Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Albert Mohler on the New Atheism

"What sad times are these when passing ruffians, sorry, I mean Christians, can say 'Ni!' at will to old ladies, oops!, I mean distort and malign at will the works of eminent atheists with no regard for accuracy in reporting of facts or cogency of reasoning. Oh, for the days when Christians bestrode the land like the colossus with the courage of John the Baptist, the intelligence of Thomas Aquinas, the humanity of Reinhold Niehbur, and the eerie vigor and peculiar beardedness of Rasputin. The Christians were on the earth in those days—and also afterward—when the sons of God went to the daughters of men and had children by them. They were the heroes of old, men of renown.

Now the culture of Christianity is reduced to the paranoid, insipid rantings of ignorant boobs whose inability to think rationally is matched only by their influence with their followers. Seriously, this guy has no idea what he's talking about. (Also, see the famed PZMeister here.)

Mohler begins with a pocket history of atheism and tries to show the shortcomings of atheism if it lacks a scientific basis for an understanding of human existence. He writes,

The early atheists [mid-second millenium CE] were usually notorious, as were well-known heretics. Their denials of God and the Christian faith were well-documented and understood. But the early atheists had a huge problem –- how could they explain the existence of the Cosmos? Without a clear answer to that question, their arguments for atheism failed to gain much traction.

How does he know that early atheists were notorious? Probably lots of atheists said nothing for fear of execution, or were executed with no notice or debate. Probably Mohler forgot to mention this for some reason. In any event, one cannot deny that the famous atheists were notorious.

Also, heretics were well known. Or maybe the atheists were well-known heretics. Either way there is some connection between atheism and heresy. No doubt child molesters were also notorious in their day. Just like atheists!

But we do get to the nub of the biscuit: atheists, he says, do not have an explanation for why everything exists. He continues,

As even the ancient Greeks understood, one of the most fundamental philosophical questions is this: Why is there something, rather than nothing? Every worldview is accountable to that question. In other words, every philosophy of life must offer some account of how we and the world around us came to be. The creation myths of ancient cultures and the philosophical speculations of the Greeks serve as evidence of the hunger in the human intellect that takes form as what we now call the question of origins.

Got it. We want to explain things, including especially the origin of the universe and humanity. Lots of people made stuff up the try to explain these things. I'm with him so far. I'm not really with the grammar, but the idea is sound enough. I doubt I'll continue to agree with him for long. So, after a little redundancy, we get,

Darwin’s theory of natural selection and the larger dogma of evolution emerged in the nineteenth century as the first coherent alternative to the Bible’s doctrine of Creation.

This is only the first sentence of the paragraph. Whew! Where to begin? The implicature, but not outright logical implication, of the sentence is that the Bible's doctrine of Creation (why is this capitalized?) is coherent. This is wrong for two reasons, starting with "the" and ending with "coherent". There are two creation stories in Genesis, and they are not consistent. So, you cannot say that there is one doctrine of creation. Even if you pick only the first one, the more coherent one, you've still not necessarily got a coherent account. For one thing, it's not an account of creation from nothing; it's an account of creation from a watery chaos. That ain't nothing! If I had a watery chaos at my command, there's no telling what I could do with it. But even putting aside the factual inaccuracies in the account, I'm not sure whether it is coherent to say that God created light before God created anything that could emit light. I suppose this is coherent in the strictest logical sense in that there is no contradiction in saying that there just is an ambient light in the universe that has no direct source. Not exactly likely, however.

I also take issue with the claim that Darwin's theory was the first alternative. If you are looking for accounts of creation that are at least as coherent as one of the Biblical narratives, you don't need science. You could look at any of a number of other myths. For example, the story of Atum's creation is at least as plausible as the Judeo-Christian story. Or you could suppose that chaotic matter could, over an infinite amount of time, come to form complex organisms. Not exactly likely, but more coherent than the Bible's accounts.

Moreover, Darwin's theory of natural selection is not a theory of how the cosmos came into existence. It's a theory of biological organisms, how they came to be as they are from other living organisms, and why they have the features they do. And, of course, Darwin's theory is not a dogma.

