Monday, February 27, 2017

Quote of the Day

Thor is called, in Scandinavia, The Defender of the World, and amulet miniatures of his hammer have for centuries been worn to afford protection. At Stockholm, the museum holds one of amber from a late paleolithic date; and from the early metal ages fifty or more tiny T-shaped hammers of silver and gold have been collected. In fact, even to the present -- or, at least, to the first years of the present century -- Manx fishermen have been accustomed to wear the T-shaped bone from the tongue of a sheep to protect them from the sea; and in German slaughterhouses workers have been seen with the same bone suspended from their necks.

An unforeseen, somewhat startling overtone is added by this observation to the T-motif that has already been discussed in connection with the Celtic Christian Tunc-page (which is of a date when the Celtic and Viking spheres of influence were in many ways interlaced); and, of course, then vice versa: the apparently merely grotesque fishing episode acquires a new range of possible significance when the T of the Celtic page is identified with Thor's hammer as well as with Christ's cross. We might, in fact, even ask whether in Manx and German folklore the T-shaped bone of the sheep -- the sacrificial lamb -- may not have been consciously identified with the world-redeeming cross of the man-god Christ, as well as with the world-defending hammer of the native, far more ancient, even possibly paleolithic, man-god Thor.

Joseph Campbell
Occidental Mythology: The Masks of God, vol. 3

Jim's comments: And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how you make a conspiracy theory. 1) Find some random and unrelated factoids. 2) Divorce them from the theories in which you encountered them. 3) Construct a theory about how these factoids really are related, ignoring all the evidence that puts them in the theories you just divorced them from. 4) Portray your contrived theory as the norm, and suggest all deviations from it are what's really contrived -- an excellent example of a pre-emptive tu quoque.

The first paragraph ends with a footnote referencing two works: A.C. Haddon, Magic and Fetishism (1906), pp. 39-40, which you can read here; and B. Phillpotts, "German Heathenism," in The Cambridge Medieval History, volume 2 (1913), pp. 481-82, which you can read here. Phillpotts just references Haddon's work. Haddon reports that another person, Mr. E. Lovett, points to the sheep tongue bones worn "by Whitby, and probably by other Yorkshire fisherman" as good luck charms to protect them from drowning. Basically, some people in a small village wore them and Haddon thinks it probable that the practice extends beyond that village, although no reason for this extension is given. There is also no reference given for E. Lovett, although perhaps there's a bibliography which I can't access. Lovett further suggests that this t-shaped bone might be meant to represent Thor's hammer. Might. Later, Haddon says another person, Professor Boyd Dawkins, told him that Manx fisherman (from the Isle of Man) wore something similar. Haddon then informed yet another person, Herr E. Friedel, of this practice, and Friedel said some Berlin slaughter yard workers also wore something similar. There seems to be a parenthetical reference here. Friedel then discovered that representations of Thor's hammer were worn in the early Iron Age in Denmark, and suggests that they devolved from a fetish to a lucky charm. How this connection from an early Iron Age practice in a different country led to the use of sheep tongue bones in England millennia later is unexplained. Also unexplained is how these amulets could be said to represent Thor's hammer, since there is a significant gap between the early Iron Age (around 1000 BC) and the first references to Thor. Moreover, a t-shape is a pretty simple form, after all. It's just two perpendicular lines. And what about all the fishermen from other areas who use different good luck charms? What about all the non-fishermen's charms? I'd like more evidence than some people speculating about a possible connection referencing each other.

Perhaps I'm being overly critical. Perhaps there is a connection. But Joseph Campbell shifts the whole thing from first gear into sixth. He finds some title of Thor (Defender of the World) that sounds vaguely like some titles of God in the Judeo-Christian traditions. He then adds further that a t-shape is pretty similar to a cross, which is obviously a major symbol of Christianity. And to tie it all off with a bow, he suggests the use of a bone from a sheep sounds like the Christian idea of Jesus as a sacrificial lamb. Dude. Do I really have to explain how ridiculously contrived this is? You could find connections between anything with this kind of reasoning. Maybe using rabbits feet as lucky charms devolved from an earlier practice of lamb's feet, which was symbolic of Jesus. I mean, you can say anything about anything.

That's Campbell's methodology. Find a myth wholly unrelated to Christianity, check. Find some element of that myth that can be implied to be similar to an element of Christianity when both are divorced from their larger contexts, check. Repeat ad nauseum.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017


I put this together last August and then never posted it for some reason. The news articles are six months old.

