Monday, October 30, 2006

Science, Metaphysics, and Their Lack of Trustworthiness

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 3MB; 3.5min} I think people are easily exasperated with metaphysical discourse, because there's no way to show such talk to be false -- it is not 'defeasible' to use the technical term -- so they think such talk can lead to nowhere trustworthy or useful.

In contrast, people enjoy science discourse; since, they rightly note, it leads to practical technology; moreover, science discourse is defeasible. Indeed, even when science discourse is downright bamboozling, people will put up with it. Again, not so with talk of metaphysics. (For the moment, I’m excluding religious metaphysics, for lots of people seem perfectly happy to endure that kind of unfalsifiable discourse.)

The irony is that the execution of the scientific enterprise presumes many metaphysical assumptions. Here is a short list:

* Generalized claims can be made from observations.
* Observation tells us something about reality.
* Reality is ordered.
* Events in the future will occur with like resemblance to events in the past.

This presents an odd sort of dilemma: The scientific enterprise is based on metaphysical assumptions. Now anything based on metaphysical assumptions is based on non-defeasible assumptions. But being so-based, and reasserting the popular exasperation with metaphysics noted above, forces a surprising conclusion: that the scientific enterprise leads to nowhere trustworthy or useful.

So initially science is understood to be trustworthy and useful; but, upon careful inspection, science should ultimately be understood as lacking these desirable traits.

Perhaps, in the face of this dilemma, non-defeasible assumptions are best accorded as useful afterall! Whether such assumptions are trustworthy is a very difficult question, but they are certainly practical; for, when they are posited, certain conceived and desirable goals are implemented as actions with desirable results. This kind of practicality is the force of argument for religious doctrine: thinking about the world in a certain way, taking certain metaphysical assumptions about God’s existence or non-existence (and so forth), in a phrase “having faith”, allows one’s conceived and desirable goals to be implemented as actions with desirable results. Metaphysical thinking, therefore, has practical value.

As for the trustworthy nature of metaphysical statements, I have little to offer. There is a very weak sense of where a metaphysical assumption is trustworthy – i.e., so long as there is no detected contradiction[1] with another metaphysical assumption (e.g. one can't rationally claim, "Matter exists, and nothing exists." "Tom was born earlier than Jim, and Tom never existed." etc.) Some stronger sense than “no detected contradiction” does not seem available. Being trustworty -- i.e., “worth trust” -- looks like there is a comparison of one thing with another, where something gets some degree of “worth” from the comparison. But there is not some degree of trustworthiness between bivalent values, between true or false. What would it mean, for example, to say that “something is barely not nothing?” However, care must be exercised, since natural languages can fool people with their flexibility. One can give some sense to saying “Tom almost never existed,” but what could it mean to say, “Tom barely never existed.”?

The metaphysics of science has now exasperated me.


[1] The axiom or law of thought that a thing cannot be and not be at the same time, or a thing must either be or not be, or the same attribute can not at the same time be affirmed and and denied of the same subject; also called the law of the excluded middle. ["Principle of Contradiction" The Free Dictionary (Accessed 10/21/06)]


Friday, October 27, 2006

Philosopher as Speculation Bait

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 2MB; 3min} Being a philosopher is funny business anyway, but especially so when someone finds out that I’m employed (i.e *paid*) to be a philosopher. Upon hearing of my occupation, it is quite common for people to immediately want to “get together” and “talk about that kind of stuff.” I have a friend who is a mathematician. He notes that when people hear what he does for living, he gets a quick nod and then deafening silence ensues immediately. Who has the better deal here, I wonder?

Most of the time, people don’t want to discuss the topics on which I teach. The bulk of what I do as a professor is to teach undergraduates intellectual history:

“Intellectual history differs from (although it is related to) the history of philosophy and the history of ideas. Its central perspective suggests that ideas do not change in isolation from the people who create and use them and that we must study the culture, lives and environments of people to understand their ideas.”[1]
Naturally, I emphasize the ideas that “come out” or are “floating around within” the historical eras the students are examining. Once there is a workable set of ideas, there’s effort at seeing how they are (or can be) put together, which si where logic[2] kicks in, and perhaps the “doing” of philosophy proper.

