Sunday, September 29, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Forward vs Backward Punishment

Explain forward looking and backward looking theories of punishment. Which approach seems the most reasonable to you? Why?

Well, we just explained both of those in the previous post. If you need some sort of new explanation, I suppose I can come up with one but I think before we recover this ground, check out the old posts. Now as to which I find most acceptable…

I'm really not off-topic, just bear with me and you'll see how this connects. One of the most common logical errors is called forced choice false dichotomy. In application it means that you give people two choices and demand that they pick one or the other. For example, you go to a restaurant and the person with you says, you can have a drink of milk or you can have orange juice. Maybe you want a Coca-Cola. But they have only given you two choices. The menu lists a lot more choices. You should not let them force you to choose between these two things. At least, not if you're over about six.

One of the reasons this is a common logical fallacy is because of what is been pointed out in Steven Pinker's book How the Mind Works, we human beings tend to think in polarities. It seems natural that the human mind just has to think of this or that and ignore all the possibilities in between.

And now back to how that connects to the topic at hand.

I do not argue with Immanuel Kant. Justice must be done, or what is the meaning of the law? Those who have broken the law, especially if they have committed harm to others, should be punished for it. This is simple justice.

Therefore, I agree with negative justice.

I also agree with those who believe that the purpose of justice must go beyond simple justice. Positive justice requires that we do our best to prevent crimes from occurring in the future. It also requires a government to do its best to take a criminal and try to turn him into a useful member of society will contribute to instead of causing harm, to that society.

Therefore I agree with positive justice.

I do not see that there is a conflict between these two. Yes, I understand how people can think there is such a conflict and even believe that very passionately. However, I simply do not see it as so.

There is no reason we cannot adopt both procedures. In the process of punishing the criminal for his crime, negative justice, we can also take actions which help prevent crime in the future and rehabilitate him into a decent and productive member of society.

I see no conflict, as I have already stated. It only makes sense to me that we should do both. Doing only either one is shortsighted and limiting our capacities when they do not need to be limited.

Idle Thoughts --- Vengance is Mine...

Can anger ever be justified as a reason for punishment ? Explain referring to Berns and Whitely.

Berns refers to capital punishment as largely justified because it is indeed an appropriate and proportional retribution. Essentially, he is arguing that an eye for an eye is the correct and proper response. He also believes, as does Kant, that justice is not done unless proportional punishment follows the crime.

He argues that feeling anger at a crime is the prime motive for seeking justice. Our anger causes us to demand that the guilty party be punished. Our anger abates when he is punished.

Critics of his work and pointed out that he shows little knowledge of research regarding capital punishment, nor any interest in acquiring that knowledge. He also ignores the issues of gubernatorial clemency, that is, governors granting pardons, and out of prosecutorial discretion, that is prosecutors deciding whether or not even to charge a person with a capital crime or, if they do charge him with such a crime, whether to ask for the death penalty.

This is especially disturbing because the elements of our current death penalty laws, which are clearly deeply prejudiced in a racial manner, and also clearly prejudiced against poverty, are deeply affected by these factors. Yet, he ignores their impact.

He does acknowledge that there is a problem with these issues, but he just assumes that they will somehow fade away in the future. He does not express how this will happen. He just says that it will.

While he does condemn the old practices of torturing people to death, he does not make any reference to how people should be executed. But critics of the death penalty often point to the methods of execution as cruel and unusual punishment. Berns simply ignores this problem.

He is also sharply criticized because he does not demonstrate any actual knowledge based on being present in court rooms, or interviewing individuals on death row. He remains ignorant of the practical applications of these two situations.

His argument is entirely emotional. He simply says anger causes us to want punishment and therefore we should do it.

Whitley's argument is more general in its point, dealing with punishment as a general concept rather than with capital punishment specifically. She especially emphasizes the role of the victim in sentencing the offender.

She points out that not only does the victim feel injured and angered, the entire community may well feel outraged by a particular crime. She contends that by taking appropriate action the government is communicating to these individuals that their concerns are taken seriously and being appropriately dealt with.

She adds that this communication may help the victim and society in general cope with the suffering of the crime has caused. This becomes a goal in and of itself. This is of course, the opposite of what Kant said. Remember that he said the only justification for punishment is to bring justice, that is to say a consequence for the bad action of the individual who committed the crime. He said no other justifications are permitted.

She does say that vengeance is not an appropriate motivation. Instead, she insists that vengeance is a simple body based emption, that is it is, only a response your body has to a threatening situation. She then adds that some emotions have higher moral reasons for demanding punishment. These she refers to as moral sentiments.

She insists that these are not mere body based reactions, but are based upon our rational and thoughtful interpretation of the world around us. Since they are not simply emotional, but also rational, she says there therefore justified whereas vengeance is not.

She gives no evidence of these differing types of emotional response. She simply declares that it is so.

To me it sounds as if she is trying to explain what her emotions have already decided. She has reached a decision emotionally, the criminal should be punished, and then tries to justify it by saying that our emotions are in fact at least partly based on our rationality. I do not see any value to that concept. Emotions are not based on rationality. No one is disgusted by something because they think think that they should be disgusted and therefore they choose to be disgusted. Emotions are not a choice they are a response.

I do need to say that she is not completely wrong. The impact that a crime has had upon the victims and on society should be considered in the sentencing. However, I do believe that her justification for this is frankly rather silly. She wants to appear to be rational therefore she throws in the word rational and tries to explain that some emotions are more rational than other emotions. Again, she has no evidence to support this. This is simple nonsense. Emotions are biochemical responses.

I believe she should be honest enough to admit that sometimes a desire for vengeance needs to be fed. That is not to say it should be an unrestrained response, but the desire for justice is often a desire for revenge. The victim often feels that the criminal must to pay for what he did to me. That is an honest human emotion, and if it is not a very pretty one, it is a very real one.

Idle Thoughts -- Negative vs Positive Rights

Explain the concepts of negative and positive rights, and identify supporters of each theory.

Negative rights are rights to be free from things being done to you. Positive rights of the rights to be free to do things.

Teachers often express this to their students as a freedom from and a freedom to.

Robert Long says negative rights build fences around you while positive rights break the fences down. In other words negative rights protect you from others interfering with you while positive rights allow you to do things.

Many Americans argue today that all Americans have the right to healthcare. This would be a positive right, saying everyone has the right to receive the care they need to remain healthy and alive.

Their opponents say that this right goes too far. They say that we have a right to be free from the government interfering with health care. This would be a negative right.

Another example would be the positive right that Sam has to free speech. He gains the right to say what he wishes. On the other hand, Joe has the right to be free from terrorist threats. This is a negative right. It prevents others from doing something to Joe. So Sam's positive right to free speech is limited because he cannot violate the negative right of John to not receive terrorist threats.

You might think that everyone would agree that there are both negative and positive rights, but this is not so. Various philosophers have emphasized one as superior to the other, and even denied that the other exists.

Supporters of negative rights:

The economist Hayek and his supporters say the only true freedom is our freedom from. They believe in a government so minimalist that it becomes almost an anarchy, that is, no government. Hayek has expressed his belief that it is necessary for economies to collapse completely, and even entire governments to collapse and fail. He says this is the only way to get a truly effective government, the bad ones will collapse and die while the good ones will continue to exist and thrive.

Ronald Reagan, when he became president, stated his intention was to shrink government. He clearly intended to reverse the direction of American government and return it to the state it had been in prior to the election of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He believed that Hayek was correct and that government should be small and emphasize protecting Americans' negative rights while paying little attention to their positive rights, at least to those positive rights not specifically listed in the Constitution.

The presidents who followed him also supported this position. Even Democrat Bill Clinton said, "the era of big government is over."

In general, libertarians, conservatives, Republicans and members of the Tea Party, strongly emphasize negative rights. This is not to say that they totally ignore positive rights, but they certainly do emphasize negative rights as the primary function of government. A few of them do go so far as to deny that positive rights have any real value. That is, some of the more extreme members of these groups believe that any positive rights an individual has should be protected by that individual, and are not the business of the government.

Supporters of positive rights:

The economist Keynes believes that government must exert an effective control on economies in order to prevent the collapse of those economies, and possibly of those societies. He believes that governments should act to keep themselves functioning effectively. In other words, one of the main functions of government is to provide protection for the positive rights of its citizens.