-- A list of the solar system's most livable places. Earth not included.

-- The myth of the ethical vegan. I have a lot of respect for vegetarians and vegans who do what they do because they are opposed to eating meat on ethical grounds, but the article points out that merely refraining from eating meat oneself actually causes more animal death in the long run.

-- Moon Express has been approved for a private landing on the Moon in . . . 2017.

-- Some people are horrified by Rudyard Kipling's imperialism and defense of the "white man's burden" (which I just spoke about in class today). This author defends him quite well.

-- They found a 400-year old Greenland shark, which makes it the oldest vertebrate. Descartes was 20 years old when it was born.

-- A couple of articles, here and here, on six scientists who lived in isolation on Hawaii for one year to simulate a Mars mission. When did they stop using Devon Island?

-- NASA re-established contact with the STEREO-B spacecraft, nearly two years after losing it. Remember, this is six months old.

-- A possible lifesite at Proxima Centauri.

-- Most influential living philosophers. I'm skeptical. Plantinga doesn't make the list?

Update: I forgot and buried the lede! NASA has discovered a star with seven -- count 'em, seven -- earth-sized planets in orbit. There's plenty of articles about it at And this is not a six month old news story.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Visiting Venus

This is very interesting. NASA has developed electronics to withstand the conditions on Venus. Venus is closer than Mars, but because the atmosphere is so dense and the temperature so high -- it's about 90 earth atmospheres (like being 3,000 feet underwater) and hotter than Mercury -- it's a tad difficult to send anything to land there. The article points out that Venera 13 lasted 127 minutes on the surface, and that's the record. But if there are new forms of electronics that can survive there, the possibilities open up. Once, I was googling to find out the highest mountain on Venus (Maxwell Montes, 11 km high or 6.8 miles elevation) to see if we have the technology to survive there. The temperature there would only be 716 degrees Fahrenheit and the density would only be 44 earth atmospheres. I note that the Exosuit is good to about 30 atmospheres (equivalent to about 1,000 feet underwater). However, if we had a motive, I'm confident the technology would be forthcoming. Of course if your Venus suit failed ... that ... that would suck. At any rate, if we have electronics we can put off sending people down there right away. We can have a manned habitat in orbit that sends down probes, even probes that can return. Or we can even go further and have never-landing aircraft in Venus's atmosphere. In fact, that would probably be the closest to earth conditions anywhere in the solar system. If you had the aircraft at the elevation that's one atmosphere, you'd just need a breathing mask to wander out on the lanai. Geoffrey Landis, NASA scientist and science-fiction author, has written about this possibility.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Quote of the Day is easy to think the State has a lot of different objects -- military, political, economic, and what not. But in a way things are much simpler than that. The State exists simply to promote and to protect the ordinary happiness of human beings in this life. A husband and wife chatting over a fire, a couple of friends having a game of darts in a pub, a man reading a book in his own room or digging in his own garden -- that is what the State is there for. And unless they are helping to increase and prolong and protect such moments, all the laws, parliaments, armies, courts, police, economics, etc., are simply a waste of time.

C.S. Lewis
Beyond Personality in
Mere Christianity

Monday, February 6, 2017

The EM drive and abductive reasoning

I've mentioned the EM drive before and how it seems to violate Newton's third law. I hope it works because it would be a boon for space exploration. A recent Popular Mechanics article discusses it and summarizes its apparent incongruity with contemporary physics: "It's much more likely that the researchers are overlooking something than that much of our physics is wrong." Yes indeedy. That's called abductive reasoning or inference to the best explanation. The classic example is when astronomer's noticed that Uranus's orbit was not following the path Newton's laws dictated. The two explanations were that a) Newton's laws were wrong, or b) there's a gravity well somewhere out there pulling Uranus out of orbit. They calculated where the gravity well would be, pointed their telescopes there, and bingo! -- that's how Neptune was discovered.

Of course abduction is not absolute like deduction or even as strong as induction. Take three possible arrangements of three elements: X; Y; and XàY.


The first premise states the law XàY: if X is the case, then Y is the case. The second premise affirms that X is the case. Therefore Y is the case; in fact Y must be the case. All hail deduction! This is a pretty standard conditional syllogism, modus ponens in particular.


