A deplorable comedian

Not that it’s anything to be terribly proud of, but I’d always assumed that stand-up comedy was created and owned by Jews like the rest of American entertainment.  Via the indispensible Unz Review, I now learn that it comes to us from an Irish Catholic anti-communist and anti-semite.

On junk scientific journals

I’m annoyed by the junk email they send me so regularly, so I certainly would be happy for them to go.  Science would probably be better off with fewer papers in fewer journals.  Imagine if promotion and grant decisions ignored quantity–let years go by without publishing if you have nothing really interesting to report–in favor of having an occasional well-cited article in one of the most prestigious journals.  I don’t know if it would work, but it’s worth considering.

At The Walrus, Alex Gillis writes about the peril of disreputable academic journals that will publish anything.  He’s honest enough to admit the prominence of Indian conmen.  And that the established journals have been fleecing academia with enormous bills for work other academics (authors and referees) provided the journal for free.  However, even before reading the article, I thought to myself “this is going to turn out to be about policing the climate change and vaccine consensus”.  Sure enough.  What is it with scientists these days?

Putting that aside, it is unfair if some academics are getting raises and grants by padding their CVs with the help of articles in fake journals and presentations to fake conferences.  I can’t imagine that working in physics.

There is a running concern, “What if this spoils the credibility of science?  What if people decide they can’t trust peer-reviewed articles?”  Would that be bad?  Where did anyone get the idea that articles should be trusted just because they’re peer-reviewed, that they therefore “speak for science”?  Reviewers don’t replicate experiments or even calculations.  As I tell my introductory astronomy students, science has no authority per se.  There is no unitary being called “science” that can bring the plenitude of its authority onto any given question.  Each scientific claim stands alone on its own evidence.  That’s how science is supposed to work.  If scientists have credibility, we’d probably be better off without it.

book review: The Philosophy of Space and Time

The Philosophy of Space and Time
by Hans Reichenbach (German: 1927, English: 1958)

pseudo-problems arise if we look for truth where definitions are needed.

–pp. 15

This is the classic work on its subject, but I have only now read it, having fortuitously come across a used copy in Bruised Books in Pullman.  I come to this book late, deterred by the prejudice in my field that books on general relativity written before the 70s are boring and obsessed with transformation rules, but I wish I hadn’t waited so long, because it is a masterpiece.

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peculiar distress over the existence of skeptics

Last year, I began a weekly lunch for all the faculty and graduate students in the department working in astronomy-related fields.  Originally, the plan had been to talk about astronomy news, but it quickly became a social hour–which I think is ultimately better for the health of our graduate program than having students sit through another seminar.  Anyway, I was surprised how often people, especially students, wanted to share stories about an obscure group of whom I had previously never heard, called the “flat-Earthers”.  This group apparently denies that the Earth is round and embraces many other odd beliefs to deflect evidence against their core idiosyncrasy.  Now, I can see such an odd group being the matter of merriment once or twice, but as the topic kept coming up, I started to feel oddly uncomfortable.  Why should that be?  After all, I don’t think the Earth is flat.  They’re not laughing at me.  I think I know now why it bothered me.

The elite seem increasingly bothered by ever smaller groups of skeptics:  “flat-Earthers”, “anti-vaxers”, “climate change deniers”, “Holocaust deniers”.  One might speculate that, with the rise of social media, we are only now learning to our horror what lots of people actually believe.  I don’t think that’s it.  It seems more likely that we are becoming increasingly intolerant of dissent.  After all, the flat-Earther isn’t just wrong like our many undergraduates with incorrect ideas about the causes of the seasons and moon phases.  Unlike them, he knows the scientific consensus and defies it.

The public is being trained to despise all such dissenters.

