Make Your Own Doomsday Clock

The completely real and totally scientifilicious Doomsday Clock, which is not at all named in order to incite panic and doesn’t at all try to use numbers to express unmeasurable things like the proper level of fear and desperation we should feel at any given moment, has just been moved 30 – not 27 or 31.3215, but 30 – seconds closer to DOOM. I, myself, have started a project to determine scientifically just exactly how much 30 seconds of more doom is, so that I might start feeling it – Calories of stress eating? Loss of appetite? (it’s hardly a modern scientific theory if it can’t explain how a single cause can cause both an action and its opposite at the same time, after all)

Wow! This is practically the Periodic Table of Panic and Doom! Totally scientific!

A bunch of smart guys, so smart that their expertise extends beyond what they’ve been trained in all the way to recognizing exactly who are, as the website of the project of the Chair of Board of Sponsors  proclaims, “scholars and public intellectuals” whose opinions we lesser mortals need to hear more of, set up this Doomsday Clock thing in order to beat people who are not panicky enough to be easily herded inform the unwashed masses about exactly how much, to the second, they should feel DOOMED.

Exactly 30 seconds more panic is needed due to “The rise of ‘strident nationalism’ worldwide, United States President Donald Trump’s comments over nuclear weapons, and the disbelief in the scientific consensus over climate change by the Trump Administration.” The dispassionate scientific rigor is just dripping off that statement!  I’m sure it’s totally an accident that they used the word ‘disbelief’, because in no way are their efforts a reflection of dogmatic religious fervor. Who would be so gimlet-eyed to suggest that?

This fine, fine effort is the product of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. The Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin is chaired by the director of the Origins Project at Arizona State. The text description makes it sound like really smart people – much smarter than you or me! – are Deeply Concerned. About Everything.

The pictures on the site tell a different story: if one were to suppose the Origins Project is a clever attempt by really smart people (never forget that!) who never got to hang with the cool kids at school to get a chance to hobnob with famous actors and media ‘personalities’ – you know, important and cool people – then one would see nothing to contradict it.

Unless of course Johnny Depp, Cameron Diaz and Hugh Downs really are the Public Intellectuals we need to hear more from. Because, um, I got nothin’. They also give the stage to gender theorist, because wild, unmoored speculation that denies science any role in determining reality based on physically observable and measureable features is JUST LIKE physics and math. Or something. Certainly not political propaganda! Don’t ever suppose that! Other guests include totally not political tool Noam Chomsky, self-appointed moral philosopher and everybody’s favorite poster boy for incoherent Pragmatism let’s-drown-people-like-unwanted-puppies advocate Peter Singer, and fake TV doctor Alan Alda.

There’s even pictures of Dr. Krauss signing autographs! In a completely scientific manner, not at all like his world famous (for nothing that has to do with science) guests. Because it’s completely normal and not at all pandering to narcissistic egotism to stand for autographs after a science lecture – right?  This is the guy in charge of this whole thing, the go to guy for interviews, based on the news reports.

Back to DOOM! As a publicity stunt, it’s genius. As a useful shibboleth to separate the clueless from people with a couple a neurons dedicated to actual thought, it might be useful. As science, it’s partisan propaganda in a lab coat.(1)

You know what? Based on the example given by the people at the Origins Project, it seems anyone can play! It’s not like they’re uniquely qualified in matters moral and political – physics doesn’t help one understand politics any better than, say, bricklaying – probably less, as a bricklayer gets out in the real world regularly. How about:

Death by Red Giant: A real, albeit remote, concern is that the sun is, after all, a main sequence star, which means it burns up it hydrogen and will eventually run out. Long before then, it will swell to red giant size, and burn the earth to a cinder or even maybe burn it away entirely. Current guestimates are that the end is nigh – in about a billion years. There’s your Doomsday Scenario!

Given that the earth is about 4.5 billion years old, that means the earth’s life expectancy is about 5.5 BY. There are 86400 seconds in a day. A little math shows that, therefore, a billion years is about 4.36 hours, if representing the lifetime of the earth as a day:

doomsday-clock-red-giant

 

The advantage here is that any updates to this Doomsday Clock are purely arbitrary – that I could change some assumptions, or decide to measure things a little differently, and thus end up showing more or less time to panic in.

Oh wait – that’s a feature of the original as well. Never mind.