Yet the popular conversational assault launched at me upon hearing of my occupation isn’t about intellectual history or logic. Generally, it’s about speculation, and I don’t mean by that “a risky investment of money for the sake of large profit.” By philosophical speculation I secretly mean something along these lines: “risky investment of excess metaphysical verbiage over a hopefully short time for the sake of not offending the social mores of acquaintances.”

I’ve never been much tempted by speculation – well, that’s not quite true. At least I’ve never been tempted to call such activity a “fun” venture, even when occasionally profitable. But a lot of lay people seem to expect this philosophers. Apparently, the basis for this temptation in the more general public is, to quote a very crusty skeptic, "magical thinking":

“The belief that people or events are ‘magical,’ is that they have access to an unseen and hidden realm of power which lies behind our visible world but which can nevertheless be tapped into and used to affect our lives.”[3]
Maybe a slight modification here – that people posit an unseen and hidden reality which lies beyond the otherwise mundane one. In one sense, this is straightforwardly true: micro-physics describes just such a bizarre place. But that’s just more math and science, and it’s possible to get it wrong when yammering on about this hidden world. But with the unseen magical, metaphysical garden it’s often speculation so bad that it’s not even wrong. It’s just senseless.

“So, uh, what do you do?” The inquiry is often made.
“I investigate ideas.” I tentatively answer.
“Like a psychologist?”
“Not those ideas.”
Naturally, the line of inquiry runs to just which ideas I do investigate. But then it’s like throwing raw ham chunks into a pirana pond; more and more tangential metaphysical verbiage swims into conversational flow. Perhaps I should simply say that I'm a janitor, and that I clean up other people's messes.


[1]Intellectual HistoryKnowledge Rush (Accessed 10/21/06)

[2] Garth Kemerling, “Arguments and Inference” (Accessed 10/20/06)

[3] Austin Cline, Book Review of “The Transcendental Temptation: A Critique of Religion and the Paranormal” (Accessed 10/20/06)


Sunday, October 22, 2006

Faith, Faith--Go Away! Come Again No Other Day! (You Wish.)

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 5.1MB; 4.5min} The San Francisco chronicle has a nice article[1] and summary on recent conundrums faced by atheists on the continued presence and vitality of religion. Naturally, the “unholy trinity” of atheists come-lately is noted up-front in the article (Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett),[2] and then an analysis is given by Ron Carlson, an author and speaker of some note who is an advocate of religion.

Carlson offers a thought experiment which I find telling:

In the secular account, "You are the descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach 3 1/2 billion years ago. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You came from nothing and are going nowhere."

In the Christian view, by contrast, "You are the special creation of a good and all-powerful God. You are the climax of His creation. Not only is your kind unique, but you are unique among your kind. Your Creator loves you so much and so intensely desires your companionship and affection that He gave the life of His only son that you might spend eternity with him."

Now imagine two groups of people -- let's call them the Secular Tribe and the Religious Tribe -- who subscribe to one of these two views. Which of the two is more likely to survive, prosper and multiply? The religious tribe is made up of people who have an animating sense of purpose. The secular tribe is made up of people who are not sure why they exist at all.
It looks like the underlying position is that people who believe that they are placed for some (Christian-flavored) transcendental purpose are more fit for surviving (and thus reproducing) in the current historical circumstances than those who do not hold such beliefs.

I suppose one could run an experiment and see if this is true. D'Souza does go on to examine some demographic trends in countries which do and do not have large populations committed to religion. The problem, of course, is determining if the circumstances are similar enough to draw conclusions.

For example, even though three groups of people might have the same economic status, it hardly follow that they have the same philosophical outlook on life. Suppose that persons in Beijing, Frankfurt, and Indianapolis all make the spending-power equivalent of 50K a year. Does it follow that their views on religion will be the same? Is economic analysis the fitness envirnoment which determines survival? Governmental philosophy?

