Sunday, December 28, 2008

Materialism: more than just one flavor

The Maverick Philosopher, aka Dr. William Vallicella, (he likely will be of my faovrite sources when I don't have a topic off the top of my head) has recently written concerning the topic of eliminative materialism, and a topic thus presented itself. Vallicella is certainly an intelligent and deep thinker, but not without his bias and, as all humans are, prone to insufficient contemplation regarding ideas that seem to support that bias.

Without going into the level of detail in the post, Vallicella describes the difference between eliminative materialism (which says that mental states don't exist) and identative materialism (the idea that mental states are equivalent to specific physical configurations in the brain, he did not use this exact term). After casting a jibe at the sanity of the eliminativists, he then proceeds to try to equate the two positions. Apparently he finds the identitarian position too difficult to rebut standing alone, so it must be tied to the more radical position.

On the face of it, there is a difference between saying that X does not exist and saying that X = Y. For the latter claim seems to presuppose that X does exist. But when X and Y belong to disparate categories, the difference appears to vanish. For example, is there any difference between saying that God does not exist and taking the Feuerbachian line that God is identical to a unconscious anthropomorphic projection? Suppose someone says, "God exists all right — it is just that God is an anthropomorphic projection." The proper response to such a person is to dismiss such obfuscatory rhetoric as tantamount to the claim that God does not exist. For God is not the sort of thing that could be a projection. Whether or not God exists, the concept of God is the concept of something that is a se, from itself, whence it follows that God cannot have the status of an anthropomorphic projection. So a claim that God does have this status is a claim that God does not exist.

Similarly, is there any difference between saying that mental state M is token-identical to physical state P, and saying that M does not exist? If M reduces to P, and M has all and only the properties possessed by P, then all there is is P, and the reduction is tantamount to an elimination.

The first paragraph is a poor analogy, simply because Vallicella must create an opponent who confuses whether God exists with whether the concept of God exists in order to make Vallicella's point. A putative God would be external to the mind of the opponent, and the mistake of equating it to an internal construct seems a little too elementary for the usual sphere of discussion Vallicella finds himself in.

As for the second paragraph, this is a very poor equivocation. Certainly, the identity theorist does eliminate facets of the ontological status of mental states with respect to the position of the dualist, so an elimination has occurred. However, not all eliminations are equal,and the identitarian position does specifically say our mental states are exactly that. Eliminative materialists would argue that almost all of our understanding of the mind will need to be re-worked, while identity theorists don't see the need for that sort of overhaul. It's one thing to say that happiness is the equivalent of a specific cascade of neural interactions, it's quite another to say that happiness is a false understanding of the workings of the brain.

On a personal level, I tend to accept identitarianism. I believe that when I am happy, angry, thirsty, etc., this is saying something real about me.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Titan Day approaches

Sure, in previous years it was known as Christmas, as it will be known in future years. This year, it's Titan Day.

For the old-time boardgames, who remember Avalon Hill, Titan was one of the classic games to play. It plays differently, but very well, with 2-6 players as long as you don't mind the knock-out feature. I had my rear handed to me several times by some very good gamers. Old copies were selling on eBay for hundreds of dollars.

Well, Titan is being re-printed by Valley games, and I will be getting a brand new copy in 2 days. Except for 1856 and 1870, I have not bought a serious board game above the level of India Rails/Munchkin in about 20 years. Yes, I have been maried almost 20 years, how did you know?

Son#2 has been getting bored with Munchkin and Yu-Gi-Oh lately, so I am hoping this will be something for us to play together, perhaps with CharityBrow joining in every now and then. I expect Son#1 will be disinterested, as usual, and the younger three will not be up to the game for a while. Hopefully this will give him a taste for more interesting games.

Edited to add: we did in fact start of game of Titan, and he caught on better than I expected. Here's to many more in the future.
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Sunday, December 21, 2008

Confederacy denialism

Denialism seems to always come from political motivations. For one example, back in the 1960s, after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, Republicans saw an opportunity to take the South out of the hands of Democrats, the infamous "Southern Strategy". Naturally, part of the Republican rhetoric became the partial rehabilitation of the Confederacy. After all, there is no honor in fighting for the right to enslave and/or oppress. Thus, new reasons for the rebellion/secession must be produced and defended.

