Too much work, not enough time

August 4, 2010

I thought I had accomplished enough to drop back into doing this regularly, but my grad school preparations leave me without the proper time to do this as regularly as I’d like. I think Ill go back to occasional posting with no real schedule.



August 3, 2010

Intuitions are what make philosophy, or most of it, what it is. Intuitions, as an idea of currency which can be used to judge an idea, are simply an extension of common sense. Logic, while an excellent tool doesn’t give us the ability to determine false beliefs from true. Instead, what logic does is tells us what beliefs can be derived from what premises. Premises, in turn, bear fruitful (or unfruitful conclusions). This is a similar idea to one used in science, whereby a theory is good depending on its predictive value.

Any set of premises can be tweaked (and have other premises added) to give you basically any conclusion. As such, there are two ways of determining good beliefs from bad: parsimony and fruitfulness. Parsimony is the concept that the premises of the argument should be few and as contentless as possible. After all, if your premises spell out the conclusion, you have a logical fallacy, begging the question. But even assuming only a few key parts of an analysis can weaken a theory. Fruitfulness, on the other hand, is the idea that the conclusions a premise leads to tell something useful. For example, Newton’s theory of gravitation predicted that Uranus’ wobbly orbit must be caused by something, and the best fit was another planet. That planet, later discovered as Neptune, can be used as evidence for the theory. Intuitions are more subtle ideas, and unfortunately, not as verifiable. But if a philosophical theory has conclusions that are simply hard to digest, it is considered unintuitional. This does not necessarily say that it is false, but gives us motivation to find an alternate philosophy, or discard the intuitions.

Up next: Ethical Intuitions and the Trolley Problem

Next Week’s Schedule

July 29, 2010

The topic for next week is a general philosophic topic, one that resides in all areas of philosophy except perhaps logic: the nature of intuitions.

Monday – The Nature of Philosophical Intuitions

Tuesday – Ethical Intuitions

Wednesday – “Good” versus “Bad” Time Travel

Thursday – Scientific Induction

Friday – Free Will

A Culturally Relative Approach to Genital Mutilation?

June 17, 2010

WARNING: This article contains two links which should not be clicked by the squeamish. Before researching and writing this article, I knew my opinion on circumcision: it is a barbaric, unnecessary ritual which should be ended. However, while I knew this intellectually, I had never seen a full description of the processes. I would not post these links but for the fact that the knowledge of what these processes entails is not well circulated. For those who do not click the link, I will only say that calling male circumcision ‘a quick snip’ is a horrendous mishandling of the truth. And while I knew female circumcision was bad, I had no idea of the extent. Both should be called exactly what they are: genital mutilation, and the removal of large amounts of tissue from one of the most sensitive and important areas of a newborn child, one who by the very nature of human development, is not yet able to consent. In my perfect world, it would be a criminal offense similar to child abuse. I am sickened that either of these practice was ever carried out, let alone in the 21st century. My physical response to reading about these procedures was similar to what I have had in watching modern horror movies, my stomach is still upset. I would expect this sort of description of a torture practice, not of a procedure done on children. So why then would such a practice gain a foothold in our society?

A peculiar similarity among most religions is a preoccupation with sex, perhaps as a result of lack of knowledge about the process of menstruation (as many religions have labeled it ‘unclean’). And this preoccupation, like others, is often supported by rituals which range from harmless to grotesque. One of the more common procedures is genital mutilation, a practice that was called ‘circumcision’, performed on both young boys and young girls. And while (WARNING: this is the first of the links) male circumcision has long been a religious ritual, especially in Judaism and Islam, over the last hundred years it has taken hold in America, Australia, parts of Canada, and New Zealand. This surge was most likely caused by the development of germ theory, with the attempt of helping hygiene. As well, during the early days of AIDS, several studies found that circumcision decreased the risk of contracting AIDS and other STDs. These studies were cast into suspicion by later studies which failed to duplicate their results. The American Medical association reported in 1999 that “virtually all current policy statements from specialty societies and medical organizations do not recommend routine neonatal circumcision”. (WARNING: This is the second of the links) Female circumcision, on the other hand, is only practiced as a religious and cultural ritual, and mostly in Asia, Africa, and if possible, is an even more horrendous practice. Worse, while male circumcision, as practiced in most countries, is at least a surgical process, involving anesthetic, sterilized tools, and doctors, female circumcision is pretty much an anything goes practice, leaving many women infertile, and many more with complications in childbirth. That would be bad enough, if the process itself weren’t the removal of a very important part of the human body. There are some things about my body I don’t like or need. For example, my baby toe is hardly used, and has caused me much pain, having been broken, as well as infected multiple times. If I could wish it away, I might. But would I want it to have been removed, in my past, without my consent? Not a chance. Now if you extend that principle to parts of my body that are useful, it becomes even stronger a position. Nobody, not a parent, not a religious ‘expert’, maybe a doctor in life-altering or threatening cases, has the right to remove a part of somebody’s body without their consent.

