November 2007 Archives

Rowling on Destiny

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J.K. Rowling did an interview recently with a Dutch newspaper, and it included (among a lot of other things) her thoughts on destiny and free will. (For those who care about spoilers, you might not want to look at the interview or read the rest of this post.)

I have to confess that I'm a little disappointed in her response. She's very smart and well-informed about intellectual matters. But I have to wonder if she presents a false dilemma on this issue, and I'm not even sure the view she expresses here fits well with the books she wrote.

Your books are about the battle between good and evil. Harry is good. But is Voldemort pure Evil? He is also a victim.

He is a victim, indeed. He is a victim, and he has made choices. He was conceived by force and under the influence of a silly infatuation, While Harry was conceived in love; I think the conditions under which you were born form an important fundament of your existence. But Voldemort chose evil. I've been trying to point that out in the books; I gave him choices.

So far so good. It's important to distinguish between being forced into good or evil because of what happens to be true about your conception and making choices. This still doesn't say anything about the metaphysical status of free will. A libertarian will hold that these choices can't be caused by prior events if they're to be free, and a compatibilist will allow that they might be caused by prior events while still being free, because the distinction here is between being forced into something no matter what your own choices would be (merely because of the circumstances of your conception) and making choices (which doesn't yet say anything about whether those choices have explanations and if so what the explanations are).

But where she goes from here is what I find problematic: 

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Stupid Offense

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Somtimes it's morally important to recognize that someone may inappropriately and irrationally be offended by something you do. It's worth going the extra mile to prevent their offense, even if that offense stems from something silly. Other things are more important than the little amount of effort it might take to avoid that offense.

But aren't there times when giving in to stupid reasons for offense is catering to dangerous trends and opening the door for complete abandonment of careful thought? Perhaps a good example of something that stupid would be asking Santas to avoid saying "ho, ho, ho" for fear of offending women who think you're calling them prostitutes. There are enough serious worries in this world about people using terms that are actually offensive to women that putting serious effort into telling your employees this kind of thing just seems like a waste of time.

What's worse is that this trivializes the kind of language necessary to address real social ills. This kind of warning insults anyone who has actually been called a ho (and in fact all women, since all have been subject to blanket descriptions of all women as hos). If you can't distinguish between real misogyny or sexism and something that no reasonable person could take as anything but innocent, then your moral priorities are so twisted that I'd rather not have you giving moral recommendations to anyone.

Update: Snopes debunks this. The reason had nothing to do with confusing the sound "ho" with the U.S. slang for prostitute but just to avoid such a deep, booming laugh. But this strikes me as harder to believe than most of the stuff coming out of Snopes, bedause another report from Australia later that week had someone actually getting fired for exactly these reasons, and I thought the source for that was pretty reliable (not that I remember it now).

Snopes debunks the "E-ZPass used for determining who is speeding" myth.

I've heard this one several times, as far back as a decade ago, but I haven't ever seen someone explain why the police can't use this kind of system to catch speeders. It's nice to see someone presenting the facts, but even this debunking doesn't mention one reason why this would never work. A traffic officer needs to be involved in catching speeders to verify who is driving the vehicle. Otherwise, an owner of a vehicle who happens to have several other family members who drive the vehicle could get a speeding ticket for what another driver did, or even worse you could get ticketed for what your friend does while driving your vehicle.

This may well be an irresolvable problem with trying to use anything like E-ZPass to catch speeders. Even with cameras, you couldn't be sure that it was one rather than another of a set of identical twins or two family members who look similar. They can send you a bill if your vehicle goes through an EZ-Pass lane when it's not supposed to (although the one time I did that I was told I'd get a bill and never did), but they can't touch your driving record without being sure it's you, for the same reason you can't get convicted of a traffic offense if the police officer doesn't show up in court to testify that you're the one they stopped.

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Ben Witherington has found another theological position to misrepresent [hat tip: Justin Taylor]. I should say that I very much appreciate a lot of Witherington's scholarly work, particularly his response to skeptical attacks on the Bible and his placement of the book of Acts among the kinds of historiographical work done in the ancient world. I haven't been a fan of all his conclusions, but I think he's one of the most important biblical scholars of our day on a lot of matters, even ones I hold a different view on.