The first premise is that X is the case. The second is that Y is the case. We can take this to mean that whenever X is the case Y is also the case -- that is, whenever X is observed, Y is observed following it. So the conclusion is the law  XàY. Of course, this could fail to be the case: induction is not deductively valid. If it were, we would call it deduction. As stated, this may commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc (after this, therefore because of this). Perhaps X and Y occur together for something other than a strict causal relation flowing from X to Y. But the above formulation is just meant as an illustration.


The first premise states the law, if X is the case then Y is the case. The second premise affirms that Y is the case. From this we abductively infer that X is the case. This pretty clearly commits the deductive fallacy of affirming the consequent -- or would commit it if it were being presented as a deduction. It would also commit the inductive fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc -- if it were induction. The idea here is that we have a store of possible explanations for Y. We know the law, if X then Y. Therefore, one possible explanation of Y is X. Again, this is not deductively valid, but so what? We have several potential explanations for Y, X is available and is in fact the best explanation, so we abductively infer X.

Science constantly uses abductive reasoning; in fact, scientists were doing so for centuries before C.S. Peirce, a.k.a. the patron saint of philosophers of science, explained and validated it (this is one reason why you can't really study the philosophy of science without also studying the history of science). But it works enough of the time to justify its use. You can observe abductive reasoning in action by watching or reading any of the incarnations of Sherlock Holmes, despite the constant claims that he is using the science of deduction.

So, back to the EM drive. As with Uranus's orbit, the two possible explanations are that Newton's laws are wrong or we're missing something. The latter is much more likely, so absent further information, the best explanation is that Newton's third law is not being violated but that we are just not observing its application for some reason.

And this could be wrong. The example of Uranus's orbit is usually discussed alongside a similar problem with Mercury's. Newton's laws dictated that Mercury's orbit should follow a certain path and it wasn't. Easy! There's another gravity well between Mercury and the Sun that's pulling it out of its orbit. Except there wasn't. It turned out that the explanation here is that Newton's laws were wrong (or I would say, contra Thomas Kuhn, that Newton's laws needed to be supplemented for certain domains of measurement). We needed Einstein's theories of relativity to make sense of Mercury's orbit. Something like that could be the case with the EM drive, but again, it's probably not the best explanation. Yet.

Monday, January 30, 2017


Some University of Washington philosophers are teaching a course this coming spring term on critical thinking. A very specific aspect of critical thinking. Their course title is "Calling Bullsh*t" without the asterisk. Right away, though, I'm disappointed. In their syllabus, the second week's required reading will be a chapter from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. But Sagan was as much a purveyor of bullsh*t as anyone, especially when accusing others of purveying bullsh*t. The title of that book is one example. Here's another. A third can be found in Dennis Danielson's essay "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot" which does not seem to be online anymore. People who laud themselves as skeptics are only skeptical about what they want to be skeptical about.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two more pieces

This arrangement of this piece of music just devastates me. It's Ave Maria by Vladimir Vavilov, a 20th century Russian composer. Apparently, Vavilov's schtick was to ascribe his music to earlier composers. This one he ascribes to Giulio Caccini, a late Renaissance early Baroque composer. The piece is actually less than 50 years old. You can hear it sung here, but the cello arrangement floors me, even moreso than Barber's Adagio for Strings. In fact, unless you're much less affected by music than me, if you're going through a difficult time right now, I strongly suggest you don't listen to it. It will break you.

OK, that's one piece; here's the next. The other day my wonderful six-almost-seven-year-old daughter was picking out a melody on her keyboard, which she does quite well and quite often. I wasn't listening. Then my son, who was doing something else, suddenly said to her, "Oh, I LOVE that song! That's my favorite song!" to which my daughter replied, "Mine too! That's my favorite song too!" I realized the song sounded familiar, but because it's not usually played on a child's keyboard, it took me a few moments to realize what it was:

Monday, January 9, 2017

Quote of the Day

To examine further this highly intriguing theory of psychology would take me beyond the scope of this book. I propose, accordingly, to conclude the chapter with some general observations on recent developments in psychology, with particular attention to their bearing on materialism in general and behaviourism in particular

(1) I noted in the Introductory Chapter as one of the most puzzling features of modern thought the contradictory answers which it suggests to the traditional questions of philosophy. Physics is idealist in tendency; biology points to a purposive theory of evolution; but psychology, I pointed out, has on the whole remained mechanistic and deterministic. In so describing the tendencies of psychology, I had in mind chiefly Behaviourism, Behaviourism and the implications of psycho-analysis, to which I have devoted a later chapter. Behaviourism exemplifies the generalisation in two ways:

(a) It denies that there is any non-material element in our make-up, mind, soul, spirit, call it what you will, which influences our behaviour. So far as psychology is concerned, we can, it holds, get along very well on the assumption that the human being is all body. As for consciousness, it is a by-product of bodily processes which sometimes but quite incidentally accompanies them. It does not cause the processes it accompanies, and it is not necessary that we should be conscious of them in order that they may occur.