This takes us to a comment by Martin Cothran, spokesperson for Focus on the Family in Kentucky and author of vere loqui, in particular of this comment:

I may not have explicitly disagreed before about slavery being the primary aim of the Confederacy, but I'll do it now. The issue was state's rights primarily, with slavery being an aggravating factor. Lincoln said several times that he would not order an end to slavery in the South. The issue was only newer states, so it was unnecessary for the South to secede in order to maintain slavery.

Slavery did become the primary justification of the war on both sides later in the war when Lincoln used the Emancipation Proclamation as a means to provide the North with a moral reason for he war. He needed a moral crusade to inform the Northern psyche, and slavery was ready at hand for the purpose. The Southern newspapers bit on it, and began to offer rationales for slavery.

But the idea that slavery was what the Civil War was about is, as I said, an oversimplification.

Well, any war has multiple justifications, and the Civil War is not an exception. However, the primary reason was certainly slavery, and to claim otherwise can only be denialism. All we need to look at are the documents produced by both sides in between the first secession (South Carolina, 1860-DEC-20) to the outbreak of hostilities (1861-APR-12).

We can start by looking at the proposal of people who were tryingto avert the war. Our first stop is the Critenden Compromise. This was a Constitutional amendment of six items and four proposed Congressional resolutions. Every single one of these items directly concerns slavery. Next, the Corwin amendment specifically calls out the institution of slavery. It was passed by Congress, signed by Buchanan (which had no formal significance),and passed by two states, says "No amendment shall be made to the Constitution which will authorize or give to Congress the power to abolish or interfere, within any State, with the domestic institutions thereof, including that of persons held to labor or service by the laws of said State." There was even a three-week Peace Conference, which proposed an amendment of seven sections, each section specifically addressing slavery, and the last sentence of the last section only addressing the rights of citizens (but not states). So clearly, in eyes of the people trying to preserve the Union and avoid war, slavery was the main issue.

How about the people leading the fight for secession? Well, we can start with the Cornerstone speech, delivered by Alexander H. Stevens, the first Vice-President of the Confederacy. He says, "The new constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution." Years later, when trying to correct some of the supposed misstatements of the recorded version of his speech, he reiterates this claim, "Slavery was without doubt the occasion of secession;". Of course, the best source of all is the reasons the states themselves give for secession, which we have for South Carolina, Mississippi, Georgia, and Texas. All four of them refer to slavery generally, and the status of fugitive slaves in particular, while only one mentions economic reasons. So, we see from both sides that slavery really was the principle casue, not an afterthought or aggravating issue.

The argument concerning fugitive slaves is particularly ironic, because it amounts to an argument against the rights of Northern states to decide when people should be considered free. In that regard, the secessionists were anti-states-rights.

I don't expect the conservative Christian Republicans to give up this brand of denialism any time soon. It's no coincidence that every time a major party candidate has ties to a white-power organization, it's a Republican. They need these votes to win elections.
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Thursday, December 18, 2008

Skeptic's Circle #102

The 102nd edition of the Skeptic's Circle is at Happy Jihad's House of Pancakes, and instead trying to convince us we are religious, he's trying to convince a currently notorious politician to mend his ways. Bing can certainly be acerbic from time to time, but he also seems to be devoted to lost causes (which explains his being acerbic).
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Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Santa and Algebra I

On Sunday two my kids (Daughter2, aged 7 and Son3, aged 5) were treated to "Shop with a Cop" at the local Wal-Mart. I greatly appreciate my home town for taking the time and spending the money like that, my kids had a rough summer. The kids even got a picture on Santa’s lap. Daughter2 asked me out of the blue if that was really Santa. So in the custom in which I was raised, I said it was a person who was helping Santa. I believed in Santa until I was 12, so I certainly don’t see the hurry of changing her belief.

Actually, of my other three (Son1 at 16 with PDD-NOS. Son2 at 15, Daughter1 at 12 with ADHD), only Son2 has figured out that when I talk about the "Santa Clause Game", it really is a game not based on an actual person. I’ve been calling it a game since my kids could talk, so that has allowed him to make a transition from believer to game-player with no remorse at losing his beliefs (at least that I can see). It’s nice to think I’ve had a couple of good ideas as a father.

We also recently gat a report on Son1’s progress in his Pre-algebra class, which the teacher says is probably too easy for him. Next year he might well be in a regular Algebra 1 class in high school. It’s hard to describe how pleased and relieved you can be to see a son go from wearing diapers at age 7 to being partially mainstreamed less than ten years later. He owes it all to good teachers and his own hard work; his mother and I did almost nothing to direct him; we just let him become himself.