Nevertheless, I regret his tendency to pick out his favored "bad guy" views and then to misrepresent them in order to shot them down. He does this with complementarianism on gender roles, sometimes even admitting that he hasn't read the most important scholarship on the issue (see the comments here). He does it regularly with Calvinism. This time he's picked a view that I happen to reject, but I think he's radically misrepresented the position he's disagreeing with and even given arguments against a much more reasonable position (one that I think is true and hope he would agree with).

I've been critical in the past of John Piper's reduction of God's motives to the one motive of pursuing his own glory. I mentioned my concern in this post, although it wasn't be central focus there (but see the comments for more development on the issues). I focused a little more on that concern here. So I'm no defender of the view that God's primary focus is his own glory, with all other motivations reduced to that one. So I'm not a fan of the view. Nevertheless, it seems pretty unfair to portray that view the way Witherington does:

Let me be clear that of course the Bible says it is our obligation to love, praise, and worship God, but this is a very different matter from the suggestion that God worships himself, is deeply worried about whether he has enough glory or not, and his deepest motivation for doing anything on earth is so that he can up his own glory quotient, or magnify and praise himself.

I don't see any indication in Piper that he would describe God as worshiping himself. I see nothing remotely in the area of God being worried about anything, never mind being worried about whether he has enough glory. That's not the idea at all. The view is that God's other concerns ultimately boil down to demonstrating how good and amazing God is. Being perfectly good is really and truly wonderful, and why wouldn't it be a good thing for God to demonstrate just how good he is? I find it extremely hard to believe that Witherington doesn't think God is motivated by spreading information about his goodness.

The difference between the view I would defend and Piper's view is that I don't think this is the only fundamental motive in God's mind. God's love is fundamental and does not depend just on God's concern for his glory. But that doesn't mean God has no concern for his glory, and I would sincerely hope Witherington isn't rejecting such a motive at all, because it's all through the Bible. But his criticism of Piper is a criticism of that view, not a criticism of where Piper actually gets it wrong.

I'm not sure what a glory quotient is. If the idea is that God spends all his time being and becoming more glorious, that's surely not the idea. Maybe Piper would say that God is as good as he could be, which means he acts in the most glorious way he can. If there are good objections to that view, they come from the possibility that there is no limit to how good the world or a being can be, and then you run into trouble when you say that God is at the limit. But that's not a problem for Piper in particular, and it's not the worry Witherington is raising. He seems to think it would be wrong to pursue one's glory quotient, even if one is God. I find it hard to believe that he would think it wrong to be as good as you could be. So he must think it's wrong to pursue being thought of as good. But why would God want people to have an inadequate understanding of how good he is? Why would he want people to be misinformed about one of the most important truths about the universe, that its creator is simply wonderful? So I'm at a loss to figure out what Witherington is even getting at with this language.

Consider also the following argument:

In my post on some moral issues related to torture, I said I was planning another post on legal issues. As I've been thinking about what I wanted to say, I've realized that I don't really have anything to say about the legal issues. I don't know much about what the laws related to this issue actually say, and I don't have a clear proposal of what they ought to say other than the very general things I wish could be true of laws on this. The issues that I had really wanted to say something about are actually linguistic, not legal. I wanted to say something about the word 'torture' and why I think it's unfortunate that so much has focused on what falls under that term.

Here's the problem, as I see it. We've got a law (or treaty or something) that uses the word 'torture'. It then says torture is disallowed, or at least disallowed under certain circumstances. Part of the legal debate is whether cases of detainees in the war on terrorism count as falling under the law in question, and part is whether these techniques count as torture even if the detainees do fall under it. I have nothing really to say toward answering those questions, at least nothing that hasn't already been said ad nauseam. What I want to say is that it's unfortunate that those are the questions being debated.

Suppose you're a government official responsible for making decisions about what interrogation techniques are allowable and when. You're presented with this meaningless law that says we can't torture that doesn't tell you what counts as torture. In that case, it seems as if you have to figure out which cases count as torture according to what the English word means. It's plausible that one piece of evidence in figuring that out would come from interviewing the public about what they think counts as torture, since their use of the term is what makes it mean what it means to begin with. I think a number of philosophers of language would resist this, because we don't always know internally what factors in the world influence what our terms mean, but leave that worry aside. Suppose this would help us determine what counts as torture.