For the first time in American history, Franklin Delano Roosevelt emphasized positive rights beyond negative rights. He completely changed the course of American government. Prior to him, most people agreed that the government's role should be small and very limited. That is, it should emphasize negative rights. Since Roosevelt, the emphasis has been on the government ensuring that people get positive rights. Programs like Medicare and Social Security are examples.

Both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Baines Johnson carried on this effort, especially in the area of civil rights. Their landmark legislation in these areas showed they believed the government should protect the positive rights of Americans.

When Barack Obama became president, his declaration was that America should be emphasizing positive rights and their protection. His clear intent was to stop the so-called Reagan revolution and restore America to a course which would follow the positive rights approach of FDR.

In general, liberals, socialists, progressives, and other left-wing groups strongly emphasize positive rights. This is not to say that they ignore negative rights, but they think positive rights should be the main focus of government action.

John Stuart Mill made arguments in support of both positions. Many other philosophers would agree with him that the two are not mutually contradictory, but that should be maintained in a balance between the two.

That's pretty much my position. I think it's wrong to emphasize one over the other. After all, to take an example from physics, you can't have an atom without both negative and positive charges in a state of balance.

Idle Thoughts -- Rawls Original Position

What is the " original position"? Explain the pros and cons of Rawls theory.

The original position is a concept by philosophers who believe that man thoughtfully and rationally entered into a social contract in order to establish societies. Again, it ignores the realities of evolution, sociology, primatology and et cetera. But, in defense of these individuals, most of them were unaware of those specialties at the time they developed their theories. In fact, the specialties did not exist at that time.

From an article:
1. Inequalities are just only when conditions of equal opportunity obtain.
2. Conditions of equal opportunity obtain only when a person's fate is not determined by morally irrelevant factors.
3. One's fate is not determined by morally irrelevant factors only when it is determined by one's choices and efforts.
4. One's fate is determined by one's choices and efforts only if it is not determined by social circumstances.
5. Therefore, inequalities are just only when not determined by social circumstances.
End article quote.

Let me restate these in easier words

1. The only time it is fair for people have unequal states of existence in our society, like one being rich and one being poor, is when they both had an equal opportunity to attain wealth. In other words, they both had a fair chance at being rich but one was just better in doing so. That's fair.
---- So you have to have a chance.

2. But even assuming that, it's only fair if a person could have helped himself but chose not to. It isn't fair that someone is rich because he was born handsome and his society favors handsome people without their deserving it and the other person is poor because he was ugly and his society just really hates ugly people. Those were not choices they made. Neither condition is their fault or a result of their efforts.
---- So you have to have a choice.

3. You must have a choice and have made that choice well or badly for the result to be just. If it happened to you by luck or by things out of your control, that isn't just. If you're rich because your parents were rich, you don't deserve to be rich. If you're poor because your parents were poor, you don't deserve to be poor. You didn't get to choose your parents.
---- So you have to actually make that choice, and get the reward or the punishment you deserve for making that choice.

4. Social circumstances shouldn't be what made the difference for you. You may have made choices, and you may have the opportunity to do so, but it still is unfair if society is prejudiced against you because of, let's say, your dark skin. Even if you make good choices, you still can't get the reward you deserve because of prejudice. That is not just.
---- So, if you did all of the above, it isn't fair if society was prejudiced for or against you so you got more or less than you deserved.

5. So, it's only fair that there are inequalities in a society if you get to do ALL of the above.

Rawls says okay to these five, but then he adds his own.

From article.

6. One's fate is determined by one's choices and efforts alone only if it is not determined by one's talents and abilities.
7. Therefore, inequalities are just only when not determined by a person's talents and abilities.

End article.

Or to put it in easier words,

6. You didn't get to choose your talents or abilities. If you're good at math you'll do really well in a society that loves math. But if you're not good at math, that's not your fault, and you shouldn't be punished for it.

7. So inequalities are only fair if they don't have any thing to do with your natural talents. So football players shouldn't make more of money than me just because they were born with a talent for being good at sports and I'm was always bad at at them, no matter how hard I tried.

But, that means all kinds of things. I mean, people might make bad choices because they are not smart enough to make good choices, or because their brain is wired so that they are more impulsive than other people so they make bad choices because of the brain wiring etc. etc. etc. In other words, if we accept Rawls two add-ons, then nobody should ever be unequal. Everybody should be exactly equal. I hate to say it, but that's the silly dream of communism which proved to be so impossible to apply because it was so contrary to human nature

Rawls also had an interesting point he called the veil of ignorance.

Rawls points out that other philosophers who have used the concept of the original position assume that everybody gets together in a society or a potential society and decides what the rules will be, thus establishing a social contract.

He points out that strong and powerful people will simply bully or beat others into agreeing to rules they don't really want to accept. Clearly, this negates the supposed contract. If you do something because a gun or a sword is pointed at your head, you haven't really agreed at all.

He says that instead of simply sitting down and talking about things in an open way, we should apply what he calls the veil of ignorance. Everyone agrees to what the rules will be without knowing what their position in the society will be. You're not allowed to determine how much wealth you will have, how intelligent you will be, etc. This way, you make sure that everyone in the society is protected because you might be in any of the positions. Who would agree to include slavery in society if you might be the slave?

The idea behind this is the same as the idea behind the secret ballot. No one can bully you into voting for a certain presidential candidate, because no one knows which way you voted.

Rawls' strong points. He's right that people will succeed or fail even in making good choices because of things that are beyond their control. He also really wants to make society just. He's really right about that whole veil of ignorance thing. If everybody knows they're going to be in a certain position in society, they'll do everything they can to make that position protected and safe.

Rawls' failings. Considering the power that things not under our control have upon us, including the very structure of our brains, there is no way to have a fair society by Rawls' standards unless everybody is equal and inequality totally ceases to exist.

The original condition is a silly fantasy in the light of modern scientific findings. Even monkeys and apes have carefully structured societies including cultural behaviors. There never was a social contract in the sense of people sitting down and deciding what things would be like. It was only human beings, highly evolved social animals, interacting with each other and thus creating a society. No conscious decision-making was ever required. Sometimes we did consciously decide things, like writing the U.S. Constitution, but not usually.

I find Rawls inability to deal with the findings of modern science unexplainable and inexcusable. He died in 2002. How could he have ignored psychology, primatology, sociology, well, you know the long list. But he did ignore them. This is inexcusable. If a philosopher ignores the findings of science, why should anyone pay any attention to him?

I recall one philosopher who sincerely believed that things fell to the earth because little angels from Heaven pulled them down. However silly that may sound today, in the Middle Ages, before the theory of gravity, it made as much sense as anything else. But for someone to say that is true today, well, that person would be just being silly.

The idea that we can ever make inequalities fair is, I think, the fundamental flaw of all the philosophers dealing with this issue. In a truly ideal world, wouldn't we all be equal? But the fact is that human nature makes us want what's best for us and for our kids even if that hurts other people and their kids.Since there's only so much stuff to go around, obviously some people will get more than others. It may be a sad fact, but it is a real fact.

The Star Trek universe imagines a world where machines can reproduce anything, therefore everybody apparently is equal. But, even in that universe, some people obviously occupy positions of social superiority. Like starship captains compared to ordinary crewmen. So is that society really so perfect?

Let me add in defense of Rawls, we do have a social contract today. We all do because we live in democratic societies and we agree to follow by the rules of that society, rules made by the people we elect to office . But it's not as if we really have a lot of choice. Even in America, where we created the Constitution, we have radically altered its original intent. Women, Blacks, poor men, are all now allowed to vote. And we even get to vote for our own Senators instead of letting the state legislators pick them.

But, even Thomas Jefferson said we have to throw the Constitution out every 19 years because he felt that no man should be forced to live in a society where he did not get to vote for the basic rules of that society. We don't do that. So you can argue that our our social contract has been forced upon us

Idle Thoughts -- Value Free Science?

What does it mean that science is supposed to be value free? Do you agree? Why or why not? Apply the theory of value free science to contemporary-issues such as cloning and genetic engineering

The entire point of that branch of philosophy which we now call science and was formerly referred to as natural philosophy is that it is supposed to be entirely objective. In this case the word objective means that science deals only with facts which can be proven to be true through repeated experimentation. In its purest form, there is no room for opinion or emotion in science. Ideally, science should deal only with that which can be shown to be true and proven to be true no matter what your beliefs or opinions may be.

Yet, many scientists consider their highly subjective emotions to be essential to their understanding of science. Consider a quote from the man that many consider the greatest scientist since Newton.

