Sunday, December 31, 2006

What are you optimistic about?

That's this year's question from Daniel Dennett's answer is "The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion". He claims that
Around the world, the category of “not religious” is growing faster than the Mormons, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam, whose growth is due almost entirely to fecundity, not conversion, and is bound to level off soon.
He doesn't cite his source for this claim.

Two other sources for optimism on the first page of responses were (a) the decline in violence over time — notwithstanding current and recent past events — and (b) the likelihood that we will be able to support the world's population, both (i) because the rate of population growth declines (eventually to zero) with a rising standard of living and (ii) because we will learn how to make effective use of energy from the sun.

Videos of people who died and ideas that came alive in 2006 from

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Fair use

US copyright law has this to say about Fair Use.
[The] fair use of a copyrighted work … for purposes such as criticism, comment, news reporting, teaching (including multiple copies for classroom use), scholarship, or research, is not an infringement of copyright. In determining whether the use made of a work in any particular case is a fair use the factors to be considered shall include —
  1. the purpose and character of the use, including whether such use is of a commercial nature or is for nonprofit educational purposes;
  2. the nature of the copyrighted work;
  3. the amount and substantiality of the portion used in relation to the copyrighted work as a whole; and
  4. the effect of the use upon the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.
The fact that a work is unpublished shall not itself bar a finding of fair use if such finding is made upon consideration of all the above factors.
For academic work published by a commercial publisher this poses a problem and a number of questions. It is normally not considered a violation of copyright for the author of an article to give copies to people who request them. Yet presumably it would be a violation of copyright for an author to post the article on his website.

One can imagine a range of intermediate possibilities.
  • What if the author published his vita on his website (including a citation of the article in question) and responded to email requests for copies of the article by sending them out to each requester? It's been my experience that most authors will respond to requests for copies of papers by sending them out. I do. Therefore publishing a citation to a paper is in most cases an implicit invitation to request a copy.
  • What if the author included an explicit invitation telling visitors to his or her website that if they wanted copies they should contact him or her?
  • What if the author included his or her email address in the invitation?
  • What if the author forwarded all such requests to a department secretary, who sent out the copies?
  • What if the email address for the article was a special email address that was used only for requests for this article? What if the author created a separate email address for each article? This would make it easier on the secretary.
  • What if the author's department set up a server that responded to each email request by sending out the article automatically?
  • What if the author's web page included a form that a reader could use to request any of the author's articles? What if the form was processed by the web server so that all requested articles were sent out automatically?
  • What if instead of a form there was there was a button next to the citation that requested the article? When a reader clicked the button a request was sent to the web server, which sent out the article by email. (Presumably somewhere else on the page the reader had entered his or her email address.)
  • What if the button looked like a pdf icon?
  • What if instead of sending out the article by email the web server sent it to the reader's own web browser? That would save the requester the trouble of entering his or her email address.
What all of the above have in common is the fact that the article itself is not published on the web — that is, the content is not visible on a web page. Since the actual content is not made public, there can be no copyright infringement. The only argument that infringement has taken place must focus on the copying that takes place when a request for a copy is fulfilled. Since by long-standing convention authors are permitted to supply copies of their work upon request, that activity cannot be considered infringement either.

Monday, December 25, 2006

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Atheists as an oppressed minority

Sam Harris, one of the most outspoken defenders of atheism, works hard to explain his position. He doesn't always speak to the real issues that the religious struggle with. (See, for example, my posts on arguing about religion and anthropocentrism.) But I think he does attempt to deal with the issues he discusses in a thoughtful way. His latest, 10 myths—and 10 truths—about atheism, is an article in the LA Times, which he has reprinted on his own website. I think it's worth reading.

My favorite line, although one that some religious people may find offensive (tell me if you do or don't), is the following quotation from historian Stephen Henry Roberts (1901-71) of the University of Sydney, Australia. (Picture to the right.) When talking to a religious friend, Roberts once said:
I contend that we are both atheists. I just believe in one fewer god than you do. When you understand why you dismiss all the other possible gods, you will understand why I dismiss yours.
The cleverness of the preceding notwithstanding, atheism is not doing very well — especially in this country. Harris' article attempts to confront that fact.
Atheists are often imagined to be intolerant, immoral, depressed, blind to the beauty of nature and dogmatically closed to evidence of the supernatural.

Even John Locke, one of the great patriarchs of the Enlightenment, believed that atheism was “not at all to be tolerated” because, he said, “promises, covenants and oaths, which are the bonds of human societies, can have no hold upon an atheist.”