I can think up a million of these, both fanciful and real – death by asteroid, plague, Soviet-style gulags or mass murder (the people lining up to play Lysenko in the reboot are Legion), shark attack (do the numbers: just as it’s *inevitable* that there’s inhabited worlds Out There, it’s also inevitable that you – yes, you! – will die of a shark attack. If you just live long enough.)  Salmonella, tectonic destabilization (that sounds impressive!), starvation due to honey bee extinction, Maybe it will turn out that the antidote for zombie-ism can only be extracted from snail darters! If you want to panic, there’s just no limit!

Gotta stop and post this, or I’ll be off mocking up other clocks until the figurative cows come home.

  1. The chair of the Board of Sponsors of the Bulletin. He’s deeply concerned about population growth. There is exactly the right amount of him, after all. He wants to “empower young women by educating them” and thus stop the runaway population growth that, well, produced him. Speculating about population is, of course, right in the wheelhouse of a dude with a physics and math background. Like another well-know species of tunnel-visioned experts – code monkeys – physics and math guys know EVERYTHING. Amazon.com: Lawrence M. Krauss: Books, Biography, Blog, Audiobooks ...

The Lighter Side of Hard(ish) Truths

Mellows getting harshed right and left today. Well, OK, left, mostly. Seems that dizzying sense that the world is just not as one imagines it is a new sensation to some folks. Are my values, my dreams, my feelings not shared by all good people? Am I not on the Right Side of History? Could I be Wrong? (1) I’m here today to say: it’s worse than that. In no particular order:

  • Organic food is a luxury item, like driving a Porsche. Organic food isn’t better for you. In the lab, it’s indistinguishable from other commercially produced foods. More often than not, pesticides cannot be detected in either case, and, when they can, they’re found as often on the organic stuff as any other food. You may like the taste of organic food (I sometimes do) but that’s no better than somebody spending the money to drive a fancy sportscar – because, face it, they are more fun to drive and let everybody see how cool you are.
  • Further, growing organic food requires up to 5 times as much land and other resources, since pesticides and fertilizers allow much more food per acre to be grown. So – you really want to either a) put vastly more land into production (you know, plow prairies and cut down forests and jungles) or b) kill off a large number of people?
  • Probiotics is a fraud. Not a drop of evidence they do anything for you.
  • If you’re miserable, it’s not because your chakras need adjusting. That it also a fraud. Reiki isn’t going to help – fraud. Acupuncture – placebo. And so on and so forth.
  • Your misery is also not the result of giant mystical forces. History doesn’t have a side.
  • Life is never fair. If you have a computer and are reading this, you are among the .01%, blessed beyond the imaginings of 99% of all people who have ever lived.
  • Electric & hybrid vehicles are also a fraud. If you bought a used Hummer and drove it into the ground, you’d be using fewer resources than if you bought a new Prius or Tesla – because the Hummer is already built, so there’s no factory, no mining (especially no mining of the rare earth metals used in all that ‘green’ crap), no manufacturing overhead – you’re just burning gas. But the Prius and Tesla need to get built and sold, which, in addition to involving factories and resource consumption directly,  would not happen at all if it weren’t for all the economic activity being taxed to subsidize their creation – activities that generate waste and consume resources.  So, while the production and operation of an electric or hybrid car might – *might* – consume less energy and fewer resources than the production and operation of a similar traditional car, it can’t compete with just buying a used car, where the production costs are all sunk already.  Which can’t compete with taking the bus. Or riding a bike. Or walking.
  • There’s a reason why the purveyors of all the above things and services can be found predominantly in Progressive strongholds like Berkeley, San Francisco,  and Boston – that’s where the gullible rubes that buy this crap live in the highest concentrations.

Have a nice day!

  1. OK, just kidding – that’s a bit too far – right and wrong are such a primitive concepts, far beneath the ken of those of high and lonely destinies.

The ACA: Practical Application of the Ends versus Means Issue

To sum up:

As is characteristic of virtually all political decisions, in health care policy, we cannot choose ends. We can only choose means. We are not choosing and cannot choose between Wonderful Affordable Health Care for All (WAHCA) (1) and Misery For All But The Rich. All we can do is chose to support or oppose a particular next step, in this case, continuation or repeal/fundamental modification of the Affordable Care Act.

The ACA is not, in itself, WAHCA. Do not go on until you, dear reader, grasp this. Voting for the ACA was not voting for WAHCA. Passing the ACA did not achieve WAHCA. WAHCA is an *end*. The ACA is a *means*. We all may *hope* that  the ACA results  in better, cheaper health care – but that depends entirely on those pesky details of *how it works in practice*. You know, those details we had to pass the bill to see.

