Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

He scrambled through and rose to his feet. The air was cold but not bitterly so, and it seemed a little rough at the back of his throat. He gazed about him, and the very intensity of his desire to take in the new world at a glance defeated itself. he saw nothing but colours -- colours that refused to form themselves into things. Moreover, he knew nothing yet well enough to see it: you cannot see things till you know roughly what they are. His first impression was of a bright, pale world -- a water-colour world out of child's paint-box: a moment later he recognized the flat belt of light blue as a sheet of water, or of something like water, which came nearly to his feet. They were on the shore of a lake or river.

...

On one side the water extended a long way -- about a quarter of a mile, he thought, but perspective was still difficult in the strange world. On the others side it was much narrower, not wider than fifteen feet perhaps, and seemed to be flowing over a shallow -- broken and swirling water that made a softer and more hissing sound than water on Earth; and where it washed the hither bank -- the pinkish-white vegetation went down to the very brink -- there was a bubbling and sparkling which suggested effervescence. He tried hard, in such stolen glances as the work allowed him, to make out something of the farther shore. A mass of something purple, so huge that he took it for a heather-covered mountain, was his first impression: on the other side, beyond the larger water, there was something of the same kind. But there, he could see over the top of it. Beyond were strange upright shapes of whitish green: too jagged and irregular for buildings, too thin and steep for mountains. Beyond and above these again was the rose-coloured cloud-like mass. It might really be a cloud, but it was very solid-looking and did not seem to have moved since he first set eyes on it from the manhole. It looked like the top of a gigantic red cauliflower -- or like a huge bowl of red soapsuds -- and it was exquisitely beautiful in tint and shape.

Baffled by this, he turned his attention to the nearer shore beyond the shallows. The purple mass looked for a moment like a plump of organ-pipes, then like a stack of rolls of cloth set up on end, then like a forest of gigantic umbrellas blown inside out. It was in faint motion. Suddenly his eyes mastered the object. The purple stuff was vegetation: more precisely it was vegetables, vegetables about twice the height of English elms, but apparently soft and flimsy. The stalks -- one could hardly call them trunks -- rose smooth and round, and surprisingly thin, for about forty feet: above that, the huge plants opened into a sheaf-like development, not of branches but of leaves, leaves large as lifeboats but nearly transparent. The whole thing corresponded roughly to his idea of a submarine forest: the plants, at once so large and so frail, seemed to need water to support them, and he wondered that they could hang int he air. Lower down, between the stems, he saw the vivid purple twilight, mottled with paler sunshine, which made up the internal scenery of the wood.

C.S. Lewis
Out of the Silent Planet

Jim's comments: "Thoughts without content are empty, intuitions without concepts are blind." So wrote Kant in the Critique of Pure Reason (A52/B76). And I guarantee you, C.S. Lewis had that phrase (or at least Kant's theory of judgment) in mind when he wrote the above passage. "You cannot see things till you know roughly what they are" is basically saying the same thing as "intuitions without concepts are blind." Lewis then spends some time fleshing this out by his character's inability to "see" what is right before his eyes. Until he has the category of "vegetation" he was unable to make sense of what his senses were telling him. (And it's interesting that he describes that as "his eyes mastered the object"). This whole passage is a subtle critique of empiricism, that the mind can be a blank slate upon which our senses write. Lewis is pointing out, along with Kant, that there have to be concepts already in the mind (or at least categories for Kant) in order to comprehend what our senses perceive. Anyone who wants to teach a course on philosophy in science-fiction should spend some time on this passage and what follows, since the problem comes up more than once.

I'm reminded of a time that I was at a small party at someone's house, and I fell asleep on the floor. I awoke to something being placed on my tongue (apparently my mouth had fallen open) and laughter around me. Perhaps indicating my future as a philosopher, I decided to see if I could figure out what it was on my tongue without looking at it. But there was a problem: it hurt. Or it seemed to, and then I immediately thought, "No it doesn't." And then "Yes it does," and then back-and-forth several times. I remember being amazed that I couldn't tell if I was in pain or not just by the feel. Shouldn't you be able to know something like that? It seemed like it was a while, but I'm sure it was just a few seconds before I reached up and took a tissue out of my mouth which had mint toothpaste on it. The mintiness was sharp and I hadn't been able to tell whether or not it hurt.

So three points about this: 1) it seemed that I had to know what it was before I could process the information my senses were relaying to me. I wonder if I could have figured it out if I'd waited longer though. Perhaps babies really are born as blank slates, but they obtain Kant's categories or concepts at some point naturally without anything else already in the mind, it just takes a while before it connects. Maybe there's a point where the amount of information becomes so great that the mind finally clicks and starts forming concepts or starts processing it according to Kant's categories. But this is highly speculative. On the face of it, it seems to create an enormous problem for empiricism.