So, what does it mean for humans when you can perform algebra and still believe in Santa? Is the answer to that question "President George W. Bush"?
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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Russell's teapot -- not grandiose enough?

I visited the Maverick Philosopher, who also responds to comments under the name Bill Vallicella, about a week ago, as I like to do from time to time. He had the most interesting post on Russell's teapot and why he felt it was not a persuasive example, which seems to be a reprint of an earlier post.

Let's start things off with his quote of Russell:
Many orthodox people speak as though it were the business of sceptics to disprove received dogmas rather than of dogmatists to prove them. This is, of course, a mistake. If I were to suggest that between the Earth and Mars there is a china teapot revolving about the sun in an elliptical orbit, nobody would be able to disprove my assertion provided I were careful to add that the teapot is too small to be revealed even by our most powerful telescopes. But if I were to go on to say that, since my assertion cannot be disproved, it is intolerable presumption on the part of human reason to doubt it, I should rightly be thought to be talking nonsense. If, however, the existence of such a teapot were affirmed in ancient books, taught as the sacred truth every Sunday, and instilled into the minds of children at school, hesitation to believe in its existence would become a mark of eccentricity and entitle the doubter to the attentions of the psychiatrist in an enlightened age or of the Inquisitor in an earlier time.

Vallicella first acknowledges the obvious points that just because there is no evidence A does not exist, we can not conclude A exists. However, he then seems to go into a third point that strikes me as not only being irrelevant to Russell's main point, but also completely avoids Russell's actual third point: belief in God, or the magic teapot, is not sustained based upon the evidence, but upon the inherited traditions and the tremendous amount of social pressure to be a believer. The number of believers who come to believe in God because of arguments like the Cosmological argument is very small, indeed. However, instead of addressing this point of Russell, Vallicella takes a turn which seems to take the analogy and discard it because Russell's teapot doesn't have a history of belief.

But the real appeal to atheists and agnostics of the Teapot passage rests on a third move Russell makes. He is clearly suggesting that belief in God (i.e., belief that God exists) is epistemically on a par with believing in a celestial teapot. Just as we have no reason to believe in celestial teapots, irate lunar unicorns (lunicorns?), flying spaghetti monsters, and the like, we have no reason to believe in God.

Sticking with Russell's teapot for the moment, why don't we have any reason to believe it exists? I'm drinking tea right now, and typically drink 2-4 quarts of iced tea each day. On the days where I don't drink it, I get headaches. I can certainly interpret that as a the divine retribution of Russell's teapot to my failure to offer an appropriate worship for the day.

But perhaps we should distinguish between a strong and a weak reading of Russell's suggestion:

S. Just as we cannot have any reason to believe that an empirically undetectable celestial teapot exists, we cannot have any reason to believe that God exists.

W. Just as we do not have any reason to believe that a celestial teapot exists, we do not have any reason to believe that God exists.

Vallicella does not provide a reason for making this distinction. It's just as well, because (S) is not a valid interpretation of Russell's proposition. Unlike the teapot, any putative omnipotent God certainly could offer us any manner of reasons to accept Their existence, of essentially any possible level of reliability. Of course, that such proof has not been offered is not proof of Their non-existence, but that is very different from saying we can not have proof.

Now it seems to me that both (S) and (W) are plainly false: we have all sorts of reasons for believing that God exists. Here Alvin Plantinga sketches about two dozen theistic arguments. Atheists will not find them compelling, of course, but that is irrelevant. The issue is whether a reasoned case can be made for theism, and the answer is in the affirmative. Belief in God and in Russell's teapot are therefore not on a par since there are no empirical or theoretical reasons for believing in his teapot.

This is an interesting standard of evidence: it doesn't matter if the arguments are compelling or not, they just have to exist and be made into a reasoned case. It occurs to me that this is not a difficult thing to accomplish for the Russell's teapot (the Teapot); I can make a reasoned case, that almost no one will find compelling, for it's existence. First is the evidence I have already presented, which we might call the Argument from Compulsion: when I stop performing acts of worship to the Teapot, I have physical symptoms. Then there is the Argument from Dominant Language: of all the Western European countries, it is England whose language has become the commercial language of the world, because they are known for drinking tea, and the Teapot has rewarded them for it. I will end this list with the Argument from Antioxidants: the Teapot wishes to encourage our worship, and so has made our worship healthy for us.

