Category Archives: Narrativism

On Originalism and Omelets

Q: How many eggs do French people like to have for breakfast?

A: One is an oeuf.

Hilarious!  That’s about the quality of Jonah Goldberg’s recent posting at NRO, titled “Close Encounters with a ‘Living Constitution'”.

Here’s the setup.  Goldberg orders an Arizona Omelet at the diner, the Red Flame.  But the server brings him a bowl of oatmeal.  When Goldberg objects that he didn’t order this, the server replies that he, in fact, did order the oatmeal.

“This is oatmeal,” I’d say. “The menu says that the Arizona Omelet has cheese and onions and jalapenos in it. It also says it’s an omelet.”

Waitress: “Well, we here at the Red Flame believe that the menu is a living, breathing document that changes with the times. Oatmeal is healthier than an omelet, and we feel that people should eat more of it. So, we only serve oatmeal, but we call it by different names.

The point, as we see, given the analogy, is that taking X as a ‘living document’ is just to impose one’s will on the document.  Words don’t mean what they mean at all.  Or they mean what we just want them to mean.  And here’s how Goldberg sees the plausibility of this line of thought:

That’s more like how the doctrine of the “Living Constitution” works in real life. A judge makes a small leap of interpretation that seems reasonable — say, replacing onions with shallots, which after all, are a kind of onion. Then the next judge makes another incremental hop in interpretation. And then another. And another. Until eventually the waitress brings me the head of Alfredo Garcia

So Goldberg’s reasoning is that because it happens in ‘incremental steps,’ there will be no constraint on how to read the Constitution or a menu, for that matter.   But the problem is that there must still be a ‘reasonable interpretation’ at each of these steps.  Red onions for shallots… and note what makes it reasonable is that they are kinds of onions.  (And note that it’s a replacement, not a re-interpretation.)
But here’s the big lie to the reasoning — none of the ‘reasonable’ replacements actually end up with what Goldberg takes as obvious — that there’s a series of reasonable interpretations of ‘omelet’ that yields a bowl of oatmeal.
Goldberg closes by noting how he sees the dialectical situation:
There are some issues where I think liberals have a sincerely held, rational, and legitimate point of view that I simply disagree with. But the doctrine of the Living Constitution is not one of them.
You’ve got to be freakin’ kidding me.  At no point in time does someone who cares about individual rights thinks that there would be a problem with the dead hand?
And so, we see a fallacy double-dip.  First, there’s the faulty analogy between the situation of Living Document interpretation of the Constitution and the Red Fire Diner’s omelet, and the case Goldberg makes for it as a slippery slope.
The ur-fallacy here is the slippery slope, since reasonable interpretations don’t have the all-too-easy-slide to voluntarist re-writing, the slope isn’t slippery.  So the two cases aren’t analogous.  Oh well, if this is how well Goldberg thinks who hold Living Document views reason, then of course he shouldn’t think there’s a rational and reasonable disagreement.  But he’s not reasonably held that view.

Just little old me…

Dennis Prager’s post at NRO today is literally a series of conservative talking points on Islam and terrorism.  All pretty much familiar fare, from identifying a persecution complex in their opponents (the irony!) to blaming the Left for encouraging them to their acts of violence, to just stopping short of calling Islam an ideology of indecency.  But it’s with the last line of thought  that Prager has an interesting line of argument.  He holds that “Any religion or ideology that is above good and evil produces enormous evil”, and then he plays to make a contrast.

Unfortunately, most religious and secular ideologues find preoccupation with human decency boring. The greatest moral idea in history, ethical monotheism, doesn’t excite most people.

