Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Education Remuneration

A while back, as I opined against merit based pay for educators, Max commented as follows:
Kenny, I would like to hear your thoughts on the tenor of the debate surrounding teacher salaries and how to get rid of "bad teachers" and motivate "good teachers." I personally imagine that the character of the lazy tenured-teacher is a rarely realized as the myth of the welfare queen, driving around in her pink Cadillac fueled by government handouts and the tax dollars of true-blue hard-working citizens. Is this scapegoat a threat, Kenny, or a smokescreen?
Since I am a big fan of comments, I try to address requests made therein, either further along in the comment stream or in an... eventual... post of its own. This one seemed worthy of the latter.

Let me first note that I may be guilty of the same arrogance in success of the ex-smoker scoffing at how addicting cigarettes are, but no matter how personally invested in their classes my teachers seemed, they seemed uniformly willing to encourage my exploration if I showed an interest in the material. As my sister recently reminded me, I had a class where I would turn in an entire semester's worth of work two weeks before the end of the semester, because it was accepted late up until that point, but in that same class I would enjoy the discussions, ask questions, and learn quite a bit. This, perhaps, colors my view of merit based pay and apathetic tenured-teachers.

I think that it is much more important to motivate students to learn, something a teacher has limited control over, rather than to motivate teachers to teach. However, I would like to change some aspects of the teaching profession. Most fundamentally, I would make teaching qualifications much more demanding than they apparently are. Requiring mastery in a subject before one is permitted to teach it would serve the purpose of giving teachers greater ability to explain to their students in a coherent and well informed manner and, as with any increase in standards, serve to weed out those who view teaching as an easy, fall back, career.

Along similar lines, I think making salary decisions based on demonstrated mastery of their subject, rather than highest level degree achieved in general, would be beneficial. My impression thus far, having spent the better part of 20 years in scholarly settings, is that the only people who don't consider Education classes a joke are people who teach Education classes. Encouraging deeper knowledge in a applicable field seems more useful and likely to further weed out roustabouts. Replacing pedantic Education classes with some manner of apprentice/mentor relationship seems like a worthwhile consideration as well.

Of course, considering that we experience teacher shortages as it is, one might ask how is it even possible to continue raising the bar? And here the issue of salaries come in. If we want to attract more people with a good educational standing into the teaching field, we need to better compete with the opportunities that they have in other fields. Granted, the calling to be a teacher may, in some measure, balance against the money one can make in other endeavors, but being able to support one's family is pleasant.

There you go Max, I hope you feel better soon!

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Travelogue II: Fear and Hope

There have been two main emotions evoked thus far in my travelings, assuming exhaustion is not an emotion, and they are fear and hope. Let us start with the fear, for it came first.

Aside from the mundane fears of missing flights, connections, or getting stabbed to death in the gritty streets of Portland, I experienced some more interesting fears this trip. As I mentioned yesterday, I started out at the wrong terminal, which definitely contributed to my fear of missing my flight; however, on the bus I experienced a different type of fear. I took a shuttle to the other terminal and, in the course of that interminable seeming journey, two men of vaguely Persian appearance got on board. And let me stress here that it was very much of vague appearance; logically I realize that their facial features match those of people that I know from the Indian Subcontinent all the way to Italy. However, after they shared a slight nod, I began to evaluate whether or not they were a threat.

Of course my association of their appearance with the Middle East informed my fear in the encounter, and of course I think that this is an undesirable thing. That said, I think it is an important thing to admit and confront. When the frenzy of condemnation for the NPR analyst occurred, I was tempted to make a similar point, but cowed into quiet by the overwhelming negative backlash to his revelation. From my understanding he was trying to say that increased wariness around people perceived to be of Middle Eastern descent was both natural and should not be condemned.

I agree with both points, although perhaps for different reasons than he has. It is natural; human beings associate to concepts whether we are being told that they are linked, or being explicitly told that they are not. So, whatever you say when you argue about all Irishmen being drunkards, you are reinforcing the mental connection between the concepts. I also agree that it should not be condemned, not because it is desirable that we have these fears, not even because it is natural that we have these fears, but because I believe an open, rational examination of our darker emotions is beneficial necessary if we are to come to terms with them, rather than be ruled by them. If we produce public outcry when people admit to these human failings, it seems that we only push them deeper, which seems to causes them to fester rather than disappear. Try not to think about white bears, you only end up thinking about them more. Thus, I would rather see admission, without acceptance, of such problematic responses, as I am trying to do here.

That is all I have to say about that facet of fear, but I do think it worth noting the other thoughts that entered my mind as I wondered if the shuttle that I was on was about to become a smoldering wreckage. One big thought was that it was terribly unlikely to be the case, followed by the more interesting and less comforting thought that the same could be said to be true for anyone else right before they were blown up. This led to some wondering if other victims of sudden bombings were considering whether they were about to become victims right before they did. Of course, some people have sure knowledge that they are in danger, but I was curious if someone else had been reassuring themselves that this sort of thing was terribly unlikely to occur to them at this specific moment, right before it actually occurred. An interesting exercise in imagination, and all I have to say about this experience.

The next big fear I experienced was caused by turbulence taking off in Denver. There had been a little rough air on our descent, but nothing compared to the shaking we experienced on the way out. I felt something different between the abstract recognition that the aircraft was being shaken quite powerfully, and the visceral response that I had to my falling sensation being activated repeatedly. The involuntary terror of this experience led me to wonder if I could keep my composure in a panicked situation. Setting aside the fact that I think calm produces better results than panic, even if there were no way for me to affect my demise, I should prefer to end my life in quiet reflection, rather than mindless terror. This is one of the reasons I try to look out the window as I land, as last experiences go, soaring over the ground does not seem like a terrible one.

And, after all the fear was released, there still was hope left at the bottom of my heart. At the Beaverton library, a beautiful structure by the way, I was quite upset to discover the Wi-Fi required an ID and password to access. Their gorgeous facility turned mocking in my mind if they were the first library I had ever encountered to limit free use of the Internet thusly. However, when I resorted to asking directions to Powell's bookstore, the destination I was trying to look up, I noticed a list of usernames and passwords for guests to use on the desk. This library, like all the others I had visited, did have Internet, for free, for anyone who cared to partake. As I walked away from that lovely building, it occurred to me that we build these places in so many of our cities and towns. Places where people give away books and information for free to those so inclined to make use of them responsibly. Public libraries were already a place that held great emotional meaning to me, and this seems a good reason to add more. This seems like something worth inspiring a little hope for us poor, frightened, lost humans.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010


I caught the embers of a beautiful sunset over Denver which was a great ending to the day. Of course, that was six hours ago and I am still awake, but by now the word "day" has taken on a very malleable meaning. But, I am back on break, so it is time for me to resume putting up blog posts. I shall endeavor to get two a couple of topics I was asked to elaborate on, but today we shall discuss my Monday/Tuesday.

For reasons of sleep and stress, Monday and Tuesday have sort of been one big day to me, one in which I took a lot of naps, but a day nonetheless. Monday started with the usual semester end "celebration," proctoring, then spending six hours in a room with the other MTH 133 instructors/TA's grading 500 or so exams. However, instead of finishing grading then proceeding to enter grades and relax, instead I spent much of the evening attempting to scratch the arcane surface of my number theory homework. The less said about that, the better. I whiled away the rest of the night watching TV on the internet packing. Then I went back in to the math building, where exhaustion caught up with me and I grabbed two hours of sleep on my office floor. Why did I come to school then fall asleep first thing, rather than sleeping in my own bed, probably out of fear that I wouldn't wake up on time from my own bed.

After scraping myself off the floor, I "finished" my assignment, as well as some administrative tasks, ran some errands, and prepared to venture to the bus. The Wi-Fi was not working on the bus, so I grabbed another hour of sleep in between stops. Unfortunately, I debarked at the wrong terminal, so I was heading into security when my flight was "officially" beginning boarding. Fortunately, security, while crowded, went very smoothly, and I made it to the terminal before the flight actually started boarding. As mentioned, landing in Denver I was treated to a beautiful post-sunset sky. Unfortunately, I landed in Denver at the same time that my next flight was, again "officially," supposed to begin boarding. In reality, we were to the gate at about the same time as boarding began. Since my next flight was just one terminal over, this gave me time to purchase and scarf a sub, since I hadn't eaten in about 12 hours.

Fast forward, I am safe in Oregon. I have no idea what I am doing tomorrow, but I'm sure something will happen, and hopefully it will be good. I have some further thoughts inspired by traveling, but this post has been quite long enough, so expect those tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Pre-Halloween Thought

But, but, but Halloween was yesterday (or the day before yesterday if you happen not to be an insomniac or live somewhere other than the Americas), why talk about Halloween today? Well, I'm talking about Halloween today because I have been double-plus ungood about updating here in a timely fashion. If it helps, you can consider my title to mean that I had this thought before Halloween, which I did, or that today is before next Halloween, which it is.

So, the thought. In the lead up to Halloween I saw posts across multiple blogs that I follow condemning women for choosing to "slut it up" for Halloween. While I am no Third Wave Feminist advocating for miniskirt empowerment, in fact I am somewhat of a conservative prude, I believe that there should be a rebuttal to these posts, so I shall make one.

