Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Busy, busy, busy

Bokononism has its attractions. I have several long posts sitting in the edit folder, awaiting my attendance. But for reasons of schoolwork and scholarly completeness, these will have to wait a little longer.

In the meantime, The Nation has again asked me why I bother reading. The uck starts here. The author, Melissa Harris-Perry, `responds' to `criticisms' here, naming in particular Joan Walsh's response at Salon.

The thesis? White liberal disapproval of Obama is indicative of a racial double-standard. The purported evidence? A relatively higher white disapproval of Obama, as extremely precisely measured against the enormous and extremely appropriate data set of `Bill Clinton':

"These comparisons are neither an attack on the Clinton administration nor an apology for the Obama administration. They are comparisons of two centrist Democratic presidents who faced hostile Republican majorities in the second half of their first terms, forcing a number of political compromises. One president is white. The other is black."

Before bothering with detail-work, let's turn to how Harris-Perry categorized the criticisms:
  1. Prove it!
  2. I have black friends.
  3. Who made you an expert?
Both the original article and the `response' omitted a category of interest, which I will be so bold as to propose: (4) the fucking issues. (And I mean both interpretations of this.) There's little reason to discuss the response point-by-point. The categorization of Walsh's piece under (2) strikes me as deeply cynical and lazy. (3) requires no attention. (1) contains an interesting point: "In a nation with the racial history of the United States I am baffled by the idea that non-racism would be the presumption and that it is racial bias which must be proved beyond reasonable doubt." That's agreeable enough, except when we assume this applies to disparate approval ratings purportedly reflecting differing (vaguely-defined) standards of the (ill-defined and un-polled category of) white liberals. On two data points.

And no, Harris-Perry mentions nothing about the fact that Clinton presided over a boom while Obama has (corruptly) presided over a recessions, and nothing about the effect of the Right's obsession with Clinton's sex life. I leave those to Joan Walsh. On another note: nothing about their records on civil liberties was mentioned, where the continuities between Bush and Obama are inescapable. Despite many promises otherwise. Oh yeah, there's that whole promises thing.

I see no need to build on Walsh with boring details. There's only this, under (3):  "Further, I am grateful to live in a time when white Americans are furious about anyone suggesting that they are racist. I much prefer to live in a country and at a moment where the idea of being racist is distasteful rather than commonplace. In many ways the angry reaction about even the suggestion of racial bias is a kind of racial progress." 

Again, I'm probably not a member of the target audience, due to issues of age and general contempt. That proviso provisioned, I'm entirely comfortable with being told I harbor racist sentiments. Well no doubt! I was raised in a petty, very marshmallow city in East Tennessee.

Although I may have managed to exclude myself from the discussion at this point, I am still quite happy drop hints for the benefit of Harris-Perry: progressive disapproval of Obama might just have something to do with his fucking policies. Are white civil libertarians more deeply racist than other white liberals, or was their early alienation a symptom of something else? Say, Obama's continuation of Bush policies, his escalating of the war against whistle-blowers, and his defense of extra-judicial killings (i.e. murder)? Does neo-Keynesian disapproval of Obama have more to do with his economic policy, or with his race?

Apart from the reaction we all expect when `racist' is tossed around - especially when lazily - might the Left be more upset by the fact that some of Obama's defenders are making his color the issue, instead of the criticisms?

Yet I am told that Obama's reelection will be a litmus test of the racial sentiments of white liberals.

Please, my dear Republican readers, nominate Ron Paul.  I don't really like him.  I live in Tennessee, so my socialist vote does not matter.  But I want to vote for something.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

It makes no difference

I told him to stop. I pleaded and begged and in general made a fool of myself.

Because he was about to fucking kill people.

Yet he drove away, without a trace of sobriety.

I feel like I saw a murder. Probably, he will not kill anyone tonight. But eventually, someone will die, because people like me are unwilling to lie down in front of tires. Because people like me are willing to kill.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Commonplaces and Comments 6

I'm working on an exhaustive post on Pascal's Wager, which is of great length for the sole purpose of revealing how many nails are in this coffin. Which is a lot. I'm working on a variety of other posts as well: some related to ethics, some to formal epistemology/decision theory, and some related to notes from my courses. I am recovering from a wicked cold and recovering my schoolwork in the process, so all these works are slow in the making.

That said, poetry.