Again, Suppose that persons in Beijing, Frankfurt, and Indianapolis all are religious. One is Taoist, one Christian, and one Buddhist. Does it follow they are all equally fit for surviving (and thus reproducing) in the current historical circumstances, and well more so than those who do not hold any such belief concerning religion?

So many pivotal questions, so few scientifically justified answers! In fact, one of the problems I’ve always had with atheism, even before I became a mercenary for the pious, is how regularly atheists claim to know decisively what the answers are about religious belief well before we have completed sciences just in cognitive neurology, general psychology, sociology. (Much less before we have completed sciences in physics, biology, or information theoretic model of genetics.)

Here’s a fine quote from D'Souza at the end of his article:

My conclusion is that it is not religion but atheism that requires a Darwinian explanation. It seems perplexing why nature would breed a group of people who see no purpose to life or the universe, indeed whose only moral drive seems to be sneering at their fellow human beings who do have a sense of purpose.
In philosophy, this is known as “turning an argument on its head”, or sometimes as a de-constructive argument– namely, where the very method of argument is turned against the advocate of a contrary position.

Though D'souza is certainly wrong that all atheists sneer at people who have a sense of purpose -- some atheists[3] do indeed have purpose -- I do find a recurrent shrill attitude against any who might dare show agnosticism towards a reductionistic, materialistic naturalism, at least when I peruse popular literature[4] on atheism. I guess that makes me a skeptic about the atheistic worldview.


[1] Dinesh D'Souza “God knows why faith is thriving” San Francisco Chronicle (October 22, 2006)

[2] See Entries on "Richard Dawkins", "Sam Harris", and "Daniel Dennett" Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia (Accessed 10/22/06)

[3] Paul Kurtz comes to mind here. His philosophical stance is known as "eupraxsophy." Though he claims to rely on rational methods such as logic, observation and science (rather than faith, mysticism or revelation) for developing his philosophy, when he invokes talk of ethics and moral accountability towards other human beings, Kurtz seems to move beyond his logical empiricism. (And that's not a bad thing.)

[4] See especially Free Inquiry and Skeptical Inquirer.

[enrty image] "The Skeptic" Robert Hall Artist Site (Accessed 10/22/06)


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Beauty and the Depths of Skin

{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 5.1MB; 7.5min} One very much like this picture above forms my initial, nacent childhood memory of something called "science." I probably saw it in an encyclopedia somewhere along the line. It's a deeply ingrained mental image. I really must take a moment to contemplate what this image means to me now that I have put away childish things.

Skin is more than just a coating, of course. In college, my girlfiend -- now my wife, thank you -- wrote a paper which purported to show that people with natural physical charisma are, on average, healthier, wealthier, and happier than those otherwise lacking that attribute. Common sense would dictate this be so, but the impact of my life-love's paper was in reviewing studies which showed just how much influence physical charisma commands. I'd like to give some commentary that goes from remote parts skin-deep, and then upwards.

Fatty tissue

Obesity is a worrisome epidemic, since the national healthcare system and associated industries (as in medical insurance) must devote an increasing amount of labor and money in managing the problem. And it is a b-i-g problem, for 65% of the US citenzenry falls in the "overweight" or "obese" category. Adipose tissue, the technical name for "fat," is a collection of special cells. There are two types of fat, white fat and brown fat, because there are two types of fat cells. And the fat cells that we have are there from birth, becoming fully formed at puberity.

The reason we get fatter is because these cells get loaded up with more volume. It is not strictly a matter of will-power (or character flaw) that we are fatter/thinner.

"Many people think your brain controls your fat," said Gokhan S. Hotamisligil, a professor of genetics and metabolism at the Harvard School of Public Health. "We promote the idea that your fat controls your brain."[1]

Fat, it turns out, does not sit around functioning like an extra gas tank:

"fat cells continuously dispatch dozens of potent chemical signals to myriad tissues throughout the body, including the brain, liver, muscles, reproductive organs and immune system, orchestrating a host of activities."[2]

Psychologists since Freud have worried just how much our will is in control, since there are thought processes in our brains which influence us without our being consciously aware of them. But now we have to worry whether our very fat is messing with our minds. (Fortunately, this does open up a host of new excuses for failing in one's dieting ventures.)