First, there are factual things in question.  One is that most of the ideologies run on making the case that they are the last and best hope for decency.  They wouldn’t be convincing otherwise.  Liberalism is posited on the appeal of decency, by the way.  Second, is ethical monotheism really “the greatest moral idea in history”?  Solve the problem of evil before you say that, buddy.  Moreover, I don’t even seen ‘ethical monotheism’ as really a moral idea — it’s more a meta-ethic, that God is the source of moral norms.  That’s more a metaphysical idea.  And aren’t there actual moral ideas that seem to be considerably more powerful than ‘ethical monotheism,’ anyhow?  Deontology?  Eudaimonistic ethics?  Consequentialism? (It’s one thing you can say for Roger Scruton is that he’d never write anything this stupid.  NRO and The American Spectator will miss his intellectual heft for sure.)

Finally, I suspect Prager’s got a very specific monotheism in mind when he says this… but, you know, his favorite ethical monotheism doesn’t have a particularly good track record, either.   Would we want Christianity judged by the decisions made by George W. Bush?

Factual questions aside, Prager’s case is interesting argumentative strategy.  It’s a kind of downplayer, but on his own side. As if to say, “Well, nobody pays attention to little old me… I just try to do my best to be moral and upright and stuff…”  The implicature of the speech act, of course, is to make the contrast — so as to say that popularity is a kind of negative authority of what’s right and true.

I’ve started calling strategies like this ‘persecution strategies,’ those that set up the dialectical board in a way that makes it inappropriate to overtly challenge the view.  It runs:  this view has had a long line of critics and rejections, and most folks think it’s crazy.  But it hasn’t had a fair hearing.  The strategy, then, is to identify most of the going criticisms of the view as mere expressions of the standard knee-jerk rejection of the view.  Now, for sure, some views haven’t had a fair hearing, and it’s worth making the case they should be given it.  But, as we’ve noted with the iron man, not all views need to be fully developed before we can see they are losers. And sometimes, it’s not worth our time and effort to do the work.  Recently, in my survey of informal class, I’ve started calling this tactic the little view that could.

Who loves the ad baculum?

Mallard Fillmore, that’s who.


Well, I should say, actually: Who loves to attribute the ad baculum?  This seems a very strange sort piece of communication, one that were it actually true or believed to be true, wouldn’t actually be performed in this fashion.  That is, if Bruce Tinsley really believed that the President would bomb him for opposing his agenda or other democrats or for thinking that Nancy Pelosi isn’t attractive (WHUH?), he’d order a drone strike.  Or would be willing to threaten one… would Tinsley write a version of this cartoon?  Surely not.  So what’s this cartoon actually communicating?

Progressivism Isn’t Everything, It’s The Only Thing

Sometimes I think the real reason Hume aimed his skeptical arguments at the notion of causation is because he perceived the manifold ways dubious argumentative strategies can give causal arguments tremendous rhetorical force.   George Will was kind enough to provide us with just such a perverse causal claim this week.  Recent events at Penn State, University of Georgia,and Syracuse have prompted many journalists to consider the peculiarly American phenomenon of the state university football coach.  Will surveys the scene and deduces a culprit for this quasi-demagogue: American Progressivism, of course.  Will argues

With two extravagant entertainments under way, it is instructive to note the connection between the presidential election and the college football season: Barack Obama represents progressivism, a doctrine whose many blemishes on American life include universities as football factories, which progressivism helped to create.

To quote my favorite small business owner, I don't even know where to begin to correct that sentence.  But before we being with the correcting, let's get a taste of the argument:

Higher education embraced athletics in the first half of the 19th century, when most colleges were denominational and most instruction was considered mental and moral preparation for a small minority — clergy and other professionals. Physical education had nothing to do with spectator sports entertaining people from outside the campus community. Rather, it was individual fitness — especially gymnastics — for the moral and pedagogic purposes of muscular Christianity — mens sana in corpore sano, a sound mind in a sound body.