2) This says nothing against the first part of Kant's statement, that "Thoughts without content are empty". You still need the information provided by the senses in order for your thoughts to be about anything. Abstracting some kind of knowledge without any sensory input -- as Descartes tried to do with his cogito and Ibn Sīnā (Avicenna) tried to do with his "flying man" -- is highly questionable. As the ancient and medieval Aristotelians said, nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses. We need the empiricist’s sense data in order to have something to apply the categories to; but we need the rationalist’s a priori categories in order to understand the sense data.

3) Whether or not you're in pain is generally considered one of the few things that you can't be mistaken about. And here I have a case from personal experience where I literally couldn't tell if I was in pain. So it suggests there are no indubitable beliefs. Very interesting.

Finally, let me just say that I'm reading Out of the Silent Planet to my son, and we found online someone's illustrations of the first several chapters that looked like it would be a great graphic novel (although the sorns don't look creepy enough). You can see them all here, or you can start with the first page here, and then click the left arrow button to go through them. Well worth it.

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Is there a reason why we can't just land somewhere?

Robert Zubrin has an article on NASA's Worst Plan Yet, the plan to build a space station in orbit around the Moon.

We do not need a lunar-orbiting station to go to the Moon. We do not need such a station to go to Mars. We do not need it to go to near-Earth asteroids. We do not need it to go anywhere. Nor can we accomplish anything in such a station that we cannot do in the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, except to expose human subjects to irradiation ... If the goal is to build a Moon base, it should be built on the surface of the Moon. That is where the science is, that is where the shielding material is, and that is where the resources to make propellant and other useful things are to be found. ... In contrast, there is nothing at all in lunar orbit: nothing to use, nothing to explore, nothing to do. ... Explaining his winning strategy for war with Austria, Napoleon Bonaparte once said, “If you want to take Vienna, take Vienna.” Well, if you want to go to the Moon, you should go to the Moon. You don’t go 99 percent of the way there and then hang out in orbit where you can do nothing.

I don't really know enough about this to justify having an opinion, but I have one nonetheless: I agree with Zubrin. As he says in that article, there was some hope that President Trump would push for a return to the Moon within four years, and landing on Mars within eight. I think we should set up permanently occupied stations in both places, rotating crews in and out whenever it's appropriate and feasible (for Mars it would have to be when it's in opposition with the Earth). Moreover, this would generate a great deal of industry and technological advancement, which would obviously involve a lot of job creation.

I recently watched this video that tours the Amundsen-Scott South Pole Station...



...and I thought, "Wouldn't it be awesome to have something that extensive on Mars?" I know it's not realistic. The reason spacecraft and space stations have so little ... well ... space inside is because you have to fill it with breathable air, which they have at the South Pole but don't in space or on Mars. You could probably have something that converts the much thinner Martian atmosphere into breathable air, but that would be a huge expense, and the less space inside that you need to fill with air, the cheaper it would be. But, man. Wouldn't it be awesome?

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Quote of the Day

There is so much loneliness all around us. I once found myself in London with several days on my hands while waiting for a charter flight back to the United States. A great deal of my time was spent in Westminster Cathedral (not Westminster Abbey) in meditation and prayer. In the abbey one senses the great past -- the majestic history of the English people and of God's dealings with them. In the cathedral, by contrast, which is some distance up from the abbey toward Victoria Station, there is a divine presence beyond all national histories. Something about the vast, obscure interior of that building impresses me with the nearness of God.

In front of the cathedral is a square with benches, some tables, and off to one side a religious bookstore and a McDonald's -- golden McArches and all. Here street people of London come to sleep safely in the morning sun, if it is shining, and to glean scraps of haute cuisine left by those who dine with McDonald.

I recall watching one woman on a number of occasions as she slept -- with children and pigeons flocking around her. She was blond, a little heavyset and about middle-aged. While she showed the marks of street life, she looked very much like many a wife at the center of a happy family. And I thought, Whose daughter is she? Whose sister, or mother, or neighbor or classmate? And here she is -- alone, alone, alone!"

A similar but even more profound feeling had come over me when our first child was born. I realized painfully that this incredibly beautiful little creature we had brought into the world was utterly separate from me and that nothing I could do would shelter him from his aloneness in the face of time, brutal events, the meanness of other human beings, his own wrong choices, the decay of his own body and, finally, death.