The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.
— Albert Einstein
'The World As I See It', Forum and Century Oct 1930

So, Einstein felt that science without emotion was pointless. The problem with the idealized, only the facts attitude is that science can only be practiced by human beings. We humans are emotional animals. It is impossible to imagine a scientist who is pure intellect and no emotion, unless he's from planet Vulcan. We humans just can't do that.

However, these emotions must not be allowed to interfere with the collection or analysis of data. After all, the entire point of science is that it is objective. If it is not repeatable through experimentation, if it is not falsifiable, then it is not science.

Falsifiable is a very important word in US courtrooms today. It means that if the facts prove you wrong, a true scientific attitude requires you to change your opinion no matter how emotionally painful you find that to be. Technically, science considers nothing to be proven absolutely. Everything is falsifiable if someone can find the objective evidence to prove that it is false.

Popper is a philosopher of science. He popularized the concept of falsifiability. The reason creation science is not taught in our science classes is that it is not falsifiable. That is, no amount of evidence will ever make a believer in creationism change his mind. His belief is faith-based, not fact-based. Therefore creation science is not science at all. It is religion.

This is an important concept. Science must deal with facts. We humans are emotional, and so emotion plays a role in our scientific work. However, the difference between science and religion is that in science everything can be tested, must be tested, and you are supposed to surrender any beliefs which are proven to be false by such testing.

This applies directly to the issues of cloning and genetic engineering. While many scientists feel that we need to apply our ethical and emotional considerations and deciding what to allow or what to ban in these areas, the science is simply about facts. If science develops the ability to cloning a human being, something that we are not able to do today, that will simply be a scientific fact. It will be an ability that science has given us.

But the question of whether we should clone a person is a nonscientific question. It is entirely possible to have the knowledge which allows you to clone a person, and yet believe that would be immoral to do so. Science itself is simply a collection of knowledge. It is not good knowledge or bad knowledge. It is just factual. How we apply that knowledge is not a scientific question. It is a moral question.

The famous biologist and science popularizer Stephen Jay Gould referred to these two separate ways of knowing and deciding as two separate, but equal, magisteria. Science gave us the facts and the capabilities. It said nothing about right or wrong. The other magisterium, which would include philosophy, religion, and morals, allows us to decide what to do or not do with those skills.

We may not be able to clone, but we can do genetic engineering. There is a great deal of debate about whether this is moral or immoral. Many of the objections are based entirely on fear. Things could go wrong, therefore we should not do this at all. The problem with this concept is that it does not allow for the good which can also come from careful application of the technology. There are genetically modified crops available today which are banned by certain African governments. Both in Africa and in Europe there's great fear of genetically modified crops Or, GMO's, genetically modified organisms.

The problem is, these banned crops could reduce starvation significantly. For example, there is a GMO rice called golden rice which provides enough vitamin a to prevent thousands pf children from going blind every year. It is banned in the areas which most desperately need to use it. The result is that the children go blind. The World Health Organization report from 2005 stated that, "190 million children and 19 million pregnant women, in 122 countries, were estimated to be affected by VAD." That's vitamin a deficiency.

Golden rice would not end this problem, but it would significantly reduce it.

I think it is clear that we must be careful about GMO's, genetically modified organisms, but being careful does not mean totally banning them either. As almost always, my position as one of balance. It is good to be cautiously afraid of these radical changes which could escape into the environment. On the other hand, it is not good to sentence many millions of people to lifelong suffering because we are so afraid that we cannot take reasonable precautions and proceed.

To conclude, science must be objective. It must be falsifiable. It must be based on experimentation and provable, repeatable experiments which demonstrate the facts. However, human emotion cannot be avoided. We must recognize it, embrace it, and apply it in a reasonable and balanced way to decide what we do with the facts.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ted Cruz and the Coming (Republican) Götterdämmerung

On Sen. Ted Cruz holding his filibluster (thank you for that one, Elaine, friend of Nick).

Cruz quoted:

You got in the 1940s Nazi Germany. Look, we saw in Britain, Neville Chamberlain who told the British people, accept the Nazis. Yes, they'll dominate the continent of Europe, but that's not our problem.

Let's appease them.  Why? Because it can't be done! We can't possibly stand against them.

Memo to Sen. Cruise:

Please read a history book. At least one history book. Please do so before opening your mouth again. You are embarrassing yourself and the Republican Party, in front of anyone who knows any facts about the origins of World War II.

End memo, begin commentary.

Egregious Error Number One. Neville Chamberlain never said that anyone should put up with the Nazis dominating Europe.

All that Neville Chamberlain actually said was, we will let Hitler have Czechoslovakia in return for his  promise to leave the rest of Europe alone. Yes, that's right. His appeasement consisted only of permitting Hitler to take over one small country in return for promising to leave the rest of Europe free.

Of course, Chamberlain was a fool to trust Hitler, and sacrificing Czech freedom in order to protect the rest of Europe was not an honorable act. But not only did he not say the things that you say he did, he said the opposite. He said we must oppose Hitler if he dares to attack Poland.

You see, Senator, England did not declare war under Winston Churchill. England declared war under Neville Chamberlain. The fact that Chamberlain had not stood up to Hitler earlier caused his government to fall and then, after the war had started, Churchill took the helm.

I will say that again, please read this sentence slowly and carefully at least 12 times before you open your mouth again. The declaration of war against Nazi Germany was made by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain. Neville Chamberlain stood up to the Nazis as soon as he realized they were breaking their treaty agreement.

He never said, he never believed, that England should not stand up to Germany. He did believe that what happened in Europe was England's problem. I suppose it's convenient to apply your nasty smears to a dead man, but there are those of us who believe in history and facts and reality and who think that, since he can't speak for himself, we will speak for Mr. Chamberlain. Foolishly trusting? Undeniably! But the rest of what you said is outright fabrication;  a despicable smear against a foolish, but very courageous man.

Unless, of course, it is simply unforgivable ignorance.

Egregious Error Number Two.  When the Nazi leaders were put on trial for war crimes and eventually hung for said crimes, they were never accused of committing the horrific war crime of providing medical insurance for their conquered subjects.  International law does not recognize providing medical care to individuals as a war crime. In fact, it does not regarded it as any kind of crime.

There are a number of possible explanations for your recent bizarre conduct. I do not believe that you are experiencing delirium tremens, or that you are severely mentally ill. No, I think you know exactly what you were doing. I think you are the perfect example of a demagogue. You have replaced Karl Rove as the new Demosthenes. And, as I pointed out when I made that comparison with Rove, I mean the Demosthenes who is despised as an utterly manipulative greedy abuser of his own clients. The one who is accused of having betrayed his country by forcing upon them a false and pointless war which caused horrific destruction...and of doing so because he believed that he could loot the ruins to make political gain.

On the other hand, I must admit there was a very positive side your presentation and other recent antics. When the Democratic extremists were in power, I busily bashed away at their foolishness and pretensions. Being strictly neutral, I am doing so now against the Republican extremists. And I must say, there is no doubt in my mind that your actions are seriously injuring the possibility that the radical extremists of the Republican Party will remain in power in the Congress for much longer. Some Republican politicians and strategists are even beginning to think that people like you will cost Republicans control of the House! This was unthinkable just a couple of months ago.

So, please permit me to say, don't take my advice. No, I prefer you to keep on trucking! Good work!  Well done!  Please do more of the same!

The American people, the Democratic Party, Independents and Moderates everywhere, all want you to keep opening your mouth and shooting yourself...not in your political foot, but in your party's political heart.

Sunday, September 22, 2013


A poem written some weeks ago. In the midst of my usual summer suffering. This summer was worse than most, the troubles lasted 10 weeks. I didn't post it then because I knew how upsetting it would be to some. But since I'm now getting better, I'll post it.  


Tonight I'm broke down weary

Tonight I'm bone soul tired

Life is long and hard

And you live it every day

And some days are bright with joy

And some are sharp with sorrow

And many cut you deep with pain

But today

Today is just plain weary

Today is tired and old

Even so,

Today is done and gone

And tomorrow

There may yet be brightness 

There may yet be joy

There might yet be joy

Finland Strikes Again!

“Children from wealthy families with lots of education can be taught by stupid teachers,” --  who should get performance bonuses.

Back when I was still Principal, I read a mega study which studied over 200 other studies. They concluded that retention was a miserable failure for everyone involved. Children almost invariably got worse after retention and generally dropped out of school earlier than those were not retained. No, the study was careful. It compared children who were recommended for retention who were retained versus those who were recommended for retention and we're not retained. The dropout rate skyrocketed among those were retained.