That was more than 300 years ago. But in the United States today, little seems to have changed. A remarkable 87% of the population claims “never to doubt” the existence of God; fewer than 10% identify themselves as atheists — and their reputation appears to be deteriorating.
Although most intellectually honest religious people don't believe that atheists are by nature intolerant, immoral, etc., it's worth watching how Harris answers these charges.

Harris is really fighting two battles. On one front he argues that religion is a danger to society and that we would be better off without it. On the other he is fighting the defensive battle against the view that atheists are morally corrupt and generally unacceptable to much of society. As Harris says,
[atheism] has acquired such an extraordinary stigma in the United States that being an atheist is now a perfect impediment to a career in politics (in a way that being black, Muslim or homosexual is not).
I wonder how different we as a society would feel if atheism were as socially acceptable as faith.

One doesn't have to argue against religion to argue for tolerance of atheism — although Harris might claim that most religion is incompatible with tolerance of atheism. In the current atheism vs. religion debate, I'd like to see some prominent religious spokespeople argue for tolerance of atheism.

It might make more strategic sense for Harris to fight for tolerance of atheism (just as other oppressed minorities have argued for tolerance) than to focus on attacking religion. Not only would this challenge people in a more acceptable way, it would also force them to think through their own convictions. Pushing people to defend their convictions against his challenges produces defensiveness rather than self-awareness. Asking religious people to speak out in favor of tolerance is more likely to produce self-awareness on their part.

Just as people had to become personally aware of the prejudices they harbored against other oppressed groups before they could rid themselves of those prejudices, the same is true for their anti-atheism prejudices. The most important task is to create a climate in which people will examine their own beliefs with openness and honesty.

It seems to me that the struggle that will almost certainly ensure among the devout when they are confronted with the request to express tolerance for atheists will have a much more beneficial effect than any argument that Harris can mount.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

A church-state cartoon?

Slate published this cartoon by Glenn McCoy.

Clearly the man objecting to the teacher's mixing church and state is drawn to look ugly. After all, why get so upset about a silly story about bells and angels?

But what if one asked the question without the overlay of excessive emotion? Should teachers really be telling students that every time a bell rings an angel gets its wings? I wouldn't want teachers to say that sort of thing. After all, what are students supposed to make of it? Teachers whose students are young enough to think that their teachers mean literally what they say (which is apparently the age of the child in this drawing) should be careful not to mislead their students like this.

This isn't so much about religion; it's about how one thinks about the world. Teachers are supposed to be a source of reliable knowledge. In this case the teacher is confusing his/her students by telling them something that is not intended to be taken at face value.

If the students are understood to be sophisticated enough to understand the difference between literal and figurative speech, then what are we to make of the teacher's statement? At its most innocent, it means something like "think of something nice when a bell rings." I don't see any harm in that. But I would think that a teacher has some obligation to make it clear to his/her students that his/her intent is to be understood figuratively — which in this case the teacher apparently failed to do. The father shouldn't be looking to the ACLU for help, he should be looking to the teacher education system, which failed to educate the teacher adequately.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

 Reinstatement of Pay-As-You-Go Is a Welcome Step toward Fiscal Responsibility, 12/20/06

The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities is a generally liberal policy study group. I'm glad to see them supporting Pay-as-you-go.
House and Senate Democratic leaders have pledged to reinstate the “Pay-As-You-Go” rule early in the 110th Congress. Such a rule, which was in effect in the 1990s, helps to enforce fiscal discipline by requiring that any tax cut or increase in entitlement spending be offset by an increase in other taxes or reduction in other entitlement spending, rather than being deficit financed.

Reinstating a PAYGO rule that bars consideration of tax cuts or entitlement increases that would increase the deficit will not guarantee that the Congress and the President act in a fiscally responsible manner, but it will indicate that the leaders of the new Congress:
  • Recognize that the nation faces a serious deficit problem and that enacting legislation that would make that problem worse is not desirable;
  • Reject the notion that tax cuts are different from entitlement increases and should not have to be paid for; and
  • Accept the proposition that budgeting requires tradeoffs and that tax cuts or entitlement increases that are worth enacting are worth paying for.
The reinstatement of the PAYGO rule represents a limited, but significant, step toward a more fiscally responsible budget process. Those who recognize that the continuation of current budget policies would lead eventually to economically dangerous levels of debt, and also erode the ability of the government to meet the needs of the American public, should welcome reinstatement of the rule and hope it encourages policymakers to take further steps to deal with the long-term budget problems we face.