Mohler quotes Dawkins's memorable claim that before Darwin it was impossible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist. Then Mohler makes the mistake of trying to explain what Dawkins meant:

His point is clear and compelling. Prior to the development of the theory of evolution, there was no way for an atheist to settle on any clear argument for why the cosmos exists or why life forms appeared.

Again, he just doesn't seem to know what evolution is a theory of. It's not an explanation for why the cosmos exists. Why does he think this? Has he read even an introductory biology textbook?

Moving on, Mohler has to misrepresent some more atheists before he's reached his quota. This time it's Dennett:

Dennett is honest enough to recognize that if evolutionary theory is true, it must eventually offer an account of everything related to the question of life. Thus, evolution will have to explain every aspect of life, from how a species appeared to why a mother loves her child. Interestingly, he offers an argument for why humans have believed in the existence of God.

Look, I talked to Dennett just yesterday, and I'm sure he wouldn't say that evolution has to explain "everything related to the question of life". We need an explanation of the basic drives and capacities humans have, including why they love their children or why they love their mothers, but it doesn't need to explain why Mohler cannot even hire someone to get his basic research right. We need explanations of broad capacities in evolutionary terms, but historical contingency and the development of the organism in interaction with its environment can explain the vagaries of particular existents. I suppose I should let this one pass because he doesn't go on to butcher anything else based on it; all he does is butcher the next point:

As we might expect, the theory of evolution is used to explain that there must have been a time when belief in God was necessary in order for humans to have adequate confidence to reproduce. Clearly, Dennett believes that we should now have adequate confidence to reproduce without belief in God.

Seriously, I'd look into Dennett's actual view is on this if there were any way one could think that Dennett might have said something as idiotic as this. I think Mohler thinks that the only way for a capacity to evolve is if nothing can reproduce if it lacks that capacity. But if a capacity or tendency to think religiously could provide some selective advantage in the environment of our ancestors, then it could evolve even if atheists in the past could somehow soldier on and reproduce without that belief. I would have to read Mohler's mind to know why he thinks this has anything to do with confidence. How long would it take me to read that mind? Is it a dime novel or is it a William Burroughs "story" with pieces cut up and pasted together from other stories that actually made sense?

But it is not enough to distort Dennett's views. Mohler must continue to Sam Harris and distort his views as well. Mohler writes,

Sam Harris, also a scientist by training, is another ardent defender of evolutionary theory. Pushing the argument even further than Dawkins and Dennett, Harris has argued that belief in God is such a danger to human civilization that religious liberty should be denied in order that science might reign supreme as the intellectual foundation of human society.

Does Harris think that we should deny people the right to their religious beliefs? Only if teaching people sound reasoning and showing them why their reasons for belief are inadequate constitutes denying religious liberty. Harris says that one's belief in religion should give us reason to doubt their rationality overall, but he does not say that we should prevent people from practicing their religion or believing as they choose. (Sometimes, he thinks, we should stop people from acting on dangerous beliefs. Oh, noes! I cannot commit religiously inspired genocide! My freedom of religion is denied!) I looked this up on his wikipedia page in about five minutes. Does Mohler just make things up or does he have an infallible source feeding him this? Perhaps his criticisms are part of one of the more obscure works of the Old Testament because they don't seem to have much to do with anything Harris has written.

Since this farce has continued long enough, I will close with Mohler's last paragraph:

The New Atheists would have no coherent worldview without the Dogma of Darwinism. With it, they intend to malign belief in God and to marginalize Christians and Christian arguments. Thus, we can draw a straight line from the emergence of evolutionary theory to the resurgence of atheism in our times. Never underestimate the power of a bad idea.

Clearly belief in evolution is an important part of understanding why humans exist and why we have the qualities we have. And atheists do want to argue that Christians are wrong and that their arguments are inadequate. Is that maligning Christian arguments? Only if the New Atheist arguments are bad ones. Is New Atheism marginalizing Christians? Sure, anyone who continues to make claims of infallible knowledge on the basis of the writings of pre-agricultural, nomadic shepherds, then that person's words should be given special consideration before we accept them. It should go without saying that when your crazy uncle shows up claiming to have been abducted by aliens, you might look a little more closely at some of the other things he says.

