Tuesday, February 03, 2009

For those who are interested, the archive of my old webpage is now at

http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/Archive/

Should anyone want to link to the particular articles, I would sooner they linked to the relevant part of :

http://www.rilstone-beta.talktalk.net/writing.html

(if you need to know where / whether an article is on the portfolio site, just drop me an e-mail.)

Supplied "as is". I am not responsible for the opinions I may have held during the last millennium.

91 comments:

Andrew Stevens said...

Loved the Dawkins quote, by the way. I laughed and laughed and laughed.

Phil Masters said...

Have you seen the letter on which he was commenting, by the way? That's comedy...

Andrew Stevens said...

I did. It was indeed funny. "The possibility of their mutual destruction must exist. That would be perfect."

Dawkins actually responded to Mr. Rilstone's unwritten objection. Someone wrote in to him: "Wonderful. Does this mean that you will be recalling and pulping all copies of TGD? After all you are as ignorant of theology as you are of football and yet you managed to write a whole book on the subject. Stick to science!"

To which Dawkins responded: "That, of course, was predictable (and predicted). The answer is obvious. Science is a subject about which there is something to know, and plenty to be ignorant about. Football is a subject about which there is something to know, and something to be ignorant about. Theology is not a subject at all. It has no content about which one might or might not be ignorant."

Pernicious positivist nonsense. ("The problem with positivism is that nearly all of it was false." -A.J. Ayer) But Dawkins is just as ignorant of philosophy as theology.

My greatest fear is that Dawkins and his ilk and Neilson and his ilk will realize that they have more in common with each other than with people of sense and will gang up on the rest of us.

"That's why it doesn't matter who Number One is. It doesn't matter which 'side' runs the Village."

"It's run by one side or the other?"

"Oh certainly, but both sides are becoming identical. What in fact has been created is an international community -- a perfect blueprint for world order. When the sides facing each other suddenly realize that they're looking into a mirror, they will see that this is the pattern for the future."

"The whole earth as the Village?"

"That is my hope."

Kurt said...

So The God Delusion is, as Jerry Seinfeld would say, a book about nothing? That would make me feel less bad about not having gotten around to reading it. On the other hand, if it's about religion as a social phenomenon, we're back to the question of qualifications. But surely Dawkins has had a chance to reply to this follow-up, too. What has he said?

Andrew Stevens said...

To the best of my knowledge, no response, though I'm sure somebody did make that point. My masochism only goes so far, however, and I just can't go very long reading the comments on the richarddawkins.net forum.

dagonet said...

1): Dawkins persists in forgetting the "!" in "Science!". This makes it seem as if he was talking of a mere fragment of natural philosophy, such as Annanasology or Ethology. Just think how much more popular Scientology would be if they remembered the !
2): Considering Dawkins has stated evolution (clearly another word for Science! - it certainly goes a bit beyond mere biology) can be used to explain everything from the formation of the universe to Aristotlean metaphysics, organized sports must be a transcedant activity indeed.
3): This may be because sports main purpose is itself. (All the sponsorship money, men hugging each other, that queer "cheerleading" buisness over in the States, etc, being mere side results). Just like Science!
But unlike the sciences.
Even that branch of them called Atheology.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I didn't see the second Dawkins letter. It actually makes me so angry that I am unable to type straight.

It's old politician's stunt: when you don't know the answer to the question, answer a different question. We could have a discussion on whether or not theology is a subject. We could have a discussion on whether or not Richard Dawkins is a lobster. It would depend very much on how you define the term "lobster".

The accusation against Dawkins isn't that he is ignorant of some-erudite-pseudo-subject-called-theology. The accusation against him is that he is ignorant of religion: that he informs the world of what Jesus understood by the phrase "love you neighbor" ("love exclusively fellow Jews") without apparently having read the passage where Jesus is asked "what do you understand by the phrase "love your neighbor" ("it means love everyone, even, in fact especially, racial and religious enemies".) And, before some apologist says that it isn't fair to use one slip as a stick to beat a writer with, he does this kind of thing on practically every page of his alleged book.

It's all a bout memes, though, innit. Outside of the two or three things you can know logically or empirically (2+2 = 4; the sun rises in the east) everything is just a kind of midichlorian which lives in your brain. "Truth", outside of the a priori and the experimental, simply doesn't mean anything. So of course Dawkins isn't contributing to a debate? According to his lights, why should he. He's simply trying to create a more powerful midichlorian which will wipe out all the other midichlorians. If he can get the "virgin birth a mistranslation" meme, or the "gospels as far removed from the historical Jesus as Malory is from the historical Arthur" meme into circulation -- on the sides of busses, on the letter page of the Independent, in the pages of book-shaped objects then he has, according to his lights, done a Good Thing. (Did you notice how the Bus Meme mutated: a fairly innocuous poster containing a relatively cryptic quote from Mark became a poster telling everyone that they were going to burn in hell?) Given that he clearly has no interest in any form of rational debate why am I writing this? Why are you reading it? Why is anybody?

Andrew Rilstone said...

The President of humanist society in todays Indy seems to think that theology is a subject:

"There is a common belief that theologians are in a better position than scientists to establish the existence, or otherwise, of God. Witness Philip Whitehead (Letter, 3 February). The belief, though, is mistaken. Theologians have fascinating things to say about religions – scriptures, traditions and clashes; prophets, rituals and changes of mind. None of these, though, could determine whether God or gods exist. "

Presumably, he's been infected with the midichlorians as well. I expect that it will turn out that Dawkins is the only person in the universe with an undiseased mind. A bit like Dave Sim.

Sam Dodsworth said...

If a university taught (say) "The Biology of Middle-Earth" then I can imagine my mother saying "That's not a subject". And I'd know what she meant, even if it isn't literally true.

Dawkins clearly thinks Theology is like that: the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist. And he's got a point. There's no obvious reason why an atheist should find Theology any more worthy of consideration than (say) the conspiracy theories of David Icke.

Kurt said...

Sam - As I already admitted, I haven't read TGD and so maybe it's my fault I'm a bit at sea here. But if it's supposed to be analogous to a book about the biology of Middle Earth, then I would think that (1) the question of interest-worthiness is moot, since Dawkins chose to write a book about it, and (2) there's a question about the nature of the analogy. (2a) If the point is that the Tolkein stories contain nothing substantial about the biology of the flora and fauna of that world, then yes it's a non-subject (like the question whether Sherlock H. had a mole near his left elbow). But nobody would write a book on it. And (2b) if the point is that the Tolkein stories do contain biological information, but it's all *fiction*, then yes, but there's (as you hint) an internally consistent set of propositions to be knowledgeable about, and one can be mistaken, and thus a certain level of expertise is required before one is competent to write a book.

Kurt said...

Or, to hitch my previous comment, wagon-like, to AR's earlier comment: Dawkins is telling us about the characters in Tolkein's stories, and yes it may all be fiction but there's still such as thing as *not having read the book and thus getting crucial story elements wrong.* For instance about how Frodo and Sam each think Gollum ought to be treated.

But because I haven't read TGD I'm on very thin ice here and will therefore shut up now.

Political Scientist said...

Sam Dodsworth wrote:

"Dawkins clearly thinks Theology is like that: the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist. And he's got a point. There's no obvious reason why an atheist should find Theology any more worthy of consideration than (say) the conspiracy theories of David Icke."

I'll see your "biology of middle earth", and raise you Reissner-Nordstrom black holes. There's a considerable body of theoretical work on them - unfortunately, I think most astrophysicists will agree they can't exist. Yet I have never heard anyone argue that R-N black holes aren't science, or are comparable with David Icke's lizards.

For that matter, I've never seen the number twelve. Can I dismiss the mathematics as "the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist"? I am certain there have been paedophile maths teachers - can I pretend that this makes mathematicians as bad as child abusers? [My forthcoming book, "Maths is not great: how arithmetic poisons everything" will make this argument is more detail.]

Dawkins is as ignorant of theology as I am in biology. The difference being, I don't pretend that there's no such thing as biology.

Andrew Stevens said...

I didn't see the second Dawkins letter.

You didn't see the letter because Dawkins's reply wasn't in a letter, but in reply to a complaint on the forum of his website.

If a university taught (say) "The Biology of Middle-Earth" then I can imagine my mother saying "That's not a subject". And I'd know what she meant, even if it isn't literally true.

Dawkins clearly thinks Theology is like that: the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist. And he's got a point. There's no obvious reason why an atheist should find Theology any more worthy of consideration than (say) the conspiracy theories of David Icke.


I don't have Kurt's disadvantage as I, unfortunately, did read TGD. I think you're giving Mr. Dawkins far too much credit here. You are describing my belief, not the belief expressed by Mr. Dawkins. I think that theology expresses a number of meaningful statements, almost all of which happen to be false. (Nevertheless, I would not write a book attacking specific religions without first understanding, you know, what it is they actually say.)

Dawkins says, in a different letter, "We who doubt that 'theology' is a subject at all, or who compare it with the study of leprechauns, are eagerly hoping to be proved wrong. Of course, university departments of theology house many excellent scholars of history, linguistics, literature, ecclesiastical art and music, archaeology, psychology, anthropology, sociology, iconology, and other worthwhile and important subjects. These academics would be welcomed into appropriate departments elsewhere in the university. But as for theology itself, defined as 'the organised body of knowledge dealing with the nature, attributes, and governance of God', a positive case now needs to be made that it has any real content at all, and that it has any place in today's universities."

To which the Reverend Doctor David Heywood correctly replied, "Sir: It is not often that a professor admits to poor scholarship, but that is what Richard Dawkins has done (letter, 17 September). Had I received an essay from a first-year undergraduate in which he admitted not having studied the position of his opponent, I would have insisted on it being rewritten. What is even more remarkable is that Dawkins seems unaware that the positivist account of science, which forms the main plank of his argument, is thoroughly discredited.

"To argue for the position he advocates requires a working knowledge of the philosophy of science and religion, epistemology and metaphysics. While scientists of a previous generation, such as Michael Polanyi and Thomas Kuhn, have shown the application required to master these fields prior to publishing their philosophical work, Dawkins has so far shown himself unable or unwilling to do so."

And there's the problem. Obviously, as an atheist myself, I believe I have strong arguments for what I believe. Dawkins's arguments aren't strong and can only charitably be called arguments. They consist most plainly of the positivist argument that his opponents are literally talking nonsense even though they plainly aren't. He discredits the atheist position every time he opens his mouth with his thorough ignorance of metaphysics, epistemology, or, for that matter, the philosophy of science. In my opinion, Dawkins happened to stumble on the right opinion on the existence of god entirely by accident. He has no idea how his belief can be defended or why his opponents' beliefs are mistaken. To him, the whole debate is just a big shouting contest and whoever has the biggest bullhorn wins.

I also believe that Mr. Rilstone is quite probably correct in assessing Mr. Dawkins's motives with regard to "memes." When Mr. Neilson gives his ignorant rants about evolution, I have no serious doubts that Mr. Neilson actually believes what he's saying. I only occasionally suspect that such people are simply lying. On the other hand, I frequently suspect that Mr. Dawkins is intentionally lying in his arguments against religion. (Perhaps I am being unfair to Mr. Dawkins in assuming that he knows anything at all about the subject he's discussing though.) And should this surprise us? Mr. Dawkins presumably also holds the positivist belief that ethics is a subject with no content, consisting entirely of meaningless statements (or, at best, statements about our own emotional status) as well. Whenever he discusses ethics, he hems and haws and blathers a bit about how self-sacrifice evolved and how altruism is a "blessed, precious mistake," without giving a clear reason why he prefers it to hatred and selfishness which also evolved and are not "mistakes." With an ethical philosophy that is so hopelessly confused, it should not surprise us how often Mr. Dawkins falls into moral error. I feel on much firmer ground with someone who just states outright that all moral statements are false (like I believe about theology) instead of simultaneously trying to preserve his own ability to pick and choose whatever morality he happens to like that day and condemn whatever he decides he doesn't like.

Fifteen years ago, I read "The Selfish Gene" and "The Blind Watchmaker" and said to myself that Richard Dawkins is a terrific popularizer of science who is a little confused philosophically. When he turned his attention to religion, I thought that he would bone up on his arguments and become a credible and worthy ally. Now, I would not trust that fool to park his car in my driveway. His ignorance now can only be described as "willful" or, perhaps, "invincible."

Andrew Rilstone said...

Calm. I have reached a state of zen-like calm. In through my nose, and out through my mouth. This weekend, I am playing role-playing games. I just read Cliff's little boy "The Cat in the Hat". Perfectly, calm.

culfy said...

"Dawkins clearly thinks Theology is like that: the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist. And he's got a point. There's no obvious reason why an atheist should find Theology any more worthy of consideration than (say) the conspiracy theories of David Icke."

There was once a wise archaelogist, considered very learned in the history of ancient Egypt. Occasionally, a foolish person would say to him 'Your books sirs, are nonsense. You discuss the history of ancient Egypt without once mentioning the theories of Erich Von Daniken. Do you not know the ancient egyptians played hosts to technically advanced aliens who built the pyramids?' But the wise archaeologist brushed this aside, he did not deign to discuss it for he knew it to be a nonsense. (In fact, he would oft criticise those of his profession who did debate with the Von Danikenists, who he said gave legitimacy to their views).
One day, the wise archaelogist grew so full of anger at the Von Danikenists (whom he said where worse than child abusers) that he decided to write a book exposing Erich Von Daniken for what he was. Among the many things he discussed was that Jesus was merely a first century Jewish wise man and not an astronaut, and that the pyramids were far too heavy to be spaceships.
"Hang on though" said some people. "Erich Von Daniken never claimed what you just said he claimed. Have you actually read any of his works"
"Why should I read his works?", replied the archaelogist. "They're all wrong and arrant nonsense?"
"But aren't you specifically setting out to argue against Von Daniken. Didn't you want to write a book specifically attacking him? Shouldn't you know what he's actually saying before you attack him in a 400 page book about him?"
"Nonsense" said a friend of the Archaeologists "You don't need to be a tailor to see the emperor wears no clothes'
"No but you do have to have some idea of what we actually mean by 'Emperor' and 'Clothes' before you say he's naked. Anyway, if it's that obvious, why write a four hundred page book"

And at this point, they were forced to eat Erich Von Daniken. And there was much rejoicing.

dagonet said...

Would say Dawkins is more fittingly compared to Däniken himself. The latter may be more charitable in his motivation ("people in the past were good engineers, so they can not have been stupid. Ergo, all the beliefs they seem to have had that do seem stupid to me must really be about engineering"), Dawkins has a wider perspective (possibly due to a better education). Neither are as immidiatly entertaining as Icke, but being a conspiracy theorist, Icke simplifies too much and is more likely to get people killed.

Would I mind my university having a department studying astro-archaeology, memetics, conspiracy theory - or for that matter, Freudian psychoanalysis or Objectvism? Not much, though I would worry a bit about them personally if they actually believed in such subjects, & would be professionally worried if they started claiming supirior knowledge of my own field of study.

Speaking of wich: does anyone know if Dan Browns fictional academic field of "religious iconology and symbology" (a memetic version of wich, one understands, Dawkins would have replace theology) actually is a direct attack on semiotics professor Umberto Eco?

Sam Dodsworth said...

Kurt:

I'm not really talking about "The God Delusion" - I haven't read it either. I'm just defending, in a mild way, Dawkins' view that theology is not a (legitimate) subject (for academic study). It seems like a logical consequence of atheism to me, albeit one that I don't feel particularly strongly about.


Political Scientist:

Yes, obviously, there are lots of ways that things can be said not to exist. But what's the relevance? I don't think you believe that Gandalf, Reissner-Nordstrom black holes, and the number twelve are all the same kind of thing just because we sometimes use the same word to describe them.


Andrew Stevens:

I'm perfectly prepared to believe that Dawkins’ atheism has a less philosophically-sound basis than yours, but I'm not sure what effect that has on his views of theology. Do you believe that theology has worth as a field of academic study apart from its intersections with other fields, even though it's based on false statements?

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm perfectly prepared to believe that Dawkins’ atheism has a less philosophically-sound basis than yours, but I'm not sure what effect that has on his views of theology. Do you believe that theology has worth as a field of academic study apart from its intersections with other fields, even though it's based on false statements?

I don't see why not. There are philosophers who write about nothing but utilitarianism, which I believe is every bit as false (indeed, far more obviously false than theology), but I'm hesitant to suggest that their positions at the university be eliminated. There are literary criticism scholars who proceed from outrageously and obviously false assumptions (often self-refuting), but nonetheless are capable of occasionally writing decent literary criticism. Etc., etc. If somebody were to hand me a university and tell me to eliminate all positions which had insufficient rigor to be academic subjects, it would be a long, long time before I got around to eliminating theology (though I might eventually if I were told to be so arrogant as to remake the university in my own image). Of course, I'm not sure Dawkins disagrees with this. I suspect theology is on a list of dozens of academic subjects he'd be happy to get rid of and he's concentrating on theology only because of his position as The World's Most Outspoken Atheist.

However, humility, a decent respect for the opinions of other people, and a general suspicion of the wisdom of "ideological cleansing" forbid my advocating the elimination of all schools of thought which I believe are wrong. I study Aquinas, not for the theology, but for the commentary on Aristotle, but without the theology there would have been no Aquinas. I study Berkeley, not for the idealism which I believe is false, but because he was one of the most insightful critics of Locke. And, without the idealism, I'm not sure you get the criticism of Locke. There are some philosophers I wouldn't mind eliminating entirely - Hegel, say, who could no more tell you what went wrong with someone else's philosophy than he could go right himself. Nevertheless, I'm sure there is something of value in Hegel. (Let me know if anyone knows what it is.) I would hesitate before advocating banning Hegel from the universities.

I am not a huge fan of humility, which I believe is an overrated virtue, but there has to be some point at which we resist the totalitarian urge to eliminate all ideas with which we disagree. Now, when it comes to religious fanatics blowing up buildings, Richard Dawkins and I are united in calling for their destruction. But theology departments? This is merely the fantasy of a would-be dictator. "Thought police" is the word that comes to mind.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Surely "studying Hegel" doesn't imply "thinking that Hegel is right" but only "thinking that Hegel had an important place in the history of ideas"? I recall doing a course on the Modern European Mind by a tutor who seemed to believe that practically everything -- Freud, Marx, the Romantic Movement -- went back to the Master-Slave Dialectic.

I don't think that theology students in universities are taught that God is a trinity in the same way that chemistry students are taught that oxygen is a gas. I think they are taught the history of religious ideas, in much the same way that philosophy students are taught the history of philosophical ideas. (In my One Term of philosphy, I looked at the Plato's "Meno": I don't think that my tutor believed; or intended me to make me believe, in the transmigration of souls.) I don't think that theology makes statments which are not true: I think that it is perfectly true that Calvin split with the Catholic Church at a particular date, for particular reasons, with particular consequences.

When people say that Dawkins is ignorant of theology, they really only mean that he is ignorant of religion. It's hard to take seriously someone claiming that the book of Hebrews is repellant when they are still attributing it to St Paul. A book might be anonymous or pseudonymous and still repellant, of course: but one might have expected a writer to have at least glanced at some secondary scholarly works before condemning it. Using the word "theology" makes it too easy for the Dawk to wriggle off the hook.

Andrew Stevens said...

I don't think that theology students in universities are taught that God is a trinity in the same way that chemistry students are taught that oxygen is a gas. I think they are taught the history of religious ideas, in much the same way that philosophy students are taught the history of philosophical ideas.

I don't believe this is correct in the United States. The university I attended allowed one to major in religion (quite possibly called religious studies), but not in theology. If I do a Google search for "theology department," the first page of hits I get includes (exhaustively) Notre Dame, Boston College, Georgetown, Marquette, Xavier, the University of Dallas, Creighton, Carroll College, and Loyola University Chicago. What do all of these have in common? They are all Catholic universities (most of them specifically Jesuit). Other universities, such as Yale, which originally had a religious brief, also still offer degrees in theology or divinity which are meant to create ordained or lay ministry. They also offer religious studies coursework, which is more what Mr. Rilstone is suggesting.

I had hitherto assumed that Oxford University's theology department was similar, i.e. intended to create priests, but for Anglicans rather than Catholics and there's no question that this was the original intent of those departments. However, looking at their homepage, Oxford's Theology Department has definitely subsumed Religious Studies within it and perhaps it would be more accurate for them to call themselves a Religious Studies department. They now teach courses on Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, etc. It appears to be a sort of hybrid department, half old-school theology and half new-school religious studies. You can receive either a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Theology. The latter is specifically Anglican and even the former requires much more work specifically on Christianity than most religious studies departments here in the States would require, presumably reflecting the historically religious character of the University.

Political Scientist said...

Sam Dodsworth wrote:
"Yes, obviously, there are lots of ways that things can be said not to exist. But what's the relevance? I don't think you believe that Gandalf, Reissner-Nordstrom black holes, and the number twelve are all the same kind of thing just because we sometimes use the same word to describe them."

Hello Mr. Dodsworth,

Perviously you wrote:
"Dawkins clearly thinks Theology is like that: the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist. And he's got a point. There's no obvious reason why an atheist should find Theology any more worthy of consideration than (say) the conspiracy theories of David Icke."

So some mad Popperian stands up and announces "Prove to me the existance of the number twelve! Can't do it, eh, eh? So, there are no numbers, mathematics is just an internally consistent study of something that doesn't exist. Why should we find Mathematics any more worthy of consideration that Icke's lizards"

What would you say to him?

I disagree that Gandalf and Reissner-Nordstrom black holes are different in kind: they are both things that clever people made up but don't exist. I think that the number 12 exists in some sence, but I can't imagine how I'd prove it to an a-numberist.

Andrew Rilstone said...

