Thursday, December 4, 2008

leslie marenchin, r.i.p.

My most vivid memory of Marenchin was a joke he once told about his own future. Now, this is a man who had been working as a professional adjunct professor for years. It was not uncommon for him to be teaching eight (8!!!) simultaneous "intro to philosophy" courses (with no TAs) in a single semester. His every word seemed suffused with bitterness over lost opportunities (both academically and romantically). But he had the capacity to laugh at himself, and this joke involved imagining himself in the future as old and wheelchair bound, ranting and raving to his intro students about Plato's cave. The image of him slumped in his bar chair, miming the posture of a decrepit and senile old man, desperately trying to control the joystick of his motorized wheelchair and mumbling "the cave, the cave" over and over again is indelibly etched on my brain.

Ironically, by all accounts from those who knew him more recently than I, his life was turning around and prospects for his future had changed for the better. Not the first, nor, I'll warrant in sadness, the last such untimely death I'll witness.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Friday, October 24, 2008

moshe idel

the purpose of life:


the carnal and the divine, together at last . . .

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Man is Nature's agent and interpreter; he does and understands only as much as he has observed of the order of nature in fact or by inference' he does not know and cannot do more.

Human knowledge and human power come to the same thing, because ignorance of cause frustrates effect. For Nature is conquered only by obedience; and that which in thought is a cause, is like a rule in practice.

All man can do to achieve results is to bring natural bodies together and take them apart; Nature does the rest internally.

The subtlety of nature far surpasses the subtlety of sense and intellect, so that men's fine meditations, speculations, and endless discussions are quite insane, except that there is no one who notices.

Francis Bacon (1620) Novum Organon

Sunday, October 12, 2008

the economy (or, divine providence)

This Ratio once discovered, and manifestly serving to a wise purpose, we conclude the Ratio itself, or if you will the Form of the Die, to be an Effect of Intelligence and Design.

Abraham De Moivre (1756) The Doctrine of Chances, 3rd ed.


1711: Dr. John Arbuthnot argues for "Divine Providence" on the basis of the statistical significance of the relative difference between the birth rates of boys and girls recorded in the London Bills of Mortality for the previous 82 years.

His reason: a chance process could not have produced this discrepancy.

Bernoulli's response: "if sex is likened to tossing a 35-sided die, with 18 faces labelled "male," and 17 labelled "female," then Arbuthnot's data are entirely consistent with the outcome of chance."

[see S. L. Zabell (1988) "Symmetry and Its Discontents"]

De Moivre makes his remark in response to Bernoulli. The issue, as Hacking ably demonstrates, arises during a metamorphosis of the concepts of chance and probability. The crucial issue was defining the class of phenomena to which the concept of probability properly applies.

Zabell emphasizes the role of symmetry here: Arbuthnot believes the lack of symmetry in birth rates indicates divine design; Bernoulli demonstrates the presence of symmetry; De Moivre questions the source of this symmetry.

But isn't De Moivre's request for a source of "the Die" just a request for a deeper symmetry? The "wise purpose" which a discrepancy in birth rates seems to "serve" indicates the need for a deeper explanation, hence the appeal to "Design." Unlike the discrepancy in birth rates, the outcomes of die rolls do not appear to favor (statistically) any wise purpose. The new asymmetry here is between stereotypical "chance" events, such as die rolls, oblivious to providence, and a seemingly analogous case, conception, which disanalogously manifests providence.

One goal of an effective theory of evolution is to remove this asymmetry, to account for the discrepancy in birth rates and the providential nature of this discrepancy, by appealing to mechanisms of a purely die-like oblivion. In other words, De Moivre's request for an explanation concerning the shape of the die must itself be answered with an account of the random (and manifestly non-providential) process producing that shape: dice within dice.

Whether De Moivre would be satisfied with such a response is irrelevant here. Furthermore, this is not explicitly a question concerning evolution or design. We can see its modern cousin in string theory's anthropic landscape - a desperate attempt to rule out alternate solutions to the physical equations of string theory by positing a multiverse and arbitrarily licensing consideration of only those universes which can provide for human life.

Effectively, assuming string theory, our universe is then the result of the throw of a 10500 sided die. Only one face on this die produces a universe hospitable to human life. Again, as with De Moivre, this asymmetry, this apparent providence demands an explanation which restores symmetry. The preferred move of modern string theorists, rather than positing divine intervention, is simply to posit 10500 dice, each thrown simultaneously (= "the cosmic landscape").

Their solution is every bit as unsatisfying and anti-scientific as De Moivre's, however. For De Moivre's solution is unsatisfying not because of its appeal to God, but because the appeal to God indicates the end of scientific inquiry: and you cannot provide me a suitable explanation. Likewise with the multiverse, for, by its very nature, the other "universes" of the multiverse are beyond empirical inquiry, and the positing of this monster licenses string theorists to declare victory for their theory, ending inquiry by appealing to that the properties of which cannot be investigated via the experimental method.

In the case of the economy, the situation is far worse. For the die throws which govern the economy (unlike those which govern the fundamental physical constants) are subject to intervention. We are dissatisfied with the result of rolling this 6-sided die, so we replace it with a 35-sided one, suitably labeled. Providence attributed to the hand of God in the case of birth rates is now attributed to the hand of Man.

But surely the problem here is one of calculation: it took careful analysis of 82 years of records to determine the operation of a single 35-sided die. If there is any analog in the economy, surely many different dice are being thrown at asynchronous intervals. But how can the underlying form of these die be discovered if, rather than observing and analyzing this complex phenomenon, we insist upon participating, toss our own homemade dice upon the table, or taking the die of our neighbor and shaving one of its sides?

But wait, you say: participation is demanded, how else can we avoid catastrophe? Here, perhaps, it is the trust to divine providence itself which is the scientific response, and not the egocentric hubris of the modern man.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

feller on mathematics

Axiomatically, mathematics is concerned solely with relations among undefined things. This property is well illustrated by the game of chess. It is impossible to "define" chess otherwise than by stating a set of rules. the conventional shape of the pieces may be described to some extent, but it will not always be obvious which piece is intended for "king." The chessboard and the pieces are helpful, but they can be dispensed with. the essential thing is to know how the pieces move and act. It is meaningless to talk about the "definition" or the "true nature" of a pawn or a king. Similarly, geometry does not care what a point and a straight line "really are." They remain undefined notions, and the axioms of geometry specify the relations among them: two points determine a line, etc. These are the rules, and there is nothing sacred about them. We change the axioms to study different forms of geometry, and the logical structure of the several non-Euclidean geometries is independent of their relation to reality. Physicists have studied the motion of bodies under laws of attraction different from Newton's, and such studies are meaningful even if Newton's law of attraction is accepted as true in nature.