There was always some of that.  In my youth, the object of scorn was “Creationism”, but that was clearly related to 20th century atheist polemics and was justified by concerns about creationists manipulating school curricula.  Dissent itself was not considered sufficiently provocative.  In college, I subscribed to The Skeptical Inquirer, which took upon itself to debunk UFO sightings, astrology, mediums contacting the dead, and the like.  The writers vividly knew that this was unglamorous, unappreciated work in the cause of science, but somebody had to protect the public from flim-flam artists.  Now it seems as if crushing dissent is seen as one of the main purposes of being a scientist or a reporter.

“Global warming deniers” are a scapegoat.  No one will accept the sacrifices needed to sufficiently reduce carbon emissions.  “Deniers” have nothing to do with this, but hunting them down is something we can cheaply do.  Magical thinking.  Global warming is the opposite of fairies:  it’s supposed to magically go away when everyone starts believing in it.

If denial is such a sin, we are owed a precise numerical cutoff for a climate sensitivity parameter–the lowest one is allowed to believe the parameter is without being a denier.

Couldn’t it be that benefits outweigh risks for some vaccines but not others?  Why require a blanket attitude toward them all?

Skeptics are usually more nuanced than they are given credit for.  Most people called “Creationists” don’t think the Earth was created in 6 days.  Every “denier” I’ve read acknowledges that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, that humans have some effect on climate, that many Jews died in German captivity, and so forth.

At one time, there was unreasonable horror that some people were questioning whether AIDS is really caused by the HIV virus.  Did that go away because of evidence or suppression?  Now I wonder…

I’m in favor of censorship, but as with all laws, I prefer that such laws be clear and only be promulgated and enforced by appropriate authorities.  What precisely are we required to believe?

The precariousness of grace

The following story was told as true.  An Irish woman who had just been at confession met on the steps of the chapel the other woman who was her greatest enemy in the village.  The other women let fly a torrent of abuse.  “Isn’t it a shame for ye”, replied Biddy, “to be talking to me like that, ye coward, and me in a state of Grace the way I can’t answer ye?  But you wait.  I won’t be in a state of Grace for long.”

— C. S. Lewis (from “A Slip of the Tongue” in The Weight of Glory)

in defense of gerrymandering and quotas

all should take some share in the government: for this form of constitution ensures peace among the people, commends itself to all, and is most enduring, as stated in Polit. ii, 6.   — Thomas Aquinas

Democracy is an awful way to reach decisions, but having a democratic element in one’s state is useful for neutralizing dissent.  As I see it, the purpose of the House of Representatives is not to be an effective governing body, but to give every faction the illusion that it is represented in the government and that its concerns have a voice therein.  This will sometimes require creative drawing of district boundaries for the benefit of opinionated minorities.

Diversity is a curse, and anti-white bigotry is loathsome, but racial minority quotas are a good idea.  That is, given that the wider society is cursed with diversity, it is best for the elite professions to have it do.  If you must have diversity, at least quotas allow you to pick the best candidate of each required group; you can optimize within constraints.  And it’s useful to have all factions and ethno-cultural interests represented among the keepers of the authoritative consensus, e.g. academia.  I’ve said before that the sciences becoming more monolithically liberal is damaging their credibility with other political groups.  In fact, there are many areas of solid consensus, but people reasonably are more willing to trust those who share their commitments while having expertise they lack.  Similar things could be said with regard to all groups–racial, religious, or political–and all disciplines.  To be credible, these representatives must be not only members of their groups but clearly loyal to them as well.  We would all be more comfortable accepting a consensus that such a truly diverse group would write off on.  The university needs lots more monarchists and fascists to go with its blacks and hispanics.

Book review: The Fragmentation of Being

The Fragmentation of Being
by Kris McDaniel (2017)

McDaniel is a contemporary philosopher versed in his field’s arts of analytical hair-splitting who has taken upon himself to resurrect the scholastic doctrine of the analogy of being.  Substances, properties, events, abstractions, possible beings, and propositions clearly don’t all exist in the same way, but calling their different manners of existence by the same word “existence” is equally clearly no mere equivocation.

