Wednesday, March 16, 2005


I just wrote a very nice final post with links and everything -- and it was lost. So I'll say what I want to say at the new site. Please join me there, and thanks for your support. Check out the


UPDATE: Looks like it wasn't lost after all. See how screwy this system is? We all start in Kindergarten, but some of us graduate. I'm in this game 'for the duration' as they say; time to acquire some serious tools and stop wasting time.

Time to Boogie on Down the Line

When I was living in Germany in the mid-70s, I once heard some street musicians in a public square in Freiburg im Breisgau:

I'm gonna pack my bags
I'm gonna pack my bags
I'm gonna pack my bags
And boogie on down the line.

No, I'm not leaving the 'sphere, just moving to a better neighborhood. Please check out the

New and Improved Maverick Philosopher.

I am grateful to my readers and hope you follow me to my new digs. Thanks to Keith Burgess-Jackson for his advice and support. I also appreciate the supererogatory efforts of Christopher Lansdown, proprietor of, at getting me set up. I hope to sing his praises in greater detail later.

Bear with me as I learn to navigate the new system, and in particular, get the blogroll in gear. There will be no further posting to this site.

Tuesday, March 15, 2005

Only the Starstruck Could Believe that We Make Stars

I propose to continue yesterday’s reflections on the thesis advanced by Robert Schwartz according to which "the world is a product of our conceptualizations. . . ." ("I am Going to Make you a Star," Midwest Studies in Philosophy XI (1987), p. 427). I again thank Peter Wizenberg for getting me going on this topic. He informs me by e-mail that he sent a copy of yesterday’s post to Professor Schwartz. We shall see if it gets a rise out of him. By the way, Schwartz’s article is very entertainingly written and is indeed quite stimulating, as you can see from the fact that it is turning my crank yet again today.

Consider Alpha Centauri, 4.3 light-years from earth. Schwartz’ claim implies that this star is a product of a conceptual (not physical) making by human beings. We make it have the properties it has, and we make it exist. Schwartz writes, "Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can emerge only in our attempts to describe and organize our world." (435)

Read in one way, this sentence is trivially true; read in another way, it is clearly false. The plausibility of Schwartz’s conceptual idealism, I contend, rests on the conflation of these two readings. This is a very common pattern in philosophy. One makes an equivocal statement bearing in its bosom two senses, one that makes the statement appear clearly true, the other that makes it appear informative and substantial.

Reading 1: Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can BE KNOWN only in our attempts to describe the world and organize our thoughts about it.

Reading 2: Whether there are stars, and what they are like, are facts that can EXIST only in our attempts to describe thre world and organize our thoughts about it.

Now (1) is clearly, indeed trivially, true. That Alpha Centauri exists, and that it is 4.3 light-years from earth, could not possibly be known unless there are beings who desire to know, and prosecute the requisite investigations. (2), however, is a stellar falsehood; or at least there is no reason to believe it.

One problem, of course, is the weasel word (fudge word?) ‘emerge.’ Being ambiguous, it can mean come to light, come to be known, but also, come to exist. Thus the Schwartzian thesis is fueled by an equivocation.

A second problem is one I mentioned yesterday. A fact that is a true proposition. For example, ‘It is a fact that Chomsky teaches at MIT’ is equivalent in meaning to ‘It is a true proposition that Chomsky teaches at MIT.’ A proposition, however, is a representational entity: it represents something, in the typical case, something distinct from itself. Now propositions can be reasonably viewed as mental entities, entities that exist only ‘in’ minds, i.e., only as the accusatives of mental acts. (Beware the treacherous word ‘in’ and while you are at it, beware the Ides of March!) So of course facts require minds if by ‘fact’ is meant ‘fact that.’ But there is another, more robust, notion of fact. Facts in this second sense are not propositional representations, or any kind of representation, but truth-makers of propositional representations. These are not facts that, but facts of. For example, the fact of Chomsky’s being a leftist. It is even clearer if we omit the ‘of’ which here functions as a mere device of apposition rather than as a genitive: the fact, Chomsky’s being a leftist. This concrete fact composed of Chomsky and the property of being a leftist is the truth-maker of ‘Chomsky is a leftist.’

So although it is reasonably held that facts that (i.e., true propositions) are mind-involving or mind-dependent, it does not follow that facts of (truth-making facts) are mind-involving.

More tomorrow.

The Perils of Pleasure

Oscar Wilde, De Profundis:

The gods had given me almost everything. But I let myself be lured into long spells of senseless and sensual ease. I amused myself with being a FLANEUR, a dandy, a man of fashion. I surrounded myself with the smaller natures and the meaner minds. I became the spendthrift of my own genius, and to waste an eternal youth gave me a curious joy. Tired of being on the heights, I deliberately went to the depths in the search for new sensation. What the paradox was to me in the sphere of thought, perversity became to me in the sphere of passion. Desire, at the end, was a malady, or a madness, or both. I grew careless of the lives of others. I took pleasure where it pleased me, and passed on. I forgot that every little action of the common day makes or unmakes character, and that therefore what one has done in the secret chamber one has some day to cry aloud on the housetop. I ceased to be lord over myself. I was no longer the captain of my soul, and did not know it. I allowed pleasure to dominate me. I ended in horrible disgrace. There is only one thing for me now, absolute humility.