Does Mohler have some reason to think the atheistic arguments are inadequate? If so, I wish he'd written down what's wrong with them (rather than with his fantasies about what he wishes they had said). But he's right, you should never underestimate the power of a bad idea. The bad idea Mohler believes in has gripped humanity for two millenia. Maybe soon we will outgrow it.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Is New Atheism Impoverished?

"What sad times are these when passing ruffians can say 'Ni!' at will to old ladies!"

Or so, I believe, begins another critique ("The poverty of the new atheism" by Scott Stephens) of the New Atheists whose work, it is noted more in sadness than in anger, cannot match the genius of the work of previous atheists. These atheistic ruffians run roughshod over all respectful decent thinkers with no respect for their betters. Yet, here we are again, wondering in what particular way these ruffians have failed. Stephens explains,

What made the atheist tradition proper so potent was its devotion to the tasks of flushing out the myriad idols, often unperceived, that clutter human society, and dismantling all the malign political, economic and sexual uses which those gods were made to serve.

I had always thought that the power of the atheist tradition was its argument against the existence of God, but still Stephens is right that there has always been more to atheism than that. Stephens obliquely notes in this paragraph, however, that he will not address any substantive argument for or against the existence of God or on any other non-ad-hominem topic. Stephens claims,

But there was another aspect of this tradition - frequently overlooked and now almost forgotten - that immunized it against the excesses and indiscretions which will almost certainly consign the "New Atheism" to the status of an early twenty-first century fad, like the recent spate of Hollywood remakes.

Obviously, it is a truly low insult to claim that anything in contemporary American culture is similar to Hollywood remakes. The recent Batman movie, Dark Knight, is clearly a degenerate form of the great television series of the 1970s.

Stephens is far too sophisticated to worry about whether the claims atheists make are true or justified; rather, he worries for the depth of our souls and the caliber of our expressions of our deepest feelings. Strangely, the devaluation of culture Stephens discovers only afflicts atheists, or, at least, we need make no mention of the way in which contemporary American culture dumbs down any discourse.

There seems to have been an innate sense among atheists that the Promethean quest to topple the gods demands a certain seriousness and humility of any who would undertake it. Hence those atheists worthy of the name often adopted austere, chastened, almost ascetic forms of life - one thinks especially of Nietzsche or Beckett, or even the iconic Lord Asriel of Phillip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy - precisely because our disavowed idolatrous attachment manifest in practices and habits and cloying indulgences, and not simply in beliefs (this was Karl Marx's great observation about the "theological" dimension of Capital).

I do wonder in what sense Nietzsche's work represents asceticism, austerity, seriousness or humility. Isn't that everything Nietzsche denied? Free-thinkers should be joyful, proud, unafraid, not cowering like the wretched theists before their insipid god. Maybe Stephens is reading Joe Nietzsche, not Friedrich. Or, maybe, Stephens only refers to the personal habits of the New Atheists: the New Atheists dress unflatteringly or eat too much or indulge in other unpleasant ways. Your pardon, good sir, but does this joyful iconoclastic rejection of traditional religion make my butt look big?

But, no, Stephens is not referring to personal austerity. Instead he refers to a recognition of the awful existential dread that any atheist must face as the price of perceiving the world without the comforting illusions of religion. After quoting Marx, Stephens explains,

[Marx's] point is that religion acts as a veil draped across the cold severity and injustice of life, making our lives tolerable by supplying them with a kind of "illusory happiness." Hence, for Marx, religion is a palliative. But tear away the illusion, remove those narcotic fantasies to which people cling and from which they derive a sense of contentment, and they will be forced to seek out true happiness through justice and self-determination.

There follows more quotation from Marx that I'll skip in order to address Stephens's interpretation.

It is here that the great paradox of Marx's critique lies. The only way to effect change on earth is by waging war against heaven, that is, by abolishing religion and its every arcane form. In this way, Marx says, "the criticism of heaven is transformed into the criticism of earth."

But Marx's critique of religion has an unexpected twist, a barb in the tail that implicates the "Lites" by exposing the deeper complicity concealed by their cynicism. For, to be "dis-illusioned" in Marx's sense is not heroically to free oneself from the shackles and blinders of religious ideology and thus to gaze freely upon the world as it truly is, as Dawkins and Harris and even Hitchens would suppose.