What the ACA is in itself is a giant, complicated law that might (eventually and with extensive modifications – even its proponents, when they’re being serious, admit it doesn’t work as written) achieve better health care, across some theoretical average measure of some definition of health care, than the previous blended free market/state system. Of course, it might not – so far, as the saying goes, there seems to be an awful lot of chips flyin’ but not a lot of wood gettin’ cut.

trolley-prob-basic

And that is all. Support for the ACA doesn’t mean you love poor people more that someone who opposes it. Opposing it doesn’t mean you are an insensitive hater. It doesn’t make one a better person, more moral or more enlightened, to support the ACA. It doesn’t make one a worse person, less moral or less enlightened, to oppose it.

Further, more to the point, to oppose or want extensive modifications to the ACA does NOT EQUAL opposing good health care for all. One can (I do, for one) SUPPORT the idea of good health care for all. Because my background includes extensive math, insurance and business experience, and because of the manifest experience of the City of Chicago, from whose braintrust this bill arose and by whose hands it was formed, I reach the conclusion that the ACA will not achieve the goal of WAHCA, and in fact, was not primarily intended to.

trolley-prob-2Why this is so – why the ACA is extremely unlikely to work, if by work we mean actually provide better, cheaper health care to more people, falls into 3 general categories:

1. Math & Business: as discussed here  and here at length, there is simply not enough profit in health care so that removing it will stop prices from going up. Simply put, the total profits from health care in America – you can look it up, try any stock site – is an order of magnitude less than the cost of  providing healthcare to the +/- 35 million people the ACA is attempting to add. Big Pharma and hospital chains are often very profitable (of course, they often are not – that’s what’s behind all the merger mania. One bad bet on a new drug can put even a big pharmaceutical into the red.)

The simplest way to understand this for the any non-business types: in all service industries – and health care is a service industry – the biggest single ongoing cost is people. Doctors, nurses, technicians as well as all the admin people must get paid. Doctors, nurses and technicians get paid a lot.

And we want it that way! You want the dude with 15 years of schooling and years of practice working on you and your loved ones. Nobody sane is putting in the kind of hours and effort required to be a brain surgeon or trauma nurse to make $50K a year. So pay them!

But – and here’s the thing – after you’ve removed all the profits and cut salaries to all the executives (2), you need to start shutting down facilities and curtailing technology investment OR fire people OR cut salaries drastically. Or – costs and prices go up. It is a fantasy, and an ignorant fantasy at that, to suppose it will work any other way.

2. What we mean by health care and what constitutes an acceptable level 0f health care to be provided to all needs to be defined. That means limited – what a program will or will not pay for. This should not even need to be said, but it clearly has failed to be grasped. Not even the US Government can pay for open-ended health care for everybody. It’s just extremely unpopular to talk about what the program won’t pay for – so nobody talks about it.

Imagine a program where there’s no budget and no specific goal stated – well? If I said, go buy a car. No budget or anything, no limits on what I’ll pay for, just try to be reasonable, OK?  You, being enlightened and fair-minded and all, might get a good solid Toyota, possibly a Prius. What happens when your next-door neighbor shows up in a Tesla? How do you feel? And the neighbor on the other side shows up in a Ferrari? Hey, maybe 9 out of 10 people would get a Ford on the honor system (doubtful), but – you trust everybody?

It works the same for health care. We all know people who do this – patients will demand an MRI for every sprained ankle, antibiotics for every flu symptom, the latest and greatest treatment regime even in cases where there’s no measurable benefit. Further, a lot of doctors want to be on the cutting edge. They want the greatest toys, even if the 2nd greatest toys provide 99.5% of the benefit at a fraction of the cost. Hospital administrators want to say they offer all the latest and greatest tech. People who sell tech want to convince everybody their new model is the best, way better than last year’s model.  And everybody whose neighbor got the cool stuff they didn’t get will feel cheated.

And so on, people being people. Not everybody, not always, but enough to keep the spiral – the one we’re living in – going.(3)

So, stuff gets rationed. Behind closed doors, it is happening now. Rationed health care is a ubiquitous feature of all socialized medicine, even though it is rarely advertised as such (4). Say you need a procedure that is unusual, or has a low success rate, or is just super-expensive. I know a man who was pushing 70 and had some unusual, hard to diagnose heart problems. He was sent to specialists and got tests and, a year and about $1M in medical care later, he’s doing OK. So: do you want to spend the cost of a year’s healthcare to a 1,000 healthy young people on one old man?  Yes? No?