Newton's notions of a field of force and of action at a distance and Maxwell's concept of electromagnetic "waves" were at first decried as "unthinkable" and "contrary to intuition." Modern technology and radio in the homes have popularized these notions to such an extent that they form part of the ordinary vocabulary. Similarly, the modern student has no appreciation of the modes of thinking, the prejudices, and other difficulties against which the theory of probability had to struggle when it was new. Nowadays newspapers report on samples of public opinion, and the magic of statistics embraces all phrases of life to the extent that young girls watch the statistics of their chances to get married. Thus everyone has acquired a feeling for the meaning of statements such as "the chances are three in five." Vague as it is, this intuition serves as background and guide for the first step. It will be developed as the theory progresses and acquaintance is made with more sophisticated applications.

The concepts of geometry and mechanics are in practice identified with certain physical objects, but the process is so flexible and variable that no general rules can be given. The notion of a rigid body is fundamental and useful, even though no physical object is rigid. Whether a given body can be treated as if it were rigid depends on the circumstances and the desired degree of approximation. Rubber is certainly not rigid, but in discussing the motion of automobiles text books treat the rubber tires as rigid bodies. Depending on the purpose of the theory, we disregard the atomic structure of matter and treat the sun now as a ball of continuous matter, now as a single mass point.

. . . The manner in which mathematical theories are applied does not depend on preconceived ideas; it is a purposeful technique depending on, and changing with, experience.

Feller, William (1950) An Introduction to Probability Theory and Its Applications, 2nd ed.

Monday, September 22, 2008

j. f. a. k. van benthem (forthcoming)

"A border line is crossed when we allow lying and cheating beyond the expected. But even this seems a crucial skill in our lives: just imagine the violence and bloodshed that would result in academic life if we told our colleagues honestly what we think of the quality of their work. In this connection, parents think that their children are innocent little angels because they speak the truth all the time. But really, that is just a sign of lack of processing power and immaturity: rational agents at full capacity can handle mixtures of lies and truths with elegance and ease."

j. f. a. k. van benthem (forthcoming)

"Monotheism is just a bad idea, also in science."

Monday, September 15, 2008

election choices

So, in a democratic system, one is supposed to be able to choose between different options, one's "vote" supports one option or the other, and the option supported by the majority is then chosen to lead the country.

Now, although there is some concern that the supposed opposing parties are not in fact as representative of distinct alternative views as one would like, in the present circumstances, our considerations must pass beyond the parties to the candidates themselves.

Even if we manage to set aside our prejudices, and refrain from being single issue voters, there nevertheless seem to be two issues which dominate the current worries of the American populace. It would be of interest, then, perhaps, to canvas where the two candidates fall with respect to these two specific issues.

The issues at stake are (unsurprisingly) 1) foreign policy (special case: war in Iraq) and 2) the economy (foremost, really, of all "domestic" issues).

So, how do our options fare with respect to foreign policy? Well, at first, this seemed to be the great distinguishing feature between the two: Obama with an excellent record on opposing the Iraq war, McCain with a long standing record of warmongering. But, remember, the Iraq war is a special case. Really, ending the Iraq war should be a secondary goal to that of preventing future (similar) wars. Similar in what respect? Several points come to mind: 1) unnecessary from the standpoint of homeland security, 2) unethical instances of bullying societies with very different value systems from our own, 3) expensive (both in financial and humanitarian terms), 4) (perhaps most importantly) destructive to our national interests.

For example, how does the Iraq war rate w/r/t these four criteria? 1) debatable, but unlikely. Best evidence is a) no weapons of mass destruction and b) whatever training / financial support of terrorists originated in Iraq, it was minimal in its effect on the US (perhaps greater on countries of the Middle East, though); 2) again, pros and cons. The leadership of Hussein was immoral by any standards - on the other hand, the US is not the appropriate authority to instill the morality preferred by those members of the populace who did oppose Hussein; 3) expensive - unquestionable; 4) destructive to national interests: now this is the kind of subtle issue of international policy one would want a level-headed and well-informed policy maker (rather than a soundbyte-producing talking head) to analyze. On the pro side: conflict in Iraq has drawn the resources of many radical islamic groups into exactly the kind of ground war we actually have the chance of winning (and far away from American soil to boot!) On the anti side: US intervention in Iraq (along with most of the rest of post-9/11 policy) has, if anything, stirred up and encouraged anti-US sentiment in the Middle East: Al Quaeda's biggest recruiter? Us, baby. (Or: US?) Let's face up to facts, start using unbiased level-headed statistical analysis rather than error-prone dogma, and adjust our behavior in a manner that will actually help and protect us rather than simply create more terrorists!

OK, but the Iraq war was a special case. It really doesn't matter what the candidates think about the Iraq war, what matters is their foreign policy knowledge and policy in general. Ending the Iraq war should be a goal secondary to preventing future pointless (nay, damaging) conflicts of the same variety!

Well, luckily enough we witnessed a testing ground recently, the conflict in Georgia. The response of our candidates to the Georgian conflict should be an interesting testing ground for determining their foreign policy acumen. Whoops! Both demonstrated the exact same level of war-mongering idiocy. What do mean? Well, McCain advocated a hard-line anti-Russian stance, and displayed a knowledge of Georgian history disturbingly close in wording to the wikipedia article on same.

OK, but surely Obama came out strong as the voice of peace and reason? Ooops, nope, he advocated NATO membership for Georgia, perhaps failing to note that if Georgia were a member of NATO we would now be engaged in a land war with Russia!

So, both candidates equally inept and warmongering when it comes to the future dangers on the international arena, so let's turn our consideration to (2), the economy.

Unfortunately, with today's sharp downturn in response to the collapse of Lehman Brothers, both candidates showed their true economic stripes. Despite being clothed in the rhetoric of "fundamentals" on the side of McCain and "change" on the side of Obama, the concrete suggestion from both parties was clear: more regulation.

Well, but wait a minute? Warmongering and economic regulation no matter whom we pick? Is this a real choice? If this is democracy, then democracy can go fuck itself.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

david foster wallace, rip

2008 seems like an especially bad year for the untimely death of great artists - or is it just that I'm getting old?

The death of Isaac Hayes was certainly unexpected, and untimely, but at least he made it into his 60s. (And, at least it was an apparent accident . . .) David Foster Wallace, though, died on Friday at only 46, and by his own hand.