I have to admit that I am unfavorably inclined towards criticisms of "slutting it up" from the get go. Primarily because I find the term "slut" offensive. As mentioned, I am somewhat of a prude, and I feel that men and women often carry on in an unseemly manner, however, the gender bias inherrent in the term "slut" does more to antagonize me than its implied agenda of sexual moderation. Put simply, a guy who acts exactly like a "slut" (negative connotation) is called a "stud" (positive connotation).

While I would prefer that all were held to the standards of sexual restraint to which women are typically held, I think I should set aside this opinion for the moment in order to support gender equality, a cause that I consider more urgent. This is similar to my support for legal abortions due to the unjust gendered distribution of blame, responsibility, and labor with regards to pregnancies and subsequent babies, despite my deep personal reservations regarding the practice. So, since "slutting it up" has such sexist connotations, I find the term distasteful.

Furthermore, I find the practice of condemning the women who wear such sexualized costumes to be slightly unfair. After all, we live in a society where that manner of dress is often normalized. Not only in regards to Halloween costumes, I would imagine that if you paid attention, outfits of similar decorum, or lack thereof, could be found in many of the advertisements displayed year round, after all, "sex sells," as the saying goes. Much is said about the problems caused by models informing American women on how they should look, a subject worthy of great consideration in its own right, but less is said about their effect on how American women feel they should dress, I imagine this effect is not trivial.

So, this upcoming Halloween, and here I definitely am talking about the one a little over 360 days from now, I urge you, men and women, to wear costumes that you feel comfortable with, be they revealing or not. I urge you to not base your self worth on the reactions of others to your costume, whatever they may be. And finally, I urge you to think kindly of your fellow humans, rather than dismissing them with a criticism, and this last one is worth thinking about every day before next Halloween too ;)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Merit Based Salaries for Teachers and The Importance of Control Groups

I feel like my blog has sort of become me complaining about my life. This is not what I want it to be, mostly because I don't think that is either interesting or thought provoking. Last post may be excused because it provided an excellent example of Sartre's existential dilemma, but my complaints today are more mundane, as such, they shall be relegated to the end of this post.

With the US falling behind in educational achievement, our public school system has come under heavy scrutiny. Even more so as the documentary, Waiting for "Superman" hitting the pop culture radar. One of the controversial "fixes" proposed is tying teachers' salaries or bonuses to evaluations of their merit. I, as a semi-educator, view this suggestion with a little trepidation, not that I have any illusion that it will affect me one way or another.

My biggest problem with merit based pay is that teachers are not responsible for the quality of their students, for the most part. Perhaps my perspective on this is skewed by coming from the field of mathematics, but much of my students' success or failure is predetermined by their level of preparation when they enter my classroom. Unlike the private sector, I cannot weed out people who's performance I become responsible for if they have no business being in my classroom, except by failing them. This leads to me often trying to cobble a rudimentary working understanding of integral calculus for some of my students on top of a mathematical background where they still fear and distrust fractions and do not actually understand exponentiation. I think there are some Biblical verses condemning what I do (Matthew 9:16,17), but the task of reteaching almost the whole of mathematics to my students is daunting.

Granted, if one makes certain assumptions about the uniformity of mathematical backgrounds from class to class, then comparing educators in the same school teaching the same subject might yield some results as to the comparative efficacy of those educators. However, comparing educators who have students prepared by one school as opposed to another seems bound to confuse the individual educator's merit with that of the system that has prepared their students.

Finally, education is not a passive activity like watching the television. In order for students to get more out of it, they must put more into it. Mathematics may have come easily to me, but I was (almost) always actively trying to understand what was going on. When you understand the background, each new layer of complexity becomes relatively simple to understand, if you try. For example, on a recent exam, my students were asked to set up a partial fraction decomposition problem. Not recognizing that (x^2-4) factors was, at a glance, strongly correlated with not knowing to put Ax+B in the numerator over an irreducible quadratic factor. There is no reason that these concepts should be linked, one is a rather subtle question relying on mathematical skills they should already have, namely factoring, and the other is a simple fact about partial fraction decomposition that they ought to have learned in my class, yet, the two mistakes were almost always made simultaneously.

Granted, it is a lot easier for me to take college students to task for not investing in their education than it would be to criticize cute little elementary schoolers. My point, however, is not that we should blame the student's for their own academic successes and failures, but rather that we need to create the proper support for students to encourage them to invest in their own education from an early age. This is not something teachers can be responsible for alone, I believe, as I have said before, that our educational apathy is a cultural institution, and that students are often receiving deeply negative messages in the home and in pop culture about the value of education.

Ok, that is my two cents on that. As mentioned, I have some other thoughts on education kicking around, which may make it into a post. In regards to my own life, as mentioned we recently had a test, so grading that took up a bunch of time. Taking even more time was the Group Theory assignment due Monday, that our class just turned in today. Between those two tasks, I have been rather stressed recently, but they are now over, so I can focus on my other problems. Prominently featured among those are the fact that my laptop bricked Monday, so I have to decide what to do about that. Additionally, while sprinting to catch the bus this afternoon I caught my foot on an uneven spot on the sidewalk, causing me to slam right-side first into the sidewalk/floor of the bus. To catalog my injuries, I have a couple stubbed toes on my right foot, from catching on the sidewalk, a skinned right knee from the sidewalk, a tight pain in the middle of my right ribs, where my chest collided at a frightful speed with the edge of the bus entrance, and a skinned right elbow from the bus floor. Aside from a slight tenderness in my left elbow, which didn't bleed at all, my left side is in fine shape. This occasionally leads me to exclaim in surprise and appreciation at how much pain the left side of me is NOT feeling, which illustrates the importance of a control group!

Thursday, October 7, 2010

October, and the Crushing Weight of Existence

Well, today is the seventh of October. I did not want a week of October to pass by without a post, so it seems I am logically compelled to post today. As you may have noticed, I failed to keep to my MWF updates, even after F became "weekend." So, I am setting a less strenuous schedule for myself this month. In short, I shall update at least once every seven days, about a topic of my choosing. I have quite a few posts about the education system and education in general running around in my head, in embarrassingly unpolished format unfortunately, so that may become this month's impromptu subject. This is fitting, as many of the people I imagine read my blog are educators.

Since just updating you upon my plans for updating this blog in October seems like a terrible cop out on my part, I am also going to post something that I wrote elsewhere, about my experiences walking home today.

I finished the book I was reading, Sophie's World, today, which I think warrants a celebration. In what I read today, the existentialists were covered, and the author talked about Sartre's notion that as beings that exist, we owe it to ourselves to do SOMETHING with our existence. Oddly enough, both of the books I have read this school year have inspired this thought in me, as it has been nagging me since I finished Deadline, by Chris Crutcher. I imagine that I was previously aware of Sartre's thought on the subject, because we talked a bit about existentialism in a Feminist Philosophy course when I was an undergrad.

Anyway, as I was walking home under the darkened sky, I almost began crying at the thought of how much I would never understand. Then, as I almost was home, it occurred to me that my dissatisfaction may be because I have lost my faith in mathematics. I remember being quite upset in high school when I realized that there were open problems in mathematics, that is, statements that we are fairly sure are either true or false, but we cannot prove certainly to be one or the other. However, I stuck with mathematics, as it seemed the best method to make sense out of the chaos by which we are surrounded.

Now though, I inch out along a slender branch, toward the tips of a tree of mathematical knowledge, seeking the budding areas where soon new growth will occur. My problem is no longer that these areas of uncertainty exist, but that in reaching them, I have lost sight of the ground from which I began my climb. In an attempt to gain an advantageous viewpoint of my surroundings, I have instead become so myopically focused on the tree I am climbing that I have lost track of my surroundings entirely.

The natural follow up question I asked myself is, would studying philosophy become a remedy to this myopia, or merely a repetition of the mistake that I have already made once? I suppose that since philosophy often concerns itself with the larger picture of what is and what should, it may be more conducive to keeping the vastness and wonder of existence in focus. However, I do believe that more than a few great philosophers have found themselves staring into philosophy and discovering an ever hungry void of uncertainty that has scarred them to the soul.

Anyway, since I have no dependents, nor partner, nor expectation or inclination for this to change in the immediate future, I have great freedom, what Sartre might describe as terrifying freedom, to shape my life at this point. It seems only fitting that I take some time to reflect on what I owe it to myself to do with that freedom. Of course, if you have any suggestions, fill free to leave them, I obviously am not making too much progress upon my own.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Consciousness Step 3: The Ghost in the Machine

First, I think I am going to have to change my Friday update to a "sometime over the weekend" update. I assume this shan't upset anyone, and it works out better for me considering how utterly wiped out I can be by Friday. Of course, I retain the right to alter this schedule if it should seem necessary, or desired by my readers. On that note, I expect to alter my schedule somewhat for October, but I don't yet know what I want to do and talk about, so this is your chance to affect that.

So, in the consciousness posts that I did manage to put up this month, we talked about what consciousness is and who has it, with no definite answers of course. Today I plan to talk about how it arises, with no definite answers again.