Compare the words Plato puts in the mouth of Socrates in the Phaedo:

. . . every pleasure and pain has a kind of nail, and nails and pins her [the soul] to the body, and gives her a bodily nature, making her think that whatever the body says is true. (tr. F. J. Church St. 83)

Monday, March 14, 2005

Is New Jersey an Artifact? or Worldmaking? No Way!

We are makers. We make some things physically, other things conceptually. If I hanker after an ‘early undergraduate’ bookshelf, I fabricate it from bricks and boards. But I also make poems, puns, blog posts, and taxonomies. We undoubtedly have the power to make, and very considerable powers when we work in concert with intelligent others; but how far does this power extend?

Some say that it extends unto our being worldmakers. They think the whole world and everything in it is a conceptual fabrication both as to existence and as to essence. I find this sort of conceptual idealism preposterous. The world may be a divine artifact, but it certainly is no human artifact. (I speculate that it is because of the Death of God in Nietzsche’s sense that some philosophers recently have been toying with the wacky idea that we can take over a considerable range of divine tasks. But I won’t develop this speculation here.)

Consider the question whether New Jersey is an artifact. The example is from Robert Schwartz ("I am Going to Make You a Star," Midwest Studies in Philosophy XI (1987), pp. 427-439, p. 431 f.) Schwartz holds that "the world is a product of our conceptualizations. . . ." (427) If so, then New Jersey is a conceptual artifact. Consider

1. New Jersey is on the Atlantic.

As Schwartz points out, there is a sense in which the state of New Jersey is an artifact of legislative and other decisions by human beings. Had there been no human beings, there would have been no state of NJ, and had our forefathers decided differently (by drawing boundaries differently, etc.) then NJ would have had different properties than we presently take it to have. Obviously, the number of coal deposits, forests, lakes, etc. in the state of NJ depends on what the boundaries are. So it looks as if NJ is a conceptual fabrication both in its existence and in its properties.

But surely Schwartz makes things too easy for himself here. What we normally intend by (1) is something like

1*. The land mass denoted by ‘New Jersey’ abuts the Atlantic Ocean.

That is, when we assert (1) we have in mind the land mass, not the political entity. The former is not identical to the latter for the simple reason that the former can exist whether or not the latter exists. (Just ask the Indians whose ancestors were native to the region.). Now could it be true of the land mass that it is a conceptual fabrication?

Granted, the political entity exists only in virtue of conceptual decisions. No people, no polis. But it is not the case that the corresponding land mass exists only in virtue of conceptual decisions. It does no good to point out that the word ‘land mass,’ the concept land mass, the units of measure (square miles, etc.) used to measure the land mass derive from us. I’m talking about the land itself, the topsoil, the subsoil, all the way down to the center of the earth. The existence of that chunk of land, pace Schwartz, is a state of affairs "untinged by cognitive intervention."(433) That chunk of land in no way depends on us for its existence. And the same goes for some of its properties. Of course, its being cultivated depends on us. But not so for the antecedent fertility of the land which allows its being cultivated so as to produce crops.

Schwartz tells us that "the facts about New Jersey are dependent on our activities of categorization and classification." (433). In one sense, this is trivially true. For facts about are just true propositions. For example, the fact that X exists is just the true proposition that X exists. And if you think of a proposition as a mental entity, then indeed the facts about NJ depend on minds and their conceptual activities. Aboutness (intentionality) gets into the world through minds.

But there is a distinction between facts that and facts about on the one hand, and truth-making facts on the other. The fact of the earth’s being spheroid, for example, is not a representational structure. It is not about anything. It is rather that which makes-true the proposition expressed by ‘The earth is spheroid.’

Now consider that we are categorizers and conceptualizers. Is my being a conceptualizer a product of someone’s conceptualization? If yes, then whose? Do I conceptualize myself as a conceptualizer, thereby creating my being a conceptualizer? Or would you prefer a vicious infinite regress: A’s being a conceptualizer derives from B’s conceptualizing A as a conceptualizer, et cetera?

It gets worse when we consider my existence. Does my existence derive from someone’s acts of conceptualizing? Do I ‘bootstrap’ my way into existence by conceptualizing myself as existent? Not even God could bootstrap himself into existence: Causa sui need not be interpreted to mean that God causes himself to exist; it is more plausibly taken to mean that God is not caused by another. And if God is not up to the task, then surely your humble correspondent isn’t either. Or would you rather bite into another vicious infinite regress?

If you say that we conceptualizers just exist, then you have an excellent counterexample to the claim that the world "is a product of our conceptualizations." (427) Or do you prefer to say that the world depends on us, but that we are not in the world?

More absurdities unmasked later. This post was inspired by a comment by Peter Wizenberg on a post of mine over at Right Reason.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Son of 'I've Had It'

Messrs. Keezer and Gilleland also complain here and here respectively about the limitations of Blogger. There are two sorts of problems. The first has to with the unreliability of the Blogspot server. The second pertains to the Blogger software.