I am not well-versed in verses, but who could not love Auden's work? I can recall from memory one of his shorter yet more famous contributions, a commemoration of the `normalizers' of Czechoslovakia (August, 1968):

The Ogre does what ogres can,
Deeds quite impossible for man.
But one prize is beyond his reach:
The Ogre cannot master speech.
About a subjugated plain,
Among its desperate, and slain,
The Ogre stalks with hands on hips,
While drivel gushes from his lips.

The mis-attributed inspiration (Nixon) in this small video never ceases to infuriate me. This channel has some excellent readings, including that of one of my favorites, Lullabye. It is the first stanza I love especially, and it is the only part I can recall at command:

Lay your sleeping head, my love,
Human on my faithless arm;
Time and fevers burn away
Individual beauty from thoughtful children,
And the grave proves the child ephemeral:
But in my arms till break of day
Let the living creature lie,
Mortal, guilty, but to me
The entirely beautiful.

Apart from these snippets, one of the few other bits of poetry I can reliably recall is in Spanish:

Al pueblo le queda claro,
Que tu muerte no fue aislada.
Fue acción del imperlialismo,
Junto con la fuerza armada.

It should be enough to say that this was related from the Reagan era by a Spanish-speaking audience. I came across it via one of Hitchens' pre-warmongering collections, where he found himself near tears or tearful at a Church-full of the oppressed, though I cannot recall it now. Roughly from my rough Spanish and with my likely ill-conceived poetic needs in mind, it translates as follows:

To the people it is clear
Your death was no incidental act.
It was imperialistic action,
Combined with militarist attack.

I wonder how those words sounded in the original, as recited by a hall full of those with dead friends and relatives. I wonder how they were heard when visceral, and not merely language.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

What is coercion? (Part 1)

Very often, I hear that in a free market system, all transactions are mutually beneficial and non-coercive more or less by definition, as all participants increase their utility in the transaction. Whether highly regarded theorists of markets say such things, I do not know. If so, it would surprise me, as it is immediately obvious that such a definition is unsatisfactory.

Let's take a paradigm instance of coercion, say Tom is cornered in a quiet alley with a gun to his head and a demand for his wallet in his ears. Understandably, Tom surrenders his wallet, as he values his life more highly than the contents of his wallet. Both participants, the mugger and Tom, have gotten what they wanted from the transaction: the mugger got the wallet, and Tom got to live. If you like, you can spell out the inequalities of their utility functions which capture this entirely rational transaction.

Clearly, defining coercion with respect to any particular transaction is inadequate. Rather, Tom's net utility is of interest, as the circumstance of his being put in that dilemma presumably constitutes a lose/lose choice, say, in the sense that both outcomes (presumably) have negative utility. But it also seems that `coercion', normally employed, also applies to `forced choices' that have positive utility, albeit utility less than that which might have been possible in `unforced' circumstances. But this idea captures virtually any system of incentives, and the entire operation of the market becomes a system of coercion. A laborer attracted by a higher salary to a less enjoyable occupation is also being coerced. A company which makes donations to charity for tax reductions is being coerced. In almost any circumstance, one might imagine a more preferable possibility. So, something more restrictive than `circumstances forcing a net loss in utility as compared to other possibilities' is needed, if the concept is to be at all useful. But it gets even worse: if I force a person to do what she already wanted to do, is that not also coercion? As Hitchens described a similar experience in Cuba in Hitch-22: "A cat may stay contentedly in one spot for hours at a time, but detain it in that spot by grasping its tail and it will tear out its own tail by the roots." (Note: I tested this on my cat. It didn't work, but then, my cat is not a representative cat.) So the prospects for a conceptually adequate restriction of net utility reduction are most not good as well.

The next step fails to be obvious, which is probably why the concept was usually treated as a primitive until recently. Though I often rail against coercion, I have treated it more-or-less as such as well. Perhaps this is OK, since many concepts are not susceptible to precise analysis, especially the value-laden ones. Yet, I really need a workable concept, since it is often difficult to explain to right-libertarians why I feel that their ideal is more coercive than a left-libertarian one, other advantages aside and ignoring my strongly held - and I think strongly evidenced - suspicion that a right-libertarian society is deeply unstable and will collapse into forms of obvious tyranny. But for this to be formalized, coercion needs to be susceptible to some form of measure, so that the `coerciveness' of differing outcomes may be contrasted. What we need, then, is something analytically similar to what we need for spelling out guidelines which define particular ethical systems, i.e. an extension of this account which also measures properties of events in addition to their probabilities and utilities, and a way of relating each of the quantities now in question. In other words, to formalize a goal like `minimize coercion', we need a rule ascribing utilities to decisions with `degree of coercion' as an input. Further, as we need to evaluate differing circumstances simultaneously to speak of things like `net coercion', the account should be extended to sequences of decisions, instead of focusing on a particular action.

