October 2008 Archives

Is Obama a Socialist?

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There's been a lot of talk in the last couple weeks over whether Barack Obama is a socialist. I think the two main events that have spurred this on are the revelation of his past association with a social democratic party called the New Party, which is openly left of the Democratic mainstream, and redistributionist talk from him both at the last presidential debate and from a particularly explicit quote from 2001 about how the pretty leftward Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution.

Here's what I think is going on here. Obama is an incrementalist. He hasn't always been. His change is actually chronicled in his first book. Alinsky-style community organizing is very close to an implementation of a socialist agenda to undermine the capitalist system. There's every indication that Obama was in the thick of Alinsky-style work, even if he never agreed with everything Alinsky followers thought. He identified with the kinds of things they were trying to do in community organizing. It was Alinsky followers who trained him and then recruited him to train others in the same techniques. But Obama's community organizing was a failure. He was disappointed at every turn, according to his book. He eventually gave up on that method of change and turned to politics, where he knew he could try to get at least something done, even if it was only a little bit of a change at a time. I'm not sure he's really moved from that attitude. The New Party is exactly what you'd expect of someone with such a view. He was willing to run as a Democrat with an additional New Party endorsement in order to indicate that he's to the left of mainstream Democrats while seeking their support anyway. It was an attempt to mainstream a left-of-Democrat candidate, and it was an effective strategy until the Supreme Court declared it unconstitutional.

But this in itself shows that Obama is at least practically not a socialist. The distinction between socialism and European-style social democrats is that socialists seek to undermine and overthrow the system, and social democrats seek to work within the system to reform it gradually. The New Party was basically a bunch of former socialists who had become social democrats. Their goals had become more pragmatic. They were going to change what they could by moving the Democratic party to the left. The only way their candidates could win is if they also had the Democratic nomination, so they opted for double-billing to get their candidates more votes. (I'm not sure how New York still does it with parties like the Conservative Party, the Independence Party, and the Working Families Party. Does anyone know how those function differently from what the New Party was trying to do? What they do is obviously not the same, or it would have fallen under the same Supreme Court ruling.)

I'm convinced that Obama hasn't changed his ideals all that much. There's no way someone could say that the Warren Court didn't go far enough in overthrowing the founders' intent in the Constitution (alongside redistributionist language) unless there's a strong socialist steak still present, at least in terms of what he thinks the ideal government would look like. Even if that socialist streak has been toned down since, Obama said this after his conversion to being a social democrat. He does seem to be a redistributionist of sorts in the classic socialist mode, at least in his ideal government. How much he'd be willing to try to do depends, of course, on how much he expects to be able to get done. The scariest thing about an Obama victory for an economic conservative is that he'd almost certainly have at least two years of a Congress who would basically give him everything he wants, except on the few occasions when the Blue Dogs in the House might join with Republicans to prevent any particularly repugnant bills, but their influence seems to be about to diminish at least somewhat after this election. (It still amazes me that Democrats are running to replace minority Republicans in Congress by arguing for change. Giving the party in power more votes is change?)

So I don't think it's quite right to call Obama a socialist. He seems to be something closer to a European-style social democrat, at least in what he will try to do. But that just means he won't try to implement socialist ideals if he doesn't think he can. With a Congress entirely willing to grant their new Leader whatever he wants, I'm not sure that difference is as much as it might seem. Conservatives who keep calling him a socialist do seem to me to be on to something, even if I'd hesitate to apply that label straight out, and I think it's sufficient reason even for moderate Democrats to be very wary about casting a vote for him given that there won't be any divided government to reign in what he might try to do. I can understand why my friends who are themselves left of the Democratic party love him. I can understand why a lot of people are delighted to play a role in putting the first black president into office. I can even understand a mainstream Democrat who would have preferred Hillary Clinton but might still think Obama is closer to their views than McCain is. What I can't fathom is conservatives and moderates who think they're going to be getting a moderate Democrat who will vote for him just because they think McCain is too much like Bush, figuring Obama seems harmless enough because his proposals sound pretty centrist. That's what explains most independents' and moderates' support for Obama, and it strikes me as either ill-informed or irrational.

Update: Be sure to read the comments. The (first?) Nov 2 comment in particular has links to some much more detailed discussion that seems to me to confirm my general thesis that Obama holds that a socialist theory of justice would be good for the Supreme Court to endorse at some point but might be pragmatically worth getting to at most incrementally.