Pace Bill Keezer, the first problem is not solved by composing in a word processor and then pasting into the Blogger Compose window. I have been doing that from the beginning with longish posts. Even if I do this, I can still easily consume a half hour searching the 'Net for supporting documents, inserting hyperlinks, cleaning up the format, emending the text, proofreading, and fetching that fourth cup of coffee to fuel the above activities. You hit Publish and it's all lost. Don't tell me to save periodically in draft format. I do that too but it is also slow as molasses.

And then there is the problem of template work. HTML coding is a tedious business, especially for a tyro like me, and it really rankled me the other night to lose about an hour's worth of template modifications.

The second problem is the software itself. It is wonderful freeware, but it is not state of the art. I need Comment moderation. I need to be able to allow only pre-approved people into my Comments area. And there are other functionality problems with Blogger.

So will I make the move right now? Will I stop pussyfooting? What am I doing composing this post if not looking for an excuse to postpone the decision? Maybe I need to stoke up an Arturo Fuente Curly Head (cheap but good) and fetch another cup of French Roast. Is it the $5 per month that I'll have to shell out? I'm cheap, but am I that cheap?

Do I need to review my maxims? Erst waegen, dann wagen. But also: He who hesitates is lost. Or better: the post of one who dawdles like I'm doing right now is (often) lost.

Post Scriptum: I felt anxious just now when I hit Publish Post. Does my caffeinated and nicotinized heart need any more stress? And don't forget, compadres: blogging is exploding, and I reckon most of the newbies will be flooding over to Blogger/Blogspot. It's blogger Kindergarten. You don't have to be a computer scientist to know that the demands on the Blogspost server are going to increase dramatically.

Saturday, March 12, 2005

I've Had It

The Blogger server just ate another of my posts. Well, we all knew when we signed up for this free service that it was "subject to availability" as the fine print says. Enough is enough. I've cut my teeth and now it is time to get serious. Tomorrow I sign up at

Friday, March 11, 2005

Pop Culture is Filth

Be sure to read this excellent essay by Ed Feser.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

A Sample of Continental Political Philosophy

Discussing the differences between analytic and Continental philosophy in general terms won’t take us very far. We need to look at examples. I concede, however, that this very move, namely, getting down to cases, is an analytic move. Or rather it is just good intellectual procedure. (Am I perhaps stacking the deck against our Continental brethren right out of the gate?) Slavoj Zizek (On Belief, Routledge 2001, pp. 115-116) writes:

How does freedom effectively function in liberal democracies themselves? Although Clinton’s presidency epitomizes the Third Way of today’s (ex-)Left succumbing to the Rightist ideological blackmail, his healthcare reform program would nonetheless amount to a kind of act, at least in today’s conditions, since it would have been based on the rejection of the hegemonic notions of the need to curtail Big State expenditure and administration – in a way, it would "do the impossible." No wonder, then, that it failed: its failure – perhaps the only significant, although negative, event of Clinton’s presidency – bears witness to the material force of the ideological notion of "free choice". . . . against this purely fictional reference to "free choice," all enumeration of "hard facts" (in Canada, healthcare is less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice, etc.) proved ineffective.

The above passage is the sort of stuff that many (not all) Continental philosophers produce. It fails to meet minimal intellectual standards.

There is first of all the resort to invective, e.g., "Rightist ideological blackmail." Philosophical writing should aim at rational persuasion, not any sort of persuasion.

Second, we note the use of verbiage that has no clear meaning such as "act"and "event" in italics.

Third, the author appears to contradict himself, but does nothing to dispel the appearance. Zizek tells us that "to curtail Big State expenditure and administration" is "hegemonic." I should think that the opposite is the case: reducing the size and scope of government is anti-hegemonic. And what is the function of Zizek’s "do the impossible"? Is he perhaps affirming the apparent contradiction as real?

The very fact that I must ask these questions shows that no clear sense can be attached to Zizek’s pronouncements. But that which has no clear sense cannot be evaluated as either true or false. Will someone say that it is not about truth or falsity? Then what, pray tell, is it about?

Fourth, the notion of free choice is labeled "ideological," "purely ficitional" as if by slapping these labels on it one has refuted it. Suppose I have the choice of either having Medicare take care of my health problem, or paying a private physician at the Mayo Clinic out of my own pocket. That’s not a free choice? The thing about about most Continental claptrap is that it collapses the minute one adduces a concrete example – which usually turns out to be a counterexample.

Fifth, there are also issues of self-reference that ought to be mentioned. If there is no truth, and all claims and counterclaims are ideological, then the claim Z that the notion of free choice is ideological is itself ideological. But if Z is ideological – nothing but an expression and legitimation of some existing power arrangement – then it can make no appeal to my reason and I am within my epistemic rights in rejecting it.

Sixth, the claim that Canadian health care is "less expensive and more effective, with no less free choice" is a mixture of factual and conceptual errors. One of the logico-conceptual errors is his invocation of free choice when a few lines back he branded the notion as "purely fictional." What our man is saying in effect is: There is no free choice but there is more of it in Canada.

