Archive for December, 2008

Political Philosophy

December 20, 2008

I stand for equality and liberty.  As a citizen of the USA, I believe that all citizens should have the exact same rights as every other citizen and that those rights should be as expansive as possible, so long as not denied by the Constitution or clearly deniable by the State as being contrary to the Consitution or the public good.  Some people talk about “priviledges” extended by the State, but IMHO, there are few or no priviledges, as such is contrary to the egalitarian nature of the ideal polis.

As such, I overlap with, but am not identical to, libertarians, anarchists, communists, and especially utilitarians.  I appreciate the libertarians’ and anarchists’ zeal from freedom, but believe there is a legitimate function for a robust state–including to protect the rights of minorities.  I appreciate the egalitarian sentiments of communist theory, but especially in practice I have found it to be too heavy-handed and not respectful of individual rights.  I especially resonate with Mills’ Harm Principle (competent adults have the right to do as they please so long as they do not harm others), but am also turned off by his distrust of the common voter and his willingness to cede more power to the intellectual elite (e.g., the Electoral College as envisioned rather than directly electing a president by popular vote).

My stance, then, on some of today’s hot button topics:

Gay marriage: the marriage of GLBTQ people in no way harms the marriages or other rights enjoyed by the majority and this right should be fully recognized by the State.  What we have now is a Tyranny of the Majority denying rights to an unpopular minority.

Polygamy/polyandry/group marriages: the rights of consenting adults to live the lifestyle of their choice so long as it does not harm any children resulting from such unions also seems a no-brainer to me.  I’m the first to admit there are despicable things that have been associated with polygamy in the past, including the enslavement of women, but it seems to me these are a result of polygamy’s being forced underground.  If rigorously scientific tests showed that children of group (or gay) marriages were impaired, then the State would have a compelling interest in prohibiting their reproduction, if not their pairing–but as far as I am aware, no such study exists for either group.

Gun rights: it seems to me a tortured reading of the Second Amendment that allows unrestricted individual gun rights.  Hand guns in urban areas, in particular, are a public health menace and should be heavily regulated.  Guns that do not threaten the public well-being (in private homes for person defense, for hunting, in collections) should be reasonably regulated to prohibit their use for criminal purposes and to prevent their accidental discharge or use by minors.

God: American public places ideally should be free of religious monuments, symbols, artistic references, etc.  When they are permitted in tributes to historic origins of the law, etc., they must be open to all religious groups.  The free exercise of all groups’ religions must not be regulated so long as that practice does not harm the public good.

Drugs: competent adults should have unimpaired control over their own bodies, including the informed use of substances that are harmful to them, so long as they do not injure others in their intoxicated states–driving while intoxicated would be one example, as would neglect of a minor be another.  The State might reasonably restrict the use of intoxicating drugs, alcohol, etc., to private homes and sanctioned “shooting galleries.”

Abortion: a potential life is not equal to an existing life; as such viability is a reasonable (although admittedly imperfect) compromise between the rights of the unborn and the rights of parents–until viability, a woman should have unrestricted right to an abortion, while afterwards protecting the life of the mother should be the only permissible reason for an abortion.  Obviously this issue will need a major revisiting once science has developed an artificial womb such that all conceptions are theoretically viable when transplanted.


Practical Logic

December 16, 2008

When teaching Deductive Logic, the classic complaint we professors get is that there is such an emphasis on the syntax (mechanics) of logic that the semantics (meaning) gets lost, i.e., there’s no real-world application or meaning there.  I would take issue with that, but that’s another column.  I will concede that Deductive Logic is indeed a tightly defined universe of discourse that ultimately has nothing to do with the real world any more than a game of chess does.

Inductive Logic (which most of my students historically have taken to get out of calculus), on the other hand, precisely deals with the real world–or at least what we think is the real world–again, a topic for another column.  Whereas Deductive Logic might construct a syllogism like this:

(p1) If it is raining, the ground will be wet.