The phrase, "ghost in the machine," refers to the existence of a consciousness in what is otherwise considered a deterministic machine, that is our biological body. The term can also be used to describe the perception that some computer users develop that their system has its own personality. Let us consider the artificial consciousness for the moment.

Some people theorize that, as programs become larger and more complicated, we might stumble upon artificial awareness, or consciousness, purely by accident. The layers upon layers of code that we create may suddenly interact in a startling and unforeseen manner, creating the ghost in the machine. This would probably be an example of emergence, the phenomena of simple interactions eventually creating quite complicated structures.

The reason that I desired to consider artificial awareness first, is that it provides an interesting analogy as to how our own could have been formed. Regulatory processes within the brain building upon each other, growing ever more complicated, until one day a process realized that it existed. So, in a sense, we are the ghosts in the machine.

This should wrap up my consideration of consciousness for the moment, so some discussion questions to part with. Which would you consider more essential to your sense of self, your left leg or your sense of humor? Have you ever consciously regulated your breathing rate, then tried to return to subconscious regulation? Why do you think it is important to think about our consciousness?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Path to Salvation

Of Well, I'm back in the saddle, and, appropriately enough, talking about redemption, or salvation, today. Personally, I think the term salvation is more appropriate, as redeeming, to me carries the connotation of something you do for yourself, such as when I post in a timely manner and redeem my trustworthiness. However, it is fairly clear that we are saved not through our own effort, but through God's beneficence, through Jesus' sacrifice.

"For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast." Ephesians 2:8-9
Of course, exactly who is saved and how is a matter of much debate, and obvious importance. However, I tend to agree with my sister when she says that perhaps we worry a bit too much about whether or not other people are saved. Since I believe that logic is a good way to approach one's faith, here is an example of why I do not believe salvation is as restrictive as people sometimes make it out to be.

Assumption one: We are all saved in the same manner, and that manner is through Jesus. As he himself is said to have spoken in John 14:6, "Jesus answered, "I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me."

Assumption two: People who lived before Jesus can be saved. The best support for this that I can think of is Jesus' parable about the rich man and Lazarus, which can be found starting in Luke 16:19.

Conclusion: The mechanism of salvation must be a bit more inclusive than belief in Christ Jesus as Savior. Which is not to say that believing Jesus is one's Savior is bad, or unimportant, just that I do not believe that we should write people off for failing that standard. It seems to me that doing so ignores God's great love and ability to meet us where we are, praise God!

Monday, September 20, 2010

Mea Culpa

This time I did not forget that it was Friday, my fault no post on consciousness last week. With the semester getting into swing and such, I have been feeling down again, and putting serious thought and effort into a post has just seemed overwhelming. However, since one of my intentions for this blog is to keep myself thinking philosophically even when I just want to curl up and hide, I shall attempt to get back upon the horse.

To that end, you can certainly expect a Theological post come Wednesday. I am leaning toward discussing my interpretation of salvation, I was going to do this anyway, but I think I'll advance the timetable because my sister posted a wonderful and caring post on this topic. Come Friday I shall post something related to the philosophy of consciousness.

Part of the reason for no post last Friday is a lack of ideas on what to post, I plan to talk about the ghost in the machine, which is enough for a short post at the moment, but no additional topic to get it to full size. Of course, not wanting to think about what to post does influence how full of ideas I am. If I come up with material for a fourth post on consciousness, I shall post a make up sometime. I think I had four posts planned out, so I should just have to remember what I was going to talk about, but we'll see.

Nothing particularly new in my life, but I feel this has been about my life enough to satisfy the Monday requirement. Classes and teaching are draining me of my elan vital. It is ironic that when classes start they drain all my motivation to think, right? I think I am going to drop my first grad class, I can get more sleep, stress a little less, it isn't terribly interesting, and I haven't gone to the last to meetings. Well, hope others are having more successful school starts.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Second Greatest Commandment

"To love your neighbor as yourself." Poor guy, so close to the top, but only second best. But if Jesus felt this was the second most important thing that we can do, and between it and last weeks topic one could sum up the Law, then it is worth spending some time examining. First off, I hope people accept the interpretation that our neighbors, in this sense, are not just people with whom we share a fence, but all our fellow humans.

There is not a lot of explicit advice on how to love your neighbor, or yourself, in the Bible, but many of the Biblical commands involve taking care of ourselves and others. From how this is phrased, it almost seems like we should be good at loving ourselves, and use that as a model for how to love others. Unfortunately I think that many of us do not love ourselves in the way that Jesus desires, and often end up lacking in love for others as a consequence.
This commandment does put me in mind of exactly one other, which I think I'll share briefly. "Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?" This is from Matthew 7:3, which is in a long section of Jesus expounding upon what the righteous life is. While it is inherently quite worthwhile stuff, it also serves as a reminder that the righteous life is so far out of our possible grasp, which is ok, because we are saved through faith and the blood of Jesus, more on that later, rather than our actions.

Anyway, Jesus goes on to say that we ought first remove the plank in our own eye, so we can see to remove the splinter in our neighbor's. I feel that here he is once again using subtle language with intent, can we remove the plank from our own eye? No, of course not, because the plank symbolizes sin, and we cannot remove our own sins, nor those of our neighbor. I interpret that passage not to mean that we should straighten up our own life, then make ourselves busy "fixing" the lives of people around us, but rather to remind us that it is not our place to "fix" ourselves or our neighbors, and we should, therefore, revert back to the prime directive for dealing with our neighbors, that is, to love them.

Monday, September 13, 2010

My Forgetful Mind

Almost went to bed, then I remembered I owe you all an update on my life. Since I am sleepy this shall be short. Fortunately, not much particularly interesting happened in the past week. Classes, both as a student and teacher, progress apace. I am trying to bring the energy to the subject Frank, but I think I only managed to come off as a manic scatterbrain today. Oh well, there is always tomorrow, literally. You can tell college level educators are spoiled by how disappointing/draining it is to teach two days in a row. Of course, this summer I taught 2 hours a day 4 days a week, so this shouldn't be too hard.

The only unusual occurrence this past week was the Math Department Grad Prom. As you might imagine, it involved a bunch of math grads, and some of our friends, getting together and acting like high schoolers for a couple of hours. There was some dancing (not the real kind for the most part, I said high school remember). Getting people on the floor wasn't as difficult as in high school, so I guess people do become more self confident as they get older. I would sum the event up as somewhat fun and very tiring.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Consciousness Step 2: Chinese Rooms, Zombies, and the End of all that is Good

In this second entry to the series I reference several concepts introduced in my first post on consciousness. For the interested newcomer confused at what I mean, I recommend reading the creatively named Consciousness Step 1.

I believe that I mentioned the reason I wandered back into philosophy of consciousness is my twitter name, ChineseRoom, so it seems only fitting that I explain what the Chinese Room is. Last entry I noted that the field of artificial intelligence is significantly related to the study of consciousness. One of the proposed methods for attaining artificial intelligence is to create a program with a complicated enough command structure that it would be able to respond to input as though it were actually thinking for itself. While this might create the appearance of intelligence, the Chinese Room is a thought experiment originated by John Searle that attempts to show why this would not be actual intelligence.

Imagine, if you will, a closed room, containing a person who speaks only the English language, a massive rulebook, a file system, and a slot. Through the slot cards containing Chinese characters are dropped into the room, and the person follows appropriate rules from the rulebook to choose cards from the filing system and push them out the slot in a specified order. The rulebook is so advanced that, to a Chinese speaker outside the room, it appear as though they are carrying on a conversation in Chinese with someone within the room, however Searle asserts that the Chinese Room does not understand Chinese in any sense. The metaphor is that, even if we can give a computer appropriate commands to appear intelligent, it does not necessarily gain intelligence.

While there is much of interest to be said about the Chinese Room, and many arguments and counter arguments about its validity, I think we should move on, because the next topic is the always interesting one of zombies. However, to a philosopher a zombie often means something slightly different than the usual shambling brain eater. If you remember back to our last discussion of consciousness I characterized it as experiencing things, which we called qualia. The zombie appears to be exactly the same as you and I, responding to the world just as you would expect a human to, except the zombie lacks consciousness and experiences nothing.

The Chinese Room is a good analogue of a zombie. Although the Chinese speaker gets responses as though the room were actually carrying on a conversation in Chinese, the room is not holding a conversation, but rather acting out a complex system of preset rules. So while a zombie might stand staring at the glory of a sunset, they do so because that is a reasonable human response to the situation, not because the beauty of the fading sunlight, because beauty requires someone to experience it, and the zombie is incapable of such a role.

One of the disturbing things about philosophical zombies is that it is entirely possible that they exist and walk amongst us unnoticed. Since they are programmed to behave completely as though they were conscious, we could not pick them out from conscious humans by observing their actions. This is what is known as the problem of other minds. Assuming for the moment that you are conscious, you know that because you are aware of your own experiences, but you have no way of verifying that the rest of us are experiencing things, or merely responding as though we had experienced something. The famed computer scientist Alan Turing noted that, since we are conscious, we tend to politely assume that those who act as though they also are conscious actually are, but this is by no means a guarantee.