There is also the conceptual mistake of thinking that something is less expensive simply because my present out-of-pocket expense is less while ignoring all the money the government took by force in the form of mandatory withholding over my working career. Is health care in Canada more effective than in the good old US of A? I’ll leave that factual question for the experts to decide. But first they have to attach a clear sense to it.

If you enjoyed the above takedown, see here for another and here for a third.

Crossposted at Right Reason, where some comments should be appearing. Max Goss is doing an excellent job of moderating, administering, and enforcing standards.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Today's Posts are . . .

. . . here and here.

With respect to the second, Keith Burgess-Jackson e-mails:

I think you nailed it on the question of why the Left is uncivil. By the way, I'm sure you receive letters, as I do, from young people. They say they appreciate my posts; that I make them think; that they love the rational approach to human affairs. (I don't think I'm all that rational!) It makes me feel responsible, knowing that impressionable young people read my blogs.

Precisely because people are impressionable and suggestible, it is important for anyone who publishes to act responsibly. The blogosphere is what we make it. If enough of us inject reasonableness and civility into it, we will keep the barbarians in check. Part of keeping them in check is not allowing them a forum on our websites.

Right Reason Up and Running

Right Reason sports three posts as of this writing and plenty of comments.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Is There Room for Libertarianism Between Anarchism and Conservatism?

What follows are some remarks provoked by Daniel McCarthy’s "In Defense of Freedom" (The American Conservative, March 14, 2005 Issue.)

McC: Arthur Schopenhauer once wrote a marvelously cynical manual of eristics called The Art of Always Being Right. The philosopher advised his readers against resort to logic; ad hominem attacks and other plays upon the passions could be much more effective. Put the opponent’’s argument in some odious category, he urged.

BV: Given that the author will shortly complain about libertarians being slandered, I should point out that the above borders on slander of Schopenhauer. First of all, the essay in question was found untitled in Schopenhauer’s Nachlass. It has been available for many years in English translation under the title, The Art of Controversy. The title McCarthy mentions is a piece of recent repackaging. Second, Schopenhauer does NOT cynically advise his readers against resort to logic, as the following passage at the end of the essay shows:

The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet, but only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to cherish truth, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong, should truth lie with him. From this it follows that scarcely one man in a hundred is worth your disputing with him.

So much for setting the record straight.

McC: Conservatives are long accustomed to residing in such a category: as their enemies would have it, conservatism is the ideology of the rich, the racist, and the illiterate. That this caricature bears no resemblance at all to the philosophy and social thought of Edmund Burke or Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver or Robert Nisbet, is irrelevant. The stereotype endures not because it is true but because it is useful.

Sadly, a few conservatives seem to have learned nothing from their experience at the hands of the Left and are no less quick to present an ill-informed and malicious caricature of libertarians than leftists are to give a similarly distorted interpretation of conservatism. Rather than addressing the arguments of libertarians, these polemicists slander their foes as hedonists or Nietzscheans. In fact, there are libertine libertarians, just as there are affluent and bigoted conservatives. But libertinism itself is as distinct from libertarianism as worship of Mammon or hatred of blacks is distinct from conservatism.

BV: Fair enough.

McC: Libertarianism is a political philosophy, not a complete system of ethics or metaphysics. Political philosophies address specifically the state and, more generally, justice in human society. The distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else. Given that murder and theft are wrong——views not unique to libertarianism, of course——the libertarian contends that the state, which is to say those individuals who purport to act in the name of the common good, has no more right to seize the property of others, beat them, conscript them, or otherwise harm them than any other institution or individual has. Beyond this, libertarianism says only that a society without institutionalized violence can indeed exist and even thrive.

BV: How then does libertarianism differ from anarchism, the doctrine that no state is morally justified? It seems clear that if the very same rules are applied to the state that are applied to individuals, then no state could be morally justified. For example, I lack the moral authority to capture and imprison people even if they have done wrong to some third party. But the government presumably has this authority. If the government has no moral authority in this and similar matters, then government (the state) has no moral justification – which amounts to anarchism.

It is worth pointing out that if no government is morally justified, then a person who uses some instrument of government such as the court system to right an alleged wrong is using an unjust means to secure his end. For example, I once sued a contractor in small claims court because he failed to do all that he agreed to do. I won a judgment against him, and to my mind justice was served. But if no government has moral authority, then what I did was no different than my calling up my cousin Vinnie in New Jersey and having him and his pals Smith and Wesson ‘encourage’ the contractor to honor his agreement.

Suppose we agree with Elizabeth Anscombe that the "fundamental question of political theory" concerns the "problem of distinguishing between states and syndicates." (Ethics, Religion and Politics, p. 136) One could then approach this fundamental question in two ways. One way, the way of the conservative, is to accept that there is a legitimate distinction and take the fundamental problem to be one of explaining the nature of that distinction and how a state could be justified in doing things that a syndicate would not be justified in doing. The other way, the way of the anarchist or radical libertarian, would be eliminativist in the sense that it would deny that there is any justifiable distinction between a state and a syndicate.