I said then, and I repeat now, the choice is between social promotion or antisocial retention. This is not an ideological or political position. It is a fact based position based on extensive studies of actual human children.

 The mega study indicated that there was a way to not retain, but ensure that the child would have a successful next year. What was that method?  The child, having been socially promoted, would be given a special program uniquely designed to meet his or her needs. This required the equivalent of a child study team meeting in which educational and psychological experts designed a specific program for that specific child. Yes, it was very labor-intensive. But it worked. Do we want children to be educated or not? That is the question.

In other words, this Finnish teacher did exactly what was recommended by that mega study, which was completed back in the mid-1980s. The facts are out there. Why won't people pay attention to them?

This is only one aspect of Finland's schools which is superior.

Lessons From St. Ronald of Reagan

A Day in the Life of a Rugged American Individualist

We shall open our story with a reading from the Gospels.  "The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: 'I'm from the government and I'm here to help.'" -- The Gospel according to Saint Ronald of Reagan, Chapter 2842 verse 79

1:33 PM:  A gang of crazed members of the local teachers union breaks into Rugged Individualist's home to take away his guns.  A neighbor calls the police. When they arrive, shots are being exchanged. The officer in charge shouts out, "This is the police. We are from the government and we're here to help."

Rugged Individualist screams out in terror, "No! Go away! I'll take care of this by myself!"

2:47 PM: As he dies, the last insane member of the local teachers union sets off an incendiary device, committing suicide.  The home is almost instantly a mass of flames.  A fire truck rolls up, the captain jumps out and shouts "This is the fire department!  We are from the government and we're here to help."

Rugged Individualist screams out in terror, "No! Go away! I'll take care of this by myself!"

4:13 PM:  The house lies in smoldering ruins. In the front yard lies Rugged Individualist.  He is also in smoldering ruins. An ambulance from the fire department pulls up next to him. An EMT jumps out and says, "This is the paramedics!  We are from the government and we're here to help."

Rugged Individualist screams out in terror...well, actually he gasps out in terror, "No! Go away! I'll take care of this by myself!"

4:47 PM:  A hearse from the county medical examiner's office pulls up.  An attendant steps out of it. He says, "I am an attendant. I am from the government and I'm here to help."

Rugged Individualist does not reply.  The attendant asks, "Do you object to my helping you?"

When there is no response he says to his assistants, "OK, boys, there's no objection, so zip him up in the bodybag and let's get him to the morgue."

And thus ends a day in the life of an American rugged individualist.

Idle Thoughts -- Lies, Damned Lies, and Immanuel Kant

Explain Kant's position on lying, is it always morally wrong to lie? What are the implications for the question raised in Chapter 5, "Should we lie to Grandma about the truth if the truth will distress her ?" 

As usual, Kant's problem is that he's an absolutist. For him everything is on or off, black or white. He allows no variation for the subtleties of human psychology.

From an article on Kant...   Lying and Ethics - Santa Clara University link:

The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that lying was always morally wrong. He argued that all persons are born with an "intrinsic worth" that he called human dignity. This dignity derives from the fact that humans are uniquely rational agents, capable of freely making their own decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason. To be human, said Kant, is to have the rational power of free choice; to be ethical, he continued, is to respect that power in oneself and others.
Lies are morally wrong, then, for two reasons. First, lying corrupts the most important quality of my being human: my ability to make free, rational choices. Each lie I tell contradicts the part of me that gives me moral worth. Second, my lies rob others of their freedom to choose rationally. When my lie leads people to decide other than they would had they known the truth, I have harmed their human dignity and autonomy. Kant believed that to value ourselves and others as ends instead of means, we have perfect duties (i.e., no exceptions) to avoid damaging, interfering with, or misusing the ability to make free decisions; in other words - no lying.

End article.

So Kant has decided that human beings are the rational animal. Kant was wrong. As I said many times, man is not a rational animal.  Man is a rationalizing animal.  Kant deluded himself by becoming obsessed with the magnificence of man being so great that our automatic, natural response when facing a new situation is to think about it and come to a logical conclusion.

This is just flat wrong. We are an emotional animal. Our first, default reaction to a situation is emotional. Later we think about it. Usually we think about it only to rationalize the emotional decision we already made.  Sometimes, if we work at it really hard, we actually do think about it clearly and overrule our emotional decision. But let's be honest, that is rare.

Once again, Kant managed to talk himself into a position that sounds very reasonable, as long as you don't pay any attention to reality.

He says that to lie to a person is to take away their ability to clearly think about a situation. Okay, that is often true. But is it true in every case? Any man who has had his wife, fiancé, girlfriend, or daughter ask him, "Does this make my butt look fat?" Knows that there are times when a lie can be a white lie. It can smooth social situations, and doesn't really have a serious impact on anybody's rational ability.  

Consider what would happen if said man replied to his wife, fiancé, girlfriend, or daughter, "No, Sweetheart. The fat on your butt makes it look fat."

Absolutism is not a functionally effective position to take.  Kant is right about a great many lies. But he is not right about every lie.

In almost every war movie ever made, there is a scene in which the dying soldier asks, "Am I gonna make it?"  There are no decisions for him to make. In a few moments he will be dead. Is it really immoral to give him the comfort of, "Yeah, buddy, you're going to be okay."?

Is it such a terrible thing to say, "I'm sorry." When you really aren't? I mean, suppose you bump into somebody in line, so you say it. You're not really sorry. Still, you didn't mean to bump into the guy. So it's immoral to say sorry?

In case you haven't guessed, Kant irritates me. He talks too much. He uses his reason to create highly complex, utterly unrealistic visions. His sentences are absolute masterpieces of confusing people about an idea that really isn't that difficult or confusing when you boil it down. But most of all, he's an absolutist.

I suppose, in Kant's view, Kant was perfect. However, I exercise my right to disagree with him on that point.

There was an author-philosopher in the Victorian era named Thomas Carlyle. He was also sure of himself. Why, he was just wonderful, at least, he always said he was. He also reminds me of Wile E Coyote, super genius! People nicknamed him Jupiter Carlisle, because he seemed to think he was the king of the gods.  He wasn't the only one to think so highly of himself.

After all, there's only one true super genius. Guess who?

No! I am not referring to fictional character Sheldon on the Big Bang theory. Try again!

Idle Thoughts -- Kant vs PETA

Analyze the following statement, "Man and in general every rational being, should be treated as an end in himself , never merely as a means", what are the moral implications of that statement for humans, as well as nonhumans? 

I'll start with animals.
From an article on Kant:

-- “[So] far as animals are concerned, we have no direct duties. Animals are not self-conscious and are there merely as the means to an end. That end is man.” He reiterates this point later by writing: “Our duties towards animals are merely indirect duties towards humanity”. --

My response to this is to cover old ground again, but there's just no way to avoid it. First, Kant is just reflecting the age-old attitude: we are just so great, so wonderful, so perfect, so much better than everything else in the world, just look at how wonderful we are!

Arrogance is a potential problem in anyone. Unfortunately, Kant didn't realize that. At least, not when it came to the human species. Agreed, he did not know about evolution. That was to develop later.  But moralists throughout the centuries have indicated that animals can experience suffering and no moral person inflicts it. Intellectually, Kant was a  giant. Morally...I don't think he was a very moral person. I know that's a controversial position. But I sincerely believe it.

Like so many philosophers, he got himself all wrapped up in self admiration about how clever he was. And in doing so, he forgot about reality.

Again, I acknowledge that he was unaware of evolution. He did not realize that all the wonderful elements of humanity that he thought was so perfect and so unique were inevitably the result of millions of years of evolution. They were present, in a less developed form, in many lower animals.  Nevertheless, how could he ignore the obvious fact that animals did suffer? Answer, he didn't. He just said that animal suffering is no big deal. And that is the statement of a coldhearted, immoral and despicable man.  Cruelty to animals, by the way, is one of the signs of a child headed toward a career of a serious crime, often including mass murder.  Every elementary school counselor knows that. I'm not making it up.

Man as an end in himself?  Sorry, but I think that's a rather silly statement. I agree that man should not be used or regarded as something merely to be used. That is to say, no human being should be regarded or treated as an object. But what does it mean to say man is an end in himself?

Does that mean we have no need to attempt to improve ourselves? No need to get an education? No need to keep learning? It sounds as if Kant is saying, I am a man, therefore I am perfect already.