I don't think the actual case is like that. It's well within the realm of possibility that what legally counts as torture doesn't line up with what the English word 'torture' means, because the laws and codes dealing with torture often define it or give examples to declare which techniques legally count as torture. That means giving cases and asking if the cases seem like torture doesn't help. Besides, I don't think the opposition to some of these techniques really wants the law to be as vague as simply equating legally-defined torture with whatever the word means in English. They want lists of disallowed techniques, not some sense that the word in the law just means exactly what the word means. Laws like that are usually bad laws, because it's hard to enforce something without specific stipulations.

It's also within the realm of possibility that the legal definition of torture, which again might not line up with the popular meaning of the term in ordinary English, might actually diverge in meaning in different contexts. In particular, different kinds of laws might deal with different sets of things called torture. Is what counts as torture in a context of declared war against another country going to line up with what counts as torture in the war on terrorism? It's obvious that such a context shift doesn't change what the English word means. But if the legal definition doesn't line up with the meaning of the English word, why should we expect the same legal definition in both contexts?

This leaves us with a problem. How do we determine what legally should count as torture, given that it doesn't have to be whatever the English word means and it doesn't even have to be the same in all contexts? Here is my proposal. Stop discussing which techniques are allowed absolutely, because imaginable circumstances might allow some techniques that aren't allowable in less severe circumstances. The issue isn't whether we can list the techniques we do or don't allow. What matters is putting a system in place that can safeguard the process so that extreme methods are not used except in very extreme situations.

I'm not the sort of person to come up with ideas on what those safeguards are. I have no special background in law or the military. But I do know ethics, and I do know language, and what I'm seeing coming from the opponents of waterboarding and other techniques doesn't seem to me to fit with what seem to me to be the best ways of looking at the ethical and linguistic issues. The debate shouldn't be about what the word 'torture' in English includes, as if we can think about the technique and just intuit that it counts as torture. It also shouldn't be about blanket generalizations. It should be about putting specific procedures in place that should be followed in non-emergency situations to safeguard what kind of technique can be used, with another set of procedures in emergencies that will allow for on-the-spot decisions that can be allowed more leeway but still with serious repercussions if a subsequent evaluation leads to serious questions about what was done given what was known, what could be known, and what could be expected to be known.

Now a lot of the comments people have made on my first post have come from worries about abuses by those who would torture immorally for their own reasons and those who could give too much benefit of the doubt to those who would commit such abuses. That's a problem. But it's also a problem if we end up with a too-tight restriction when the extreme case occurs. What I would like is a safeguard system that can avoid both problems.In hard moral cases there isn't always a solution that gives you everything you might want. It does seem at least in principle possible for someone especially good in that kind of intelligence to come up with something that could do that (or at least end up with something in that direction). So I think it's possible that we're working with a false dilemma: restrict the interrogators more than the status quo does, or defend the insistence of the current administration that extreme techniques ought to have some place in extreme cirtcumstances. Couldn't there be a system of safeguards that moved toward achieving both aims?

On Tuesday several news sources announced a new technique to derive stem cells that seem to be just like embryonic stem cells, except that it can come directly from any adult cell (at least that's how I understand what they've done). If this is all it claims to be, then there does seem to be no need to derive embryonic stem cells from any method that kills an embryo. It's unsurprising that pro-life groups feel vindicated in their claim that we needn't pursue methods that are ethically controversial to get this benefit, and CNN recognizes this in an article yesterday.

What baffles me is that they've sought to present this as if both sides of the embryonic stem cell debate feel vindicated. They even have a quote from Senator Tom Harkin (D-IA) to that effect:

Our top researchers recognize that this new development does not mean that we should discontinue studying embryonic stem cells," he said in a written statement. "Scientists may yet find that embryonic stem cells are more powerful. We need to continue to pursue all alternatives as we search for treatments for diabetes, Parkinson's and spinal cord injuries.

He added that Tuesday's announcement "reiterates the need for federal support for medical research and again points out the president's misplaced priorities in vetoing the Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education appropriations bill which included a substantial increase for the National Institutes of Health."

Now if he'd only said the first part, I wouldn't necessarily have any problem. I might disagree with his assumption that human beings at such an early stage have no moral status, but I wouldn't complain about his point. Someone seems to have achieved something that could accomplish what advocates of destroying human organisms for stem cells had wanted to do but without destroying any human organisms. But it's possible that that's not true.