McC: For some exceptionally Christ-like people no demonstration of feasibility is needed. Doing what is right is enough, regardless of whether it brings wealth or happiness or even daily bread. But most people are not like that; they want security and prosperity—they ask, not unreasonably, not only "is it right?"" but ""can it work?" Following upon this is a tendency to deny that necessary evils are evils at all. Yes, the state seizes tax money and jails those who do not pay, actions that would be denounced as gangsterism if undertaken by a private organization. But if the only way life can go on is to have the government provide defense and other necessities, such expropriations might have to be called something other than robbery.
Moderate libertarians say just that. They propose that the state should do those necessary things that it alone can do—and only those things. Radical libertarians contend there is nothing good that only the state can provide—even its seemingly essential functions are better served by the market and voluntary institutions. The differences between thoroughgoing libertarians and moderates are profound, but the immediate prescriptions of each are similar enough: cut taxes, slash spending, no more foreign adventurism.

BV: There is a problem here. The author told us above that "the distinguishing characteristic of libertarianism is that it applies to the state the same ethical rules that apply to everyone else." How then can there be a moderate libertarian, one who holds that there are some things that government may do which, if individuals did them, would be unethical? A moderate libertarian would seem to be a conservative. And a radical libertarian would seem to be an anarchist. It is not clear how there could be conceptual space for libertarianism if that is supposed to lie between anarchism (no state is morally justified) and conservatism (a limited state is justified).

Or am I missing something?

The Greatest Chess Understatement of All Time?

Dennis Monokroussos writes:

"It's not very likely that a player will produce a deep combination in a 1-minute game. . ."

That's just one bite out of a very big and tasty enchilada.

One thing I have noticed is that after playing 1-minute games, five minutes seems like an ice age. "Come on, move. What's to think about? I captured your knight, you have to take my Bishop . . . "

Nietzsche Misunderstood?

Ed Yetman writes by e-mail:

I noticed this paragraph at your site, which I copied in part. I think the author [Curtis Cate] makes a gross error in understanding Nietzsche:

Like innumerable, less reflective humanists who came after him, Nietzsche wished to hold on to an essentially Christian view of the human subject while dropping the transcendental beliefs that alone support it. It was this impulse to salvage a religious conception of humankind, I believe, that animated Nietzsche's attempt to construct a new mythology. The task set by Nietzsche for his imaginary Superman was to confer meaning on history through a redemptive act of will. The sorry history of the species, lacking purpose or sense until a higher form of humanity came on to the scene, would then be redeemed.

He could not be farther from the truth. Nietzsche is not at all interested in the Superman redeeming history, nor has he any interest in "salvaging a religious concept of humankind", to use that grotesque feminist perversion of "mankind."

Nietzsche was a pure individualist, with no concern for anything other than the life of the individual. This life, the life lived now, is all that matters. All values must be created now and lived now; all acts must be done now. To think about a "redemptive act of will" is to do what Nietzsche explicitly condemmed: squandering the spirit. I think Nietzsche wanted to create a non-religious spirituality. For Nietzsche, the spirit was something natural and inherent in man. To expend it on anything other than the self was wasteful. I do not think Nietzsche was a religious man, but he was an intensely spiritual man. I am degraded from grading papers all week. I hope this makes sense.

BV: Thanks for writing, Ed. And thanks for running my column, The Chess Philosopher, in your Descriptive Chess Magazine. I am working on two more chess & philosophy posts as we speak. If I can't be a good player of chess, I may perhaps reasonably aspire to be a good philosopher of chess.

Yes, grading is degrading. Nevertheless, you are making sense. But the senseful is not equivalent to the true. Part of the problem, however, is figuring out exactly what the sense is that you are making. Like many today, you distinguish religion from spirituality. That's a distinction that needs explaining, and absent explanation is to my mind bogus. (I'm planning a post on this very topic.)

I don't think it can be denied that there is a redemptive aspect to the doctrine of the Eternal Recurrence of the Same. Nietzsche speaks of the will as the "great redeemer" (the reference is buried in a manuscript that I will 'resurrect'). If I will every detail of my life and the world, and their eternal recurrence, then I will the future and in willing the future I will the past, and so redeem the past, present, and future from meaninglessness. Perhaps I will unpack this later.

I don't think it can be denied that Nietzsche is of the type, homo religiosus. His style of writing, however, makes it possible for him to be exploited by partisans of a wide variety of contradictory positions. For example, it always amazes me that so many leftists love Nietzsche. I suppose it has to do with his doctrine that "The world is the will to power and nothing besides!" That is right up the leftist alley.

But I do agree with you about 'humankind.' It is nonsense to think that standard English excludes women. It certainly didn't exclude Ayn Rand!

Would Schopenhauer Allow Comments?

If Schopenhauer were a blogger, would he allow comments on his weblog, The Scowl of Minerva?

I say no, and adduce as evidence the following passage that concludes his Art of Controversy, a delightful essay found in his Nachlass, and left untitled by the master:

As a sharpening of wits, controversy is often, indeed, of mutual advantage, in order to correct one's thoughts and awaken new views. But in learning and in mental power both disputants must be tolerably equal: If one of them lacks learning, he will fail to understand the other, as he is not on the same level with his antagonist. If he lacks mental power, he will be embittered, and led into dishonest tricks, and end by being rude.