I discovered Wallace during my dark work-as-a-secretary-while-I-get-my-shit-together days in the late 90s. As with many, my introduction came through Infinite Jest, the sprawling and encyclopedic novel that explored the many facets of addiction as an allegory for contemporary American society. Wheelchair-ridden Quebecois separatists, a woman too beautiful to be seen (and a crack addict to boot), and a film so addictive watching it once, you were doomed to watch it repeatedly until you died of starvation, were only some of the themes percolating through an "alternate universe" US, too close for comfort, too accurate to reject. After Infinite Jest, Wallace produced a number of short stories (which I haven't read) and a number of essays (which I have, and which are on the whole brilliant, funny, insightful, and, perhaps most pleasurable for one like myself, who has spent too much of his literary experience reading works in translation, delivered with a delightful and creative command of the English language. This last itself the subject of Authority and American Usage an ostensive book review cum meditation on the norms of language (and the politics of those who dictate such)).

Despite the brilliant essays and the well-received short stories, it's difficult not to notice the absence of a follow-up to Infinite Jest in Wallace's oeuvre. He had been teaching at Pomona College since 2002, and had certainly continued to write (producing said stories and essays), but no novel, no work on the same grand scale, had appeared since Jest. Speaking for myself, Wallace was on that ever so short list of writers for whom once a year or so, I wander to their spot in the alphabet at a local book store in the hope that I've somehow missed news of the publication of their grand new novel. In the case of Wallace, I was always disappointed; and now, I'll have to stay disappointed forever.

The point is not to belittle Wallace's post-Jest output, but it's simply difficult to think of writer suicides and not think of writer's block (several scenes from a TV doc on Hemingway are burned indelibly into my memory, here). And with writer's block, the question is never one of actual output, but of perceived output. Was Wallace attempting a second grand novel? Was his apparent inability to produce such the source of depression and, eventually, suicide?

Obviously, these are purely conjectures, a bit of fantasy to make sense of a tragedy. Wallace himself was a bit of a recluse, rarely interviewed, rarely exposing his life, thoughts, or goals to the public except through the filter of a witty (and, clearly, guarded) essay. Perhaps his wife knows his motives, but quite likely, we never will.

Hearing this news, it's difficult for me not to think of several I have known personally, possessed of great artistic talent, but, for various personal reasons, frustrated in the attempts to realize those talents. If their earlier output had managed to find an audience, would they have ended up like Wallace anyhow? Is it perhaps even easier on them that their work never was popular, freeing them from some of the creative pressure Wallace himself surely felt?

Perhaps, most importantly, is there hope for the blocked, those who have run out of ideas, or creative energy, to return from that abyss and produce? Call it optimism, or fantasy, but personally I like to think so. I wish Wallace himself had thought so as well. For now we have been robbed of the opportunity to see what might have been, and Wallace, in bereaving his loved ones, has bereaved those who loved his prose, both present and future, as well.

Saturday, September 13, 2008


Is patriotism love of one's country no matter what, or is patriotism love of an abstract ideal, historically associated with one's country?

More importantly, if patriotism is the latter, how can the ideal be held constant in the face of changing policies and character?

"Patriotism" has become the rallying cry of those who want to promote and perpetuate current US policy, no matter what that may be. This is not a right / left issue. The left is every bit as guilty of perpetuating policies which violate the ideals of the historic US as the right. Those who argue against the use of military force against petty dictatorships who represent no threat to the US populace are ostracized as outsiders no less than those who argue for the rights of consenting adults in the privacy of their home to behave however they please.

The voices who accuse the US of irresponsibly perpetrating violence against foreign powers, of devaluing the dollar, of weakening US industry precisely through bailout policies, of perverting the concept of liberty through systematic spying on unaccused and uncharged citizens and the systematic imprisonment of citizens without trial, are accused of being "unpatriotic." What the fuck, then, is this amnesiac "patriotism," this cognitive-dissonance, this fools-elevated-to-kings as wise policy, blind eye, rampant assumption that no-human-other-than-those-agreeing-with-my-ideology are rational, this batshit-stupid and close-minded destruction of rationality "patriotism" - this believe-the-TV-not-the-constitution "patriotism," this thought as defecation, wisdom as disease, ignorance as virtue "patriotism"? This pro-torture, pro-theft, pro-persecution and profiling, pro-overspending and devaluing currency, pro-secrecy fascism patriotism? Really, you donkey-fucking, lie-between-your-teeth, fake-hair, private-school, secret-society, fake-ass war hero, imam-loving bible-eating-shitting-breathing-but-disbelieving dipshit? Really? Read the constitution you motherfucking illiterate asshole!

Why does "change" mean taking all the current anti-constitution, self-defeating crap policies and doing them more? Is it not just "patriotism," but "new," "change," and "different" that are in danger of being rewritten, replaced, 1984-style, in the dictionary?

And how the royal fuck is it that a supposedly "free" system of political change, supposedly exhibiting the virtue of "choice," offers as alternatives an inexperienced dipshit who claims "new blood" and "change" while picking the most establishment, old-blooded running mate he can find and a wishy-washy idiot, riding on the well-worn wave of past glory, and willing to put the nation in the hands of the inexperienced and close-minded just to score vapid political points. And how different are their policies? Supposedly one is the candidate of peace, the other of the hardline, yet when a true international crisis emerged (Georgia!) - both demonstrated the exact same idiotic cowboy mentality and, in particular, the hypocritical, fuckface "patriotism" which dictates "staying the course" rather than reevaluating policy in the light of ideals!

Ideas are dead. Or, at least, the object of systematic genocide. Repeating, thoughtlessly, uncritically, slogans and soundbytes - this is not thought, these are not ideas, this is not new, this will not make the US great, this will not restore the dignity of the US in the eyes of the world, this will not induce change.

Why not read a book you ignorant shit? or two, or ten? and not some comedian-as-political-commentator, written-by-a-ghostwriter-in-the-last-3-years whaleshit propaganda toilet-paper-printed-with-platitudes, a real fucking book written by a freethinking human being.

Maybe if more people did it, this hypocritical, shit-hole-of-an-excuse-for-a-free-political-system would actually produce a candidate worthy to lead the free world, someone who is informed, can think for themselves, and protect the ideals which produced this great nation, not simply mouth the petty slogans of his speechwriters and protect the jobs of the limp-dicked bureaucrats who surround his worthless carcass and defend it from justly-deserved ********.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Monday, September 8, 2008


At a conference, I meet an old friend. (Or do I? Perhaps there is only just me all along . . . ) We reminisce over beers, but he seems different. We're joined by a rather large and gregarious woman who seems to know who we are. Once in our company and trust, she metamorphoses into a slim and beautiful seductress. My friend (myself?) is enthralled. Although her initial purpose seemed to be as welcoming committee, her continued presence smacks of hidden agenda.