Clearly, such an extended formalism could accommodate a lot of other ideas, like `maximize the general happiness'. I'm fleshing out the details, and with this motivation in place, I'll put up a post soon. But first, I want to briefly survey other accounts of coercion, so that we might see how they could be analyzed in practice.

Saturday, September 3, 2011


Via Jerry Coyne, I came across this exchange between Sam Harris and David Eagleman. Boring, standardized inaccuracies about the relationship between atheism, New Atheism, and certainty aside, I think that the problems with Eagleman's `Possibilianism' are deeper than Harris recognizes, insofar as such a thing is possible to say after flat-out inconsistency has been established.

The error which pervades his website and his talk is a simple one: a black/white split between commitment and non-commitment. He appears to be irretrievably mired in the old "believe X/believe not X/suspend judgment" trichotomy. Like many other three-horned creatures, this sort of thinking feels awfully... extinct. On first and other inspections, Possibilianism appears to be Bayesianism without the rigor. One simply enumerates possibilities - apparently as only emphasized for theism, though I do not see why other propositions should not be similarly attended to - and does not worry about things like analytical usefulness or Dutch-books or probabilistic consistency or positing any principled means of updating commitments. It looks like dodging and attention-getting; it smells like dodging and attention-getting; and yet here I am, about to give it a taste-test as well. I suspect this is about to get deeply unhealthy.

Perhaps Eagleman is wholly unfamiliar with analytic philosophy or the philosophy of science, despite his heavy allusions to the same. In Bayesianism, one holds `multiple ideas' in ones head, but not simply as possibilities but as articles with differing probabilities. As one of the simplest theories in probability runs, prob(X)+prob(~X)=1, a statement that generalizes to any finite partitioning of possibilities on the assumption of finite additivity, which is itself an implication of the stronger assumption of countable additivity, which itself yields an analogous result. Another popular standard, widely-assumed, is regularity, which states that all possible propositions have probability greater than 0.

So a Bayesian who accepts regularity as regards coherently formulated definitions of God is already holding the possibilities in mind. Further, the confidences allotted to the differing possibilities are reflected in one's prior whenever updating on new discoveries. One may even update on uncertain propositions using Jeffrey Conditioning. All around the world today, Bayesians are wagering on uncertainty and on propositions for which no decisive evidence exists. For all of these methods, there are various arguments, and the limits and applications of these methods are items of active research and discussion. In the absence of any evidence, equivocation is the most popular method. So, what exactly does David Eagleman have to offer?

T-shirts and confusion and "boy is this Universe is a counter-intuitive and amazing place!"

He uses terms like `likelihood' and other probabilistic language, but does not seem to understand probabilism. In this matter, he appears to be similar to (most of) the New Atheists, minus his uncomprehending overview. The New Atheists are if anything more consistent with probabilism in their language than is Eagleman.

It really is that bad. This sort of `oh look at my radical new way of thinking about knowledge (especially theistic belief)' annoys me to no end, especially when it comes in the form of a condescending lecture to us over-certain militant atheists/theists. If only we opened our minds to uncertainty and possibility! Then we'd all get along.

Whether it's the `God transcends existence' crowd or the `we need a new agnosticism crowd', the boring, ignorant element remains. Because these are all useless, they are all doomed to be fads, the passing symptoms of those who are uncomfortable with using accurate words for self-description, these being loathed due to exposure to various sorts of reaction and cheap sloganeering. "Oh I don't want to be dogmatic like those atheists," or "oh I don't want to be a fundamentalist like those theists." Those. Those. Not me. No way. They lazily search for Third Ways that already exist and in a form superior to their imaginations, or they simply wax incoherent; they pay little attention to existing criticisms, which they cannot know to be relevant because they are ignorant.