To wrap up, I would like to leave you with a scenario of my own. Suppose at some point in the near future we believe we solve the problem of uploading human minds into artificial hardware, that is into computers. However, upon uploading the mind we do not actually create a conscious mind, but rather a zombie or Chinese Room, something that acts entirely as though it was still experiencing, but instead was just recording facts, or quanta, and responding appropriately. Since it acts as though it was still conscious, we would have no way of knowing that the program in fact had no experiences, and we might well go through with uploading the human race, in order that we might live forever as machines. In doing so we would destroy all experience of beauty or goodness, leaving only cold computational algorithms mimicking the actions of one who could experience such things.

The questions for further thought that I can come up with are as follows. Many opponents of Searle's argument assert that, while the man inside the room does not understand Chinese, the
system actually does understand Chinese, what do you think they might mean by that? Do you think that philosophical zombies are currently walking the world? Finally, if we were to destroy all experience and leave only computation, what, if anything, would be lost? As always I hope this was thought provoking and you are welcome to leave your responses or further questions in the comments below.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

The Greatest Commandment

As mentioned, I intend to post each Wednesday this month with something of a theological nature. Since I have Christian beliefs, my posts will most likely be about my interpretation of the Christian faith as it is the one with which I am most familiar and about which I have thought the most. I also previously mentioned that I was interested in what was important, and how various religions answer that question, so today will be the first part of an answer to that question with regard to Christianity. Fortunately enough, there seems to be a fairly clear answer to this provided by Jesus in Matthew's words:

34Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. 35One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: 36"Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?" 37Jesus replied: " 'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.'b]"> 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
-Matthew 22

Of course, this is an answer that Jesus gave to a Pharisee question, and they are not always as obvious as they appear. But, it seems straightforward enough that I hope you are willing to take it at face value. So, if you accept that our greatest commandment is to love God, one might think it reasonable to ask what this means.

Since I am a fan of Jesus' teachings, I think it is worthwhile to point out that in John's words Jesus says, "15"If you love me, you will obey what I command." in chapter 22. This also seems fairly self explanitory. However, I feel it worth pointing out that Jesus is not ordering us to obey him, or saying that he wants our obedience, but rather that he wants our love, and a natural outgrowth of that love should be our attention to his words, after all, he grants us the same courtesy, when earlier in that same chapter he states, "14You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it."

This is a nice simple answer to what the greatest commandment asks of us, but I make no claim to authority in my understanding of the subject. Since the Bible has been around for so long, many longer and more in depth answers have been formulated. I encourage you to search them out, or ask someone trained in this subject, if you want a more detailed answer to the question. And, as always, I encourage you to consider the question for yourself.

Monday, September 6, 2010

It's September!

So, last Tuesday I asked what people thought about some ideas for changes to my blog. I got one response, saying that everything I suggested sounded interesting, which is somewhat flattering. However, you are still welcome to go submit your input if you want to deflate my ego a little, steer me towards a specific track, or suggest something I may have overlooked. For now I think I'll set a schedule for September and go from there, who knows what we'll look like in October, it's exciting.

For September I am going to run a series on the Philosophy of Consciousness Fridays. I have the first one up, and you can expect the next one at the end of this week. Mondays (ooo, that's today!) will be an informal day, hopefully updating you on my life, or whatever. Then Wednesdays I shall put up some theological musings. I have decided to try to break the grip alliteration holds upon my mind, so theology will not be on Thursdays, and this will not be Sci-Fi September. On that note, I do have a series of Sci-Fi themed posts brewing, and they were going to go up this month, but I found the idea of consciousness more interesting, so it went first.

I have been trying to read more, those of you who knew me in high school, or earlier, probably remember that I was a voracious reader. I have let that facet of my personality slip, to my detriment I believe. Earlier this month I read Blindsight, a really bleak but interesting Sci-Fi novel about aliens with a strong undercurrent of philosophy of consciousness/mind theme. This partially explains why that topic won out this month. Right now I am trying to get through a chapter of ManefestA each day, and I have Sophie's World stashed in my office for down time. Considering how absolutely mind-numbing office hours are sometimes (often), I think stashing a book in there will really improve my mental habits. Sophie's World was recommended to me as an interesting fictional narrative which introduces one to a basic overview of Western Philosophy, ManefestA, as I understand it, is an overview of the state of Third Wave feminism as of the year 2000.

Went to a Labor Day get together with graduates from the math department today. There was food and conversation, the host had a really nice townhouse. Not much to say there, I am trying to be more social in Michigan, seems useful if I am going to be here three to five more years, never say I don't try. On the here x years more, those of you who follow me on FaceBook (FB) may have noticed I passed my third qualifying exam two weeks ago, knocking over another hurdle in my way on the math to philosophical doctor-hood.

The classes I am taking seem ok. I definitely like Group Theory, and am thinking of going into that subject, a scary decision I now face having completed quals. Algebraic Geometry seems like it will be tolerable, the first day was an incomprehensible overview of the subject, and I didn't sleep Thursday night so Friday was a bit blurry, but seemed to be familiar material, introducing affine and projective spaces and varieties, you know ;). Number Theory meets for the first time Wednesday.

As for teaching, I am solidifying my decision to pursue a Philosophy Ph.D. after I finish here (hopefully finish=get doctorate). I am sure my students are decent pupils, they are taking Calc II, which is something that indifferent math students can certainly do, but they are taking it in the evening, that must mean something? However, I hardly get any intellectual enthusiasm from them. My lectures feel boring even to me, but when I try to liven it up by asking questions, I feel like I am pulling teeth. I really want to try teaching a discussion based class, but don't feel that is the most appropriate manner in which to teach math, especially to 38 students. I know a lot of people are down on mathematics, saying they don't like it and whatnot. But consider this, how do you think your teacher feels being stuck lecturing to an apathetic crowd who bring almost no energy or feedback to the relationship? Sorry for the mini-rant, I get depressed at how dehumanizing teaching sometimes is.

Oh, back to reading! I am planning to attempt the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Wittgenstein, which might be the seminal piece in analytic philosophy and modern philosophy of language. If other people want to read it, I would certainly welcome a support group to hold each other accountable for timely reading and with whom to discuss the content. It is also considered one of the more opaque works of philosophy, so perhaps a background in reading philosophy would be helpful, but I certainly wouldn't turn down any people desiring to participate. I got my copy Friday, but I am definitely waiting until I finish ManefestA to begin.

That seems to be enough, have a good week!

Friday, September 3, 2010

Consciousness Step 1: What is love, what am I?

Today I what I plan to be a four series on the philosophy of the mind/consciousness. Before I go further I would like to thank the insightful Professor Clough and the entire Ghost in the Machine course I took at O(regon)SU, which provided most of my background and sparked many of my thoughts. Today I am hoping to introduce some important terms in the field, give my position on consciousness as best I can, and close with some questions for you to mull on your own and, hopefully, spark discussion in the comments.

Let us begin with the pleasant prospect of love. Not the platonic or familial kind, but they raw overwhelming feeling of one who is full blown smitten. Try to remember how your object of affection made/makes you feel... Your body thrums to your racing pulse, adrenaline and endorphin levels climb, you feel heat rising due to increased blood flow. Of course, quantitatively, this is quite similar to how one reacts to imminent threat, perhaps why Stockholm Syndrome and intense attachment after experiencing a dangerous situation occurs. However, I assume most would agree that there is something different to the experience of feeling threatened than that of interacting with a dearly loved one.

This illustrates one of the important dichotomies in the philosophy of consciousness, the difference between quanta and qualia. Quanta measure amounts, such as how fast your heart is beating, your blood pressure, chemical levels, and temperature. Qualia is the term for how you experience a situation, information much harder to access. For example, while I can tell you the wavelength of a particular shade of red, a bit of it's quanta, it is much harder for me to describe the rich vibrancy of the color I experience, the qualia. Perhaps a more dramatic example comes from the synesthetes, who observe some things with different or additional sensory information than most of us. For example, some see numbers in different colors, regardless of the shade of ink with which they are written. So, the quanta remain constant, same number written on the same page, but to a synesthete a 3 might appear blue while a 4 is magenta. Hopefully this is sufficient to give you a rough idea on the difference between quanta and qualia.

The second important issue I would like to raise today is that of what makes up minds. There are three basic schools of thought here, minds are material objects that obey purely physical laws, minds are the product of ephemeral souls acting on some higher plane, or minds are an interaction of both physical and spiritual processes. Interestingly enough, a philosopher's view of what the mind is made of often is their opinion of what reality is made of. Those who believe only in one type of stuff are called monists, those who opt for both are dualists.

One's opinion on this debate greatly affects how one views consciousness. In today's age of rational, scientific inquiry, very few spiritual monists survive, so let us consider physical monists and dualists. To a physical monist, the idea of artificial consciousness, that is a manufactured machine that is self aware, is usually plausible, although the philosopher Searle, who we will see more of later, might be an exception. If our mind arises from interactions that are purely physical in nature, then any system that emulates these interactions should produce a consciousness similar to our own. On the other hand, dualists tend to be more skeptical of artificial consciousness, wondering if building the correct computer can simply summon the necessary soul to inhabit it. In his books Xenocide and Children of the Mind, Orson Scott Card presents an interesting notion of artificial awareness that is, essentially, dualist in nature.

