Saturday, April 27, 2013

Betrand Lets Me Off the Hook

I wrote a review on Spinoza’s Ethics a while back. I was so disappointed in it that I didn’t even finish it. This could be considered unfair and someone made some scathing comments on my inability to comment adequately or fully understood the philosophy. My disappointment stemmed from the introduction I had to Spinoza from the author Durant as well many general statements from a variety of sources. Durant promised that if I gave it my full attention, I would love the work. Others have agreed. Others also rarely discuss his dependence on their being a perfect being, called God. Most mention that he is a pantheist but few deal with how he reconciled his pantheistic philosophy with his religion.

Bertrand Russell, in History of Western Philosophy is quite clear about all of this and praises Spinoza for both writing a well thought out piece like Ethics and for living its precepts. He also notes how unacceptable his conclusions are for today’s mind. In his time, his biggest problem was being called an atheist. Many find him interesting for this very reason and I think fail to see that he wasn’t one because they are too enamored with how he so confounded the authorities of his day.

That he forwarded not only philosophy, but the human condition is unquestionable. That he still has something to offer to the discussion of ethics today is less apparent. That he lived a life free from argument and handled adversity well is evident. That we should all apply his philosophy and do the same for no other reason than it worked for him is to make a choice with no basis. That we should even suffer through a comprehensive study of his works and attempt to fully embrace his mathematical system of precepts and corollaries is doubtful. Bertrand flatly states that you shouldn’t.

Whereas Durant suggests three passes through Ethics, Russell suggests skimming the ideas Spinoza has about how the mind works and focusing on his summaries and applications. Spinoza felt that a person could, just by sitting and thinking about it, come to conclusions about how human beings function and how the universe is structured. By doing that, you may come up with something that is internally sound but it will most likely also be wrong. With the limited science he had to work, Spinoza did an amazing job, but we have significantly more science available to us today and if you have to choose, your efforts would be better focused on the more modern.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Frankenfoods are coming to kill our children, get your pitchforks and torches!!

The very first article I read about HR933 explained the legal language and explained how “The Right” is getting a good laugh out of the “The Liberal” reaction. I can’t find that article now because it is buried in what I think is an over-reaction. Before you take a side on this one, do some research.

Fueled by sites like “Infowars” and “NaturalNews”, fear mongering is rampant over the Farmer Assurance Protection Act. It has been labeled the “Monsanto Protection Act” and claims are everywhere of how it “slipped through”. I’m 5 pages into Google and can’t find one article that is not inflammatory. It seems to be the worst kept secret in Washington. Even sports fans in Arizona have noticed it.

If you want to give in to the fear, here are 5 TERRIFYINGfacts. Fact 1 is just unsubstantiated claims and the rest are how government currently works. We should be changing how government works, but screaming about this bill is not going to accomplish that.

If you haven’t seen the Act, here’s a simple summary, “What it says is if you plant a crop that is legal to plant when you plant it, you get to harvest it,” Blunt told Politico. “But it is only a one-year protection in that bill.”

My biggest problem with this is those who are against it are assuming that farmers are stupid. They assume, and sometimes say it outright, that farmers are slaves to Monsanto. Not so. Farmers are running a business. They can choose their suppliers. If they suspect a product is going to be difficult to market, they aren’t going to plant it. This provision says that one judge can’t stop a farmer from cultivating the food that they planted. It says the FARMER can REQUEST that they bring their crop to market and the Secretary of Agriculture has the final say, not a federal court judge. It says the Secretary will REVIEW and ANALYZE the case.

To believe that this is terrifying is to believe that our government would authorize the harvesting of poison after they have seen sufficient evidence of the poisoning. Not one of the articles I read stated any specific poison or gave any links to data explaining exactly what is so frightening about GMOs. One article alluded to “unintentional” proteins. I’m not defending GMOs, corporations or factory farmers, I’m only asking for reasons to be so alarmed.

The most balanced articles I’ve found so far are a rating of“mixture” on, And this one.

 The Corvalis Advocate notes that all farming, since the beginning of the Agricultural revolution in the Fertile Crescent, has been altering the environment. Monsanto seeds aren’t flying everywhere and changing everything. I know of only one case of a farmer being sued by Monsanto, and that farmer deliberately plowed around a small patch of Monsanto seed in his fields to encourage that seed to spread. In other words, he wanted it to crossbreed with his existing corn and improve his yields.

If liberal, caring, organic loving people give in to this kind of discussion, we only contribute to the lowering of the standards for reasonable discourse. Liberalism accepts that no single person is always right. It puts the value of listening above the values of giving witty retorts and crushing your opponent with rhetoric. It looks for evidence, not conspiracy.

Much has been said since this last election about how the Republicans have come unmoored from their traditions, and that is no doubt true, but it seems to me that liberals have also lost their foundations and are giving in to the dichotomous thinking and thoughtless speech habits of those we denigrate. Perhaps a review of our history would be helpful.


