Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Birthday, Mark Twain

Religion consists in a set of things which the average man thinks he believes, and wishes he was certain.
-Mark Twain, Notebook, 1879

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Weird World of Leibniz's God

One of the things that gets trotted out when someone argues that faith and reason are compatible is that many contributions to science or philosophy have been made by individuals who were religious. If faith and reason are incompatible, it is claimed, how can so many scientists and philosophers in history have been Christian (or Jewish, or Muslim, or...). But this quick argument--some philosophers are Christians therefore Christianity is reasonable, Q.E.D.--moves a little too quickly. Instead we need to ask questions about what role the idea of God plays in some particular thinker's philosophical system to assess whether his faith can be seen as truly consistent with his intellectual contribution: is the idea of God required for the system to be coherent? That is, is God a fundamental concept? Is the idea of God consistent with the rest of the system, but superfluous? Is the idea of God inconsistent with it? Because if God isn't required for, or consistent with, the wider system of thought, then it might be that all we really learn about the relationship of faith to reason from a religious philosopher is that people are capable of operating in spite of quite a lot of cognitive dissonance. One way to proceed with investigating the supposed compatibility of faith and reason would be to look at  thinkers who were personally religious and see what role God plays in their systems. What kind of world do we get if we start with the assumption that God exists and work from there? In this post, I'll look at the very bizarre but apparently internally consistent system that Leibniz built on some standard assumptions about God.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Happy Birthday, Daniel Dennett

Almost no one is indifferent to Darwin, and no one should be. The Darwinian theory is a scientific theory, and a great one, but that is not all it is. The creationists who oppose it so bitterly are right about one thing: Darwin's dangerous idea cuts much deeper into the fabric of our most fundamental beliefs than many of its sophisticated apologists have yet admitted, even to themselves.
--Daniel Dennet, Darwin's Dangerous Idea

Monday, March 26, 2012

Happy Birthday, Richard Dawkins

The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.
Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (2006)

Saturday, March 17, 2012

Happy St. Patrick's Day, drunks!

Great Lakes Conway's Irish Ale

Bottle, poured into a pint glass

Appearance-- Nice amber color; thin foam but decent retention
Smell-- Not much to it. A little sweet and a little grainy but not much else.
Taste-- Smooth and sweet, nice crispness in the finish. Solid.
Mouthfeel-- Not bad. A little over carbonated

Overall-- Decent and drinkable; better than Killian's. A-

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Happy Birthday, Einstein

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

--Albert Einstein, The World as I See It

Thursday, March 8, 2012

Wheat : Barley :: The Monkees : The Beatles

Sierra Nevada Kellerweis

Appearance-- Cloudy and golden orange; thin lace of foam; very little retention.

Smell-- Floral and yeasty. A little bit of citrus.

Taste-- Not a fan. Very floral, and little else is going on that I can taste. Wouldn't want more than one.

Mouthfeel-- Nice and smooth. Light.

Overall-- I'm not much of a fan of the Hefeweizen variety of beer, and this is no exception. When barley exists, why are we making beer with wheat?

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Kenny's "What I Believe"

Sometimes when you read something by an author you admire that reveals his or her personal convictions and beliefs, it's a bit disappointing. Anthony Kenny's What I Believe is one of those times. Kenny is an extraordinary historian of philosophy, whose works show the ability to deal deeply and subtly with complex philosophical problems in thinkers as diverse as Aristotle, Aquinas, Descartes, and Wittgenstein. He also has written a number of broader historical books aimed at less specialized readers, including his phenomenal four volume history of philosophy, which ought to be on the shelf of anyone interested in the arc of philosophical history.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Requirements for a Stable Democracy

In the introduction to his Political Liberalism, John Rawls summarizes what he considers to be five fundamental features that are required in order for a democracy to be stable, just, and viable. In many ways Rawls is a fairly traditional left-liberal political thinker, but his work is uncommonly concerned with the role that the basis and structure of society has on the social outcomes that we deem just or unjust. Rawls is part of the Kantian tradition in moral and political philosophy, and thus occupied with trying to balance the twin goals of building a just and equal society society (which might be construed as an expression of Kant's dictum that one should do only what one might consent to as a universal principle of action) and the maintenance of the freedom and dignity of all persons in that society (Kant's dictum that persons should never be treated merely as means to an end). 

These twin goals are reflected in Rawls in the pursuit of social justice without compromising the principle that the consent and concerns of those affected by policies that lead to social justice are relevant to the discussion. One way to give a quick and dirty summary of Rawls' project is to say he wants to improve the lot of the worst off without undervaluing the freedoms of the well off. Rawls manages to simultaneously annoy Marxists and Libertarians, which, to me, is an indicator that he's on to something.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Happy Birthday, John Rawls

One who lacks a sense of justice lacks certain fundamental attitudes and capacities included under the notion of humanity. Now the moral feelings are admittedly unpleasant, in some extended sense of unpleasant; but there is no way for us to avoid a liability to them without disfiguring ourselves. This liability is the price of love and trust, of friendship and affection, and of devotion to institutions and traditions from which we have benefited and which serve the general interests of mankind.
--John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (1971)

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Happy Birthday, Jeremy Bentham

In proportion to the want of happiness resulting from the want of rights, a reason exists for wishing that there were such things as rights. But reasons for wishing there were such things as rights, are not rights; a reason for wishing that a certain right were established, is not that right--want is not supply--hunger is not bread.... That which has no existence cannot be destroyed-- that which cannot be destroyed cannot require anything to preserve it from destruction. Natural rights is simple nonsense: natural and imprescriptible rights, rhetorical nonsense--nonsense upon stilts.
--Jeremy Bentham, Anarchical Fallacies (1791)

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Happy Birthday, Charles Darwin

It has often and confidently been asserted, that man's origin can never be known: but ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge: it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.
--Charles Darwin, The Descent of Man (1871)

Friday, February 3, 2012

Beer and Chocolate

Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout

Bottle, poured into a pint glass.