So then, what is consciousness? Some have characterized it as experiencing qualia, which is in the spirit of the definition that I prefer. I think that, in order to be considered conscious one must be an observer rather than simply a recorder. For example, compare taping a movie with a rickety, failing, old VHS recorder with sitting in front of the TV and observing the movie yourself (knowing that the tape from that recorder is going to be hopelessly messed up). In both cases a flawed copy of the broadcast movie is made and stored, either on VHS or in a human mind. However, we wouldn't say that the VHS recorder watched the movie, only when a human sits down in front of the TV is the movie watched, or experienced.

Next time we can take these definitions and ideas and build on them, to talk about some of the interesting thought experiments that the philosophy of consciousness has inspired. For now, some questions for you. What do you think minds are made from, why, and is this the same as what you think all reality is made from? Can you describe the color blue, not as a wavelength, but as something you see? What do you think consciousness is, and do you think that you have it, how about humans in general?

Please feel free to ask questions or for clarification. Definitely leave your feedback, or further questions for thought, if the spirit moves you. Thank you for reading, I hope you enjoyed it.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Feedback Appreciated

Well, today is the last day of August, and as things end other things begin. When things begin, I often wonder how they should go. So, today I thought the question should be, how do you want this blog to go? I have some specifics that I have been considering, so I thought that I would run them by you.

The current format is a post with content I find interesting on Fridays (Philosophical Friday), and questions on Tuesdays (Response Tuesday). How is that working for you? I have trimmed out my more frequent updates in hopes of not giving readers content shock, but there are some things I have been considering adding. If I do add some stuff, I could add it here, and you could read it at your own discretion, or I could create a separate blog to segregate posts by topic.

Some of the topics I have considered giving voice are my daily life and religion. Also, I enjoyed having a theme in July, but when August's theme flopped *nasty glare at people who didn't suggest topics* I found I had fun making a post on a topic of my choice, like Find Your Song. So, I have considered putting one day in for topical thought provoking posts and one for a post of my whimsy.

So, if I did all of these and did them on my Blog my schedule might look something like the following. My Life Monday, Topical Tuesday, Response Wednesday, Theological Thursday, Free Choice Friday. Of course, that might be a lot of content to churn out, especially during the school year, but I could adjust things so I wrote on MWF one week and TTh the next.

So, my question to you is twofold. First, what content sounds interesting? Secondly, should I add it to this blog, or segregate it by topic?

Oh, if you happen to be stuck in a training meeting all day, here's a more open ended question to chew on. This occurred to me while driving past a log-truck filled with lumber. Specifically, are dead trees still trees? More generally, consider the boundaries of nouns, how do you tell when one "leaves" the category a noun describes? Are cats still "cats" after they die, are lions "cats", are stuffed animal cats "cats"?

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Nose to the Grindstone

I feel like I have been remiss in being active within the comments. This is reprehensible as I like active comment threads. So, I am going to start with the most recent post and go back, commenting where I feel I should have. Tune in Tuesday for a question that I hope will generate feedback !

Friday, August 27, 2010

Atheism Cannot Support Complete Ethics

In order to complete my goal of posting my rework of the Atheist piece, I had better put it up today. I am working on very little sleep, so it may be a bit more succinct than my norm, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I hope that you find this reformulation at least slightly less objectionable, but not one bit less worth responding to.

It is a bad sign when your intro undermines your overall point, no matter how catchy it may be. When I differentiated ethics and morality by saying one is knowing right, and the other is doing right, I crippled my argument. Of course an atheist can believe that they do what is right, most people do. However, I failed to note that being ethical is necessary, although not sufficient, to be moral, for without consideration on what is right one might confuse gross injustices as the right thing to do.

Of course, most people are familiar with "folk ethics," or practices that they believe are obviously and intuitively right or wrong. So the real test of an ethical system usually lies in two spheres, extending folk ethics to cases where what is right is no longer obvious, and providing a framework from which to logically support one's position on what is right or wrong when faced with someone who's folk ethic tells them something different. While an atheist can construct a psuedo-ethic, I shall call an atheist's ethic, which will perform the first task, allowing them to reason from cases that they accept to those that are less clear cut, an attempt to create an atheist ethic cannot succeed at the second task.

I shall, as is my convention, preclude an atheist from appealing to some objective, overarching, power of Good to grant their argument weight with their detractors, because once someone believes in an independent entity, anthropomorphized or not, of Good I fail to see the difference between that and dropping one of the 'o's to turn Good into a God, albeit a rather diffuse one, similar to that of a pantheist. This, along with the argument, most famously posed by Hume, that assumptions about the empirical is can not, on their own, lead to an conclusion about the ethical should, prevents any argument based on purely atheist foundations from providing logically compelling evidence to one who is willing to categorically reject the atheists subjective beliefs about what in right and wrong.

Of course, as I freely admit, the atheist's ethic is entirely sufficient to permit the atheist to wrestle with the thorniest problem of what he or she ought do, and can produce personal answers as satisfying as any other ethic. And, as I believe I recognized in the previous post, atheists can still do things that are perceived as equally good, or better, than their deist counterparts. However, the atheist's ethic can never truly answer the question for the atheist of what others ought do.

If an atheist does not wish to consider these questions, then they can be perfectly satisfied. However, should what they believe is ethically necessary come into conflict with the desires of another, their atheist's ethic has no logical power to convince the other to accede to the atheist's perspective. Of course an atheist, like any other person, could work within the other's own belief system to attempt to show that the undesirable action was actually not in keeping with the other's own beliefs, but the atheist's ethic provides no true justification of such meddling in another's actions, aside from might makes right, as the atheist's ethic provides no objective ethical framework to compare actions of two different moral agents.

On the other hand, I will admit that the theist only manages to beg this question by assuming an objective moral framework, which itself cannot be logically deduced by empirically evident objective truths. So if an atheist cannot use their system to deduce what is right for others to do, a theist cannot use their system to deduce why others should accept their perspective on what is right for the other to do. A corollary to this distinction between the atheist's ethic and an ethic, is that, since the atheist's ethic only provides information on what the atheist believes is right, and no external framework to logically consider why what they believe is right is, in some sense, the correct thing to believe, it is obvious that the continued belief of the atheist in their current atheist's ethic is a matter of personal choice, rather than a logical necessity. This last corollary is what I, mistakenly I believe, placed the most emphasis on in my last post on this topic, the fact that the atheist's morality is grounded in nothing more consistent than their preference. The theist usually has a morality that is grounded in a metaphysical belief in the nature of reality, and this metaphysical belief is grounded in nothing more consistent than the theist's preference.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

An Important Question

Well, since I took an algebra qual yesterday, I was going to be a jerk and ask some strange algebra question, to get back at all the people who ask, "Math, what do you study in math anyway?" But they probably don't read this anyway. If you are interested, feel free to find the Galois group of x^4-5 over the rationals.

Anyway, then I had a friend ask for a question. I doubt he wants to spend his afternoon researching abstract algebra to the point that he can answer this question, so I must provide a better question.

A while ago I was reading a book, called Looking For Alaska, wherein the characters were asked to write an essay for their religious class. The subject of the essay, as best I can recall as it was a library book I have since returned, was for them to give what they think is the most important question about our human experience and how the religions of Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam attempt to answer this question.

In thinking about this topic, I decided that the most important question I could come up with is, "What is important?" We are allotted limited time upon this earth and knowing what is important is essential to prioritizing that time and avoiding regrets. I have a fairly good idea how Christianity and Islam answer this question, so I am more interested in how you would answer the question.

For those of us who may be stuck in teacher training, I'm making this Tuesday a real time-killing doozy, multiple hard questions for your consideration. Listed starting with the ones I'm most interested in hearing your answers. What do you think is important to prioritize in life? What are important questions about our existence for us to consider, and why? If you come up with another question, how do religions attempt to answer it? How do religions attempt to answer what is important (emphasis on Buddhism, since I have no idea how they would answer it, but I'd like to hear your thoughts on Christianity and Islam if you want to share them? And finally, if G is a p-group, why does G necessarily have a non-trivial, abelian, factor group?

Ha, ok, I couldn't help myself. That last one is a question from the qual I couldn't answer, so if you can please explain. Spell checker not knowing abelian is a word loses Chrome some of my respect. If you think about these questions I would be interested in hearing your thoughts!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Find Your Song

I kind of spaced about it being Friday until just now, so once again, no revision of the Atheist post. By the end of August, this is my commitment. Since I had so few suggestions, I have blank weeks to spare. Fortunately, I have just the thing on hand to fill this blank at short notice. This was originally written for a different audience, so forgive me if the tone is a bit different than my usual.

I disapprove of the corporate capitalist framework that has become the foundation of music in the US, and probably most of the developed world. Don't get me wrong, in theory I have nothing against capitalism, and I definitely have nothing against artists being able to make some money off their works. But how could you like any institution that spawned the RIAA (insert appropriate gang of thuggish goons for your nation)? On a related note, we have them, in part, to thank for all sorts of ridiculous legislation, including our moronic and anti-capitalist copyright laws.