I get separated from my friend on a quest for a beer. I find the sponsor of the conference, an asian dentist, weeping in a parlor room. He had secured too little Fat Tire for the event, it seems. I am lost for several tense hours, wandering room to room. I acquire a beer (alternate brands seem plentiful at the bar), but now have lost my friend. We were supposed to meet in the garden, but when I stumble upon the hotel's lavish front entrance, I see the previously sunny day has turned to harsh snow and blistering hail in later afternoon. All outside festivities curtailed.

Finally, I stumble upon my friend during my next circuit of the dining room. He is still accompanied by the mysterious seductress. She invites herself up to our rooms on pretense.

In the morning, I find my friend shooting up. It is unclear whether he brought his own supply, or our female visitor supplied it. In this mood, we join a morning picnic on the lawns, now returned to bright sunshine. My friend looks me in the eye, I see that his right eye has changed color: now it is a deep blue lacerated with strands of gold, green, and red. It looks penetrating, artificial, magical. He seems less my friend than ever.

He instructs me to show our female friend a particular item of furniture in one of the hotel's many elaborate staterooms. He tells me she wishes to see something "of value." The word value hangs ominous, laden with implication. But of what?

Sunday, September 7, 2008

truesdell on theory, nature, and mathematics

The revolutions of world war and socialism and quantum mechanics, however right and necessary and fruitful, have clouded the massive solidity, the serene confidence of classical mechanics. Classical mechanics has weathered through, standing fast behind the smoky putrid mists. . . . While "imagination, fancy, and invention" are the soul of mathematical research, in mathematics there has never yet been a revolution.
The ancient Greek philosophers speculated whether matter were an assemply of tiny, invisible, and immutable particles, or a continuous expanse. As the quantitative, mathematical science of the West developed, the debate continued but became more and more definite and detailed. The great theorists proposed specific mathematical theories, restricted to certain specific kinds and circumstances of bodies, for example, to "aeriform fluids" subject to moderate pressures.

Until the first decades of this century it seemed possible that one or another theory would turn out to be the final one, the one that would explain everything about matter and thus be universally accepted as "correct", while all competitors would be defeated. Far from being borne out, this hope now seems childish. Our picture of nature has become less naive. While in the nineteenth century more and more aspects of the sensible world were shown to be mere appearances, mere "applications" of a few fundamental "laws" of physics or biology, the recent enormous production of experimental data has undeceived us of our former simplisms. The line between the living and the inanimate has been blurred if not erased. Within the once indivisible atoms has been found an ever growing host of mysterious "elementary particles" whose nature and function are scarcely clearer than those of dryads and familiar spirits.
Of course these discoveries have brought with them different attitudes toward theories of nature. Those who push forward the frontiers of experiment cannot wait for the thoughtful, critical, and hence cautious and slow analysis that mathematics has always demanded. Mathematicians, for their part, cannot afford to waste their time on physical theories of passing interest.

These contrasting standpoints are reconciled by a keener appraisal of the role a theory is to play. A theory is not a gospel to be believed and sworn upon as an article of faith, nor must two different and seemingly contradictory theories battle each other to the death. A theory is a mathematical model for an aspect of nature. One good theory extracts and exaggerates some facets of the truth. Another good theory may idealize other facets. A theory cannot duplicate nature, for if it did so in all respects, it would be isomorphic to nature itself and hence useless, a mere repetition of all the complexity which nature presents to us, that very complexity we frame theories to penetrate and set aside.
If a theory were not simpler than the phenomena it was designed to model, it would serve no purpose. Like a portrait, it can represent only a part of the subject it pictures. This part it exaggerates, if only because it leaves out the rest. Its simplicity is its virtue, provided the aspect it portrays be that which we wish to study. If, on the other hand, our concern is an aspect of nature which a particular theory leaves out of account, then that theory is for us not wrong but simply irrelevant. . . . With this sober and critical understanding of what a theory is, we need not see any philosophical conflict between two theories, one of which represents a gas as a plenum, the other as a numerous assembly of punctual masses.

Truesdell, Clifford, from An Idiot's Fugitive Essays on Science, largely "Statistical Mechanics and Continuum Mechanics," 1979

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

finite foundations

Can the infinite be physically realized? If matter were infinitely divisible, then the infinite would reveal itself here - but matter is not infinitely divisible. If time were infinitely divisible, then the infinite would reveal itself here. Although our simplest models of time are as a continuum, to actually prove (or conclusively demonstrate) such a claim is difficult (impossible?). If space were infinitely divisible, then the infinite would reveal itself here - but already theories of discrete space have emerged (e.g. doubly special relativity ). If some parameter is continuously variable, does this constitute a (counterfactual?) realization of the infinite?

So, shift the question: if the infinite were realized in nature, could we tell? No - in principle, to distinguish between the infinite and the very very large, but finite, is impossible.

Of course, the mathematics of the infinite and the finite are quite different. In the realm of theory and the a priori, we can easily distinguish between finite and infinite systems. In empirical practice, however, distinguishing between the two is in principle impossible.

Nevertheless, the majority of techniques used in the sciences are continuous (this allows for the use of differentiation and integration), and thus infinite.

The question, then is this: if we wish to provide a foundational theory of, say, physics, should the rational reconstruction of physical theory proceed in a finite or an infinite framework? The principle argument for the infinite is that this would provide continuity with the formalisms used by practicing physicists. Important figures here are Truesdell and Noll. The principle argument for the finite is i) that the finite is in principle physically indistinguishable from the infinite, and thus ii) physcial theory should be reconstructable within a finite framework, and iii) most plausible from an a priori standpoint is that the universe itself is finite. A key figure here is Suppes.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

youtube blackface craze?

did this start it?

did this start it on youtube?

this one builds up to it:

this one's seen bamboozled:

this one's trying to make a point about social liberty:

philosophers of mind = lazy?

Are philosophers of mind just lazy? Two points of evidence:

1) The excessive dependence of the literature on thought experiments which exhibit obvious inadequacies for addressing the subtle issues at stake.

Often, these thought experiments depend upon the "argument from lack of imagination." Thought experiments of the form: "consider bizarre situation X, you wouldn't say X would exhibit [explanandum Y], would you? Therefore your theory of [explanandum Y] is inadequate." Usually Y = meaning, consciousness, intelligence, etc. The Chinese Room is a famous example here.

Unfortunately, this argument form is absurdly weak and can always be countered by an opponent who simply claims to have the requisite amount of imagination. ("Yes, I would say X exhibits [explanandum Y].") This strategy is pursued by Dennet in Consciousness Explained and is implicit in the likes of Hofstadter.

Another deficiency of these thought experiments is their flagrant physical impossibility. Why our philosophy of mind should be based primarily on the consideration of physically impossible situations is beyond me.