When the Lord of the Rings movies were coming out (which reminds me, I must write a review of Return of the King one of these days) a man with letters after his name wrote to I think the times saying that Tolkien was a contemptible author and the Lord of the Rings was a comtemptible book. As evidence of this, the pointed out that even though the books were supposedly set thousands and thousands of years ago, the characters used modern names for months, modern names for days of the week, and, indeed, appeared to use the Gregorian Calendar. This is possibly the only time on record when Tolkien has been criticized for being insufficiently pedantic. In point of fact, as anyone who has read Lord of the Rings right to the end knows (and you can't blame people with letters after their name for not reading it right to the end, after all, it's almost as long as David Copperfield) Tolkien was very much concerned with questions about calendars: he tells us that Aragorn's folk use leap-years; whereas the Hobbits have a system of inter-calendral (if that's the word I'm looking for) feast days. He notes that the Hobbits took the day off on on "Highday", the last day of the week, and went back to work on "Sterday", the first. He notes that when it is relevant, he "translates" Mersday, "Thursday", as "Friday", because it's the day before the day off; and "translates" Sterday, "Saturday", as "Monday", because it's the day they go back to work. Tolkien may, of course, be thought to be a contemptible writer, and, for all I know, a child molester, on other grounds, but the claim that he is contemptible because he made an obvious error over his fictional world's calendars is entirely invalid, and the person who criticized the book without having read it is left looking like a bit of plonker.

There was a point to this, but it has temporarily escaped your chronicler's mind.

Andrew Rilstone said...

Ah yes that was it. I don't know what Sam's Mum would mean if she said that the botany of Middle-earth was "not a subject". I mean, I would grok that she was expressing disapproval, in much the same way that if my nephew informed me that studying the three-times table was "stinky", I would know that he didn't think much of it, but I wouldn't be quite sure what his philosophical objections were.

Sometimes people say that "media studies" is not a proper subject. I don't think that on the whole they doubt that televisions and newspapers exist; I think they mean either that televisions and newspapers are not sufficiently important to be worth studying; or else they think that the they would be worth studying, but the subject itself is insufficiently rigorous and too easy for students to get pass grades in.

The previous whipping boy was "sociology". Lots of people doubted that sociology was a subject; some of the skeptics might have thought that there was, to coin a phrase, no such thing as "society" and therefore nothing for sociologists to study. They thought that it was impossible to say anything meaningful about "suicide", as opposed to "an individual person who has killed themselves." This amounts to a criticism of the subjects methodology.

I guess people still study Freudian psychology in universities. If we define Freudian psychology as "the study of the unconscious" then there must be a very large body of opinion which would see Freudian psychoanalysis as "the study of something which does not exist." But people still study it, and set exams in it, and it seems perfectly possible to talk meaningfully about it.

There was, actually, a small fuss because some school teacher was teaching Elvish at his school. He was, I think, teaching it as part of an after school club, and in point of fact the study of an artificial language is probably quite a good way to learn stuff about the structure and development of real languages. But the people, and there were lots of them, who said that Elvish Is Not a Subject had in mind, I think that it wasn't the sort of thing that they learned in schools in their day, and that it wouldn't help anyone get a job behind the counter at Woolworths, which is the final objective of all academic endeavour.

I am guessing that if Sam's mother had said that the botany of middle-earth was not a subject, she wouldn't have been saying much more than that: it's not very useful, is it, can't you think of something better to do with your time? She might not think that it mattered very much if someone asserted in print that Mallorn Trees grew commonly in the Shire, or Athelas is a deadly poison. And in a certain mood, you might see her point. But she would (if you pointed out the relevant passages) understand that the writer in question was Wrong. And Ignorant. She wouldn't, I guess, be saying that the study of the plants of middle-earth was a subject which had no content about which one might or might not be ignorant. I can't imagine anyone moderately sane saying that about the study of the unconscious, or of society, or of the media, or of anything else. Except possibly the three times table. Which is stinky.

Andrew Rilstone said...

On the third hand: I am perfectly happy to agree to use the find and exchange function to replace every occurence of the word "theology" with the word "religious studies" if that would make Dawkins happy and / or silent.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Political Scientist:

So some mad Popperian stands up and announces "Prove to me the existance of the number twelve...

If I were the mad Popperian then a logical consequence of my beliefs would be that mathematics is the internally consistent study of something that doesn't exist, yes. (And as an aside, the pure maths geeks I knew at university used to make just that claim. A cultivated distain for applied maths went with the territory.) I'm still not seeing your point here. I'm talking about the consequences of beliefs, not their grounds.


Andrew:

There was a point to this, but it has temporarily escaped your chronicler's mind.

I take your point, but I'm trying to stay off the wider issues here because I'm not particularly interested in reading "The God Delusion" and because I wouldn't presume to stuff up your blog with the giganto-thread that would result. (And besides, I'm lazy.)


I don't know what Sam's Mum would mean if she said that the botany of Middle-earth was "not a subject"... I wouldn't be quite sure what [her] philosophical objections were.

It probably helps to know that she's a very earnest and judgemental (yes, even more than me) old-style leftist. But if we get into precise philosophical objections then the inevitable result will be attempts to define "a subject" and "does not exist" and eventual madness.


She wouldn't, I guess, be saying that the study of the plants of middle-earth was a subject which had no content about which one might or might not be ignorant. I can't imagine anyone moderately sane saying that about the study of the unconscious, or of society, or of the media, or of anything else.

She might well say that the content was irrelevant, though. Particularly if the content was a shared fantasy built up by the community. If I'm arguing that Marvel comics were badly-written then does it matter that I think the Hulk can beat up Thor because I don't know that the Hulk is "Earth's mightiest mortal"?

dagonet said...

Mr. Dodsworth wrote:
"If I'm arguing that Marvel comics were badly-written then does it matter that I think the Hulk can beat up Thor because I don't know that the Hulk is "Earth's mightiest mortal"?"

Because that would indicate that you were attempting a criticism of texts you had not actually bothered to read.

Unless, of course, you are one of the people make do with "its rubbish because its funny books, innit" as an argument.

Andrew Stevens said...

I was trying to avoid getting sucked into the Platonism/fictionalism debate, but now I find I have failed.

If I were the mad Popperian then a logical consequence of my beliefs would be that mathematics is the internally consistent study of something that doesn't exist, yes. (And as an aside, the pure maths geeks I knew at university used to make just that claim. A cultivated distain for applied maths went with the territory.)

I believe this biographical account (though it differs wildly from my own experience with pure mathematicians), though I doubt the people in question were particularly qualified to have an opinion. Fictionalism is not popular among philosophers of mathematics or mathematicians generally, although it does have its defenders. Most mathematicians are Platonists like Frege, Godel, Quine, and Putnam, or at least behave as if they were Platonists. In fact, it is precisely that most mathematicians are not fictionalists (usually trivially granted by the fictionalists, though I will from here on note that Sam Dodsworth does not agree) that forms one argument against fictionalism.

A terrific article about fictionalism appears here. From the article:

"Fictionalists face a dilemma: they have to endorse either hermeneutic fictionalism or revolutionary fictionalism, but neither is plausible. We can define hermeneutic fictionalism as the view that mathematicians (and perhaps ordinary folk) intend their mathematical talk to be taken as a form of fiction; more specifically, the view here is that, according to ordinary mathematical intentions, singular terms like ‘3’ are not supposed to refer, and sentences like ‘3 is prime’ are not supposed to be true. But hermeneutic fictionalism is implausible and unmotivated; as an empirical hypothesis about what mathematicians intend, there is simply no good evidence for it, and it seems obviously false. Revolutionary fictionalism, on the other hand, is the view that (a) mathematicians do not intend their utterances to be taken as fiction, or as non-literal in any other way; and so (b) we should interpret mathematicians as really asserting what their sentences say, i.e., as making assertions that are about (or that purport to be about) mathematical objects; but (c) since there are no such things as mathematical objects, the assertions of mathematicians are simply mistaken. But revolutionary fictionalism is implausible as well; given the track records of philosophers and mathematicians, it would be 'comically immodest' for philosophers to presume that they had discovered a problem with mathematics."

I don't actually regard the revolutionary fictionalist account as all that implausible, nor do I regard this as a serious argument against fictionalism. But, as far as I know, nobody has ever defended the hermeneutic fictionalist account before. I regard the Quine-Putnam Indispensability Argument and fictionalism's inability to account for the objectivity of mathematics as its crucial flaws, not this very minor objection. Whereas the most plausible argument against Platonism is basically an Ockham's razor type argument. If fictionalism can answer all its objections (which, I should say, I don't believe it can), then fictionalism is ontologically simpler than Platonism. Obviously, if you are a dyed-in-the-wool committed materialist as most modern scientifically minded people are (and indeed, as Quine was, before he gave up in the case of mathematical objects and embraced Platonism), this argument is probably very, very serious to you. (Indeed, in a Dawkinsian account of the universe, it seems to be so obvious that it is never questioned, which is why I find such views dogmatic and uninteresting. Ockham's razor is hardly an iron-clad intuition to be accorded so much respect. It was, for example, famously inadequate in describing the relative motions of the Sun and the Earth.) I do take the Ockham's razor argument seriously, but fictionalism's flaws far outweigh that objection to Platonism.

Nevertheless, the article I linked to is very sympathetic to the fictionalist view generally and anyone who is interested in this subject should read the whole thing.

Andrew Rilstone said...

If I'm arguing that Marvel comics were badly-written then does it matter that I think the Hulk can beat up Thor because I don't know that the Hulk is "Earth's mightiest mortal"?

Is "The Hulk can't beat up Thor" intended to be an example of

a: a trivial piece of knowledge that any comic book reader would know ("Kryptonite is deadly to superman")

b: a very obscure piece of knoweldge that only hard core fans would know ("Thor's hammer appears in the bottom left hand corner of a back-up strip in New Gods")

c: a piece of knowledge that fans themselves disagree about ("Is Kang really a re-incarnation of Doctor Doom?)

That is -- is your claim that Dawkins theological errors are

a: Real genuine embarassing howlers

b: Obscure hair splitty facts that only Jesus geeks would call him out on

c: Not errors at all, but examples of him taking a particular side on a point which theists themselves disagree about.

Because, like, it makes a difference. If someone is arguing that Stan Lee created the Silver Surfer, then the fact that they mention that the Fantastic Four's base is at Titan's Tower and Doctor Manhattan is their leader would make be throw the book aside in disgust: they obviously haven't read the comic books they are talking about. If they are pointing out Kirby's anatanomy is often distorted, and use as an example a picture of someone they claim is called "The Elongated Man", then one might charitably say "Er, it's Reed Richards, actually." Because the error doesn't effect the argument.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to clarify on the theology/religious studies thing, I do agree that Dawkins has shown himself ignorant of both and the latter is the more egregious. However, when he is talking about how theology shouldn't be taught at universities, I don't think he's referring to religious studies departments; I think he's referring specifically to theology departments whose main purpose has historically been (and arguably still is) to turn out pastors, priests, etc. and who tend to teach both the religious debate and the "correct" answer in the debate (i.e. official Church dogma for whatever Church that theology department serves, assuming that the Church has an official dogma on the debate) and how that answer can and/or should be defended.

He is on stronger ground there. I do believe there is a difference in the kind of education one gets in theology or divinity departments as distinct from religious studies departments. In the first case, one gets the believer's perspective and in the other, one gets a secular perspective (even if it's taught by a believer, usually). There aren't many non-denominational divinity departments, for example (there are six in the U.S. - Harvard, Howard, University of Chicago, Regent, Vanderbilt, and Yale).

Here in the United States, this argument doesn't exist. No public university has a theology department that I'm aware of, and even Richard Dawkins presumably isn't going to argue that the U.S. government or Catholic universities themselves should ban Catholic universities from training priests. So it's really only because of that state religion thing the U.K. has going on that this is even an issue.

Neil said...

if you are a dyed-in-the-wool committed materialist as most modern scientifically minded people are

What leads you to this conclusion?

Presumably some assumption on the nature of the 'scientifically minded', what do you intend by that term?

Andrew Stevens said...

What leads you to this conclusion?

Observation. Out of all the things I said, I expected this to be the least controversial, but it's also the one I'm the least prepared to defend. Probably the majority of scientists that I have talked about the issue with are committed materialists and that's in the more religious United States; I assume it is even more the case in the U.K., but I'd be happy to be corrected on this. I have no particular attachment to who believes what and in what proportions. Dawkins is certainly one of the committed materialists, but if you're saying that I'm over-generalizing and that most scientists aren't like that, I'll concede that you may well be right.

Presumably some assumption on the nature of the 'scientifically minded', what do you intend by that term?

Mostly I meant the people who actually do science, but admittedly it's actually a more common attitude in psychology and sociology than it is in physics or mathematics. So perhaps I'm just swallowing my tail here and defining "scientifically minded" by materialist. If that's the argument you're making, I don't necessarily disagree.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew:

Is "The Hulk can't beat up Thor" intended to be an example of...

None of the above, I think, although (c) is close. I picked that example because it's based on exegesis rather than simple knowledge of the text. You don't have to know every panel of every comic to derive that conclusion, but I think you do have to engage with the text in a particular fannish way. An outsider wouldn't neccessarily see it or think it settled the question if they did.

I'm pushing the edge of my analogy here, because this kind of fan culture is a game in a way that theology isn't. "Could Thor beat up the Hulk?" is entertainment for fans, whereas "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is a serious question for theologians. But I don't see any obligation on an outsider to accept the validity of exegesis in either case.

As I've said, I've not read "The God Delusion", so I don't have a claim about Dawkin's theological errors. (I'd expect to find examples of all three kinds; he clearly finds theism too irritating to engage with.) I'm just defending the idea that an atheist might find theology content-free.


Andrew Stevens:

I believe this biographical account (though it differs wildly from my own experience with pure mathematicians), though I doubt the people in question were particularly qualified to have an opinion.

Well, no - I think it was just a pose. I'm not trying to claim that mad Popperianism is widespread or particularly sensible; I just thought it was amusing that I've actually met some mad Popperians.

I'm a materialist and don't really have much interest in philosophy, so I tend to take a pragmatic view of maths. Its axioms are derived from the physical world, so it's not surprising that the formal system built on them intersects with reality from time to time. I don't have the same expectation of theology.

Political Scientist said...

"... whereas "How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?" is a serious question for theologians. ..."

Not so much.

Andrew Rilstone said...

So, you are pretty sure that the alleged errors in the God Delusion are not really errors, or, if they are, that they don't matter, but you haven't actually read the book all the way through.

Thank God Christians don't take that kind of approach to their holy book.

Andrew Rilstone said...

I always took it that the angels and pin thing was a perfectly good way of talking about infinity before you had calculus. (Angels are as small as they want to be; a pin head is a mathematical point, so how many very small thing will fit into a point? (None, a finite number, or an infintite number.)

But I've been wrong before.

Gavin Burrows said...

I always thought it was a way of asking if angels had a corporeal existence, or were just beings of spirit.

(But I too have a lot of relevent experience in being wrong.)

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew:

So, you are pretty sure that the alleged errors in the God Delusion are not really errors, or, if they are, that they don't matter, but you haven't actually read the book all the way through.

As I've already said, I've never even looked inside "The God Delusion". Which is why I haven't expressed an opinion about Dawkins' theological errors, beyond expecting that he's made several kinds of them.

What happened (I see now) was that I read this bit:

The President of humanist society in todays Indy seems to think that theology is a subject... I expect that it will turn out that Dawkins is the only person in the universe with an undiseased mind.

Without taking in this bit from your previous post:

The accusation against Dawkins isn't that he is ignorant of some-erudite-pseudo-subject-called-theology. The accusation against him is that he is ignorant of religion...

So I thought I'd defend "theology is not a subject" as something a non-mad atheist could believe, for conversational values of "not a subject". If I'd been a bit more careful in my reading I would have noticed how much of a tangent that was. So... er... sorry about that.



Political Scientist:

From the last paragraph of that article:

Finally, he [Thomas Aquinas] inquired whether several angels could be in the same place at once, which of course is the dancing-on-a-pin question less comically stated. (Tom's answer: no.)

My interpretation of the question was Gavin's, although Andrew's is arguably more interesting.

Political Scientist said...

At the risk of being boring, as "angels dancing on the head of a pin" is not a topic that concerned theologians. It is a parody created to make fun of theologians.

Aquinas does address the question "can several angels be in the same place at once" in the Summa Theologica (First Part, Question 52, Article 3). I am sympathetic to Mr. Burrows' interpretation, although for Aquinas this was settled in Question 50, article 1, hence the Reply to Objection 2 in Question 52.

Regarding Mr. Rilstone's point about infinity, I think this is perhaps true of popular use of the phrase - except when it is being used for the purposes of "fnuh fnuh stupid theologians" Enlightenment boosterism.

(If you are interested in the Scholastics conception of infinity, I would refer you to Mark Thakkar's chapter "Mathematics in 14th century theology" in the forthcomming "Oxford Handbook of the History of Mathematics". I read the draft of the chapter last week.It is full of good stuff. [1])

However, I am staying from the point, which is that if things that are " the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist" to be thrown on the bonfire, theology is unlikely to be the first discipine to be aflame. As everything from mathematics through english could be legitimately described as " the internally-consistent study of something that doesn't exist" by someone, I suggest that it isn't a terribly useful criterion for identifying what is or is not "a subject".

I'm glad I'm not the only person who knows Mad Popperians, though.[2]

[1] In the interests of full disclosure, I should say that Mark is a friend.

[2] Of course, as the excellent article on fictionalism to which Mr. Stevens links points out, pure mathematicians aren't safe either - who is to say that their concept of infinity is the same as anyone elses, being contained in non-infinite minds?

Andrew Stevens said...

I'm a materialist and don't really have much interest in philosophy, so I tend to take a pragmatic view of maths. Its axioms are derived from the physical world, so it's not surprising that the formal system built on them intersects with reality from time to time. I don't have the same expectation of theology.

That makes you an empiricist (I think, though your view wasn't made terribly explicit). The usual criticism of mathematical empiricism is that it makes mathematical propositions such as 2+2=4 uncertain and contingent, which we only know because we have viewed two pairs come together to make four. Mathematical truths, then, are just as fallible and corrigible as the rest of science. This does not accord with our intuition. When a mathematician presents a valid proof, he does not believe that it is contingent or uncertain or could be overturned in time. Since I believe the mathematician is quite clearly correct, I have to reject empiricism. I also believe the view has epistemological problems. (When we "see" that 2+2=4, we can see that it will always be true - indeed that it must always be true. This is quite unlike the empirical sciences where we can easily imagine a black swan even if we have never seen one. It also does not strike me as plausible that the axioms of logic are derived empirically, for similar reasons.) In the end, the giant you really have to contend with is Kurt Godel.

I do believe you are mistaken in neglecting philosophy. Philosophy is inescapable. (As Gustav Bergmann, a logical positivist who broke with positivism before its collapse, once wrote: "An unexamined metaphysics, that is, one implicitly held, is for a philosopher the worst metaphysics of all.") The question isn't whether to have a philosophy; we will have one perforce. The question is whether that philosophy will be carefully considered and reasoned or whether you are going to be stuck with an implicit philosophy which you have been randomly assigned by the experiences of your life, whatever books you happen to have read, who your parents were, the surrounding culture, your moods and general temperament, etc. I.e. you end up like Richard Dawkins or the fundamentalists he fights. On the other hand, perhaps this is no bad thing from a purely selfish point of view. There are many more lucrative opportunities available for cranks than for legitimate thinkers which is why Richard Dawkins is more famous than Ernst Mayr ever was.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:
The question isn't whether to have a philosophy; we will have one perforce. The question is whether that philosophy will be carefully considered and reasoned or whether you are going to be stuck with an implicit philosophy which you have been randomly assigned by the experiences of your life

Oh, for sure! You’re either going to start from scratch whenever you’re called upon to make any kind of decision in your life (including what to have for breakfast), or you’re going to live according to some set of suppositions. It seems to me to be worth your while to make sure those suppositions are reasonable ones, not something you just found on a shelf.

But, while I don’t want to put words in Sam’s mouth, when he said...

I tend to take a pragmatic view of maths. Its axioms are derived from the physical world, so it's not surprising that the formal system built on them intersects with reality from time to time.

...I assumed he was suggesting it’s at least as important to test philosophically empirically as to scrutinise it for internal logic. If you want to test 2+2 you try adding up various things, not just contemplate the equation. Hence “the experiences of your life” isn’t actually all that bad a place to start. The critique is of ‘pure’ or abstract philosophy.

I’m most in agreement with Sam here. However, to my way of thinking even that isn’t really sufficient. The Situationists used to have a saying “it is not enough for thought to seek its realisation in practise, practise must seek its theory.” By which I think they mean what makes us up is a continual back-and-forth between what we think and what we’re doing, the one perpetually inscribing the other. We do not ‘start’ internally or on some ideal realm, then encounter the physical world. We ‘belong’ in the interchange.

PS I am pleased to see things can kick off around here even without my ‘My name’s Ben Elton’ routine.

Andrew Stevens said...

...I assumed he was suggesting it’s at least as important to test philosophically empirically as to scrutinise it for internal logic. If you want to test 2+2 you try adding up various things, not just contemplate the equation. Hence “the experiences of your life” isn’t actually all that bad a place to start. The critique is of ‘pure’ or abstract philosophy.

I took him to mean that he thought mathematics was entirely derived empirically and that the abstract objects "numbers" don't exist (hence his earlier reference to his materialism) and don't need to exist for mathematics to work. Thus my criticism, since I don't believe this is a satisfactory resolution of the problem. Mathematics is not uncertain and contingent, like the experimental sciences.

I do wholly agree that, if our pure mathematics led us to believe that 2+2=4 is always true and, then, somehow, we found that it was not always true empirically, then this would certainly present a problem for the theory of pure mathematics. In that sense, I am as much an empiricist as anyone. In addition, I do agree that all mathematical theories probably need some form of "quasi-empiricism." Before Andrew Wile proved Fermat's Last Theorem, it had already been demonstrated to be true for all n from 3 to some very large number. As a good Bayesian, I believe this presents a large amount of evidence that Fermat's Last Theorem was correct before Andrew Wile proved it. Indeed, it is possible to imagine an alien race using mathematics who never develops our method of formal proofs (which, after all, only evolved once in history, with ancient Greece and Euclid). Such a mathematics would probably work roughly as well as ours. They would be somewhat more prone to error, relying as they would on informal proofs and other contingent and uncertain methods. But a purely empirical position has to explain why Euclid's method of formal proofs works (and it does).