(b) If the individual is all body, or can at least be satisfactorily explained on this assumption, his behaviour will ultimately be explicable in terms of the same laws as those which determine the motions of other bodies. These laws are in the first instance those of dynamics and mechanics, more ultimately those of chemistry and physics.

In so far as the motions of matter are determined -- and the Behaviourist believes that they are -- the activity of living organisms must be determined too. Therefore, if Behaviourism is right, we are merely complicated automata.

Conclusion (a) favours materialism; conclusion (b) mechanism. Summing up we may say that on this view, whatever may be the function of mind or spirit in the universe, it plays no part in the interpretation of the psychology of living human beings.

(2) But in establishing this conclusion Behaviourism runs a considerable risk of destroying the foundation on which it is based. It is not my intention in this book to criticise the various theories which I shall endeavour to expound; but it is pertinent to point out that, if all thought is accurately and exhaustively described as a set of responses to stimuli, responses which may be analysed into movements of the larynx and the brain, then this applies also to the thought which constitutes the Behaviourist view of psychology.

If Behaviourism is correct in what it asserts, the doctrine of Behaviourism reflects nothing but a particular condition of the bodies of Behaviourists. Similarly, rival theories of psychology merely reflect the conditions prevailing in the bodies of rival psychologists. To ask which of the different theories is true is as meaningless as to ask which of the various blood pressures of the theorists concerned is true, since the chains of reasoning which constitute their theories, like their blood pressures, are merely bodily functions, bearing relation not to the outside facts which they purport to describe, but to the bodily conditions of which they are a function.

This kind of criticism is valid against any theory which seeks to impugn the validity of reason by representing it either as a function of the body or as the tool of an unconscious and non-rational self. In this latter connection we shall find grounds for restating it in a later chapter.


Let us, in the first place, apply to the psycho-analytic view of reason the arguments which were used in Chapter III, in criticism of the Behaviourist position; let us, that is to say, push the views of psycho-analysts to their reductio ad absurdum.

If it is in fact the case that our thoughts are not free but are dictated by our wishes, and that reasoning is, therefore, mere rationalising, then the conclusion applies also to the reasoning of psycho-analysis. This too is a mere rationalisation of the desire to believe that human nature is of a certain kind and motivated in a certain way. As such it has no necessary relation to fact; it merely reflects a certain condition of the psychologist's unconscious. This is not to say that it is necessarily untrue; merely to point out that it is meaningless to ask whether it is true or not. Truth implies correspondence -- correspondence, that is, between the belief which claims to be true and the fact which makes it true. But, if psycho-analysis is correct, our beliefs have no external reference at all; they are merely intellectualised versions of our wishes. To ask if a belief is true is, therefore, as meaningless as to ask whether an emotion is true; all that one is entitled to say is that the belief is held. Since, therefore, it seems to follow that, if psycho-analysis is correct in what it asserts about reason, it is meaningless to ask whether psycho-analysis is true, there is no reason to suppose that it is correct in what it asserts about reason. In other words, if the psycho-analytic account of reason is justified, there is no reason to take it seriously. If, on the other hand, there is no reason to take it seriously, the grounds for supposing that reason is not free and can never reach objective truth disappear.

To refuse to take it seriously means that we must be willing to regard the theories of psycho-analysis as springing from a free and impartial consideration of the evidence, as propounded: in other words, for no other reason than that they are seen to be in accordance with fact. But if the psycho-analyst can reason disinterestedly in accordance with fact, so can other people. Hence the view of reason, as being always the mere tool of instinct, must be abandoned. What is wanted is a principle which will enable us to distinguish the cases in which reason is working freely from those in which it is merely rationalising our wishes. But such a principle is not so far forthcoming.

