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duerer_vhBBC: The Pope may be about to abolish the notion of limbo, the halfway house between heaven and hell, inhabited by unbaptised infants. Is it really that simple? Click here to read the whole story.

Best sentence: [T]here is the argument that if this can be abolished, what else is disposable?

Nietzsche's take: Once did people say God, when they looked out upon distant seas; now, however, have I taught you to say, Übermensch.
God is a conjecture: but I do not wish your conjecturing to reach beyond your creating will.
Could ye create a God?--Then, I pray you, be silent about all Gods! But ye could well create the Übermensch. [more]

Normblog: In what circumstances would you be willing to lie?
Chris Dillow: Any time. The truth is a precious thing. Like all precious things, it shouldn't be wasted on idiots.

Here is the whole interview. Here is Chris Dillow's reply.

John Allen Paulos writes:
[C]onsider the following argument, which depends on a contrary-to-fact exaggeration to make its point. It's an argument that pro-choice proponents might use to undermine the belief of some abortion opponents in the absolute inviolability of the fetus's right to life.

Let's ask ourselves what position opponents of abortion — say on the Supreme Court or elsewhere — might take if two biological facts about the world were to change. The first assumption we'll make is that for some unknown reason — a strange new virus, a hole in the ozone layer, some food additive or poison — women throughout the world suddenly become pregnant with 10 to 20 fetuses at a time. The second assumption is that advances in neonatal technology make it possible for doctors to easily save some or all of these fetuses a few months after conception, but if they don't intervene at this time all the fetuses will die.

Abortion opponents who believe that all fetuses have an absolute right to life would surely opt for some intervention. Otherwise, all the fetuses would die.

Their choice would thus be either to adhere to their absolutist position and be overwhelmed by a population explosion of overwhelming magnitude or else act to save only one or a few of the fetuses. The latter choice would be tantamount to abortion since all the fetuses are viable. It would, nevertheless, take someone very, very doctrinaire to opt to have the birth rate increase, at least initially, by a factor of 10 to 20.

This is obviously not a knockdown, airtight argument (although delivered to the right audience, it might result in knock downs). As already noted, however, it's not the usual boilerplate and may induce induce fresh thinking in some people.

The argument's point is that if certain contingent biological facts were to change, then presumably even ardent abortion opponents would change their position, suggesting that their position is itself contingent and not absolute. After this is acknowledged, the haggling over the details might proceed.

Remember the BBC's Greatest Philosopher vote? Karl Marx won, and pretty decisively at that.

via Wannabe Everything

related items:
Why Do Intellectuals Oppose Capitalism? by Robert Nozick


In einer wichtigen Hinsicht ist der Marxismus Religion. Dem Gläubigen bietet er erstens ein System von letzten Zielen, die den Sinn des Leben enthalten und absolute Maßstäbe sind, nach welchen Ereignissen und Taten beurteilt werden können; und zweitens bietet er sich als Führer zu jenen Zielen, was gleichbedeutend ist mit einem Erlösungslan und mit der Aufdeckung des Übels, von dem die Menscheit oder ein auserwählter Teil der Menschheit erlöst werden soll.

Joseph A. Schumpeter {Kapitalismus, Sozialismus und Demokratie. UTB, 7., erweiterte Auflage 1993, p. 19}


Des Arbeiters Trachten war [im ursprünglichen kapitalistischen Produktionsprozeß der Marktwirtschaft] ganz darauf gerichtet, den schnellen und glänzenden Aufstieg der Arbeiterschaft zu Wohlstand, Kultur und bürgerlicher Freiheit mitzumachen. Nur wenige Arbeiter fühlen in sich den Antrieb, Unternehmer zu werden. Doch alle wollen ihre Stellung im Arbeitsprozesse möglichst verbessern. Die Arbeiter bejahten mit vollem Herzen die Gesellschaftsordung, die ihnen täglich mehr bot. Sie grollten ihr nicht, sie wollten in ihr glücklich werden. Sie waren erfüllt von Idealen und Anschauungen, die der Marxist als "kleinbürgerlich" stigmatisierte. Doch es gelang schließlich, die Kampf- und Gewaltinstinkte dieser Schichten, die das Zeitalter "bürgerlicher Sekularität" hatte einschlafen lassen, zu neuem Leben zu erwecken. Es gelang, das "proletarische Klassenbewußtsein" und den "gewerkschaftlichen Geist" zu entzünden. Die neue Ideologie nahm dem Arbeiter die Arbeitsfreude, indem sie ihm die Arbeit und seine gesellschaftliche Stellung verekelte. [meine Hervorhebung]

