Now What?

So we’ve survived the first week of Trump’s presidency. Have some cake. If you were one of the many people who took part in activism, pat yourself on the back. If you weren’t, it’s not too late to start.

It’s great that everyone’s riled up. And while we’re pumped up and paying attention to government, it might be worth figuring out what our long-term plans should be. Here’s my list, in no particular order:

Gerrymandering reform

In case you forgot, gerrymandering is the practice of drawing legislative districts to favor one party (see, for instance, this map of Maryland). Gerrymandering is one of the factors pushing divisions between the left and right: Representatives can be attacked for being insufficiently ideologically pure, which pushes them away from the center, and have no real incentive to compromise.

For me, as a Marylander, it means that the Republicans have written me off, and the Democrats take me for granted. I’d like both parties to court my vote, and for the biyearly congressional elections to be a meaningful referendum on Representatives’ job performance.

Electoral College reform

I think everyone agrees that while the Electoral College may have been useful at one time, it’s not the XVIII century anymore. Time to get with the times and implement majority vote.

Since the Electoral College is enshrined in the Constitution, there’s no way to eliminate it without an amendment, which is difficult. But there’s a hack: each state can pass its own laws about how its Electors vote. And in most states, they have to vote the way a majority of that state’s voters voted, which makes perfect sense. But what if each state had a law saying that its Electors will vote whichever way the entire US voting population voted?

Obviously, people in Massachusetts will be upset if a Republican gets all of their Electoral votes just because he won a majority of the US vote, just as Oklahomans won’t like their Electoral votes going to a Democrat. But this already happens, in effect, in that people get a president they don’t want.

Of course, you don’t want your state to be the only one that apportions its Electors this way. This only makes sense if there are enough states doing this, that they can decide the outcome of the election — that is, if there’s a group of states that adds up to 270 Electoral votes or more.

Thankfully, there’s a project to do exactly that. Contact your state legislators and encourage them to join in.

Ranked voting

This one’s more of a long shot than the others, but I’ll throw it out there anyway. In our current system, you can only vote for one candidate, and whoever gets the most votes wins. This leads to a problem with third-party supporters. In 2000, if you were liberal, maybe you liked Green Party candidate Ralph Nader, could tolerate Democrat Al Gore, and disliked Republican George Bush. So do you vote for Nader, knowing that he can’t win, and that you’re taking away a vote for Gore (and against Bush)? Or do you hold your nose, vote for Gore against Bush, and help confirm the idea that third parties don’t stand a chance?

Under ranked voting, also known as instant-runoff voting, you vote for multiple candidates, ranking them in order of preference. Our hypothetical voter, above, might vote

  1. Ralph Nader
  2. Al Gore
  3. George Bush

meaning “I like Nader, but I’ll settle for Gore.”

Yes, there are problems with ranked voting, and there are situations where it fails. But its problems are rarer and less severe, I believe, than those with our present system.

Campaign finance reform

This is related to the previous item, in that the current systems helps perpetuate a system where only the major players have a chance. If candidates were treated equally, say all given $100 million to make their case, then it would make it more likely that candidates are judged by their experience and policies, rather than their ability to raise money.

On the other hand, there’s a danger that extremist whackjobs might appear reasonable by virtue of being treated as equals with sane-party candidates. But then again, given who’s living in the (Oh So Very) White House right now, we may be past that point already.

While I don’t have a firm opinion on this topic and am open to being educated, I do think the Citizens United SCOTUS decision needs to be overturned. In case you forgot, that’s the one that said that donating money to a campaign is political speech, and since you can’t abridge free speech, you can have unlimited amounts of money pouring into politics.

Education, education, education

This one is fundamental. We need better education, and more of it.

People complain about American jobs being shipped overseas. But most of those are unskilled jobs. It’s never going to be cheaper to hire an American than a Bangladeshi, or a robot. So let’s prepare our population for better jobs.

For starters, we can fund elementary and high schools properly. I’m ashamed for my country every time I hear of a teacher having to buy supplies out of her own pocket. Federal funds can help with this: when I pick up the phone to talk to tech support, I might get someone who went to school in Arkansas or Oregon, so it’s in my benefit to help education in other states.