Pick a lane, George.  Eliding is fun, but if there's a connection between Progressivism's causing universities to become football factories and this host of religious universities "embracing athletics" as some sort of corporeal moral education, it's not apparent from this graph.  If there isn't such a connection, then this paragraph seems to contradict the one which preceded it. But let's see where this goes:

Intercollegiate football began when Rutgers played Princeton in 1869, four years after Appomattox. In 1878, one of Princeton’s two undergraduate student managers was Thomas — he was called Tommy — Woodrow Wilson. For the rest of the 19th century, football appealed as a venue for valor for collegians whose fathers’ venues had been battlefields. Stephen Crane, author of the Civil War novel “The Red Badge of Courage” (1895) — the badge was a wound — said: “Of course, I have never been in a battle, but I believe that I got my sense of the rage of conflict on the football field.”

Who needs arguments?  String barely-related facts together in temporal order, manufacture narrative, close with pithy quote, QED.  I have wasted my life.

Harvard philosopher William James then spoke of society finding new sources of discipline and inspiration in “the moral equivalent of war.” Society found football, which like war required the subordination of the individual, and which would relieve the supposed monotony of workers enmeshed in mass production. 

Setting aside the risible reading of James…wait, no, let's not set it aside.  Here's what James actually argues:

If now — and this is my idea — there were, instead of military conscription, a conscription of the whole youthful population to form for a certain number of years a part of the army enlisted against Nature, the injustice would tend to be evened out, and numerous other goods to the commonwealth would remain blind as the luxurious classes now are blind, to man's relations to the globe he lives on, and to the permanently sour and hard foundations of his higher life. To coal and iron mines, to freight trains, to fishing fleets in December, to dishwashing, clotheswashing, and windowwashing, to road-building and tunnel-making, to foundries and stoke-holes, and to the frames of skyscrapers, would our gilded youths be drafted off, according to their choice, to get the childishness knocked out of them, and to come back into society with healthier sympathies and soberer ideas. They would have paid their blood-tax, done their own part in the immemorial human warfare against nature; they would tread the earth more proudly, the women would value them more highly, they would be better fathers and teachers of the following generation.

Well, we already know how George feels about trains, so it's no small wonder he would drag poor Billy James into the fray.  The problem is Will's completely misrepresented the claim.  James isn't concerned here with the plight of "workers enmeshed in mass production," and Will's desperate attempt at a dogwhistle connection between Progressivism (as represented by a Boston Brahma, natch) and Marxism can't make that so.  James' "moral equivalent to war" is proffered as a mitigation of the seeming impasse between the "war party" and the "peace party."  James sees the former as promoting martial virtues to extremes that actually run counter to goals of human society, while the latter engage in a fool's errand to utterly eliminate martial virtues.  James' middle way mollifies both parties: martial virtues are extolled, but instead of being channeled into war, they are channeled into productive human activity (which activity could plausibly include monotonous mass production-type activities!).  James is thinking here of things like the Peace Corps and Teach For America, not the LSU Tigers (although one might reasonably argue that the argument could extend to those things, but not in terms that Will would accept).  Moreover, there's something else going wrong here, with this talk of the individual. As Will continues,

College football became a national phenomenon because it supposedly served the values of progressivism, in two ways. It exemplified specialization, expertise and scientific management. And it would reconcile the public to the transformation of universities, especially public universities, into something progressivism desired but the public found alien. Replicating industrialism’s division of labor, universities introduced the fragmentation of the old curriculum of moral instruction into increasingly specialized and arcane disciplines. These included the recently founded social sciences — economics, sociology, political science — that were supposed to supply progressive governments with the expertise to manage the complexities of the modern economy and the simplicities of the uninstructed masses.

Football taught the progressive virtue of subordinating the individual to the collectivity. Inevitably, this led to the cult of one individual, the coach. Today, in almost every state, at least one public university football coach is paid more than the governor.