Ludwig von Mises {Nationalökonomie. Editions Union, Genf 1940. Unveränd. Nachdruck: Philosophia Verlag, München 1980, p. 537}

alfredAlfred the Great was one of the first Anglo-Saxon English kings. And he seems a good one. I'm reading Winston Churchill's History of the English Speaking Peoples, and the author notes King Alfred's Book of Laws (around 880 CE) inverted the Golden Rule into "What ye will that other men should not do to you, that do ye not to other men". In other words, "don't to to others what you would not want done to you". Less ambitious, but how insightful!

Libertarians believe that individuals should be free to do anything they want, so long as they do not infringe upon the equal rights of others. There are no "positive rights" (such as to food, shelter or health care), only "negative rights" (such as to not be assaulted, robbed or censored), including the right to personal property.

I have seen Locke, or Mill, given as the early libertarians. It seems King Alfred got the essence down a long time before them. I'm sure we all are better off because of this wisdom. Thanks Al!

George Bernard Shaw also said democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve. Democracy is better than Saddam or Castro, to be sure, but I'm thinking it could be suboptimal. Voting rights legislation in the 60's got rid of literacy tests that in practice discriminated against blacks, in fact, that was their intent. So we got rid of them.

I don't like discrimination, and know with certainty that every race and creed generates people more intelligent, creative, and athletic than me (I like myself nonetheless). But I'm a bit nostalgic for some sort of literacy test.

I'm not sure that a society is better represented by ignoramuses who vote their own interest over nonignoramuses who vote theirs. That is, assume all voters were college graduates. Would their knowledge of logic and history compensate for their merely indirect interest in the non-college graduate universe? It is not obvious. But consider, the following from a survey of knowledge of random Americans (from Gregory Cochran in the May 23rd issue of The American Conservative available for trial subscription here)
- About 50 percent of Americans know that the Earth orbits the Sun in a year.

- Less than 10 percent know what a molecule is, while only 20 percent have some vague idea what DNA is.

- Some years ago researchers interviewed a random sample at Harvard graduation, asking them what caused the seasons. Twenty-one out of 23 interviewed were wrong, and worse yet, they all had the same wrong idea: they thought that the Earth's orbit is egg-shaped and that winter comes when we're farthest from the Sun... [Considering what strong and influential opinions Harvard grads tend to have on the extremely complex topic of Global Warming, it would be more reassuring if they weren't total idiots about the simple topic of Seasonal Warming.]

- In recent years, 45 percent thought the phrase "from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs" was in the Constitution.

- Half thought an accused person must prove his innocence and that the president has the power to suspend the Constitution.

- Only one in seven Americans between 18 and 24 could even find Iraq on the map in 2002.
The question is, how much a country gains in efficiency from the logic of the elite (those who qualify for voting, via some "elitist" criterion), versus how much a country loses when this elite ignores or even dislikes certain unrepresented groups. I recognize the trade-off, and think that the pareto optimum will vary depending on the intelligence and education of the citizens, and the proclivities of the elites. It seems probable that, optimally, less educated countries should have more representitives and fewer referendums or plebiscites.

goedelThe New York Times: Is there a more powerful modern Trinity? These reigning deities proclaim humanity's inability to thoroughly explain the world. They have been the touchstones of modernity, their presence an unwelcome burden at first, and later, in the name of postmodernism, welcome company.

Their rule has also been affirmed by their once-sworn enemy: science. Three major discoveries in the 20th century even took on their names. Albert Einstein's famous Theory (Relativity), Kurt Gödel's famous Theorem (Incompleteness) and Werner Heisenberg's famous Principle (Uncertainty) declared that, henceforth, even science would be postmodern.