In 1997, the American Academy of Pediatrics came out strongly against Female Genital Mutilation, causing the common use of the term (which was later extended to UN use as well), and its illegality in America. And in the same year, the Female Genital Mutilation Act was passed, banning any genital surgery on girls under the age of consent. It is a pity this courtesy was not extended to boys, as over 60% of boys are circumcised today. Now, this is down from 80% not too long ago, and I can only hope this number will decline. As well, (WARNING: one more) recent uproar against male genital mutilation has grown, so perhaps that change will come too.

But the same AAP, this year, proposed a change of this policy to allow for ceremonial prickings or incisions of a young girl’s clitoris. Thankfully, there was a huge backlash against this suggestion, and it has since been rescinded, but it is a not so gentle reminder that we live in a modern world where barbaric practices of the past still rear their ugly head.

Which brings up an further question. Am I being culturally insensitive? After all, Christian missionaries forbade the practice of FGM, it became a rallying point in several nationalistic movements. It’s a cultural tradition! Bullshit. We live in a modern world, where we can question the religious and cultural artifacts of our past. If they are found lacking, perhaps they shouldn’t be forcibly removed, but they certainly shouldn’t be imposed where consent can’t be given. The history of the progressive movement has been the systematic elimination of cultural traditions which violate basic human rights, slavery, sexism, racism, homophobia. These may all be works in progress, and some may be nearer to completion than others, but this is one goal we must always strive to further complete. There can be no lapse in vigilance in the fight for basic human rights.

The Religious Role in Maintaining Inequalities.

June 16, 2010

The subject of the previous article was in part the slide fromĀ  societies with power concentrated in a privileged classes to societies with power spread among, or at least available to the non-privileged class. Unfortunately, due to the history of privileged classes, systematic and intrinsic bias has remained in all societies to this day. This de facto discrimination is evident in all walks of life, from the quality of formative periods, cultural expectations and upbringings, and implicit stereotyping, among other things. To give an example, a recent study of chess players of equal rating showed that female players performed worse when they thought they were playing a man, regardless of whether they were or not. The cultural idea that men were better at chess actually affected the performance.

The progressive slide, on the other hand, is most often centered in de jure discrimination, or that rooted in law. Unfortunately, discrimination still exists in law today, in the non-privileged groups of before, as well as some new ones, but certainly far less than there was five hundred, two hundred, a hundred, or even twenty years ago.

If you look at legal discrimination cross-culturally, it becomes quickly apparent that the Enlightenment period and the ideas birthed during it have been highly beneficial. The countries with the least legal discrimination against gays, for example, or against women, there is a heavy statistical bias towards countries which have had post-Enlightenment governments for longer. These countries also share lower church attendance, religious belonging, and secularized societies. The former two are simply a by-product of the Enlightenment period, but secularization may be an cause of decreased discrimination.

