Archive for March 2008

My Cussing Count

March 31, 2008

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This website searches your blog for instances of various curse words and tells you how clean your mouth is.  This wasn’t surprising, given that my usually curse word replacement is “oh mittens!”

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Political philosophers

March 18, 2008

When I say “political philosopher,” most people would think of Hobbes or Burke, not Kant and Nietzsche.  However, let us rectify that right now.

I don’t know how to get the youtube video to appear right in my blog entry, so you will all have to make due with just the link.

Evolution, Mind, and Truth

March 11, 2008

The common fad among philosophers nowadays is to apply evolutionary science to things to which it does not apply.  Sure, evolution may give a useful description of the world, but it cannot explain everything about man’s his nature and behaviors.  Many might find this offensive, just like many scientists probably found the denial of Laplace’s Demon to be offensive at the turn of the 20th century.  But as we later found out, even Newtonian physics has its limits.

I will here argue that evolutionary science cannot account for at least one fact about man:  man’s search for truth.  To see why, let us briefly examine what evolutionary theory states.

Evolutionary theory states that the species that are able to adapt to threats survive.  Through genetic mutations of some sort, certain species are better able to pass on their seed.  As far as science is concerned, evolution is a blind process:  there is no Big Hand acting as a primary cause upon things guided certain species to survive.   Certain traits are passed on only insofar as they give a species a means of surviving. 

Hence, everything we see in nature is “directed” towards survival, no matter how much it may not seem so at first.  It is not as if creatures actively acknowledge that every feature about them is merely for survival purposes, but that they survived due to those traits.  For example, if sex were not pleasurable, animals would engage in it less.  Those which do not find sex pleasurable will not pass on their genes, and so their genes will exit the gene pool while those who enjoy sex will continue to pass on their genes.  Hence, all design, all purposes, and all activities that seem like they defy explanation are really complex ways of passing on DNA that developed over billions of years. 

Take an example.  Let’s say a mouse is being stalked by a cat.  Common sense says that the mouse escapes the cat if he is able to sense him coming.  When he senses the cat, he realizes that he is in danger, and he runs away.  The Darwinist, on the other hand, says that we shouldn’t ask why the mouse runs from his enemy, but only that he actually does run from his enemy.  

But here’s the catch:  if every trait that we have is only apparently for a reason other than survival (with survival being the real reason for all of our activities), then the scientific enterprise is a farce.  It is one thing to say that the pursuit of truth just so happens to have survival value, and so when we pursue the truth as a goal we also survive.  But this is not an account that can be derived from evolutionary theory.  Our science and pursuit of truth must be treated in a parallel way to the mouse to maintain intellectual consistency:  it does not matter why we *think* we are doing science.  What doing science *really* is is a means for survival.  Thus, when we propose our latest, niftiest theories, what other reason can we give for proposing the theory other than that it will help us pass on our DNA?

But why should we give our apparent pursuits of truth the benefit of the doubt?  Why don’t we just acknowledge like all other things that it is fundamentally (and not secondarily) a means of survival?  In reality, we are only apparently seeking the truth (but actually seeking to pass on our DNA).  Everything about the pursuit of knowledge is suspect:  our desire to seek truth is merely helpful towards survival, our engaging in searching for truth is a means for survival, our arguing is merely a means of survival.  And when we reject a theory, we do it because we were “programmed” to do so in order to survive.  Our dispositions to find certain things about the world self-evident?  A product of evolution.  We have to be able to believe that evolution is consistent with the fact that we follow logical rules and procedures not merely because we were programmed to do so.  Anything less makes it unreasonable to follow our rational capacities.

“But this is absurd” some may say, “you can’t tell me that I am not actually pursuing truth.  I know exactly what I am doing!”  I know you do.  But that’s the point:  if the only genes that are passed on are those which allow the animal to pass on his genes, then the “science” gene was passed on because of its survival value.  But how, then, did this added feature of pursuing truth “for its own sake” come in?  Since science is a mere biological phenomenon of an organism facilitating interaction with its environment, then, just like every other biological phenomenon, it must be just another effective method of survival.  The consistent thing for the Darwinist to say is that our pursuit of science is no exception to the general rule.