College is crazy expensive. The University of Maryland, a state university, estimates that it’ll cost $25,000 per year to send your child there. $47,000 if you’re not a Maryland resident. That’s mortgage-level expensive.

Why can’t we bring the costs down? One simple approach would be an education tax. Raise taxes on everyone by a bit, and bring tuition costs down a lot for those going to college. This would have all sorts of knock-on effects: more people getting educated; more people inventing new things, or writing books, or starting businesses; more people making a better living; more people hiring other people.

And I think that’ll do it for now.

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Women’s March, Rights, and Politics

I attended the Women’s March on Washington, yesterday. It turned out, I’m told, to be the largest inauguration protest in the history of the United States, and possibly the largest political protest ever, if you count the sister marches in other cities around the globe (including Antarctica).

At one point, we ran into, I believe, the American Socialist Party. They are, as I believe, the Communist-Lite bunch that Sean Hannity warned you about. I don’t remember seeing them out on the Mall before, so I suspect that they may have stepped up their activities in recent years.

If they have, they’re not alone. Witness the popularity of Bernie Sanders, who may not have won so much as the Democratic nomination, but got pretty damn far for an American who describes himself as a democratic socialist.

But of course he and Clinton lost the presidency to Trump. He may not have won a majority of votes, but he did get 46%, a not inconsiderable amount.

So what this all seems to suggest is a repeat of history: we’re living in a new gilded age, with income inequality at record-high levels, and populist factions appear to be gaining popularity in response: on one hand, on the left, people like Sanders and Warren, who promise to, basically, make the rich bastards pay their fair share so that the little guy can get a fair shake. I’m pretty sure that the communists of the early 20th century had the same message, and that that’s what made them so appealing to so many.

And on the right, there’s Donald Trump, who would be very happy to be the object of a cult of personality, and clearly feels most at home at the top of an autocratic dictatorship like — yeah, I’m gonna say it — Nazi Germany or Fascist Italy.

I can’t prove that history is repeating itself, but it does look that way. And so, we are faced with the problem of how to avoid both a fascist dictatorship and a communist dictatorship (thankfully, the two look so much alike (the key word is “dictatorship”) that we really only need one plan for both contingencies).

Of the two, I’m far more worried about the fascist dictatorship: these days, in America, the right is the side more likely to make threats of violence (“Second Amendment remedies, anyone?). The lefties I’ve met are far more likely to get everyone’s input, not execute kulaks.

On the right, on the other hand, I see more right-wing authoritarians (RWAs) who enjoy having a strongman in charge, and have a history of passing laws to prevent people from voting.

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Does Christianity Offer the Best Basis for Science?

There’s an argument I’ve run across several times, that theism, and specifically Christianity, forms a much better basis for science than does atheism. Indeed, some people go so far as to claim that only Christianity provides a foundation for science. Matt Slick at CARM lays it out well (though Don Johnson Ministries makes a similar argument). After listing a number of influential scientists who were Christians, Slick writes:

To many Christians, the idea that God existed and brought the universe into existence meant that the universe could be understood because God was a God of order and his character would be reflected in creation (Rom. 1:20).  Instead of a Pantheon of gods who ran the universe in an unpredictable fashion, Christianity provided the monotheistic bedrock (Isaiah 43:10; 44:6,8; 45:5) upon which the scientific study of nature could be justified.  Many Christians expected to find the secrets that God had hidden in the universe and were confident in being able to discover them.  This is a critical philosophical foundation that is necessary if an emerging culture is to break the shackles of ignorance and superstition in order to discover what secrets exist in the world around them.

This emphasis on order seems odd, since one of the main features of Christianity is miracles, that is, violations of natural law. Without at least the resurrection of Jesus, there is no Christianity. Add to that the various miracles Jehovah, Jesus, and various and sundry saints are said to have performed, the common notion that God sometimes responds to prayer by performing additional miracles, and weekly transubstantiation in church, and you get a picture of reality in which any regularities, any laws of nature exist only so long as a malleable deity permits them to exist.