Another suggestion embedded in the Russell passage is the notion that if God existed, he would be just another physical thing in the physical universe. But of course this has nothing to do with anything maintained by any sophisticated theist. God is a purely spiritual being.

Here in the USA, for most theists, their putative God at one time or another had a very physical incarnation, and many of them believe He still has that incarnation. Now, if you are a Jehovah's Witness (JW), or some other sect who believes that Jesus was not God, then you might accept a purely spiritual God (as the JWs do). If Vallicella belonged to such a belief system, I do not believe he would enjoy the positive reputation he has among a variety of Trinitarian bloggers, so I will venture that he does accept some sort of physical part of God at some point in God's existence,and so does not himself believe God is purely spiritual.

Also, there is nothing in Russell's logic or analogy that relies on the Teapot being a physical thing. The analogy works perfectly well with objects that have no physical instantiation, like the Flying Spaghetti Monster (FSM). I am curious how Vallicella can specifically note the FSM earlier in his post, and yet forget here that the FSM meets his criteria here for being a purely spiritual being.

Another problem with the teapot analogy is that God as traditionally conceived in the West is not an isolani — to use a chess expression. He is not like an isolated pawn, unsupported and unsupporting. For if God exists, then God is the cause of the existence of every contingent being, and indeed, of every being distinct from himself. This is not true of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. If there is a lunar unicorn, then this is just one more isolated fact about the universe. But if God exists, then everything is unified by this fact: everything has the ground of its being and its intelligibility in the creative activity of this one paradigmatic being.

That's a pretty remarkable jump, from simply being a purely spiritual being to being the grounding of the universe. More to the point, it seems to be saying that the analogy is invalid because this putative God has a good story behind it. Perhaps Vallicella is unaware of how easy it is to compose such background stories for the Teapot. For example: the Teapot did create the universe just to put our planet in the perfect position to grow tea and have a species to worship it through drinking that tea. That the universe is perfectly suited for the drinking of tea is all the proof you should need for the Teapot.

This is connected with the fact that one can argue from general facts about the universe to the existence of God, but not from such facts to the existence of lunar unicorns and celestial teapots. Thus there are various sorts of cosmological argument that proceed a contingentia mundi to a ground of contingent beings. But there is no similar a posteriori argument to a celestial teapot. There are also arguments from truth, from consciousness, from apparent design, from desire, from morality, and others besides.

That Vallicella fails to see how much these arguments favor to the Teapot jut as much as his putative God seems to be due to some blindness or lack of imagination on the subject.

The very existence of these arguments shows two things. First, since they move from very general facts (the existence of contingent beings, the existence of truth) to the existence of a source of these general facts, they show that God is not a being among beings, not something in addition to what is ordinarily taken to exist. Second, these arguments give positive reason for believing in the existence of God. Are they compelling? No, but then no argument for any substantive philosophical conclusion is compelling.

The interpretation of the evidence to provide inductive support for a putative God fails to account for the lack of specificity: the same arguments can be used to support any such construct, including the Teapot or the FSM.

People like Russell, Dawkins, and Dennett who compare God to a celestial teapot betray by so doing a failure to understand, and engage, the very sense of the theist's assertions. To sum up. (i) God is not a gratuitous posit in that there are many detailed arguments for the existence of God; (ii) God is not a physical being; (iii) God is not a being who simply exists alongside other beings. In all three respects, God is quite unlike a celestial teapot, a lunar uncorn, an invisible hippopotamus, and suchlike concoctions.

I am quite at a loss to explain why anyone should think the Teapot analogy any good. It leaks like a sieve

To sum up, each of Vallicella points can be applied equally easily to the Teapot, much less the FSM. His own critique of the argument fails under the weight of the expectations he feels the need to employ for his God.
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101st Skeptics Circle

The 101st Skeptics Circle is up at Ionian Enchantment, with an African flavor.
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Saturday, December 6, 2008

What a game!

I'm too cheap to get both cable and satellite dish, and I refuse to give up cable remarkable on-demand library (as much formy families sake as mine). In my area, thismeans I don't even get an option to buy NBA League Pass, so I watched my first Jazz game ofthe season last night. It was not exactly thre\illing watching Toronto lose by 27, but I really enjoyed it. If that's how good we are without Boozer, how good will we be with him back?
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