Consider, for example, Mary the Cognitive Scientist, who has supposedly been raised in a situation where she will never "see" (ie experience the qualia associated with) red (while nevertheless learning everything cognitive science has to say about color vision, etc., etc.). We are then asked to consider her reaction upon leaving her isolation chamber and seeing red for the first time.

But, how would she be isolated from seeing red? Red surfaces are not needed for this experience, white light, appropriately manipulated, is all that's necessary (we've known this since Newton (an absurdly conservative estimate)). In fact, no special apparatus is needed: simply pressing on one's closed eyelids while turned toward a light is enough to experience all the colors of the rainbow.

Suppose, however, one could somehow prevent any redness triggers from reaching Mary's brain, would she then experience the same qualia red as the rest of us when finally exposed to the appropriate stimulus? This seems highly unlike given what we know about brain development. Faculties not used during the appropriate developmental period (say, language in a wild child, or horizontal-sensors in a cat's visual system) simply atrophy. If the experiment could be performed, most likely Mary could never experience red qualia, no matter what stimulus she was presented with.

So, thought experiments = lazy with research, lazy with argumentation.

2) If we rank theories of brain dynamics w/r/t popularity amongst philosophers and w/r/t the difficulty of the associated mathematics, the rankings match up precisely.

Consider three theories about the appropriate formalism for understanding intelligent behavior:

i) GOFAI, ie rule-based relations between logical formulae

ii) Connectionism, ie models based on simple "neuron-like" nodes arranged in an interconnected network

iii) Dynamical systems, ie dynamic models involving differential equations where arbitrarily small changes in initial conditions can result in drastically different behavior

Despite the tendency on the part of both GOFAI and Connectionism to feign an embattled, minority status, I think it's fair to characterize some loose form of the logic-based picture as maintaining dominance, even if not in the extreme "GOFAI" form of its most famous defender, Fodor. Supposing even that Connectionism is a distant second, it is still far ahead of the dynamical systems approach.

Yet, the dynamical systems approach has a lot going for it:

a) It is the same formalism we use to model other complex systems in nature (weather, population dynamics, fluid flow). Why think the human brain is intrinsically simpler than these other natural systems?

b) The mathematics subsumes that of Connectionism (neural networks are a special case of a dynamical system).

c) In the abstract, the formalism is indifferent between several levels of description (we could use it to describe interactions between neurons, or interactions within the electrical field generated by the brain, or something more abstract even).

Connectionism's main claim, that it is modeled on the behavior of actual neurons, falls apart with just a few moments' research into neural behavior. GOFAI's abject failure in the realm of linguistics and AI leaves little going for it other than a priori analysis into the essence of intelligence (well, and a lot of thought experiments . . .).

However, note: the mathematics of GOFAI is just first order logic, often simplified to propositional logic; pretty easy compared to the probability and continuous mathematics needed for the learning rules in connectionist networks. However, connectionist networks can be simplified, and sometimes even analyzed in terms of simple nonmonotonic logics; nothing compared to the difficulties surrounding the differential equations of a dynamical system.

As an example, analysis of logical systems is relatively easy (proving how they will behave: such metalogical proofs are the bread and butter of professional logicians and theoretical computer scientists). However, analysis of differential equations can be quite difficult (if not impossible). Many investigators resort to running simulations because top-down analysis (proofs about how the system will behave) is so difficult.

So, are the resistance of philosophers of mind to dynamical systems models and the embarrassingly underinformed rejections of connectionist models by the likes of Fodor, just instances of armchair philosopher laziness?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

phil. mind: laughingstock?

Physicalism is generally reagarded, at least by most physicalists, as a naturalist position that is motivated by science. Yet, with few exceptions, physicalists rarely offer direct arguments for physicalism using premises drawn from science itself. The debates in which physicalists do engage, including defending physicalism by dealing with various objections to it, are striking for the near total absence of reference to current scientific theories or results. Much of the contemporary debate over physicalism concerns variations on the knowledge argument (paradigmatically concerning what Mary, the colour-perception-deprived yet cognitively omnipotent colour scientist, could or could not know about colour) and reflections on the putative possibility of zombies, inverted spectra, and other exotica utterly unrepresented in the literature of cognitive psychology and cognitive neuroscience. Earlier, one would more likely find debate over physicalism expressed through discussion of worries over epiphenomenal ectoplasm, or worlds physically differing from our own only in the position of one ammonium molecule, but at which there are no mental properties at all. A striking feature of these debates in at least some versions of each of them is that no facts accessible to (third-person) science bear on whether the scenarios in question are actual or not: there are no epiphenomenal ectoplasm detectors, zombies are identical to us as far as any third-person investigation can tell, and worlds at which there are no mental properties at all pose the same problem on a larger scale. This dislocation from what could be discovered empirically is odd in debate over a position ostensibly motivated by naturalism.

Ladyman & Ross (2007) Everything Must Go, 39-40
The philosophy of mind is over. The two main debates in the philosophy of mind over the last few decades about the essence of mental states (are they physical, functional, phenomenal, etc.) and over mental content have run their course. Positions have hardened; objections are repeated; theoretical filigrees are attached. These relatively armchair discussions are being replaced by empirically oriented debates in philosophy of the cognitive and neural sciences. We applaud this, and agree with Quine that "philosophy of science is philosophy enough."

Chemero & Silberstein (2008) "After the Philosophy of Mind: Replacing Scholasticism with Science"

Friday, August 22, 2008

quine on communication

What are commonly said to be communicated, apart from diseases, are ideas. An idea that has been occupying one mind gets duplicated, it would seem, in another mind. "Peering into the darkness of another's mind," in Santayana's phrase, we cannot easily say how faithful the duplication is. Such is the vagueness of the very idea of IDEAS, q.v., indeed, that it is anybody's guess what the form, content, and limits even of one of our own idea might be said to be. Anybody's guess including our own.

The nature and limits of communication can be somewhat clarified if we put the vaporous idea of ideas aside and address ourselves to tangible, visible, and audible reality. Simple sentences about this robust subject matter are apt to be unfailing vehicles of communication, especially if the objects concerned are of kinds that both we and our communicants continue to encounter from time to time. . . .

Examples taper off to where communication is less firmly assured, as when Hegel writes "Truth is in league with reality against consciousness," or I write "Logic chases truth up the tree of grammar." I am confident that I grasp and appreciate this message of Hegel's, and that there are philosopher's of logic who grasp mine. But mere acknowledgement, however sincere—"I dig you," or "I read you. Roger and over"—is not conclusive evidence of successful communication. The Latin pupil gets low marks who says "Oh, I know what it means, but I can't quite put it into words." Stage comics have dramatized failure of communication by protracted cross-purpose dialogue in which the audience is privy to the misunderstanding while the performers ostensibly are not.

