concession this is.  As I have said, to affirm the reality of irreducible levels of the natural world above the level described by physics is essentially to affirm either property dualism or Aristotelianism -- and as I indicated in my previous post, the neo-Aristotelian implications of anti-reductionism are in fact recognized and embraced by a number of prominent contemporary philosophers of science and metaphysicians.  It will not do, then, merely to insinuate (as Leiter and Weisberg go on to do) that Nagel is attacking a straw man when he attacks reductive materialism.  For what matters is not whether most contemporary naturalists in fact explicitly affirm the reductionism Nagel rejects.  What matters is whether they can consistently reject that reductionism themselves without also moving in a property dualist, neo-Aristotelian, or other non-materialist direction.

Leiter and Weisberg continue:

The second component of the thesis Nagel opposes is what we will call naturalism, the view that features of our world—including “consciousness, intentionality, meaning, purpose, thought, and value”—can ultimately be accounted for in terms of the natural processes described by the various sciences (whether or not they are ever “reduced” to physics)…

This is perhaps a bit too proprietary a use of “naturalism” given that Nagel himself claims to be a kind of naturalist, but let that pass.  In their first main criticism of Nagel, our authors go on to write:

Naturalists… defend their view by appealing to the extraordinary fruitfulness of past scientific work, including work growing out of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. So what should we make of the actual work in biology that supports the “materialist Neo-Darwinian conception of nature” that Nagel thinks “is almost certainly false”? Defending such a sweeping claim might seem to require a detailed engagement with the relevant science, yet in a striking admission early on, Nagel reveals that his book “is just the opinion of a layman who reads widely in the literature that explains contemporary science to the nonspecialist.” And a recurring objection to what he learned from his layman’s reading of popular science writing is that much science “flies in the face of common sense,” that it is inconsistent with “evident facts about ourselves, that it “require[s] us to deny the obvious,” and so on…

[S]urely we have some reason for thinking, some four centuries after the start of the scientific revolution, that Aristotle was on the wrong track and that we are not, or at least not yet. Our reasons for thinking this are obvious and uncontroversial: mechanistic explanations and an abandonment of supernatural causality proved enormously fruitful in expanding our ability to predict and control the world around us. The fruits of the scientific revolution, though at odds with common sense, allow us to send probes to Mars and to understand why washing our hands prevents the spread of disease. We may, of course, be wrong in having abandoned teleology and the supernatural as our primary tools for understanding and explaining the natural world, but the fact that “common sense” conflicts with a layman’s reading of popular science writing is not a good reason for thinking so…

Now, there are three main problems with this line of response to Nagel.  First, it is unfair or at least uncharitable to suggest that Nagel’s complaint in the lines Leiter and Weisberg quote here is merely that the views he rejects are contrary to common sense, as if it were a mere prejudice in favor of the opinions of the man on the street that leads Nagel to resist materialist explanations of consciousness, intentionality, etc.  As we have seen, the implication of Nagel’s position on the mind-body problem is that it is incoherent, and not merely counterintuitive, to apply to consciousness and the like the methods science employs in the explanation of other phenomena.  It is no good, then, merely to point to cases where science has upended common sense, for Nagel has offered reasons to think that such upending could not in principle occur in the case of consciousness, intentionality, and the like.  His claim is precisely that the latter phenomena are necessarilyresistant to the same mode of explanation, given the nature of that mode of explanation.  In fairness to Leiter and Weisberg, and as I have already conceded, Nagel does not recapitulate in Mind and Cosmos all the arguments of his earlier work.  All the same, those arguments are well-known, and it is only fair for Nagel’s critics to take account of them when interpreting the claims he makes in the new book.