C.E.M. Joad
Guide to Modern Thought (1933)

Comment by Jim S: Antony Flew wrote "The Third Maxim" (The Rationalist Annual 72 [1955], 63-66) to criticize C.S. Lewis's Argument from Reason. In that essay, Flew wrote that Joad is also an advocate of this argument, but much to my frustration he doesn't provide a specific reference. It looks like Guide to Modern Thought -- which predates all of Lewis's statements of the argument, save a brief entry in his diary, and a short passage in The Pilgrim's Regress (which was published the same year as Joad's book) -- is what Flew was referring to. Joad, however, was pretty prolific, so he may very well have written of it elsewhere. One place I'm going to check is his The Recovery of Belief: A Restatement of Christian Philosophy, which he wrote towards the end of his life after a fall from grace and subsequent return to the Christianity of his youth.

Friday, January 6, 2017

This is cool

Photographs of men who fought in the Revolutionary War. They were young when they fought in the war for our independence, and survived into old age, in time for photography to be invented. It's very humbling to look into the faces of these men who gave so much for us. It reminds me of the time I saw a traveling Smithsonian exhibit that had George Washington's sword and scabbard. As I looked at them and thought about the first president actually holding them in his hands, I realized I'd never visualized the reality of history before. George Washington was a name, but I hadn't ever imagined him as a flesh and blood human being.

In a similar vein, the last person alive who was born in the 1800s was closer to the signing of the Constitution (1787) on the day of her birth (1899) than to the present day. And to reiterate, she's still alive.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Year of Reading Plantinga

I've been wanting to devote a year to reading everything of importance from particular philosophers. So I'm planning on doing "The Year of Reading Dennett," "The Year of Reading Copleston," of Kim, of Urban, maybe of Desmond to get more into Continental thought. And of course, I'd want to focus on other than contemporary philosophers. I'll plan on reading each philosopher's works in roughly chronological order, and each author would have their own challenges: I could easily combine Plato and Aristotle into one year -- or I could do them separately and include some of the more important works about them as well. There's a lot of repetition in Dennett, so I'd have to be moderately selective in choosing what to read. I've already read Copleston's history of philosophy. Etc.

As the title of this post attests, the idea for this year was to be The Year of Reading Alvin Plantinga. There's even a particular, and particularly excellent, reason for this: I'm writing a book on Plantinga and would like to be as familiar with his whole oeuvre as possible. There's a problem however. My book's focus is specifically on his epistemology with some spillover into metaphysics and philosophy of religion, and I am very much hoping I can send a rough draft to the publisher by June. (Also it's about three-fourths written already, but needs more structure.) So it would be foolish of me to do it in chronological order and start by reading Plantinga's publications from the 1960s in the hope that there might be a throwaway passage I could quote. Moreover, what I really have to focus on at this point is the various critiques of Plantinga, not Plantinga himself. Maybe if I read his writings on epistemology and the critiques thereof in time to submit the book at the beginning of summer, then I could start reading his earlier writings and work my way back up to where I started. Maybe. Then again, I just re-read Warrant: The Current Debate, and I'm not about to re-re-read it just to have bragging rights that I read all his stuff within the confines of a calendar year. So my "Year of Reading" project is off to a shaky start.

Friday, December 30, 2016

Some recent book purchases

All of them were bought used and pretty cheap: all the nonfiction books were bought for less than sixty dollars total, and the fiction was a little over twenty. Those followed by an asterisk are repurchases -- books that I once had but were lost in shipping when we moved back to the States a few years ago, or were loaned out and never returned.

Colin Brown, Christianity and Western Thought, vol. 1: From the Ancient World to the Age of Enlightenment.*
Donald Davidson, Essays on Actions and Events.
James Hannam, God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science.*
Stuart C. Hackett, Oriental Philosophy: A Westerner's Guide to Eastern Thought.
Douglas R. Hofstadter and Daniel C. Dennett, eds., The Mind's I: Fantasies and Reflections on Thought and Soul.
C.E.M. Joad, Guide to Modern Thought.
Walter C. Kaiser Jr., Peter H. Davids, F.F. Bruce, and Manfred Brauch, Hard Sayings of the Bible.*
Saul A. Kripke, Naming and Necessity.
C.S. Lewis, Present Concerns.*
Mary Midgley, Beast and Man: The Roots of Human Nature.
Robert Nozick, Philosophical Explanations.
Willard Van Orman Quine, The Roots of Reference: The Paul Carus Lectures.
Willard Van Orman Quine, The Ways of Paradox and Other Essays.
Robert Rakestraw and David Clark, eds., Readings in Christian Ethics, vol. 1: Theory and Method.*
Wilbur Marshall Urban, Humanity and Deity.
N.T. Wright, Simply Christian.