There are objective checkpoints. We are content that we have communicated if our interlocutor reacts appropriately, perhaps by stepping briskly up onto the curb, or by looking up at a particular quarter of the night sky, or by continuing the dialogue in so penetrating way as to render cross purposes unthinkable. . . .

The farther we venture from simple discourse about familiar concrete things, however, the farther apart the checkpoints tend to be spaced and the less decisive each checkpoint tends to be. We discourse blithely to patiently receptive ears and pick up only an occasional inconclusive indication, if any, that we have communicated our idea (excuse the expression) or perhaps engendered some unintended one. No news is good news. We read the listener's mind by what Neil Wilson called the principle of charity. We get an exaggerated idea of how well we have been understood, simply for want of checkpoints to the contrary. The miracle of communication, in its outer reaches, is a little like the miracle of transubstantiation: what transubstantiation?

W.V.O. Quine on communication in Quiddities, 1987

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Saturday, August 16, 2008

anonymous in hamburg

Witnessed a tiny Anonymous demonstration in front of the Hamburg Hauptbahnhopf. Roughly 5 - 10 guys dressed in standard hipster black and wearing V for Vendetta masks: while blaring a bizarre German cover of the Ghostbusters theme (?!?!?), they displayed anti-Scientology signs and one guy passed out leaflets (auf deutsch).

Although I support Anonymous in their efforts against Scientology, this display provoked several questions:

° Is such behavior really efficacious? (also: how would one measure its efficacy?)

° Suppose the anti-Scientology crusade succeeds; who next? Since Anonymous purports to be a loose collective of likeminded individuals (rather than a hierarchical organization), is this true democracy in action? A segment of the population becomes so fed up with the oppressive behavior of some organization that it spontaneously donates its time to publicizing and interfering with said oppressive behavior.

OK, but the most obvious targets for such publicizing / reprimanding of oppressive behavior are governments. Governments share with Scientology the ability to harass, attack, and otherwise suppress individual voices, so Anonymous's strategy of literally anonymous action may be uniquely suited to combating this form of oppression as well. But also: uniforms and anonymous group attacks by one segment of the populace upon another are the hallmarks of fascism. What's to prevent an initially altruistic Anonymous from metamorphosing into the very oppressive object it most abhors?

Supposedly, here, the answer is Anonymous's non-hierarchical structure. Without identifiable leaders, convincing other members of such a group that particular actions are just, only those actions uniformly supported on the basis of prior (=unmanipulated) values will guide action. Here's the rub, though: hierarchical structures seem to arise naturally from any complex interacting group (not just people, here, think dogs, bees, genes, atoms: this is the essence of the claim of evolution (see Herbert Simon's seminal "The Architecture of Complexity")). So, if Anonymous is successful, and continues, it will necessarily metamorphose into its evil twin.

° V for Vendetta masks: I can't decide if this is profoundly appropriate or merely evidence of the transient and shallow nature of Anonymous.

Friday, August 15, 2008

all fall down

As I type these words, a room full of computers is rapidly dismantled and boxed for shipment to [undisclosed location]. As each user gets up from his or her terminal, a team of coordinated technicians pounce to unplug, roll-up, bubble-wrap, and tape. Claustrophobia dissolves into agoraphobia. The effect is disconcerting in the extreme, and I fear the moment when the eager technicians' rate of boxing overtakes the rate of user abandonment.

To end this session means this terminal's demise . . .

Thursday, August 7, 2008

the "hamburger hamburger"

Empirical investigation confirms that, while the namesake of the famous food may indeed be a city, it is most certainly not the most famous so named. In fact, the "Hamburger hamburger" proved to be the most revolting specimen of this foodstuff encountered in travels spanning four continents. A dank greasespot on a city-menu otherwise radiant with tasty foodstuffs.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

ich bin ein hamburger

hostel all full up
metalheads in every room
t-shirt uniforms

Thursday, July 17, 2008

stephen fry

"I can't pretend to be much of a judge of literature, I'm an English teacher, not a homosexual."

Friday, July 11, 2008

fat lot he cares for the law

you and your saxon laws!
if a pint's right at one time why's it wrong at another?

~ A Run For your Money, 1949

Thursday, July 3, 2008

on an incompatibility between rifle make and cartridge size

"This kind of thing led to the fall of France!"

~ Whisky Galore!, 1949

Sunday, June 29, 2008

what kind of democracy?

what kind of democracy
has telecom monopolies
royal families and disenfranchised majorities?

what kind of democracy
has political aristocracy
unpopular policy and institutionalized hypocrisy?

any kind of democracy
manifests such a tendency:
modern mobocracy via information monopoly.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

the "temporary autonomous zone"

The medieval Assassins founded a "State" which consisted of a network of remote mountain valleys and castles, separated by thousands of miles, strategically invulnerable to invasion, connected by the information flow of secret agents, at war with all governments, and devoted only to knowledge. Modern technology, culminating in the spy satellite, makes this kind of autonomy a romantic dream. No more pirate islands! In the future the same technology—freed from all political control—could make possible an entire world of autonomous zones. But for now the concept remains precisely science fiction—pure speculation.

Are we who live in the present doomed never to experience autonomy, never to stand for one moment on a bit of land ruled only by freedom? Are we reduced either to nostalgia for the past or nostalgia for the future? Must we wait until the entire world is freed of political control before even one of us can claim to know freedom?
You will argue that this is a counsel of despair. What of the anarchist dream, the Stateless state, the Commune, the autonomous zone with duration, a free society, a free culture? Are we to abandon that hope in return for some existentialist acte gratuit? The point is not to change consciousness but to change the world.

I accept this as a fair criticism. I'd make two rejoinders nevertheless; first, revolution has never yet resulted in achieving this dream. The vision comes to life in the moment of uprising—but as soon as "the Revolution" triumphs and the State returns, the dream and the ideal are already betrayed. I have not given up hope or even expectation of change—but I distrust the word Revolution. Second, even if we replace the revolutionary approach with a concept of insurrection blossoming spontaneously into anarchist culture, our own particular historical situation is not propitious for such a vast undertaking. Absolutely nothing but a futile martyrdom could possibly result now from a head-on collision with the terminal State, the megacorporate information State, the empire of Spectacle and Simulation. Its guns are all pointed at us, while our meager weaponry finds nothing to aim at but a hysteresis, a rigid vacuity, a Spook capable of smothering every spark in an ectoplasm of information, a society of capitulation ruled by the image of the Cop and the absorbant eye of the TV screen.