Consider the environment in which most religions began. Most religions were ethno-cultural constructs as well as belief complexes. It is arguable that the religious aspects of Roman polytheism, for example, came second to the political aspects. And while it has been removed from all but conservative and orthodox texts, one of the most common prayers (the second daily blessing from morning services) in Judaism includes: “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shelo asani goy” “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who did not make me a gentile”. All religions, starting from the same assumption that they are correct, have a similar effect as nationalism: they solidify a group, and define the rest of the world as separate from that group. And in such an environment, it is easy to see how any non-secular country, any country which took the laws of its religion seriously, would have to be incredibly discriminatory towards non-members.

Looking at countries which have established religion as the (or a) law of the land, we see a grim picture. Sharia law results in the stoning of women for extramarital (including pre-marital) sex in Nigeria and Afghanistan, for example, and the stoning of apostates (those who convert away from Islam) in many Middle Eastern countries. While Iran has recently ended this policy, many countries still practice the systematic elimination of those who disagree with or step away from the religiously imposed behavior expectations. Within the last month(and 6 days) alone, gay rights activists were arrested in Zimbabwe, a West Bank Rabbi banned women from a local election, a Mali imam is under threat after backing women’s rights, and Uganda considers the death penalty for ‘repeat offenders’ of their anti-sodomy laws.

It is easy to see how such discrimination started, and while I will blame its continuing strength on certain religious beliefs and practices, I do not mean to imply that they started this trend.

The fear of the different that we see evident in racism and homophobia is a byproduct of the same force that drove strong families and tribes, and caused civilizations to rise as tribes conquered and assimilated. The idea, biologically, is that organisms which protect organisms that are like them will overall lead to a more successful gene, and it is most assuredly in many ways a good thing.

The discrimination found in sexism would seem to be a different type. Ancient people, observing differences between the sexes, and relying on hunter-gatherers would have noticed some differences in the placement of muscle, fat, and bone between the sexes (as well as the obvious physical limitation pregnancy places in such a low-tech setting). Seeing as ancient people (not that it hasn’t continued to this day) saw teleology everywhere, from sacrifices to rituals to prayers, it is no surprise they did so here as well. To an over teleological view, these differences (which again, are limitations in a lower-tech society) point to some necessary value difference between the sexes (men must be stronger and not prone to childbirth because they are in some way better). I do not see this as an intrinsic development, as plenty of cultures developed into matriarchies, nor do I intend to label this as the way things happened. I only intend to show that these distinctions could be made without the cultural forces that currently keep them in place.

But while I see the cause of their inception long ago, it is unconscionable that they should continue to this day. Criticism of religious crimes has long been a taboo, even while the Mormon Church has abused young girls, forcing them into marriages that amount to little better than slavery-prostitution, the Catholic Church has allowed the abuse of altar boys, and sharia law has caused constant deaths.

But where de jure discrimination leaves off, de facto discrimination picks up again. And while the following are not as terrible offenses, they have the effect of establishing cultural discrimination, the type which then goes on to serve as underpinning for legal discrimination. The first morning prayer of Orthodox (has been altered in most non-Orthodox practices) Judaism’s morning services (for men) is “Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech ha-olam, shelo asani ishah”, or “Blessed are You, O Lord our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who did not make me a woman. Some Greek Orthodox churches continue not to allow women who are menstruating to sit in the same part of the church as everybody else, and in many parts of the world, women must wear the burqha, covering almost their entire body, at all times when they are in public, because of archaic opinions on female sexuality and the female body.

And in America, despite all the markers for gender advancement and gay rights (economic stability, secularized government), de facto discrimination has turned back into de jure discrimination. Despite numerous laws preventing discrimination, including constitutional amendments, The United States ranked 23rd for gender economic equality (in 2007), almost last among Western European countries. As more and more countries legalize gay marriage, the majority of states in the US have banned it, and DoMA continues to marginalize gays in America. Any set of beliefs with an ontology that divides people into classes is bound to enforce this classification upon any country in which it is allowed reign. These religions set out their precepts in a time when the sun moved around the earth, Zeus hurled thunderbolts, and snakes cured illness. Should we be looking to them for answers? Perhaps they provide those for some, but that doesn’t mean they should be imposed on all.