I’m most in agreement with Sam here. However, to my way of thinking even that isn’t really sufficient. The Situationists used to have a saying “it is not enough for thought to seek its realisation in practise, practise must seek its theory.” By which I think they mean what makes us up is a continual back-and-forth between what we think and what we’re doing, the one perpetually inscribing the other. We do not ‘start’ internally or on some ideal realm, then encounter the physical world. We ‘belong’ in the interchange.

This is all philosophy as I understand it. Where Descartes went wrong was in deciding to doubt everything and then trying to rebuild his knowledge from scratch (with infallibility as his object). I reject this approach. First of all, infallibility is a standard of knowledge which is wholly inappropriate to human beings and, second of all, he started by doubting things which I believe it is entirely unreasonable to doubt. Nevertheless, Descartes's project is an important one.

But my point is that people who don't study philosophy are doomed to be infected by bad philosophy. Dawkins, for example, is a positivist. He didn't choose this philosophy; he soaked it up from his scientific culture. Because he is ignorant of philosophy, he is completely unaware that his philosophy has been annihilated among professional philosophers. On the other extreme, Dawkins rightly criticizes the relativists and social constructivists, another intellectually bankrupt philosophy which is very appealing to people who don't study philosophy. ("I can believe whatever nonsense I like and nobody can tell me I'm wrong.") And so forth.

If, absent philosophy, people just lived by basic common sense principles, then philosophy would be none the worse for having nobody study it. But they will philosophize anyway. (Mr. Dodsworth says he has no interest in philosophy, yet he quite clearly has firmly believed philosophical positions such as atheism and materialism. Why?) When people do philosophize, they usually do so badly. I am suggesting that people should avail themselves of the wisdom of those people who philosophize professionally. There are philosophers who have thought longer and better about the ethics of medicine than the professor of medicine ever had time to do. There are philosophers who have thought longer and better about the two-slit experiment than physicists have. There are philosophers who have thought longer and better about the foundations of mathematics than a mathematician is ever likely to do. And so on.

Gavin Burrows said...

I’m presuming that the maths stuff is the thing you posted a link to in an earlier thread, which I was dimwittedly unable to follow. I think I get it a bit better this time. When you’re counting, it’s not just that it seems to work as well for counting sheep as for goats. You kind of recognise that the rules of counting are somewhat immutable, that they’re as likely to work even if you started counting some third thing. (Am I close?)

Two which I’d say, many ‘natural laws’ we live by have later been proven to be anything but. Gravity would have seemed an absolute given for centuries, now with space travel we see it as something entirely contingent. Some might claim quantum physics already puts the primacy of numbers under threat, though I’m not knowledgeable enough on the subject to properly follow that argument through. (Are you referring to that via the “two-slit experiment’?)

But even if we don’t allow for that, if we regard numbers as some special case where we can’t find a time or place where they’ll turn wrong, I don’t think it follows that there’s some ideal, Platonic numbers out there somewhere, which we can only see a shadow of by gathering four goats together. That seems to me to be something of a conceptual leap. (I will stand corrected if there’s something in your argument I’m missing.)

I am suggesting that people should avail themselves of the wisdom of those people who philosophize professionally. There are philosophers who have thought longer and better about the ethics of medicine than the professor of medicine ever had time to do. There are philosophers who have thought longer and better about the two-slit experiment than physicists have. There are philosophers who have thought longer and better about the foundations of mathematics than a mathematician is ever likely to do. And so on.

The difference between us being of course that I would ask a mathematician about the philosophy of maths. (Albeit a mathematician with a philosophical bent, not an accountant or something.)

I tend to regard such conceptual apparatus as something akin to physical tools, like hammers and screwdrivers. Hewn by human hands or minds, they are by definition going to be limited, things we’ve devised in order for us to interact better with the world. There’s no reason not to make better tools, but that’s not the same thing as saying they’re somehow intrinsically problematic.

For reasons hopefully now clear, I don’t tend to divide philosophy from theology much in my mind. However, that to me is what makes the subjects fascinating! It’s via the very act of trying to divorce themselves from their social context that philosophers and theologists paradoxically expose what underpins that social consensus, like a conceptual x-ray. Platonic idealism says more about the mindset of a slave-owning aristocracy than it does about the workings of the universe.

Gavin Burrows said...

Two which I’d say...

I would like to pretend that was a clever pun...

Andrew Stevens said...

I’m presuming that the maths stuff is the thing you posted a link to in an earlier thread, which I was dimwittedly unable to follow. I think I get it a bit better this time. When you’re counting, it’s not just that it seems to work as well for counting sheep as for goats. You kind of recognise that the rules of counting are somewhat immutable, that they’re as likely to work even if you started counting some third thing. (Am I close?)

Yes, that's very much what I'm getting at. It's not just that we can see that 2+3=3+2, but that we can immediately see that x+y=y+x no matter what x is, no matter what y is, and no matter what we're adding.

Two which I’d say, many ‘natural laws’ we live by have later been proven to be anything but. Gravity would have seemed an absolute given for centuries, now with space travel we see it as something entirely contingent. Some might claim quantum physics already puts the primacy of numbers under threat, though I’m not knowledgeable enough on the subject to properly follow that argument through. (Are you referring to that via the “two-slit experiment’?)

The law of gravity has always been contingent - the masses of the objects determine the gravitational attraction. It does not therefore follow that the law of gravity is not a law at all. The "two-slit experiment" does indeed refer to quantum physics and I completely reject the thesis that quantum physics is doing anything at all or, for that matter, is even in principle capable of doing anything at all to undermine the laws of mathematics.

But even if we don’t allow for that, if we regard numbers as some special case where we can’t find a time or place where they’ll turn wrong, I don’t think it follows that there’s some ideal, Platonic numbers out there somewhere, which we can only see a shadow of by gathering four goats together. That seems to me to be something of a conceptual leap. (I will stand corrected if there’s something in your argument I’m missing.)

For what it's worth, I am actually an immanent realist, not a Platonic realist, certainly for almost all other universals. Numbers may be a special case in that I'm not convinced that the immanent realist view is capable of explaining the objectivity of the laws of mathematics. However I am still hopefully clinging to the immanent realist view for as long as I can since I am just as unhappy with the unnecessary ontology of a Platonic realm as anyone else is. But, while immanent realism has its problems, the nominalist view is not capable of explaining it at all.

The difference between us being of course that I would ask a mathematician about the philosophy of maths. (Albeit a mathematician with a philosophical bent, not an accountant or something.)

Well, I did mention Kurt Godel many times who was a mathematician who became interested in the philosophy of the subject and came to defend the Platonist view of mathematics. However, I think Quine and Putnam who were philosophers of a mathematical bent actually had more insight into the subject, which is not to neglect the thought of Godel or other mathematicians who eventually turned their attention to the philosophy of the subject.

Platonic idealism says more about the mindset of a slave-owning aristocracy than it does about the workings of the universe.

This, of course, is obvious mumbo-jumbo. Mr. Rilstone will be happy here as I bring in C.S. Lewis, who famously called the argument you are now using "Bulverism." From his essay on the subject:

"We have recently 'discovered that we exist' in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth [I] a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are 'ideologically tainted' at the source.

"Now this is obviously great fun; but it has not always been noticed that there is a bill to pay for it. There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought - in the sense of making it untrue - or not?

"If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism. The Freudian and Marxian are in the same boat with all the rest of us, and cannot criticize us from outside. They have sawn off the branch they were sitting on. If, on the other hand, they say that the taint need not invalidate their thinking, then neither need it invalidate ours. In which case they have saved their own branch, but also saved ours along with it."

Using such an argument tells us much more about your own economic class than it could ever do about the actual thoughts of a slave-owning aristocracy, so you really ought to refrain from using it.

Sam Dodsworth said...

Andrew Stevens:

I took him to mean that he thought mathematics was entirely derived empirically and that the abstract objects "numbers" don't exist...

What I was trying to say was that I think of mathematics as a purely abstract system, but one that has applications in the real world. Those applications exist because mathematics was empirical before it was formalized, so its fundamental rules were derived from reality, but the formal system could just as well exist in isolation. Finding a real-world case of 2+2=5 or a mathematical proof that triangles are impossible would make mathematics less useful, but not less valid. Godel's Theorem is kind of orthogonal to all this because it's purely about the limits of the formal system.

Theology isn't a rigorous formal system like mathematics, of course, and I wasn't making a very strong comparison. What I had in mind was that insofar as theology is based on revealed truth and not observation there's no reason to expect its findings to intersect with reality in the way that mathematics does.


I do believe you are mistaken in neglecting philosophy. Philosophy is inescapable.

When I said that I'm not very interested in philosophy, I didn't mean to sound as dismissive as it probably came out. I don't mean that I deny the use or value of philosophy; I just mean that I don't personally find philosophy very interesting. Philosophy, like maths, is an intellectual toolkit that I'm happy to use, but I find the pure study of either rather dry and abstract. (Or else I'm just too lazy to put in the neccessary work to appreciate them - the effect is the same.) So I don't feel that I have much to contribute on empiricism vs Platonism, although I do feel guilty for not engaging properly with your excellent posts.

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said:

This, of course, is obvious mumbo-jumbo. Mr. Rilstone will be happy here as I bring in C.S. Lewis, who famously called the argument you are now using "Bulverism”...

“There are two questions that people who say this kind of thing ought to be asked. The first is, are all thoughts thus tainted at the source, or only some? The second is, does the taint invalidate the tainted thought - in the sense of making it untrue - or not?

"If they say that all thoughts are thus tainted, then, of course, we must remind them that Freudianism and Marxism are as much systems of thought as Christian theology or philosophical idealism.”


Please can the record show that Andrew brought up Marx before I did? (Only kidding!)

Firstly, I’m not entirely sure that your arguments are consistent here. When you said earlier...

If, absent philosophy, people just lived by basic common sense principles, then philosophy would be none the worse for having nobody study it. But they will philosophize anyway... When people do philosophize, they usually do so badly.

...I took you to mean that we should distrust accepted wisdom, and scrutinize our conceptions for popular prejudices and inherited errors. Now we seem to be on some ‘jury of our peers’ argument where if a hundred good men and true say something, then that should be good enough for you and me! These popular prejudices are easy to find, in fact the trouble normally lies in trying to get away from them. If they’re sufficient, what on earth do we need the professional body of philosophers for?

But more to the point, Lewis is not answering Marx but merely caricaturing him. The simple answers to his questions are “all” and “not”. But the point is that his questions are misconceived so, for a fuller answer, let’s quote Cardew:

“Our ideas about the world are determined by the social position from which we view it, by our class standpoint. There is no abstract knowledge, no abstract right and wrong, only partisan knowledge, class ideas.”

The key to Lewis’ failure of comprehension is in the word ‘tainted’. (‘Filtered’ may be a better term.) Lewis assumes that, as Marx dislikes the bourgeoisie, he must consider their pronouncements ‘false’ in the way a theist considers atheism false, or an audience distrust the claims of a snake oil seller. But Marx is saying nothing of the kind! To him bourgeois ideology is not a wicked spell, but of itself something entirely true – merely within it’s own context. To take one obvious example, the marketplace is not a set of ideas, but a physical reality with which we interact. Very few of us are hunter-gatherers nowadays, and not many subsistence farmers will have the broadband connection to be reading this. To survive, most of us work (ie sell our labour.) Hence Marx says “the bourgeoisie have remade the world in their image.” Ideas do not merely float above us, dazzling us with their shadows, they take concrete form as much as they are influenced by concrete things.

Nor does it mean anti-capitalist ideas are ‘right’, in some ipso facto fashion. If someone decides they have reached an understanding of capitalist social relations through reading Marx, so no longer need to go out and earn money, they are clearly deluding themselves! Only if the material reality of capitalist social relations were transcended could this become true.

In short, both the bourgeois and the worker has the ‘right’ idea – from his own perspective. But the complication comes from the fact that the power relations are unequal. The bourgeoisie control not just the more obvious points of dissemination of ideas (the media, academia etc) but in fact all forms of social reproduction. It is not just that in our compliance we accept this world, in our compliance we actively recreate it. It becomes entirely natural to think that to survive you must sell your labour. It is after all, in every meaningful sense of the word, true. If you don’t, you’re going to get pretty hungry.

Were Plato to take the time to explain his philosophy to a slave, he would be peddling something quite to the contrary of the slave’s material interests. (It is at root a philosophy to ‘explain’ the importance of mental over manual labour, after all.) I would contend it is not something the slave would come up with himself, he is all too often reminded of the necessity of manual labour. But on hearing Plato he may well find himself convinced by the words, not just because the educated Plato is able to articulate them well but because his own everyday experience reinforces the superiority of mental over manual workers. The words match the ache in his back. This is what’s meant by false consciousness. Power imbalances cause the worker to see the world through the bourgeois’ perspective, which is itself reinforced by aspects of his own experience.

Hence the emphasis not on the ‘untruth’ but the transient nature of the bourgeois perspective. It is true not because it is inviolable or inevitable or ahistorical, but because one set of people have the power to make it true. But you should not infer from this emphasis that there is something eternal or inevitable contained in the worker’s perspective. To dismiss Marxism as merely a ‘system of thought’ is not to engage in it in any way, but merely to read what it says on its label.

Gavin Burrows said...

PS Sorry meant to add, you will of course find 'Marxists' who will argue quite the opposite. But in life you will find all sorts of silly people, whose vehmence in adhering to a set of ideas seems to lie in inverse proportion to their understanding of them.

dagonet said...

Mr. Burrows wrote:
"This is what’s meant by false consciousness. Power imbalances cause the worker to see the world through the bourgeois’ perspective, which is itself reinforced by aspects of his own experience."
"But you should not infer from this emphasis that there is something eternal or inevitable contained in the worker’s perspective."

I see you took option 3, then: "seem to saw off own branch, then refute Law of Gravity as False Conciousness";)

Stevens: one has had a bit to do with European "religious scientists", & they seem to have a strange habit of ignoring what religious people actually say in favour of anything from sociology to neurology. In comparison, serious Egyptologists, say,(of course, somewhat depending on speciality) actually do bother to try to find out what dynastic Egyptian theology was, in spite of not being dynastic Egyptians (they also tend to worry more about Crowley cultists such as Mr. Moore than astroarcaeologists, by the way)

Mr. Political Scientist:
You beat me to the punch, sir! Nice to see yet another medivalist on the thread.
However, saying that ANY subject is one that ANY group of people does not discuss is rather tempting fate.

Mr. Dodsworth:
"Theology isn't a rigorous formal system like mathematics, of course, and I wasn't making a very strong comparison."

Of course.
While you are at it, would you not please state that "everyone who has read anything written by St. Thomas Aquinas is completely irresistable to women, as well as an accomplished ballroom dancer, on pins or otherwise"? Mr. Political Scientist & I would be much obliged (heterosexual female Aquinastists should mind their own buisness)

dagonet said...

...assuming Mr/Ms/Mir Political scientist is male, heterosexual, and/or indeed a non-BioTranscendent Memetic CyberEntity.
If not, well, er, sorry?

Andrew Stevens said...

What I was trying to say was that I think of mathematics as a purely abstract system, but one that has applications in the real world. Those applications exist because mathematics was empirical before it was formalized, so its fundamental rules were derived from reality, but the formal system could just as well exist in isolation. Finding a real-world case of 2+2=5 or a mathematical proof that triangles are impossible would make mathematics less useful, but not less valid. Godel's Theorem is kind of orthogonal to all this because it's purely about the limits of the formal system.

But, in order for the formal system to so exactly produce empirically verifiable results, the formal system must, in some sense, be mimicking reality. (See Wigner's The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences.) I.e. the laws of mathematics, physics, etc., must in some very real way be embedded into the universe in a way that is not true of other internally consistent formal, but fictional, systems. I hasten to add that some mathematical systems are probably fictional. E.g. the universe is either Euclidean or non-Euclidean. If it is Euclidean, non-Euclidean geometries are fictions. If it is non-Euclidean, Euclidean geometries are fictions. (Here, as an immanent realist, I depart from the true Platonic realists. They will argue that the "wrong" geometry still exists in their Platonic realm so we can still correctly reason about it. I don't think this is necessary and am satisfied with a fictionalist account, however.)

When I said that I'm not very interested in philosophy, I didn't mean to sound as dismissive as it probably came out. I don't mean that I deny the use or value of philosophy; I just mean that I don't personally find philosophy very interesting. Philosophy, like maths, is an intellectual toolkit that I'm happy to use, but I find the pure study of either rather dry and abstract. (Or else I'm just too lazy to put in the neccessary work to appreciate them - the effect is the same.) So I don't feel that I have much to contribute on empiricism vs Platonism, although I do feel guilty for not engaging properly with your excellent posts.

Obviously, I personally don't find it too dry and abstract, but I certainly understand the opinion of anyone who does. For example, there is currently a thread going on where Dawkins is being criticized for his biological theories. This interests me, but not enough to actually do the work to determine who's right and who's wrong. I know that Ernst Mayr, the greatest living biologist until his death in 2005, made a similar criticism of Dawkins, but I am completely incompetent to decide if Gareth McCaughan's defense of Dawkins is right or if Mayr's criticism of Dawkins was correct. I would be entirely reduced to argument from authority on the matter and unable to weigh the authorities against each other.

For the record, by the way, I love pure mathematics and it is what I studied at university. I completely agree with your pure math friends who look down on applied mathematics, which is certainly less rigorous and far less beautiful than pure math. I would up in applied mathematics strictly for the remuneration. (Cue dagonet to talk about my "pile of evil American money.") I make no apologies; I have a wife, a mother, a father-in-law, and several bartenders dependent on me, plus a child on the way. And, in any event, I am too old now to be of any use to pure mathematics, which is a young man's game.

Please can the record show that Andrew brought up Marx before I did? (Only kidding!)

I didn't; C.S. Lewis did!

...I took you to mean that we should distrust accepted wisdom, and scrutinize our conceptions for popular prejudices and inherited errors. Now we seem to be on some ‘jury of our peers’ argument where if a hundred good men and true say something, then that should be good enough for you and me! These popular prejudices are easy to find, in fact the trouble normally lies in trying to get away from them. If they’re sufficient, what on earth do we need the professional body of philosophers for?

The responsibility for the confusion here is entirely mine. Allow me to explain what I mean. I believe that common sense ("the metaphysics of savages" according to Bertrand Russell) is, on the whole, entirely defensible. I believe that things pretty much are as they appear. It seems to me that I have knowledge of the external world and that my senses are largely (though not perfectly) reliable. I believe this can be defended. When I went to work yesterday morning, it seems to me that I had the option of doing otherwise and I believe this impression is largely correct. I.e. I believe that I have free will. It seems to me that what mathematics says is true is actually true. It seems to me that it is wrong to torture a little child just for one's own sadistic pleasure. I believe it is defensible to say that it is actually true. There are cases, of course, where common sense turns out to be wrong. (I.e. it seems to me that the sun revolves around the earth, but I know better. It seems to me that all causes are local and there is no action at a distance, but quantum mechanics has shed considerable doubt on this belief.) But I also believe that just because common sense is wrong on occasion is not sufficient reason to doubt it on others. When discussing Platonism/fictionalism in mathematics, it's an interesting argument because two different common sense principles are in conflict. Obviously, Platonic realism is no part of common sense, but on the other hand, we still have to defend mathematics as an objective discipline. This is what makes it such a fascinating argument.

I do believe that, if we polled people prior to philosophy, most people would have a fairly sound philosophy. But we are not in that position. Two thousand years of philosophy have convinced people of a great many strange and counter-intuitive beliefs. Free will is just an illusion. We have no evidence for the existence of the external world. Mathematics is just some sort of game. Moral judgments are either non-cognitive or entirely in error. Inductive reasoning does not work. Etc. It is my view that we should vigorously question these strange and counter-intuitive claims since the arguments for them are not nearly so good as most people seem to suppose. I am (usually) not saying that I know for a fact that common sense is correct and these propositions of philosophy are false, by the way. What I am saying is that these propositions do not yet have sufficient arguments in their favor that we should accept them given that they do violence to our own experience with the world. Take the argument against free will. You can quite plainly see yourself making choices every day and freely exercising your will in a way which leaves you with little doubt that you could have chosen otherwise. It is an incredible theory to claim that you don't actually have free will and the argument against free will consists of an extremely detailed argument which could easily be wrong in at least a dozen different places. But many people believe that the argument is entirely settled against free will. Unlike some common sense philosophers, I don't believe we shouldn't have these debates. We should. The principles of common sense are defeasible and it's correct to question them. But it is not correct to fall in love with our theories to such an extent that we forget the high initial plausibility of common sense arguments. The arguments against them have to be absolutely knock-down to succeed. Most of the time, I find that they aren't even particularly good. Many of them, for example, simply rely on the premise of materialism. Now I do very much find materialism to be an extremely plausible premise, but it's nothing more than an assumption. There isn't any evidence for it and it's certainly not a scientific discovery or even a scientific proposition at all (I know of no experiment which could conceivably verify or refute it). And it's much less plausible than the common sense propositions I am normally defending. This doesn't necessarily mean that I am not a materialist, so much as I think the scientific materialists define materialism too narrowly.

But more to the point, Lewis is not answering Marx but merely caricaturing him.

To be fair to Lewis, he was not answering Marx. He was answering particular Marxists and, more broadly, a great many people of the 20th century whose form of argument is to assume that their opponents are wrong and then to go about explaining why their opponents are wrong, rather than actually engaging with their opponents' argument.