It is simply not within human capacity to care effectively for others in the depths of their life and being or even to be with them in finality -- no matter how much we may care about them. If we could only really be with them, that would almost be enough, we think. But we cannot, at least not in a way that would satisfy us. For all of us the words of the old song are true: "You must go there by yourself."

That would be the last word on the subject but for God. He is able to penetrate and intertwine himself within the fibers of the human self in such a way that those who are enveloped in his loving companionship will never be alone. This surely is the meaning of the great affirmation at the end of Romans 8:

Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor power, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (vv. 35, 37-39)

Even our anguish over those dear to us can be completely put to rest when we see they are living in the presence from which nothing can separate them. The final and complete blessing and ultimate good, the summum bonum of humankind, comes to those with lives absorbed in the Way of Christ -- life in the presence of God. The completely adequate word of faith in all our sorrows and all our joys is "Immanuel, God with us!" Thus we sing:

Where'er Thou art may we remain;
Where'er Thou goest may we go;
With Thee, O Lord, no grief is pain,
Away from Thee all joy is woe. 
Oh may we in each holy tide,
Each solemn season, dwell with Thee!
Content if only by Thy side
In life or death we still may be.

"In your presence," the psalmist says, "there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore" (Ps 16:11). Even in the valley of the shadow of death there is nothing to fear. Why? Because "you are with me" (Ps 23:4).

On the other hand the fact that only God can take away our aloneness by his presence explains why the ultimate suffering and punishment is separation from the presence of God. The psalmist cries out in terror, "Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me" (Ps 51:11).

Dallas Willard
Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Recent acquisitions

I purchased some of them, the others were given to me, either by the publishers to consider using in classes, or by a friend/benefactor of mine.

Nonfiction:
Matthew W. Bates, The Birth of the Trinity: Jesus, God, and Spirit in New Testament and Early Christian Interpretations of the Old Testament
Patricia S. Churchland, Touching a Nerve: Our Brains, Our Selves
Jack S. Crumley II, Introducing Philosophy: Knowledge and Reality
Christopher M. Graney, Setting Aside All Authority: Giovanni Battista Riccioli and the Science against Copernicus in the Age of Galileo
Gilbert Harman, Thought
Maralee Harrell, What Is the Argument? An Introduction to Philosophical Argument and Analysis
Mary Beth Ingham and Mechthild Dreyer, The Philosophical Vision of John Duns Scotus: An Introduction
Brother Lawrence, The Practice of the Presence of God, with Spiritual Maxims
Michael Martin, Atheism: A Philosophical Justification
Joshua M. Moritz, Science and Religion: Beyond Warfare and Toward Understanding
Ted Peters, God in Cosmic History: Where Science and History Meet Religion
Eric Priest, ed., Reason and Wonder: Why Science and Faith Need Each Other
Barry Stroud, The Significance of Philosophical Scepticism
Roger Trigg, Beyond Matter: Why Science Needs Metaphysics
Peter Unger, Ignorance: A Case for Scepticism
Peter Unger, Philosophical Relativity
Dallas Willard, The Allure of Gentleness: Defending the Faith in the Manner of Jesus

Fiction:
H.P. Lovecraft, The Complete Fiction of H.P. Lovecraft
Robert Silverberg, ed., The Science Fiction Hall of Fame, volume 1

Saturday, May 6, 2017

I really hope there's no cosmic significance to this

So there's a "game" of sorts that if you click on the first link in the main text of any Wikipedia article, and then click the first link of the post that it leads to, etc., eventually it always leads you to "Philosophy". I thought this provided some weak support for the importance of philosophy and therefore weak justification of my decision to become a philosopher. So I tried it.

For the first entry (which I've since forgotten) I clicked on the phonetic pronunciation rather than the first link in the body of the text. I realized this was an error, but it led me to Help: IPA for English page which then led me to "International Phonetic Alphabet" and then "Alphabet". This then led me to "Letter (alphabet)" to "Grapheme" to "Linguistics" to "Science" to "Knowledge" (getting close) to "Fact" to "Experience" to "Knowledge"... Wait, "Knowledge" again?