Ray Bradbury, Classic Stories 1: From the Golden Apples of the Sun and R Is for Rocket.
Tony Daniel, Warpath.
Michael Flynn, January Dancer.
Richard Garfinkle, Celestial Matters.
Richard Matheson, The Box: Uncanny Stories.
Robert Reed, Marrow.
Dan Simmons, Hollow Man.
Harry Turtledove, Colonization: Second Contact.

In addition, I recently had one theology book returned that I had loaned out years ago -- like fifteen years ago or longer -- and I'm really excited because I've been planning on repurchasing it:

Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It's Supposed to Be: A Breviary of Sin.

Monday, December 19, 2016

Abortion and Strawmen

When I teach logic, in order to offend everyone equally, I sometimes say that both sides of the abortion debate, at least in their slogans, commit the strawman fallacy. One commits this fallacy when, instead of addressing the actual argument being presented, one erects a strawman: something that is superficially similar to the argument but is actually as dissimilar to it as a scarecrow is dissimilar to an actual human being. Moreover, by being made of straw, the strawman is much easier to knock down than an actual person.

So how does the pro-life side commit this fallacy? By saying abortion is murder. Murder involves the intentional killing of what someone recognizes as an innocent human being. Many women who have abortions have been told that the fetus is not even alive, much less a living human being, much less an innocent human being. The abortion doctors are in a different position: they know the fetus is alive -- but then again, so is an individual cell in your liver. But I doubt that they believe the fetus is a distinct human being, a person (for simplicity's sake I'll treat "human being" and "person" as interchangeable, although many distinguish them in this debate). However, this is an assumption on my part: I don't know of any polls as to whether abortionists tend to believe that the fetus is a person. But even if there were, I don't think I'd trust the results: if you thought fetuses were human beings, but thought abortion was a necessary evil, would you acknowledge this in a poll? I'm sure there must be some abortionists who do think the fetus is a person. Kermit Gosnell, in the manner of serial killers, kept trophies of all the babies he killed -- I say babies, not fetuses, since he delivered them and then killed them outside the womb. A doctor wouldn't keep trophies of the tumors he'd removed from patients, so obviously Gosnell recognized that he was taking the lives of innocent human beings.

I think the strongest objection one could make is that if the person should have known that she was killing a human being, then their act could still be considered murder. If a philosophy student who had read her Peter Singer and Michael Tooley killed a newborn baby and argued afterwards that she honestly didn't think it was a human being, she would probably still be convicted of murder. That's because nearly everyone recognizes that a newborn baby is a human being and has a right to life, and that same intuition, that same source of knowledge, would have been available to the person being accused, since they lived in the same culture and context. With abortion, however, there is no such consensus. We have to be careful here to not commit another fallacy, argumentum ad populum, appeal to the masses. But I think we can avoid this as my point is a more modest appeal to humility: given that there is widespread disagreement on abortion, we shouldn't assume that a particular person knew the fetus was a human being and killed them anyway.

Anyway, the closest parallel I can think of to this -- the intentional killing of something that one recognizes is alive but does not recognize to be an innocent human being -- would be a hunting accident. A hunter sees movement in the brush ahead, thinks it's a deer, and intentionally aims and shoots with the goal of killing it. But to her horror, she discovers it wasn't a deer but another hunter. She recognized the thing ahead of her was alive, and deliberately killed it. But she didn't recognize that it was a human being she was killing. Perhaps a court of law might determine that a hunter should have known that it was a person she was shooting at, but since she wasn't deliberately trying to kill another human being, it is unlikely the hunter would be convicted of murder. Similarly, even if we grant the pro-life position (as I do) that fetuses are distinct human beings, insofar as the abortionist and the woman do not recognize this fact, they are not guilty of murder, whatever else one might say of them. So to call abortion murder is to erect a strawman to the effect that the abortionist and the woman are intentionally killing what they recognize to be an innocent human being.

How does the pro-choice side commit the strawman fallacy? By saying the woman has a right to do what she wants with her own body. Well, yeah, of course she does, as long as she doesn't harm someone else. The old saying is, your right to swing your fists ends where another person's nose begins. That is, one person's right to do what she wants with her body only extends to the point that she harms someone else or restricts the other person's right to do what he wants with his body. And the claim of the pro-life side is that the fetus is another person. A woman does not have the right to do what she wants with someone else's body, and the fetus is someone else's body (namely, the fetus's), not her body. That's the claim. Perhaps that claim is false, perhaps it's even absurd, but that's the claim being made. Slogans like "Keep your laws of my body" or "Keep your rosaries off my ovaries" may be clever, but their goal is to defend a right that no one is challenging. Thus such claims are complete strawmen.