The reality is that something like 95% of the benefits of health care can be had for less than half of the total expenditures. All those vaccinations, pre-natal care, well-baby stuff, routine problems like infections and even broken bones – these are not expensive problems except in very rare cases. Any health care program worthy of the name should cover all these things – no one will dispute this.

Everybody knows young people who rarely if ever get sick. Yet everybody also knows old people who spend the last decade of their lives in and out of hospitals or under expensive treatment regimes. And most people have one or two acquaintances who seem to have lost the genetic lottery or gotten otherwise unlucky, who are never well and under constant medical care.

How do we handle this? Never said it was going to be easy, but failure to face it head-on just means surrendering the decision to doctors and insurance company functionaries (and bank accounts) in a free market system, or to bureaucrats (and bank accounts) under socialized medicine. In London – I’ve seen this myself – there are entire neighborhoods full of private doctors, who charge a pretty penny for their services. They exist even though health care is free for everybody in England. Free doesn’t mean you’ll get everything you need when you need it.

So, the first feature in any viable national health plan I’m looking for is how things will get rationed, and what will NOT be covered. None of the advocates of the ACA have ever made it a point to discuss this anywhere I’ve seen.

trolley-prob-3

3. That Toddlin’ Town. This objection is more controversial, but it shouldn’t be. It is amazing to me that more is not made of the fact that the outgoing administration is of, by and for the people of Chicago. Quick recap: Chicago has the highest paid teachers in America – and some of the worst schools. They have among the most restrictive gun control laws (there’s not a single legitimate gun shop in the city) – and a sickening level of gun violence. They have had among America’s most enlightened Liberal governments for over a century – and a legendary level of corruption, including the open secret that the city was run by the Mob up until about 1991, and many of the people who gained power then are still in power now.

There’s no such thing as a fair election in Chicago, and hasn’t been for over a century. ‘Reformers’ have a habit of ending up behind bars; judges have a habit of throwing out cases against the politically connected.(5)  Dead people vote; live people who vote wrong have their ballot boxes thrown in the river.

Chicago is one of my favorite towns to visit. Michigan Avenue and Millennium Park are beautiful and fun, and the whole Loop area is invigorating. But I’ve also been down to the University of Chicago – and you just don’t walk around in that neighborhood. It’s more segregated than than any place down south I’ve ever seen, more along rich/connected versus poor/useful victims lines than race, strictly speaking. America looks more like Chicago now than it did 8 years ago.

Thus, when we are told we need to pass the ACA in order to see what’s in it, a sane person would object. When we are told that we can keep our plan if we like our plan – a bald-faced lie, evident even at the time – we should suspect something is up. And when the cost savings and universal enrollment don’t occur, but the power grab and massive bureaucracy do, we should wonder what the real point of the law was.

So, while I see serious problems – fatal flaws, in my view – on more technical business, math and design aspects of the law, I also suspect that the prime goal of the bill was always the centralization of power – the perennial issue for all kings, mobs and mafias. That, the ACA made huge strides toward achieving.

So, start over from scratch or, if necessary, amend the living heck out of the ACA. It’s just a dumb law, not some virtue shibboleth. And I care about poor people as much as you do.

  1. Acronym under development – this is a prototype. Tried Wonderful Healthcare for Everybody at Very Little Cost (WHEVLC) – and even its mother couldn’t love that. WAHCA can be said with an exclamation point – WAHCA! – which gives it a little of that je ne sais quoi  joie de vie Continental action, there.
  2. Under the repeatedly and continuously disproven Marxist theory that beneficial activities happen by magic and that anybody sincere and enlightened enough can run a business operation as well as the capitalist dog who now has the job.
  3. In a free market, the desire to stay in business and make some money counteract this to some extent, and will put people out of business if it gets too crazy. Evil, evil profits doing a good thing – don’t tell anybody!
  4. Often wondered: if rationing health care by who can pay for it is such a monstrous evil, why is rationing health care by what some bureaucrat somewhere thinks is important OK? It amounts to the same thing: Daddy Warbucks gets the unusual treatment when he wants it by paying for it; Polly Poorperson dies after waiting in the queue for months for the same treatment, because somebody decided somewhere that her disease was too unusual or expensive or her fault or offers too little benefit for the buck, so treatment for it are just not available. Talk to some English people if you don’t believe me – routine, cheap stuff is readily available to everybody! Woohoo! Just don’t get something rare or expensive unless you can pay for it.
  5. The last made man to run Chicago was Fred Roti, arrested by the FBI in 1991, whose father was Bruno “the Bomber” Roti – a man who killed people for the Mob, when not getting government jobs for his many children, including Fred. Before then, it was somebody named Capone and his buddies. While the Mob seems to have gone into Cosimo Medici mode – you know, run everything but lay low – for the time being, it is too much to expect a century plus of bad habit to be changed by one coddled community organizer – assuming he’d even want to turn on the people who got him elected in the first place.  Instead, he brought them with him to the white House, and let them run things.