Hume on Induction

March 9, 2008

When I was taking my historical philosophy classes, I did them out of chronological order.  I took modern philosophy an entire year before I had taken ancient philosophy.  So when I read Hume’s Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, I had very knowledge of the preceding philosophical tradition.  When I first read Hume, I was thoroughly convinced that his arguments were foolproof, especially his argument concerning induction.   However, upon re-examining his arguments in preparation for my comprehensive exams, I’m not as sure that his arguments are as good as they once seemed.  Whereas I questioned very few of his premises in his argument against induction a couple of years back, this time I am not as comfortable with it. 

Preceding Hume’s argument is a discussion of cause and effect.  The relation between any cause and some effect cannot be learned through some rational process, but must be learned through experience.  With this said, Hume asserts that the conclusions of experience cannot be grounded in anything else.  Many philosophers at this point in time were foundationalists, following in the footsteps of Thomas Hobbes and Rene Descartes.  They wished to make philosophy into a science like geometry, where certain conclusions are deduced from self-evident first principles.  So Hume is arguing that experience cannot be rationally grounded by anything self evident.  Since he is an empiricist, all knowledge comes through the senses, and so he is claiming that none of our knowledge can be grounded in something more basic. 

With his assertion, he merely challenges his interlocutors to come up with a way to ground experience; however, he goes one step further and presents the argument that the conclusions of experience cannot be grounded in something rationally prior.  Due to our experience, we think that the world has a certain uniformity to it.  But how do we discover this uniformity?  Through induction:  for example, we see that one billiard ball will move another when the two collide.  After seeing this process several times, we make inductions about future events, and we begin to expect that one billiard ball will cause the other one to move when they collide.  However, if all of our knowledge of cause and effect comes through induction, and it is through induction that we form experience, and it is through experience that we arrive at the uniformity of the world, the justification of conclusions from experience is circular.  Induction is used to justify the uniformity principle, and the uniformity principle is used to justify induction.  Hume then asserts that only a fool would cease to trust his experience.  If he did, he would be unable to live in the world.  However, the utility of trusting our experience does not rationally justify using experience to justify philosophical conclusions. 

I’m going to think aloud for a while here.  First, why does experience need to be rationally justified?  Hume is probably responding to Descartes here, who thought that experience could not be trusted.  However, to my knowledge no philosopher prior to him thought that our experience itself was so unreliable that its reliability had to be justified in such an extreme way.

But what’s wrong with making this move?  Why do I have to agree with Descartes and assume that the reliability of experience needs to be justified?  Why do I have to play Hume’s game in the first place?  Hume is right that somewhere along the line there are going to be brute facts, facts that are fundamental to any philosophical justification.   The fact remains that even if we never made inductions about future events or asserted some uniformity principle, each of us could cite countless instances of similarity between events we have witnessed, and those similarities demand an explanation.  Am I supposed to believe that the similarities are just a cosmic coincidence and that these similarities are just chance occurrences? 

I’ll heed Hume’s advice:  yes, there is a possibility that I am wrong.  Yes, he is right that not everything can be rationally demonstrated (Aristotle seemed to take this for granted).  But if his only advice is that I could be wrong on this particular point and that I should proceed with meticulous caution when doing philosophy, always questioning my conclusions, I can confidently say that I didn’t need Hume’s argument to tell me that. 

It’s hard to take Hume seriously when he says that we shouldn’t give up looking for a justification for conclusions of sense experience (and by extension, all other philosophical problems) just because an answer isn’t readily available or simply demonstrated, especially after he later states that books on metaphysics should be consigned to the flames.  Such philosophical curiosity has not been witnessed since the cave dwellers in Plato’s cave. 