Another quote:

"You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it 'Bulverism'. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — 'Oh you say that because you are a man.' 'At that moment', E. Bulver assures us, 'there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.' That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century."

The simple answers to his questions are “all” and “not”. But the point is that his questions are misconceived so, for a fuller answer, let’s quote Cardew:

“Our ideas about the world are determined by the social position from which we view it, by our class standpoint. There is no abstract knowledge, no abstract right and wrong, only partisan knowledge, class ideas.”


Cardew's argument is, not to put too fine a point on it, balderdash, social constructivist rubbish. Evolution doesn't actually exist, I suppose (after all, it's just abstract knowledge). It was presumably invented by white racists to keep "inferior" races down. And so forth. As Lewis said, this is obviously great fun and I'm sure we could construct elaborate theories on how all the arguments of philosophy or science or mathematics are purely intended to prop up the existing power structure, but I fail to see the point in it. Cardew's argument is also self-refuting. (What is the statement "there is no abstract knowledge" except a claim to abstract knowledge which he is claiming doesn't exist?)

To do a little motive analysis of my own, it is easy to see why such a theory is seductive. If you really believe it, you don't have to do the hard intellectual work of refuting one's opponents' arguments or defending one's own. Since all belief systems are equally true (and equally false), one can believe whatever it is one happens to want to believe.

This isn't to say, by the way, that I reject the whole of your argument, just its main thrust. For example, the following paragraph has much to recommend it:

Were Plato to take the time to explain his philosophy to a slave, he would be peddling something quite to the contrary of the slave’s material interests. (It is at root a philosophy to ‘explain’ the importance of mental over manual labour, after all.) I would contend it is not something the slave would come up with himself, he is all too often reminded of the necessity of manual labour. But on hearing Plato he may well find himself convinced by the words, not just because the educated Plato is able to articulate them well but because his own everyday experience reinforces the superiority of mental over manual workers. The words match the ache in his back. This is what’s meant by false consciousness. Power imbalances cause the worker to see the world through the bourgeois’ perspective, which is itself reinforced by aspects of his own experience.

While I don't actually believe that Plato's argument is intended to have any effect at all on the slave, it is quite easy to see the pitfalls you are talking about and I agree with a lot of what you're saying here. When Plato deemed that philosophers were the best people and that they should rule, I find it hard to take him terribly seriously. When Aristotle decided that intellectual contemplation was the highest human activity, well, this doesn't strike me as particularly true or particularly well-supported by his arguments. Quite clearly, Plato and Aristotle were praising themselves. It should be pointed out, though, that you are mistaken in thinking that Plato's position was congenial to the aristocracy of the time. (There's a reason why they killed Socrates.) They didn't sit around thinking about things and intellectual labor wasn't the primary concern of the Athenian aristocracy. Only Plato and a few other mavericks did that. The Athenians of the time believed that military and political service were the highest callings since that's what the aristocracy did: they served in the military and they governed. Plato was justifying philosophy not against the slaves, but against his own peers.

It is certainly true that intellectuals have always told us that their own activity is most valuable. Those who valued other things like sports or power or food or sex (even Epicurus thought intellectual pleasure was the highest pleasure) did not leave written records to justify their value system. Only the intellectual bothered to work out a theory on why what he valued was the highest of all values. However, while this is an interesting criticism of Plato's belief that we should all be ruled by a "bevy of Platonic guardians," it doesn't provide any real motivation for 90% of Plato's theories, which had no practical import at all.

For what it's worth, I have long railed against the pretensions of the artists and intellectuals that they are "better" than the people who do manual labor for a living. So, on that at least, we are in complete agreement.

Gavin Burrows said...

Here, as an immanent realist, I depart from the true Platonic realists.

Andrew, you may need to recall that there are cheap sheets on this blogsite who will need you to explain ‘immanent realism’. It doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry (so by strict standards of our time, probably doesn’t officially exist). The only stuff I found from Googling suggested it mean Platonism without the actual existence of the ideal objects, though I’ve no idea how that works. Isn’t that notion rather central to Platonism?

...plus a child on the way

Congratulations!

Two thousand years of philosophy have convinced people of a great many strange and counter-intuitive beliefs. Free will is just an illusion. We have no evidence for the existence of the external world. Mathematics is just some sort of game. Moral judgments are either non-cognitive or entirely in error. Inductive reasoning does not work. Etc.

So we need (good) philosophy to get us out the hole (bad) philosophy got us into? (I have to confess of thinking of Moe out the Simpsons here – “Don’t dig down, dig up, stupid!”) I’m not sure from what you say how this state of affairs came about. But more, I’m not sure that the ‘counter-intuitive’ beliefs you mention do have any popular currency. No free will? No moral judgements? Sorry, but I see people assuming quite the opposite.

To be fair to Lewis, he was not answering Marx. He was answering particular Marxists and, more broadly, a great many people of the 20th century whose form of argument is to assume that their opponents are wrong and then to go about explaining why their opponents are wrong, rather than actually engaging with their opponents' argument.

Your original quote seemed to me to suggest that Lewis found both Marx and Freud to be intrinsically bound up in all this. Now we seem to be on a particular form of rhetoric people use in arguments 'Oh you say that because you are a man.' etc.

If we’re to assume the latter, the odd thing seems to me to be that this practise is much more widespread than in Lewis’ day, to the point where it now passes for serious argument. The Creationist Todd Wood was reported in yesterday’s Guardian claiming that Darwin’s theory of natural selection came from grief at the death of his daughter. (And presumably nothing to do with all those notes he assembled while on the Beagle.) Most people reading this will doubtless smirk at the absurdity and cry ‘crank’, yet I’ve heard similar stuff from more ‘respectable’ sources. Perhaps the nadir of this for me was when an episode of the BBC series Timewatch seemed to claim the failure of the Russian Revolution was because Stalin’s dad didn’t love him enough! I’m not sure Timewatch’s claims belong in a different category to Wood’s. ( I would hesitate to describe “you only say that because you’re a man” as even a debased form of Freudianism. Nevertheless, such arguments do rather readily latch onto Freudian or Marxist terminology.)

The Labour Theory of Value may find a more receptive audience among those who sell their labour than those who buy it. But this doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be examined thoroughly for internal consistency and historical accuracy. Your own life experience is merely the first test.

Cardew's argument is, not to put too fine a point on it, balderdash, social constructivist rubbish. ...What is the statement "there is no abstract knowledge" except a claim to abstract knowledge which he is claiming doesn't exist?

Let us try replacing the phrase “abstract knowledge” with “a cigar-smoking banana”. If I say “there’s been a lot of talk of cigar-smoking bananas around here, but I am yet to see one” would you reply “as even you are talking of him, you merely add to the proofs for his existence”?

A less facetious and more pedantic response might be – by ‘no abstract knowledge’ Cardew really means that human claims to pure, objective claims to knowledge will always turn out to be a chimera. Human knowledge will always be partial, socially constructed and hence, to some degree, socially constrained. Of course in another sense of the word the Labour Theory of Value is an abstraction. But it is an abstraction made from material observation, and makes no claims to be pure, objective or complete.

Evolution doesn't actually exist, I suppose (after all, it's just abstract knowledge). It was presumably invented by white racists to keep "inferior" races down.

Here I think you’re really playing into my hands. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the discovery of natural selection didn’t rely on any technical developments (like discovering sub-atomic particles did), it was a simple matter of observation. So why was it observed when it was, and not before or after? Of course being able to get to the Galapagos Islands helped, but Darwin wasn’t the first European to set foot there.

My contention is that by Darwin’s time England had become a more capitalist and less aristocratic society, and with it more dynamic and less static. Innovation not inheritance became prized. A dynamic nature was thereby more credible to conceive of. Where I depart from Bulverism is that I don’t then consider Darwinism to then be ‘tainted’ or invalidated. If I wanted to argue such a thing, I would have to acquaint myself with the notes he made on board the Beagle. This is merely a description of how such a theory might be arrived at.

(NB Of course natural selection was later twisted to serve white racists. But as, up to then, they’d been basing their arguments upon the Bible, at the time it had quite the reverse effect.)

While I don't actually believe that Plato's argument is intended to have any effect at all on the slave...

It should be pointed out, though, that you are mistaken in thinking that Plato's position was congenial to the aristocracy of the time. (There's a reason why they killed Socrates.) They didn't sit around thinking about things and intellectual labor wasn't the primary concern of the Athenian aristocracy.


It’s as common as it is inaccurate to conceive of false consciousness as some cunningly devised scheme. Thinking of it that way might be amusing (Plato thinks: ”Bloody hell, all I do is sit on my arse all day drawing in the sand. Better come up with a clever justification double-quick!”), but that’s all.

You’re almost certainly right to say Plato wouldn’t even have considered the effect of his philosophy on the slave, hence I phrased myself “were he...”. (This time I’m thinking of him by a blackboard, inscribed ‘Top Ten Reasons Why You Really Shouldn’t Revolt’.) My conjecture is what Plato was doing was articulating his own alienation into some eternalised form, pronouncing us forever cut off from true interaction in the world but instead trapped in a kind of cave. Of course he who lives off the back of slavery is not exploited in the same way as the slave, but I contend he will still feel the effects of alienation. (As in Hegel’s Master/Slave dialectic.) It’s hopefully clear how this argument is congruent with my earlier comments about social perspective.

A valid point about the aristocracy of the day, though I’m not sure they were as unified in their dismissal as you might suggest. But perhaps a more important point is that Platonism was taken up by later civilizations, when so many other conceptions were discarded or forgotten. It is reasonable to ask why that might be.

Gavin Burrows said...

human claims to pure, objective claims to knowledge will always turn out to be a chimera.

Repetition of 'claims'. I lose the subject.

Whose go is it now?

Sam Dodsworth said...

But, in order for the formal system to so exactly produce empirically verifiable results, the formal system must, in some sense, be mimicking reality... the laws of mathematics, physics, etc., must in some very real way be embedded into the universe in a way that is not true of other internally consistent formal, but fictional, systems.

Well... yes. Mathematics produces empirically verifiable results because it began in measuring and counting. We chose rules for the formal system that produced empirical results. When we explore the consequences of that system, sometimes we find results that are empirically verifiable ("applied mathematics") and somethimes we don't ("pure mathematics"). But I don't find it especially spooky or mysterious that, out of the set of possible formal systems, we've chosen to study one that's derived from empirical observation rather than a purely fictional one, or that a system derived from observation turns out (sometimes) to mimic reality.

The laws of physics, of course, are not part of a formal system in the way that the fundamental rules of mathematics are, and thus not really relevant to this discussion. Theoretical physics is the process of exploring the conceptual space of mathematics for results that describe reality; but those results still have to be verified empirically. I suspect that the relation of mathematics to reality only seems mysterious to (some) theoreticians because they get too wrapped up in the formal system and forget its origins.



...you are mistaken in thinking that Plato's position was congenial to the aristocracy of the time. (There's a reason why they killed Socrates.)

It was actually the commoners who killed Socrates, because (to simplify) his most famous pupil was an aristocrat and an anti-democrat who defected to Sparta. Not that any of that was Socrates' fault, of course. And I'm sure you're aware of how problematic the relation between Plato, Socrates, and Socrates-in-Plato's-writing is.

It's hard to know what the Athenian aristocracy thought of Plato because they weren't in charge of the state at the time, but Plato's teachings seem to have been perfectly acceptable to the various aristocracies and oligarchies that followed. That doesn't mean that Platonism supported the aristocrats, but it does suggest that it wasn't seen as a threat to aristocracy.


The Athenians of the time believed that military and political service were the highest callings since that's what the aristocracy did: they served in the military and they governed.

Not really. Military service and political service were the duties of citizenship; all citizens served in the military and all citizens governed, because both activities served the polis. To perform those duties was proof of good citizenship, not the sign of a higher calling. In the "Apology", Socrates advances his military service and time on the boule and prytany as evidence of good citizenship, against the charges of impiety and corrupting the young.

Ultimately, the suspicion of philosophy in Athens was anti-aristocratic. One of the most dangerous kinds of bad citizen was the leader out to manipulate the Assembly for their own ends; Odysseus in Greek Tragedy is a far more ambiguous figure than he is in Homer because he embodies this kind of manipulative cleverness. And one of the most important accusations made against the sophists (and by association, Socrates) was that they taught their pupils to argue any side of a case.

On a more abstract level, the justification for the study of philosophy was that it aimed to identify virtue; but virtue was not equally distributed and character was thought to be innate. So to identify people with civic virtues was identify the "best people" who should rule in an aristocracy in the political sense. And the people with the leisure to study philosophy were aristocrats in the social sense who often held anti-democratic views...

Andrew Rilstone said...

You can, presumably, say without absurdity "Hitler was a hard bastard because his daddy beat him, and when he was poor that hard bastardness came out as an irrational hatred of shopkeepers who seemed to have more money than him." Whether you can say "If it Hitler hadn't been such a bastard, the whole Nazi thing wouldn't have happened" or "the dialectical thingamejig was certainly going to produce totalitarianism in Germany one way or the other, and if it wasn't Hitler it would have been some other bastard" is a rather deeper question.


The Creationist Todd Wood was reported in yesterday’s Guardian claiming that Darwin’s theory of natural selection came from grief at the death of his daughter.

That's a brilliant meme, actually. A lot of sensible Darwinianists have been pointing out that there is no necessary conflict between evolution and religion; and that while Darwin himself certainly did start life as theist, kind of, and end life as an atheist, kind of, his loss of god-belief was because of the death of his daughter and not because of galapagos tortoises per se. So it's quite brilliant that that has mutated into "Darwin invented evolution because he was sad about his daughter."


The Lewis essay is massively complicated. It starts out as a witty rant about journalists and politicians using the ad hominem fallacy. But it it turns into a version of his beloved "Poison of Subjectivism" argument, which lies behind both "Abolition of Man" and "Miracles"("If we really believe that our behaviour is driven purely by natural forces, then we'll end up with a value free world where everything is run by fascist scientists; but since our behaviour clearly isn't driven purely by natural forces, we've admitted the existence of at least one, for the sake of argument 'supernatural' element in the universe - so presumably there could be others as well." The latter argument was the one that was shot to pieces in a debate by a female philsopher, which was particularly painful to Lewis because he had a mother complex. Er....

dagonet said...

Mr. Stevens wrote:
"I would up in applied mathematics strictly for the remuneration. (Cue dagonet to talk about my "pile of evil American money.")"

Well, you DO say things like "When Aristotle decided that intellectual contemplation was the highest human activity, well, this doesn't strike me as particularly true or particularly well-supported by his arguments" so you should not wonder if people tend to look at you funny.

Mr. Burrows wrote:
"So why was it observed when it was, and not before or after?"

Eh? you seem to have left out the "after" bit.

"(NB Of course natural selection was later twisted to serve white racists. But as, up to then, they’d been basing their arguments upon the Bible, at the time it had quite the reverse effect.)"

+Aristotle.
They also mostly lost those arguments.
Did not keep people from using them, also after the invention of Darwinism.
Not that one is dragging in an OT subject one has a personal interest in (in more than 1 sense of the word), or anything.

"Of course in another sense of the word the Labour Theory of Value is an abstraction. But it is an abstraction made from material observation, and makes no claims to be pure, objective or complete."

Oh thats allright then!

A quick recap of a Certain Previous 131-Entry Thread:
Mr. Stevens: "Poor people are just poor BECAUSE THEY WANT TO BE! Yee-haa."
Mr. Burrows: "You just say that because you are capitalist!"
Mr. Stevens: "And you are a Commie. So?"
Mr. Burrows: "I am a Marxist, not a "Commie"! The proper sort, without Stalin so YOU LIE! Also, "Truth" is capitalist".
Dagonet: "I Hate Vegetarians"
Mr: Stevens: "Screw this, Im off to make children & Even More Money!"

Just to save everyone the trouble & time.

Mr. Dodsworth wrote:
"And I'm sure you're aware of how problematic the relation between Plato, Socrates, and Socrates-in-Plato's-writing is."

So you think Socrates, "Socrates", Plato, & Aristotle worth a study, in spite of them hearing voices, being Platos sock-puppet, being a David Sim - style insane genius, & being as close to a racist as he could be at the time (not to mention inventing most of what later was to be called "theology"), respectively?
Just state "they are all evil space pinapples!" & ignore them, I say!
(Oh, & by "Aristocrat" I think they meant, or "really" meant, People Allowed To Vote. They seem to find such fine distinctions "content-free", possibly due to not believing in slavery)

Gavin Burrows said...

Sam Dodsworth said...
It's hard to know what the Athenian aristocracy thought of Plato because they weren't in charge of the state at the time

I think you may be overstated the case for Greek ‘democracy’ there.

Andrew Rilstone said:

You can, presumably, say without absurdity "Hitler was a hard bastard because his daddy beat him, and when he was poor that hard bastardness came out as an irrational hatred of shopkeepers who seemed to have more money than him." Whether you can say "If it Hitler hadn't been such a bastard, the whole Nazi thing wouldn't have happened" or "the dialectical thingamejig was certainly going to produce totalitarianism in Germany one way or the other, and if it wasn't Hitler it would have been some other bastard" is a rather deeper question.

Well maybe with less absurdity, but to be honest I find the whole ‘his daddy didn’t love him so he annexed the Sudetenland’ stuff pretty glib from start to finish. With this type of example, I suspect it works by subliminally contrasting conventions of childcare between then and now. Hitler and Stalin may have had aberrant fathers by contemporary standards, but did they by their own times?

In fact I wonder if the whole edifice doesn’t rest upon a doublethink. “Hitler’s Daddy was such a nasty Daddy you see, that the uniquely evil effect twisted the poor boy and drove him to invade Poland.” “But how was he able to marshall an army?” ”Well you see, all their Daddies were nasty Daddies too...” To paraphrase Sylvia Plath, Daddy, Daddy, such blather, I’m through.

Dagonet said:

Eh? you seem to have left out the "after" bit.

Not really with you there. By ‘after’ I mean ‘discovered later than it was’, if that clarifies anything.

A quick recap of a Certain Previous 131-Entry Thread:

Well now let’s try to beat that record!

“Mr. Stevens: "Poor people are just poor BECAUSE THEY WANT TO BE! Yee-haa."

I thought his point was more “poor people are poor because they’re too dumb to work out rich is better.” (Just kidding.)

(Incidentally, if push came to shove I’d rather call myself a Communist than a Marxist. I’m influenced by the ideas of the Big Bearded One, but terms of personal attachment like that smell to me far too much of slavish adherence. I’m not too keen on Stalin though. I don’t know, there’s just something about his eyes...)

PS Where are the big piles of nice American money kept?

Andrew Rilstone said...

In fact I wonder if the whole edifice doesn’t rest upon a doublethink. “Hitler’s Daddy was such a nasty Daddy you see, that the uniquely evil effect twisted the poor boy and drove him to invade Poland.” “But how was he able to marshall an army?” ”Well you see, all their Daddies were nasty Daddies too...”

Is the point here a: personalities have no influence on history (or less than is popularly supposed) or b: uprbringing and personal trauma has no influence on personality (or less than is popularly supposed). I would have thought that a case could be made out for saying that Hitler's personal anti-semitism was one of the causes of Nazism. Granted that, I would have thought that there could have been biographical reasons for his personal anti-semitism. Obviously "his father hit him, so he invaded Poland" is silly, as silly as "his father was a black man, so he inaugurated a financial stimulus package." But I can't help thinking biography comes into it somewhere.

With this type of example, I suspect it works by subliminally contrasting conventions of childcare between then and now. Hitler and Stalin may have had aberrant fathers by contemporary standards, but did they by their own times?

I believe that Winston Churchill was subjected to treatment that the most enthusiastic supporter of corporal punishment would describe as "torture", and he turned out to be the Greatest Englishman Of All Time. I think the problem is that we focus on a bit of data about a dead person's life, and start to make deductions from that, rather than from the thousands of other events that we don't know about.

The Creationist Todd Wood was reported in yesterday’s Guardian claiming that Darwin’s theory of natural selection came from grief at the death of his daughter. (And presumably nothing to do with all those notes he assembled while on the Beagle.)

That's not quite fair, actually: the quote in the article ran:

"During the talk, he shows a slide of himself outside Down House, Darwin's home in Kent, and his concluding remarks are affectionate, if condescending: "Darwin's was a sad life. He was a brilliant man who ignored the Lord's pursuit of him. God was after him, but he allowed the hardships he faced [Wood is thinking principally of the death of Darwin's young daughter] to harden him."

It may very well be that elsewhere in the sermon he said that if he had allowed God to catch up with him, he wouldn't have thought up evolution; but the statment quoted isn't quite as silly as "evolution was caused by his bereavement".

The Guardian essay is excellent by the way: it goes out of its way to distinguish between different kinds of creationsits and explains clearly and so far as I can see fairly how they argue. He doesn't ridicule them, even when they are plainly being ridiculous. The parenthesis about the date of the flood in paragraph 5 is the mark of good journalism: he's taken the trouble to find out the finer points but only drops them in when necessary. I was also pleased with the aside about "intelligent design" (" a watchmaker with 20/20 vision who is not the Christian god and may well own a spaceship").

Andrew Rilstone said...

"He" being the journo writing the piece, not Mr. Todd the creationist who he quotes from, sorry.

Gavin Burrows said...

Is the point here a: personalities have no influence on history (or less than is popularly supposed) or b: uprbringing and personal trauma has no influence on personality (or less than is popularly supposed).

It’s a)ii

I would have thought that a case could be made out for saying that Hitler's personal anti-semitism was one of the causes of Nazism. Granted that, I would have thought that there could have been biographical reasons for his personal anti-semitism. Obviously "his father hit him, so he invaded Poland" is silly, as silly as "his father was a black man, so he inaugurated a financial stimulus package." But I can't help thinking biography comes into it somewhere.

My objection is that this rather glosses over the thorny question of getting yourself some followers, and without those you are unlikely to influence history all that much. Hitler’s personal anti-semitism in itself induces Nazism in precisely one individual.