To me, an end is something that you are working to attain. The end of your work at school is to attain a degree and use it to seek gainful employment which is helpful to your fellow human beings. So the end of a human being is too... What?

Just exist?

In the context of "men should not be used as objects", the statement makes some sense. But it doesn't make much sense at all when you apply it elsewhere.  So I would say, he just never should've added that part of the sentence. That is pretty typical of so many of the philosophers. When they could say it nice, clean, and clear, they like to say it in the most convoluted, complex, and confusing way possible. I think it makes them feel smart. 

They're wrong.

It is much harder, it requires much more intelligence, it requires much more effort, to say a complicated thing in a clear way which actually expresses the concept.  Making an idea as complicated as possible because you think that's what intellectuals do, is a misunderstanding of what an intellectual is. Intellectuals love ideas and learning. They don't love sending out clouds of complicated and confusing words. That's what the ignorant do to cover up their ignorance.

Okay, so I can't really call Kant ignorant. However, I will call him arrogant, self absorbed, and deeply concerned with making himself sound supersmart. Sometimes Kant reminds me of Wile E. Coyote. You remember, the SUPER genius?

Who was Kant trying to convince that he was a super genius? I have a suspicion it was Kant. I don't think the guy had enough faith in his own intelligence. Insecurity anyone?

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Atrocities, Anyone?

Science news September 21, 2013.  Book reviews

The Nazi and the Psychiatrist by Jack El-Hai

Douglas Kelley, a US Army psychiatrist was assigned to maintain the mental health of the Nazi leaders awaiting trial for their atrocities.  He decided on his own to determine what made these men capable of committing these horrific crimes. His conclusion was disturbing. He did not find them insane nor even unusual compared with other people. The only two traits they seemed to share we'e being goal driven and being tireless workaholics.

He concluded that we could find people in America who would commit the same atrocities. In fact, a large number of people would do so. It seems reasonable to assume we could find people with those traits everywhere in the world.

Conclusion: the potential to commit evil is deep among all of us, more so in some of us. All it takes is one evil leader; there will always be plenty of followers.

Idle Thoughts -- Kant on Morality

Evaluate the following statement: "actions are morally good only if they are done because of good will" explain what Kant means by "good will".  Do you think the statement is correct or incorrect? Explain your position

Kant's conception of good will is very complicated. The best way to sum it up is that a person with good will is a person who acts from a sense of morality without consideration for their own personal benefit.  A person has good will if they are acting in a  sincere attempt to be moral and do the moral thing.

This sounds really nice, but what if a person means to do a moral thing, really sincerely believes they're doing a moral thing, but they do something horrible?

This is very hard to believe, in fact I've had people tell me know that can't be true, but the fact is, Adolf Hitler thought he was a very moral man who was doing God's own work on this earth.  When one of his comrades was killed right next him in World War I, Hitler believed then, and continued to repeat for the rest of his life, that God had saved him so that he could do the moral thing. And by the moral thing he meant exterminating every Jew on the planet.

I do not know exactly what Hitler meant by God. Many Nazis meant God as the force of history. That is to say, not a personal God but rather a necessary force that makes humanity continue to advance and improve. In any event, it is clear, that by Kant's definition of goodwill, Hitler had lots of good will.

He knew that he might die in his attempt to save the world. Yes, he got lots of benefits of becoming Der Fuerer, which means only the leader. But even as Germany was falling around him, he believed that he had done the right moral thing and that his sacrifice was worth making.

That meets Kant's definition. Regardless of what it meant to himself, even if it killed him, Hitler was trying to do what he sincerely thought was the moral thing to do.

Anyone care to suggest that therefore Hitler was a moral person? Other Nazis did everything they could to steal and grab to make themselves rich. They were just crooks. But Hitler was a true believer. He thought he was doing good.

So did the people who ran the Inquisition. So did the people who ran the Protestant Discipline, which actually managed to kill more people than the Spanish Inquisition did.  People of very good will who sincerely try to do the right moral thing even if it costs them a personal loss have been responsible for committing many of the the most horrible and despicable acts in the entire history of mankind. Kant needed to get out of his ivory tower, open his eyes, and look at the real world.

His ideas are very pretty. They're very nice to read about. But when they meet reality, they crumble into so much dust in the wind.

Now what about someone who commits an act which isn't done out of goodwill? Is such an act never moral?

If someone acts out of what's called enlightened self interest, meaning they do something which helps others because it also helps themselves, according to Kant, that is not moral.

So, if a politician votes to keep the food stamp program running because he knows that this will stimulate the economy and create jobs, increase the GDP, and help small businesses, does that mean his actions aren't moral?  According to Kant, that's exactly what it means.

You remember the biblical story about the Pharisee who only gave to the temple because it would make people praise him? Well, basically that's Kant's position.

The problem is that Kant is simply too absolutist. Once again he wants an on off switch. Good bad. Right wrong. Moral not moral.

So, here I go again, life ain't that simple. Life is messy. Lots of gray areas, lots of in between's. Where Kant makes his error is in trying to be absolutist.

That's gonna have to be it for tonight. I cooked tonight and frankly I'm getting pretty vertiginous. I need to take some meds and lie down. I'll do the rest of this tomorrow.

Oh, look at my recent post and you'll see the things I said about food stamps have been shown to be true, in a time of recession.

Euthanasia -- A Personal Matter

Debate: euthanasia for or against?

Okay first thing we need to do is define terms. Euthanasia means different things to different people.

A few examples:


To negative eugenicists, and that included the Nazis, it meant actually killing people who were living happy lives, but were mentally retarded, had neurological diseases, or other problems which troubled not them, but the people around them.  The Nazis learned about positive and negative eugenics in their early years by sending a group of United States to study our practices in that area. We didn't murder people, of course, but we did force people to undergo sterilization so they wouldn't pass on their weaknesses on to the next generation.  

It is one of the most disgusting things this country ever did, but most Americans don't even know we did it.  As a country we are very ashamed of it, so we usually manage to overlook it in our history books.

Eugenics is the idea that you can make the human race better through selective breeding of people. Positive eugenicists think that we should encourage people with the right genes to breed and have lots of kids. Negative eugenicists think we need to stop people with bad genes from breeding, ensuring that they have no children.


Every now and then we read in the news about a doctor who killed patients that the doctor felt were suffering. Sometimes it's a doctor, sometimes it's a nurse. They mean well, but they don't even ask the patients if this is what they want. They just kill them.  

You should read the article on the link below. A book has been written about this. It's a very troubling situation.

Aug 25, 2009 - The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina at Memorial Medical Center in New Orleans. ... jury declined to indict her on second-degree murder charges, the case faded from view. ..... She said that Pou did not use the word “euthanize..."


Many Americans believe we should do what is done in some other countries. That is, we should allow people who are suffering terrible pain at the end of their lives to choose suicide. The difference from this and the other positions is that it is the patient who was doing the suffering who was making the decision. The doctor is just complying with the request.


Families often have to make this terrible decision for the patient who is no longer able to decide, and may not even be conscious. My mother had to make this decision for my father. They had to keep him heavily drugged because he kept pulling the breathing apparatus out of his throat. Obviously, he did not want it there. Furthermore, every breath the machine forced down his lungs damaged his lungs more. The doctor said eventually his lungs would be so destroyed that even the machine would not keep him alive.

So she did what the doctor suggested, and we all gathered around and  held him while he died. He did not show any sign of struggle or suffering --which he had shown with that tube down his throat.  I believe mother made the right decision. I think it's what dad would've wanted. In any event, it stopped the suffering of a prolonged death being kept alive by a machine.

I think you know my position on the subject of euthanasia. Now I'll look up an article for you.

Euthanasia was the right decision for my wife - Washington Post › Collections

Oct 22, 2012 - I was living in comfortable retirement with my wife, Mathilde, when, at the age of 71, she received a diagnosis of Waldenstrom's disease.

Here's another version of the same story I told. Different people, different disease, but the same conclusion.  You can agree or disagree with the article, either way it'll work for you. Neither the article nor I spoke about the objections to euthanasia. Basically, they come down to moral issues . Is it ever right to take a human life? In my dad's case there was no need for any action to be taken except to turn off the machine it was artificially keeping him alive. But I believe that in extreme cases yes, it is acceptable to euthanize someone if that is their desire, or if that is the decision of their family under extreme circumstances.

My wishes on the subject are well-known to all of you. I had this talk with you some years ago when my vertigo reached the worst levels that I have ever experienced. It's an uncomfortable subject but I think it needs to be dealt with, once again. When I am having really terrible vertigo attacks it is like being tortured. The suffering is extreme.  