That said, my biggest beef with the consumer driven music market is that it robs the rest of us of our songs. Perhaps you are familiar with the video showing how a pretty-but-average girl is made up, staged, and photo shopped until a "glamorous" billboard picture is ready. To some extent this is what the recording industry does, using excellent acoustics and sound editing they take musicians who, I must admit, are talented in their own right (usually), and set them, Adonis like, on marble pillars. Just as the model's photo might look pretty, but serves to undercut our security in our own self image, these polished products too often silence our songs.

I love to sing. I joined my first choir in seventh grade (I think) and by the time I graduated high school I was a member of three community choirs (school choir does not count, because it was a joke). But, as those who listened to my songs earlier can attest, I am nothing spectacular vocally. Does this matter to me? A little, especially when I sing alone in public. Does this silence my song? No. However, too many people are hesitant to break out in song as they judge their talent to be lacking.

Not having been alive in the 1800's, I cannot say this is accurate. But culture has instilled the image of a family or neighborhood gathered around the fire. Some among them hoist fiddles or beat drums, and all join in song, singing a familiar folk tune. We have outsourced our song, and, from lack of practice, lost our own voices. So, while I do hope you dance (really, it is fun), I also hope you sing (notice how the song leaves that bit out, job security eh?).

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Question Time

I need to sleep, but I owe you a question. Compromise, I shall ask a question but not answer it. This isn't just in the name of unconsciousness, I also don't really have a good answer right now. Anyway, my question to you is two-fold. First, are truth and fact the same thing? And secondly, if not, why?

Friday, August 13, 2010


So, I was going to reformulate my post on atheist ethics today, but now I am not. Since two of my good friends get married tomorrow, and one severely disagreed with my last post, and probably will disagree with me still, though hopefully less vehemently, why pick a fight tonight. Let us instead celebrate marriage.

I was going to post a while back with thoughts on Prop 8, but again, my desire not to pick fights dissuaded me. While we are celebrating marriage, it seems worthwhile to bring this up. Whatever your position on who should have sex with whom, I assume we can all agree that love is good, and the more love, the better the world is.

This brings up an interesting point, in our culture today we tend to equivocate sex and marriage. This is in spite of the fact that it is widely acknowledged that many, many, unmarried people are having sex with each other. I would assume that there are also some married couples who are not regularly having sex with each other.

I think that modern mainstream Christianity is partially to blame for this. By attempting to make sex all about a marital relationship, the idea of sex and marriage have been linked, and it becomes easy to make the logical mistake of thinking that marriage is only for sex. However, this is certainly not the case.

Since I am lacking in deep thoughts today, I invite you to come up with your own. What is marriage? What does marriage mean to you? Is marriage a legal state or a spiritual state? If both, are these two different types of marriage? Can one have both, can one have only one of them?

"Mawidge is what bwings us togewer today." The priest was not addressing only the bride and groom, but everyone.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

What is Altruism?

I just realized that it was Tuesday, so I should have put up a question. This one might actually deserve a Friday, but I need something about which to write, so here it goes. The question at hand comes from Frank, and asks, paraphrased, if it is possible to be completely altruistic?

I used to think the answer was no, and that everything we did is done for self serving reasons. My reasoning was that even the most self sacrificing saint does what they believe is right, and thus gains personal satisfaction from that. However, when called on to examine the question again, I realized that I might need a more complex understanding of what altruism is.

Previously I had considered it to be doing something for little or no personal benefit, and thus complete altruism was impossible because everything we do benefits us in some manner. Instead, here I shall amend the definition to something along the lines of how altruistic an act is depends on the degree to which the needs of others inform how we form our desires. That is, an act that we derive enjoyment from can still be altruistic if our enjoyment is derived by attempting to meet the needs of others, rather than focusing on our own needs.

In this case, I do believe that highly altruistic actions do exist. Indeed, most good parents will be completely altruistic to their babies. Of course, problems can still arise when the perfect altruist misconceives the needs of others, but I do believe in perfect altruism in principle.

What do other people think, both about my definition, and whether perfect altruism exists? When answering, feel free to use my definition of altruism or another that you specify.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Hard or Soft Education?

Today's topic is in response to a suggestion, as promised, which may have been left on Facebook. The question is, "I have many able calculus kids who score a 4 or 5 each year on the AP test (to go along with their 4 or 5's in AP chemistry) and the vast majority of them end up studying the humanities, with a ridicluous proportion choosing psychology - something that most will never make a living from - and relatively few choosing math/science/tech. Meanwhile, in huge proportions, the Chinese, Indian and Russian kids are studying the hard sciences. So, why, in your humble opinion, do our American kids duck the hard sciences at a rate that is not seen in other countries?"

As someone who has bachelor degrees in both math and philosophy, yet still cannot spell bachelor, I think I have an informed perspective upon this question. First off, although in might in part be the perception that the humanities are easier than math/science/tech degrees, I doubt this is a significant factor. I imagine this perception exists even in the communities which choose math/science/tech degrees, and I do not believe it is true. Considering my "fondness" for essays, I think my homework for the philosophy degree was, overall, more stressful than the math degree.

One thing I do think is a factor is the wonderful freedom of the US higher education program. From what I understand, in many places in Asia and Europe, one is channeled into a course of study at the university, rather than choosing one freely from a myriad of options. Thus, subjects that society places greater value upon are emphasized in schools and end up with the greatest number of students corralled in that direction. Whereas, in the US, upon arriving at university you are presented with a plethora of options and permitted to switch even rather late in your academic career, which can lead to Philosophy majors being declared in the second half of Junior year.

Another issue is something like an American sense of entitlement, or optimism, compared with caution or pragmatism exhibited by citizens in less privileged nations. To wit, you say yourself that a humanity degree is less likely to lead directly into a career, and to someone from a culture of economic caution, that might be a major deterrent. In comparison, an American who assumes that things will turn out alright in the end might feel more empowered to follow an interest for interest's sake.

I must admit that, as a cautious person by nature, this last point did play a major role in my decision to pursue graduate studies in mathematics rather than philosophy. Programs seem easier to enter, and the job market is definitely kinder, to mathematics students than those who study philosophy. However, the idea has been growing in me to attempt to switch, now that I am in a math program or after I complete it, as I feel teaching philosophy would be a more fulfilling career personally.

This is the best answer I can give to the question at the moment. As I mentioned when it was asked, I would like to hear your thoughts on the issue, as mine are based primarily upon my own experiences as a student, while you have the wider perspective of an educator who has watched many students head off to college. As always, I heartily welcome the answers, reactions, or further thoughts of all my readers. If the editing is rough today, I beg forgiveness, as my trip to Oregon has left me exhausted at the moment.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010


First off, you should be motivated to go back to last Tuesday and answer the question, after answering this question. Today's question is, are your motivations, professionally and for hobbies, are intrinsic of instrumental?

I talked with Max, trying to nail down what he meant by internal or external, and could not get it to my satisfaction, so I have changed the question slightly. To a philosopher, something with intrinsic value is done for its own sake, while something with instrumental value is done to accomplish another task. Thus someone who volunteers at a soup kitchen to help the homeless is probably finding intrinsic value, the act is of itself worthwhile. One who volunteers to impress a lovely young lady is getting instrumental value out of the action. A concert pianist might get both from playing, assuming they enjoy it there is intrinsic value, but they can also make a living, which is instrumental.

Ok, that's the question, you should answer it, or at least just think about it, because it is an interesting question. My own answer, starting with professional. Most of what I do professionally is instrumentally motivated, which, for those in the know, is probably a big factor with how unsatisfied I have been feeling with what I'm doing. My actual work, teaching, is almost completely instrumental, for the living I get, and out of a sense of obligation to the students (I'm not a monster ;)). Once my classes get rolling, my motivation is mostly instrumental, for grades and such, but I keep taking the maximum course load, and not out of any need to get credits or the like, so there is a measure of intrinsic motivation there (that is, there is empirical evidence that on some level I still am interested in math).

My hobbies, on the other hand, are mostly intrinsically motivated. Reading is probably entirely intrinsically motivated, although there are some neat results that you get from reading, they aren't why I do it. Writing here is a mix. I do it even when I get no feedback, which indicates a measure of intrinsic value, and one of my goals with my writing inspire your own thoughts and edification, regardless of whether I hear about it, so more intrinsic. However, writing is more rewarding when I receive feedback or you share the thoughts you have about my topic, extrinsic. On the other hand, one of my goals from the feedback is to better create posts that you want to think about, intrinsic.

There's my answer, and I would like to hear yours for a variety of reasons. Been busy, so haven't posted much outside my scheduled Tuesdays and Fridays, don't know if that will continue. First post of Response August sometime Friday or Saturday, I have evening plans, so if I don't get it up early it will either go up late or sometime Saturday. I am still looking for more post suggestions, but lacking that I will redo my Atheists are Immoral Animals post. Considering the disagreement I got, I think a restatement could be safely considered something you have requested.

Friday, July 30, 2010

What Now?

Since my posts this month have not generated much dissent, I shall assume that most people agree that women face some societally created hurdles which men, for the most part, do not have to leap. Making yet another assumption, that you would like to see this changed, the question of how to progress toward a more equitable future seems quite relevant.