There’s only really two ways to go. You suggest Hitler somehow channels the force of his exceptionally awful upbringing into rhetoric so powerful that people felt compelled to follow him. Or you allow that people must have had similar sentiments inside them, perhaps even for similar biographical reasons, and it was merely a process of historical accident that put that one bloke up on the podium. This way Hitlerepitomises something rather than causes it.

Of course everybody but the most binary minded is now saying “somewhere between the two.” But I would push it somewhere into the second half, neither the first nor neatly in the middle. If Hitler’s rhetorical skills are the big hitter here, how come the Munich Beer Hall Putsch failed and he had to wait another decade before seeing power?

(Please Note: I am not suggesting here that old Ultra Left axiom where the individual was only ever grain in the gears of objective historical processes.)

I believe that Winston Churchill was subjected to treatment that the most enthusiastic supporter of corporal punishment would describe as "torture", and he turned out to be the Greatest Englishman Of All Time.

Not sure how much sarcasm to assign to Those Capitalisations. I will of course be accused of historical correctness here but wasn’t Churchill just a war criminal who happened to be on the side that won? However, while I believe that interpretation does weigh in with my overall argument, what I’m saying is that child abuse was then rife which had an influence on popular mentalities. Not every abused child went on to be a war criminal.

That's not quite fair, actually

Until your earlier comments, I hadn’t heard the ‘soft’ version of that formulation so may have been deaf to it. You could read it either way. At the very least though, Wood is focusing on Darwin’s biography at the expense of his theories so is still Bulverising.

The Guardian essay is excellent by the way: it goes out of its way to distinguish between different kinds of creationsits and explains clearly and so far as I can see fairly how they argue.

I sometimes do wonder if there are nice Creationists. I suspect our hostility to it stems from treating it as a litmus test for political fundamentalism. Are there any who don’t hate queers and liberals, but just hold some curiously eccentric views about the literalism of the Bible?

Andrew Rilstone said...

The Guardian piece suggested that most of the active British creationists were curious eccentrics; a bit, like, say British Israelites or leyline enthusiasts. Presumably, the overlap between people who insist on the six days of Creation because it's in the Bible and those who insist on (say) no remarriage for divorced persons because it's in the Bible must be considerable. Several of the people who the Guardian interviewed seemed to have a reasonably detailed an nuanced exegesis, and would probably not have been taken in by weak "GOD HATES SHRIMPS" position. But I'd bet several sheckles on lots of them thinking that gay sex is taboo, yes.

dagonet said...

"Not really with you there. By ‘after’ I mean ‘discovered later than it was’, if that clarifies anything."

...but the conditions you described existed quite a bit before Mr. Darwin: &, indeed, they still do.
Not to mention the actual process of evolution.
(To the degree one agrees with your description of "conditions": the various stages of feudalism where not exactly what I would call static -thats why we stopped being feudual, at least in America-, ideas very much like evolution had been floating around for quite a while, etc, etc, but back to the point).
If materialist dialectics are falsefiable enough to pinpoint the exact date & person by wich a particular scientific discovery be made, please, when & who invents how to grow a laptop?

"Well now let’s try to beat that record!"

Did the last one not end with you, Mr.Stevens, & I discussing whether tofu was antiChrist, eventually inciting Mr. Stevens to kill a turkey?
Perhaps I should actually try staying on topic this time, considering the next American holiday coming up involves explosives.

"Incidentally, if push came to shove I’d rather call myself a Communist than a Marxist."

Dont think "Commies" are either, really. More just shoving & pushing.

"I’m not too keen on Stalin though."

Even though he tried to invent non-capitalist Darwinism? Wich ought to be the sort of thing that would end up as bio-computers, or at least a psionic hivemind.

"PS Where are the big piles of nice American money kept?"

Would have said they were Platonic. However, you have suggested -but it is an suggestion made from material observation, namely the material observation of the feeling "alienation", making it a bit more material than other suggestions- that Plato really belived more or less the exact opposite of what he said he did, or even belived he did, wich actually leads us back to the actual topic of this thread, Dawkins ignoring theologians)
!
So, instead I would say not in "communist" China. Apparently, Americans borrowed most of it.

(hm, you replaced "evil" with "nice"... suggestive?)

dagonet said...

"The Guardian piece suggested that most of the active British creationists were curious eccentrics; a bit, like, say British Israelites or leyline enthusiasts."

Indeed, arnt a lot of British Nonconformist -hence, scripturalist, to use a non-us term for fundieism- churches Christian Socialist? Take Mr. Rilstone, for example...
At least untill Rush Limbaugh pays them not to be.

Gavin Burrows said...

Dagonet said:
...but the conditions you described existed quite a bit before Mr. Darwin: &, indeed, they still do.
Not to mention the actual process of evolution.
(To the degree one agrees with your description of "conditions": the various stages of feudalism where not exactly what I would call static -thats why we stopped being feudual, at least in America-, ideas very much like evolution had been floating around for quite a while, etc, etc, but back to the point).


Okay, I get you now. But I think you answer your own question somewhat.

Indeed feudalism was no more static or uniform than tribal societies are. But you can see it fetishising custom and continuity in all sorts of ways. For example if a writer came up with a new plot, he’d immediately claim it to be an old one he’d unearthed. (Cynics might suggest modern writers do the opposite.) Capitalist society by contrast fetishised dynamism and progress.

One result of this is the popular notion of the individual genius, lightbulbs flashing above his head like neon signs, as he pulls yet another individual idea out of thin air. Though popular accounts of Darwin usually refer to Wallace, there’s still an emphasis on the revolutionary leap he made. Yet as you say “ideas very much like evolution had been floating around for quite a while”, Darwin merely put the cherry on the cake. (And with it let the cat out the bag.)

However, if the old ideas were still powerful and manifest in bodies such as the Church, that doesn’t mean we should merely look at this as a process of political bargaining. I’m talking about what made natural selection thinkable, before what made it talkable.

(hm, you replaced "evil" with "nice"... suggestive?)

Suggestive of the fact that I’m English, old chap?

Incidentally, I wonder how much the growth of drama-docs and biopics are associated with this pathologisation of history. Until fairly recently, the standard BBC documentary might have an individual subject but it’s form was some wise old don telling us about him in front of some ruins. Nowadays, they’re always stuffed with those cheesy reconstructions. I suspect this form goes hand-in-had with the pat psychology.

dagonet said...

"Indeed feudalism was no more static or uniform than tribal societies are."

With all due respect for ur-communism, I think we both would agree a tribal society would not produce the Scientific Revolution: but then, we have only had one of them, so its difficult to compare.

"Darwin merely put the cherry on the cake. (And with it let the cat out the bag.)"

Can but agree on the sillyness of the genius idea: Darwin could not have made his discovery without a millennium of scientific (and, yes, economical) progress. But on the other hand, no matter how clever one is, or ones economical disposition, one can not discover what is not there, as Trofim Lysenko found out.
Then again, if Darwin had been claimed by his Dark Lord, Lucifer before "On the Origin of Species" came out, & 1 of the eugenicist-phrenologist-mesmerist lot had eventually come up with something-more-effective-than-Lamarckism-but-with-more-blondes, yes, that would have changed history.

Anyway, if you keep up carrying on this way, Mr. Stevens will eventually state communism, too, was a "capitalist" invention: & I would have to point out that when adam delved & Eve span, who was then the gentleman?
(To get back on the topic of how post 1960-Fundementalism may "really" be a right-wing plot, & how Dawkins has overlooked this fact due to his silly focus on objective science)

Andrew Stevens said...

Andrew, you may need to recall that there are cheap sheets on this blogsite who will need you to explain ‘immanent realism’. It doesn’t have a Wikipedia entry (so by strict standards of our time, probably doesn’t officially exist). The only stuff I found from Googling suggested it mean Platonism without the actual existence of the ideal objects, though I’ve no idea how that works. Isn’t that notion rather central to Platonism?

There is a Wikipedia entry for "moderate realism," which is another word for immanent realism (as is "in re realism"), but it doesn't give much more help. Immanent realists believe that there are such things as universals, that they exist independently of us and our thoughts, but that they don't exist in some abstract free-floating way, but exist in the actual objects themselves. The recent modern defender of the view is David Armstrong. I have recently come to question whether this is a sensible view in regards to the laws of mathematics, or whether we are stuck with Platonic realism there, but I'm having a tough time getting my head around the issue.

So we need (good) philosophy to get us out the hole (bad) philosophy got us into? (I have to confess of thinking of Moe out the Simpsons here – “Don’t dig down, dig up, stupid!”) I’m not sure from what you say how this state of affairs came about. But more, I’m not sure that the ‘counter-intuitive’ beliefs you mention do have any popular currency. No free will? No moral judgements? Sorry, but I see people assuming quite the opposite.

I don't know whether the view that all moral judgments are false is more popular than the intuitive view, but both are certainly popular. The "free will" argument is a bit of a weak reed for me, I admit, since even the most ardent believers in determinism cannot help but act as if they have free will. In a sense, free will is a view that is immune to philosophy.

If we’re to assume the latter, the odd thing seems to me to be that this practise is much more widespread than in Lewis’ day, to the point where it now passes for serious argument.

I agree that it is more widespread than ever now. Bulverism may well shape the 21st century as it shaped the 20th.

A less facetious and more pedantic response might be – by ‘no abstract knowledge’ Cardew really means that human claims to pure, objective claims to knowledge will always turn out to be a chimera. Human knowledge will always be partial, socially constructed and hence, to some degree, socially constrained. Of course in another sense of the word the Labour Theory of Value is an abstraction. But it is an abstraction made from material observation, and makes no claims to be pure, objective or complete.

Cardew certainly cannot demonstrate that "human knowledge will always be partial, socially constructed and hence, to some degree, socially constrained." Indeed, he cannot demonstrate such a thing since his own theory refutes it. (He has to admit that this view, also, must be "partial, socially constructed," etc. and cannot therefore use the word "always.") He is merely assuming that his view is correct and proceeding from that assumption. Besides the whole "pure, objective, and complete" thing is merely a dodge. Virtually no view actually makes such a claim, so it's merely being used as a tactic to discredit any view not one's own.

Here I think you’re really playing into my hands. Correct me if I’m wrong, but the discovery of natural selection didn’t rely on any technical developments (like discovering sub-atomic particles did), it was a simple matter of observation. So why was it observed when it was, and not before or after? Of course being able to get to the Galapagos Islands helped, but Darwin wasn’t the first European to set foot there.

Anaximander of Greece came up with the first evolutionary theory in the 6th century B.C. It was the increase in biological knowledge in the 18th century which led to an increase in observational evidence for the theory of evolution. And it wasn't until the 1900s when the Mendelian mechanism was added to the theory that it became really solid.

(NB Of course natural selection was later twisted to serve white racists. But as, up to then, they’d been basing their arguments upon the Bible, at the time it had quite the reverse effect.)

These were not necessarily the same people. Prominent supporters of eugenics (not necessarily for racist purposes) included H.G. Wells, Margaret Sanger, George Bernard Shaw, Emile Zola, and John Maynard Keynes, and it was practiced in Sweden until the mid-1970s.

A valid point about the aristocracy of the day, though I’m not sure they were as unified in their dismissal as you might suggest. But perhaps a more important point is that Platonism was taken up by later civilizations, when so many other conceptions were discarded or forgotten. It is reasonable to ask why that might be.

Well, you see, I actually believe in truth. I also believe that a great many people are actually trying to arrive at the truth, rather than simply to prop up the existing power structure. Thus, it is not surprising to me that many of Plato's false conceptions were discarded or forgotten while others, whose falsity was still in doubt, were debated and discussed.

The laws of physics, of course, are not part of a formal system in the way that the fundamental rules of mathematics are, and thus not really relevant to this discussion. Theoretical physics is the process of exploring the conceptual space of mathematics for results that describe reality; but those results still have to be verified empirically. I suspect that the relation of mathematics to reality only seems mysterious to (some) theoreticians because they get too wrapped up in the formal system and forget its origins.

I think the mistake you're making is that you're too wrapped up in your empirical view. We do not know 2+2=4 because we've observed that when we add a pair of pairs together that it has always (so far) added up to four. We know 2+2=4 because it must. No other empirical science works like this. When we see swans and all of them are white, we don't think "oh, that's because they have to all be white." Moreover, I do not find it plausible that the axioms of mathematics are derived empirically. They are true a priori.

It was actually the commoners who killed Socrates, because (to simplify) his most famous pupil was an aristocrat and an anti-democrat who defected to Sparta. Not that any of that was Socrates' fault, of course. And I'm sure you're aware of how problematic the relation between Plato, Socrates, and Socrates-in-Plato's-writing is.

It's hard to know what the Athenian aristocracy thought of Plato because they weren't in charge of the state at the time, but Plato's teachings seem to have been perfectly acceptable to the various aristocracies and oligarchies that followed. That doesn't mean that Platonism supported the aristocrats, but it does suggest that it wasn't seen as a threat to aristocracy.


This is all quite correct. I was, as Dagonet suggested, simply lumping all voting members of Athens into "aristocracy." I believe this makes some sense in the Athens of the time which had a large slave population. But, yes, Socrates was killed by the democratic faction of the populace, not the aristocratic faction, despite Socrates's own relative poverty.

Not really. Military service and political service were the duties of citizenship; all citizens served in the military and all citizens governed, because both activities served the polis. To perform those duties was proof of good citizenship, not the sign of a higher calling. In the "Apology", Socrates advances his military service and time on the boule and prytany as evidence of good citizenship, against the charges of impiety and corrupting the young.

I have to disagree with you that we disagree here. You say "to perform those duties was proof of good citizenship" which was basically my argument, that these were the things that were valued most. They were so basic that you couldn't call yourself a good citizen unless you did them.

On a more abstract level, the justification for the study of philosophy was that it aimed to identify virtue; but virtue was not equally distributed and character was thought to be innate. So to identify people with civic virtues was identify the "best people" who should rule in an aristocracy in the political sense. And the people with the leisure to study philosophy were aristocrats in the social sense who often held anti-democratic views...

There is much in what you say here as well. Yes, I agree, that Plato's philosophy was ultimately undemocratic and built to create a new aristocracy which would rule (with himself, presumably, as top dog). However, I don't think this is a congenial philosophy either to A) the democrats in power at the time or B) the traditional aristocracy. You are correct in arguing that it is more congenial to the traditional aristocracy than to the democrats, though.

Mr. Stevens: "Poor people are just poor BECAUSE THEY WANT TO BE! Yee-haa."
Mr. Burrows: "You just say that because you are capitalist!"
Mr. Stevens: "And you are a Commie. So?"
Mr. Burrows: "I am a Marxist, not a "Commie"! The proper sort, without Stalin so YOU LIE! Also, "Truth" is capitalist".
Dagonet: "I Hate Vegetarians"
Mr: Stevens: "Screw this, Im off to make children & Even More Money!"


I was amused by this. It is funny that the meme of the heartless capitalist is such a powerful one that I get accused of saying things like "Poor people are just poor BECAUSE THEY WANT TO BE!" even though my defense of capitalism was predicated entirely on my belief that it is best for the poor. (The wealthy of our time, aside from medicine and transportation, are not too much better off than the wealthy of any other historical time period or of our time period in non-capitalist countries. But the poor are massively better off.) However, Mr. Burrows will probably point out that it is my life experiences (i.e. growing up poor in a capitalist nation) which lead me to such a belief and I can't prove him wrong. The fact that there are bigger gaps between rich and poor in socialist countries than there are in capitalist countries could well be because of a whole host of "betrayals of the revolution."

By the way, since I was forced by circumstances to abandon the thread, I can assure you that I haven't made any money, any more than anyone else has. I don't think making money is actually possible in the current economic climate. But this too shall pass.

Gavin Burrows said...

Iandrew Stevens said:
mmanent realists believe that there are such things as universals, that they exist independently of us and our thoughts, but that they don't exist in some abstract free-floating way, but exist in the actual objects themselves. The recent modern defender of the view is David Armstrong.

I did stumble upon Armstrong during my rather rudimentary Googling. So the ideal table doesn’t lie in some superior realm but is somehow inherently inside the sum total of the actual tables, like a kernel inside a nut?

(I have to admit calling all these forms of ‘realism’ amuses me. It’s like the way in Britain private schools are called ‘public schools.’)

I don't know whether the view that all moral judgments are false is more popular than the intuitive view, but both are certainly popular.

I’d say moral relativism has become something of a straw man. I’m always hearing about how these pesky illegal immigrants are getting away with practising their barbaric rites because that’s what they’d do in their home countries, and the moral relativists are defending them.

It was the increase in biological knowledge in the 18th century...

I have to say this sounds like a circular argument. They got to know more about biology in the 18th century by knowing more about it? There was enough info around to deduce natural selection well before Darwin, that’s simply without doubt. Why did this theory arrive (in not one but two places) when it did?

..it [eugenics] was practiced in Sweden until the mid-1970s.

Sweden was a particularly egregious case, but it was practised in the UK and US as well. Few countries escaped its taint. Still, not sure we’re disagreeing about anything on this point...

Cardew certainly cannot demonstrate that "human knowledge will always be partial, socially constructed and hence, to some degree, socially constrained." Indeed, he cannot demonstrate such a thing since his own theory refutes it. (He has to admit that this view, also, must be "partial, socially constructed," etc. and cannot therefore use the word "always.")...

... Well, you see, I actually believe in truth. I also believe that a great many people are actually trying to arrive at the truth, rather than simply to prop up the existing power structure


Apologies for placing these quotes together, but I think it’s significant. My point is a simple one. If we’re debating where there is ‘truth’ out there, I cannot point to its absence. I can only point to specific places where it isn’t, where human knowledge can be seen as socially constructed, just as if it was a cigar-smoking banana. If you believe such a thing exists, the onus is on you to point out where it is. (I’m assuming here by ‘truth’ you mean something more than “it’s true that if you stand out in the rain you get wet.”)

The wealthy of our time, aside from medicine and transportation, are not too much better off than the wealthy of any other historical time period or of our time period in non-capitalist countries. But the poor are massively better off.

Dagonet has done it, and collapsed the membrane between that last mega-thread and this one! Of course both his gag and mine went for funny over fair. I ‘get’ your point, even if I don’t happen to agree with it. Even our current market-oriented government concedes that the only meaningful measure of poverty is relative. Absolute measures end up as arbitrary. A poor person in the UK might not be as poor as a poor person in Bangladesh, but that point would only become relevant were he to move here. Hence the only sensible way to measure poverty is in the gap between the rich and the poor. This has increased exponentially in the UK. In the Seventies, a company director earned on average ten times the average wage. Now it is something like a hundred times.

The fact that there are bigger gaps between rich and poor in socialist countries than there are in capitalist countries could well be because of a whole host of "betrayals of the revolution."

One more time. My objection to ‘socialist countries’ isn’t that they’re not socialist, but that they are capitalist.

Andrew Stevens said...

I did stumble upon Armstrong during my rather rudimentary Googling. So the ideal table doesn’t lie in some superior realm but is somehow inherently inside the sum total of the actual tables, like a kernel inside a nut?

(I have to admit calling all these forms of ‘realism’ amuses me. It’s like the way in Britain private schools are called ‘public schools.’)


It's called realism because it's realism about universals, i.e. the argument is that universals are real. The questions about universals are:

1) Do universals exist?
2) If not, why does it seem as if they do? (I.e. why do we have words and ideas referring to them and knowledge seemingly about them. Indeed, all our scientific knowledge is about universals.)
3) If universals do exist, does their existence depend upon particulars?

If you answer no to 1, you are a nominalist and must answer 2. If you answer yes to 1, you are a realist and must answer 3. If you answer yes to 3, you're an immanent realist and if you answer no to 3, you're a Platonic realist (sometimes called a transcendent realist).

The book I would recommend on the subject is Armstrong's Nominalism and Realism. Perhaps someone else reading this thread can suggest a modern nominalist. David Lewis's early stuff, might be the best defense of nominalism, but since he later abandoned nominalism for modal realism, I am hesitant to suggest it. Quine, while a realist about abstract objects, was a nominalist about universals generally.

It has been suggested that the current debate between scientists and those who believe in the social construction of science is due to an unstated nominalist metaphysical view held by the social constructionists and an unstated realist view held by the scientists. Because they don't even realize that this is what they are debating, they tend to shout past one another.

I have to say this sounds like a circular argument. They got to know more about biology in the 18th century by knowing more about it? There was enough info around to deduce natural selection well before Darwin, that’s simply without doubt. Why did this theory arrive (in not one but two places) when it did?

Oh, that's easy. Thomas Malthus.

Even our current market-oriented government concedes that the only meaningful measure of poverty is relative. Absolute measures end up as arbitrary. A poor person in the UK might not be as poor as a poor person in Bangladesh, but that point would only become relevant were he to move here. Hence the only sensible way to measure poverty is in the gap between the rich and the poor. This has increased exponentially in the UK. In the Seventies, a company director earned on average ten times the average wage. Now it is something like a hundred times.

A thought experiment. We have two possible futures we can choose from. In one of them, we will all be equally miserable. In the other, every single person will be better off than in the first possible future, but some people will be better off than others. Which possible future should we choose? You seem to be suggesting we should choose the first. I choose the second.

Andrew Stevens said...

To go a bit further on the evolution bit, there were many evolutionary theorists before Darwin. Lamarck is probably the most famous, but he was by no means the only one. (Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, for one, anticipated Lamarck.) Darwin is famous for "inventing" the Theory of Evolution only because he came up with the correct mechanism (as did Wallace contemporaneously). It was Malthus who suggested the correct mechanism to both men.

Phil Masters said...

It was Malthus who suggested the correct mechanism to both men.

Umm, really? I confess that I haven't read Malthus in the original, but I never understood that there was anything in his work that would have lead to the concept of natural selection of variations. What he described - and what Darwin certainly acknowledged as crucial to his development of evolution - was the idea of a highly competitive environment - the situation that forces evolution to occur. But a Malthusian environment could generate, say, Lamarckian evolution just as easily as Darwinian, if Lamarckian evolution happened to work.