Or so it has seemed. But as Rebecca Goldstein points out in her elegant new book, "Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel", of these three figures, only Heisenberg might have agreed with this characterization. Continue.

related items:
Picture of Gödel and Einstein (Princeton 1950), The Kurt Gödel Society
Science of the Whole, Marginal Revolution

For a century now philosophy has been lying on its deathbead, but it cannot die because it has not fulfilled its task. Its farewell thus has been tortuously drawn out. Where it has not foundered in the mere administration of thoughts, it plods on in glittering agony, realizing what it forgot to say during its lifetime. Faced with its demise, it would like now to be honest and reveal its last secret. It confesses: "The great themes, they were evasions and half-truths. Those futile, beautiful, soaring flights--God, Universe, Theory, Praxis, Subject, Object, Body, Spirit, Meaning, Nothingness--all that is nothing. they are nouns for young people, for outsiders, clerics, sociologists. "Words, words--nouns. They need only to open their wings, and millennia fall out of their flight." (G. Benn, Epilog und lyrisches Ich)

Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, Preface
Quote of the Day:

Never argue with a fool - they will drag you down
to their level, then beat you with experience.

related items:
Brian Leiter attacks economics (and me), Tyler Cowen

Jamie Whyte, a professional philosopher, describes himself as "Outraged of Highbury" - someone who endlessly sends furious letters to newspapers complaining about sloppy thinking, logical errors, fallacies and muddles. He does the same at parties - and even on trains. Liz Else and Alun Anderson asked what gets him steamed up and what errors they could commit that would make him explode.

related items:
Efficient Market Hypothesis, Michael Stastny

The aspect of religion that catches the Darwinian Richard Dawkins, author of The Selfish Gene, is its profligate wastefulness and its extravagant display of baroque uselessness. Nature cannot afford frivolous jeux d’esprits and no known culture lacks some version of the time-consuming, wealth-consuming, hostility-provoking, fecundity-forfeiting rituals of religion, i.e. religion is not some weird anomaly. Consequently, Dawkins reflects on this a priori affront to Darwinism.

To illustrate the central idea an animal example is used to drive the point home: Moths fly into candle flames, and it doesn’t look like an accident. They go out of their way to make a burnt offering of themselves. We could label it “self-immolation behavior” and wonder how Darwinian natural selection could possibly favour it. Entomologists (bug-hunters) theorize that night-flying moths use a distant light source, the moon, as a guidance system. They navigate using a constant flight angle to the moon. In cities, where there are many closer light sources, moths become confused and their attempts to maintain a constant flight angle to close light sources cause them to spiral around the light source. The point is that we see only moths hurling themselves at our lights, and we ask the wrong questions. Why are all these moths committing suicide? Instead, we should ask why they have nervous systems that steer by maintaining an automatic fixed angle to light rays, a tactic that we only notice on the occasion when it goes wrong. When the question is rephrased, the mystery evaporates. It never was right to call it suicide; it’s just the application of a good rule of thumb.

Religious behaviour may be a misfiring too, an unfortunate manifestation of an underlying psychological propensity that in other circumstances was once useful. So what is the equivalent to using the parallel rays from the moon as a useful compass? More than any other species, we survive be the accumulated experience of previous generations. Theoretically, children might learn from experience not to swim in crocodile-infested waters. But, to say the least, there will be a selective advantage to child brains with the rule of thumb: Believe whatever your grown-ups tell you. Obey your parents, obey the tribal elders, especially when they adopt a solemn, minatory tone. The argument about child brains and religion is that natural selection builds child brains with a tendency to believe whatever their parents and tribal elders tell them. And this very quality automatically makes them vulnerable to infection by mind viruses. For excellent survival reasons, child brains need to trust parents and trust elders whom their parents tell them to trust. An automatic consequence is that the “truster” has no way of distinguishing good advice from bad. The child cannot tell that “If you swim in the river you’ll be eaten by crocodiles” is good advice but “If you don’t sacrifice a goat at the time of the full moon, the crops will fail” is bad advice. They both sound the same. Both are advice from a trusted source, and both are delivered with a solemn earnestness that commands respect and demands obedience.

Dawkin’s final conclusion: Darwinian selection sets up childhood brains with a tendency to believe their elders. It sets up brains with a tendency to imitate, hence indirectly to spread rumors, spread urban legends, and believe religions, but given that genetic selection has set up brains of this kind, they then provide the equivalent of a new kind of nongenetic heredity, which might form the basis for a new kind of epidemiology, and perhaps even a new kind of nongenetic Darwinian selection. I believe that religion is one of a group of phenomena explained by this kind of nongenetic epidemiology, with the possible admixture of nongenetic Darwinian selection.

Dawkins' answer to the question “What use is religion?” is that religion has no survival value for individual human beings, nor for the benefit of their genes. The benefit, if there is any, is to religion itself. Cheers.

Thanx to Steffen H. (via email) for that pointer.