Thursday, April 4, 2013

The Rise of Science

Bertrand Russell wrote History of Western Philosophy during World War II. He covers every important philosopher and some non-philosophers from the Greeks up to his time. One of the more interesting chapters is The Rise of Science in the 17th century. He points out that before that time, the great philosophers of the Middle Ages like Aquinas or Averroes or Erasmus could have conversed with Aristotle and Plato. The language barriers would have to be overcome, but conceptually they were still on the same level. After Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo and Newton, when philosophy and science diverged, the gap widened, and the ancients would have been clueless about things that are now taught in elementary school. 

Russell commends Copernicus for being bold enough to question Ptolemy, who said the sun revolves around the earth, and dedicated enough to collect the data and do the math to explain why he was doing that. These two forces; making bold hypotheses and the dedication to gathering empirical evidence led to modern science. You can apply this to just about every internet discussion ever, whether it’s aliens are coming or Obama is a socialist or that that bunny costume is cute or creepy.

Bold hypotheses are made, usually with no evidence. When challenged, the discussion turns to the openness of someone’s mind, how they laughed at Columbus and other useless statements. If the hypothesis is challenged, the response is to defend the right to state a hypothesis. If the evidence or lack of it is challenged, the challenger is accused of any number of thought crimes. If an attempt is made to explain the scientific method, science itself is attacked for being an entrenched bureaucracy of gatekeepers uninterested in any original ideas.

All of us were born into the world that has already absorbed the way of thinking that we call “modern”. Russell, Wittgenstein and Popper worked this out for us. They did it so well that we don’t bother discussing their arguments anymore. Just like we don’t need to understand Tusi’s couple or the stellar parallax to explain how we know the earth revolves around the sun we don’t need to regurgitate a definition of critical rationalism. Everything is fine until someone breaks the rule that you can have an idea but you need some evidence if you want others to go along with it.

Either part of that rule could be broken. Encouraging innovation is important. Allowing people to explore crazy ideas can be useful. Even when someone is wrong, we don’t want to suppress their creativity. Part of that encouragement of creativity should also include the hard work of bringing an idea to fruition. An idea alone does not have much value.

With so many important inventions in the last couple centuries, we have come to put a lot of emphasis on the idea people. It’s easier to remember that brilliant breakthroughs lead to progress than it is to remember all the testing, all the mistakes, all the tedious gathering of data that went into making that breakthrough a reality. Too much hero worship and not enough acknowledgment of the grunt work in my opinion. Ideas and innovation should be encouraged, but a crazy idea should still be called crazy and whatever other judgments between the extremes of crazy and brilliant should be considered, based on evidence.

Monday, April 1, 2013

April Fools

I just happened to be reading a few other things on this topic, so I thought I'd make a qiuck post that related to the spirit of the day.

When discussing a conspiracy theory, or the value of religion, or an alien abduction with someone I am often confronted with a statement about how "open minded" I am. The nicest way this was presented was someone who said they "allow more in" and thus are more likely to come across something with value. I can't quite work out the math on that one, given the amount of time it can take to develop an internally consistent reality that supports the latest theory.

A brief definition of this "you're not open" idea was given recently by a psychologist. He started working with a group of other psychologists to learn some new ideas, but soon found their ideas were completely wacko. When he questioned these so-called teachers, they questioned his open-mindedness. What they were calling "open minded" he called gullibility. They were asking him to accept their ideas without questioning them even though they went against everything he had learned.

Saying "you're not open minded" is really two logical fallacies wrapped into one. First, they considered their ideas special. They were above the normal scrutiny that other ideas are subject to. This is known as "special pleading". Then, they attacked the person doing the questioning. There is something wrong with him that does not allow him to see the truth as they do. There is something wrong with his mind. This is an "ad hominem attack". What is especially cruel about this is the way it is delivered in a calm and calculated manner, as if the attackers, the believers, the ones with the special knowledge, are talking to a crazy person who needs to be treated as if he is about to crack. 

"Open minded" means you are receptive to new ideas and you are willing to listen to someone's argument. It does not mean that you have to believe the argument or that you shouldn't question it. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, that does not mean that everyone else is entitled to adopt it. Some ideas are even dangerous. We wouldn't send children to a Ku Klux Klan summer camp and tell them keep an open mind. A reasonable opinion has some sort of basis, some facts that collectively support it, although there may be missing pieces or untested assumptions. Those facts can be checked and the assumptions can be tested.

If you have an opinion on the origin of the universe, I can't check your math. I can't even understand the math. If you're using math. If you're not, then I can't check if the world is really resting on the back of a turtle either, or whatever it is you're proposing. So for some things, I'll keep my mind open until more data is available.