Copy cat

The New York Times has copied my blog — although they aren't giving me credit. Now when you read a NYTimes article, you can hold down the ALT key and click on a word to get reference information. they are using, which looks like a nice service.

Saturday, December 16, 2006

Scientific realism

In my previous post on Anthropocentrism I may have left the impression that I think that our ideas are not connected to reality. That's not the case. (A simple argument against that position is that we evolved to be able to have thoughts presumably because having thoughts had survival value. It's unlikely that thoughts that aren't connected to reality have that sort of survival value.) My position is what is commonly referred to as Scientific Realism. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy summarizes it a follows.
Scientific realists hold that the characteristic product of successful scientific research is knowledge of largely theory-independent phenomena and that such knowledge is possible (indeed actual) even in those cases in which the relevant phenomena are not, in any non-question-begging sense, observable. According to scientific realists, for example, if you obtain a good contemporary chemistry textbook you will have good reason to believe (because the scientists whose work the book reports had good scientific evidence for) the (approximate) truth of the claims it contains about the existence and properties of atoms, molecules, sub-atomic particles, energy levels, reaction mechanisms, etc. Moreover, you have good reason to think that such phenomena have the properties attributed to them in the textbook independently of our theoretical conceptions in chemistry. Scientific realism is thus the common sense (or common science) conception that, subject to a recognition that scientific methods are fallible and that most scientific knowledge is approximate, we are justified in accepting the most secure findings of scientists "at face value."
Given that, how can I also argue that our ideas are anthropocentric? Even though I would agree that electrons, dogs, cats, stars, etc. are real entities in Nature, I would also argue that they don't come with labels attached. You won't find an electron with a little tag that says electron. You won't find a star with a tag that says star. (Some cats and dogs may have attached labels, but that's because we put them there.)

So even though our ideas refer (perhaps very accurately) to reality, they are still ideas and are part of reality only to the extent that our brains and the subjective experience that those brains give rise to are also part of reality. Our ideas themselves do not appear in any free-standing way outside of our heads and as part of reality on their own — Plato notwithstanding.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

David Pogue on Internet etiquitte

David Pogue, New York Times technology columnist (I wonder why he isn't restricted to TimesSelect), discusses the decline of online etiquitte.
Lately, an increasing number of the discussions devolve into name-calling and bickering. Someone might submit, say, this item to Digg:685 diggs.

“AWESOME astronomy poem.” (posted by MetsFan 3 days ago)
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.
Up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky,
Twinkle, twinkle, little star, how I wonder what you are.

Before long, the people’s feedback begins, like this:

by baddude on 12/11/06
What’s yr problem, moron. You already said it’s a star, why would you then wonder what it is. Get a clue, or a life.

by neverland2 on 12/11/06
Dugg down as inaccurate. Stars do not twinkle. It’s the shifting atmosphere that causes an apparent twinkle. Or were you stoned all through science class?

by mrobe on 12/11/06
yo neverland2–It’s a poem, idiot. Nobody’s claiming that stars twinkle. Ever heard of poetic license?Honestly, the intellectual level of you people is right up there with a gnat’s.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


P.S. Here's the original.


A discussion of the previous post on ideas raised the issue of anthrocentrism or anthropocentrism. A Google search for anthrocentric turned up this on a page of "logical fallacies" from Philosophical
anthrocentric (human-centered) fallacy — This one isn't found in standard texts, but was described by John Stuart Mill in System of Logic. Consider the example of a preacher who one day takes someone supposedly possessed of a demon, throws his hand on her forehead, and shouts, "Get out! Leave this body!" Even supposing that demons exist, one might find it curious that they understand English, obey peremptory commands, and are easily influenced by incantations and rituals. The a.f. here occurs at the presupposition level: human language, reason, instincts, and desires are assumed to be the orbit around which everything else in the universe (including the aforementioned demons) revolve.
I think that's quite right.

The nicest definition of anthropocentrism I came across is this one from a call for papers for a 2002 conference called Beyond Anthropocentrism.
Anthropocentrism … a view or doctrine that regards humankind as the central fact of the universe to which all surrounding facts have reference (OED).
Certainly the two most widely understood cases in which humanity has had to back away from our (built-in and understandable) anthropocentrism are the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions. The universe does not revolve around us astronomically, and we are not unrelated to the other species on earth.