Is it as insidious as the horrible crimes perpetrated in the Middle East, or in South Africa or Nigeria? Not by any means. But if Americans really believe (as we constantly say) that the USA is the greatest nation in the world, should we really feel good about beating out South Africa, known for its racial apartheid? Should we even be making the comparison? Until we stop imposing majority religious views onto our government policies, perhaps we should be comparing ourselves to countries like South Africa, Nigeria, Iran, Pakistan, or Afghanistan. But is that the America you want to live in?

EDIT: Apparently, South Africa (along with Lesotho. Lesotho.) has jumped ahead of the United States in gender pay equality. The only countries ahead of South Africa? Iceland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, and Denmark. Once again, those ‘damned atheistic socialist countries’ keep beating us in quality of life, gender equality & overall happiness. They are also among the most secular countries, the most economically liberal and the least god-fearing. I can’t help but think there’s a connection. If so, as long as we allow religious influence into our legal processes, we jeopardize the equality of the members of society which need the most protection from people’s bigotry.

What is Equality?

June 15, 2010

The notion of equality is one that has slowly crept into our ideas of an ideal society. Our story begins (it may have roots before then) in the 500s BC, in the small Greek city-state of Athens, with the beginnings of the democratic idea. Athens was a far cry from anything we would consider a democracy, but certainly a significant step up over monarchy. Only those whose parents were citizens were themselves citizens, and only adult males from within that population who had served in the military were voters, but this group (approximately 10-20% of the population) were part of a direct democracy, a government in which all measures are directly voted upon by councils of eligible voters. This was not, as you may first imagine, a rabble of 30000 people shouting aye or nay, but instead a complicated interweaving of a number of different councils. I have omitted a lot of information about this system, but if you want a closer look, Thucydides wrote a book on the Peloponnesian War. The idea behind this Greek society was that all Greeks should have a say at what happens in their government. Certain positions were selected by lot, to preserve this equal opportunity. However, this idea of equality overlooked many things (this ‘equality’ was not extended to women or non-citizens, for example). Rome’s Republic continued this idea until its collapse, and the Dark Ages changed everything.
When societies emerged from the Dark Ages, centralized feudal lords (and of course, the central authority of the Pope) played a strong role. The Magna Carta, great thinkers like Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, and several revolutions later, a few world nations had returned to the democratic republican ideals left by Rome. And much as Greco-Roman societies were divided into citizen and non-citizen, American white male property owners were the only voters. Civil Rights movements have since extended those rights to racial minorities, non-property owners, and women. But more rights than the right to vote have been fought over in these civil rights movements. Each of these struggles has been fought over the right to equality: a nebulous concept.
If by equality, we mean enforced equality of living conditions, this is an idea that never has held significant sway in democratic societies. It leads to the most absurd conclusions (and the topic of the short story Flowers for Algernon), namely that those who are stronger should be weakened, those who are smarter should have those faculties interrupted, and so on…And on the other side of the caricature, we find the loosest idea of equality, that everybody has the possibility to do what anybody else can, and if they fail to, it is solely their fault. I glossed over all of the important names in the historical chain, but here, I will return briefly to John Locke because it is from his philosophical womb that this idea of equality as born. He believed, in contrast with the Cartesian ideal of the time, that as humans, we are born with no knowledge, the negation of any innatist philosophy. On this viewpoint, any person has the potential to go in any direction, and thus has an equal ‘opportunity’.

But this position must be tweaked heavily to retain its fundamental ideals, and there are obstacles that render a pure version of this theory problematic, to say the least. First, we have to deal with unfortunate prejudices. Second, there is the simple fact that by virtue of who their parents are (including wealth and education level), in what environment they grow up (inner city versus suburb versus country), and where they are born (industrialized versus third world country). That factor alone guarantees that even if all people have potentially equal faculties, the nature of their environment would change their expected outcomes. And we may want to control for these factors, at least some of them. But where do we draw the line? Do we want affirmative action programs to bring people from underrepresented ethnic groups or religions or regions or sexual orientations, or do we simply want to ignore those factors.