If scientists like Kepler and Newton saw the Christian God as fundamentally one of order rather than caprice, and drew inspiration for their scientific pursuits from that, fine. But that’s hardly the only type of Christianity out there. I doubt that theirs was even a majority view. But in a time and place where pretty much everyone was Christian (and where not being Christian often carried either social stigma or legal penalty), of course Christians are going to be the ones doing science.

It seems to me that Taoism is a much better match for Matt Slick’s description than Christianity. You could, I think, make a strong case for the notion that the Tao is natural law. There’s certainly the notion that you can either go with the Tao, or you can wear yourself out trying to go against it.

(Yes, this still leaves the question of why so many scientific discoveries came from Europe rather than China. But that’s an interesting question for another day. I suspect that the fact that Europeans wrote American history textbooks has something to do with it.)

I suppose it wouldn’t do to mention alchemy and algebra, whose prefix “al” betrays their Muslim origin. Or the fact that a large proportion of visible stars have Arabic names.

I also don’t see why it takes a whole religion or worldview to want to figure out what makes the world tick. Anyone can see that day follows night, summer follows spring, rocks always roll downhill, never up, and that oaks only come from acorns. Clearly there are some regularities, and these can be investigated. We’re curious creatures; figuring stuff out is fun.

There’s a related claim to the one that Christians founded all the sciences: that Christians founded all the major universities. I haven’t checked this, but I see no reason to doubt this claim.

This brings me to my final point: let’s grant, at least for the sake of argument, that Christians, motivated by their understanding of God as a lawmaker, got all of the sciences started; that most or all of the major universities were founded as institutions to learn how God set up the universe; that Christianity is the only religion — the only worldview — that could have kickstarted science this way, and that out of those beginnings grew science as we know it today… so what? Why keep religion around today?

A scaffolding is essential when beginning a new building. But after a certain point, it needs to go. I was on an all-milk diet for the first, crucial part of my life, and that helped make me into the person I am today. But that doesn’t mean that I should continue to drink milk as an adult; I especially shouldn’t be on an all-milk diet.

Whatever benefits religion may once have provided to science, these days it just gets in the way, from creationism to anti-gay “conversion therapy” to faith-based climate change denialism. It’s time to jettison it.

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A Modest Proposal for Anti-Abortion Catholics (and Some Others)

When I recently ran across yet another of BillDo’s rants against abortion, I was struck by an idea: during transubstantiation, a priest turns a piece of bread into living flesh. But surely this is a reversible operation, no? People turn living wheat into nonliving bread all the time.

In addition, if there’s any kind of conservation law, the after centuries of Catholic rites, there’s bound to be mountains of bread accumulating somewhere, that could be put to good use.

So I propose the following: if a woman wants an abortion, a priest can cast a reverse-transubstantiation spell, and turn the fetus into a piece of bread. And then the abortion can proceed normally.

If Catholic priests can’t or won’t do this, then I’ll do it. I’m ordained, and I have as much evidence to back up my supernatural claims as they do.

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The Last Superstition: Conclusion

So now that we’ve come to the end of the book, what have we learned? There are two comments that stick in my mind. One is by Steve Watson:

I think Aristotle systematized a lot of what we now call folk physics and folk biology, which was a good enough way to start, back then

While neither Steve nor I offer any data to support this, I think it’s a pretty good explanation: a lot of what Aristotle thought, or at least what Feser reports as Aristotle’s belief, reads like someone trying to systematize what he saw around him — what would later become physics — but handicapped by not having observational tools like microscopes, or even mental tools like the scientific method.
The other comment is at Chris Hallquist’s blog, by reader Patrick:

[Feser] interacts with people in two ways. 1) Patiently explaining what Augustinian metaphysics is, in the apparently belief that if he just explains in sufficient detail, people will have an “Aha!” moment and come around. 2) Railing at them in rage because, in spite of all his explanations, they refuse to admit that Augustinian metaphysics are self evidently true. Obviously, since Augustinian metaphysics are self evidently true per hypothesis, the only explanation for someone’s refusal to admit that they’re true is either astounding stupidity and ignorance, or else a willful and culpable refusal to publicly admit what they know to be true.