Babylon takes its abstractions for realities; precisely within this margin of error the TAZ can come into existence. Getting the TAZ started may involve tactics of violence and defense, but its greatest strength lies in its invisibility—the State cannot recognize it because History has no definition of it. As soon as the TAZ is named (represented, mediated), it must vanish, it will vanish, leaving behind it an empty husk, only to spring up again somewhere else, once again invisible because undefinable in terms of the Spectacle. The TAZ is thus a perfect tactic for an era in which the State is omnipresent and all-powerful and yet simultaneously riddled with cracks and vacancies. And because the TAZ is a microcosm of that "anarchist dream" of a free culture, I can think of no better tactic by which to work toward that goal while at the same time experiencing some of its benefits here and now.

In sum, realism demands not only that we give up waiting for "the Revolution" but also that we give up wanting it. "Uprising," yes—as often as possible and even at the risk of violence. The spasming of the Simulated State will be "spectacular," but in most cases the best and most radical tactic will be to refuse to engage in spectacular violence, to withdraw from the area of simulation, to disappear.

The TAZ is an encampment of guerilla ontologists: strike and run away. Keep moving the entire tribe, even if it's only data in the Web. The TAZ must be capable of defense; but both the "strike" and the "defense" should, if possible, evade the violence of the State, which is no longer a meaningful violence. The strike is made at structures of control, essentially at ideas; the defense is "invisibility," a martial art, and "invulnerability"—an "occult" art within the martial arts. The "nomadic war machine" conquers without being noticed and moves on before the map can be adjusted. As to the future—Only the autonomous can plan autonomy, organize for it, create it. It's a bootstrap operation. The first step is somewhat akin to satori—the realization that the TAZ begins with a simple act of realization.

Hakim Bey, The Temporary Autonomous Zone (1985)

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

the rule of law

The rule of law is usually understood in contrast to the state of nature, or the arbitrary punishments and rewards doled out by whimsical despots. However, what if the laws themselves are whimsical or arbitrary in nature? And, furthermore, what if said laws are designed such that all are always de facto guilty of violating some such, the enforcement of which is then whimsical or arbitrary? In such a situation, the virtues of the rule of law evaporate, and the chaotic and irrational structure of the state of nature or the whimsical despot is reproduced in the "law-governed" society.

Such is the case with most developed nations in the modern world. We have come full circle, replacing the chaos of nature with the rationality of law, with the whimsy of irrational dicta arbitrarily enforced.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

drug poetry

Since before recorded history, (i) the ecstasy of drug-induced experience has been explicated, analyzed, and glorified in poetic works.

In modern times, not just the ecstasy of the experience, but (ii) the thrill, status, financial benefit, and implementation of selling and distributing drugs has been glorified and explicated in poetry (read: rap, the mainstream poetry of the past 25 years).

Question: are either [bad / wrong / damaging to society] / [inherently immoral]?

For the former ((i)), since the ecstasy in question is a personal experience, it is hard to imagine it as damaging to society. Certainly, the government-popularized myths of spontaneous insanity / stupidity / anti-social behavior would, if true, be an argument in favor of this conclusion. Unfortunately, most government propaganda about drugs is just that: propaganda. True, most illegal substances (with the exception, perhaps, of marijuana) can result in damaging and violent social behavior, but this does not distinguish them from legal substances (such as alcohol, cough syrup, dramamine, nutmeg, phalaris grass, "energy drinks," etc.) which, if abused, will likewise result in the same. Furthermore, emphasizing such downplays the potential benefits (the ills cured by ibogaine are far more severe and intransigent than those cured by ibuprofen, for example, though only the latter can be legally distributed within US borders).

For the latter ((ii)), a society which incites poetic descriptions of illegal behavior has clearly strayed in its imposition of order. For, the point of the formal imposition of forms of behavior (whether positive (drive on the right hand side of the road) or negative (do not murder)) is surely to benefit society as a whole. If said society "votes" for one form of behavior in its imposition of law and another in its consumption of art, this society exhibits a schizophrenia indicative of illness every bit as much as schizophrenia is a symptom of illness in the individual.

Consider, for example, two examples of socially imposed behavior: (i) driving on the right hand side of the road, (ii) failing to sell cocaine. If one violates either of these mandates (driving on the left hand side; selling cocaine) one will be punished, and perhaps imprisoned. Nevertheless, the two forms of behavior are represented quite differently in the arts. For the former, I know of no poetry or other form of artistic expression which systematically glorifies or encourages driving on the left hand side of the road. For the latter, not only are there numerous poems / songs / raps which encourage and glorify the practice of selling cocaine, but there are likewise numerous poems, etc. (dating at least to the romantics) which glorify the practice of consuming cocaine.

Now, why this asymmetrical opposition to the imposition of social structure in the two cases? My personal view: the former (driving on the the right hand side of the road) represents a legitimate problem of social coordination - we need social organization here (whether explicitly codified in law or no) to fulfill our ends; the latter (failing to sell cocaine) only fulfills the ends of certain conservative / selfish / (most importantly) ignorant segments of society.

The point: art which encourages violating the law is an offense to all of us (because it is in all our interests that the law is obeyed, that is why we made it the law). Therefore, a society which engenders art which glorifies violating the law is a society which has implemented the wrong laws.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

free market internet?

Is there really a free market for (non dial-up) internet service providers? If so, why do I only have one option available to me in my area? If not, why not?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

moral certainty

Something is morally certain if its probability comes so close to complete certainty that the difference cannot be perceived. By contrast, something is morally impossible if it has only as much certainty as the amount by which moral certainty falls short of complete certainty. Thus if we take something that possesses 9991000 of certainty to be morally certain, then something that has only 11000 of certainty will be morally impossible.

~ Jacob Bernoulli (1713) Ars Conjectandi

Sunday, May 18, 2008

sinai billiards

Billiards is our paradigmatic metaphor for understanding a deterministic universe. This is at least partly due to the fact that motion on a billiards table is quite simple and periodic.
Suppose, however, instead of a usual billiards table, we play upon one with a convex obstacle, say a hemisphere, in the middle of the table. Now, the motion of the balls, though still deterministic, exhibits chaotic behavior.
The behavior of the balls is still governed by deterministic equations, yet it is no longer simple or periodic.

Consider now the inverse problem. Suppose, rather than knowing these equations, we are observing the table and trying to determine the mathematics which governs the movement of the balls. How might we do this? Since our observations are necessarily of finite accuracy, we might partition the free portion of the table into a finite grid. At various points in time we make observations and record which squares of the grid in which a ball is present. The size of the squares in the grid represents the accuracy of our measurements.
In 1976, Y. G. Sinai proved that in this inverse situation, billiard ball behavior governed by a deterministic equation and billiard ball behavior governed by a first order Markov process are indistinguishable. Since a first order Markov process is a probabilistic process which depends only upon the previous square of the grid, it is both indeterministic and, in principle, unpredictable.