Anthropocentrism is, in my view, a very understandable error. It seems to me that we can't help but be anthropocentric. Each of us necessarily sees the world from the perspective of our own existence. We have no other choice; we have to understand the universe as it relates to us and as we relate to it. As the Philosophical Society entry pointed out, anthropocentrism occurs at the presupposition level: that the human perspective is central to everything else.

And, in fact, it is. We think only because it is we who are thinking. Our existence is "the central fact of the universe to which all surrounding facts have reference" — at least to the extent that having reference is understood to mean having a meaning about which we can think. If we didn't exist, we couldn't think.

The challenge this poses for us is to become aware of how we tend naturally to include this presupposition in our thinking unless we become aware enough of it to factor it out. Our (implicit or explicit) belief that our ideas frame reality is simply another example of our failure to disengage ourselves sufficiently from our own thoughts. When we let go of that notion we will have taken another step in the de-anthropomorphising of our relationship with nature. Of course since it is our relationship with nature, it can't ever be completely de-anthropomorphised.

Friday, December 08, 2006

Ideas out of the mind

It's obvious (or at least it seems obvious to me) that an idea exists only when someone is thinking it. That is, after all, what the word idea means.

Interestingly, there is no entry for idea in either the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, or the Dictionary of the Philosophy of Mind.

Merriam Webster's idea entry has the following under synonyms:
IDEA, CONCEPT, CONCEPTION, THOUGHT, NOTION, IMPRESSION mean what exists in the mind as a representation (as of something comprehended) or as a formulation (as of a plan). IDEA may apply to a mental image or formulation of something seen or known or imagined, to a pure abstraction, or to something assumed or vaguely sensed .
Wordnet defines idea as
thought (the content of cognition; the main thing you are thinking about)
(It defines thought the same way.) It defines cognition as
knowledge, noesis (the psychological result of perception and learning and reasoning)
To sum it all up: an idea is a subjective experience.

This doesn't mean that our ideas are not useful for looking at and understanding the world. (Understanding is also a subjective experience.) After all, we evolved to be able to think presumably because thinking is useful. But that still doesn't mean that our subjective experience is anything more than that, a subjective experience — no matter how well our subjective experience matches reality.

All this was brought to mind because I was listening to a discussion of the recent decision by Conservative Judiasm to allow gay rabbis — but to (continue to) condemn male anal sex. During the discussion the issue arose whether same-sex sexual relationships violated halacha, Jewish law as spelled out in the Torah.

So here (finally) is the point. A law is an idea. The meaning of a law exists only when someone is thinking it. Surely we can write down what we are thinking in the hope that when we (or someone else) reads it, "the same idea" will be evoked in that mind. But the written version of a law (or of any idea) is not an idea. It is just scratch marks on paper — or bits in a computer, or some other means of recording something. The idea itself exists only when it is being experienced in someone's mind.

The notion that there is such a thing as Halacha is based on the idea that God created these laws — that God also has ideas. This may not seem surprising. Most religious people are comfortable speaking as if God has a mind. "God knows this." "God wants that." God loves you." Etc. What suddenly struck me about this sort of talk was how audacious it is. By allowing ourselves to speak of a presumably non-human entity as having a mind, like ours, that has ideas, we elevate the status of our own ideas to something that exists outside of our own minds. That's quite a promotion: from subjective experience to real entity.

This is truly extraordinary. Certainly we all like to think that our ideas matter — and even more that in some sense that our ideas are real. As a philosophical position, this can be traced to Plato. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy puts it, that
the world that appears to our senses is in some way defective and filled with error, but there is a more real and perfect realm, populated by entities (called “forms” or “ideas”) that are eternal, changeless, and in some sense paradigmatic for the structure and character of our world.
It's hard for me to believe that there are any current adherents to this notion, i.e., that there is in any literal sense
a more real and perfect realm, populated by [eternal] entities (called “forms” or “ideas”).
But that's what Plato's position along with religion do for those who adopt them. They allow their adherents to suppose that the ideas that they experience are not just subjective experience but in some sense reality — even a higher level of reality since in both cases the realm in which ideas are presumed to exist is granted exalted status.

What's even more interesting about this perspective is that it isn't made to seem self-serving. Those who hold these positions claim that they are simply describing the nature of reality: there is a God who has ideas, or ideas exist in some more real and perfect realm and they live there forever. But in fact, it is quite self-serving. It is a way (and I suspect that this "philosophical move" was taken unconsciously) to claim that ideas trump reality — and (conveniently) that it is most likely the ideas of the people who are saying these things that are the right ones to use to trump reality.