This comes through well in The Last Superstition. For all his explanations of Plato’s and Aristotle’s ideas, he fails to answer a lot of elementary questions, like how we can find out which Forms an object instantiates. This makes sense if he thinks what he’s explaining is obvious, and can’t see it from an outsider’s perspective.
As for his attitude toward people who don’t agree with him, well, I’ve mentioned Feser’s tone a few times. Suffice it to say that I agree with Patrick.

But beyond the book itself, what else can we learn?
I was originally surprised at the number of positive reviews the book got on Amazon, given the number of elementary fallacies Feser commits. But in retrospect, it makes sense: like all successful apologists, Feser is good at reassuring people who already hold religious beliefs that it’s okay to hold those beliefs. This is partly due to what Steve Watson pointed out above: that Aristotle tried to formalize folk science. That is, Feser is able not only to present a framework of ideas rather than a grab-bag of intuitions, he can also recruit one of the biggest names in philosophy to lend weight to his argument.

Finally, I think this book is useful for its insight into someone else’s mind. In particular, it seems to me that Platonic Forms (and Aristotle’s essences) are a type of essentialism. There are (at least) two ways of looking at the world: one is that things are whatever they are, and it’s up to us to draw boundaries; some things are worth calling “triangle”, and some aren’t. A triangle drawn with straightedge and pencil may not be perfect, but it can still be called a triangle; but at some point, a chalk doodle is so different from a perfect triangle that it no longer deserves the name. A person who hasn’t eaten meat for a day probably shouldn’t be called a vegetarian, but someone who hasn’t eaten meat for ten years probably should. That is, sometimes there are clear ways to define the categories that interest us, while at other times we need to draw arbitrary lines. But ultimately, it’s up to us.

The other view is that the categories are already there, and have been since the beginning of time. We merely need to figure out which category an item belongs in. In my experience, a lot of creationists think this way: they can’t grasp the idea of new species appearing, because to them, if the descendants of a fish are so different as to not be worth calling fish anymore, then they must be in one of the other categories: dogs, or birds, or dinosaurs, or something.

Likewise, as Feser argues, if you see a three-week-old fetus and a thirty-year-old woman as having the same human essence, as their single most important characteristic, then it’s easy to see abortion as murder.

So while I don’t think the book adds to my understanding of either science or philosophy, it is useful in understanding how a lot of people on the right think.

Series: The Last Superstition

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Followup on Faithless Electors

Four months ago, I wondered whether there would be faithless electors in this election. And as it turned out, there were. Nine of them, in fact, of whom six were successful. That seems like a lot: according to Wikipedia, these days there are usually zero or one faithless elector. There were 8 in 1912, and 27 in 1896.

When I wrote that article, I expected to be surprised, and I was. But I stand by my comment about the dumpster fire consuming the GOP.

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The Last Superstition: The Final Insult

Chapter 6: Irreducible teleology, cont.

Having exoriated biologists over the fact that popular science writers use terms like “purpose” and “blueprint”, Feser moves on to nonliving systems, in which he also sees purpose and intentionality. For instance, the water and rock cycles (I’d never heard of a “rock cycle” before, but okay):

The role of condensation in the water cycle, for example, is to bring about precipitation; the role of pressure in the rock cycle is, in conjunction with heat, to contribute to generating magma, and in the absence of heat to contribute to generating sedimentary rock; and so forth. Each stage has the production of some particular outcome or range of outcomes as an “end” or “goal” toward which it points. [p. 258]

Here, Feser implies that the water cycle is supposed to exist, and condensation exists to further that goal. Likewise, of course you have to have pressure, otherwise how can you have magma? It seems as though he is projecting his opinions onto the world so hard that he can’t imagine that maybe water does what water does, and it’s only because the temperature on the surface of this planet oscillates in a certain range that allows water to behave in such an interesting fashion.