So, I ask you, how can each of us, as an individual, contribute to a more equitable future for women?

"What," you may be wondering, "is he doing asking us a question, this isn't Tuesday?" But rest assured, I am asking because I think the answer is important, and important to get from many people to obtain a variety of viewpoints. I also ask because I do not consider my own answer to be sufficient.

My personal answer is to contribute to a more equitable future by doing my best not to be inequitable personally. There are two components to this, one is to seek information about women's perspectives and priorities. Note that this is not a monolithic subject, one does not have a simple, cardboard-cutout worldview and opinion solely because one is a woman, nor should one, which is a main point of my post about women in politics. Once you are aware of the practices that many women view as dis-empowering, do your best no avoid them, the practices not the women.

Some common examples that come up repeatedly include, not assuming that because you know someone is a woman, that you know their opinion on abortion or whether they voted for Hillary Clinton in 2008. As noted above, women are capable of coming to their own conclusions, which may not parrot popular perception of women's priorities. Of course, men suffer, perhaps less frequently or pronouncedly, a similar fate. As I noted when discussing the importance of feminism, both genders benefit when we take the time to consider others as complex individuals rather than copies of a prototype. That said, we should not assume it is a panacea to treat women like men. Women are acculturated much differently than men (please assume when I make sweeping statements like these I mean, "in general" or "on average") so treating women exactly like men would lead to inequitable results. For example, men tend to be more assertive in their communication style, which can lead to women being left out of intergender conversations, unless the woman has overcome her acculturation to be supportive and agreeable, or the men make an effort to provide an environment where the women feel comfortable sharing their views. In short, try to respect people equally, treat people equally, but don't assume that means treating them the same.

Now, I think that if everyone held this point of view, simply doing this would be sufficient. However, since there are institutions that resist the shift toward equitability, it seems desirable that we should, in addition to trying to live in an equitable manner, make attempts to reform these institutions. How we might do this is where my ability to answer runs out, so I must ask you for your opinion on how one might go about reforming these institutions.

Thank you for a good Feminist July, as always, comments make my heart smile.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Gonna Go Fishin'

Today's question comes from Cameo, who asks, "When someone is fishing for compliments, do you humor him/her?"

As always, the point is to get you to answer the question. So answer it. As usual, I'll kick it off with my answer:


Oh, wanted more that that? Why, you might ask. Complements are good, and as long as there is something that can be honestly complemented, they cost you nothing. Personally, I don't think we complement enough in our society, so if someone is feeling praise starved, sending some their way seems nice. On the other hand, if someone does this persistently, I may stop being so generous with my praise. Maybe just out of slight annoyance, or to keep them from becoming dependent upon my positive reinforcement.

I hope this isn't in reference to me ;) Well, what's your answer. I'm not fishing for complements, I'm fishing for comments, and that is something you should always indulge!

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kant Touch This

Yesterday's post may have been a bit of a cheat for a Friday update, so here is something else that I was thinking about today.

On a telephone call with a representative for my credit card company, I realized that I have trouble following the categorical imperative where telephone customer service representatives are concerned. For those of you who are bereft of a solid foundation in ethical theory, I shall briefly explain Kant's categorical imperative.

Philosopher Immanuel Kant was upset by the state of ethics. He felt that most ethical systems were grounded in conditional imperatives, which are statements in the form, "If you desire this result, you must pursue this course of action." While these were useful for achieving said results, they lacked the power to explain why something, such as murder, would be wrong even for a sociopath, who had no interest in achieving the same results as most of humanity. In order to extend the rule of ethics over those with "skewed" desires, Kant attempted to formulate a categorical imperative, that is, one which should be followed always, regardless of the results one desires.

What he came up with can be explained as the imperative that we treat other people as an ends in themselves, never only as a means to an ends. Whether this is a categorical imperative is debatable, I tend to think no, but it certainly is good manners and I try to live by it. However, I do encounter troubles when interacting over the telephone with customer service representatives.

One problem is that I have a clear, "me-centric," goal for the interaction, and I am calling the company explicitly to achieve this goal. So certainly I am using the representative as a means to an end, but this is permissible as long as I am also keeping them as an ends in themselves as well. Cooperation is one of the most powerful behaviors humans exhibit, and Kant would not want us to stop having others help us achieve our goals. However, as we use the help of others we must always remember that the humans assisting us have their own lived experience, their own goals, and act accordingly.

Other problems I face are that, when calling in to a customer service representative, I am usually not in the best frame of mind. Rarely do I call when everything is going well to issue a congratulations, I call when something has gone wrong and I want someone to fix it, albeit sometimes what has gone wrong is my own fault, though that is not really going to make my mood better. Furthermore, although I am polite, I worry that my politeness is in furtherance of my own goal, rather than out of respect for the person on the other end of the connection.

I also must contend with the alienating nature of our interaction. Speaking over a phone to a voice that belongs to a person that I have never, and will never, meet. Often reinforcing this sense of "the other" about the voice from the call center is their accent. Whether they sound like they are from the Southern USA or from Asia, this voice is "not from around here." The impersonal nature of the conversation serves to further alienate me from the voice, as regulations prohibit their volunteering personal information about themselves, for good reason, and common sense discourages me from sharing myself, for similar reasons.

In the end, once our conversation is done, I feel it is extra important to end the conversation in a respectful manner, thanking them for their assistance. While it is their job, they did just spend time from their life attempting to solve my problem, and deserve my gratitude. One reason I think it is especially important is that, at this point, I want nothing further from them, so I can feel less suspicious about the motives for my politeness, it is an acknowledgement of their important humanity, not a means to a desirable conclusion for myself. The other reason is that they have a job that requires them to spend all day dealing with frustrated callers and the problems that frustrated callers have, I should do my best to ease the burden these heroic helpers face by expressing my heartfelt gratitude for their assistance.

Saturday, July 24, 2010


I couldn't come up with a better topic, and no one rescued me with an idea whilst I was away, so I am going to share some of the sources that contributed to my thoughts this month. I tend not to cite sources because the sources I used have been rattling around in my brain for so long I have forgotten from whence they came and which belongs to what. So, here are some inspirations.

My formal education in gender studies can mostly be boiled down to three courses. The first a philosophy course, Feminist Philosophies, taught by the estimable Dr. Lani Roberts, my philosophy mentor. The second, Global Women, a woman's studies course. The third was Women in US History, a history course, which covered the late 1800's to the present. All three courses I would recommend.

An unknown number of years ago I read an article about the Supergirl Dilemma, which I could not find for my post about the subject. I include this because it exemplifies a problem that I have quite often.

Feminist Philosophers is a site I read quite regularly my last year as an undergraduate. It is a quite wonderful mix of original thought, links to important topics, and pictures of kitty-cats.

I also read I Blame The Patriarchy around the same time, until the author took a hiatus, which has since ended. It is a bit more radical, but an interesting point of view nonetheless.

There are many other options for sites containing thoughts from one, or more, of the many feminist points of view. Feministing is one I hear about often, though since I have never read it regularly, I have no personal information to convert.

Recently I have been reading The Seventeen Magazine Project which has an interesting feminist/teenager perspective. The offshoot blog, Teenagerie is also something I read, though currently on hiatus for a very good reason. These influenced my Supergirl post to some extent.

Those, and conversations with some of the wonderful people who are or were in my life, are greatly responsible for the course of my own thoughts. Although my recollection is not sufficient for a citation, they should be mentioned, indeed doing so is worthy of a Feminist July post. If I were to take their thoughts, synthesize them in my mind, then act as though the result were purely my own, it would be a disservice to the many great thinkers from whom I was borrowing. In fact, "borrowing" from women without giving them proper credit is a problem in academia, Rosalind Franklin anyone? So, a big thanks to anyone who feels they were in part responsible for these thoughts, because you probably were.

As mentioned, I already know how Feminist July will conclude next Friday, and I really do hope I get it up on Friday this time. I need one more idea for August and then I won't have to come up with any topics while I am on vacation, which would be nice.

Summer Rots Your Brain

Upon waking up it occurred to me that today is Saturday. Which, by logical extension, means yesterday was Friday! Ooops. So I owe a good post of feminism to you, my dear reader. Unfortunately circumstances conspire to delay it a bit further. I have to head out soon, which coupled with the fact that I don't have a topic yet, makes it hard to complete the post before I go. However, I have a good long walk to my destination, so I shall be thinking of topics on my way. If you have a topic idea, feel free to suggest it. I should get around to giving you your well deserved post by this evening, so post quickly if you want to see it today.

Despite not knowing my post for today, or yesterday technically, I do know what I am talking about next Friday. So, if you do not get your idea in on time, you will not see it in July, but you certainly could see it in August. I am sorry for my deviation from schedule, it was entirely unintentional.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


Still laboring despite this lingering miasma of ennui. Realized that today is Response Tuesday, but didn't have any questions that I wanted to ask at the moment. So, are there any questions that you would like me to ask? This could either be because you want to answer the question, or because you are interested in how others would answer the question. The first is preferable, both because I like it when people answer my questions and because sometimes my questions do not get answered.