Sweat Glands

It turns out that there are two types of sweat glands: eccrine and apocrine. The eccrine variety are the kind you see explicitly shown in the diagram above; they are located deeply in the dermis and with a coiled, secretory gland at the base. We have well over two million excretory ducts that wind upwards onto the surface of our skin. Eccrine glands are mostly under thermal control, though some (on arm pits, palms, soles, and forehead) can be activated by intense psychological conditions, as poker players know all too well. The apocrine variety are larger and open into hair follicles, being a remnant of the mammalian sexual scent gland. Fortunately for the anti-persperant industry, our skin's bacteria acts upon the apocrine sweat after just a short while, and causes the otherwise oderless substance to make your date gag, unless or course you've donned the appropriate chemical armor.[3]

I have friends who are vietnamese, and during heavy physical activity there is a clear difference between us: sweat. I sweat buckets; they sweat -- and I really mean this -- not at all. Many asians of northeastern descent are within a cold-climate gene pool. It turns out that most will also have dry earwax (as opposed to wet ear wax, common to most Europeans). Sadly for me, as a group of Japaneese researchers report, "earwax type and armpit odor are correlated, since populations with dry earwax, such as those of East Asia, tend to sweat less and have little or no body odor, while the wet earwax populations of Africa and Europe sweat more and so may have more body odor." These researchers also suspect that some asians' lack of sweating is yet another adaptation to the cold in which the ancestors of these East Asian peoples are thought to have lived.[4]


Hair follicles are just old cells packed together. As more pack together, hair grows. Surrounding the follicle are sebaceous glands, a tiny oil- (i.e. fat) producing gland. The more sebaceous glands you have, the thicker your hair. Hair is tough stuff. Once I saw two of the allegedly meanest girls in High School get into a fight, and they the hair-pulling torque they put on each other's head was spectacular to behold. Of course the theoretical limits are even stranger: "Hair is incredibly strong. Each hair can withstand the strain of 100 grams, meaning that an average head of 120,000 hairs could cope with 12 tons, if the scalp were strong enough!"[5]

The Beauty of Epidermis

Sometimes it is said that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." The optimistic interpretation of this standby proverb is that there is no standard for beauty, and that beauty is assessed by subjective convention, even personal quirk. However, a more pessimistic assessment is that people recognize beauty when they see it, and what they see is objectively describable. German investigators, Braun, Gruendl, Marberger, & Scherber, did a study on facial evaluation (using both actual and virtual faces) along 20 different observer-imparted personality traits. Here is what they found:

"The results are alarmingly clear. We found an enormously influencing attractiveness-stereotype: The more attractive the presented faces were, the more successful, content, friendly, intelligent, socialble, accessible, exciting, creative and busy the persons were estimated. The opposite applies to unattractive faces: The more unattractive the faces were the more negative characteristics were attributed to the person.... It remains that beautiful people have an enormous advantage. Especially in situations where a good first impression is decisive, beautiful people benefit from their attractivity. And this is just because we are trapped by the simple false conclusion: 'what is beautiful is also good.'"[6]
In this world, there are difficult times in life, and being judged "not beautiful" is perhaps tolerable. But to be judged "ugly" or even "hideous" can move one's life status from beyond difficult into being truly dreadful. Imagine trying to find a meaningful life when you are trapped in a truly hideous shell.[7] The piles upon piles of flesh -- indeed literally the depths of skin in such cases -- remind us why physical beauty is so highly valued in all societies: skin is more than just a coating, of course.


[1] Rob Stein "Decoding the Surprisingly Active Life Of Fat Cells" The Washington Post (Monday, July 12, 2004)

[2] Ibid.

[3] [ "Sweat Glands" Molson Medical Informatics (Accessed 9/30/2006)

[4] Nicholas Wade "Scientists Find Gene That Controls Type of Earwax in People" NY Times January 30, 2006.