Thinking as a Full-Contact Sport

Used to think the greatest value of a St. John’s Great Books education lay in reading all those old guys and thus being saved from chronological snobbery. Now, however, it’s clear that the greatest value is having the experience of carrying on serious, sometimes heated but almost always civil conversations with people who vehemently disagree with you. This seems to be a lost art. At St. John’s, one would daily exchange criticisms and witticisms with people who truly loved Plato and Aristotle, the Bible and Euclid – and people who hated those same things. There were real, live Marxists and Freudians – and people who despised everything Marx and Freud stood for. And so on, down the reading list. And day after day, for four years, those were the people you were in class with, eating lunch with, dancing with – and trying to figure out grown-up books with (often – hey, we read Marx)  grown-up ideas in them.

The students, even back in 1976 when I started, were almost entirely of the unconscious herd. Few had any idea what we were assuming about the world, and so many political and cultural issues were just so *obvious* to us that challenges were more baffling than threatening. Except that I had been raised Catholic, and thus was familiar with the idea that decent people could be completely wrong, I was no different.

Students then and now, and probably always, are to a large extent sheep. Me included. There were also, however, professors, called tutors. Their job description is to be the best student in the class. That meant they didn’t get to lecture, taught by example how to carry on a respectful argument, and, very occasionally, jumped in when things were getting out of hand. Many – most, even – truly seemed to believe that a right conclusion reached through poor thinking was not an entirely good thing, and that a wrong conclusion reached with honesty and vigor was to be respected, and the holder of such a well thought out yet wrong opinion held in esteem, even.

By senior year, almost all of the students completely got the whole art of serious discussion of serious ideas, and could act as tutors in the St. John’s sense. That was the almost the whole point of the education, it now seems to me.

Now, at St. John’s, respect and esteem were expressed most perfectly in going after the holder of well-thought-out-yet-wrong ideas hammer and tong. Have at it! That was the whole point! One or both of you might change your minds, and, at the very least, gain some clarity – a very good thing.

Thus, two of the tutors I loved and respected the most were holders of some terrible ideas, a state more evident now to my currently aged mind than I was aware of at the time. But they were good guys, willing to go at it, and treated us 18 year old air-headed naifs as if our ideas were worth listening to- a thing not at all easy .

Don’t know if this state of respectful intellectual warfare was ever the norm in academia here in America, but it seems one must attend one of a few tiny, fringe schools to get it today. This is a major tragedy, with major repercussions. The infantile assumption, almost universally made, is that one’s political opponents are gullible rubes if not out-and-out evil, and that their failure to see things my way, even after I explain it to them, is incomprehensible without the assumption that they are either hopelessly stupid and evil.

If unchecked, these attitudes lead with the inexorable force of gravity to gulags and death camps. St. Louis’s perhaps apocryphal rule for dealing with barbarians – you either reason with them, or run them through with the sword – should, properly understood, strongly incline us to reason with them, if for no other reason than that they are unlikely for long to let us run them through with the sword without spirited resistance. We must learn to argue with anyone who is willing to argue, which is, sadly, a small and dwindling crowd.

We wrap this up with a couple quotations:

It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.

– Aristotle

And one of my favorite John Taylor Gatto quotations, wherein he recounts his experience having a Jesuit (back in the 1930s, when most Jesuits were still giants)  teach his third-grade class about manipulation:

At the age of eight, while public school children were reading stories about talking animals, we had been escorted to the eggshell-thin foundation upon which authoritarian vanity rests and asked to inspect it.There are many reasons to lie to children, the Jesuit said, and these seem to be good reasons to older men. Some truth you will know by divine intuition, he told us, but for the rest you must learn what tests to apply. Even then be cautious. It is not hard to fool human intelligence.

Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect: Preach It, Brother!

This morning, at the end of a staff meeting, a couple coworkers and friends began discussing a fire that had partially destroyed a couple buildings at the First Congregational Church in Berkeley over the weekend. One of my friends is a long-time member of that congregation, so condolences were in order.

He was annoyed that the news kept calling it the ‘First Congressional Church’. (1) Couldn’t they, the reporters, learn just a little church history? (2) As if reporters ever bothered to learn anything! (3)   The unfortunate burning of a church building did, however, present a Teachable Moment.(4)

I opined that, when it comes to religion, reporters can be counted on to get it wrong about 99% of the time, and mentioned Deacon Kandra , (who used to be here with more press criticism), who worked in the media for decades, and made a major hobby  out of pointing out the pervasive and suspiciously willful-looking ignorance of our 4th estate when it came to matters of religion. It’s almost like they don’t want to get it right!

Anyway, got a chance to mention the Gell-Mann Amnesia Effect, in reference to a clear and present case – a church fire, wherein the press took a couple days to get the name of the church right – a name easily available on the internet, or, wow, even on the signs marking the property they reporting from in front of. I trusted completely without any further evidence, that my friend knew details about the fire that the press had also gotten wrong, in their more general way of just sloppiness and on-the-spot data selection story-fitting.(5)

So, made Michael Crichton’s point: if the news can’t get simple facts about a church fire correct, how could you possibly trust them to give accurate information about the economy, or the Middle East, or Congress, or the energy sector? Much more complex things that require much greater expertise to really understand? The answer is that of course you cannot. We decided you can pretty much trust them to get sports scores correct, probably because there are 100,000,000 or so people who would leap in to correct them if they were wrong. (6)  But when the media tells you Congress is bogged down over issues x, y, and z, or that the Israelis are blowing up Palestinian civilians for utterly inscrutable reasons a, b, and c, or that China’s human rights record is improving while North Carolina’s has regressed to intolerable – maybe, just maybe, they have no idea what they’re talking about. But since that shampoo and beer aren’t going to sell themselves, they got to say something, the more soothingly in line with the existing prejudices or story lines, the better.

Shall we fight mis- and dis-information? Or shall we roll over and resume our dogmatic slumber? The smart money and the earnest hopes of the heart are at odds here.

  1. Within a day or two, to give proper credit, the media had gotten the name right, at least.
  2. Reporters? How about anybody at all? It’s not just Sunnis and Shiites that people can’t tell apart – Congregationalists and Presbyterians, for one example among many, are equally indistinguishable. Of course, now days, are they distinguishable in any practicals sense? Muslims, at least, bring their theological differences to the front of the stage by periodically trying to kill each other over them. The unformed doughy mass of American protestants, not so much, any more, at least. From a law-and-order POV, this is doubtless an improvement. But for theological clarity (which the Congregationalists, it must be acknowledged, disdain – for theological reasons) the current truce by appeasement between Protestants is not helping.
  3. Not you, the reporter reading this, of course – the other guy.
  4. See how condescending and insulting that sounds when said of an adult? Why is it any better when said about a child?
  5. The fire, according to my friend, almost certainly resulted from something workers readying the roof for solar panel installation did. This taking place in Berkeley, I’m having uncharitable thoughts about virtue-signally getting its revenge. But we will fight manfully to suppress such thoughts, unless it turns out a couple Prius and a Chevy Volt, driven there for a meeting of a committee to divest church funds from evil petroleum companies, were also destroyed – then, I’m going to allow myself a venial chuckle before getting back to sympathizing with the folks whose old church buildings get burned down.
  6. This might change, if there ever where major political points to be scored based on who did and did not win this or that game.

A Whirlwind Tour of Christian Rationality by John C. Wright

In his inimitable style, Mr. Wright sums up the arguments against the proposition that, while Atheism is utterly rational, belief in Christianity is irrational in all respects. In the course of doing so, he produces a syllabus of philosophical errors tracing back to Descartes.

Mr. Wright begins with something he (and I and, frankly, anyone who tries to make a purely rational point in this woeful age) always run up against: the near total inability of a modern person to follow an argument. Education only increases density, until the typical PhD is diamond-hard in his resistance to reason, while you might have some luck with a first grader. It is both insightful and entertaining. He then compares the rationality – not the truth, but merely how rational they are – of the positions of atheists and Christians.