Rather, to be "dis-illusioned" is to expose oneself to the anxiety of the bare, unadorned fact of one's existence, to live unaided beneath what Baudelaire called "the horrible burden of Time, which racks your shoulders and bows you downwards to the earth".

There you have it. Contemporary atheism has too little angst, not enough existential dread, too much joy at seeing the world as it is without enough fear of what that world really is. If only we were a little more depressed about our atheism, and recognized the terror of our existence without the comfort of religion, Stephens would be happy for us. He's like the depression Santa Claus, bringing lumps of coal to little atheist boys and girls, until we are all miserable in our recognition of our insignificance, the injustice of reality, and our utter inability to create a world in which we would want to live.

Why is existential dread the proper attitude? Isn't it just as appropriate to feel joy in the freedom from our the "shackles and blinders" of false religion? Must we feel terrified of the inevitable nothingness we all face? Or can't we with equal justification live joyfully in the brief moments we have available? What's the argument that one attitude is appropriate and the other not?

I skip a bit. Apparently, the problem arises from failing to rip away all the possible sources of illusion. In particular, capitalism replaces one illusion, religion, with another.

The great irony of capitalism is that its progress has seen the corruption and fragmentation of morality and the decimation of institutional religion, but in their place persists the menagerie of pseudo-moralities and plaintive spiritualities (often in the form of so-called Western Buddhism or what Martin Amis calls "an intensified reverence for the planet") that somehow sustain, or perhaps lubricate, its global machinations.

To paraphrase Marx, the abolition of these false moralities and neo-paganisms would constitute the demand for the rediscovery of authentic reason, integral morality and sustainable, virtuous forms of communal life. And here the "New Atheists" fall tragically short.

By failing to pursue the critique of religion into the sanctum of global capitalism itself, by reducing discussion of morality to a vapid form of well-being and personal security, and by failing to advocate alternate forms of virtuous community - all in the name of "reason" - they end up providing the pathologies of capitalism with a veneer of "commonsense" rationality.

Wow. Who knew I had to reject capitalism along with theism? I would have thought the two "-isms" were relatively independent and that a rejection of one did not mean I had to reject the other. Perhaps I should reject environmentalism too; no doubt it too is chock-full of illusory and vapid conceptions of well-being. Of course, neither I, nor any no atheists I know of, advocate a morality based purely on "a vapid form of well-being and personal security." Morality is not just about feeling good and not being harmed. Perhaps Stephens thinks all atheists are utilitarians, but I don't think this is obvious, so Stephens appears to be attacking a strawman here.

In all seriousness, I would be happy to argue that contemporary American worship of capitalism devalues humanity, the environment, and replaces authentic human goods with cheap baubles. No doubt capitalism devalues us all in ways much reminiscent of traditional religion, and I, for one atheist, would not argue that the cheap rationalizations of the capitalist in support of the excesses of capitalism are any better than the cheap rationalizations of the theist for the failures of religion. Nonetheless, humanists, naturalistically-minded philosophers, physicalists, and atheists have different targets, and we have enough to keep us busy with our own chosen field without fighting on all fronts at once. Few atheists are likely to think that there's just one source of error or illusion. And there are atheistic political philosophers aplenty to address capitalism.

Stephens continues,
However noble the goals of the "New Atheism" may be, armed with nought but an impoverished form of commonsense rationality (of which Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape and the rather unwieldy The Australian Book of Atheism are the most opprobrious examples I've yet seen - but more on these books in a later piece) it is simply not up to the task of confronting the idols and evils of our time. Ayaan Hirsi Ali has recognized as much and has thus proposed - though not unproblematically - an alliance between atheism and Catholic Christianity.

It's not clear what the critique is here. I believe it's that Harris's book relies on a common sense concept of rationality in order to undermine traditional religion, but this common sense is not robust enough to confront the evils of global capitalism. Perhaps not, but few think that rejecting God will solve all humanity's problems. I think Harris's idea is that rejecting God based on sound reasoning is a step in the right direction. While religion controls humanity's minds, there is little room for reason to gain control, and little possibility of solving the very real problems we all face together. Should rationality not be accessible to common sense? Perhaps common sense rationality is impoverished--it's always good to question whether our conception of rationality is the best one. Do we need some higher form of rationality that will help solve humanity's problems? If it's a form of rationality on which we can accept both atheism and theism at the same time, it's not a kind of rationality I can understand.