Gimme my TED talk, please! I'd love to profit from an exciting, revolutionary proposal of stuff that's been around for centuries. Hell, I'll make up my own new word for probabilism and decision theory and have my own movement. I'll call it `nicepersonopenmindednessism' or `uncertaintyisgoodpolicyism'. Goodness, I could write a book! To ensure originality, I'll fudge a few details. I'd hate to be thought a plagiarist. `Mysterianism' is already taken, alas. (I note that Mysterianism is actually worth looking at.)

Edit (9/5/2011): I would recommend reading this before watching the TED talk.

Leo Behe, interviewed

The New Humanist has interviewed Leo Behe, son of Intelligent Design (ID) extraordinaire and Irreducible Complexity (IC) proponent Michael Behe. I remember hearing of his atheism through rumbles on blogs several months back; if I recall correctly, he made his debut over at Reddit.

Interestingly, Michael Behe is Catholic. And if I get a correct impression from Edward Feser, ID does not have a place in Thomistic philosophy. For now, I leave that dispute to others, but my overall impression is that Catholic objections to ID are two-pronged: (1) the anti-evolutionary portion of ID (practically all of it) is inadequate, and (2) ID conflicts with Thomistic philosophy. Though the Church itself has a record of some ambivalence as regards particular details of evolutionary theory, I think I can understand why its popularity is primarily due to evangelicals who are not ready to risk defending Young Earth Creationism or who think a literal Ark unimportant. I'm not a `compatibilist' in any broad sense as regards modern science and religious orthodoxy, but as regards Catholicism, the door here hardly seems to have been `forced open by our Enlightenment and the advancing progress of Science', as one narrative popular amongst atheists runs. At least not in any non-trivial sense I can think of.

On to Leo Behe: I do not think that his atheism is a particularly strong indictment of ID or Christianity. (I haven't seen it used as such by any big names yet. Let me know if I am wrong.) Following the interview, his story is very similar to those of other atheists who grew up without ever being exposed to critical writing regarding their faith. Though my own deconversion was a longer and more stochastic process than Leo Behe's seems to have been, there are many similar threads. I happen to have been much younger, and it was a first exposure to the history of philosophy which started my intellectual journey. What resonates more deeply with me is the following:
I told my mother, initially, who told my father. The discussion was very calm—there was no argument. I didn’t suffer any sort of restrictive backlash, however, there is a sort of social taboo on the topic with family and friends. I mostly keep it to myself, as atheism is generally frowned upon among the people I know. Basically, it’s not a problem as long as it’s not talked about.
I experienced only a brief, sputtering attempt at argument. Apart from that, my impression was exactly the same, and it was a common one. Atheism is fine, as long as you're quiet about it. The destruction of this conceit and the utter extirpation of its vestiges is what I take to be the primary and most worthy task of the `New Atheism', my other disagreements aside. Once it is wholly acceptable to bring religion back to the discussion table and the wincing noises subside, I hope we can move on to a more careful understanding of philosophy and science. Hence why I take fighting trends to the contrary to be an important task.

Echoing an earlier comment by PZ Myers, I am glad to see that Michael and Leo are not locked in bitter conflict over this. And I do not see the lack of bitterness as overly surprising. I find the following to be particularly important:
I would like everyone to realize that [Michael Behe] doesn’t have any sort of religious agenda and he’s not trying to denigrate science in any way. Long-held beliefs, especially beliefs developed during childhood, operate on a very deep and basic level of thought—almost subconsciously. These beliefs can exist independently in a perfectly honest and intelligent scientist who is simply doing his part to further theories or ideas that he believes are supported by the scientific data. The best way to progress is through respectful and thoughtful discussion and debate, as it has always been.
Perhaps this could be said of Michael Behe, but I can hardly feel the same way about the ID movement generally, not with Dembski and Johnson and Luskin floating about. But Eugenie Scott, amongst others, has recognized that a common thread in ID thought is that morality and the goodness of society are really threatened by materialistic science. I think that this belief is quite sincere; that continuity from the YEC school, conjoined with culture warrior mentality and hysteria about abortion, has yet to fade. I'm not sure that I have high hopes for `respectful and thoughtful discussion', at least not on the popular level.

But it nevertheless remains important that we give credit of sincerity until the contrary is decisively demonstrated. I of course have often failed to do this.

(H/t Jason Rosenhouse.)