As Russell Korobkin points out, it's still necessary to investigate whether these cells have all the features people want in embryonic stem cells and whether they will have negative features that will prevent their use (e.g. like the cancers in all the embryonic cells, although I have to point out that their presence wouldn't make this any worse than what we've got with embryonic stem cells). It's also still worth thinking through exactly what's going on here to see if it does raise any ethical objections. I certainly haven't done that.

Nevertheless, here is what you cannot rationally do. When someone presents something that at worst does not confirm your position and at best undermines it significantly, you do not present it as vindication of your view. This research may well show that it's completely unnecessary to destroy human embryos for what we might have wanted them for. Senator Harkin has been proposing federal funding to destroy human embryos. If this research is what people are saying it is, then it may well remove any need to do what so many question without sacrificing any consequences. The fact that this may not turn out to be what it's been claimed to be does not vindicate Senator Harkin's position. At best (for him), all it does is not confirm the opposing position that there will be better ways to do what Harkin wants. Not confirming your opponent's position is not vindication of your own position. The non-existence of Santa Claus doesn't confirm his opponents' position on this issue, but it would be crazy to suggest that it confirms support for federal funding of embryonic stem cell research. It's simply irrelevant. Well, so is the failure of a proposed method for producing similar cells. And this isn't the failure of such a method anyway. It's the announcement of what seems like a strong possibility of non-failure in one such method.

So I would encourage the author of the CNN piece and Senator Harkin to pay a little more attention to what counts as vindicating a thesis. The way the piece reads, and the way Harkin's statement comes across, it sounds as if it's ok to ignore a positive movement toward confirming one view as if it also moves positively toward confirming the opposite view. It's fine to say that you don't know if it really does confirm that view, but don't pretend it somehow confirms the opposite view when there's no reason to think it possibly could do so.

Christian Carnival CXCIX


The 199th Christian Carnival is up at Beyond the Rim....

Beware of Colors

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I just went out on the front porch to change some light bulbs, and Sophia looked out the front door and said, "Careful, Daddy! It's dark outside!" After the first part, I was expecting some lecture on how it's dangerous to touch light bulbs or to stand on a chair, but she was concerned about the lack of light (which was what I was out there to remedy).

A minute or so later, as I was screwing the cover back on, she looked out again and said, "Careful, Daddy! It's cold and dark and yellow and red outside. And it's green outside too!" Maybe we should put a sign up warning people about the dangerous colors lurking about outside our house.

New Holy Observer

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Check it out. There are some great articles this time around, including J.K. Rowling's pronouncement that Aslan is also gay, Christmas church shopping, and progressive Christian leaders who believe letting women preach but not drive.

Mare sure you don't miss the advertisement for the next installment in the Matt Damon Bourne series.

Christian Carnival CXCIX Plug

The 199th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Beyond the Rim.... The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

This is complete news to me, because I've never been near enough to anything like attraction to Ron Paul's candidacy for president to read his Statement of Faith, but (as if we needed another reason to be leery of him) he apparently thinks the U.S. Constitution is divinely-inspired. [hat tip: Joe Carter]

I suppose we have to wonder which version of the Constitution was inspired, since it's been amended quite a few times. I know he doesn't think the current one is ok, because he wants to remove the right to citizenship that the 14th Amendment gives to people born in the U.S. Is the rest of the 14th Amendment divinely-inspired? If so, why some but not all of it? Presumably he doesn't think it's just what existed before the Bill of Rights, because most of what people consider most fundamental in the Constitution is the Bill of Rights, but that would mean he'd be including at least ten amendments.

But I think all doubt should be removed. Any Christian refusing to vote for Mitt Romney because his Mormon beliefs are heretical should similarly refuse to vote for Ron Paul, because his view of the Constitution also is.

Harry Potter and Linguistics

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I've heard of people getting away with serious academic work based on the Harry Potter series, but I think this one takes the cake. Molly Diesing is a linguist who has written on the speech-acts of spell-casting in Harry Potter. I wish I had the time to read her paper, because it sounds fascinating to a language geek like me. I'm not entirely sure I'd understand some of the technical linguistics, but that wouldn't stop me if I didn't have other time constraints that I do have.