Christianity and atheism have been intertwined from the very beginning, such that their relationship is rather like two sides of a Moebius strip - follow one side far enough and you suddenly find yourself on the other. It was, after all, the first Christians that ripped the mouldering shroud of paganism off the cultures of late-antiquity by their scandalous declaration that God raised Jesus from death, thereby redefining what it might mean for God to be "God" in the first place. The resurrection of Jesus was thus the death of "God" and the destruction of the unjust and idolatrous politico-social edifice constructed around him.

As we approach the end of the article, we come to a truly baffling paragraph. I don't see Jesus' being raised from the dead as redefining "God". I think the idea that a human could also be a god was well-established in the official state religions of Rome, that the emperors were gods. It's more likely that treating Jesus as a god was defining Jesus and God in terms comfortable to the Romans. If Jesus' return from the dead meant the death of "God", then Stephens needs to inform quite a few Christians of that fact since they seem not to have noticed.

More generally, I understand how one might start doubting the religious claims of one's culture and come to reject god after god. And, indeed, belief in one God is, in some sense, less extravagant than belief in many. Moreover, the philosophers who adapted Christianity in late antiquity certainly understood the problems with anthropomorphic conceptions of the gods, and the more abstract conception of God they adopted avoids some of those problems. However, it creates other problems, say with the testability of claims about God or the difficulties making claims about a divine being who affects the world yet exists outside time. So, avoiding some problems created others, and this could have led many atheists to reject even the attenuated religion of the sophisticates. So, in some respect, theism might lead to atheism, but how can atheism be led along the Moebius strip back to theism?

Stephens quotes David Hart on Christian as idolatrous enemies of respectable Roman society and religion. Fair enough. But dogmatically rejecting one religion in favor of another need not earn anyone's respect. And even if one respected one religion's rejection of its predecessor, one need not be led back to the apostate's new religion.

New Atheists need not fill themselves with angst at the thought of their own mortality. Probably atheists should turn their attention to other sources of evil and false morality than Christianity or religion, but there will be time for that if religion fades away. Moreover, there is no reasoning that leads from atheism back to theism. And whatever intellectual debt atheists might have to theists, it is perfectly legitimate for them to acknowledge their debt to atheists who threw off the shackles of one religion without replacing them with the shackles of another.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Federal Judge Rules on Constitutionality of Taxation

(Dissociated Press, 2/5/11) A federal judge has ruled that the Affordable Health Care Act is unconstitutional in requiring Americans to pay for private health insurance. In passing, the judge invalidated laws providing tax incentives for child care, fuel efficient vehicles, home ownership, marriage, and having children.

The judge wrote, “If Congress can penalize a passive individual for failing to engage in commerce, the enumeration of powers in the Constitution would have been in vain.”

He continued, "That the enforcement of the mandate to purchase health insurance is covered by the Internal Revenue Service proves that the tax code is a kind of government coercion that cannot be used to encourage or discourage constitutionally protected commerce or other behaviors."

The health insurance mandate is enforced by a tax increase on those who do not acquire health insurance voluntarily. Since increases in taxation on one group is only an increase relative to taxes paid by other, comparison groups, it follows that decreasing taxes on one individual is the same as increasing the taxes on these comparison groups. The act is indistinguishable from a law that increases everyone's taxes and then offers an incentive to reduce the taxes of anyone who purchases private health insurance.

Vinson continued, "Any use of the tax code to decrease taxes on any individual for purchasing some private good or engaging in some private, constitutionally protected behavior, is effectively increasing the taxes on everyone not engaging in that behavior. If taxing individuals who do not buy private healthcare is coercing them to buy it, then taxing individuals more for not getting child care, for example, than those who do get child care, is effectively coercing individuals to get child care. The situation is worse for marrying or having children since the Supreme Court has found that private behavior of this sort is constitutionally protected. Pairs of cohabiting individuals who do not marry pay more in taxes--a penalty--compared to those who do marry. It follows that every tax incentive that favors one sort of behavior over others is constitutionally untenable."