So, yeah, I got stuck in a circle that never leads to "Philosophy". "Knowledge" leads to "Fact", "Fact" leads to "Experience", and "Experience" leads right back to "Knowledge". Fortunately, I can take some small comfort in this, as I'm an epistemologist; maybe it's a good sign. Unfortunately, I tend towards foundationalism instead of coherentism, so if it's a sign, it's a frustrating one.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

The elephant in the classroom

OK, there's another controversy in the ranks of professional philosophy, but it's about a subject I have no expertise in. Rebecca Tuvel, an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Rhodes College published an essay in Hypatia, which, although they merely claim to be a journal of feminist philosophy, is really the journal of feminist philosophy. Her essay, which went through the usual peer review process, is entitled "In Defense of Transracialism". I read it, although, as I said, I have no expertise here. Roughly she argues that transracialism (the idea that someone can appropriately identify as a member of a different ethnicity than her ancestry indicates) is defensible for approximately the same reasons that transgenderism (the idea that someone can appropriately identify as a member of a different gender than her genetic makeup indicates) is. Moreover, any objections one might raise to transracialism would apply mutatis mutandis to transgenderism. Tuvel is clearly an advocate for transgenderism -- which apparently is not the correct term anymore, but I'm unable to find the right one, so apologies to anyone offended by my use of it -- and so is presenting these claims from a sympathetic position.

Out came the knives. A group of feminist philosophers wrote an open letter to Hypatia demanding they retract Tuvel's essay and apologize for it, which Hypatia promptly did. However, others have been deeply offended at this, as it amounts to a demonization of a junior scholar by the higher-ups. Think of it from her position: judging from her entry at philpapers, this is only the third essay Tuvel has published (as well as two book reviews), but the second published in Hypatia. She received her copy of the journal and probably thrilled to see her name in print. Then she was singled out by just that group of academics she was hoping this essay would appeal to, and had her hard work disparaged as not academically serious and immoral. I mean, how devastating would that be? (Having said that, I'm even more junior than her as I'm just a lowly adjunct. Nevertheless, I've published significantly more than her in about the same period of time.) You can read accounts of the story at Daily Nous and New York Magazine, both of which are pretty critical of the letter writers and Hypatia.

However, it seems to me that everyone, or at least the intelligentsia, is ignoring the elephant in the room. Tuvel essentially presented a modus ponens argument:

If transgenderism is appropriate, then transracialism is appropriate.
Transgenderism is appropriate.
Therefore, transracialism is appropriate.

Tuvel's primary focus is on demonstrating the first premise. The second premise she takes as given. But this leaves it open to a point that G.E. Moore made. Moore didn't like skeptical arguments like that he might just be a brain in a vat being stimulated to think he was a philosopher at Cambridge. The idea here is that, since my experiences would be the same whether they were really happening or whether I was a brain in a vat, then I don't know for certain that I'm not a brain in a vat, since there's no test I can perform to adjudicate between these two possibilities. Any test I could think up would be just as explicable under the brain-in-vat theory. But if that's the case, then I can't know the most elementary things about my body, like that the hand I'm holding up in front of my face is really there and is really my hand. The argument was essentially:

If I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat, then I don't know that this is my hand.
I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat.
Therefore, I don't know that this is my hand.

This, like Tuvel's argument, is in modus ponens form. But then Moore argued that one man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens. Once the first premise is granted, we can just as easily argue:

If I don't know that I'm not a brain in a vat, then I don't know that this is my hand.
I do know that this is my hand.
Therefore, I do know that I'm not a brain in a vat.

So you see where I'm going with this. Once Tuvel has demonstrated the first premise, one could just as easily argue the modus tollens to her modus ponens:

If transgenderism is appropriate, then transracialism is appropriate.
Transracialism is not appropriate.
Therefore, transgenderism is not appropriate.

And that, I believe, is what her critics are freaking out about. While Tuvel was trying to present a modus ponens argument, it can just as easily be turned around into a modus tollens argument. And that's a problem because most of the people who accept transgenderism do not accept transracialism. More that that, transracialism is seen as absurd by hoi polloi. By claiming that the arguments against it apply just as well to transgenderism, Tuvel has essentially given away the store. She has given the great unwashed a reason to reject the propriety of transgenderism, she has revealed that the emperor has no clothes. The vast majority of people just don't accept that you can choose to become another race by virtue of how you feel. But then consistency would require them to say the same thing about gender.

So there are three possible responses to this. 1) Bite the bullet and accept both transracialism and transgenderism, which is what Tuvel was trying to recommend. 2) Reject both transracialism and transgenderism, which is probably what most people would do, or at least most people outside of academia. 3) Reject Tuvel's case that the two stand or fall together. The problem with this is that by arguing for the first premise, Tuvel has placed the burden of proof on her interlocutors. They must explain why the arguments against transracialism don't apply to transgenderism, and why the reasons for accepting transgenderism don't apply to transracialism. Please note that I'm not indicating which conclusion I tend towards, I'm just analyzing what I take the issue to be.