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It's been really busy with grading and applications the last few days, and I haven't been able to finish my post about torture and legal definitions, but I can post at least something in the meantime. Here's a search that came in recently:

Can the Holy spirit create feelings of attraction that never existed in a marriage

We are talking about an omnipotent God, right?

Christian Carnival CXCVIII

The 198th Christian Carnival is up at The Minor Prophet.

Dating Deuteronomy 32:26-27

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In the midst of a song Moses has Israel sing on the eve of their entrance to the land, there's a speech by God about how Israel deserves judgment. In it, God gives an explanation why that judgment isn't as complete as it could have been:

I would have said, “I will cut them to pieces;
I will wipe them from human memory,”
had I not feared provocation by the enemy,
lest their adversaries should misunderstand,
lest they should say, “Our hand is triumphant,
it was not the LORD who did all this.”’ [Deuteronomy 32:26-27, ESV]

If I just had to take this at face value, I would read it as saying that the only reason God doesn't spare them is because that would lead other nations into thinking that they were victors over these people in their own strength. There's nothing here about Israel deserving being spared, because that's the whole point. When judgment is deserved, mercy is not. But if you took this as the only reason God spared them, it's hard to see how God's doing this is supposed to fit into a plan for what would happen perhaps 1500 years or so later.

Now it's easy to see this as not saying exactly that. It's easy to see it as a kind of shorthand for saying that God's reasons didn't have to do with their deserving mercy, giving one example. Other examples related to Israel's enemies abound, including in passages relating to these very events. In the mouth of Moses, we have a larger statement of what Israel's enemies would think of God after freeing his people from Egypt only to abandon them in the wilderness, not keeping his promises to them. So I wouldn't say that this is giving a smaller justification than elsewhere, just giving one instance of the larger reasoning, none of which has anything to do with their deserving it.

Now imagine you're working on a document during the twilight of the Davidic kings, with an aim to capture what you see as true righteous living, seeking to indicate that what's gone on since the time of Solomon has been a rejection of the kind of living the Mosaic law requires. You want to give some hope for those who will still follow God truly, but you want judgment represented in the document as well for those who don't. This is pretty much what the majority view in Deuteronomy scholarship thinks about the book. It's thought by many to have been written as an apology for Josiah's temple reform movement and only pretended to have been discovered in the temple as a long-lost final speech by Moses.

If you were doing this, would you write a song like this, or would you even leave it as is if you adopted an already-existing song? Or would you build a lot more into the explanation for why God spared them, all the while not saying they deserved it? Wouldn't you be insistent on explaining that God had a plan for a continuing Israel, that they would become a great nation, and his promise to make them that nation, while dependent on their continued behavior upon entering the land, nonetheless is a promise that God will bring them to be able to fulfill? I'd expect at least something other than what the nationsare going to think of God, even if that could easily be part of it.

So I'm not sure I'd call this a compelling argument, but it does seem to be at least some evidence, for thinking that Deuteronomy comes from a time when there wasn't this long history of kings who end up with this somewhat messianic figure Josiah leading a reform movement. It actually fits better with the original situation when they didn't know what would happen upon entering the land except that God said they'd be blessed if they follow him and cursed if they don't. At least it strikes me as the kind of thing that would more likely come from someone at such a time than at such a time near Josiah's revival.

Torture: Some Moral Issues

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There's been a resumption in the discussions of torture with the Michael Mukasey attorney general hearings. I haven't had much chance to say anything about these issues, but I've been thinking that there are two questions people I've been hearing and reading have been sidestepping. Some of the questions are legal. There are international treaties that weigh in on the issue, and there are explicit laws and policies that may have a bearing. I'm not interested in those issues for this post, but I hope to come back to them later this week. For the moment, I want to offer some moral considerations apart from whether any law or treaty applies to any particular technique.

Here is a plausible moral view (which I've tried to motivate a little more in general here and here). There are lots of things that are generally immoral that in extreme circumstances might be morally justified or at least excused. This is almost uncontroversially true of killing. Hardly anyone will oppose killing in self-defense or defense of others. It's also not that controversial to say it's true of causing lesser degrees of pain for the sake of achieving some further goal (e.g. cutting off someone's arm to amputate it when their arm would otherwise cause them to die from gangrene). It might be true in cases of causing one person pain in order to prevent a great harm to many people, as happens with interrogation methods that cause some psychological discomfort but are not controversial.