I've never been convinced by this sort of "kingdom of the blind"-type argument.  They either seem painfully tautologous ("If we outlaw guns, only outlaws will have guns"), or they seem self referentially incoherent, as is the case above.  But more to the point, the contradictions in this claim point to a deeper flaw in Will's argument, namely that Will doesn't even seem to have a firm grasp on what he takes Progressivism to be, let alone show concern for what it actually is, so he enmeshes himself in a web of contradictions and half-hearted historical claims that ultimately come to nothing. Instead of providing himself a worthy foe, "Progressivism" functions as an umbrella term for a loosely related set of social doctrines to which Will objects.  Will might have proved that some particular doctrine lent a hand in the rise of college sports as public spectacle, but he hasn't shown (1) that American Progressivism as such is a cause, nor has he shown, most importantly, (2) that even a majority of American universities are football factories.  He clearly seems to think so, but he's never offered even a hint of an argument for either view.   In place of an argument, we get a shitty reading of William James and a milquetoast narrative more worthy of small-time sports blog than the Op-Ed pages of a major newspaper.  

Another sparkling moment in our national discourse.

Mallard Fillmore’s critique by reportage?

Here's a recent Mallard Fillmore cartoon.  It portrays president Obama making two inferences.  First, there is the argument by projected increase:

P1: The rate of entitlements in 1962 was 6%

P2: The rate of entitlements in 2012 is 35%

C1: Entitlements are increasing at a rate of .58% a year.

The second inference is the regular conservative culture of dependency argument:

P3: If one depends on entitlements, one is dependent on the state.

P4: If one is dependent on the state, then one will vote for the welfare state

P5: If one votes for the welfare state, then one will vote for liberals.

C2: Those dependent on entitlements will vote for liberals.

Putting C1 and C2 together yield the final conclusion:

C3: The proportional voting block for liberals is increasing at .58% a year.

There are other features of the presentation in the background, too, namely, that it's implied that Obama already knows about the culture of dependency argument, and that because of that, he's arranged to make P2 true.  That is, it's a politically motivated move to make people dependent so as to make them Democrats. 

Now, I think it's clear that Fillmore is displaying the inferences here critically.  So what's the critical edge to it?  Here's my best try to reconstruct it:  the implication is that Obama is intentionally making people dependent on government assistance to make them more liberal.  That will make them more inclined to vote for him and his party in this and upcoming elections. 

But two questions here.  First, I don't think it's appropriate to attribute the first argument to Obama.  Few people would think that rates of increase like this are projectable.  There was a story circulating a few years back that given the rate of dropoff of jobs in philosophy in the last year, we're only three years away from having NO jobs. Of course, few precipitous dropoffs are projectable, as there are natural bottoms and tops to markets.  So even after the precipitious dropoff in PHIL jobs, it hit a bottom.  The same, presumably, is the case with dependency, at least in the sense of entitlement deployed here.

The second is whether the second argument is right, too.  England has a conservative party.  They win elections. Shouldn't that be enough to show that government assistance doesn't guarantee political affiliation? 

Regardless, the weird thing is that the Fillmore cartoon presents the very bad inferences as not just intellectual moves, but as plans

Anecdotal evidence of global warming

Will Oremus has reported at Slate that more people nowadays are believing in global warming, because more people have experienced extreme weather recently.   

What accounts for the rebound? It isn’t the economy, which has thawed only a little. And it doesn’t seem to be science: The percentage of respondents to the Yale survey who believe “most scientists think global warming is happening” is stuck at 35 percent, still way down from 48 percent four years ago. . . .  No, our resurgent belief in global warming seems to be a function of the weather.  A separate Yale survey this spring found that 82 percent of Americans had personally experienced extreme weather or natural disasters in the past year.

Pat Robertson changed his mind about global warming, too, because he reported a few years back that his back yard was noticeably hotter. (Note: Robertson more recently said he's not a "disciple of global warming" because there are no SUV's on Mars, so there's that… if you hold your views on weak evidence, it's easy for other weird thoughts to influence you.)  And, do you remember how the warming denialists went crazy when D.C. had that big snowstorm?

And so we see the problem with anecdotal evidence: it is certainly relevant, but it is not systematic, often not representative, regularly selective, and too often framed by how the question was asked or by the intensity of the event reported.