Being is only one possible instance of analogy.  In general, suppose we have a case of property X that extends across classes A, B, C.  Under what circumstances does X apply analogously (as opposed to univocally) to A vs B vs C?  McDaniel would say that in this case, there are more fundamentally three properties X_A, X_B, and X_C.  Of course, one could for any X just define X_A to be the property of X AND being an A, but for analogous properties, X_A is supposed to be more primitive, so it is preferable to say X = X_A OR X_B OR X_C is the derived property.  McDaniel sometimes formulates this in terms or restricted quantifiers, which I didn’t think really adds any clarity.  More helpfully, he suggests tests for recognizing metaphysical analogy.  For example, an analogous property or relation may require different numbers of terms to be fully specified (“saturated”).  Thus, for concrete objects–but not abstractions–existence might be relative to spacetime region, and for accidents–but not substances–existence is always inherence in a subject.

One way that McDaniel argues for the legitimacy of an analogy of being, and especially related ideas such as degrees or levels of being, is to show that contemporary philosophers are already implicitly using these ideas when they make claims about something being more fundamental or natural than something else, or about something grounding something else.  Armed with gradations of being, he returns to the question of the reality of persons/selves without requiring an all-or-nothing answer.  McDaniel would like to believe that we exist in the most fundamental sense but admits that the question remains open.

The final chapter, on being and essence, has some interesting discussion of the ontological argument.  Interpreting a being’s essence being identical with its existence (as they are said by various philosophers to be for God or Dasein) with its essence being identical with its way of being, McDaniel finds nothing unintelligible in the possibility, although by thus moving “existence” from the act to something more on the essence side, such an identification will not suffice for an ontological argument for the thing’s existence.  He also makes some points about the possibility of objects having existence claims in their essence.  Clearly, we should not be able to create necessary beings by tacking on “existing” to objects’ essential descriptions.

McDaniel is more interested in recommending the analogy of being broadly conceived than in any specific version of it, so he presents many versions without endorsing any.  In fact, much of the book consists of thinking through the consequences of various metaphysical options, in the end not clearly endorsing any.  I find this a lot in contemporary philosophers.  On the one hand, there is something admirably humble about not pretending to say the last word on any topic.  On the other hand, after a while it leaves me frustrated and despairing of anyone ever reaching any conclusions.

Book review: What makes time special?

What makes time special?
by Craig Callender (2017)

This book was a joy to read.  Its question can be formulated as follows.  All peoples share a conceptualization of time (as distinguished from our direct sensory experience) that Callender calls “manifest time”–of time “flowing” with a special time “now”, etc.  None of these features appear in physics–Aristotelian, Newtonian, relativistic, or quantum–so where does our sense of manifest time come from?  This question is broken down into parts.