I think that Darwin got the crucial mechanism mostly by virtue of being a Victorian country gentleman who could and did watch dog and cattle and so on being selectively bred for specific features. (His correspondence with pigeon fanciers is apparently vast.) Of course, plenty of other people could observe that, but Darwin happened to be possibly the greatest naturalist - the greatest biological observational scientist - in history. Malthus did give him reason to realise that a species would end up operating in a competitive, increasingly selective environment, while the Beagle voyage (and the gardens of Down House, and all the stuff with beetles from Cambridge) gave him detailed first-hand experience of the sort of thing that people like Lamarck and Erasmus Darwin had picked up from the scientific flowering of the eighteenth century - an awareness of the sheer diversity of life, its complexity and peculiarities and a need for an explanation. Meanwhile, the geological parts of that flowering made the idea of an old Earth look likely, and turned up all those dinosaur fossils to allow the possibility of species extinction.

Actually, I believe that at least one scientist had come up with a complete theory of evolution by natural selection some time before Darwin and Wallace, and had published it in the appendix to a forestry manual or something. It just wasn't noticed. People were becoming aware that some kind of evolutionary theory was, frankly, necessary; Erasmus Darwin sketched the outline, Lamarck offered a mechanism that didn't fit the facts. Describing the correct mechanism in detail, with a huge volume of supporting evidence, needed hard-working observational naturalist/theoreticians like Darwin and Wallace - otherwise, and especially before Mendel, it would have just looked like another free-floating idea with no particular value.

But Malthus was surely just one small input to Darwin's accomplishment. The fact that Darwin could and did describe and discuss the basics of sexual selection shows that he was thinking far beyond the simplicities of Malthusian emiseration as a source of selective pressures.

Andrew Stevens said...

Malthus's essay certainly leads to the correct mechanism. It was Malthus's insight that competition for natural resources causes losers to die which led both Darwin and Wallace to natural selection. (Had it occasioned the idea in only one of them, I'd be more inclined to agree with you that it wasn't that significant.) I certainly don't disagree that Malthus was only an inspiration for Darwin's work and Darwin certainly did all the important and tedious work necessary to support the theory (which is why Wallace was happy to yield precedence to Darwin on the theory).

And, yes, dinosaur fossils being found and identified from extinct species in the early 19th century was probably another important catalyst for the theory.

Andrew Stevens said...

Just to clarify what I mean since I don't think I was very clear.

You say:

But a Malthusian environment could generate, say, Lamarckian evolution just as easily as Darwinian, if Lamarckian evolution happened to work.

Well, yes. But the Lamarckian mechanism does not need a Malthusian environment. A simple environmental change and "soft inheritance" would cause evolution even without competition for resources. The Darwinian mechanism requires a Malthusian environment and this is the key distinction.

Phil Masters said...

To draw a fine but sometimes crucial distinction, the significant thing for Darwin is not that losers die, it's that winners reproduce. (Somewhat tautologically, even, in that the Darwinian definition of a winner is a creature which reproduces.) Obviously, the first requirement for this is not being dead... But sexual selection, for example, probably doesn't work very well in an ultra-Malthusian environment, where everyone is too busy contending for food to worry about the prettiness of anyone else's tail feathers.

A thought experiment. We have two possible futures we can choose from. In one of them, we will all be equally miserable. In the other, every single person will be better off than in the first possible future, but some people will be better off than others. Which possible future should we choose?

I believe that the technical term there, by the way, is "Fallacy of the Excluded Middle". And given that, I seem to recall (and yes, I'd have to dig around to verify this), it's been suggested from sociological surveys that societies with lower levels of inequality are happier and less stressed than those with more of it, answers to a less loaded version of the question might not be as clear-cut as all that.

Andrew Stevens said...

To draw a fine but sometimes crucial distinction, the significant thing for Darwin is not that losers die, it's that winners reproduce. (Somewhat tautologically, even, in that the Darwinian definition of a winner is a creature which reproduces.) Obviously, the first requirement for this is not being dead... But sexual selection, for example, probably doesn't work very well in an ultra-Malthusian environment, where everyone is too busy contending for food to worry about the prettiness of anyone else's tail feathers.

Even more finely, it's that winners experience greater differential reproductive success (which covers both). I do see where you're coming from, but recall that Darwin obsessed over the peacock's tail principally because his original theory couldn't account for it. Darwin wrote, "The sight of a feather in a peacock's tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick" which caused him to develop the theory of sexual selection. Darwin's full theory is certainly richer and more robust than the simpler theory inspired by Malthus, I agree.

I believe that the technical term there, by the way, is "Fallacy of the Excluded Middle". And given that, I seem to recall (and yes, I'd have to dig around to verify this), it's been suggested from sociological surveys that societies with lower levels of inequality are happier and less stressed than those with more of it, answers to a less loaded version of the question might not be as clear-cut as all that.

The thought experiment was not meant to give an answer to anybody's question about economic systems. The point of it was to show that "a more equal society" cannot be categorically more important than a wealthier society, as Mr. Burrows seemed to be suggesting. Indeed, if anything, it seems like it ought to be the other way. Another thought experiment: you are offered 10,000 pounds more a year by a mysterious benefactor. But he will only give it to you if your neighbor, who is already wealthier and better off than you are, is given 50,000 pounds more a year. Would you really turn it down? There are psychological experiments which show that people, perhaps even the majority of people, really will punish themselves so that other people don't receive undeserved rewards, but such decisions certainly seem irrational to me.

The sociological studies you mention may or may not be accurate. Inequality is highly correlated with poverty. (China and Mexico are more unequal than, say, the United States, one of the more unequal of the rich Western democracies. Japan and Denmark are the least unequal societies.) Inequality is also highly correlated with racial diversity. (But there is at least one non-racially diverse, rich society which has fairly high levels of inequality, that being Hong Kong.) So there are lots of confounding factors; it's hard to isolate just inequality by itself and decide what effect it has on happiness.

I know of at least one survey which purported to show that the only people who are made unhappy by inequality in the United States are rich leftists, while both leftists and the poor are unhappy about inequality in Europe, but I don't know how accurate that study is either.

Of course, we also tend to look at income when measuring inequality and it's not clear that this is correct. Consumption seems to be a better measure of equality or inequality and consumption is generally much more equal than income is.

However, this is not to laud inequality. There is evidence that greater inequality is correlated with lower social cohesion. The direction of causation is unclear, but there is an intuitive force to the idea that greater inequality causes less social cohesion. I could certainly accept that there might be a thought experiment which someone could design where I'd choose less inequality even though it meant that the worst off were even worse off, but it's much harder to design than the thought experiments I've suggested. (Perhaps one where the poorest were worse off by one penny while the richest were worse off by billions of dollars.)

Gavin Burrows said...

Andrew Stevens said...
It's called realism because it's realism about universals, i.e. the argument is that universals are real

Apologies for asking another facetious question, but how would you label the argument that Blackpool is real?

Indeed, all our scientific knowledge is about universals.

Isn’t it fundamental to science that all knowledge is provisional? It’s like when Creationists home in on the first word of the theory of evolution... “you see? Even they admit it’s just a theory!” It might well be possible to question the whole basis of scientific thought, of course. But the notion that our knowledge is in itself ever-evolving and never ‘finished’ seems to me a good one. (Disclaimer: Physicists have sometimes spoken of a Theory of Everything. But a) no-one’s ever delivered on this and B) they were still talking of a Theory of Everything, leaving the door open for a Better Theory of Everything a bit later.)

A thought experiment. We have two possible futures we can choose from. In one of them, we will all be equally miserable. In the other, every single person will be better off than in the first possible future, but some people will be better off than others. Which possible future should we choose? You seem to be suggesting we should choose the first. I choose the second.

An example might make my meaning clearer. In Britain it’s much more common for working class people to have cars now than it was (say) forty years ago, which might seem to suit your argument. (They may not have yachts or limousines but at least they now have cars, dammit!) But cars are increasingly becoming something little short of a necessity today. You may well need a car to get to work, possibly just to get to the shops. And of course all the associated costs (petrol, MOT etc.) are still there. So how much is the car a boon and how much a bind? At the very least, it’s not straightforward.

For this and other similar reasons, I believe it’s only meaningful to measure poverty as the differentiation between rich and poor within a society, and not in some absolutist term. This argument has nothing to do with ‘the politics of envy’, as Thatcher famously called them.

To go a bit further on the evolution bit, there were many evolutionary theorists before Darwin. Lamarck is probably the most famous, but he was by no means the only one. (Darwin's grandfather Erasmus, for one, anticipated Lamarck.) Darwin is famous for "inventing" the Theory of Evolution only because he came up with the correct mechanism (as did Wallace contemporaneously.

Your correspondence with Phil Masters over this is interesting, but seems to stray from my original point, that for evolution to be devised as a theory it first needed to be thinkable, that knowledge isn’t just about empiricism but must also be socially constructed. Yet in your remarks above you seem to be close to agreeing with me, that evolution evolved piecemeal from several different sources.

I was partly citing Darwin because you still seemed half-convinced (apres Lewis) that anyone who suggests knowledge is socially constructed is really simply claiming it’s wrong. Which of course I’m not in this case. Knowledge can be socially constructed and still be valid. (Not going to use a loaded term like ‘right’.) As ultimately all knowledge can be said to be socially constructed, this is probably just as well.

(Nor, incidentally, do I think it does down Darwin’s contribution. If the theory had become thinkable he was still the main one who thought it – assembled the greatest amount of evidence and developed the theory etc.)

And, yes, dinosaur fossils being found and identified from extinct species in the early 19th century was probably another important catalyst for the theory.

Not heard this before. Didn’t geology itself weigh against the ‘young earth’ theory by then?

I know of at least one survey which purported to show that the only people who are made unhappy by inequality in the United States are rich leftists, while both leftists and the poor are unhappy about inequality in Europe, but I don't know how accurate that study is either.

While we all tend to take up the studies which suit us and question the methodology of the ones that don’t, I’m betting here that survey wasn’t made by rich leftists. (And we can probably be fairly certain that it wasn’t poor leftists.)

Phil Masters said...

There are psychological experiments which show that people, perhaps even the majority of people, really will punish themselves so that other people don't receive undeserved rewards, but such decisions certainly seem irrational to me.

When we're talking about human happiness, I'm really not sure that rationality has very much to do with everything. Well, one might be able to construct a rational and coherent theory of scientific psychology that covered the subject well enough, but I bet it'd be extremely complex and non-intuitive, and I don't think it's really been done yet. Meanwhile, expecting simple economic rationality to maximise happiness for anyone (let alone for everyone, in some Benthamite fashion) looks to me like a non-starter.

Knowledge can be socially constructed and still be valid.

I'm not sure that "influenced by the social and intellectual environment" is quite the same as "socially constructed", is it? Because one can have lots of fun finding examples of knowledge being so influenced without getting deep into subjectivism.

One I like is the idea - possibly not confirmed, but certainly consistent with what I know - that Newton was able to come up with a working theory of gravity because he had a taste for rather barking Hermetic/alchemical magical ideas, which allowed for the possibility of action at a distance. There were apparently plenty of scientists at the time who had firmly discarded all that magical mumbo-jumbo, and for whom Newtonian gravity was therefore quite offensive. (No, that's not to say that gravity is magical action at a distance. But explaining the causal mechanism is certainly a pig, even post Einstein.) Newton didn't have such problems, and cracked the problem.

One can also find Marxists who'll tell you that application of the Marxist dialectic enabled Soviet science to achieve wonderful things, and who can wheel out illustrations. Actually, those illustrations may well be valid, I'd guess; thinking in dialectical terms (and maybe obsessing on class relations or something) may well be a useful approach to some problems. Doesn't make Soviet science all that and a bag of chips; it just means that some intellectual environments are good places to tackle some problems.

Gavin Burrows said...

Phil Masters said:
I'm not sure that "influenced by the social and intellectual environment" is quite the same as "socially constructed", is it?

If ‘constructed’ is too strong a word for you, ‘influenced’ seems too weak a one for me. I was actually using it instead of ‘constrained’ in the sense it has a positive association – of something being built up that wasn’t there previously. That said, I’m not too hung up on the term itself. I think earlier we had ‘filtered’.

One I like is the idea - possibly not confirmed, but certainly consistent with what I know - that Newton was able to come up with a working theory of gravity because he had a taste for rather barking Hermetic/alchemical magical ideas, which allowed for the possibility of action at a distance. There were apparently plenty of scientists at the time who had firmly discarded all that magical mumbo-jumbo, and for whom Newtonian gravity was therefore quite offensive. (No, that's not to say that gravity is magical action at a distance. But explaining the causal mechanism is certainly a pig, even post Einstein.) Newton didn't have such problems, and cracked the problem

Not quite sure which way round you mean this. You could certainly take it as a counter-example to my notion, that Newton was (to coin a terrible term) ‘thinking outside the box’ of contemporary science. He was of course shovelling concepts in from another box, but to my mind that still counts!

One can also find Marxists who'll tell you that application of the Marxist dialectic enabled Soviet science to achieve wonderful things, and who can wheel out illustrations. Actually, those illustrations may well be valid, I'd guess; thinking in dialectical terms (and maybe obsessing on class relations or something) may well be a useful approach to some problems

The only way I can imagine this to be true would automatically be true of all science, Hegel’s notion that knowledge came from interaction and experimentation not passive contemplation. Scientists have pretty much taken one side over that one, I think. Even I don’t think quantum mechanics benefits from class analysis too much!

Of course some liked to argue that all this proved Marxism was a science, as full of ilalienable laws as much as physics. Some people say very silly things indeed...

dagonet said...

Mr. Stevens:
Sorry about the "heartless capitalist" meme, but you DO insist on saying things such as "For one thing, I am in general very skeptical that a lack of money is the real problem in poor communities." I suppose its all part of the "capitalist-Darwinist fetisch for progress & poor people just being born that way" idelogical framework? Racial diversity causing inequality & all that
Plus you keep on acting as if I do not exist.
Mr. Burrows: sorry about the "evil Stalinist, Lysenkoist even" meme, but you DO insist on calling me a "state capitalist" (or just "capitalist", now, so you & Mr. Stevens seem to agree on that point), wich, though worringly slave-owning, technical & objective sounding, fortunatly seems at base materialistic.

That aside, what makes Darwin so different from his own time (Though not, possibly, "the greatest biological observational scientist in history") was that he viewed evolution as a technical matter rather than one of general conjecture (due to influence from feudal rural life, possibly)

Mr. Burrows wrote: "Sweden was a particularly egregious case, but it was practised in the UK and US as well."
Sweden was particulary bad due to being state capitalist: they were afraid the Welfare Society would mean Survival Of The Unfittest. That it would actually mean "Survival Of Those Most Fit For A Welfare State" is something a lot of us still do not quite grasp. Indeed, it seems to me that one of the greatest threats to evolution as a scientific theory is our apparent need to turn it into a life philosophy or a political system.
Wonder if the fundementalists are "really" so worked up about evolution because they see it as an fellow right wing ideology, & hence competion?

No wonder Dawkins gets frustrated sometimes.

Gavin Burrows said...

Dagonet said:
That aside, what makes Darwin so different from his own time (Though not, possibly, "the greatest biological observational scientist in history") was that he viewed evolution as a technical matter rather than one of general conjecture

I don't think "Darwinian theory can be said to be socially constructed so Darwin did bugger all" follows any more than ""Darwinian theory can be said to be socially constructed so must be wrong."

If Darwin hadn't devised the theory of natural selection, we can be fairly certain some other bugger would. (And in fact did.) But Darwin did most of the research and the methodology, so I'm happy for him to have his due.

Wonder if the fundementalists are "really" so worked up about evolution because they see it as an fellow right wing ideology, & hence competion?

The two groups should be rivals, but I'm not sure how much they are in practice.

dagonet said...

"I don't think "Darwinian theory can be said to be socially constructed so Darwin did bugger all" follows any more than ""Darwinian theory can be said to be socially constructed so must be wrong.""

Why, neither do I: though I am wary of implications that other kinds of society would discover other, equally valid biological systems.

The presence of superficially similar theories, that (most of all) people wanted to be true (for reasons both utopian & traditional) has been a decided disadvantage to evolutionary science, rather than a benefit. Of course, you might consider that one of insidious "ideology"s violations of matter: in wich case I would (with reservations for furter ideological implications) agree.

As for biological determism, the compitition with fundementalism seems obvious. Other than objectivism, what else has "capitalist" ideology got?

Andrew Stevens said...

Apologies for asking another facetious question, but how would you label the argument that Blackpool is real?

I once had a conversation with a gentleman in which I gave him a primer on all sorts of various philosophical positions. These included Platonic realism, immanent realism, moral realism, direct realism, indirect realism, plus many other positions which don't include "realism" anywhere in their names. He eventually refused to believe that there were so many philosophical positions labeled "realism." If there was a genuine debate about the ontological status of Blackpool specifically, I have no doubt that the supporters of Blackpool's reality would be called "Blackpool realists."

Isn’t it fundamental to science that all knowledge is provisional? It’s like when Creationists home in on the first word of the theory of evolution... “you see? Even they admit it’s just a theory!” It might well be possible to question the whole basis of scientific thought, of course. But the notion that our knowledge is in itself ever-evolving and never ‘finished’ seems to me a good one. (Disclaimer: Physicists have sometimes spoken of a Theory of Everything. But a) no-one’s ever delivered on this and B) they were still talking of a Theory of Everything, leaving the door open for a Better Theory of Everything a bit later.)

I think I have confused you by introducing terminology without defining it. A "universal" is what particular things have in common, namely characteristics or qualities. They are repeatable entities which are instantiated in many different particular things. When I say that all scientific knowledge is about universals, I mean that it is about characteristics or qualities such as "mass," "energy," "acceleration," "genes," "humans," etc. It doesn't refer to just one particular entity (though, of course, it also refers to particulars which instantiate the universal), but to classes of entities, i.e. universals. I am saying nothing about whether scientific knowledge is provisional or eternal.

For this and other similar reasons, I believe it’s only meaningful to measure poverty as the differentiation between rich and poor within a society, and not in some absolutist term. This argument has nothing to do with ‘the politics of envy’, as Thatcher famously called them.

I see where you're coming from, but in order to compare societies (whether in different times or in different spaces), we have to compare their material well-being to each other. You appear to be saying that it's impossible to compare economic systems because we can't do a controlled scientific experiment. To a certain extent, of course, this is perfectly true, but I reject the argument that we can learn nothing from such comparisons.

I do generally agree with your examples. In the previous thread, you might recall that I mostly used such situations as North Korea/South Korea, West Germany/East Germany, etc. They're still not controlled experiments, but when they diverged, they had roughly similar cultures and resources. Now, of course, if there has never been a socialist country, then clearly I'd have a very difficult time showing that such a system works less well and we are left at an impasse especially since I'm not very interested in the theories or ideologies behind political science. I am principally interested in analyzing the empirical evidence.

I was partly citing Darwin because you still seemed half-convinced (apres Lewis) that anyone who suggests knowledge is socially constructed is really simply claiming it’s wrong. Which of course I’m not in this case. Knowledge can be socially constructed and still be valid. (Not going to use a loaded term like ‘right’.) As ultimately all knowledge can be said to be socially constructed, this is probably just as well.

You're perfectly correct about my view here. If you concede that knowledge can be valid, then we no longer have a disagreement. Mostly because your theory is now, in my opinion, perfectly obvious. If we move from "socially constructed" to "socially filtered" or any other terminology which no longer denies validity to such knowledge, then I think just about everyone would agree with that. However, the weapon has been removed from the arsenal in that case. It's no longer enough to say "Plato's theories clearly were meant to prop up the existing property rights regime" and thereby falsify his theories. Since we can agree that it is possible for Plato's arguments to both have that effect and still be true, then you still have to do the hard work of refuting Plato. Whether Adolf Hitler's daddy was mean to him might be interesting from a psychological standpoint, but no longer touches his ideas.

Not heard this before. Didn’t geology itself weigh against the ‘young earth’ theory by then?

The important thing about dinosaur fossils is that they could be clearly shown to be from an extinct species (the bones could not fit any existing species), thus evolution. The 'young earth' theory was still fairly respectable at this time. Their theory for explaining the geological problems was "catastrophism," that cataclysmic events of unknown origin caused the strata to change. It was in retreat by the time of Darwin (particularly due to the influence of Charles Lyell), but still not falsified. That wouldn't happen until radiometric dating was developed in the early 20th century. The strata alone does not provide conclusive evidence.

While we all tend to take up the studies which suit us and question the methodology of the ones that don’t, I’m betting here that survey wasn’t made by rich leftists. (And we can probably be fairly certain that it wasn’t poor leftists.)

They certainly aren't poor. Two are professors at Harvard and one at Imperial College. (Interestingly, none of the three professors is American by birth. One is Italian, one is Argentinan, and the third is a New Zealander.) The Italian, Alberto Alesina, has written a book which claims that the reason for the discrepancy is because Americans are greater believers in social mobility, which stops the poor from being made unhappy by inequality. He believes their belief is untrue and there is no greater social mobility in the U.S. than in Europe. On the other hand, he's also written a paper called "Why the Left Should Learn to Love Liberalism" so, while he does identify as a leftist (and, indeed, a rich leftist), he may not what you would consider a leftist. I was unable to get as good a handle on the political beliefs of the other two authors.

You're creeping into Bulverism there, though. How much experience do you have with poor American leftists? Because I have a great deal and I don't find this finding particularly difficult to believe.

Racial diversity causing inequality & all that

I certainly never said that racial diversity causes inequality. Read my above comment more closely. What I said was that racial diversity is highly correlated with inequality. That's a fact. Saying that "racial diversity causes inequality" or "inequality causes racial diversity" is purely speculative. When I say "correlated," please do not mentally substitute "caused." When I say correlated, I do so for a very good reason. Were I to speculate on a reason, it would be that it's likely easier to attain social cohesion if your society is homogeneous such as Denmark or Japan. (The most equal societies in Africa - Mauritania, Tanzania, and Algeria - are the least racially diverse. Bolivia and Brazil, amazingly diverse populations, have some of the highest inequality rates in the world.) This is probably true regardless of whether the more economically successful group is in the majority or in the minority. But that's just speculation.