"Goodbye federal tax code," he concluded.

Paul Thaggard's The Brain and the Meaning of Life (Reposted)

An Unpublishable Book Review: Paul Thaggard's The Brain and the Meaning of Life
I've recently read an interesting book by Paul Thaggard, "The Brain and the Meaning of Life". Since I'm a philosopher of mind and have taught about the meaning of life, it seemed a natural book to read. I thought it might be about how to make room in a physical world for meaning. However, it is not really that book. Instead, it is an attempt to construct a scientifically informed theory responding to great philosophical questions about freedom, morality, and meaning presented to a general audience. It feels unfair to criticize a general interest book for failing to come fully to terms with all the problems it raises. It is, in addition, a fairly reasonable account of how we can live in an ethical and meaningful way without belief in God, freedom or an immaterial soul. I do not have substantive criticisms of his arguments for the value of science, the denial of the existence of God and the soul, or (mostly) his views on free will. That said, I have serious reservations about the book.

First, however, I'll describe Thaggard's book a little more.

The work is an anti-philosophical work of philosophy. Thaggard works in the tradition of C.S. Peirce, who argued that the metaphysical intuitions of his contemporaries were just disguised prejudices of their culture, no better than an appeal to popularity. Thaggard is particularly skeptical of the thought experiments one often finds in the professional literature, especially on topics such as personal identity or free will and determinism. I think there is reason to be skeptical of our intuitions, but it's also not clear what else we have to go on for claims about morality and meaning.

Indeed, given Thaggard's distrust of philosophical and a priori intuitions, it's not clear how he can justify the arguments in his own work. His goal is to rely only on empirical evidence, but it's not obvious how empirical evidence is to apply to most or all of his questions. For example, Thaggard relies on surveys of subjective well-being to argue that money (beyond a certain minimum) is not necessary for a meaningful life. The features he does find in the literature are rewarding work, love and play, which appeal to basic human needs. It's not entirely clear what makes these qualify as needs since one can survive without at least some of them. He relies on an account of human needs found in the literature on psychology, but classification of these goods as needs does not have any empirical justification (at least, I don't recall him giving any.)

On the other hand, Thaggard argues that having children contributes to the meaning of life. Yet, it turns out that having children does not contribute to subjective judgments of one's own happiness or well-being. Thus, when it comes to the value of children for the meaning of life, we must abandon the empirical evidence that links meaning to subjective judgments of well-being. I suspect most will agree with Thaggard that happiness (understood subjectively) is not the same as meaning. We may even agree that children do contribute to the meaning of life despite the lack of an effect on subjective judgments of happiness. The difficulty, however, is that Thaggard offers no concrete evidence to take children to be an exception to the empirical evidence he uses in his other claims about meaning. Thaggard, instead, appears to rely on our popular intuitions about meaning. This appears to be exactly the kind of intuitive, a priori reasoning that Thaggard pretends to reject.

Thaggard must realize that one cannot draw normative conclusions (about the meaning of life and morality of actions) from descriptive phenomena (such as subjective judgments of happiness), but he offers nothing in the way of a method to replace the one that he claims to reject and indeed appears to rely on that very method himself. I would be much happier with a book that offered some reason to accept these intuitive judgments about normativity even if they might be less reliable than conclusions drawn from scientific evidence.

Thaggard's rejection of a priori intuitions and reasoning is, in fact, much stronger than one finds in even most hardened empiricists. He rejects claims that mathematics and logic can provide any true knowledge. At least Thaggard considers the case and gives reasons to deny that even mathematics can give real knowledge of something beyond our own minds. Thaggard's reason to reject a priori knowledge of even mathematics is that some people (in particular, postmodernists) have rejected even the most apparently simple and undeniable a priori claims such as the law of non-contradiction. If, he says, people can believe that two logically contradictory claims can both be true, then there is literally nothing that everyone accepts as logically and necessarily true. Thus, there are no universal, a priori, logical truths.