I don’t usually practice psychiatry in my blog

If there is a logic to the arguments of politicians, I don’t know what it is.  A vote for a politician involves a complex web of commitments whose primary objective is action, not belief.  So when politicians violate the rules of argumentative propriety, it’s hard to complain too much.  You know their ads are going to go ad hominem, too often egregriously so, when they’re not distorting the record, or otherwise strawmanning, hollow manning, or weak manning their opponents.

Columnists in the newspaper, on the other hand, play a different kind of game.  Well some of them do.  They advance reasons for believing proposition x or proposition y.  We can, I think, hold them to a higher standard.

So for instance, today George Will  argues that Democrats are desperate in the face of the march of obviously moderate, reasonable, non masterbating Tea Party candidates.  His argument is bad.  Here’s how it goes:

P1.  The Democrats have accomplished nothing that people like;

P2.  They have plans for more stuff people don’t like;

C.  Therefore they now wrongly characterize grass roots, very reasonable, centrist small-government people as “extremists.”

Just for the record, I think P1 is very questionable, and a partisan operator such as Will ought to offer better evidence (he doesn’t offer any).  P2 is weak for the same reason.  Now if those premises were true, which they aren’t, maybe that conclusion would follow.  But the conclusion is false anyway–because the candidates in question stand far from the center of American politics.  That is not to say they’re wrong.  It’s just to say they are not unfairly criticized as on an extreme.  Time to take that word back extremists.  Embrace it.

Now Will moves to a more serious objective: a logical critique of Democrats in general:

Democrats, unable to run on their policies, will try to demonize the opponents with Tea Party support as unstable extremists with personality disorders. They have ridden this hobby horse before.

As I argued above, this is a vacuous critique.  But it’s hilarious, because it’s an attempt at logic criticism–and Will sucks at this.  Here’s how is argument goes for that conclusion:

In response to a questionnaire from a magazine, 1,189 psychiatrists, none of whom had ever met Goldwater, declared him unfit for office — “emotionally unstable,” “immature,” “cowardly,” “grossly psychotic,” “paranoid,” “chronic schizophrenic” and “dangerous lunatic” were some judgments from the psychiatrists who believed that extremism in pursuit of Goldwater was no vice. Shortly before the election, Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter published in Harper’s an essay (later expanded into a book with the same title), “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” that encouraged the idea that Goldwater’s kind of conservatism was a mental disorder.

On the eve of the convention that nominated Goldwater, Daniel Schorr of CBS, “reporting” from Germany, said: “It looks as though Sen. Goldwater, if nominated, will be starting his campaign here in Bavaria, center of Germany’s right wing” and “Hitler’s one-time stomping ground.”

Goldwater, said Schorr, would be vacationing near Hitler’s villa at Berchtesgaden. Schorr further noted that Goldwater had given an interview to Der Spiegel “appealing to right-wing elements in Germany” and had agreed to speak to a gathering of “right-wing Germans.” So, “there are signs that the American and German right wings are joining up.”

But as Andrew Ferguson of the Weekly Standard has reported, although Goldwater had spoken vaguely about a European vacation (he did not take one), he had not mentioned Germany, and there were no plans to address any German group. Der Spiegel had reprinted an interview that had appeared elsewhere.

The relevance of this for 2010? There is precedent for the mainstream media being megaphones for Democratic-manufactured hysteria.

Nonsense.  Let’s reconstruct this.

P1. A bunch of psychiatrists thought Barry Goldwater was crazy in 1964.

P2. Richard Hofttadter wrote the “Paranoid Style in American Politics”

P3.  A reporter for CBS (recently deceased) is alleged to have slandered Goldwater.

C.  Therefore, the Democrats “have ridden this hobby horse before.”

Gee, he doesn’t even really try here.  It just doesn’t follow that the “Democrats” have done any of this–various unrelated people have.  But anyway, Charles Krauthammer, a non anonymous psychiatrist who shares the Post’s op-ed page with George Will, said the following of candidate Al Gore:

KRAUTHAMMER: Crying for help, you know. (LAUGHTER) I’m a psychiatrist. I don’t usually practice on camera. But this is the edge of looniness, this idea that there’s a vast conspiracy, it sits in a building, it emanates, it has these tentacles, is really at the edge. He could use a little help.