Labor Day Weekend

The United States has an unusually violent labor history. Granted, there was everywhere resistance to basic workers' rights from the industrial classes and their representatives in governments. Finding themselves assailed by a class, the workers felt themselves a class, and one at war. Communism emerged in response to the foment; in the Communist Manifesto, the story is one of struggle for basic rights, rights against the interests of the owners and their complacent governments: "The executive of the modern state is but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie." This quote could be updated by replacing "the whole bourgeoisie" with "a subset of concentrated bourgeois power," keeping the rest.

European labor had some advantages. There was a history of feudal privileges, and their loss was immediately felt:
The bourgeoisie, wherever it has got the upper hand, has put an end to all feudal, patriarchal, idyllic relations. It has pitilessly torn asunder the motley feudal ties that bound man to his “natural superiors”, and has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous “cash payment”. It has drowned the most heavenly ecstasies of religious fervour, of chivalrous enthusiasm, of philistine sentimentalism, in the icy water of egotistical calculation. It has resolved personal worth into exchange value, and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms, has set up that single, unconscionable freedom — Free Trade. In one word, for exploitation, veiled by religious and political illusions, it has substituted naked, shameless, direct, brutal exploitation.
The new extremes of oppression incited opposing feeling even in the powerful classes. Despite the many slanders they flung at the socialists, the Catholic Church recognized the cruelties of the system, and spoke against them. Other churches, especially when state sponsored, tended to be even more complacent, and would preach complacency and resignation to the classes. But there were admirable exceptions.

In the United States, there were no feudal privileges. Until the 20th century, there was room for expansion into the frontier which allowed for the continuation of agriculture. As related in Sinclair's The Jungle, the industrial jobs were filled by increasingly desperate immigrants, imported by cynical promises. Further, much of the country had been run on slave labor, and the nation still inherits those divisions. Less memorably, the other half ran on industrial wage-slavery, which used to be regarded as an evil comparable to chattel-slavery. And so despite the United States being one of the most advanced, if not the most advanced, capitalist society and having some of the worst abuses against labor, there was less organization than in Europe.

And the reaction against any labor organization that emerged was swift and brutal. Industries created private armies to break strikes and destroy organization by any means. A severe example is the Pullman strike, but the strike-breakers failed:
Next followed the final shock—the Pullman strike—and the American Railway Union again won, clear and complete. The combined corporations were paralized and helpless. At this juncture there were delivered, from wholly unexpected quarters, a swift succession of blows that blinded me for an instant and then opened wide my eyes—and in the gleam of every bayonet and the flash of every rifle the class struggle was revealed. This was my first practical lesson in Socialism, though wholly unaware that it was called by that name.

An army of detectives, thugs and murderers were equipped with badge and beer and bludgeon and turned loos; old hulks of cars were fired; the alarm bells tolled; the people were terrified; the most startling rumors were set afloat; the press volleyed and thundered, and over all the wires sped the news that Chicago’s white throat was in the clutch of a red mod; injunctions flew thick and fast, arrests followed, and our office and headquarters, the heart of the strike, was sacked, torn out and nailed up by the “lawful’ authorities of the federal government; and when in company with my loyal comrades I found myself in Cook county jail at Chicago with the whole press screaming conspiracy, treason and murder, and by some fateful coincidence I was given the cell occupied just previous to his execution by the assassin of Mayor Carter Harrison, Sr., overlooking the spot, a few feet distant, where anarchists were hanged a few years before, I had another exceedingly practical and impressive lesson in Socialism.
That was Eugene V. Debs, the most important figure in American socialism. The US socialist movement, always small but very often successful, traces back to this strike. So too does Labor Day.

I wonder if any commemorative tributes to Debs will air on Monday. Last Labor Day, there was a grand total of four mentions of "Eugene V. Debs" in English publications, according to Lexis Nexis. All were in passing and in small editorials, and only one appeared in a major outlet (the Washington Post). Variations on searching his name do not generate new results.

"Socialism OR Socialist" gets 246 results. But few of these are from related articles, even fewer of which are from the US, and even fewer in high-impact publications. Almost all the US results are sloganistic throwaways against socialism, especially the implicit type: the prosecution of or defense against the charges of socialism lobbed at Obama, which is a favorite American pastime. The even remotely positive mentions of labor/socialist contributions here are as follows: a letter to the Digital Journal, a brief editorial mention in the Las Vegas Review-Journal (with some historical inaccuracies), and a more satisfying interview by Joan Walsh at Salon on the failure of the New Left to integrate labor.

Well, that's our closet socialist press at work. I very much doubt we'll see any careful tributes.