This is peculiar reasoning. First, relying on what postmodernists say about their beliefs is unreliable. Jacques Derrida, for example, may claim that the law of non-contradiction is not true, but that may be (and probably is) just for the fame that comes from denying something that everyone knows to be true. There are significant social rewards for contrarianism, and it's more likely that he's saying something that he doesn't believe than that he really believes.

Nonetheless, people may believe all manner of crazy things, so it's possible that some people really do reject the law of non-contradiction (just as many have attempted to believe in the holy trinity). The problem with Thaggard's reasoning is that he demands that everyone believe something in order for it to count as a priori knowable. He even comments that we can learn about mathematics by studying human psychology. But these are just outright wrong-headed claims. This is simple psychologism. Mathematics and logic are not about what people believe. More people accept affirming the consequent as valid than accept modus tollens. Should we revise our logic texts to reflect that? In fact, I doubt more than a single percent of the population as a whole could understand, let alone properly apply, the inference patterns of a standard symbolic logic text. But we should not delete them from the curriculum, or take them to involve invalid reasoning, for that. The point is that when these rules of inference or logical claims are properly understood, using truth tables, for example, to show why they are in fact valid or invalid, then their validity or truth is undeniable by a rational being. Yes, my reasoning is shot through with assumptions about normativity and abstraction, but the alternative is nothing short of absurd.

Consider the possibility that logic is about what people believe. For one thing, since people sometimes believe contradictory things, we have no reason to reject contradictions as false. How, then, are we ever to prove anything if, despite our most cogent proof, it is still perfectly acceptable to deny the claim that we have just accepted?

If a priori truths are determined by what everyone believes, then if everyone believes that a priori truths are not determined by what everyone believes, then they are not in fact determined by what everyone believes. (Thaggard may have the out that he at least does believe they are based on psychology, and anyway, the fact that his claim is contradictory is not great problem.) If this is Thaggard's standard, then his entire work is a waste of time since people could perfectly reasonably accept the empirical evidence for his conclusions and at the same time believe the exact opposite since there is no objective logic proving that this is an invalid inference. (In fact, that's how many ordinary readers might respond to his work: "I don't see what's wrong with his reasoning, but I reject it anyway." One hopes that Thaggard would not find this an adequate reason to reject his work. So, why accept a theory of a priori knowledge that allows for it?)

Am I being unfair to Thaggard? Maybe. He does claim that mathematics is a kind of fictional discourse, and one can make true or false claims about fiction even if nothing in reality corresponds to them. Does fictionalizing mathematics resolve these problems? I don't think so. For one thing, we have no clear understanding of how truth works in fiction. You cannot explain how mathematics can be true by relying on another field in which truths are not understood. You cannot solve a mystery (truth of claims in mathematics) with another mystery (truth claims in fiction).

But suppose we understood fictional discourse. That still would not resolve the problem. Fiction is essentially arbitrary. The color of Harry Potter's eyes is chosen by J.K.Rowling; there is no reason or justification for her choices, and there need not be one. I'm sure that Thaggard would say that the basic laws of logic, valid inference patterns etc. could not be justified either and so would be equally arbitrary. It is, in fact, hard to see what justification one can offer for modus ponens (besides looking at the truth table which, no doubt, are a lot less obvious than is modus ponens itself and, indeed, might even rely on it to be understood). Nonetheless, it logically follows that if Harry Potter's eyes are entirely blue all over all the time, then they cannot also be entirely brown all over all the time. Why does this follow? Is this also an arbitrary choice made by Rowling? No, she probably would never have thought any such thing. They are not brown because making them blue entails that they are not brown. Similarly, she did not also have to think that they are not green, not red and not tuning forks. Logic still must hold for fiction; logic is a basic underpinning of the truths in fiction and cannot be just another arbitrary system on a par with it.

The self-refutation argument is probably the best way to see this. If logic is just an arbitrary system, determined by a set of people, call it the "math/logic community", which defines those rules, then suppose the community believed that those rules were universally applicable with a force beyond simple psychology. (They need not actually have said this; it must just be possible.) Then, if mathematical/logical statements are true just in case they are accepted by the community, then mathematical/logical statements are true universally, not just for those in the linguistic community. If they are true, they must be universally true.