The only safe rule, therefore, is that which Aristotle mentions in the last chapter of his Topica: not to dispute with the first person you meet, but only with those of your acquaintance of whom you know that they possess sufficient intelligence and self-respect not to advance absurdities; to appeal to reason and not to authority, and to listen to reason and yield to it; and, finally, to cherish truth, to be willing to accept reason even from an opponent, and to be just enough to bear being proved to be in the wrong, should truth lie with him. From this it follows that scarcely one man in a hundred is worth your disputing with him. You may let the remainder say what they please, for every one is at liberty to be a fool - desipere est jus gentium. Remember what Voltaire says: La paix vaut encore mieux que la verite. Remember also an Arabian proverb which tells us that on the tree of silence there hangs its fruit, which is peace.

Here is the same passage in the German original:

Das Disputieren ist als Reibung der Köpfe allerdings oft von gegenseitigem Nutzen, zur Berichtigung der eignen Gedanken und auch zur Erzeugung neuer Ansichten. Allein beide Disputanten müssen an Gelehrsamkeit und an Geist ziemlich gleichstehn. Fehlt es Einem an der ersten, so versteht er nicht Alles, ist nicht au niveau. Fehlt es ihm am zweiten, so wird die dadurch herbeigeführte Erbitterung ihn zu Unredlichkeiten und Kniffen [oder] zu Grobheit verleiten.

Die einzig sichere Gegenregel ist daher die, welche schon Aristoteles im letzten Kapitel der Topica gibt: Nicht mit dem Ersten dem Besten zu disputieren; sondern allein mit solchen, die man kennt, und von denen man weiß, daß sie Verstand genug haben, nicht gar zu Absurdes vorzubringen und dadurch beschämt werden zu müssen; und um mit Gründen zu disputieren und nicht mit Machtsprüchen, und um auf Gründe zu hören und darauf einzugehn; und endlich, daß sie die Wahrheit schätzen, gute Gründe gern hören, auch aus dem Munde des Gegners, und Billigkeit genug haben, um es ertragen zu können, Unrecht zu behalten, wenn die Wahrheit auf der andern Seite liegt. Daraus folgt, daß unter Hundert kaum Einer ist, der wert ist, daß man mit ihm disputiert. Die Übrigen lasse man reden, was sie wollen, denn desipere est juris gentium, und man bedenke, was Voltaire sagt: La paix vaut encore mieux que la vérité; und ein arabischer Spruch ist: »Am Baume des Schweigens hängt seine Frucht der Friede.«

Monday, March 07, 2005

New Conservative Weblog: Right Reason

Conservative group weblog Right Reason is scheduled to begin operations on Wednesday, 9 March 2005. Nothing has been posted yet, but you can see the layout and a list of contributors.

God and Santa Claus

For Sam Harris and many others, the beliefs in God and in Santa Claus are on a doxastic par.

But Harris is a radical, one who opposes both beliefs in both their conservative and in their liberal versions. Theological liberals say stuff like, "God is the warm feeling we get when we are with the people we love," or "God is our highest ethical aspiration," or "God is our ultimate concern" (Tillich). Harris is right to oppose such asinine pablum. Better no God-talk than this drivel. Harris put his point against the theological liberals somewhat as follows when I heard him on C-Span on 6 February 2005: "That’s like getting rid of the fat man in the red suit, but holding on to the elves and the sleigh." Or it would be like saying that one believes in Santa Claus but that Santa Claus is the wondrous spirit of giving that comes upon the land around the time of the Winter solstice. (Compare Cactus Ed Abbey’s snort: "Piss on earth, good swill towards men." Somewhere in Confessions of a Barbarian.)

Theological liberals ought to make a clean sweep and simply deny the existence of God rather than try to hold on by redefining ‘God’ to mean something it cannot possibly mean. God cannot be a feeling, warm or otherwise, any more than God can be whatever happens to be your ultimate concern. Of course, one can say things like, "His God is Jim Beam" or "Her God is golf," but such talk is so loose as to be meaningless.

So I follow Sam Harris in rejecting the wishy-washy liberal compromise. Where Harris goes wrong is in failing to see that comparing God to Santa Claus makes very little sense. Of course, anything can be compared to anything else: apples can be compared to sparkplugs, mesas to mammaries, and all four are comparable in respect of being mentioned now by this blogger. But there are two important differences between God and Santa Claus, or rather their respective concepts, that undermine Harris’ deprecatory analogy.

First, God is such that, if he exists, he cannot not exist, and if he does not exist, then he cannot exist. This is what is meant by saying that God is ens necessarium, a necessary being. This was Anselm’s Discovery (to employ a title of one of Charles Hartshorne’s books), and its correctness is independent of the soundness of either of Anselm’s versions of the ontological argument. (Proslogion II vs. Proslogion III). The idea is that either God exists in all metaphysically possible worlds, or in no metaphysically possible world. Equivalently, God either exists necessarily, or is impossible. God cannot be a contingent being. He cannot just happen to exist, or happen not to exist. If God were a contingent being, he would not be "that than which no greater can be conceived" and would not be worthy of worship. Santa Claus, however, must be a contingent being, a fact derivable from his being a physical being. God is necessarily noncontingent; Santa Claus is necessarily contingent. So there is one point of disanalogy.