Given all that, it's at least an option on the table to consider more extreme methods of interrogation as different only in degree and not in kind. It's a greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress. So it should take a greater amount of seriousness in the situation for it to be morally allowable. But I don't see how it's going to follow automatically from the greater amount of discomfort, pain, and distress that we should have an absolute moral prohibition on it. Maybe some techniques are so awful that the moral seriousness of the situation needs to be so high that it's almost certainly never going to occur. But that's still not an absolute moral prohibition.

Notice that I haven't used the word 'torture' in any of that discussion. I've been using more precise terms that actually mean something. If this view is correct, and I haven't argued that it is but simply claimed that it should be on the table, then techniques like waterboarding may well be immoral in almost any case that someone might propose to use them but not necessarily immoral in every case.

Leaving aside any actual laws and policies, what does this mean for what the ideal law or policy should say? I'm not sure it follows that any particular law or policy is the right one, but it does suggest that there should be extremely strong safeguards against using such techniques except in very extreme circumstances, and it seems perfectly fine given such a view that there would nevertheless be some way such techniques could nevertheless be used in extremely rare, extremely serious situations. I have no idea how such a policy would work, but it seems to me that absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances would both fail to capture the correct moral view if what I've been outlining is correct.

Again, I haven't argued that this view is true, but it seems to me to be one of the views we should have on the table, and that means absolute prohibitions and blanket allowances should not be the only options on the table. Meanwhile, the opponents of waterboarding aren't allowing anything but a blanket prohibition to be on the table, and many of the supporters of extreme interrogation techniques have not shown much willingness to figure out how to have safeguards to keep these techniques rare. I think that's unfortunate.

Christian Carnival CXCVIII Plug

The 198th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at The Minor Prophet. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

I was discussing a piece of my dissertation with a group of other people from my department at a dissertation workshop last night, and some of the attendees raised some interesting cases that I'm curious how people would respond to.

Case A: Suppose an evil geneticist decides to play around with people's racial intuitions. One way to do that would be to modify the DNA of a human embryo who is the product of two white parents to give the genetic characteristics that would typically cause the visible characteristics commonly associated with black people. Would the child be black? This isn't a case of egg-switching, baby-switching, or anything like that. The child's biological parents are both white. Is the child therefore white?

Case B: God decides it would be fun to have two versions of Michael Jordan in the world and thus creates an exact duplicate of him. Is the duplicate black?

If the answer in either case is that the resulting person is black, then descent from black people isn't necessary for being black. One has only white ancestors, and the other has no ancestors. I think that would be pretty significant given that most people working in the philosophy of race think descent is a necessary condition (and many think it's even a sufficient condition).


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About an hour ago, my sitemeter rolled over to 600,000. As is often the case with momentous numbers in my sitemeter, it wasn't a very interesting circumstance. Someone in Puerto Rico wanted a picture of Barack Obama.


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TinyURL is a very useful site. You can take a very long URL and create a tiny one that will forward to the huge one. Then you can copy it into a document that doesn't handle HTML (which could encode it so it's not visible), and it can take up a pretty small space.

Now I can understand the desire to find other useful things along similar lines, since this one worked so well and has been so valuable for so many people. But I didn't expect anything like HugeURL, for those who want ridiculously long URLs. [hat tip: GeekPress]

Since is pretty short, short enough that making a TinyURL out of it actually results in a longer URL. So I thought it would be nice to give myself a HugeURL intead. Here, then, is your new alternative way to end up at this blog:

Maybe I should discontinue in favor of this. Imagine if I sent this to everyone who links to this blog, asking them to update their links.

I've always been baffled by the expression "the exception that proves the rule". It never made any sense why an exception could prove a rule. Shouldn't it prove that the rule isn't true?

I once heard an erroneous explanation that it has to do with the older sense of 'prove' as in testing or trying. The exception tests the rule and makes it harder to establish itself. That made a little more sense, but it turns out to be wrong.

The real explanation is much simpler. I was assuming this was supposed to be some absolute rule. The exception that proves the rule does actually confirm the rule, but it confirms it logically rather than empirically. If it's an exception, there's got to be something it's an exception to, i.e. a rule that it goes against. It obviously can't be an exception to an exceptionless or absolute rule. It's got to be an exception to a true generalization. But it can't be an exception without some such rule that it's an exception to. That's how an exception proves a rule.