Plus you keep on acting as if I do not exist.

I actually find you very funny most of the time, Dagonet, but you're far too interested in trying to find an ideological box to stuff me into and inferring my beliefs and/or putting words into my mouth. You insist on seeing both Mr. Burrows and myself as archetypes and it really should be crystal clear by now that we are not.

Gavin Burrows said...

When I say that all scientific knowledge is about universals, I mean that it is about characteristics or qualities such as "mass," "energy," "acceleration," "genes," "humans," etc. It doesn't refer to just one particular entity (though, of course, it also refers to particulars which instantiate the universal), but to classes of entities, i.e. universals...

... Mostly because your theory is now, in my opinion, perfectly obvious. If we move from "socially constructed" to "socially filtered" or any other terminology which no longer denies validity to such knowledge, then I think just about everyone would agree with that.


Here I go sticking two quotes from you together again. I am now about to employ the philosophical argument that goes “nyah nyah nyah, rubs off me and sticks to you”, as chiefly practised in English school playgrounds in the early Seventies. For it seems to me that your first point is itself perfectly obvious! It’s perfectly true that science does try to generalise knowledge as much as it feasibly can, and that doesn’t induce in me much of a feeling to act like the villagers in the Frankenstein films.

This is perhaps echoing my earlier reply to Mr. Rilstone about the role of individual psychology in history. My intention is not to go from one extreme to the other, and I accept the existence of what’s technically known as ‘the middle’. My point is that to my mind the stick has been pushed too far one way.

Perhaps consequently, I think I continue to find ‘socially filtered’ too weak a term.. It suggests that this is merely a matter of certain thoughts being struck out, like round thoughts in a world of square holes. My point is that it’s not just a negative, that social conditions can actually make other thoughts more thinkable. If it has overly deterministic associations for some, let’s just add a rider dispelling those.

One example might be colour. It’s not that different cultures might have different conceptions of colour, though of course they do. It’s that colour in actuality is merely part of a spectrum, a continuum between shades which we find it convenient to divide into ‘colours’. Plus of course colour does not lie inherently inside an object, but is dynamically created, following the pattern of light falling upon it. This is something we know but (mostly) prefer to gloss over. It’s handy for us to think of colours as universal constants. (“I drive a blue car”, etc.) But they’re not. They’re colours because we say so.

But even (to return to your maths argument) were we to take something like the moons of Mars... You might say that Mars had two moons before humans had the ability to see them. I would say, while there may well have been those lumps of rock orbiting Mars, their ‘twoness’ comes out of a process of interaction with us observing them. Of course our observing didn’t physically change those lumps of rock, but that doesn’t alter what I’m saying. The fact that we count to two so readily in our heads can obscure to us that that’s what we’re doing, but we are.

I could see this slipping into a pedantic argument about categories (“what defines a moon’?” etc), but I think my point is a wider one. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to take abstract knowledge from concrete observation, but we need to acknowledge that this is a process we humans do so is subject to human foibles and limitations.

it's no longer enough to say "Plato's theories clearly were meant to prop up the existing property rights regime" and thereby falsify his theories. Since we can agree that it is possible for Plato's arguments to both have that effect and still be true, then you still have to do the hard work of refuting Plato.

Three points! First, I wouldn’t use the term “made to” for reasons already described. Second, I adhere to the Doubting Thomas principle. “But why should I assume that?” seems a perfectly appropriate initial response to me. And lastly but not leastly, we’re not at all comparing like with like because Darwin assembled material evidence for his theory. Plato’s meanwhile seems specifically designed to fall into the category of ‘undisprovable’. (“But I can’t see this Ideal Table.”; “Aha, that’s just my point!”) But what’s undisprovable is also ipso facto unprovable. Hence with him I tend to look for more material underpinnings, to what can be taken as concrete. (As said earlier, though, my real point about Plato is that this is a doctrine which is still with us.)

The important thing about dinosaur fossils is that they could be clearly shown to be from an extinct species (the bones could not fit any existing species), thus evolution.

A pedant writes - that would prove they died out not that they changed/ (Though of course dinosaurs did evolve massively, having millennia in which to do so.)

Couldn’t you just say they drowned in the Flood? Though the earlier-mentioned Guardian feature on UK Creationists described some very convoluted argument that the dinosaurs were taken onto the Ark but died off soon after. (With associated mental images of the Diplodicus being pushed up a narrow gangplank, or the T Rex being told God doesn’t want him to eat any of the other animals.) Perhaps they didn’t want to portray Noah to be remiss in following God’s instructions.

I see where you're coming from, but in order to compare societies (whether in different times or in different spaces), we have to compare their material well-being to each other.

Slightly confused now. Weren’t we talking about a ‘thought experiment’ which postulated that inequality could be acceptable if everyone’s living standards were simultaneously rising? I was responding to that, and basically saying ‘no’. In fact, I’ve mostly avoided even comparing the UK to the US so far, and tried to concentrate on what to me is the domestic example. Don’t say you’re confusing me with Dagonet? (Into that box with you, dammit!)

Now, of course, if there has never been a socialist country, then clearly I'd have a very difficult time showing that such a system works less well

While all previous historical examples are, I am the first to say, inadequate, they’re not non-existent! One might be the wave of factory occupations after the First World War. The subsequent wave in Spain in the Thirties is better known but the first was more widespread, it’s not unreasonable to call it a global wave. Not only does this fact bring the numbers of participants up, it also means it wasn’t tied to just one country or set of local conditions.

You could look at other examples. The Zapatistas are very fashionable among the young people, so I hear.

The Italian, Alberto Alesina, has written a book which claims that the reason for the discrepancy is because Americans are greater believers in social mobility, which stops the poor from being made unhappy by inequality. He believes their belief is untrue and there is no greater social mobility in the U.S. than in Europe.

In my (somewhat limited) experience there’s a tendency in American culture to confuse class with caste. At least after the over-ruling of segregation laws, there are no formal bars to social mobility. A poor black kid from the Projects of Detriot whose Dad is in jail can apply to be a merchant banker if he chooses. The point that in practical terms he’s somewhat unlikely to get the job seems to pass this logic by. But before I sound all anti-American, I’d say such attitudes are increasingly widespread over here.

How much experience do you have with poor American leftists? Because I have a great deal and I don't find this finding particularly difficult to believe.

It was a simple point, really. Poor leftists don’t commission surveys because poor folks don’t. Those things cost money.

he may not what you would consider a leftist.

No, he probably is. The political terms ‘right’ and ‘left’ come from the post-Revolutionary French Parliament. ‘Left’ therefore was and is a wing of capitalism, and should really be rejected by anti-capitalists. (I expect everyone’s had enough of my political definitions by now...)

Andrew Stevens said...

I could see this slipping into a pedantic argument about categories (“what defines a moon’?” etc), but I think my point is a wider one. There is nothing inherently wrong with trying to take abstract knowledge from concrete observation, but we need to acknowledge that this is a process we humans do so is subject to human foibles and limitations.

As I said earlier, I am an immanent realist. This position is also called "a posteriori scientific realism" (as I now give the third or fourth different name for it, which include "moderate realism" and "in re realism"). Immanent realists believe it is the job of science to tell us what universals actually exist. (I would argue that, on certain metaphysical questions, it is also the job of philosophers.) I do wholly agree with you that sometimes what appears to us to be a universal is not, in fact, a universal. Take, for example, jade. We might think there is a universal "jadeness" by which a mineral is jade. But science tells us that there are two different chemical compositions (jadeite and nephrite) which we call jade since they appear to share the properties of "jadeness." Therefore, there is no universal "jadeness." Jadeite and nephrite are individually real, but jade is not a proper mineral category. We thought it was, but it turns out it's just a concept.

The reverse can work as well. In some species, especially of birds and fish, the males and females look so different from each other that it would never naturally occur to us that they fall under the same species. E.g. the peacock and the peahen, though there are better examples. There is a species of deep sea fish in which the females are enormously larger than the males. The male attaches himself to the female and lives parasitically off of her, doing nothing but providing her with sperm while she provides him with nutrients (and, I think, even circulates his blood for him). Even if seen together, the male would appear to be just some form of parasite until scientists could tell us that, in fact, they are of the same species. Once we discover that they are of the same species, we discover that they do share a universal in common even though it is no part of our concept of them ab initio.

The view you came close to expounding, but didn't quite, is, I believe, "concept nominalism." This is an easy trap to fall into. Some apparent universals really are just conceptual (How many planets are there? It depends on your definition.) It is easy to be lulled into thinking that all universals are simply concepts. There are a few problems with it. 1) It seems hopelessly anthropocentric. The species felis silvestris catus does not cease to be a species when humans aren't around. They will go on breeding with each other (and with no other species) even if we aren't there to observe it. 2) The direction of explanation appears to be backwards. Triangles fall under the concept of triangle because they are triangles. They don't get to be triangles because they fall under the concept. 3) There is also the problem of "backdoor realism." Bertrand Russell's argument for realism over nominalism was that the nominalist claims that when he speaks of something as a frog, he means only that it resembles other frogs and not that there is such a thing as frogness. To which Russell replied that resemblance is a relation - a universal, and the nominalist turns out to be just as realist as the realist.

This is all to say that, of course, I agree with you that we should be careful about what universals exist and what don't. You'll be hard-pressed to find anyone (not a professional philosopher) who's more careful about it than I am. Most importantly, I believe that one should go where the best argument lies and not be biased one way or the other. Whereas I think you're actually arguing that we should reject all universals out of hand until we are absolutely forced to accept them. I think this goes too far in the opposite direction. For what it's worth, colors are a commonly used example of universals in philosophy. You might have noticed that I have deliberately avoided using colors as universals, since I'm not sure they actually are universals. (There are serious boundary problems.)

Three points! First, I wouldn’t use the term “made to” for reasons already described.

Fair enough.

Second, I adhere to the Doubting Thomas principle. “But why should I assume that?” seems a perfectly appropriate initial response to me.

I've probably mentioned before where I think Descartes went wrong. Some doubts are unreasonable, so Descartes' project was mistaken from the beginning. I also entirely reject the criteria of certainty or infallibility as an appropriate barometer of knowledge. The Doubting Thomas Principle, in a universal form, is itself surely open to doubt (in fact, I'll flatly call it false). Rational doubt arises contextually when arguments or evidence are determined to be defective or insufficient.

And lastly but not leastly, we’re not at all comparing like with like because Darwin assembled material evidence for his theory. Plato’s meanwhile seems specifically designed to fall into the category of ‘undisprovable’. (“But I can’t see this Ideal Table.”; “Aha, that’s just my point!”) But what’s undisprovable is also ipso facto unprovable. Hence with him I tend to look for more material underpinnings, to what can be taken as concrete. (As said earlier, though, my real point about Plato is that this is a doctrine which is still with us.)

To clear up a bit of pedantry first, what is undisprovable is not also ipso facto unprovable. "There exists a frog" is undisprovable, but easily provable. All I have to do is produce a frog.

More seriously, again this expresses a desire for certainty or infallibility (even after saying that the strength of science is that its knowledge is provisional, i.e. it is not certain or infallible). It is easy to see the arguments against Platonism - empirical philosophy and the unwillingness to admit the existence of anything we can't sense (the pull of which is particularly strong on me, as I hope is clear - although empiricists tend to be ontologically inconsistent, granting the existence of things such as "quarks"), worries about whether Platonism is consistent, and worries about whether it is ontologically extravagant. The difficulties of nominalism, though, are just as grave. I do believe that "social constructionism," the strong kind which invalidates all scientific knowledge, naturally flows from nominalism and, besides that, it just seems silly. There are such things as qualities which particulars can have identically in common as any fool can see. (Numbers being an obvious example. But also mass, length, etc.) And, thus, I split the baby with my immanent realist view which seems to solve all the problems of nominalism without creating the problems of Platonism. But, if you put a gun to my head and asked me what my doubts about immanent realism were, it would be that I sometimes think it might be too nominalist to explain the world, not too Platonist.

A pedant writes - that would prove they died out not that they changed/ (Though of course dinosaurs did evolve massively, having millennia in which to do so.)

Nobody thought that dinosaurs proved evolution. However, they called into question the staticity of species. Some species clearly had gone extinct, thus Darwinism becomes more plausible.

Slightly confused now. Weren’t we talking about a ‘thought experiment’ which postulated that inequality could be acceptable if everyone’s living standards were simultaneously rising? I was responding to that, and basically saying ‘no’. In fact, I’ve mostly avoided even comparing the UK to the US so far, and tried to concentrate on what to me is the domestic example. Don’t say you’re confusing me with Dagonet? (Into that box with you, dammit!)

Ah, I didn't realize that you were responding "no" to my thought experiment. I find that strange, to say the least. A future where everybody is equally worse off is preferable to a future with inequality? This seems counter-intuitive to me, but I have no idea how I could go about arguing you out of that position.

While all previous historical examples are, I am the first to say, inadequate, they’re not non-existent! One might be the wave of factory occupations after the First World War. The subsequent wave in Spain in the Thirties is better known but the first was more widespread, it’s not unreasonable to call it a global wave. Not only does this fact bring the numbers of participants up, it also means it wasn’t tied to just one country or set of local conditions.

Unfortunately, it seemed principally to lead to the rise of fascism. I do have much more sympathy with worker's control than I do with command economies. I'm not at all convinced it could work for capital diversification reasons and it seems inevitable that it would be uncompetitive with a more dynamic economy. (But then if you don't care about raising living standards, this won't bother you at all.) I wonder why there aren't more experiments along these lines. Convince a bunch of workers to pool their resources and buy the means of production. (Capital diversification is probably the obvious answer, though.) Certainly, I'd rather live in Tito's Yugoslavia, organized something along the lines you're talking about, than I would in Stalin's Russia or Castro's Cuba.

In my (somewhat limited) experience there’s a tendency in American culture to confuse class with caste. At least after the over-ruling of segregation laws, there are no formal bars to social mobility. A poor black kid from the Projects of Detriot whose Dad is in jail can apply to be a merchant banker if he chooses. The point that in practical terms he’s somewhat unlikely to get the job seems to pass this logic by. But before I sound all anti-American, I’d say such attitudes are increasingly widespread over here.

To defend my countrymen's (perhaps) false belief, even those people who argue that there is no more social mobility in the U.S. than in Europe agree that this is a new thing. There is quite a lot of evidence that the U.S. had considerably more social mobility than Europe for decades, perhaps centuries (apart, of course, from various oppressed racial groups). There are reasons why the poor and dispossessed fled Europe to come to the U.S. in the 19th century and their descendants became middle class (or even rich, such as the Kennedys). Even in more recent times, every group has improved greatly in real income over the last 30 years except one which has stagnated, that group being white men without college degrees. Women, blacks, and other minorities have made enormous progress, whether due to socially liberal policies or for other reasons. The average black American has a higher per capita income (in purchasing power parity) than the average Swede (but with more inequality).

It was a simple point, really. Poor leftists don’t commission surveys because poor folks don’t. Those things cost money.

Oh, sure, but you also were doubting that they were leftists at all with the implication that ideology determined their results. Whereas I thought that the results were, prima facie, fairly plausible since it accords with my own experience with poor leftists in this country. For what it's worth, fraud is actually pretty rare in these sorts of sociological studies. The interpretation of such studies is often highly suspect and ideologically tinged, but outright fraud rarely occurs. And this was just a survey which doesn't leave much room for interpretation. (However, I raised possible doubts because of the variable of how the questions were asked. It's possible that the question could be phrased in such a way in which all leftists in Europe, but only rich leftists in the U.S. would be inclined to answer in a certain way.)

Andrew Stevens said...

Oh, by the way, I'd also say that I find it very odd for someone who takes seriously the unfalsifiable speculations of political science (including unfalsifiable philosophical speculation like "there is no abstract knowledge"), but rejects Plato's arguments because his arguments are unfalsifiable. Especially given the rigor of analytical philosophy compared to political science generally.

Gavin Burrows said...

A casual observer (we any such left) might be wondering what possible point there could be to all this debate about whether triangles pre-exist us or when exactly green stops being green. Let me tentatively suggest it lies here, when Andrew says...

A future where everybody is equally worse off is preferable to a future with inequality? This seems counter-intuitive to me, but I have no idea how I could go about arguing you out of that position.

My point was of course that it only made any sense to define poverty any way other than relativistically. Andrew’s suggestion seems to be that there is some universally applicable ‘poverty line’, so if you go from two to three points above it this is all to the good, even if some other bugger is bouncing from twenty to forty points. There may not be a causal connection between the two, in the sense he is not bound by the one to think the other, But there is, I think, an association.

Anyway, even if we were to accept the supposition that these are the two most credible alternatives (an increasing wealth gap or everyone getting poorer), I can’t go along with it for reasons already stated.

It seems hopelessly anthropocentric. The species felis silvestris catus does not cease to be a species when humans aren't around. They will go on breeding with each other (and with no other species) even if we aren't there to observe it.

In a minute someone is going to ask what happens if a tree falls down with no-one around! I would argue precisely the opposite way up. That species designation lies in our observations and nowhere else. These thoughts, I concede, come from our observations of the world and are not mere mental constructs. (Let’s not substitute Berkelyism for Bulverism.) But while I argue these thoughts are shaped by the world, you seem to the arguing the opposite.

Besides which, do I detect an element of pre-Darwinism here? As we all know, species are not universals, fixed and immutable, but in a constant process of change. In a similar way, pure shapes (such as triangles) rarely exist in nature. We take a continuum of shapes and assign them into these categories to make our lives easier.

I've probably mentioned before where I think Descartes went wrong. Some doubts are unreasonable, so Descartes' project was mistaken from the beginning. I also entirely reject the criteria of certainty or infallibility as an appropriate barometer of knowledge. The Doubting Thomas Principle, in a universal form, is itself surely open to doubt (in fact, I'll flatly call it false). Rational doubt arises contextually when arguments or evidence are determined to be defective or insufficient.

You did. But unless I’m misconstruing your point, this seems to me to be misconceived. The Doubting Thomas principle means a credible theory must stand it’s own against known and reasonable doubts. This does not mean that doubts are counted as the winning hand purely for existing. If I said I doubted Descartes because those Froggies just like to go on, the doubt would have failed to engage with his theory and Descartes would win. (Everywhere with the possible exception of the Daily Express). My point about Plato was that a theory that can’t be tested is automatically bested. Inocculating yourself against evidence means you can be at most merely speculating.

Unfortunately, it seemed principally to lead to the rise of fascism

Well, of course! I always thought the contemporary anti-Nazi artist John Heartfield put it best. In a (not particularly) recent TV doc ‘The Nazis, A Warning From History’ an old guy, then a banker, looked back on events. At the time he’d assumed that, with so many out of work, people would flock to either Communism or Fascism. As a banker, he concluded Fascism was better. I can’t remember if he personally then started funding them, but that was a main source of their income. This also explains Fascism’s pseudo-revolutionary character. (Of course this is not to suggest that the workers’ movement was otherwise free of problems.)

I do have much more sympathy with worker's control than I do with command economies... Certainly, I'd rather live in Tito's Yugoslavia, organized something along the lines you're talking about, than I would in Stalin's Russia or Castro's Cuba.

The workers’ occupations not being enough for me, you may not be surprised to hear that Tito’s Yugoslavia isn’t either. However, it is true it was a more egalitarian place than Stalin’s Russia. It’s a cruel irony of history that the breakup of Yugoslavia caused so much more bloodshed than the fall of the Soviet Union.

There is quite a lot of evidence that the U.S. had considerably more social mobility than Europe for decades, perhaps centuries (apart, of course, from various oppressed racial group

Ignoring for a moment that your ‘apart’ is a fairly sizeable one, could this not be a causal relationship rather than an exception clause? Other racial groups were freer to move because there was one that was always going to be static. In a similar way, the most vehement defenders of Apartheid in South Africa were the poor whites. (The Terrablanchists.) The wealthy whites concluded apartheid could go and they’d still keep their money and influence, which is of course exactly what happened.

(Incidentally, what dates are you thinking of? Up to the Civil Rights era?)

The average black American has a higher per capita income (in purchasing power parity) than the average Swede (but with more inequality).

As someone who still owes you a couple of references from earlier threads, it is cheeky for me to ask but... do you have a reference for that? Sweden is a very wealthy nation, though it’s true prices and taxes are high. (Presumably what you’re referring to by invoking PPP.)

The interpretation of such studies is often highly suspect and ideologically tinged, but outright fraud rarely occurs. And this was just a survey which doesn't leave much room for interpretation. (However, I raised possible doubts because of the variable of how the questions were asked. It's possible that the question could be phrased in such a way in which all leftists in Europe, but only rich leftists in the U.S. would be inclined to answer in a certain way.)

Well exactly! The court bar on ‘leading the witness’ does not apply to polls.

Andrew Stevens said...

My point was of course that it only made any sense to define poverty any way other than relativistically. Andrew’s suggestion seems to be that there is some universally applicable ‘poverty line’, so if you go from two to three points above it this is all to the good, even if some other bugger is bouncing from twenty to forty points. There may not be a causal connection between the two, in the sense he is not bound by the one to think the other, But there is, I think, an association.

I wholly agree with Mr. Burrows here (which may surprise him). Yes, I am going to argue that a person who lives in subsistence agriculture, scratching out a living with no idea where his next meal is coming from and death constantly lurking in the shadows, is objectively worse off than I am, even if in his society he is tied for the best off person in that society while I am very, very far away from being the best off modern American. I leave it to the reader to determine which of us is correct.

Anyway, even if we were to accept the supposition that these are the two most credible alternatives (an increasing wealth gap or everyone getting poorer), I can’t go along with it for reasons already stated.