The 248th Christian Carnival is up at Fish and Cans.

A rogue commenter reinvigorating the discussion at this post has led me to clarify something relevant to the abortion debate that I've been moving toward for a while now. There are a number of arguments on both sides of the abortion discussion that involve conceptual slips across important distinctions, and I think it's worth clarifying the assumptions that enable this process.

First, we need to separate out the following three-way distinction: biological humanity, what I'll call Warren-personhood, and moral status. Biological humanity is simply what biologists would classify as being human, as opposed to being a member of a different species or not being an organism at all. Warren-personhood is what most philosophers nowadays mean when they speak of personhood. I'm not convinced that this concept lines up with most people's notions of personhood, but it's become a technical term in philosophy for having certain capacities such as consciousness, self-awareness, the ability to plan for the future, and so on. I call it Warren-personhood because Mary Anne Warren's important pre-Roe article "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" is the first instance I know of for this use of the term. Moral status is what it sounds like. Something has moral status if it would be wrong to treat it in certain ways for its own sake (and not just because it's someone's property or because it robs the world of beauty). Most people prefer to talk about moral status in terms of rights, but I prefer not to, because I think moral status is more expansive than rights, and I don't think rights are fundamental to begin with.

One more terminological matter is important before I say what I want to say. Here are two concepts: a three-sided planar figure and a three-angled planar figure. Those aren't the same concept. One concept has to do with how many sides the figure has, and the other has to do with how many angles it has. Philosophers will call these two concepts co-extensive. The extension of a term is the entirety of things that fall under it. The extension of 'tree' is simply all the trees. The extension of 'triangle' is all the triangles. The extension of each of these two concepts is the same as the extension of 'triangle'. The two concepts are co-extensive. Yet they aren't the same concept. Some concepts will be co-extensive but not necessarily so. It just happens that the concept "major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 named Geraldine and Sarah" is co-extensive with the concept " major party U.S. vice-presidential candidates through 2008 who are women". But they might not have been if some other presidential candidate had selected a woman as V.P. or if McCain or Mondale had selected a different woman.

The pro-life position typically takes the first and last concepts in my list (biological humanity and moral status) to be coextensive, sometimes by means of taking the second (Warren-personhood) to be coextensive with each. But the pro-life argument doesn't need to rely on that. It can be done as long as moral status comes with being biologically human. One response to the pro-life position is simply to distinguish between these two concepts, as if that's the end of the discussion. But that response fails to consider the possibility that the concepts are distinguishable but co-extensive (or, more precisely, just that everything falling under the first concept falls under the third). All that would have to be true for that is that every biologically human organism has moral status. To assume otherwise is to beg the question against the pro-lifer by asserting without argument that human organisms might not all have moral status.

The only argument I've ever seen for such a position is to assume Warren-personhood is what matters for moral status, something the pro-lifer doesn't assume. Thus the argument assumes, in effect, what it's trying to establish, or at least part of what it's trying to establish, which is that Warren-personhood and moral status are co-extensive (or, more precisely, that nothing in the biologically human category has moral status unless it's a Warren-person). I'm really unsure that such a thing can be established without begging the question against the pro-life view. I'm actually pretty sure it can't, actually, or I probably would have seen such an argument, and I'm pretty familiar with the philosophical literature on abortion.

I'm not saying that this favors the pro-life argument very much. It;s more a recognition of why neither side is moved by the other. I've long seen the assumption behind this kind of pro-choice argument as question-begging, but I think this way of framing gets at my worry a lot more precisely. It's not really a matter of getting the concept of personhood wrong, as I've said in the past. It's a matter of two views on the relation between these different categories, with really little in the way of careful philosophical argument that either side can use to convince the other on its own terms of its stance on the foundational issue.

Latoya Peterson at Racialicious is, to my mind, one of the more insightful and fair-minded of commentators on race from a left-of-center perspective. I often find myself disagreeing with her on politics, and I don't think she always represents conservative views or Republican politicians as charitably as I'd like, but I usually find her discussions of race to be more nuanced than most left, center, or right commentators can achieve. I even recognize elements in her analysis that strike me as the sort of thing I'd expect out of moderate conservatives on race, which I regard as outstanding intellectual honesty on her part, because a lot of the people she associates with on such matters would be very resistant to such conclusions (and certainly would be if I were the one presenting them).