Speaking of questions not being answered, at the time of this question last week's Response Tuesday is, sadly, a Responseless Tuesday. If you think that asking what questions you want is a cheating cop out, feel free to answer last Tuesday's question. Or the Tuesday before, wherein I asked what you want me to do with this Blog. I have gotten two responses to that, one of which I obliged and the other I am going to address in an August Friday post. So, I need three more Friday posts to fill up August.

Like I mentioned, some ennui lately, this is my only explanation for my delay responding to the comments on last Friday's post. Thank you for responding, I'm sorry I delayed so long, I shall go there now.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Women in the Workplace

My thoughts are not organizing well today, so this may be a little disjointed. I hope you will understand, since there are many angles from which one might approach the topic.

First, let us consider the wage gap. I am also feeling a bit unmotivated today, so I shall just direct you here to read a thorough yet concise, fact driven, examination of the issue. Having grown up around the supergirls of my generation, I have no doubt that there is no inherent reason women, on average, should be less qualified for any but some of the most physically taxing jobs than men are on average. Thus the fact that there is a gender wage gap seems like a grave injustice.

Although the above article mentions it, I believe it is worth addressing the issue of "women's work." Society normalizes men holding jobs in the public sector while women do domestic work. While this can be disheartening to women desiring traditional jobs, or emasculating to men feeling more comfortable in a domestic role, I think the greatest problem with this state of affairs is the difference in value that these roles receive. An obvious way to recognize this difference is to examine the wages of those in the different roles. Professional domestic workers are not the best compensated laborers, and the difference is even more marked when a women does the domestic work for her own family, usually earning no pay at all.

I think that good goals for a just society are, elimination of statistically significant pay gaps between genders in most professions, elimination of gender based association with the public/private workforce, a more equal valuation of work done in the two sectors (public and private). Due to our cultural conditioning it may seem odd to consider private work valuable, but consider which creates more human pleasure overall, two hours of a stockbroker trading and advising clients, or two hours spent preparing a warm meal for a family. I submit that, were both two be neglected, we would miss the meal more than the stock advice.

As mentioned, I am feeling unmotivated, and now very tired, so I am going to skip my customary editing read through. Please excuse the lack of polish on this, I'll delete this paragraph if I get around to revisions later.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Do You Do the YouTube?

It may be after midnight in Michigan, but you may have noticed this blog runs on Pacific Time (and I'm late sometimes anyway). So, we are going to have Response Tuesday anyway!

I have decided to edit what the word "favorite" means to me. I used to have terrible trouble with questions about favorite things, because over the span of my life I have run into a lot of great things in about any category you could reasonably name. However, if one interprets favorite as, "the one that you are most excited at the moment," then the selection set gets diminished to reasonable proportions. For some things I may go back to the old concept of favorite, like movies, the only two movies I have watched recently were good but not exceptional, so I would have to search through my life to get a favorite.

Using the new definition of favorite, this is a YouTube video of my favorite song at the moment.

I also really like this song also, so thought I should mention it as well.

Here is a song that I have long enjoyed.

And finally, a twist on a meme that I don't want to be forgotten.

All that said, my request is that you let me know what your favourite videos on YouTube are. Feel free to be self promoting, if you have something of your own on YouTube that you think is really neat, and don't feel constrained to a single thing, I sure didn't.

Sunday, July 11, 2010


Housekeeping express lane, 10 items or less.

1) Did a bit of tweaking to the site layout, thanks to everyone who gave feedback *aHEM*

2) I was worried that my great walls of text were daunting prospective readers, and since I don't really want to edit or present half explained ideas, I redesigned the site mainly to make it wider, so the entries seem shorter.

3) I am also worried that the volume of posts are discouraging, so, while I promise not to update more than once per day, I shall try to take some days off. Please respond to the validity of these two fears, if you want less of me feel free to say so.

4) In light of item #3, I am expecting to take tomorrow, Monday, off.

5) In addition to Thoughtful Fridays I think I shall institute Response Tuesdays, where each week my Tuesday update asks for a specific type of contribution. Last Tuesday I asked for subjects that people would want to see posts about.

6) I provided the first requested post yesterday, Saturday, so I do aim to please.

7) You may still send in subject ideas, even if I put up a new Response Tuesday before you take the time to.

8) If a suggested subject seems, in my sole consideration, appropriate for a Thoughtful Friday post I shall save it for a Friday after Femminist July. I am trying to get enough to make a Response August. Thankfully August only has 4 Fridays, so I only need four more topics to fill it up...

9) Today is a month since my bus pass expired, walking more places has enabled me to ride the buss 5 times this month, which saved me $17.

10) I'm doing something a bit different with my sleep schedule. If I seem loopy, all is well since I always seem loopy, if I seem really loopy, let's just let it slide since I really do want to try this. If I seem off my rocker insane, please give me a heads up so I can take that into consideration.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Why Am I Here?

I would like to extend a heartfelt thank you to Californian, the first person to answer my question, "about what would you like to see me write?" by suggesting, "Kenny, I'd like to know how you got from 'here' to there. You know, middle school in Newport all the way to Michigan and a doctorate program." I have decided to procrastinate housekeeping at least one more post, because I believe that feedback should be encouraged, since I want it.

This is a hard question to answer, since life is an incredibly complicated thing and many factors play into each decision, so I acknowledge that my answer is less an answer to your question and more my opinion on why I am here, which is my best attempt to answer the question.

A very important and early influence upon my path is the importance my parents placed on academics and learning. The fact that they were often employed at the school I attended led to an inevitable involvement by them in my education. So much so that, by the time I got to Middle School, where your question begins, they were much more hands off, having instilled the value of education early they were able to nudge me along the track, rather than metaphorically hold my hand anymore. Much of the credit belongs to them, thank you.

Reinforcing my parents were the wonderful teachers that I was exposed to along the way. There is a reason that through most of middle and high school my planned job was teaching, I was shown wonderful examples of what effect educators could have on my life. Although I did run into teachers who seemed less enthusiastic about their jobs, I cannot think of a single teacher who failed to meet my interest with corresponding suggestions about their subject. My advice to people who are in classes of some sort, and I also advise you to be in classes of some sort, is to express your interest in the subject in some fairly obvious way to your instructor. I can vouch, both from experiences as a student and as an educator, that if your instructor seems like they are phoning it in, finding a pupil that is genuinely interested is a wonderful and nigh irresistible call to satisfy that pupil's curiosity. In summary, great educators inspire students by being themselves, but even a mediocre educator will be inspired by inquiring students.

Finally, although their contribution was less personal than that of my parents and teachers, I would not be here without the generosity of many people who I will never meet. The people who endow scholarships or give math departments money to hire people definitely deserve mention. I don't know exactly who these people are in my specific case, but if you participate in such activities you make it possible for many students, myself and most of my college friends included in this group, to realize their goal of a college level education, thank you very much.

Speaking of friends, their support and commiseration has been invaluable in getting through rough patches and making the goal seem worthwhile, and the journey, as a whole, palatable. These are the people who I credit with where I am today, but there are some factors in my own life I think also affected me getting to here.

I really do enjoy learning, this may be the result of my parents and teachers but it deserves its own mention because I think it had a lot to do with my decision to continue to grad school. The choice between finding a "real" job in a depressed, and depressing, economy and continuing on to a job which required me to continue to engorge my brain, the preferred choice was obvious. I also had a rigorous academic work ethic, instilled by my parents to be sure, which grad school blew into a thousand tiny pieces.

My ineptitude socially has also been an academic asset I would say. This is not to say that one cannot be both popular and academically successful, I know people who are, but my feelings of unpopularity contributed to my academic success. Not in the obvious way of leaving me more time to devote to my studies, I have never had trouble finding something else to do with my spare time. Rather, I had something to prove to my peers. I wasn't trying to get them to notice me, or shame them for excluding me, which I don't think they did intentionally, now or at the time,. I was just trying to find my place, if I wasn't going to be well-liked I needed something to tack my self-worth to, and since I did well academically that seemed a logical candidate. Not particularly healthy, perhaps, but I believe effective.

Also, the fact that I am a social klutz helped me go to grad school. While I feel a bit more socially gratified than I did as a child, I have a Blog, so you can disagree with that if you desire, moving across the country to attend grad school is not as complicated as it would be, say, for someone in a serious relationship with another person. Not that leaving my friend circle behind hasn't been a sacrifice, hence the Blog, and I should note that a few of my colleagues are married, one even had a baby this summer(!), and a couple others are in ostensibly healthy relationships, but being single made this decision at least half as challenging as it would otherwise have been.

So there you have it, I am here because I had great support as a child and because I am a bit messed up, which is OK. In your question you go on to say that my story is anomalous, and I am unsure how true that is. From my class in Newport we sent someone to MIT, and another to Harvard, and I'm sure a bunch of other students to well qualified but less celebrified schools. I know of at least one other student from my class of WHS who is getting a doctorate of some flavor, at least one master's student, though I think there are more, and many who attended some university or another. So, don't sell short the education that we received, I think that we are doing just fine. Thanks again for the question, hope the answer wasn't to enormous, now I'm going to go for a walk.