In reply, surely, one must say that these are no universal a priori, logical truths, only truths relative to a community. But what is the justification for this? Is this true because it has been accepted in a community? (Actually, relativism has rarely been accepted by any group.) Or is it universally true, applying even to the logicians who reject it? If so, then Thaggard has contradicted himself, claiming there are no universal, a priori truths, while offering a universal a priori truth (and if this claim is a posteriori, I'd love to know what his evidence is). If not, then the universalist's claim takes precedence over the relativist's claim. The relativist says: there are only relative truths. Realist says: Realism is universally true for me, and therefore it is universally true and so true for you as well.

These major reservations aside about his problems with having a consistent method for his reasoning and his absurd rejection of all a priori knowledge, Thaggard does have some reasonable thoughts to offer about morality and meaning. Some of it misses the point (he talks about how moral sensibility develops in humans when he raises the question of what justifies moral claims or justifies us in being moral), and he does not properly justify his theory of meaning (given his rejection but continued use of a priori reasoning). Still, general readers would come away with a better way of thinking about themselves, their lives and how to live them than they would have if they continued in their traditional religious beliefs.

Ronald Reagan at 100

In honor of Ronald Wilson Reagan's one hundredth birthday, I wanted to write of my recollections of this great man, the ultimate hero of the twentieth century.

As a youth growing up in Illinois, Reagan saved dozens of lives as a lifeguard before spending a summer on a raft on the Mississippi with his friend Jim. Jim was an escaped slave, and, because of his great respect for property rights, young Ron traveled all the way back to Mississippi to return him. Once, on a lark, Reagan cut down an entire forest of cherry trees. When the farmer who owned the trees objected, Reagan quipped, "Don't you know? Trees cause pollution."

After high school, Reagan went to Hollywood to make movies. He starred in cowboy adventure movies including "Bedtime for Bonzo," in which, with the help of a chimp, Ron defeated the chimp-overlords of an invasion of "damn, dirty apes" intent on stealing our guns. He took time out from his movie career to volunteer to make movies encouraging others to enlist and then to lead the invasion of Germany, liberating several concentration camps and single-handedly stopping Hitler's attempt at world-domination.

After that, Reagan spent several years making speeches and reading radio scripts for General Electric on politics. He learned his great communication skills fulminating against the dangers of government: the government takeover of healthcare, medicare, the communization of America and the fluoridation of its water supply.

Reagan parlayed his fame as an actor and union-busting president of the Screen Actors Guild into the governorship of California. Reagan did his part in the war in Vietnam by having the national guard shoot communist protestors infiltrating America's universities. After his success as the governor of California, lowering tax after tax and never raising any taxes, no matter what any Commie-history book says, he was elected the Greatest President in American History.

Reagan announced that government wasn't the solution but the problem. Then he took over the government and solved that problem.

Reagan's legend was so great that the Ayatollah Khomeini released the American hostages as soon as he took office out of fear that Reagan would personally go to Iran and beat him to death with his own beard. In no way was the timing of their release suspicious. They were just afraid of Reagan.

As President Reagan reduced the tax rate to 0% while increasing government revenue to record levels. And in no way did he "enhance government revenue" or raise the social security tax or anything like that. In fact, he cut government spending to $0 and still managed to spend the Evil Empire of communist Russia into oblivion, probably by private donations or something. When Reagan took office, he couldn't believe that we didn't have a magical shield to defend us from Russian missiles, so he ordered that one be built and by the power of his will, he overcame all the technological barriers to it. Finally, he defeated the Soviet Union and ordered Mikey Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin wall, and he did.

Democratic politicians continuously tried to destroy his presidency by persistent and biased investigations. But they never found any scandals. All they ever found was that a great American hero named Ollie North moved some missiles and money around in order to support freedom fighters in Nicaragua and Iran. All he was really doing was supporting their second amendment rights. But Reagan didn't know anything about that, and would not have supported it if he had known even though he praised North as a hero.

Ronald Reagan is remembered today as a great American hero, the man with Teflon hair, sometimes known as Old Hickory, for his wooden teeth, who led the Americans at the Alamo when America took Texas back from the Mexicans. And when America is in his hour of greatest need, Reagan will return to lead us into the promised land, to the shining city on the hill to a time when it is always morning in America.

Also this.