Now there's still an illegitimate use of this expression, and I see it all the time. Whenever anyone states a rule as an absolute, and someone shows that the rule is false by finding a counterexample, they can't respond by saying that it's the exception that proves the rule. No, it in fact disproves the rule, since the rule was stated as an absolute without exception. So what I was objecting to all along was indeed an illegitimate rhetorical move. It's just that the expression has its origin in a perfectly legitimate point that can be made. It's just not what people usually mean by the expression now.

For more information, see the Wikipedia entry on this. (Yes, unbelievably, it's got its own Wikipedia entry.)

It's election day, and since it's just local elections the turnout is really poor. I was just voter #74 in my district, and the election workers are (I believe?) joking about knocking on people's doors to remind them that there's an election on.

It's strange that we never care as much about local elections, even though they impact us far more directly than national ones. How can people with kids not care about who is running their schools. How can someone be motivated to vote for a presidential candidate who has little chance of winning their state because of party dominance and yet not be able to get over to vote on the people who will determine which construction projects happen in their neighborhood? There are plenty of irrational elements of voting behavior, but this one has to be up near those who voted for John Kerry because they thought he was pro-life or George Bush because they thought he was pro-choice.

Is this just an artifact of the nationalized media? Is it because no one pays attention to local media? I doubt it, because I'm pretty sure this pattern is older than nationalized media's dominance. Is it that the issues in national elections seem more important because they have more effect? This might explain why we get more worked up about national issues than we do about anything at the local level. The local authorities can't do as much about those concerns. What's ironic, if that's the case, is that we have far smaller influence over such issues, and so we're getting more worked up about things we have much less ability to affect.

It's especially odd that this apathy about local elections is present among libertarians, federalists, and small-government conservatives, who constantly go on about how certain issues ought to be left to the local level. Do such people regularly vote on the local level about those issues? Some of them surely do, but I would guess that the percentage of people voting in local elections is similar across parties.

Corpse = Person ?

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IIn Genesis 46:4, God speaks to Jacob to reassure him when he's about to go down to Egypt to see his long-lost son Joseph after about 22 years of thinking he was dead. Part of this reassurance includes a point-black statement by God, "I will bring you back."

Jacob dies in Egypt. His body gets brought back. Assuming the author and/or final editors of the text weren't complete idiots, they had to be aware that Jacob didn't go back to the land while he was still alive. So complex theories of different sources being conglomerated seem unlikely if we're to give even a modicum of charity to ancient Hebrew reporting.

What do we make of this, then? If we take the text at face value, then Jacob's bones being brough back to the promised land counts as Jacob being brought back. Does that mean Jacob's bones are Jacob? Can this fit with Paul's view in II Corinthians 5:1ff that we are naked until we get our heavenly tent? It's unclear if Paul is saying that there's an intermediate, disembodied state in which we are naked or if our current state is what's naked, and we will be clothed with the resurrection body. But either way it seems that our body is a tent.

Another thought worth considering is that God might have meant something more spiritual. God would bring Jacob back to the spiritual fulfillment of the promised land. But that seems to go against the natural reading of the text in light of what happens in Exodus, which is that God's statement would be fulfilled when Jacob's bones were brought back with the Israelites 400 years later. So even if there's some spiritualized meaning on top of the more obvious immediate one, it still seems as if there should be something to the more fundamental meaning.

So here is the question. Can we read any metaphysics of the human person off God's statement to Jacob? If not, why not? If so, what sort of metaphysics is at work, and how is it consistent with Paul's statements (because the metaphysics that seems most natural for Genesis 46:1 is a materialist one that seems flat-out inconsistent with Paul's statements).

Christian Carnival CXCVII Plug


The 197th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet. The Christian Carnival is a weekly collection of some of the best posts of the Christian blogosphere. It's open to Christians of Protestant, Orthodox, and Roman Catholic convictions. One of the goals of this carnival is to offer our readers to a broad range of Christian thought. This is a great way to make your writing more well known and perhaps pick up some regular readers. For examples of past carnivals, see Matt Jones's list of previous Christian Carnivals.