Another is that Santa Claus is at least in part a physical being, whereas God is purely spiritual. Some will balk at the notion that Santa C laus is physical: "He does not exist, so how can he be physical!" This is to confuse existence with physicality. Consider the biconditional:

1. X exists iff X is a physical entity.

(1) does not stand up well to counterexamples. My thoughts exist, but it is highly dubious that they are physical. Numbers exist, but it would take some fancy footwork indeed to show that they are construable in terms of merely physical items. And aren’t some merely possible objects physical? There is that bookshelf I have been planning to build. It does not yet exist, but if I were to build it, it would exist. The point could be put as follows. The concept of a bookshelf is a concept that could be instantiated only by a physical particular. In that sense, a merely possible bookshelf is a physical thing. The same goes for various sorts of impossibilia. A perpetual motion machine is nomologically impossible. Yet if, per impossibile, one were to exist, it would have to be a physical object. The ether for which the Michelson-Morley experiment failed to provide evidence presumably does not exist. Yet 19th century physicists believe that it existed. When they abandoned their belief that the ether exists, they did not abandon it by replacing it with the belief that the ether is nonphysical; they abandoned it by replacing it with the belief that the ether does not exist. Same with phlogiston, caloric, and all the rest of those physics posits good and gone.

Because of these and other counterxamples it is beyond doubt that (1) is false. This stymies any attempt at identifying existence with physicality. I can also show that even if – per impossibile! – (1) were necessarily true, existence still could not be identified with phsyicality. But I’ll save that for an separate post.

In sum, the concept of God is the concept of a purely spiritual necessary being, whereas the concept of Santa Claus includes neither of these marks. The two concepts are separated by a deep ontological chasm. Nothing I have said is evidence of the actual existence of God. But what I have shown is that atheists who compare God with Santa Claus (or the Easter Bunny, or the Tooth Fairy, etc) are not seriously engaging theistic ideas. They think of God as some sort of ‘feel-good posit,’ some sort of anthropological projection (Feuerbach) or wish-fulfillment (Freud).

Here, then, is a central problem in the debate between atheists and theists. I am tempted to call it an asymmetry. Many theists take atheism seriously, as a Jamesian "live option," but few atheists take theism seriously in like manner. They just cannot take it seriously as something that could be true. It is to them obviously false and the point of arguing against it is not to convince themselves that it is false but to convince theists and fence-sitters that it is false.

The Blogger Juggernaut Rolls On

Blogger Garrett Graff receives White House pass.

Are These Aphorisms Any Good?

See here. I have my answer. What is yours?

Nietzsche, Homo Religiosus

A correspondent wrote to ask me my opinion of Curtis Cate's recent study of Nietzsche. Well, I haven't seen it, but I have just read a review by John Gray published in the New Statesman. Here is the final paragraph:

Like innumerable, less reflective humanists who came after him, Nietzsche wished to hold on to an essentially Christian view of the human subject while dropping the transcendental beliefs that alone support it. It was this impulse to salvage a religious conception of humankind, I believe, that animated Nietzsche's attempt to construct a new mythology. The task set by Nietzsche for his imaginary Superman was to confer meaning on history through a redemptive act of will. The sorry history of the species, lacking purpose or sense until a higher form of humanity came on to the scene, would then be redeemed. In truth, Nietzsche's mythology is no more than the Christian view of history stated in idiosyncratic terms, and a banal version of it underpins nearly all subsequent varieties of secular thought. The militant atheist who charmed the good burghers of Sils-Maria with his innocent sanctity left a contribution to our religious inheritance that remains unacknowledged to this day.

I would say that this is basically on the right track. Or as I put it in an unpublished draft, "Although Nietzsche's was the bladed intellect of the sceptic, he possessed the open heart of the homo religiosus."

Old Einstein Joke

This old joke may be worth repeating.

Einstein and a young physicist were having a conversation. From time to time the young physicist would take out a notebook and jot something down.

"What are you doing?" Einstein asked.

"Well, whenever I get a good idea, I write it down."

"I used to do that myself once, but I had only two good ideas."

Bogus Quotations

Politicians and popular writers who retail in bogus quotations should have a close cousin of the logic stick applied to their silly heads.

Senator Charles Grassley (R) was on C-Span this morning talking about Social Security reform among other things. He attributed the following quotation to Albert Einstein: "Compound interest is the only miracle in the world." Did Einstein say that? I rather doubt it. It is too stupid a thing for Einstein to say. There is nothing miraculous about compound interest, and there is no 'magic' in it either. It is very simple arithmetic. Suppose you invest $2000 at 10% compounded annually. At the end of the first year, you have $2,200. How much do you have at the end of the second year, assuming no additions or subtractions from the principal? $2,400? No. What you have is $2,200 + 220 = $2, 420. Where did the extra twenty bucks come from? That is interest on interest. It is the interest on interest on interest . . . that make compounding a powerful tool of wealth enhancement.