But sometimes I see something from her that I just can't accept, and I've just found one. She speaks favorably of Adriel Luis' diatribe on McCain's use of "that one" to refer to Obama as racist in what it "really means". I watcher the video of Luis, and I just don't see any argument there for why McCain must have meant it in a racist way, none at all. The "that one" comment reminded me more of John Kerry's continued use of "this president" when speaking directly at George W. Bush in their debates. It's insulting, but it's quite a reach to claim (without argument) that it's even racial, never mind racist. It may well be that McCain is a
racist. Some people have seen his use of 'gook' for his Vietnamese captors as a sign of racism, but see Katie Hong's better explanation of what's going on there (and her critique of why it's still bad to use the term in that way but isn't necessarily racist). But even if he's at least racially insensitive in some troubling ways, it's just crazy even to suggest that "that one" is racist without giving a shred of evidence that other interpretations are impossible or unlikely, including my own thought that it was just like Kerry's indirect way of referring to Bush as an intended slight without racial connotations.

Now I said Luis gave no argument for why McCain must have meant this in a racist way. I didn't say he gave no argument for making such a claim. He does give a very interesting argument for why it's perfectly ok to throw around charges of racism with no shred of evidence. He says that as long as we brush off each potentially racist claim as not being clearly racist then people won't see any racism as being there. I suppose that might be true if we did that with absolutely every case, even ones where there's evidence (and there are plenty, including some that can't be interpreted charitably, such as Michael Richards' big fiasco with the N-word). But remember that we're talking about particular cases that we don't really know about. There's a reason we don't (at least we're not supposed to) find someone guilty unless guilt can be established beyond a reasonable doubt. We could use the argument that such a policy would mean that we'd never catch killers and that people would deny the reality of murders, thinking deaths were all accidental. But it doesn't have that effect, and the policy of giving the people of the benefit of the doubt with accusations of racism need not have such an effect.

For the same reason that we don't assume guilt with crimes, we should also not assume guilt with moral accusations that aren't crimes. It's basic human decency, and I find it sorely lacking among people who throw racism charges around without strong evidence. Being hesitant in particular cases when you don't know for sure is not the same thing as denying that racism is real. No, it's just being unsure about particular cases when you don't know for sure. I can't count how many times I've been accused of justifying racism when I've pointed out that a racism charge is unwarranted. Only if you don't know the distinction between being true and being proved to be true can you make such a charge. You don't need to deny that racism is real or even that it's widespread and so deep-seated that it's hard to spot in order to point out that a particular case is not clearly racist and thus unfair to call racist, and this will be true no matter how many such particular cases you find.

I've given a moral argument for my policy of giving people the benefit of the doubt in cases of potential but unestablished racism. I don't think it should have to bring any negative racial effects as long as those who question racist accusations in particular cases are willing to acknowledge it when it's clear and insist that there are probably plenty of cases of real racism where we unfortunately can't be sure and thus be able to call them on it. My sense is that conservatives on race are sorely lacking in that sort of thing, and that's why every attempt to follow a policy like mine gets seen as an attempt to justify actual racism. But I don't see how that mistake on the part of people who follow a policy like mine can justify the accusation of trying to justify racism, as has been said about me many times in the comments at Racialicious whenever I've said that a charge of racism is going beyond what we can be sure of. But people prone to leap to racism charges without enough evidence are also prone to leap to racism-justifying charges without reason.

I maintain that we do need to give particular people the benefit of the doubt when it comes to racism charges. Leaping to accusations of racism fuels the sense that every charge of racism is just a political ploy to get more power for a black hegemony that has taken great joy in gaining power by making racism charges. There's no way conservatives on race are going to back down from that narrative as long as a significant number of people follow a policy like Luis'. His strategy is therefore counterproductive, because he's just adding fuel to the fire among those who think racism charges are all or mostly false. Consistently repeating such charges without evidence isn't going to undermine such a narrative. It will further it. A more widespread recognition of the fact that racism is more widespread and deeply-seated among everyday white experiences will only come if those who seek to find racism under every rock and tree are a little more willing to express skepticism in particular cases when racism isn't all that well established.