Keeping with my strategy of being as lightly read in as many places as possible, I paste here my long comment from there:

One other thing, to pile on a bit: another thing people don’t get (likely because it is studiously avoided in everything they’ll ever hear or read) is how the Perennial Philosophy came to be discredited. Luther and Calvin both waged war against human reason (Luther’s criticisms are legendary (and legendarily scattological) “Reason is the Devil’s greatest whore” and so on, Calvin is more subtle, as in making reason a competitor with the Spirit, as it were, in the proper understanding of Scripture). They were competing against the Scholastics, who famously trusted reason as a gift from God that tended by its nature to move the reasoner toward Him, staffed and founded Universities all over Europe, and educated all the key players in both the Medieval industrial revolution and the birth of Science.

In 1630, Descartes comes along with his radical skepticism, and all Hell breaks loose with Hume, Kant, etc. Descartes proved a good stick with which to beat the Scholastics. One of the peculiarities from that time on: nobody even talks about the Thomists, except to dismissively wave them off. It’s like how the Enlightenment slandered the great cathedrals as ‘gothic’ – i.e., barbaric – when they themselves could produce nothing nearly as original and beautiful.

On marches science, using the logic of Aristotle by way of the medieval Questions method + gadgets and math. Meanwhile, Kant finally runs radical skepticism to ground, or perhaps into the ground – dead end. Hegel then reanimate Calvin’s corpse, declaring that reason (as understood by everyone prior to him with the possible exception of Fichte) is for the little people, that real philosophers just get stuff unfolded to them by the Spirit in History. Finally, a philosophy that makes sense out of Calvin and Luther – they’re not reasonable, but they’re not supposed to be! They are instead on the right side of History, where the Spirit unfolds, where you just have to be right.

Somewhere in here, science decides it’s all about making practical discoveries (see Boyle’s listhttp://tiny.cc/8n5yey h/t to TOF) and basically lobotomizes itself to get rid of all that pesky philosophy that doesn’t help further that goal (more or less). Science and philosophy march more or less side by side, but more and more aren’t on speaking terms. A century and a half later, Von Humboldt invents the research university in Prussia: practical research (and the birth of publish or perish) over here, other stuff over there.

Meanwhile, the Puritans come to America to escape religious freedom – they are very sure they have a handle on the best way to live, and want anybody under their jurisdiction to live that way – and establish Harvard and staff it with people from Cambridge even the English Protestants at the time thought a bit much. The model of the American University is established: the place where we train the people who will make other people conform to our ideals. While those ideals sure changed – from Calvinist Puritanism (see the connection? Way ahead of me…) to Unitarianism to secular humanism all within a few generations – the belief that the University’s mission is to teach the one best way everything should be and enforce it on everybody else did not change.

So Harvard, and, through its role as intellectual disease vector, all other American universities, knows that what it wants is right, not by reason – that would play into the hands of the Thomists, even though their very existence is whistled past – but, as Calvin might say, vouchsafed by the Spirit – the Spirit of History, of the age, the Spirit of Progress.

Thus you, and anyone educated in the Universities, if he is so unfortunate as to take philosophy, will hear plenty about Descartes, Hume, Kant, Hegel, Marx and on through the current schools (last count: 1,476) of Analytic Philosophy but will hear nothing of A-T (Aristotelian-Thomistic) Philosophy except to have it dismissed. The truly enlightened are not subject to reason, which is, after all, a construct of the white male patriarchy meant only to oppress this week’s designated oppressed group – reason is for the little people. You know, the people who use reason to build the power plants that supply the lighting in the room where Woman’s Studies majors fire up their laptops to send emails about how oppressed they are.

But I digress.

The Statistician to the Stars: Philosophy Primer

Am I finishing up some of the numerous drafts clogging my drafts folder, drafts that seemed urgent or at least interesting only days (or, well, maybe months) ago, and posting them, as a good, tidy blogger ought? No, I am not. Instead, what little attention and focus I possess turns to yet another shiny object: this wonderful interview of Dr. Briggs at The Ordeal of Consciousness. (1)

As is so often and delightfully the case,  whatever discussion Dr. Briggs touches turns to philosophy, and more often than not, complicated things are expressed in understandable ways. For example, a critical set of distinctions is made here in a way just about anyone can understand:

WMB: It’s a minor abuse of words to say there are ontological truths. All it means is existence: something is “ontologically true” if it exists, otherwise it is “ontologically false.” This abuse was necessary to show how what exists (or not) differs from our knowledge of what exists. Epistemology is not ontology. Mixing up the two is one of the main causes of over-certainty, especially in quantum mechanics (QM) and in the Deadly Sin of Reification, which is exactly the error of supposing a conditional epistemological truth is ontic.