But there is nothing miraculous or magical about it. Words mean things. Use them wisely.

And don't look to Einstein for advice on personal finance.

Sunday, March 06, 2005

Ralph Waldo Emerson on Blogging

The good of publishing one's thoughts is that of hooking to you like-minded men, and of giving to men whom you value . . . one hour of stimulated thought.

From The Heart of Emerson's Journals, ed. Bliss Perry, p. 94. Entry of 20 June 1835 when Emerson was 32 years old.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

Cassirer on Kant on Rousseau and Independence

Ernst Cassirer, Rousseau, Kant and Goethe (Harper Torchbooks, 1963, p. 17):

What always reconciled Kant again to Rousseau, with all his paradoxical and enthusiastic qualities, was the fearlessness, the independence of thought and feeling, the will to the "unconditioned" he there encountered. For Kant himself, though far from any rebellion against the constituted authorities, was inspired with the strongest sense of independence. Much that surprises us in his way of life and may at times seem strange or eccentric, is explained by this trait of his character: by the desire to preserve his inner and outer independence in every moment of life and under all circumstances.

Rights and Duties: A Quiz

Try to guess who wrote the following passage and when. A Dos Equis and a shot of Jose Cuervo 1800 to whomever gets both right without Googling. (I rather doubt that Googling will help in any case.) A shot of cheap Tequila to anyone who can date this passage within a ten year period.

. . . the people who have more rights than duties have gained a notable and distinguished ethical position in our modern world. The selfish we had always with us. But the divine right to be selfish was never more ingeniously defended, in the name of the loftiest spiritual dignity, than it is sometimes defended and illustrated today.

Answer to be posted in a day or two in the Comments section.

Bad Academic Writing: Can Blogging Help?

I saw Christina Hoff Sommers on C-Span this morning. She mentioned that Judith Butler had won a Bad Writing contest. I put the Google bot on her case and found this well written piece from the Weekly Standard.

Since I tend to overwrite, I thought that blogging might improve my style, moving it from the prolix to the pithy. I believe it has helped some. But blogging is to formal writing a bit like blitz is to slow chess. The blitz player develops quick sight of the board and learns how to maintain his cool in time pressure; but the overall assessment has to be negative: speed chess hurts one's slow game. (But my slow game is so bad, the hurt is inconsequential.) Does blogosophisizing hurt one's formal philosophizing? The jury is still out on this one as far as I'm concerned.

Maybe what Judith Butler needs is her very own blog, ButlerBlog, or perhaps ButlerBull. For all I know, she already has one.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Should the Pseudonymous Be Boycotted?

Keith Burgess-Jackson says yes. What say you, fellow bloggers? Or is this topic played out?

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Largest Prime Number?

From The Guardian (via Tony Flood):

A German eye specialist with a keen amateur interest in mathematics has discovered the world's largest prime number after a 50-day search using his personal computer.

Now your humble correspondent is certainly no expert in number theory, but he knows that a prime number is one that is divisible only by itself and by 1, and he thinks he knows that there is no largest prime number. So he suspects that the Guardian's journalist, Luke Harding, is a sloppy writer. What Harding wants to convey is not the thought that

1. There is a largest prime number n such that Dr. Martin Nowak has discovered n


2. There is a prime number n such that Dr. Martin Nowak has discovered n and no prime m > n has yet been discovered.

The journalist is confusing 'the largest prime hitherto discovered' with 'the largest prime.' Could the root of this error be the widespread tendency to conflate epistemological and ontological questions? Is Harding a student of Continental philosophy?

Furthermore, why does the journalist write, "world's largest"? As opposed to what, the UK's largest?

UPDATE (4 March '05): Commenter David reports that the number can be viewed in its full glory here.

A Platonist at Breakfast

I head out early one morning with wifey in tow. I’m going to take her to a really fancy joint this time, the 5 and Diner, a greasy spoon just dripping with 1950s Americana. We belly up to the counter -- where I can keep an eye on the waitresses -- and order the $2. 98 special: two eggs any style, hashbrowns, toast and coffee. Meanwhile I punch the buttons of Floyd Cramer’s "Last Date" on the personal jukebox in front of me after feeding it with a quarter from wifey’s purse.

"How would you like your eggs, sir?"

"Over medium, please."

The eggs arrive undercooked. Do I complain? Rhinestone studded Irene is working her tail off in the early morning rush. I’ve already bugged her for Tabasco sauce, extra butter, and more coffee. The service came with the sweetest of smiles. The place is jumping, the Mexican cooks are sweating, and the philosopher is philosophizing:

"If it won’t matter by tomorrow morning that these eggs are undercooked, why does it matter now?"

With that thought, I liberally douse the undercooked eggs with the fine Louisiana condiment, mix them up with the hashbrowns, and shovel the mess into my mouth with bread and fork, chasing it all with coffee and cream, no sugar.

Who says you can’t do anything with philosophy?

An Embarrassment of Riches

Some nonpseudonymous weblogs that have come to my attention:


Studi Galileiani

Scriptorium Digitalis

Pike Speak