Of course, the relationship between the pregnant woman and the fetus is a unique one. The only real world scenario I can think of that's even remotely analogous is conjoined twins. I'm unaware of a situation where one conjoined twin deliberately killed the other, but it seems to me that it would be considered murder (assuming all of the conditions discussed above). Judith Jarvis Thomson presented an interesting thought experiment: a woman wakes up in the hospital and finds herself connected to an unconscious violinist. The violinist was suffering from kidney failure, and the only way to save his life was to hook his circulatory system up to the woman's so her kidneys can do the work that his kidneys couldn't. It's only temporary, just nine months, and then she can be unplugged from the violinist and go on her merry way. Thomson argues that, even granting that the violinist is a human being, a person, the woman has the right to unplug herself from him, even knowing it would cause his death. The violinist's right to life does not include the right to use someone else's body.

When I first heard this argument, I thought it left out an important element: except in the case of rape, the pregnant woman engaged in an activity which has been known from time immemorial to lead to pregnancy. You'd have to add to Thomson's scenario that the woman went of her own volition to the hospital for some ostensibly pleasurable reason (maybe they were throwing a Christmas party and serving bacon wrapped shrimp) and signed a paper acknowledging that, by entering the hospital, she is accepting there is a nontrivial chance that she would be hooked up to a violinist for nine months. This changes the scenario dramatically. In fact, I first thought that Thomson was presenting this as an argument against abortion. So Thomson herself has commited the strawman fallacy: rather than include an element that would make her thought experiment more accurately track the abortion issue, she has excluded it in order to make the intuition she's appealing to more commanding.

Having said that, Thomson's point is still very astute and important: in the case of rape, which more closely parallels her thought experiment, does the fetus's right to life not include the right to use the woman's body as an incubator for nine months? Some people are opposed to abortion even in this case, because the evil of intentionally killing an innocent human being is greater than the evil of significantly, but temporarily, disrupting the woman's life. A lot of issues come into play here: what takes priority, a right to life or right to a lifestyle? What about the psychological effects on the woman? These could very easily ruin her life, they can't just be dismissed. What if we shortened the period of time the woman's life was disrupted? What if it was only three months? Or three weeks? How about three minutes? At some point, even though we might agree with the principle that one person's right to life doesn't include the right to use another person's body, most of us would think the inconvenience becomes trivial and the life of the fetus so much more important that we would no longer think the principle takes precedence. For that matter, couldn't we reframe the principle the other way around? Does the woman have the right to do what she wants with the fetus's body in order to continue her lifestyle? I mean, by killing the fetus, she's using its body for her own ends. On the other hand, how probable is it that the fetus is really a person, a human being? If you think it's just one chance in two, you might think the potential evil of killing the fetus is greater than the evil of disrupting the woman's life for nine months. But what if it's one chance in ten? Or a hundred? Or a million? At some point, even though we might agree that killing an innocent person is a greater evil than disrupting a woman's life for nine months, most of us would think that the probability that we really are killing an innocent human being becomes so low as to become trivial. I'm not even going to try to answer these questions, but I think they show that there's a reason why the abortion issue is controversial, and we should treat those who disagree with us respectfully and assume they are acting in good faith.

Saturday, December 17, 2016


-- Long books worth your time.

-- Victor Reppert has been blogging about abortion of late -- see herehereherehere, and here.

-- Starship Troopers is the new Art of War.

-- An infidel's quick guide to Islamic sects. Although, you know, you could just read a book on the subject.

-- The top picture here is amazing.

-- I'm a bibliophile, but this goes a bit too far.

-- Scientific American argues that the best site off Earth to colonize is Titan. The biggest problem is getting there. Speaking of which...

-- The impossible EM drive seems to work, despite its apparent violation of Newton's third law. OK, well, we'll still have a problem with finding enough water to survive off Earth. Speaking of which...

-- Dwarf planet Ceres is full of water. So, I guess, the only problem is ... I don't know ... we'll still eventually die?

-- Speaking of which...

Sunday, December 4, 2016