[5] "Keratine: Superb Chemestry of the Hair" LoReal: (Accessed 9/30/2006)

[6] Braun, C., Gruendl, M., Marberger, C. & Scherber, C. "Beautycheck - Social Perception" (Accessed 10/17/2006)

[7] "Elephant Man" to receive surgery" (Accessed 10/17/2006)


Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Analysis of "Sticking It to the Man"

I always enjoy the light reading I do in economics, not because I really understand it, but because it seems to be a way of analyzing social interactions with a conveniently observable measurement: money. So this phrase, “Sticking it to The Man” which I have always thought worthy of a chortle, does seem to bring out two different views of work.
{Audio .mp3 this essay @ 2.8MB; 4min}

Recently, this very phrase came to mind as I entered a local ice cream restaurant in order to pick up some milk. I saw a teenage boy who had intelligently placed himself between two large refrigerators, carefully hiding from direct view of management while maintaining his place at the cash register. This was all tactically arranged so that he could unobtrusively text-message his friends at off moments until his long, droll minimum-wage shift came to completion.

Yes, he was “Sticking it to The Man.” At that moment it struck me there were two ways to read what this phrase is conveying.

One view might be as follows: for most entry-level unskilled jobs, there is always the boss figure, and it seems these people are regularly hard-@$$ed, irrational human beings. In such cases, the boss represents The Man. The boss isn’t The Man, s/he just represents The Man’s interests. In my mind, I’ve always imagined The Man as a slightly cruel, donkey-headed demi-god, something akin to what Smith argued upon his noting that state and personal efforts, to promote social good, are ineffectual compared to unbridled market forces.[1] Behold ye, The Man, an unbridled donkey demi-god, represented by his viceroy, my boss – to whom, I’m trying to stick it.

Another view is that “The Man” is greater society’s tacit view of the unskilled laborer. Most unskilled jobs are always done by those who are de-valued by society, and are forced by economic circumstances to (a) take jobs that nobody wants, and (b) to work under conditions that are difficult and even damaging over long periods of time. The latter issue is well documented. Researcher G.D. Smith, in a study on employment mortality, asks and answers the pertinent question:

“[A]re some workers under capitalism paid so little that they die early? The answer is a resounding yes: a great many studies have found a significant correlation between income level and mortality rates. In 1986, researchers studied two groups of men between the ages of 25 and 64: those that made less than $9,000 a year, and those that made more than $25,000. They found that poor white men had 6.7 times the death rate of rich white men, and poor black men had 5.4 times the death rate of rich black men”[2]

I see no reason to think that things have changed since the mid-eighties. Indeed, I think The Man has become more cruel, since the real value of how much minimum wage buys now is *less* than it was in the mid-eighties, as this chart nicely shows.[3]

On this second view of sticking to The Man, since minimum wage is not what it used to be in terms of buying power, one does not, therefore, perceive owing The Man as much work. Hence, one takes personal free times (as opposed to additional initiative) when one has opportunity. In this case, one is stealing paid time from The Man.

It would not be a great leap for someone to decide that other types of “compensation” are equally adequate. For example, instead of pilfering a bit of /time/ here and there, perhaps one is willing to pilfer small /material goods/. Again, instead of skimming $2.50 worth of text-messaging time, why not skim a couple of milkshakes, which would be equivalent to that $2.50? This would demand, of course, that one is committed to only pilfering what is considered “fair” compensation from The Man, which seems a quite different matter than simply “sticking to The Man.”


[1]Adam Smith: Economist and PhilosopherLucidcafé (Accessed 10/9/2006)

[2] George Davey Smith ( "Socioeconomic Differentials in Mortality Risk among Men Screened for the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: I. White Men," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 486-496; George Davey Smith and others, "Socioeconomic Differentials in Mortality Risk among Men Screened for the Multiple Risk Factor Intervention Trial: II. Black Men," American Journal of Public Health Vol. 86, No. 4 (April, 1996), pgs. 497-504

[3]U.S. Minimum Wage HistoryOregon State University (Accessed 10/9/2006)