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The 248th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at Fish and Cans. 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 the complete list at christiancarnival.com.
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Avery Tooley has posted a response to an argument that the high incidence of low birth weight among black Americans is a sign that slavery's legacy still has a biological impact. There are places the argument isn't careful enough. Avery points out one. It would be more helpful to figure out what's different between cases of blacks with low birth weight and blacks with more normal birth weight than simply to notice a difference on average between blacks and whites. The details of the particular cases might make all the difference.

But there are other problems with the argument also. [What follows comes from a comment I left on Avery's post.] They notice that blacks in the U.S. have lower birth weight than blacks born in Africa living in the U.S. But that's the same comparison used in the IQ debate, and it's still a debated comparison. Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, and others cite it to show that black kids in the U.S. don't have as high a cultural expectation to develop their natural potential in certain kinds of intelligence. But those on the other side of the issue point out that the immigrants to the U.S. are self-selecting. They're more inclined to be smarter and harder-working to begin with. Perhaps they're more inclined to be healthier too, since healthier people are more likely to be positive and looking to improve their lot in life. Perhaps.

Where that response fails with IQ is that second-generation studies show that the drive to do well falls rapidly among immigrants' children and especially grandchildren if the children weren't themselves born here). That means it's cultural in some way, but that cultural impact could be because racism gets them down, from cultural opposition to acting white, or some combination of those and maybe other things too. But it's clearly not entirely a biological thing, even one resulting from the effects of slavery. So the question is whether birth weight falls rapidly in the second generation of black immigrants. Then we'd have some sense of whether it's a biological effect that continues to the next generation or a cultural effect, which could again have several explanations, perhaps many of which contribute to a larger story. I'd have to say that I'm skeptical of this proposed biological effect myself.

Ayers on White Supremacy

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Conservatives need to understand the language of the left if they're going to criticize what people on the left say. William Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn have a new book coming out. Here is the publisher's blurb about the book:

Race Course Against White Supremacy By: William C. Ayers, Bernardine Dohrn

White supremacy and its troubling endurance in American life is debated in these personal essays by two veteran political activists. Arguing that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us--the discussion points to unexamined bigotry in the criminal justice system, election processes, war policy, and education. The book draws upon the authors' own confrontations with authorities during the Vietnam era, reasserts their belief that racism and war are interwoven issues, and offers personal stories about their lives today as parents, teachers, and reformers.

Tommy Oliver summarizes Ayers as saying, "we are a nation of white supremacists". He then quotes an LGF post that says Ayers claims, "the dominant political system in the United States is white supremacism". Both of these claims are gross misunderstandings of what that blurb says, and it takes only the little familiarity I have with Marxian-style racial critiques to see this.

White supremacy, according to the Marx-style critique, consists of two things. First, the social structure of race relations is such that white people do in fact dominate much of the time. Second, there are structures in place that serve to perpetuate that dominance. Such a view can range from the most radical end to a much more minimal version. The radical extreme claims that white people have set up such a system deliberately and intentionally perpetuate it to serve their own interests. A much more minimal version, in my view, is very close to the truth, and that claims only that there are factors in place that, often unintentionally or at least for motivations other than race, have the effect of continuing the influence that white people disproportionally still have most of the time.

White supremacism is an ideology. It holds that white people ought to be in power because white people are better than those of other races. It claims that any structures in place that might be called white supremacy are good and worth extending to make white control even stronger. It's not hard to see, then, that white supremacy is not the same thing as white supremacism. One is a set of social structures. The other is an ideology.

What the blurb for the Ayers/Dohrn book actually says is "that white supremacy has been the dominant political system in the United States since its earliest days--and that it is still very much with us". That simply is not a claim that white supremacism is dominant in any respect, as the LGF post says. It is not a statement about the prevalence of white supremacism among Americans, as Tommy Oliver's post asserts. It is a statement that white supremacy, the fact of white predominance and structures that continue it, has been more influential in American history than any other political structure. I think it's a highly questionable claim, and I'm sure there's a great deal in this book that I'd disagree with, but it doesn't do to pretend the claim is something much crazier than it really is. There's enough to criticize about the book that there's no need to make it out to be making an accusation that's much more serious than what the blurb actually attributes to the book.


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This is the 49th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at one final argument for dualism from Gottfried Leibniz and led into an argument instead in favor of materialism based on materialism offering the simplest explanation. This post looks at one further argument against dualism.