An epistemological truth is simply a proposition we know is true given some list of premises. It is purely a matter of knowledge, of our thoughts. For instance, we can know (my favorite example) “George wears a hat” is true if we accept “All Martians wear hats and George is a Martian”. But there are no hat-wearing Martians. The proposition is conditionally true, epistemologically, but ontologically false.

In QM, and in so-called frequentist theory of probability, people suppose probability is ontic, that it is real, or that it ontologically exists. Probability is no different than charge or mass. If that’s so, we should be able to extract or measure probability as we do charge or mass. We should be able to go to the probability store and buy a bucket of it. That people think probability is ontologically true leads to all sorts of conundrums and paradoxes. And, as always, over-certainty.

DB: How did we come to mix up ontology with epistemology such that the latter is confused with the former? Do you see this arising with the medieval nominalists, or largely with Descartes’s Cogito, or some other position, say, radical skepticism? Or is the cause more prosaic?

WMB: Nominalism is a great sin. For nominalists, all that exists are individual things. Ontology is everything to the nominalist, and epistemology nothing. You might go to a car dealer and kick the tires of the “automobiles” on the lot, but the nominalist must say there really is no such universal thing as an “automobile.” There only exist chunks of metal on wheels. Only there can’t be metal or wheels, either, for the strict nominalist, for “metal” and “wheels” express the idea of universals, and universals don’t exist for the nominalist.  This is why there are no real-life strict nominalists; there are only people who claim to hold the theory.

Further, nominalists can’t do experiments. You might want to study cancer in rats. Well, that requires defining the universals “cancer” and “rats”. Those definitions must be grounded somewhere in reality; else, the researcher could never get started. Nominalism is always self-refuting. The opposite error is Idealism, which says that which exists is dependent on our minds. Our thoughts are reality, somehow. Idealism is popular with bizarre, Depak Chopra-like interpretations of QM. Our “minds” cause wave-functions to “collapse”.

There are more nominalists these days then idealists, though these things wax and wane.  The alternative is called Realism, which has various forms, but put simply, it asserts universals exists, and that a world outside our minds exists. Realism, of course, accords with common sense.

So, when you hear a modern Analytic Philosopher claim to be an ‘Antirealist’ what he is doing is trying (desperately and futilely) to NOT be an Idealist nor a Nominalist, BUT, somehow, also not take a bite out of the apple held by Aristotle and Thomas. No, no, no! Must not admit that Science is Aristotle’s Logic as employed under the Scholastic Questions Method + cool gadgets & math. Then one might have to admit that it’s not Philosophy per se that has lost its way, but only philosophy since the Reformation and Descartes.

I cannot think of a single philosophical concept actually required to do real science – investigate the observable, measurable characteristics of the physical world – that has been produced since Thomas.(2)  Yet the Realist view – that a world exists apart from our conceptions of it, accessible through our senses, and understandable through our though processes – is that without which science is impossible.

The analytic philosopher views this antirealist approach as meet modesty in the face of a world best (or only) known through science, avoiding the hubris that is assumed to exist in the more traditional views. Could be cowardice – Thomists don’t get to sit at the cool kids’ table. (3) Could be that they don’t like logic as much as they claim to, when it leads where they would not follow.

Anyway, read the whole thing – not only good for you (and me!) but also fun. Then see Dr. Briggs’ questions he would have liked to have been asked. 

  1. In some odd way, the names “Yard Sale of the Mind” and “The Ordeal of Consciousness” seem mathematically or perhaps metaphysically equivalent. Not the blogs themselves – TOoC looks like a very good blog with, at the very least, higher standards and greater erudition (ha!) than mine – just the names.
  2. Infinitesimals, maybe? That bit of math was certainly a challenge to the philosophers contemporary to Newton and Leibnitz. I’m drawing a blank otherwise…
  3. Neither do modern philosophers – real scientists hold them in utter contempt – but they can pretend not to notice. Maybe they get on faculty committees, whereby they can make people treat them with, if not respect, at least with a certain proper fear – the fear that adheres to those who can work a bureaucracy. There’s even pathetically small hope of that.