(p2) It is raining.

(c) Therefore, the ground must be wet.


While this is valid reasoning–the form of the argument is such that so long as the premises p1 and p2 are true, the the conclusion c must be true, it says nothing about whether it’s raining outside right now in the real world.  So consider the inductive argument:

(P1) My scientific instruments tell me the air pressure is dropping and the humidity is rising.

(P2) I hear thunder and see lightning.

(P3) I see the sky is getting dark and can feel the wind picking up.

(C) I conclude it’s likely to start raining soon.


Not that the truth of P1 – P3 do not guarantee the truth of the conclusion, C, but they do make it more probable.  Hence inductive conclusions are never valid, but probablistic, but at least they do apply to the real world.   Inductive arguents, being invalid, make lousy deductive arguments; and vice-versa.


Occasionally an inductive argument will look much like a deductive argument.  Consider the deduction:

(p1) All iron comes from meterorites.

(p2) This knife is iron.

(c) Therefore this knife must be made out of meterorites.

Although p1 is false, IF p1 and p2 were true, then c would have to be true, hence this is a valid argument.  Compare that to this induction:


(P1) All known iron artifacts from ancient Egypt appear to have been made out of meteorites.

(P2) This iron knife appears to come from ancient Egypt.

(C) Therefore it appears likely that this knife was made from meterorites.


The truth of P1 and P2 make C more probable than not, hence this is a good inductive argument.


Thus if you want absolute certainty, you are limited to deductive reasoning, but you largely abandon the real world.  On the other hand, if you want to argue about the real world, your conclusions are only going to be probably true at best.  Thus we might say that deductive logic is truth-preserving (you end up with what you started with, just in a logically equivalent form), while we might say that inductive logic is truth-expanding (you go beyond the premises to create new knowledge).  Note, too, that Deductive Logic is concerned primarily with validity–the truth of the premises is unimportant; whereas Inductive Logic is all about getting to the truth–the truth of the premises is very important (in computerese, GIGO: Garbage In, Garbage Out).

Thinking philososophically

December 12, 2008

What’s so hard about thinking philosophically?  Philosophy is fundamentally thinking about thinking.  So you analyze thoughts and quickly come to realize there are justified thoughts and unjustified thoughts.  We call justified thoughts rational.  So thoughts like 1+1=2 in base-10 mathematics or “I know from science that the Earth is probably in excess of 4 billion years old” are rational.  There are solid reasons to believe they are true and no rational reason to suspect that they are not.

Unjustified thinking is more complex and I will divide it into two categories, the irrational and antirational.  Irrational beliefs are those for which I have have neither a rational reason to believe or disbelieve.  “I think there is one, omnipotent, omniscent, loving God,” as proposed by Christianity, Judaism, and Islam is a popular one.  The problem is, despite thousands of years of struggle by most of the best minds in humanity, there is no conclusive reason to believe or disbelieve this statement–it could well be true, but it might also not be true, too.  There’s no way to know.  Supposed proofs fall far short of establishing God,  and supposed disproofs, like the Problem of Evil, also fall short other than to suggest our understanding of God might be incomplete.

Antirational beliefs are, theoretically, the easiest to deal with.  You have a rational reason to believe that something is the case, but instead you believe the opposite.  “McDonalds uses earthworms from Argentina in its hamburgers” might be one such.  Touring McDonalds’ facilities you see no evidence of earthworms.  McDonalds hamburgers don’t taste anything like (I imagine) earthworms would taste.  There are no shipping records that McDonalds has imported earthworms from Argentina.  In fact, it would be stupid for several reasons for McDonalds to use earthworms, including that it would garner the franchise negative publicity and it would increase production costs to use them.  So there is no rational reason to suppose that McDonalds uses earthworms from Argentina in its hamburgers and many rational reasons to suppose that it does not.  Yet some people, for whatever reason, will persist in believing that McDonalds uses earthworms imported from Argentina to make its hamburgers.