He does that all of the time and he sits in the cubicle next to Will at the Post.  And he’s not a Democrat.

And here’s the introduction to Hoftstadter’s piece in the Atlantic:
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wind. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics., In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Gee, How many Republicans have doubted whether Obama is an American citizen?  A Christian non-terrorist?  Pro-American?  A gay Nazi Muslim?
But this just underscores the blind ignorance WIll must suppose his readers to live in.  How often does one hear on Fox News and other similar outlets (and Tea Party rallies) analogies between begnign Democratic policies and Nazism?  Very often (I wonder, should one ever answer a rhetorical question?  Probably not).

Dear Santa Claus

Another foray into logic and rock 'n roll.  This time, it's one of my personal favorites, XTC's "Dear God":  Lyrics/ Video. First, a quick survey of the argument of the song and then three argumentative-logical issues.

"Dear God" is supposed to a letter addressed to God.  The contents of the letter amount to two separate arguments for atheism.  The primary argument is the argument from evil.  Here is the background commitment:  gratuitous suffering in the world is inconsistent with a just, capable and creative god.  The argument is then made by a series of examples of gratuitous suffering.  First is the problem of hunger:

But all the people that you made in your image
See them starving in the street
'Cause they don't get enough to eat from god

Second is the problem of strife (specifically religious strife):

And all the people that you made in your image
See them fighting in the street
'Cause they can't make opinions meet about god

Third is a cattle call of ills:

You're always letting us humans down
The wars you bring, the babes you drown
Those lost at sea and never found
And it's the same the whole world 'round
The hurt I see helps to compound
That father, son and holy ghost
Is just somebody's unholy hoax

Now, for sure, the argument from evil needs only one evil that's gratuitous, but when you get a list like that, it's supposed to improve the argument.  I think this is because we all recognize that as the evils pile up, they all seem so pointless and horrible, and as they seem to keep coming, we're supposed to see the responses to the argument from evil as being progressively less and less plausible.  In this respect, the argument from evil is less a purely logical game of finding contradictions, but more a process of seeing just how unlikely it is that God could be just if he allowed all that evil.  So the cattle call isn't, I think, just a rhetorical flourish (or powerful songwriting… again, listen to that part!), it's supposed to play an argumentative role, but in a rough version of the evidential problem of evil. 

The second argument is a subsidiary one, but is nevertheless worth mentioning. It's the argument from anthropogenesis: the observation that we have natural world explanations for all the events leading up to the founding of the religions and the development of their dogmas, so they, at least in their claims to supernatural revelation, must be false:

Did you make mankind after we made you?. . .

Dear god don't know if you noticed but…
Your name is on a lot of quotes in this book
And us crazy humans wrote it, you should take a look
And all the people that you made in your image
still believing that junk is true
Well I know it ain't, and so do you

Effectively: c'mon, god, you know we made you and all the stories about you up.  Therefore: you don't exist. Q to the E to the D, baby!

The three logical points. #1. The argument from evil is easy to present, but very difficult to get just right.  The problems of hunger and strife are ones we bring on ourselves, a theodicy may run, and so we are, in saying that God is responsible for these things, not acknowledging our responsibilities.  God, if he were to step in to resolve these moral evils, would not be respecting our freedoms and making it possible for us to be worthy of his love. 

The natural evils on the docket (disease, babes drowning , etc.) are consequences of living in a world with natural laws.  And so we must accept that given that this world is intelligible, it must also have correlate dangers.  Another strategy for theodicy here would be to go skeptical, and say:  perhaps the letter should be written a little less dogmatically — asking for why these things happen, instead of insisting that God has no good reason.  Perhaps, it may go, God does have a reason…  Regardless, the evils in the song aren't enough to make the full case.  You need to wrestle with the rationalizations God (or his spokesperson) might give for that case to go through. 