To enter is simple. First, your post should be of a Christian nature, but this does not exclude posts that are about home life, politics, or current events from a Christian point of view. Select only one post dated since the last Christian Carnival (i.e. from the last Wednesday through the coming Tuesday). Then do the following:

Racialicious links to a post asking how racism harms white people. It's a good question that I think whites and non-whites should spend a lot of time thinking about, and I don't think most of the comments on that post have really gotten to the most fundamental issues. The question does assume that there is never any anti-white racism, which would be a mistake. A question that would better express the original intent is "How does white racism harm white people?"

I would think that the primary way racism of any sort harms the racist themself is that it is bad to be a racist. It's just bad to be bad. It's bad for you, not just because it has bad consequences but merely because it's bad to be bad. You harm yourself intrinsically by being a bad person.

But there are all sorts of bad consequences of racism on those who are exhibiting it. One is that much of what's excellent in the culture that surrounds us, including things racists appreciate and rely on, is due to those racism harms and victimizes. So there's a kind of inconsistency in any kind of racism that names things as bad in the person one isolates as "other" while recognizing any of those good effects as good. It's bad to be inconsistent, because it's irrational. So that's another negative impact of racism on racists themselves.

We need to distinguish between racists as evil people with evil intent and other kinds of racism, which don't all involve racists. Lots of people contribute to institutional or structural racism by taking part in practices that in effect harm people along racial lines, even if the people involved aren't racists. Also, virtually all white people are affected by residual racism, which affects our unconscious responses and attitudes to non-whites, all the while not constituting what it is to be a racist. Both of these have similar characteristics with being a racist, in that it's bad to take part in bad practices and to have bad unconscious responses to people, even if such things don't make someone a racist.

More generally, and perhaps most fundamentally, we're all morally and socially interconnected, and harm toward an entire community of people is thus harm toward an entire segment of humanity, and we're all part of humanity. Thus harm toward other human beings of any sort (including racism) is thus harm to ourselves inasmuch as we are all human. Crimes against humanity are crimes against ourselves. So even any racism that I have nothing to do with causing or perpetuating is a harm to me, even if I'm not the immediate victim. All racism is harmful to all human beings.

It's only after all that that I'd bring in things like how our lives will be better off externally when we interact in a moral way with those who are different. It seemed to me that most of the comments on the post that started this were focusing on those questions, and I thought it was worth taking some time to reflect on some deeper reasons.

The Christian Carnival hosting list will be running out in four weeks. If you're interested in hosting the Christian Carnival in December or January February, please email me. My email address is in the header at the top of the page. For more information about the Christian Carnival, you can see this post and the links therein.

Here is the list as it stands:

197 Nov 7  Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet
198 Nov 14 The Minor Prophet
199 Nov 21 Beyond the Rim...
200 Nov 28
201 Dec 5  Thinking Christian
202 Dec 12 Lo-Fi Tribe
203 Dec 19 Bounded Irrationality
204 Dec 26 Participatory Bible Study Blog
205 Jan 2   Ancient Hebrew Poetry
206 Jan 9   Parableman
207 Jan 16 Diary of 1
208 Jan 23 Chasing the Wind
209 Jan 30 Everyday Liturgy

I will be updating the list as I schedule people, but I'll be trying to give new hosts and hosts who haven't done it in awhile some priority over those who have done it more recently.

October License Plates

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I never run out of things to blog about, but most of the things I want to blog about take more time than I have. So it's nice when I get an idea to blog about something stupid that takes very little time. All I have to do is keep track of which license plates I've seen during each month, and I get an easy post at the beginning of each month listing the license plates I saw the previous month. Maybe after a bunch of them, if I keep it up, I can actually do some statistics of what I tend to see.

So here are all the license plates I noticed during the month of October:

California (for some reason there are lots of these around Syracuse; I see a few every day; this wasn't true until this semester), Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Illinois (another common one in our neighborhood), Indiana, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Carolina, North Dakota (which I may never have seen before), Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas, Utah (not all that common around here, but at least two are in our general neighborhood), Virginia, Vermont, Washington (palso retty rare around here), West Virginia (also rare for me), District of Columbia (this is one I hardly ever see), Ontario

I saw one European-style plates also, but I have no idea what it was. It was on the front of a car with a U.S. state plate on the back, so it probably shouldn't count anyway.

This is without doing any serious traveling during October. When we travel, we usually see a lot more states and at least one other Canadian province. I expect December to be high. I've already got eleven for November, though, so it's off to a good start.



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