Appearance--viscous black, opaque. Slight head dissipates quickly

Smell--a strong sweet chocolate aroma, roasted malt as well

Taste-- subtler and smoother than I expected, slight bite in the aftertaste, but nothing unpleasant. Very drinkable for a high ABV (10%)

Mouthfeel-- heavyish and thick. Almost chewy.

O-- really very good, A

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Meat Computers and Metaphysics

Jerry Coyne and Massimo Pigliucci have engaged in intellectual internet fisticuffs on the problem of free will, which is unsurprising given that they seem to disagree on nearly everything. But their particular disagreement is more interesting than "We have free will." "Nuh-uh." "Yeah-huh." This dispute has brought up some interesting questions about the nature of the free will debate, which I'd like to explore a little bit. What kind of question are we asking when we ask if we have free will? Is it a metaphysical problem? Scientific? Conceptual?

Monday, January 30, 2012

Like Straw And Biscuits, But In A Good Way

Brooklyn Pilsner

Appearance-- slightly cloudy, golden
Smell-- dry, straw, a little citrus
Taste-- nice bite at the front and back with a biscuity malt core; strong citrus flavor
Mouthfeel-- light, but with a little bit of a lingering bitterness

Overall-- solid pilsner, B+

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Creationism in Texas? Shocking!

Saw this on Jerry Coyne's Website. Baylor University's Medical Center has a quarterly journal that has just published a critique of Darwinism by someone named Joseph P. Kuhn. It's a strange and almost incoherent offering that seems to be a grab-bag of common tropes from the intelligent design community. Not only does he appear unfamiliar with established scientific facts, he seems to have only the loosest grasp on what counts as a logical argument.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Happy Birthday, Massimo Pigliucci

If you reject the theory of evolution, or think that there is such a thing as alternative (as opposed to evidence-based) medicine, or claim without evidence that aliens are visiting the planet, or think that the stars influence human destiny, and so on, you are anti-science and live in a dream world with no connection to reality. More damning, you are engaging in the ultimate act of arrogance: to declare something true or untrue not because you have reason or evidence, but only because it makes you feel better. May I suggest that you need a good dose of humility, and that one way to get it is to admit that the universe is not about you, and that some people out there really know more than you do, as unpleasant a thought as this may be?

--Massimo Pigliucci, "Intellectual Arrogance" (2008)

Friday, January 13, 2012

The Most Magnificent Thing On Earth Except Better Than That Actually

Bell's Hopslam.

Appearance- Beautiful honey color, Maybe a pinky finger's worth of head with great retention in the glass.

Smell--Fresh hops, a little hint of sweetness

Taste-- Are you kidding me? Beer can be this good? It's a full hop flavor on the front end, followed by a malty, honey sweetness, with a delicate crispness in the finish. It's a real thing of beauty

Mouthfeel--Surprisingly light, considering the amount of flavor it has. At 10% ABV it probably goes down too smoothly.

Overall--The best thing. It's just the best thing. Out of all the things, this is the best.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Music of 2011: Part II

More music from this past year.

Steve Earle, I'll Never Get Out Of This World Alive

Slightly disappointing, given the artist. Steve Earle is one of my favorites, and this album isn't quite up to his standards, but it's still a solid album. There are still some very good songs, like "Waiting for the Sky to Fall," a country rocker about small town life in the nuclear age; "Little Emperor," a good and nasty (if belated) song about former President Bush; "Meet Me in the Alleyway," a commentary on the sad state of medical care for the poor; and "Lonely are the Free." Despite these highlights, much of the album just lacks the normal Steve Earle punch. There are some good lines and nice melodic patches, but it seems like the songs could have used a little more work. It could have used a few more rockers, too, if you ask me.

Happy Birthday, William James

Our minds thus grow in spots; and like grease-spots, the spots spread. But we let them spread as little as possible: we keep unaltered as much of our old knowledge, as many of our old prejudices and beliefs, as we can. We patch and tinker more than we renew. The novelty soaks in; it stains the ancient mass; but it is also tinged by what absorbs it.
William James, Pragmatism (1907)

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Music of 2011: Part I

Lots of good new music came out in 2011, so I'm going to provide some short reviews of the stuff I got this year.

Bill Callahan, Apocalypse

Amazing, stunning album. Absolutely the best new music of 2011. In one sense it's a paradigmatic postmodern album: it's a pastiche of styles from different eras and grabs influences from a variety of genres; it's even ultimately self-consciously self-referential. But unlike most po-mo drivel, there's something of substance. Callahan is in Dylan/Leonard Cohen territory when it comes to providing thematic parts scattered through his work and leaving it up to the listener to assemble a meaning. Listening to this album is like unpacking a good novel. I do more schoolgirl swooning about how good it is here, so I won't go on anymore, except to say if you don't buy this album I'll be very disappointed in you.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Kant on Freedom of the Will

Kant recognized the prima facie conflict between the idea that the world is causally determined and the idea that we are free agents, but he employed his novel epistemological theory in order to resolve the conflict. Kant's solution is flawed, I think, because his epistemology is flawed, but his recognition that the fact that we appear to ourselves to be free does constitute indisputable evidence that we are free is a key insight in the history of the development of the debate about free will. I'll discuss his solution here, which will necessitate diving into his strange vocabulary of technical terms. Kant was an obsessive system builder, and the interrelations between terms in his system is complicated and messy, but I'll do my best to untangle the mess enough so that his version of free will is explicable.