The problem with the argument, then, is that it is insufficiently dialectical, even if the entity addressed doesn't exist.  Not that I don't think the argument from evil kicks theism's rear, it's just that theodicy is actually a pretty formidable opponent, and a laundry list of evils isn't much of a case yet.  It's nice songwriting, but as an argument, *yawn*.

#2. The argument from anthropogenesis is often rhetorically powerful, but it's really just wind.  Any non-insane defender of theism can concede that the traditions of churches and the transmission of (and perhaps even the overwhelming majority of the contents of ) the sacred texts are products of human agency.  That doesn't mean that theism is false, it just means that humans are really keen on making stuff up and believing stuff about God.  Now, again, it, like the argument from evil, is more of a cumulative case — you keep piling up all the cases where things just don't look right.  But, again, cumulatively it just shows that there are multiple natural causes at work in the developments of the religion.  No refutation, but if anything, begging the question.

#3. Is the presentation self defeating?  I remember that when I first heard the song, I immediately asked whether it made sense to say to God: I don't believe in you.  That's weird.  Surely, if you're addressing God, you're committing, informally, to his existence.  Otherwise, the speech act of addressing is inappropriate.  I'm not the only one who's had that thought.  Visit any of the discussions about the song (either on the threads above, or here).  Here's a strong version of the challenge:   The most this song can show is that the author has doubts about god's existence, but in addressing god in the song, he actually finds that he nevertheless does believe.  That's faith, baby, faith!

That argument stinks.  First, it doesn't undercut the conclusion of the argument: God doesn't exist.  Just because the author happens to address the argument to God doesn't have any bearing on whether the argument demonstrates its conclusion.  If I addresssed a letter to Santa Claus explaining all my reasons for holding that he does not exist, that would not in any way effect the correctness of the arguments, nor would it change the truth of my conclusion. Moreover, I could  write a letter to Santa, tell him he doesn't exist and even mail it to the North Pole, and I could still believe he doesn't exist.  That's why I wrote the letter!   Second, think of the song as more like therapy.  The author has been believing in God, perhaps, for a long time.  He's prayed to Him regularly, and as a consequence, is in the habit of addressing God.  And so in coming to terms with his atheism, the author feels the need to speak to God one more time… a kind of breakup talk, but one not really addressed to God, but one really composed and performed for himself.  That's what the prayers were all along, anyhow. 

In sum: the song's a standard argument from evil, nicely performed.  But it's a thin version of it. Weak, really.  But it's at least not self refuting, so there's that.

Wittgenstein and Speaking Lions

This is the 1,001st post at the NonSequitur.  I failed to note the 1,000th posting, the last one.  I was more excited about the post.  Regardless, Colin and John have done a great job with the blog, and I'm really pleased to have been brought in.  And in honor of the event of passing the 1000 post mark, I want to pose the question: can a joke work as a counter-example?  Here's a test-case.

Ludwig Wittgenstein was a philosopher, one that did his most influential later work in the aphoristic style.  Asking questions, putting things in a cute way, and so on.  He made many of his points, really, with lines that could pass for jokes. One of the core commitments of Wittgenstein's system was that to speak a language, you have to share a form of life with others who speak the same language. To illustrate this commitment, he has the enigmatic-oracular line:

If a lion could speak, we could not understand him (PI: p.223)

Again, the thought seems to be that since a lion doesn't share our form of life, its language would be inaccessible to us. 

Now, I'm not so sure about Wittgenstein's point, simply on the reason that if we're able to recognize that the lion is speaking a language, then we must be capable of having at least a decent grasp of what he's talking about.  That is, a necessary condition for attributing to X the capacity to speak a language is that you've some evidence that the sounds X is uttering are semantically contentful and also what those contents are.  (Or at least that you know that they are contentful and you could find out what those contents are.)