I know you believe it, I know some other members of the family do, but I also know at least a few who doubt it. But they are wrong. At those times, as terrified as I have been of death since I was six years old, death is preferable to the suffering.

I only lived through those times for four reasons.

 One, I do still fear death is the greatest terror I can imagine. This keeps me from rushing into ending the suffering, but it only slows me down.

Two, I am so incapacitated I'm afraid I would make a mess of killing myself and make my suffering even worse. During the French Revolution Robespierre got the idea that the way to support the revolution was to create mass terror through mass murder. He's the one, if any one person is responsible, for the rivers of blood running through French streets from the guillotine. But people got sick of all the blood and decided to chop his head off.  In terror, he tried to kill himself. Pun intended.

Chopping heads off was great for other people, just not for him. He tried to shoot himself and messed it up. He shattered his jaw and spent the night in horrific agony until they finally guillotined him the next day. I don't want that to happen to me.

Three, as horrible as it is I keep telling myself it will pass. So far it has. Maybe one day it won't.  Then no one needs to ask. If that happens I don't want to die, but it's better than suffering like that. You all know it and I expect you all to carry it through if it ever becomes necessary. I'm sorry. But that's just the way it is. Be comforted by knowing it is not your decision. It is mine. All you're doing is telling the doctor what I have told you to tell. Please don't get upset, I don't think I will ever be stuck permanently in that condition.

Four, the main reason I've never taken my life, as tempting as it has been at times, as necessary as it has seemed to me at times, is that I live for my family. Good food, good books, communion with God, all the joys of life, aren't worth that suffering. That is, except for my family.  Every one of you, well almost everyone of you, including my grandchildren can say that you have saved my life on numerous occasions. Because you have.

It is not an exaggeration, but a statement of simple fact. There were times I would've killed myself to put an end to the suffering, but I did not do so because I knew it would inflict suffering on you to have me do that to myself and because I wanted to get through it so that I could live with all of you another day.

The best teacher I ever had, Dr. Danielson out at the VVC, the best school I've ever attended, taught me philosophy. I remember a discussion in which he talked about a philosopher who said no one is truly alive who has not sat up alone at night with a gun in front of him and decided whether to kill himself or to continue to live.

 I agreed with that position. On the other hand, I never actually did that. And I had no idea that one day I would actually consider suicide as a necessary option compared with continuing with the life I was living at that moment.  

I know this talk is disturbing to you, and to any of my children who may read this, but it is reality and it must be faced.  Again, take comfort in the fact that all of you are the reason that I kept living. That is actually a conscious decision I have made on numerous occasions. I hope I never have to face the choice again, but my health has been slipping back again lately, as you know.

All of you were the only things worth living for on more than one occasion. That should make you happy.

Church or Business?

The dogmatic and moral teachings of the church are not all equivalent. The Church's pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistenly. We have to find a new balance otherwise even the moral edifice of the church is likely to fall like a house of cards.  --  Pope Francis

How strange! It sounds like we have a Pope who is not a bureaucrat. Apparently, he reads more of the Gospel than he does of memos. Do you suppose that he has watched Leonard Bernstein's Mass?

Friday, September 20, 2013

Self Delusion and Emancipation

One of the most ludicrously bizarre claims made by Republicans today is that they are the party that freed the slaves, so how can they possibly be racist? This level of self-delusion is a new extreme even for them. To go to extreme focus, this is tantamount to saying that the State Department should issue warnings for all Americans going to Rome, especially if they're Christians. After all, you know what the Romans do the Christians!

Radical Republicans in the 19th century meant radically liberal. The Republicans who freed the slaves were one of the most liberal groups in the entire world. They were criticized for being so liberal by conservatives across the globe. Is that true today?

Republicans today include the Democrats who left the Democratic Party so that they could maintain segregation forever. That's right , they left the Democratic Party because they couldn't stand the idea of treating Blacks as equals. They found a welcoming home in the GOP. What the party did over 100 years ago says nothing about what they are today. I don't judge them for what happened 50 years ago either. I judge them by what they're doing and saying today.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Scrooge's Ghost Haunts the GOP

Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a story of redemption. Remember that Scrooge had a lot of bad things happen when he was young, so we can understand how he became a miser who only cared about money. Scrooge didn't even care about his own comfort. He lived in old almost abandoned house, ate bad food, and did not live well, even though he was rich.

Money for him was about power and control. It meant he was safe. Safe from all the bad things that had happened when he was younger.

His old partner, who was just as bad as he, comes to visit him as a ghost because he says his hurt himself through greed when he was alive and even though he was a miser, he cares about his old friend and partner and wants to help him.

So when the ghosts come to talk to Scrooge, they're all coming to help him. For him this is a very strange thing. The only people he really cared about or trusted were his deceased sister and his fiancée, who he abandoned because money was more important to him than love.

Scrooge had a very modern Republican Party attitude toward poor people. If you are poor, it must be your fault. The ghosts show him that this isn't true and he begins to realize that the poor aren't things, they are people. Maybe the most important moment is when he remembers the party his old employer gave to his workers every Christmas. It didn't cost much but it made everybody so very happy. That's when Scrooge realizes that you can have money and be powerful and cut yourself off from everyone or you can use your money to make everyone, including yourself, happier.

The best real world example of a Scrooge is Howard Hughes. Fabulously wealthy, perhaps the wealthiest man in the world, he ended his life hiding in a hotel room in Las Vegas, shuffling around using empty Kleenex boxes for slippers, terrified people were out to get him. He was mentally ill, but human relationships could have helped him find stability.

In other words, whatever it is which makes people insane, you can help it destroy you by becoming greedy and cutting yourself off from the humanity of everyone else. We need to remember we are all one family. When you make someone else happy, it makes you happy. Recent experiments using functional magnetic resonance imaging show that the pleasure centers of the brain light up when we do kind things for other people. It's a real thing and cannot be ignored.

I also want to mention the moral belief system currently very popular among many elected officials. Ayn Rand says selfishness is everything. Greed is good. You should care about no one but yourself. Many people call her a philosopher, which is ridiculous. Philosophers think things through an attempt to understand life through the understanding which grows from the development of their ideas . All she ever did was scream and hiss about how evil collectivism was.

She never thought anything through, she just hysterically reacted. She also got everything wrong. Modern science has shown in many ways that man is a social animal and that we naturally work together. We are a species which practices reciprocity by nature. She is wrong sociologically. She is wrong psychologically. She is wrong in primatology, and so on. The reason people love her so much is that she gives excuses them to do doing horrible things and makes them feel good about it.

The WHAT Papers?

Obama waives ban on giving arms to terrorists to help Syrian rebels! Is this outrageous? From a post from the radical right wing organization which is called, the Federalist Papers.

What follows is my response to a friend who made the original post:

It would be outrageous, if it was true. Since it is false, it is not outrageous.

It is clear that the US will send help to the non terrorist, secular factions of the opposition. There is no one "the opposition". There are many small groups all of which are attempting to overthrow the government. There is some danger that giving arms to these secular, non terrorist groups allows the possibility that those arms might stolen by terrorists, but that is not the same thing is giving weapons to terrorists.

Since no weapons will be given to terrorists, there is no violation of the UN resolution forbidding that act. Therefore there is no violation of international law.

It is also true that some Syrian experts believe that doing so will strengthen those secular groups, allowing them to suppress the terrorists--might, maybe. As usual, the matter is very complex and difficult. The Federalist papers oversimplify and flat-out state falsehoods. Terrorists are not being supplied weapons by the US, so the US has not violated the UN resolution not allowing us to supply weapons to terrorists.

As far as Benghazi goes, it is Republicans were responsible for that event. It is they who savagely cut the budget which allowed the defense department to, among other things, provide security for embassies. Strange, they never mention that fact. Hillary Clinton and the administration did the what they could with what little they had left after the Republicans raped the budget. There is little doubt that they might have done better, but they certainly would have done better if they had had the money to do so. The only conspiracy here is the Republicans' conspiracy to anger and frighten Americans into foolish behavior by arousing their emotions to such extremes that they shut down their higher brain functions.

The chance of American boots on the ground in Syria is zero. The will of the American people was clearly expressed on the issue of remote-control bombing, and had Russia and Syria not caved, giving us a greater victory than we had anticipated even by using weapons, even that matter would be a closed case at this time. The American people will never allow boots on the ground in Syria.

