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.