Second, it is for the same reason a mistake to assume that the dispute between Nagel and his critics is essentially a scientificdispute and that Nagel’s status as a layman dependent on popularizations of science casts doubt on his claims.  For in fact the dispute concerns the philosophy of science and the philosophy of nature that contemporary scientists tend to take for granted.  Does the essentially mathematical conception of nature we have inherited from Galileo, Descartes, and Co. capture all aspects of nature?  Is the methodology associated with that conception an appropriate means of discovering and studying all aspects of nature?  These are essentially metaphysicaland epistemological questions rather than empirical scientific questions, and Nagel’s position is that they must be answered in the negative.  Of course, Leiter and Weisberg might insist (after the fashion of “naturalized” epistemology, metaphysics, etc.) that all such philosophical questions must ultimately be answered through scientific means, but merelyto insist on that is simply to beg the question against Nagel rather than to refute him.

Third, it also merely begs the question to suggest that the “fruitfulness” of “mechanistic” explanations in other domains -- where fruitfulness involves the ability to “predict and control” natural phenomena -- gives us reason to think that such explanations might be given of the phenomena at issue in Nagel’s book (consciousness, intentionality, etc.).  For one thing, Nagel has, as I have said, given reason elsewhere to think that such explanations cannot succeed.  For another, Leiter and Weisberg are here committing a fallacy similar to the one which, as we saw in an earlier post, Alex Rosenberg commits in his book The Atheist’s Guide to Reality.  In particular, they are essentially arguing as follows:

1. The predictive power and technological applications of [post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic] science are unparalleled by those of any other purported source of knowledge.

2. Therefore we have good reason to think that [post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic] science can explain everything that there is to explain.

And that sort of argument is no better than this one:

1. Metal detectors have had far greater success in finding coins and other metallic objects in more places than any other method has.

2. Therefore we have good reason to think that metal detectors can reveal to us everything that there is to be revealed.

In fact, of course, metal detectors are as successful as they are in finding coins, lost keys, etc. precisely because they focus only on those specific aspects of coins, keys, and the like which might be detected via their methods (i.e. the metallic nature of these objects) and ignore everything else (the shape, color, etc. of the objects).  And the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science are as successful as they are in predicting and controlling natural phenomena precisely because they focus only on those aspects of nature susceptibleof strict prediction and control (especially those aspects which might be modeled mathematically) and ignore everything else (e.g. any irreducibly qualitative or non-quantifiable features that might exist in nature, such as teleological features, the phenomenal feel of heat and cold, the phenomenal look of colors, and so forth).  But just as metal detectors are inevitably going to fail to capture non-metallic phenomena, so too are the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science inevitably going to fail to capture any aspects of nature not susceptible of prediction and control, nor capable of being captured via the mathematical techniques that make prediction and control possible.   

Of course, the naturalist might deny that there are any such aspects, but the point is that to appeal to science in order to support such a denial is utterly fallacious -- as fallacious as appealing to the success of metal detectors in order to support the claim that only metal exists.  Ifthere are any non-metallic aspects of nature, you should not expect to find them using metal detectors; and ifthere are any aspects of nature that elude strict prediction, control and mathematical modeling, you should not expect to find them using the methods of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science.

Leiter and Weisberg on rationality and consciousness

In response to Nagel’s argument to the effect that rationality, specifically, cannot be explained in purely Darwinian terms, Leiter and Weisberg write:

There is a response to this kind of challenge, one that is widely embraced by philosophical naturalists (though, again, not mentioned by Nagel). This response starts by noting that we determine what is “rational” or “justified” simply by appealing to the most successful forms of inquiry into the world that human beings have developed. Paradigmatic examples of those successful forms of inquiry are, of course, physics, chemistry and biology. They are successful precisely in the way that Aristotelian science was not: they enable us to navigate the world around us, to predict its happenings and control some of them. To confuse one’s intuitive confidence in the logical and epistemic norms that make these sciences possible with some kind of a priori access to the “rational order of the world,” as Nagel puts it, is to forget whence that confidence derives—namely, the very success of these sciences. For philosophical naturalists, the charge of circularity is empty, akin to suggesting that the need for a usable table to have legs requires some justification beyond the fact that the legs actually do a necessary job.