Sunday, October 01, 2006

Religion and (or versus) Quantification

I recently was watching an interview with a well-known woman novelist (Mary Gordon) on a Bill Moyers show. (He’s been doing pieces on faith and reason.) This woman confessed frustration at being stuck between two worlds: fundamentalism and consumerism. I found her views on consumerism the most interesting part of the interview. {Audio of this essay @ 4.8MB .MP3 5 min}

Essentially, she claimed that she’s tired of everything being boiled down to money, that money was the default, great evaluator of things. Here is a quote from that program:

I think most of what I treasure seems very vulnerable to me right now. And it seems vulnerable to me on several different fronts because I think there are two major narratives in the world, the narrative of fundamentalism and the narrative of consumerism. And I think that what I value is threatened by two opposing forces. One, the fundamentalist force, which wants to censor doubt, censor questioning. And one which wants to make everything about money. And one of the most disturbing phenomena in the world as I experience it now is that everything seems to be about money. What can be commodified, what can be sold. The notion that there's never enough money. That greed seems to be okay. That the value of an artistic or a literary production is how many mega bucks it makes. That the value of a vocation seems to be gone. It's what can you do that would make money.[1]

One might consider the specific example of movies, where a “good” movie was one that broke opening day records, or made the most money that year. On the view she loathes, “good” movies are defined in terms of money, and not character development or plot subtlty. This goes to show that society has lost something important about literature and art. Certainly I can see her point. That the recent movie, “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest” had an opening day take of $55,830,600, and has grossed $419,866,407 hardly means it will be considered important literature in, say, a century. Yes, it was fun. No, it was not important. On other hand, I think the movie “Schindler's List” will be considered important literature, because it captures something dire and significant about the 20th century. Yet its opening weekend was only $656,636.

Against Ms. Gordon’s point, however, is the whole issue of quantification in assessing some of the big themes of life. Consider, for a moment, Economics. The reason that Economics is so interesting is that it functions as a kind of justification for what we claim to know. Money is a well-understood and convenient tracking unit for how people commit to actions or comment on their own pleasures. Granted, not all pleasure is good, where ‘good’ is being used in the moral sense; for, one can buy heroin, for example, which might bring fantastic pleasure, but which is not a good act, either in terms of virtue, or in terms of long-term advantage to the individual user.

Again, money also tracks people’s wants. Consumerism carries within it the view that people buy things they want, and they indicate the depth of their wants by expenditure of money. Different sub-groups will spend their money differently, and this can be correlated with certain commitments to achieve their goals of acquisition (i.e. to obtain their wants). No doubt, Ms. Gordon would say it's not economics that she's worried about, but something else about consumerism.

I suspect there is a problem with Ms. Gordon's complaint -- one which I see in fundamentalists specifically, which is somewhat ironic, given that she is trying to differentiate herself from fundamentalists; but one which I see in religious people generally: A distrust of quantification in matters of faith.

Overall, justification can be had only with some form of objective quantification. But the essence of religion, at least as a social fact, is about what is subjective – about ‘faith’. Religion functions as a kind of escape from quantification (often appearing in the guise as anti-intellectualism, and in recent days as anti-science). Thus, religious people maintain their position with minimal or no justification at all.

Again, I’m being descriptive in the above argument; I’m making a claim about how religious people are regularly found to operate, not how religion has to be. There are very rational people with very good arguments for why they believe what they do in religious matters, but I just wish it were these rational types that most commonly found among the pious.

I've acknowledge that there are very many religious people in the world, but claim that very few are rationally justified. So I find myself wishing that there were less religious people around. However, perhaps I'm airing an unfair complaint. Consider this analogous argument: There are many musicians in the world, but very few worth listening to. Therefore, I wish there were less musicians in the world. In the musician case, my wish is misplaced. What I really wish is that what musicians there are would be worth listening to. Likewise, I suppose what I really wish is that what religious people there are would be more careful in their reasoning about matters of faith. It is difficult, however, since so very many religious people are not careful at all concerning such matters.


[1] "Mary Gordon and Colin McGinn" Bill Moyers on faith & Reason (June 30, 2006)