It seems to boil down to a question of what we mean by equality of opportunity. Is it enough simply to have it true of anybody that it is possible that they can perform at least adequately in society? Or do we want to equalize that probability? After all, says one side, everybody in the United States could go to college, if they got straight A’s and were involved and took difficult classes and so on and so forth. On the other hand, the other side replies: some high schoolers have to have part-time jobs to support their families, and so with less time, getting straight A’s is harder, and being involved in extracurriculars, harder. And so their equal performance (numerically) equates to a more impressive performance (in actuality).

Finally, what is ‘equal’ should not be arbitrary or specific. Take the issue of gay marriage. A common counter point to the position that gay marriage should be legal is ‘gays have the same rights as all other people, the right to marry somebody of the other sex’. But if you specified that argument a little bit more, it becomes clear that it is absurd. For example, ‘everybody has the same rights, the right to marry me’ is clearly an absurd position of equality. After all, while everybody else may be equal, it puts me in a different class than others. Does the counter point to gay marriage do the same thing? I believe so, it puts men in a special class relative to women, and women to men. But this is not enough to reject it. After all, laws against pedophilia do a similar thing, putting children in a special class relative to everybody else. But in this case, much as with other age restrictions (those on driving and drinking), there is a reason for it, we strive to protect children more than adults, because of their lessened capability to make good decisions. Are men and men or women and women less capable of making a good decision? It is hard to see why.

In the following articles, I will use an idea of equality of opportunity which attempts to avoid at least specific and arbitrary destinctions.

Nobody likes a sore winner

June 15, 2010

But this one is too good to pass up. Over the past few years, the crazy elements among the religious (my data come mostly from the crazies among the Christian Right, due to where I live) have attributed God’s wrath to a number of things. To give just the icing from the cake:

Gays caused Hurricane Katrina with the 34th Annual gay, lesbian and transgender “Southern Decadence” extravaganza (where was God for the first 33?)

About 9/11, Jerry Falwell said: Falwell said, “The ACLU has got to take a lot of blame for this. And I know I’ll hear from them for this, but throwing God…successfully with the help of the federal court system…throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools, the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this because God will not be mocked and when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad…I really believe that the pagans and the abortionists and the feminists and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way, all of them who try to secularize America…I point the finger in their face and say you helped this happen.”

About the BP Oil Spill, many Christian Fundamentalists think it to be God’s punishment for sins.

And the Westboro Baptist Church, famous for claiming that Sweden was doomed for its lesbian royalty member, called 9/11 and the wars in Iraq punishment for America’s straying from God’s way and thought the 2004 tsunamis in Asia were God’s punishment, and an islamic group had much the same message

So when a 500,000 dollar statue which juts into the skyline, a clear conspicuous consumption that would offend God himself, a tower of babel reaching to the heavens & an idol that is worshipped, was struck by lightning and burned down, I’m sure those same people had a lot to say about God’s Punishment. Now, I have found a few pictures of this statue. Here it is on fire.

And here it is, burned to the ground

Wow. God really worked his judgment on that statue. Can we get a picture of what it looked like before it caught on fire? I’m sure it was just…horrendously sinful. Perhaps a gay woman on her way to vote, while burning her bra on top of a pile of bibles? Or perhaps the pure atheistic incarnation of The War on Christmas?

Something tells me that church might skimp on the punishment of God sermons for a while.

Now, I know what you might be thinking, because I feel it a little bit too. Isn’t this a bit petty? After all, I’m doing the same thing I accused them of doing, right? But really, there’s no comparison. I’m not using the deaths of thousands to forward a largely unrelated religious point. I’m not saying God burned down Touchdown Jesus. Nor am I blaming the modern progressives for an attack carried out by reactionaries. I’m just recognizing a little bit of cosmic irony, and making the uncontroversial claim that natural disasters happen where they happen because of explainable, scientific principles, not because two men kissed each other. I have passed by Please-Pull-Me-Out-Of-The-Quicksand Jesus before, and while it is a bit of an eyesore, you won’t hear me complaining when they rebuild it. But oh the amusement seeing it again will bring me.

I know I promised an article, and I will have it done by midnight Pacific Time…