I don't actually believe that those are the two most credible alternatives. I think it can and should be arranged so that everyone gets better off and the inequality (in America, at least) shrinks. I can, for example, point out many, many policies which are giveaways to the rich. But I would point out that economic times like these (recessions), where everybody gets worse off, but the rich are hardest hit (as they are) are worse than boom times, where everybody gets better off, but the rich gain more (as is also the case). If the people who claim to prefer lessening equality to gaining wealth were consistent, recessions should be welcomed by them.

In a minute someone is going to ask what happens if a tree falls down with no-one around! I would argue precisely the opposite way up. That species designation lies in our observations and nowhere else. These thoughts, I concede, come from our observations of the world and are not mere mental constructs. (Let’s not substitute Berkelyism for Bulverism.) But while I argue these thoughts are shaped by the world, you seem to the arguing the opposite.

Here, however, you are 100% misunderstanding me. Our thoughts are indeed shaped by the world. That has been precisely my argument. These "concepts" that we have actually exist in the world (at least sometimes) and are not just mental processes. Mathematics is not just a game with arbitrary rules. It is shaped by the world. This is why the view is known as "realism." It says that at least some of our concepts are based on genuinely real things actually existing in reality.

Besides which, do I detect an element of pre-Darwinism here? As we all know, species are not universals, fixed and immutable, but in a constant process of change. In a similar way, pure shapes (such as triangles) rarely exist in nature. We take a continuum of shapes and assign them into these categories to make our lives easier.

It is not a constant process of change. It only changes intergenerationally, a crucial distinction. (Lamarckism argued it was a constant process of change.)

My point about Plato was that a theory that can’t be tested is automatically bested. Inocculating yourself against evidence means you can be at most merely speculating.

The first point seems obviously false to me. (How would we go about testing that theory?) And claiming that an argument which is not empirically testable is "innoculating yourself against evidence" is just an insult, not a serious argument. It is true that philosophical arguments normally can't be tested empirically (which is why philosophy hasn't spun them off to science as they did, say, the whole of science, once "natural philosophy"), but that doesn't mean they are indefeasible. A better argument can defeat them, provided you actually produce one.

Ignoring for a moment that your ‘apart’ is a fairly sizeable one, could this not be a causal relationship rather than an exception clause? Other racial groups were freer to move because there was one that was always going to be static. In a similar way, the most vehement defenders of Apartheid in South Africa were the poor whites. (The Terrablanchists.) The wealthy whites concluded apartheid could go and they’d still keep their money and influence, which is of course exactly what happened.

(Incidentally, what dates are you thinking of? Up to the Civil Rights era?)


The studies I've seen which purport to show that U.S. social mobility has declined usually claim the decline started in the early '70s. Your theory is not entirely implausible. I am considering how one would go about testing such a theory, but it is certainly a fact that at about that same time, poor white men began to see their incomes stagnate which would seem to me to be a necessary occurrence if your theory was correct. I'm not quite sure what the mechanism would be. I suppose it would be that, while racism is the basis of society, nobody cares what social class you came from so long as you're white. But once that is removed, people find other things to discriminate on the basis of (like social class or educational attainment or whatever). Sadly, I find this plausible, human nature being what it is.

As someone who still owes you a couple of references from earlier threads, it is cheeky for me to ask but... do you have a reference for that? Sweden is a very wealthy nation, though it’s true prices and taxes are high. (Presumably what you’re referring to by invoking PPP.)

Certainly. The source was a study done by the Swedish Research Institute of Trade in May of 2002. (So it may be out of date.) When I checked my source, I was slightly mistaken, however. They were actually comparing median household income, not per capita GDP, but it turns out the two are roughly similar. Unfortunately, I can't find it online.

You can check Sweden vs. the U.S. per capita income (PPP) at this Wikipedia article. The U.S. is sixth in the world at $47,025 and Sweden is 16th at $37,526 according to the IMF. (The United Kingdom is 19th at $36,571.) African-American per-capita GDP is about 80% of the total population per-capita GDP (though lower than that if compared to whites only and much lower if compared to whites and Asians combined), so is roughly the same as Sweden's. You can probably confirm this by browsing around the U.S. Census Bureau's site and doing the math yourself. (Why don't other countries have such sources of information online? I have a really hard time getting good data for other countries of the kind which is readily available for the United States.)

I do not say this, by the way, to prove anything. (I mostly say it because it surprises people.) The number one country in the world is Qatar and second is Luxembourg. This does not prove that Qatar's social system should be emulated by the rest of the world. Purchasing power parity takes prices of a market basket of goods and services into account rather than the spot currency exchange rate, but the figures are pre-tax numbers, so taxes are not accounted for. But they also don't include such things as government services, crime rates, inequality, percent under poverty, etc. There's no question that I'd rather live in downtown Stockholm than downtown Detroit. Also, as you could point out, this just means that U.S. blacks can, on average, buy (slightly) more stuff, but one could easily argue that you need more stuff in the U.S. This is prima facie plausible. You mentioned cars, for example (which amused me, since you're probably talking to the only American over 30 not living in New York who doesn't know how to drive), but it is certainly plausible that a car is a necessity in the U.S., but not in Sweden. Also, there is always the argument that the Swedes have simply chosen leisure over productivity, accounting for their lower GDP. This is also a plausible theory.

Gavin Burrows said...

Yes, I am going to argue that a person who lives in subsistence agriculture, scratching out a living with no idea where his next meal is coming from and death constantly lurking in the shadows, is objectively worse off than I am, even if in his society he is tied for the best off person in that society while I am very, very far away from being the best off modern American. I leave it to the reader to determine which of us is correct

So has this peasant fellow just dropped by, or has he been here all along not saying much? Because he seems to me a strange latter-day inclusion into the discussion. Previously we were talking about the American and British working classes, with me saying their degree of poverty should be measured relativistically. I can’t remember saying much about subsistence farming at all, though I suppose that may just be me getting on a bit. But for the record, as I consider most members of the British working class to be poor, I leave it to the reader to determine whether I’d start arguing a Bangladeshi smallholder to be privately wealthy.

Incidentally, for all this talk of “death lurking in the shadows”, many of the problems today come from small farmers having little economic power, so being pushed onto poorer and poorer land. Subsistence farming may be a hard life, but it doesn’t follow that all the associated problems are intrinsic.

But I would point out that economic times like these (recessions), where everybody gets worse off, but the rich are hardest hit (as they are) are worse than boom times, where everybody gets better off, but the rich gain more (as is also the case).

This argument will probably stand you in little stead in Britain, where there’s currently a huge fuss over the pension funds of bank execs. (With Fred Goodwin of RBS taking an almost totemic importance in the public mind.) To be fair, execs do now draw much (often more) of their pay from shares rather than salary. (The reason was more to dodge tax than make pay performance-related, in many cases when they failed to hit the targets to release extra shares they just moved the targets instead.) So there may be times when they lose more money proportionately than everybody else, but of course in dollars-and-cents terms they’re still miles ahead. They may be giving up one of the holiday homes, while a working guy skips a meal. One is objectively bigger, the other counts for more. I’m not sure anybody’s about to start a whip-round for them.

It says that at least some of our concepts are based on genuinely real things actually existing in reality.

‘Based on things’ is fine by me. The concepts (as separate from the things) having a discrete existence from us isn’t. (But we’ve probably done this to death by now.)

It is not a constant process of change. It only changes intergenerationally, a crucial distinction

Right... okaaaay. But intergenerational change is a fairly constant process, isn’t it? And more importantly, I don’t see how any of that negates my point. There isn’t some ‘pure blackbird’ because blackbirds have evolved over the centuries.

The first point seems obviously false to me. (How would we go about testing that theory?

Here you’re making what I believe philosophers like to call a category error. I’m talking about a theory but a principle, like Occam’s Razor. As it’s really a modification of the Doubting Thomas principle you earlier doubted, I’m not surprised you refute it. But I persist in my notion that he who advances a theory must argue for it, not the other way round. It’s quite legitimate to say “an ideal table? Why should I buy into any of that then?”

The alternative is the conceptual houses of cards we’re all used to. The internal logic of philosophical theories is often tight, the cards are all perfectly in the right place to support the next one, and so they can reach heights. But the problem is their lack of foundations. If there’s no reason to accept their basic premises then the whole lot can fall in a single swipe.

I'm not quite sure what the mechanism would be. I suppose it would be that, while racism is the basis of society, nobody cares what social class you came from so long as you're white. But once that is removed, people find other things to discriminate on the basis of (like social class or educational attainment or whatever).

One thing we’ve been guilty of so far, which is common when discussing social mobility, is to confuse two concepts. ‘Social mobility’ often suggests transferring classes, for example going from working as a labourer to becoming a manager. But not everybody is going to go from working to middle class by definition. It’s as least as, and probably more, important to raise conditions for all the guys who don’t get promoted to manager – decent pay, sickness benefits and all the rest of it.

But it doesn’t follow that those conditions will rise universally across the class. Sectional groups may win them in one workplace alone, in fact they may even win them at the expense of other groups. The bosses may calculate they can afford sick pay for the more skilled workers, who they most want to retain, provided they keep the clamps down on the unskilled.

Hence the middle classes do not see the (at least initially) small number of black people entering their class as a threat. But the privileged white workers conceivably do.

(In South Africa in the Twenties, the Communist Party reportedly decided that the ‘more advanced’ white workers were the ones to recruit from, so campaigned and even organised strikes on the slogan ‘Workers of the world, unite for a white South Africa’.)

African-American per-capita GDP is about 80% of the total population per-capita GDP (though lower than that if compared to whites only and much lower if compared to whites and Asians combined)

Surprised to read this for two reasons. First, out of the main ethnic groups in the US, only one is missed out (Latinos). So I’m surprised at the changes if compared to whites and Asians – put rather bluntly, who else is there to be compared to?

Also, I’m surprised the figure is so high. Could this be one of those meaningless mean things? Or more simply, could it just be a skewed survey? A quick net trawl revealed it to be $14,263 in Texas (though that’s from 1999). Another Wikipedia page divides by ancestry and gives the highest majority-black point of origin (Nigeria) at $18,838 while ‘Blacks in comparision with other races’ is second-from-bottom at $11,833. (This again is from 1999.)

you're probably talking to the only American over 30 not living in New York who doesn't know how to drive

Currently jobhunting (again), and forever having to explain that, yes, I’m over Forty but, no, I don’t own a car or a mobile phone. But I live reasonably centrally, and can easily bus or even walk to work, while parking round here is a nightmare. Also, I don’t have children or dependents so I can comfortably live in the more compressed space that comes with living centrally. (And I don’t have a mobile cause I hate the stupid ringtones...)

Gavin Burrows said...

I’m talking about a theory but a principle, like Occam’s Razor.

Umm... make that I’m NOT talking about a theory but a principle, like Occam’s Razor.

(Doh!)

Phil Masters said...

Previously we were talking about the American and British working classes, with me saying their degree of poverty should be measured relativistically.

Wow. Well, at least the latest Nobel economics laureate has written a paper which might give us a start towards accomplishing that...

Andrew Stevens said...

So has this peasant fellow just dropped by, or has he been here all along not saying much? Because he seems to me a strange latter-day inclusion into the discussion. Previously we were talking about the American and British working classes, with me saying their degree of poverty should be measured relativistically. I can’t remember saying much about subsistence farming at all, though I suppose that may just be me getting on a bit. But for the record, as I consider most members of the British working class to be poor, I leave it to the reader to determine whether I’d start arguing a Bangladeshi smallholder to be privately wealthy.

This is what is known as a reductio ad absurdum. If we want to talk about British and American working classes, then it makes sense to talk about them relative to the middle and upper classes in the same country. However, my reductio points out that it's silly to say that we can only talk about wealth relatively. I am objectively better off than the peasant fellow even if he is the wealthiest member of his society and I am not.

So there may be times when they lose more money proportionately than everybody else, but of course in dollars-and-cents terms they’re still miles ahead. They may be giving up one of the holiday homes, while a working guy skips a meal. One is objectively bigger, the other counts for more. I’m not sure anybody’s about to start a whip-round for them.

Nobody disagrees with that. But the fact is that inequality as measured by the Gini coefficient goes up in times of prosperity and goes down in times of recession. Modern recessions, anyway. I'm not convinced this was actually the case during the Great Depression and I'm not sure there's good data on the subject. (Deflation has the effect of making those who manage to keep their jobs wealthier.) If what we care about is not whether the poor are well off, but how well off they are relative to the rich, then recessions are a good thing.

Right... okaaaay. But intergenerational change is a fairly constant process, isn’t it? And more importantly, I don’t see how any of that negates my point. There isn’t some ‘pure blackbird’ because blackbirds have evolved over the centuries.

As Mr. Dawkins would be happy to tell you, evolution is stately and slow. It takes no leaps. Speciation takes thousands of years. Next you're going to be telling me that there is no such thing as society.

Here you’re making what I believe philosophers like to call a category error. I’m talking about a theory but a principle, like Occam’s Razor. As it’s really a modification of the Doubting Thomas principle you earlier doubted, I’m not surprised you refute it. But I persist in my notion that he who advances a theory must argue for it, not the other way round. It’s quite legitimate to say “an ideal table? Why should I buy into any of that then?”

If you're just talking about Platonism, then I agree that Occam's Razor applies. (Of course, Occam's Razor is not infallible, having been spectacularly wrong on an occasion or two.) As I've often said though, while skepticism is good and valuable, one cannot be a skeptic "all the way down."

The alternative is the conceptual houses of cards we’re all used to. The internal logic of philosophical theories is often tight, the cards are all perfectly in the right place to support the next one, and so they can reach heights. But the problem is their lack of foundations. If there’s no reason to accept their basic premises then the whole lot can fall in a single swipe.

Of course, I am arguing that it is your own premises which are vulnerable. You begin with a materialist premise which is purely intuitive, as Quine at least was refreshingly honest enough to admit. What I am asking for is simply a nominalist explanation for mathematics. Let us assume that sets do not exist. Can mathematics be rederived? Right now, the answer is that only a small fraction of mathematics can be rederived in this manner. So far, Godel and Russell, et al., are still triumphant, despite many fine minds (such as Hilbert's) trying to defeat them.

Surprised to read this for two reasons. First, out of the main ethnic groups in the US, only one is missed out (Latinos). So I’m surprised at the changes if compared to whites and Asians – put rather bluntly, who else is there to be compared to?

Latinos are a very large ethnic group. 68% of Americans are non-Latino white, 15% are Latino, 12.5% are African American, and 5% are Asian American. What I was pointing out is that if you look at African American income compared to 100% of the population (which includes both African Americans and Latinos), the numbers look much better than if you're just looking at African Americans compared to the 68% white non-Latino or 73% white/Asian population. The number given above for per capita U.S. income is a 100% figure which includes blacks and Latinos. Just trying to avoid you're being misled by the numbers.

Also, I’m surprised the figure is so high. Could this be one of those meaningless mean things?

No. On the contrary, they look even better if we compare medians since the (very) rich whites no longer pull up the white mean to such a large extent. While the black middle class is prosperous, there are very few Bill Gateses or Warren Buffetts to pull up their numbers quite as extremely. (See below for more on this.)

Or more simply, could it just be a skewed survey? A quick net trawl revealed it to be $14,263 in Texas (though that’s from 1999).

Texas is not a microcosm of the United States. (Its total income is lower than the U.S. average and blacks are worse off relative to the rest of the population than they are in the country as a whole.) I wasn't able to find out what the same site and source would claim was the overall GDP per capita for the state of Texas at the time since the site is so terrible, unfortunately.

Another Wikipedia page divides by ancestry and gives the highest majority-black point of origin (Nigeria) at $18,838 while ‘Blacks in comparision with other races’ is second-from-bottom at $11,833. (This again is from 1999.)

Now this one is better. You misquoted it, though. It doesn't say "Blacks in comparison with other races," but "Blacks in combination with other races." Blacks alone were at $14,437. Whites alone were at $23,918. If you go to the Census Bureau, you'll find that Hispanic/Latino is $12,111 using the same methodology. Digging into those numbers, though, it does appear that the number is closer to 70% rather than 80%. Looking back at my calculations using the U.S. Census Bureau's own site, I note that I was actually comparing medians, rather than means which (for the reasons given above) make them not strictly comparable. I note also that the Swedish Institute of Trade study was comparing medians rather than means, while I gave means above from my Wikipedia source. (This is better, of course, since median is a more meaningful figure.) Their figures had U.S. median household income at $39,400 with black households at $30,200 and Swedish households at $26,800. But this was also back in 2002. It's quite possible, of course, that Swedes have pulled ahead by now. Any time you're looking at these things, you're looking at a snapshot. Perhaps Sweden was more badly hit by the 2002 downturn than the U.S. was and, of course, since 2002 the U.S. dollar has gone into rapid decline (though I'm relieved to see it's back ahead of the loonie). So, now that you've forced me to defend the numbers, I'm not convinced that I can still make the above statement. It's close to true, but it probably isn't quite true any more.

Of course, African Americans on the whole are far wealthier than Sweden, since there are so many more of them. If African Americans seceded, they'd be the 12th wealthiest nation on Earth.

dagonet said...

Mr. Stevens wrote:
"What I said was that racial diversity is highly correlated with inequality. That's a fact."

With all due respect, no, it is not. RACISM (especially in connection with slavery) is highly correlated with inequality. It is also something that varies widely from culture to culture, even down to Mr. Burrows "immutable" material base
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_democracy
wich has little to do with my main point, that social darwinist politics tend to be everything else but "progressive"

"you're far too interested in trying to find an ideological box to stuff me into and inferring my beliefs and/or putting words into my mouth."

but us "european centrists" ALWAYS do that!
Actually, I am more interested in how much you & Mr. Burrows have in common.
you are, of course, even on over-long threads, & with "ahem" an actual life to take care of, free to spew forth any such words I might orally force upon you.

"Convince a bunch of workers to pool their resources and buy the means of production."

That happened in Sweden & Denmark, via the unions.
Of course, then the unions became horribly corrupt, in part because the politico-economic theories they were based on had very little to suggest about what to do next: assuming, as they did, that a better overall economy would automatically produce better theories. As it happens, they did not.
Rather as capitalism does not automatically lead to democracy.

"There are reasons why the poor and dispossessed fled Europe to come to the U.S."

Because they could steal things from Native Americans?
A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT thing from stealing things from Saxons, Cymri, large parts of Africa, etc, of course!

"But once that is removed, people find other things to discriminate on the basis of (like social class or educational attainment or whatever)."

Am certainly looking foreward to that happening: after all, discriminating on the basis of, say, education, is sometimes actually bloody relevant, not to mention a far older institution (not to sound Dawkinist, but there might be a connection there)

"The average black American has a higher per capita income (in purchasing power parity) than the average Swede (but with more inequality)."
"There's no question that I'd rather live in downtown Stockholm than downtown Detroit."

You give a very good argument against your own previous point? How very Platonic of you.
(Oh, & thanks for using the term, "Black American". An increasing number of visibly black US citizens are not really what one could call African American: some are x-European centrists, even)
In the meanwhile, Sweden has some horrible problems with confusing personal & state interests: not only the eugenics thing, but also intrusive measures such as prohibitionism (a movement started in Sweden), tax rates at over 100%, being arrested for talking to a women on the street, etc.
Please feel free to make sarcastic comments about the wonders of European Centrism/State Capitalism here.

"I think it can and should be arranged so that everyone gets better off and the inequality (in America, at least) shrinks."

Especially considering power imbalances, even economic ones, unfortunate results. Very large-scale mistakes being one, as should be obvious from our current situation.

"I find it very odd for someone who takes seriously the unfalsifiable speculations of political science (including unfalsifiable philosophical speculation like "there is no abstract knowledge"), but rejects Plato's arguments because his arguments are unfalsifiable."

Am suprised you have not written something along the lines of "My conjecture is what Marx was doing was articulating his own longing for the Ideas into some absolutly foundational form, pronouncing us forever cut off from grasping pure truth but instead trapped in a violent dialectic cycle" yet.

Mr. Burrows wrote:
"My point is that it’s not just a negative, that social conditions can actually make other thoughts more thinkable."

Thoughts certainly ought to be seen in context: Marxism (& even Communism) has been a valuable counterweight to Carlyles Great Men (a concept Prof. Lewis also opposed).

"Though the earlier-mentioned Guardian feature on UK Creationists described some very convoluted argument that the dinosaurs were taken onto the Ark but died off soon after."

Seems as if many UK Creationists are actually fascinated by the idea, & not just trying to support an idealized Victorian lifestyle?
Has one mentioned "Anno Mundi", by the way?
http://www.annomundi.com/history/index.htm

"‘Left’ therefore was and is a wing of capitalism, and should really be rejected by anti-capitalists."
"and still is"? Thats a suprisingly platonist, & also silly, statement.
There really ought to be a term for people that are not strongly opposed to theism, but still find it unlikely in the context of their other ideas, by the way: in contrast to those who actively want to replace theism with their own metaphysics, for example.
Call me enslaved to Monotheist paradigism, but dualism never really was my cup of tea.

Andrew Stevens said...

With all due respect, no, it is not. RACISM (especially in connection with slavery) is highly correlated with inequality. It is also something that varies widely from culture to culture, even down to Mr. Burrows "immutable" material base
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Racial_democracy


It is not clear to me that you understand what the word "correlated" means. You still seem to be confusing the word with "caused by" which means something else entirely. Look the word up in a dictionary and I'll wait here until you get back.

Ready? Racial diversity is highly correlated with inequality. That's a fact. That may well be due to racism, of course. It is a more than plausible hypothesis. However, your link isn't doing that argument any favors since the article claims that Brazil, with its incredible racial diversity, is virtually immune to racism due to that very diversity. It is also one of the most economically unequal countries on the planet. Only Bolivia and a few African countries (Botswana, Central African Republic, and Sierra Leone) are worse with South Africa and a couple of Central American countries roughly equal to Brazil.