For me, Obama is a mixed case. He has done some fine things. He has done some terrible things. George Bush was almost 100% awful.

Idle Thoughts -- the Lion, the Witch, and the Bertrand Russell

There are many subcultures in America. One of them which is very strange to me is the absolutist belief system of the fundamentalist evangelical Christian culture. I do deeply believe in God, if fact, I'm fond of saying that I do not believe in God, I know him. I know my brother, so I don't need to believe in him. I don't know the Easter Bunny, so I need to believe or not believe in him.

But having said that, I do not believe that God is giving me detailed directions on how to live my everyday life. The sense that there is a set of absolute directions from a spiritual king must be obeyed his if I were his serf is very strange to me. This message is exemplified in a series of children's books which are very popular even among adults, especially adult evangelical Christians. The first book of the series is The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe by CS Lewis.

Three English children in the World War II era find themselves transported into a magic land, Narnia. The land is been taken over by the White Which was changed everything into an eternal winter. Three of the children come into the land peacefully, and befriend the talking animals who live there, but their brother meets the White Witch when he arrives and eats some of her poisonous magic food, transforming him into her servant.

The other children don't realize this and accept the traitor among them. The four of them go out to rescue the land from the witch and return it to the control of Aslan the Lion, who is a Christ figure.

The story plays out as a children's retelling of man's fall and Christ's redemptive sacrifice. While the story seems to be just about a magic land, it is in fact the whole story of man's fall, original sin, and the redemptive nature of suffering.

The children learned that to do good in an evil world requires suffering, sacrifice, and a spirit willing to fight for that which is right. Philosophically this goes back to the City of God by St. Augustine. Man is evil and inherits Original Sin simply by existing, only the blood of Christ can wash us free of those sins. This frames the subplot in which Edmond, brother who became loyal to the witchby surrendering himself to her service in order to become a king, loses the true kingship he deserved anyway. The lesson here is if you make a bargain with evil whatever you gain will be what you would've had anyway but it is now perverted. You're always better sticking with good. The rewards of doing evil are always bad, perverted and even poisonous to you, no matter how nice they seem to be, while the rewards of doing good, for all the suffering they may cause, are always are healthy and good for you in the long run.

Making a bargain with evil is always a mistake. Making a bargain with what is good is inappropriate. If you are wise, don't make any bargains, you just do what's good. Of course this assumes an absolute state in which everything is either good or evil.There are no moral question or doubts. Everything is simple. Everything is clear. The state is unlikely to occur in real life, but the author may be excused for over simplifying. It is a children's book.

All of this is easily applied to everyday life. The book was written with the thought in mind that most of the readers would be members of a nation in which most people were Christian, and would readily recognize the symbols. In everyday life we constantly make choices. It is easy to make the choice that looks like it will benefit us in the material world without regard to right and wrong, but this is always a mistake. Even though the right way is longer and harder and more difficult in appearance, the road that follows such a course is actually more rewarding and even less harsh than the alternative. Living as a believing Christian and actually acting on Christian principles isn't just the best choice, it's the only choice that makes any sense.

So far so good. Unfortunately, this theme is carried to an extreme which is not acceptable. Ultimately, the individual's choice, as presented, is not to carefully think things through and make the correct decision. Instead, one is expected to blindly obey the righteous king. The assumption is that since he is truly righteous therefore he is always right. This is not just an artifact of this being a children's book. The same attitude is reflected in many Christians today. Christ is the king and must be blindly and totally and absolutely obeyed. End of statement.

The difficulty is obvious to to those who not take such an absolutist positions. What if you misunderstand what the King has ordered? What if the king is wrong in this particular case? Of course, such questions make no sense to the true believers. They are certain that the king can never be wrong and you can never mistake the meaning of his messages to you because after all he is sending them and he can make no mistakes, like sending a confusing message. If you misunderstand it, that suggests he has failed somehow. Since that is impossible, it simply cannot happen.

The difficulty is that in the real world absolute certainty is rarely correct. As Bertrand Russell said, "The fundamental cause of trouble in the world today is that the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt." I find this statement to be excessive. It isn't really a question of intelligence or lack thereof. The real issue is overconfidence and a willingness to stop thinking about things, not a fundamental inability to think. Nevertheless, the fundamental point is accurate. People who have no doubts whatsoever are generally those who are the least likely to be factually accurate. If you assume that God has directed you to do something, there is no need to think about it. God cannot possibly be wrong and in fact it could even be regarded as an insult to Him to take the time to consider the moral implications of the act. Who is willing to insult God?

This is the attitude that led to both of the Inquisition and the Protestant Discipline. These two brutal efforts to purify the church led to many atrocities. Of course those practicing those atrocities never had any doubts. After all, they were obeying the instructions of the King.

Let me make clear again that I truly love this series of books. It's simply that they should be taken as what they are, simple parables intended for children. All too many individuals apply these lessons literally as adults to their real lives. That is a mistake.

Adult life is complicated and difficult. Oversimplifying it only leads to error.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Idle Thoughts -- Goethe and The Sorrows of Young Werther

Goethe hated this novel. He said it haunted him in many ways and that he wished he had never written it. But, and I'm quoting from an article,

-- The Sorrows of Young Werther was Goethe's first major success, turning him from an unknown into a celebrated author practically overnight. Napoleon Bonaparte considered it one of the great works of European literature. He thought so highly of it that he wrote a soliloquy in Goethe's style in his youth and carried Werther with him on his campaigning to Egypt. It also started the phenomenon known as the Werther-Fieber ("Werther Fever") which caused young men throughout Europe to dress in the clothing style described for Werther in the novel.[5][6] It reputedly also led to some of the first known examples of copycat suicide. --

Back to my comments: The LA Times today had a report about a young man's body being found. He had committed suicide. It is believed by the authorities that he did so because of the love affair that gone wrong. So it can happen. It is much more likely with today's social media for people to commit suicide due to bullying, but certainly it is possible that in today's wired world that the idea that it's somehow cool to kill yourself if you lose out in a love affair could spread. Teenagers are notorious for doing things because they feel social pressure to do so, even if the things are self-destructive. Copycat suicides occurred even long ago when the story was written. It could happen today.

Experts have noted that teenagers often imagine when considering suicide how everyone will react. They picture themselves as floating above the action listening to everybody talk about how much they wish they'd done better by the individual who died. This is because teenagers have a really difficult time understanding the finaliality of death. Even in traditional religious belief you don't get to hang around and listen to everybody say how sorry they are that they weren't nicer to you when you were alive.

Idle Thoughts -- Plato vs. Aristotle in Regard to the Theater

Plato was against the theater for two reasons.

Reason number one: Plato believed, like other Pythagoreans, that there was a real world of mathematics that was very different from the world we live in. He thought that everything we saw in this world was a false and distorted view of the pure reality in the mathematical world. It was very hard, but through your thoughts and the application of pure mathematics, it was possible to get at least a better view of the true nature of reality. He very famously said, "If we are to discuss the cosmos, we must not look at the stars."

Today this sounds like the statement of a man who is insane. After all, science has learned so much about the cosmos by studying the stars. But in Plato's mind anything here in this world was at best a poor imitation of what truth there was to be found in pure thoughts and mathematics. How does that apply to theater? Quite directly. Theater to Plato was a group of men acting out a very poor imitation of our already very poor imitation world. A bad copy of a bad copy, in other words.

Therefore any play would only confuse people. It couldn't possibly teach you anything except false ideas about our already false world.

He also was upset about the theater and fiction in general because he felt people were very impressionable. If you told them stories about people doing bad things, they would be tempted to do the bad things. Since many of the Greek plays told stories about jealous, angry and unworthy gods, he feared that the plays would teach people to disrespect the gods. He even thought that if plays about suffering in the afterlife were watched by people, they would become so afraid of what might happen when they died that they would no longer be able to do a good job of living.

Today we are likely to say in response that plays and stories can also teach people good things and that perhaps they either balance out or even weigh in on the side of the good. Plato felt any good presented by a play wasn't real good because it wasn't actual goodness, it was only a bad copy of false goodness made from a bad copy of false goodness in the real world which was not the pure mathematical goodness of the higher realm.

Even worse is the idea that a playwright would be a good person to teach morality. Plato thought the teachers of morals should be people specially trained to instruct in this area. Obviously playwrights weren't so trained and therefore would do a bad job of it. But he was an absolutist, a utopian. He thought that he could create a perfect utopian society as long as it rigidly and absolutely controlled instruction and behavior in every single aspect of life. Today the teachings of Plato on government sound an awful lot like the teachings of any police state, whether Communist or Nazi. Many people have criticized Plato for his rigidity and trust in total government control.