My position is that ideas are wonderful. I spend most of my life playing with ideas. I enjoy it a lot. This blog entry is a typical example. But an idea is just an idea, and it exists only in the mind of the thinker. As Blue says about our species:
Humans: smart enough to have ideas; foolish enough to believe them.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Perfect freedom, peace, tranquility, and happiness?

I sometimes quote from Tricycle's Daily Dharma. Realism is fine, but perfect freedom, peace, tranquility, and happiness? That seems to be promising a bit more than realism is likely to deliver.
Buddhism is neither pessimistic nor optimistic. If anything at all, it is realistic, for it takes a realistic view of life and of the world. It looks at things objectively. It does not falsely lull you into living in a fool's paradise, nor does it frighten and agonize you with all kinds of imaginary fears and sins. It tells you exactly and objectively what you are and what the world around you is, and shows you the way to perfect freedom, peace, tranquility and happiness.
— Walpola Rahula

Arguing about religion

Nicholas Kristof is a fundamentalist or evangelical Christian — I'm not sure which. Yet his columns tend to be quite open and liberal; he has been consistently critical of Bush. Recently he published a column with the teaser: "We’ve suffered enough from religious intolerance that the last thing the world needs is irreligious intolerance." (Kristof is a columnist for the NY Times and publishes behind the Times Select firewall.)

Apparently Kristof was responding to the increasing criticism of religion by people like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins (see the Beyondbelief2006 website) and pleading for tolerance.

Harris and Dawkins responded to Kristof's column with letters to the Times. Here is Dawkins' letter.
Nicholas D. Kristof is one of many commentators to find the tone of the newly resurgent atheism “obnoxious” or “mean.”

Ubiquitous as they are, such epithets are not borne out by an objective reading of the works he cites: Sam Harris’s “Letter to a Christian Nation,” my own “God Delusion” and (I had not been aware of this splendid Web site; thank you, Mr. Kristof).

I have scanned all three atheist sources carefully for polemic, and my honest judgment is that they are gentle by the standards of normal political commentary, say, or the standards of theater and arts critics.

Mr. Kristof has simply become acclimatized to the convention that you can criticize anything else but you mustn’t criticize religion. Ears calibrated to this norm will hear gentle criticism of religion as intemperate, and robust criticism as obnoxious. Without wishing to offend, I want “The God Delusion” to raise our consciousness of this weird double standard.

How did religion acquire its extraordinary immunity against normal levels of criticism?
It seems to me that Dawkins and Kristof are deliberately not talking to each other. In my opinion, Dawkins is right that religion is wrong when it makes claims about the physical world. He is right in criticising those claims. And he is right that for the most part the criticisms of those claims are stated in relatively moderate tones. It's so easy to make the case that religion is wrong about the physical world it can be made in very moderate tones. These are very easy points to score.

Kristof is right that most religious people are not religious because of the claims religion makes about the physical world. They are religious because they value the perspective religion provides on subjective experience and on questions related to subjective experience such as "What is a good life?" and "How can I come to terms with death?". Kristof is right that a failure to respect how people deal with such personal and fundamental questions can seem intolerant no matter how gently that lack of respect is expressed.

This entire controversy could be settled if religion would forswear making claims about physical reality and if the critics of religion would recognize that the value religion has for most people has little to do with those claims — even if many defenders of religion don't realize this. But both sides seem to be too stubborn for something so simple.

World chess champion loses to computer

From the Associated Press
World chess champion Vladimir Kramnik lost his final game in a match against computer program Deep Fritz, a commercially available chess program that runs on a powerful personal computer, … ceding a hard-fought Man vs. Machine series 4-2.

Kramnik, seeking a final win to level the match, played an unbalanced opening with Black. He built up a good position and equalized. But he then went astray, losing a pawn from which he never recovered.
And he is so young to be made obsolete by a commercially available chess program!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

We are now losing out to China in food!

From the New York Times
Other specialty crop groups [besides garlic, discussed earlier in the article] are also struggling with foreign competition, in particular from China, which has geared its agriculture industry towards labor-intensive, higher-value fruits and vegetables. China has begun to dominate everything from apples to onions. Chinese exports have also eaten into American growers’ share of markets in Japan and Hong Kong for items like broccoli and lettuce.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

Sony's Dancing Robots

This is extraordinary.

I've never seen robots move in such a life-like way.