Basic laws of nature

Moving on to fundamental science, Feser graces us with a rather interesting idea of how minds work:

Mental images are vague and indistinct when their objects are complex or detailed, but the related concepts or ideas are clear and distinct regardless of their complexity; for example, the concept of a chiliagon, or 1000-sided figure, is clearly different from the concept of a 999-sided figure, even though a mental image of a chiliagon is no different from a mental image of a 999-sided figure. [p. 260]

I’m not quite sure what he’s trying to say, though the best spin I can put on it is that we have trouble imagining complex things clearly. I agree, and this means that we need to be careful when thinking about complex things, because we’re likely to overlook something.

But since Feser brings this up in the context of thinking about abstract things, I have to wonder. When he talks about the possibility of purely material minds, he sounds like someone who thinks that a DVD has to have little pictures on it; that if you put a CD close enough to your ear, you’ll hear the music on it. Maybe I’m wrong; but that’s the impression I get, especially after the bit in Chapter 4 where he seemed to think that thinking about triangles would have to involve part of your brain becoming triangular.

He goes on for a bit against David Hume and complaining about the “anti-Aristotelian ideological program” (p. 261) of modern science. Basically, he tells us, science cannot proceed without Aristotle, but scientists are fiercely opposed to him on ideological grounds. Probably because they just want to sin, or something. In fact,

Despite the undeniable advances in empirical knowledge made during the last 300 plus years, then, the work of the scientists who made those advances simply does not support the philosophical interpretation of those advances put forward by the proponents of the “Mechanical Philosophy” and the contemporary materialists or naturalists who are their intellectual heirs [p. 264]

See, scientists are smart people who have been very successful at figuring out how the universe operates, so successful that we now take things like nuclear weapons and GPS receivers for granted. But they’re not smart enough to figure out the implications of their work.

If you look around the Internet, you can find any number of religious figures or just plain cranks who are convinced that their holy book, prophet, or whoever predicted various facts long before scientists did. They usually do this by taking some vague or poetic passage in scripture, combining it with some scientific discovery, and interpreting the former to describe the latter. For example, this page on Islam and embryology explains that

“The three veils of darkness” [in the Quran] may refer to: (l) the anterior abdominal wall; (2) the uterine wall; and (3) the amniochorionic membrane

And this page explains that “[he that] stretcheth out the heavens as a curtain” in the Bible refers to cosmic expansion.

Likewise, in this chapter, Feser talks about scientists rediscovering the genius of Aristotle. But it’s also painfully obvious that the scientific revolution did not begin in earnest with Aquinas, but rather several centuries later. That, combined with the fact that science has been so wonderfully successful despite the fact that the average scientist probably couldn’t give a summary of Aristotle’s or Aquinas’s ideas strongly suggests that they’re simply irrelevant to science.

It’s the moon, stupid

By this point, Feser thinks that he’s established that the millennia-old ideas of Aristotle, refined by Aquinas’s medieval insights, are correct. He bemoans the fact that they’ve fallen into obscurity:

But if Aristotle has, by virtue of developments in modern philosophy and science, had his revenge on those who sought to overthrow him at the dawn of the modern period, why is this fact not more widely recognized? One reason is the prevailing general ignorance about what the Aristotelian and Scholastic traditions really believed, what the actual intellectual and historical circumstances were that led to their replacement by modern philosophy in its various guises, and what the true relationship is between the latter and modern science. [p. 266]

The blame for the “general ignorance” part seems to land squarely on Feser’s shoulders. It’s up to him and his colleagues to educate the rest of us. But honestly, maybe ignorance is his ally: Feser’s exposition of Aristotle’s and Aquinas’s ideas makes it clear that they’re largely based on ignorance and superstition, and can be safely relegated to History of Ideas class, and ignored in everyday life.

He closes by quoting the proverb, “When the finger points at the moon, the idiot looks at the finger” (p. 267) as an analogy to the way objects “point to” things beyond themselves, but “the secularist” doesn’t realize this. Fittingly, he closes on an insult: “It’s the moon, stupid.” (p. 267)

Series: The Last Superstition

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