But I want to play Wittgenstein's game of making points instead of with straight argument, but with aphoristic style.  And so, here's my proposed counter-example (in the form of a joke):

So a lion walks into a bar…  He sidles up to the juke box and selects a Led Zepppelin song.  He then plays a round of darts.  Then he goes up to the bar, and he says to the bartender: "Wittgenstein wouldn't get this joke."

Should someone committed to Wittgenstein's philosophy of language be troubled by this joke?  Is it funny, regardless?  What are the consequences?

I admire those who are wrong

The other day the Washington Post published a piece by a professor of politics at the University of Virginia (Gerard Alexander) called "Why are liberals so condescending?" (we discussed it here).  It remains today a few days later one of the most emailed articles on the Post's website, so it's worth looking at it in more detail.  To be fair to this juvenile piece, however, would be a labor of many days, so I'd just like to point out a few quick items. 

First off, the title has the ring of a complex question: that is two questions, one unfairly assumed to get to the other.  What the author ought to establish is whether liberals are more condescending than conservatives (in similar circumstances), or whether liberals are particularly condescending.  Once he established this, then he can ask the follow up question: why are they this way to such a degree (as we have established)?  His failure to understand this elementary logical notion makes me look down on him.

Second, the author is silly.  Not to be an even-hander here, but I think liberals are no less "condescending" than conservatives.  I'd suggest, in fact, that such labels and broad generalizations are really meaningless.  Turns out, in fact, that such equivocal terms were used to great effect by this author.  You see, liberals are one solid group, each one guilty of the sins of the other, while conservatives were always able to avoid group guilt.  Here's an example:

This liberal vision emphasizes the dissemination of ideologically driven views from sympathetic media such as the Fox News Channel. For example, Chris Mooney's book "The Republican War on Science" argues that policy debates in the scientific arena are distorted by conservatives who disregard evidence and reflect the biases of industry-backed Republican politicians or of evangelicals aimlessly shielding the world from modernity. In this interpretation, conservative arguments are invariably false and deployed only cynically. Evidence of the costs of cap-and-trade carbon rationing is waved away as corporate propaganda; arguments against health-care reform are written off as hype orchestrated by insurance companies.

Before I comment on what I wanted to comment on, here and throughout the piece the author doesn't bother to counter the claims against "conservatives."  Perhaps he takes it as self-evident that what Mooney said (in his well-documented–I didn't say "true"–book) is false.  I can think of a couple of Republicans, for instance, whose ignorance of science is concerning.  Here's Republican Senator Jim DeMint on the snowstorm this past week in Washington:

It's going to keep snowing in DC until Al Gore cries "uncle"

I find myself looking down on Jim DeMint, an extremely wealthy, powerful, and capable man for the idiotic thing he said.  It's obvious that he doesn't know jack about the science behind global warming.  This same claim of many other prominent "conservative" and "Republican" leaders and intellectuals. 

Back to what I think I was going to comment on (it's now several hours from when I wrote that line above, so I don't really remember what I was going to say)–Alexander's characterization of Mooney's book disregards its content in order to criticize its form.  This, I think, is a hopelessly dumb and unproductive way of interacting with people with whom you disagree.  Not only does Mooney have an argument, but, judging by the numbskull policies of the last eight years, he might even have a good one.  But you can't really tell that, of course, until you actually look at the argument.  Alexander maintains, of course, that you don't need to look at the argument, because he knows what it says.  That, I think, is just what Mooney was complaining about.

No doubt, as I've said many times before, many liberals condescend to conservatives.  Many conservatives condescend to liberals.  The narrative, however, is that liberals are intellectual snobs, when conservatives are not.  I think that's hardly the case as a matter of fact.  It's also almost a matter of logic (I said "almost") that when you say someone's view is wrong, you're bound to appear snobby to them.  Especially when that person, such as is the case with Alexander here, doesn't seem to know what makes a view right or what makes it wrong.