There are several problems with this response.  Start with the claim that “we determine what is ‘rational’ or ‘justified’ simply by appealing to the most successful forms of inquiry into the world that human beings have developed” (emphasis added) -- where “success” entails prediction and control of the sort characteristic of post-Galilean, post-Cartesian, mechanistic science.  Whom exactly do Leiter and Weisberg mean by “we”?  They seem to mean “we, that is, people in general, or at least people who have an opinion about these matters.”  But in that case their claim that “we” determine standards of rationality and justification in this way is false, since Nagel and others who reject Leiter and Weisberg’s brand of naturalism do not in fact agree that our standards of rationality and justification are entirelydetermined by the considerations of what is conducive to prediction and control.  Indeed, that claim is (pretty obviously) precisely part of what is at issue in the present dispute between Nagel and his critics.  So by “we” do Leiter and Weisberg instead mean “we, namely Leiter and Weisberg, and like-minded naturalists”?   In that case they may be accurately representing the views of the “we” in question, but they will have given no reason to think that those views are correct.  For why should anyone agree that success vis-à-vis prediction and control alonedetermines what is rational or justified?  Leiter and Weisberg do not tell us (other than by insinuating the fallacious Rosenberg-style argument already criticized above).

A second problem is that this essentially Quinean pragmatist claim about what ought to determine our standards of rationality and justification is simply not at all plausible.  Take an inference rule like modus ponens, or a principle like the law of non-contradiction, or an elementary truth of arithmetic such as 2 + 2 = 4.  Are we really expected to believe that there was no rational justification for any of these until they were somehow worked into a body of scientific theory that passed the test of empirical prediction and control?  Why would anyone take such a proposal seriously for a moment, unless they saw it as necessary to salvaging naturalism from objections like Nagel’s?  Say what you will about the empirical credentials of the work of Pre-Socratic natural philosophers, Euclidean geometers, and the like -- they were certainly engaged in a rational enterprise at least insofar as they were capable of evaluating each other’s arguments vis-à-vis standards of consistency, deductive validity, and the like, and we did not need to wait upon the rise of modern science in order to know that much.

Nor would it do to suggest that it was prediction and control in everyday, ordinary non-scientific contexts that justified at least the elementary truths of logic and mathematics before the rise of modern science.  For one thing, logically fallacious forms of inference are notoriously useful in everyday life for purposes of control, but they remain fallacious for all that.  For another, even in ordinary, non-scientific contexts we judge our beliefs and practices by reference to standards of logic and mathematics, not vice versa.  For example, we judge that hypocrisy is bad because it involves a logical inconsistency between one’s expressed opinions and one’s actual practice; we don’t judge that logical inconsistency is bad because it is evident in things like hypocrisy, which we dislike for independent reasons.

That brings us to another point, which is that Leiter and Weisberg’s proposal is not merely counterintuitive and ill-founded; it is also incoherent.  For basic logical notions like truth, consistency, entailment, and the like and are simply more fundamental than notions like predictive success or technological control, insofar as the latter presuppose the former.  To test a theory’s predictions is to determine what the theory entails, to determine whether what it entails is consistentwith what is observed, to judge that this consistency with observation is a mark of truth, and so forth.  To apply a theory practically by way of technology or other means of control is also to determine what the theory entails, to determine whether a proposed technology is consistent with what it entails, and so on.   And of course both prediction and control also involve measurement, and thus adding, subtracting, and the like.  We cannot coherently regard logic and mathematics as deriving their rational justification from empirical science, then, because empirical science itself presupposes logic and mathematics.  To Nagel’s objection that Darwinian justifications of standards of rationality are circular, then, Leiter and Weisberg in effect offer in response nothing more than a further circular argument.  