Thus, not only is it the case that we are in principle unable to distinguish between a deterministic and an indeterministic universe; but also, even if the universe is deterministic, and we know its initial conditions to an arbitrary degree of accuracy, we will still, in principle, be unable to predict its behavior.

[images from Suppes, Patrick (1999) "The Noninvariance of Deterministic Causal Models"]

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

9/11- terrorism - game theory

After a storm of media attention surrounding Jeremiah Wright, Barack Obama's pastor, Obama has formally denounced Wright's "inflammatory and appalling remarks . . . about our country." Yet, we must be careful here, for those who blindly condemn rational, motivated criticism of their country are not patriotic, but simply foolish.

A number of Wright's claims have been grouped together as equally outrageous and anti-American which actually have quite different status. In particular, consider the claim that HIV was engineered by the US government to eliminate people of color and the claim that US foreign policy was partly to blame for the events of 9/11. To pick some reports at random, these claims can be seen grouped together as of equally outrageous and anti-American status here, here, and here.

Yet, the two claims are quite different. The claim that the US government engineered the AIDs virus is contradictory to the best scientific theories about the origins of HIV. Furthermore, the claim is entirely unconstructive: certainly, if some party did deliberately engineer the HIV virus, they should be brought to justice, but doing so would not help the supposed 42 million AIDs sufferers. The AIDs epidemic will be addressed by finding a cure or at least a vaccine, an entirely different endeavor than bringing conspirators to justice.

Contrast this with the claim that US foreign policy was partly to blame for the events of September 11, 2001. This claim is not "outrageous," or even anti-American, it is a necessary presupposition of a rational response to terrorism. Why? The answer is simple, and comes from Game Theory. Game Theory provides a framework for rational decision making in situations of conflicting interest. Yet, the analysis of strategies depends upon a crucial assumption: the rationality of one's opponent. If one does not assume one's opponent is rational, his behavior must be taken as indistinguishable from chance, and no theory about his motivations or future actions can be constructed. Of course, the actual situation in the Middle East and the quagmire of foreign policy within which the US is ensnared there is far to complex to formulate within the apparatus of Game Theory. Nevertheless, the same principle applies: if we do not consider terrorists rational, we cannot form any theory about their behavior, and thus we will not ourselves be able to combat them rationally.

However, all those associated ideologically with the 9/11 terrorists have repeatedly cited US foreign policy as the motivation for that and similar acts. If we ignore the claims of these groups, we are rejecting valuable information about how to understand and combat them. Furthermore, we are treating them as wholly irrational. The opposing theory seems to be something like this: Muslims are simply motivated by irrational hatred toward the US. Yet, this is not a theory which can guide action constructively. It eliminates the possibility of diplomacy or diplomatic manipulation, our most powerful tools for adjusting the behavior of foreign groups toward the US. It mandates only war, and a war with no success conditions, for there is no enemy to defeat, only forces of nature (random / irrational agents) to be eradicated. Thus, it is a necessary precondition for effectively responding to the dangers of terrorism that we acknowledge the causal role of US foreign policy of the events of 9/11.

Note here that this point is entirely separate from condemnation of that foreign policy. We may decide, for example, that despite the fact that it contributed to causing the events of 9/11, nevertheless the relevant foreign policy was justified, well motivated, and in general efficacious. Condemning the foreign policy and acknowledging its causal role in 9/11 are two entirely different things.

It is of some interest to note here that only one candidate fulfils this necessary precondition for rational foreign policy, furthermore, his assesment that the appropriate response here is to apply the single oldest and most tested moral principle in history was met with general condemnation by his Republican peers.

With Obama's condemnation of Wright, it appears that all viable candidates for presidency have now publicly proclaimed their own irrationality, their refusal to apply the basic precepts of decision making to our foreign policy, and their denial of the most simple and widespread moral principles. Here is where America deserves condemnation; here is where the most insulting and truly anti-American behavior can be found.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

yearning for zion

On the basis of a single phone call, child protective services and some rather overdressed sheriffs raided the Yearning for Zion Ranch near Eldorado, Texas. Again, on the basis of suspicions surrounding the phone call, 416 children were removed from their parents and put in state custody. It's awfully difficult to see this behavior as conforming to the watchwords "innocent until proven guilty." True, if the well being of a child is at stake, we may wish to act to protect the child first, and confirm the danger second. However, I find it awfully difficult to believe that the average circumstances of these 416 children are improved by their being in state custody rather than with their parents. A former FLDS member reports that charges of forced and early marriages are greatly exaggerated, and, supposedly, among those whose children were removed from the compound (and from them) were a divorced single mother and several monogamous couples.

Current best guess for the origin of this single phone call is a 33-year old Colorado woman with no connection to the FLDS, but who had used the phone number previously, and who had impersonated abused children over the phone previously as well. Now, it is of interest to note here that in the phone call which prompted the raid, the caller named "Dale Barlow" as her abuser. But "Dale Barlow" was already known to authorities as he was on probation. Furthermore, he was known by authorities to be a resident of Arizona, rather than Texas.

I think the comparisons to the Waco Branch Davidian complex raid in 1993 have been overly quick. Nevertheless, there are two disturbing similarities between the incidents, whatever their differences: 1) in both cases, peaceful alternatives to a raid were not adequately explored before force was decided upon; 2) in both cases, authorities seemed ready to accept outrageous accusations more readily simply because the group in question lived in isolation and practiced a minority religion. Furthermore, in both cases, authorities did not bother to research the details of said minority religion, although this would have helped them to conduct raids in a less damaging and more constructive manner.

In a rational society, we should balance (1) the moral imperative to protect the well being of children against (2) the moral cost of replacing expectation of innocence with that of guilt and (3) the practical cost of using government resources to act upon mere suspicions of guilt. In order to balance this equation, we must consider the evidence involved. The higher the costs in terms of (2) and (3) the stronger the evidence needed to support a claim that action is necessary to uphold (1). On the basis of the information available in the public sphere, it certainly appears as if this equation was not properly balanced in the Yearning for Zion case: the practical cost in terms of resources was enormous, the expectation of guilt rather than innocence has been applied to every single adult member of an entire community, and the evidence that children were being abused continues to be scant, to say the least. Again, this is only on the basis of evidence available in the public sphere. Nevertheless, if the government expects its citizens to support it as it prosecutes entire communities / religions wholesale, it should should provide them with the evidential justification for its actions.