The California Homeschooling Fiasco

March 7, 2008

I have been following the homeschooling fiascos in Germany for about a year now.  I have only been following the California homeschooling fiasco for the past month.  I think the scariest part of the whole thing is not the fact that it is happening (which is pretty frightening), but the fact that people in the comments section of that article that I linked to actually think that banning homeschooling is a good idea. 

 A few things to consider:

Many people commented one way or the other, universalizing their particular experience of homeschooled children.  Some commented about child x who was homeschooled and received a marvelous education; others commented about child y who was homeschooled and received an awful education.  Of course we can all point to particular children and demonstrate that no system of education is perfect.  Nevermind the fact that homeschooled children score significantly higher on standardized tests than their public school peers. 

Secondly, yes, there are some bad parents teaching their kids at home.  But there are also some bad parents who send their kids to public schools all day so that they can stay home and watch their “soaps”.  So what?  All we have proven by this example is that there are bad parents in the world. 

Thirdly, I am told that homeschooling is essentially racist because it does not give homeschooled children exposure to other races of people.  However, this simply does not follow.  Everyone would agree that, morally speaking, the Union was right to wish to end slavery in the Civil War; and yet I’ll bet that they had seen fewer black people than people in the South had.  And yet, was it not the South–which had a greater exposure to blacks than the North–which enslaved blacks?  It just does not follow that a lack of exposure to different races will make you racist.  The key to eliminating racism is not primarily an exposure to other races.  A Klan member can be exposed to blacks all day long and not change his opinions about them.   Hence, good socialization is not sufficient to bring about an end to social problems, with racism being an example.  

However, we can also easily see that socialization is not necessary to end racism or other social problems, either.  Take for example a person who has never been exposed to black people, but a) has a good education that allows people to ponder the natural law and arrive at the conclusion that racism is not rationally tenable, and b) has a good, moral upbringing which teaches children the difference between right and wrong.  A person can have both of these things without ever being exposed to people of different races and still not be a racist.  All socialization in schools will do in this regard is perpetuate both the good and bad traits of our society:  children will learn to behave as their peers behave.  But since the education is lacking in the public schools by and large, those well-socialized kids will be unable to identify other social filth and disentangle themselves from it.   Socialization alone obviously did not do much to end racism in the South, after all.  Of course, all this “socialization” argument tells me is that this left-wing loonies are only in favor of multi-culturalism over assimilating everyone into a giant melting pot when it supports the position they defend.  I thought we wanted to give bilingual education in California so that these different cultures *wouldn’t* be assimilated?            

Fourthly, accreditation does not guarantee a quality education of any sort.  Nor, for that matter, does a lack of accreditation imply a lack of a good education.  If homeschooled children score higher on all of these tests (this despite the fact that the public schools give an undue emphasis on getting higher test scores), then the argument that teachers must be accredited is a non-starter.  Of course, this argument also fails to make the distinction between getting a good education and scoring well on tests.  I can tell you that many professionals in academia have received degrees and scored well on tests and have no idea of what they are talking about.  Public schools focus so much on testing that they fail to teach their children how to teach themselves.  While I have little experience with homeschooling myself, I have a hunch that mom does not sit down with her kids and lecture all day.  The kids probably have to learn how to learn on their own.  If this is the case, then they are at an advantage over their public school peers more than the test scores indicate.  If it isn’t the case, then all we have proven is that homeschoolers are just as bad in this regard as the public schools.  I say this because I don’t think one can get much worse than our public school system taken as a whole.

I’ve ranted on it before:  the Washington DC school district does not require that math be a graded course.  Kids can take algebra for all four years of high school and never have to learn it.  All of this talk about diversity of thought and eliminating the influence of religious fundamentalist parents is just a smoke screen for placing the government in charge of yet another aspect of people’s lives.  But of course, this little fact touches on the primary question:  is it the government’s job to systematically eliminate racism or any other moral or intellectual idea from among its people?  What if creation science were ever taught in schools with a government mandate?  How would people react then?

Perhaps the response would be that the goverment cannot dictate that schools teach what is false.  I would agree:  but by what secular standard are *ethical* questions to be judged true or false?  I’ll deal with that question in a separate post.