  1. Since “now” would be a special spacelike hypersurface of spacetime, it is established that the laws of physics do not justify singling out any particular foliation of spacetime.  This might seem obvious, but Callender wants to show that proposals to inject features of manifest time into physics fail in their goal.  One example is causal set theory.  Callender argues against the theory’s own founder–and I found the argument entirely convincing–that the flowing now in causal set theory is a gauge freedom with no physical significance.  Callender actually gives slightly  more credit that I do to arguments from quantum nonlocality.  He does show that there is only an issue here if one adopts the Copenhagen interpretation and insist within it that there must be some some fact of the matter about which of two spacelike observesrs collapses a wavefunction.  I would not be inclined to grant either premiss.  Even if one does and makes of it an argument for Lorentz’s interpretation of relativity as opposed to Einstein’s, Callender makes an important point.  Lorentz’s preferred frame is completely unobservable and so can’t have anything to do with our experience of time.
  2. Physics does indeed give a reason to favor foliations of spacetime into spacelike hypersurfaces, a reason of “narrative”:  the world is more intelligible when cut up this way.  From other hypersurfaces (e.g. a plane extending in t, y, and z representing a “moment” of x), one could constrain the rest of spacetime, but only spacelike hypersurfaces provide initial data for a well-posed Cauchy problem:  the data on the initial slice is unconstrained, and the subsequent (and past) evolution is a continuous function of the initial data.  Ultimately, this comes down to the spacetime metric, which I would say expresses the causal structure of spacetime.  Callender mostly agrees, but his empiricism sometimes leads him to formulate things in (what seems to me) odd ways–that what’s real is observable events, which data can be compressed by fundamental laws of physics which happen to be hyperbolic equations with the same characteristic speeds, which makes it handy to speak of a causal structure of spacetime.
  3. The explanation of manifest time must therefore be sought in human psychology.  There is a brief discursion into the argument over indexicals which all philosophy of time works address:  that our statements no more prove that there is metaphysically privileged “now” than that there is a privileged “here” or “me”.  I am skeptical of attempts to tease out metaphysics from grammar, but since it keeps coming up, I guess Callender had to address it.  More substantially, Callender argues against the intuitive belief that we have a direct experience of the present.  We are used to similar arguments from empiricists, e.g. “I have no particular experience of myself; therefore selves don’t exist.”  This argument isn’t quite that bad.  Callender has already given independent arguments that the now of manifest time is an illusion, so all he needs to do here is neutralize the counter-argument that we directly experience this putatively non-existent thing.  One might wonder (although the book doesn’t do so explicitly) if “now” is like the self in that, while not directly experienced, it must be posited to explain a perceived unity of experiences.  In fact, what is needed for this is just an experience of simultaneity, which seems to me rather unthreatening from a physicist’s point of view.  Nevertheless, Callender recounts experiments showing a degree of haziness in perceived simultaneity.  Some of it is interesting–I learned that we process sound faster than sight and that it’s possible to recognize that two stimuli are slightly non-simultaneous without being able to say which came first–but I don’t think it’s necessary for the main argument, which doesn’t hinge on how sharp our sense of simultaneity is.  There follows discussions of IGUS and evolutionary pressures to explain our experience of motion and greater concern over future vs. past pains.  In some ways, this is the most important part of the book, because it is here that manifest time is supposed to actually appear, but given my lack of interest in psychology I didn’t give it as much attention as the rest of the book.

Callender concludes with a criticism of what he sees as the philosophy of time’s disengagement from science and retreat into metaphysics.  In some ways, this complements my criticism of neo-Thomism’s retreat into metaphysics, but Callender drives home a point specific to the philosophy of time.  The point of this branch of philosophy is to explain our experience of time, but it is hard to see how metaphysical constructs that leave no trace on physics could be much use to phenomenology.  For example, even if there is an unobservable preferred frame, how could this have anything to do with how we experience time?

Now THAT’S survival optimization

Laurent Guyenot at The Unz Review writes

The American rabbi Harry Waton had a theory to explain the organic unity, persistence and progress of the Jews. He wrote in his Program for the Jews, published in 1939: “Hebrew religion, in fact, was intensely materialistic and it is precisely this that gave it persistent and effective reality.”

“Jehovah differs from all other gods. All other gods dwell in heaven. For this reason, all other religions are concerned about heaven, and they promise all reward in heaven after death. For this reason, all other religions negate the earth and the material world and are indifferent to the well-being and progress of mankind on this earth. But Jehovah comes down from heaven to dwell on this earth and to embody himself in mankind. For this reason, Judaism concerns itself only about this earth and promises all reward right here on this earth.”

“The Jews that have a deeper understanding of Judaism know that the only immortality there is for the Jew is the immortality in the Jewish people. Each Jew continues to live in the Jewish people, and he will continue to live so long as the Jewish people will live.”

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the suicidal skepticism of counter-reformation Catholicism

From a comment at What’s Wrong with the World, I was led to this fascinating study of 16th and 17th-century French counter-reformation polemics.  This was when Catholics first embraced skepticism of the ability of human reason to interpret texts as a defense against Protestantism, with predictable long-term effects for the faith itself.

A sample follows.  Famous figures like Montaigne, Descartes, and Richard Simon appear in a rather new light.  The arguments of the Catholic skeptics and the objections to them will be familiar to those who follow today’s religious polemics on the internet, at this site and elsewhere.

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