Aristotle said that this was nonsense. Plays didn't make you have bad emotions, we were born with those. What plays did was help us learn how to handle those emotions and to see the bad possible consequences of letting them get out of control. He also said that watching a play about terrible events would lead to a catharsis which made us feel that now the bad thing was over, thus generating healthy attitudes. This would help us to be stronger and able to better deal with real life.

And by the way, Aristotle believed that the real world was real. He thought the best way to learn about things was to study them and even do experiments about them. One of his pupils was Alexander the Great. Once Alexander was a grown man and busy conquering the world, he took a lot of time to collect specimens of strange plants and animals that he could send back to Aristotle so that he could learn about these new creatures and the new ideas of other lands.

Plays have always been a problem, and so have been books. A few years ago in our local library here in Apple Valley there was an attempt to ban a book on anime and hentai. The book was in the adult section, not available to children, but it did show the sexual side of these Japanese arts. In the end it was decided to let the book stay because, after all, it was just telling facts about this Japanese art form, not advocating the sexual aspects.

We still hear of people trying to ban Huckleberry Finn. At first people wanted to ban it because it presented Black people as full human beings who were not inferior. Now people want to ban it because it keeps using an offensive term applied to Blacks, and people think it's racist.

There are always reasons people want to censor. It is very hard to make an effective balance. Books in Germany are not allowed to deny the Holocaust. Books in America can. America bans child pornography. America does not ban pornography in which beautiful women step on and crush small animals to death.

The Japanese have a version of hentai called guro which involves horrible torture mutilation. It is considered an acceptable artform in Japan and has roots in the 1930's. Most people are discomfited by it, even there, but the Japanese think that people who like that sort of thing will be able to get their satisfaction from these cartoons rather than from actually hurting real people or real animals. Are they right? No one really seems to know. You will get people who have studied the subject saying yes and people who have studied the subject saying no. Obviously we need a lot more study!

I conclude this argument by stating that Plato was being foolish, blinded by his utopian dreams of perfection in society, while Aristotle was being reasonable and thoughtful. Human nature is a real thing. Utopians always think they can change human nature if they can just have enough power. The problem is human nature doesn't change. If it did, we wouldn't be human anymore. We would've evolved into something else. We humans are storytellers. As far back as we can trace, we have always told stories to each other. This is natural and normal. It is one of the most important ways we learn. Plato just couldn't face these facts because he didn't like them very much and they made all his pretty dreams seem impossible. Aristotle faced facts whether he liked them or not.

My final personal comment. Someone once very famously said that all philosophy can be found in Plato, all the rest of the subject is merely commentary upon him. I'm willing to agree with that point as long as you are willing to add that the commentary is on how wrong Plato was about just about everything.

Oh, and let me add, if you're upset about the whole idea of guro, think about some of the really ugly American horror films made lately. Things like Saw and the Human Centipede. Yes, I know Centipede wasn't American film but it was very popular in America. We like guro too. We just don't call it that.

Monday, September 16, 2013

Post Taps

This was a long day. Not the easiest day, but the best I've had in months. I was up today. And by up I mean upstairs. Not for any reason, just to be there.

It's remarkable how pleasant it is to go to bed when you haven't been stuck there all day.

Idle Thoughts -- Erewhon, Evil, and Ted Bundy

It's clear to many people that Ted Bundy is the perfect example of evil. He killed people without showing any feeling about them,  just for the sake of killing.  But you have to ask yourself, what do we mean by evil? Bundy didn't present himself as a worshiper of Satan or any of the other excuses often made by perpetrators.  He simply said he killed because he enjoyed it. He said it was a very powerful experience and that he felt the people he killed were always a part of him. The way described it sounds almost like someone having a deep religious experience.

Although psychiatrists couldn't agree on exactly what was wrong with him, it is clear that something was was abnormal. He didn't feel things that normal people felt. He also obviously felt emotions that other people feel as connected with positive events, but in his mind, they were connected with murder.

It wasn't long ago when people, even doctors, were convinced that all manner of things were totally "in the head". In World War I many soldiers who broke down from the horrors of combat were charged with crimes. The British said they had a lack of moral fiber. By World War II we were beginning to understand that the human body can only take so much and the brains of these men were simply breaking down. These people did not lack moral fiber, what they lacked was a environment in which human beings could survive without falling apart.

I recently watched a  documentary in which in a neurophysiologist was studying MRIs of the brains of convicted killers. He actually went into prisons to test inmates to determine what might or might not be different about their physiology. He discovered that individuals who had killed cold bloodedly, not on impulse or temporary rage, had differences in brain structure from normal humans.

One day, as he was reviewing his data, he was looking at the scans of brains. He had not paid attention to the labels. He was looking at one and thought, there's a person who clearly shows the signs of a damaged brain that is likely to commit murder. He then looked at the tag. It was a scan he'd done of himself.

He carefully studied his own scan in regard to the others, and concluded that yes, his brain show the same signs that serial killers and cold-blooded murderers displayed. When he told this to his family, he explained to the viewers, his family laughed. They said that it didn't surprise them! They then talked with him about his childhood and said he had always seemed rather ruthless to them

It isn't that he was a horrible person. It's just that he could get obsessed about something and follow through, determined to make it happen. He concluded that there are structures in your brain which can malfunction, but if you have that function it only means you are disposed toward becoming a heartless criminal.  It does not mean that you are unable to resist.

Had he had a different upbringing, in an abusive family such as Ted Bundy's, he probably would have become another evil monster.  Instead he became a respected scientist and doctor.

In another study, Finnish researchers looked at the extensive records the socialistic government kept on adopted children.  Because this government is such a presence in people's lives, the records extended over decades and allowed them to look at children's entire lifespans.  In the case of identical twins separated at birth, researchers made a very interesting discovery which led with even more interesting conclusions.

What they found out was that children who came from families with high criminal rates had different results in their own lives depending on the families with which they were placed.  If a child from a family with a record of a high criminal rate was placed with a family with a high criminal rate, the child had an increased likelihood of becoming a criminal himself. If the child's twin was placed in a family with a low criminal rate, this genetically identical individual was no more like to become a criminal than anyone else.

They also discovered that the children from families with low criminal rates also had lower rates of criminality, no matter which type of family with which they were placed.  In other words, children who had both factors were likely to become criminals. Children with only one factor were not. Remember that the two factors are that the child comes from a broad family background which displays a high criminal rate and is raised in a family with a high criminal background.  If both factors apply, the children  are more likely to become a criminal.  It is important to remember that we are talking about identical twins. That is to say, individuals with the same genetic and prenatal background.

These two cases strongly suggest that while certain brain structures can predispose someone with a certain personality type to become dangerous and perceived as evil, the right circumstances in raising that individual also prevents them from actually falling into that pattern.  

I don't know if you can work this into your paper, but as a child I remember being convinced that no one could actually deliberately do the horrible things I heard about in the news.  I just couldn't stand the suffering and the grief which was being caused. But obviously the things were happening, so eventually I concluded the people who did this must simply be sick. Strangely enough, that emotional response on my part may now seems to be showing some signs of having a scientific basis.

It is not impossible to imagine a day when, using advanced scientific knowledge and techniques with are not yet available to us, we will be able to look at criminals not as lacking moral fiber, but as individuals with a diseased or broken brain.  Picture a person accused of murder in the future. If sufficient evidence indicates that he committed the crime, he may be forced to take the equivalent of a functional magnetic resonance imaging test which will display what is or is not wrong with his brain.

It is possible then that the equivalent of a pacemaker may be inserted into the brain, altering its structure. So criminals might one day not be punished, but  cured.  This also, strangely enough, reflects a humorous, satirical book called Erewhon.
The book was published by Samuel Butler in the late 1800s. Among many other satirical comments, he said that in this strange Utopia people regarded criminal activity as an illness while they regarded illness as an evil sinful act.  While I can't imagine getting a cold or catching the measles ever being regarded as sinful, he may have made an excellent point. It is possible that serious criminal activity is a combined function of problems with your brain's physiological nature added to a poor upbringing.

After all, it is not only combat fatigue which we now regard as physiological, schizophrenics who under some circumstances commit horrible crimes can now can be treated with medication. Families report cases of individuals who become normal, healthy members of society while they were on their medications deciding to stop taking them and then reverting to strangely disturbed individuals who might commit acts of evil.