Worst Therapeutic Motto of the Year

Thursday, 08-06-2020


Worst Therapeutic Motto of the Year:

"Addiction Can Happen to Anyone"


Rioting and the Paradox of the Heap

Tuesday, 08-04-2020


A hundred thousand grains of sand is a heap.  If you take away one grain, it is still a heap.  If you take away another, it is still a heap.  Skip ahead.  If you take away all grains but one, the one remaining grain is not a heap.  When did the collection stop being a heap?

Philosophers call this kind of puzzle the sorites paradox, or the paradox of the heap.

Here’s another example.  If everyone in the crowd is blocking traffic, hurling incendiaries, trying to burn down buildings, threatening people with AK-47s, and throwing frozen water bottles at police, we say there is a riot.  If one only refrains from doing such things, it is still a riot.  If only two people refrain, it is still a riot.  Skip ahead.  If everyone but a single isolated person refrains, it is not a riot. When did the riot become a peaceful protest?

A number of solutions to the paradox have been proposed.  One solution is that there is no such thing as a heap.  Another is to set a threshold:  To say, for example, that if the collection contains fifty thousand grains or less, it is not a heap.  The most commonsensical solution is to say that “heap” is a relative term:  Depending on various factors, some of them numerical, such as how many grains of sand the collection includes, and others contextual, such as what the sand will be used for, we are more or less likely to call it a heap.  In this case, of course, we need to know how such factors affect the ways we speak, because the standards can always be challenged.

Reporters seem to choose from among the same solutions in reporting on the recent disturbances in the cities.  Some call nothing whatsoever a riot.  Some set a threshold:  So long as only a few people have been shot and no courthouses have actually burned down, the disturbance is not a riot.  But most use the term “riot” in a relative sense:  Depending on various factors, some of them numerical, such as what percentage of the crowd are doing violent things, and some of them contextual, such as whether they espouse goals the reporters agree with, they are more or less likely to call the disturbance a riot.

In this case too we need to know how those factors affect the way they speak.  So far as I can tell, the reportorial rule of thumb is that if the crowd is left-wing, then so long as fewer than fifty percent of the crowd are blocking traffic, hurling incendiaries, trying to burn down buildings, threatening people with AK-47s, and throwing frozen water bottles at police, the disturbance is “mostly peaceful,” and not a riot but a protest or demonstration.

Needless to say, this standard can also be challenged.  If fewer than half of my neighbors pulled knives on me, I wouldn’t call my neighborhood mostly peaceful.  Would you?

See?  Who said philosophy isn’t practical?


Rules and Virtues in Ethics

Monday, 08-03-2020


There really are exceptionless rules, but we lose a lot focusing on rules to the exclusion of the corresponding virtues.

Consider two different acts:  Murdering and desecrating the body; murdering and eating the body.

Viewed simply as acts, it is not easy to say which is worse.  However, the latter shocks us more profoundly because it suggests a deeper disturbance of moral character.  That counts for something.



Commentary on Thomas Aquinas’s Virtue Ethics


Can a Nonbeliever Pray?

Monday, 07-27-2020


Can someone pray if he doesn’t believe in God?  I don’t see why not.

In trouble, I might scream “Help!” even if I don’t think anyone can hear me, just on the chance that someone can.  In the same way, I might cry “God, I need you.  I don’t think you are there, but if you are, I will try to do what you ask.  Please get me out of this dark.”

Nonbelievers, take heart.  I think God hears prayers like that.

But a lot of things considered prayers are nothing of the kind, like communing with my “inner goddess,” or like chanting “Every day in every way I am getting better and better.”  That bald-faced lie isn’t a prayer to the Deity but a flattery of the Self.

Or like sitting on the porch and drinking coffee – a best-selling Unitarian minister came up with that one.  True, one might commune with God while sitting on the porch and drinking coffee, but sitting on the porch and drinking coffee is not, per se, communing with God.  Better the prayer of an honest nonbeliever than rank self-deception.