We should also note that Leiter and Weisberg’s sweeping dismissal of “Aristotelian science” threatens to run together issues which need to be carefully distinguished.  We can agree that geocentrism, the theory of the four elements, and other specific empirical claims to which Aristotelian scientists of the past were committed have been falsified.  But it doesn’t follow that the philosophical notions contingently associated with (and sometimes illustrated by reference to) these erroneous claims -- immanent teleology, essentialism, and the like -- have also been falsified.  Aristotelian physics is one thing, Aristotelian metaphysics and philosophy of nature quite another.  Certainly it would simply beg the question yet again to insinuate that the falsification of the former by itself casts doubt on the latter.

Leiter and Weisberg also object to Nagel’s claim that consciousness cannot be explained in Darwinian terms, and they seem to think that Nagel’s reasons for making this claim have essentially to do with the question of whether the rise of conscious organisms could have been predicted from the state of the material universe prior to their origin.  Hence they write:

Philosophers of science have long argued that explanation and prediction cannot be fully symmetrical, given the importance of probabilities in explaining natural phenomena. Moreover, we are often in a position to understand the causes of an event, but without knowing enough detail to have predicted it. For example, approximately 1 percent of children born to women over 40 have Down syndrome. This fact is a perfectly adequate explanation of why a particular child has Down syndrome, but it does not mean we could have predicted that this particular child would develop it. Causes alone are frequently deemed sufficient to explain events; knowing enough to predict those events in advance is an important scientific achievement, but not essential to explanation.

But this simply misses Nagel’s point entirely, at least if we read Mind and Cosmos in light of the earlier work of Nagel’s cited above.  If the argument of “What Is It Like to Be a Bat?” is correct, then it is not merely improbable that what Nagel there calls “objective” facts should by themselves give rise to “subjective” facts, but impossible, for they differ qualitatively rather than merely quantitatively.  To borrow an example used by the Thomist William A. Wallace in another context, a polygon is just a different sort of thing from a circle, no matter how closely you approximate a circle by adding sides to a polygon.  And that a circle might arise from nothing more than the successive addition of sides to a polygon is therefore not merely improbable or unpredictable; it is impossible in principle.  Similarly, given the difference between “objective” and “subjective” facts as Nagel characterizes them, you are simply not going to get the latter from the former alone even in principle.  At any rate, if Nagel is wrong about this, Leiter and Weisberg haven’t done anything to show that he is, but have merely implicitly assumed that he is.

Leiter and Weisberg also make some remarks about Nagel’s views about ethics which I think do not get to the nub of his position, but since my own views on meta-ethics are perhaps a bit further from Nagel’s than my views on general metaphysics are (and since this post has already run on long enough) I’ll leave it at that for now.


Your Lying Eyes

They simply are incapable of being truthful about anything. If only the rest of their lies were as obvious as this crappy photoshop of a Romney rally. Oh, right. They are (and those are just the latest!) But who cares, right? Not, obviously, the people whose votes they seek by treating them like idiots.

Oh, and how about hypocrisy? Let's not forget that. Here's what he said about today's economic growth numbers, and what he said about his, when he was governor, which were worse. (Save yourself some time, if you want, and don't read the link. You already know what it says.)

I've asked before, and still don't know the answer: who's more deserving of scorn? Of whom should we be most afraid? Mitt Romney, or the people who buy his blatant, pandering, flip-flopping, lying bullshit?

[Image source is obvious]

Big Spender

As RWS™ and teabaggers scream about out of control spending by our president, it's worth noting the cuts he and Ds in Congress have already made. Because it's factual, it'll be ignored. But it happens to be true:

[A combination of tax increase and spending cuts] is common sense which I hear from pretty much everyone who hasn’t come under the spell of Grover Norquist.  Unfortunately, it’s a spell that’s been cast on almost every Republican in the Congress as well as Gov. Romney. 
... When writing about a balanced approach to fiscal policy, one that involves both spending cuts and new revenues, it should be noted that Congress and the President have actually already cut $1.5 trillion ($1.7t including interest savings) in discretionary spending, not including war costs, over the next decade. 
That’s 70% of the Simpson-Bowles discretionary spending cuts!  Without that point, I suspect many readers will think we need to start with spending cuts and then we’ll talk taxes.  In fact, Grover himself is cited in the piece as follows:
“When bipartisan deals are struck promising to cut spending and raise taxes, the spending cuts don’t materialize but the tax hikes do.” 
But Grover–dude!–a big start on the spending cuts has already materialized…so it’s tax revenue time, right?  Grover?…anyone…?
So Romney will win based on lying about both himself and President Obama; people too dumb or disinterested to figure it out will have bought the falsehoods at both ends. Heck, if Barack Obama were the president Mitt Romney and teabaggRs say he's been, I'd vote against him, too. That that version of him is a different from reality as debate-Mitt is from pre-debate Mitt makes no difference. The truth-defense shield around teabaggers and those that love them has been too carefully crafted for too long for anything but Foxorovian bullshit to penetrate it.

I guess the best we can hope for at this point is for Ds to keep the Senate; or, if they lose it, that they'd take a lesson from Rs and do what they've done to every D proposal. That kind of unified opposition would be uncharacteristic; but it'd be fun to see what Mitch McConnell would say of it. Suddenly his views on filibuster would change like Mitt Romney's on everything.

[Image source]

Still Doesn't Work

Allow me to be among the last to mention the latest nonpartisan study of The Rominee's tax proposals. Short version: it still doesn't work:

Eliminating all itemized deductions would yield about $2 trillion of additional revenue over ten years if we cut all rates by 20 percent and eliminate the AMT. Capping deductions would generate less additional revenue, and the higher the cap, the smaller the gain. Limiting deductions to $17,000 would increase revenues by nearly $1.7 trillion over ten years. A $25,000 cap would yield roughly $1.3 trillion and a $50,000 cap would raise only about $760 billion...
...Suggesting limits on deductions was Governor Romney’s first public statement about how he might offset the revenue lost by cutting tax rates. Without more specifics, we can’t say how much revenue such limits would actually raise. But these new estimates suggest that Romney will need to do much more than capping itemized deductions to pay for the roughly $5 trillion in rate cuts and other tax benefits he has proposed.
The study does state an obvious point: the higher the cap on deductions the more it costs the wealthy. But it falls far short of the revenue "neutrality" Romney claims. If he means to achieve a twenty percent across the board tax cut as he says (today, anyway. What time is it?), and increases defense spending as promised as well, there'll need to be really drastic cuts in domestic spending. Which ones? Where? Other than PBS and Planned Parenthood, he remains silent.

[Image source]


Angry Black Man

Or maybe that should be Angry AT Black Man. Whatever. The point is that the right wing nutosphere has characterized President Obama's performance at the final debate as "angry black man." So I thought I'd show a picture to prove the point.

Speaking of getting everything wrong, the screamers are screaming about Obama's bayonet and horses comment. Doesn't he know the military still has them? Shocking. Insulting to bayonets and horses (not kidding.) So here's the thing: our president said we have fewer of them. Fewer. Not none. Fewer.

I guess, in politics, perception is everything; at least to teabaggers, to whom substance is nothing. But really: isn't this getting to the point of being laughable, even given the stakes? Is the Fox audience really as stupid as Fox thinks they are?

[Image from Reuters]

Who Is This Guy?

For months, years, Mitt Romney has campaigned as someone else entirely. Then the debates roll around and suddenly it's -- what to call it? -- Etch-a-Sketch. And, by golly, people are just peachy fine with it. I'd call it cynicism except that it's obviously the right call regarding the American voter. Don't care. Don't give a shit. Don't stop and think, not for a moment. Not the ones he's aiming at, anyway.

That he could well win the election having so blatantly lied about himself and his opponent, so obviously considered the electorate stupid, so selfishly said whatever he thought would get him elected, no matter how it contradicted what he'd just said, so clearly abandoned any pretense of moral center .... well, it's so far beyond depressing that I have no more words.

If he wins, who deserves more scorn? Mitt Romney, or those who, seeing what he's done, voted for him anyway?

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