Or like the chant “Aum” or “Omm.”  Some people say that this is addressed to a spirit, in which case it would be a prayer, though to what spirit it may be addressed is another question, about which no one much seems to care.  So far as I can see, the chant is more often a sort of self-hypnosis.

Or like the fellow in the old Ray Bradbury tale who got in touch with the All by meditating on the hum of high-tension electrical powerlines.  Electricity can’t hear you.  The totality of life and death, animals and stars, harmonicas and pneumonia, pop concerts and yogurt smoothies, love, malice, lies, truths, and illusions can’t hear you either – and its answer would be worthless if it could.

More nonbelievers’ prayers would be offered, perhaps, if they were more often meant when they were offered.  What we do mean when we pray without believing is often more like this.  “God, I want your help this time, but then please leave me alone until I ask for you again.  If you want me to do something, I’ll think about it, but don’t rattle my preconceptions or ask me to change my life.  Just now I need a little light, but otherwise, please, I would like to be left in the dark.”

God, Who always reaches down to us even when we are not reaching for Your hands, give us grace to mean it, even if we don’t yet believe it.


Mail-In Voting Fraud

Saturday, 07-25-2020


Common sense urges that the easier it is to commit crime and the harder it is to detect it, the more crime will be committed.  Against common sense, the “fact-checkers” are out in force, chanting in unison that very little fraud is associated with mail-in voting.

How would we know?  The same things that make such fraud easy to commit also make it difficult to discover.

Studies claiming that there is very little mail-in voting fraud actually find nothing of the kind; what they tend to find is that very few discovered errors in vote counts can be proven to have resulted from voter impersonation.

If you are trying to mess with an election, the idea is not to be discovered.

Besides, voter impersonation is not the only form of fraud; for example one can “lose” ballots.

Wait until mail-in voting becomes universal.  Then watch crooked party activists pull out the stops.

Moral:  Always prefer common sense to a "fact check" with flawed assumptions.


A Doubt about a Doubt

Thursday, 07-23-2020


A student told me that he doubted the reality of good and right, wrong and evil, because they are “abstract” qualities.  I mention the anecdote because I hear this sort of thing often (and also for penance, because long ago I used to say things like that myself).

Now he wouldn’t have doubted the reality of odd and even, of important and unimportant, or of old and new -- and those are abstract qualities too, aren’t they?

Perhaps what he really meant was that good and right can’t be measured by the senses.  But those other qualities can’t be measured by the senses either; an odd number of apples isn’t a different weight or color than an even one.  Importance doesn’t feel warm, and an old poem isn’t hard to the touch.  Such qualities are perceived by the mind.  And so are good and right, wrong and evil.

Why then does the skeptic trust in the reality of those “abstract” qualities, but not in the reality of moral qualities?  It is suspiciously arbitrary.


Safe Spaces

Monday, 07-20-2020


On some campuses students have demanded and won the establishment of “safe spaces” in which they don’t have to hear non-woke opinions (called “micro-aggressions”) and can calm themselves with coloring books and other childish distractions.  They don’t even have to bring their own coloring books, because college officials supply them for free.

I suppose it is obvious that such behavior isn’t explained by political disagreement.  There is a difference between thinking that someone is mistaken, and regressing to childhood just because you are subjected to hearing his opinion.

Some writers have suggested a different explanation:  That when they were growing up, these young persons were overprotected, overindulged, constantly told how special they were, and persuaded that if anything didn’t please them it must have been somebody’s fault.

Maybe.  We need some evidence here.  But so long as we are guessing, let’s consider another possibility.

So many more young persons come from damaged homes in the present generation than in the previous one.  Could the reason some of them behave like children be that they didn’t have enough childhood when they were at the age for it?

Damaged homes certainly influence personality in other ways; for instance boys who grow up without dads are much more likely to hold a grudge against God the Father.  Isn't it plausible that it may influence personality in this way too?

These two guesses aren’t necessarily incompatible.  Sometimes parents spoil their children gratuitously – but sometimes they spoil their children because their home is damaged.  Having exposed them to harm, they compensate by overprotecting them.

Just a thought.