Substance dualism takes there to be two fundamental sorts of thing in the universe - physical stuff and minds. (A substance for philosophers is not some icky, gooey stuff but a technical term for whatever counts as a real, genuine thing.) Materialists just accept the physical, so they have no problem of how the two interact. [Similarly, Berkeley's idealism has just the mental, so he has no such problem.] A dualist who believes minds are non-physical things will have to explain how (if at all) mental stuff and physical stuff interact causally. This kind of dualism is sometimes called interactionism.

Dualists often do not give a mechanism to explain this interaction. They usually just take it to happen, treating it as a mystery. There are mysteries in the universe, and our ignorance of the mechanism doesn't make it false that there is one. This isn't super-satisfactory, but the objection isn't devastating. After all, materialists don't have a similar, well-developed explanation about how physical matter leads to thinking. The real problem involves a principle of physics - the law of conservation of matter and energy. This law states that matter and energy can interact and be converted into each other, but the total of all of it doesn't change. If minds can cause things in the physical realm, and vice-versa, then the physical events leading up to a mental event somehow must get the mental event to happen. Does that expend energy? If so, then the energy is somehow transferred into the mental realm. Something similar would happen for the other way around. Doesn't that violate the law of conservation?

The dualist has a fairly easy reply, one overlooked in most of the literature. Not too long ago, there were two conservation laws. Physicists thought the realm of matter and the realm of energy were constant and separate. They believed in no interaction between the two, no conversion from one to the other. They were wrong. Perhaps the objector is making the same mistake. Perhaps we need to be willing to consider the possibility that the correct law of conservation includes mental stuff in it along with matter and energy. If so, then the objection isn't anywhere near as powerful, though materialists still might not be satisfied by this response. There is textual evidence that such a reply is very much in the spirit of Descartes.

The next post will look at a different kind of dualist view that responds to this criticism in a very different way.

Christian Carnival CCXLVII

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The 247th Christian Carnival is up at RodneyOlsen.net.

Ehrman on John 1:18

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A little while ago, I posted a criticism of an argument from Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. I said I had one other criticism to post and am now finally getting around to writing up my thoughts on it.

John 1:18 calls Jesus either "the unique Son" or "the unique God". Ehrman (on pp.161-162) argues that the former reading is more likely. He admits that the second reading is found in the Alexandrian manuscripts, which are generally regarded as closer to the original biblical texts. That would normally be a decisive enough argument for me, in lieu of some other consideration that would nevertheless make it less likely to be the original reading. Ehrman thinks he has such a consideration.

One interesting piece of evidence is that you don't find "the unique God" very much in non-Alexandrian manuscripts, which is some indication that it either came into the manuscript tradition after the Alexandrian branch diverged (Ehrman's view) or that the change to "the unique Son" was so early that it managed to get into most of the other manuscripts that survive. I certainly wouldn't rule that out (and its occasional presence does undermine this argument a little bit), but this is one piece of evidence against "the unique God" being original.

Even so, Ehrman raises some other arguments against "the unique God" that I can't agree with. He says John uses "the unique Son" elsewhere but never "the unique God". I suppose that counts for something, but there's nothing to rule out John using an expression in the very different prologue that never occurs elsewhere in the gospel.

The argument that really baffles me, though, is his claim that "the unique God" makes no sense when applied to Jesus. Only someone who isn't thinking in terms of classical Trinitarian theology could say such a thing. He says the term for "unique" in Greek means "one of a kind". So far so good, until he concludes that such an expression must therefore refer to the Father and not to Jesus. "But if the term refers to the Father, how can it be used of the Son?"

Obviously, the people he believes to have changed the text thought it meant something that they thought they understood, or they wouldn't have changed it for the ideological reasons he thinks they changed it for, so there's immediately something suspicious about his claim that both of the following are true:

1. It was changed for ideological reasons because the changed text better supports proto-orthodoxy.
2. What it was changed to makes no sense when applied to Jesus and violates proto-orthodoxy by applying something true only of the Father to Jesus.

Consider what the view he calls proto-orthdoxy holds. The classic Trinitarian view is that Jesus is God. There's only one God, and both the person called the Father and the person called the Son are that God. So any characteristic of that God, say his uniqueness, is true of both the person called the Father and the person called the Son. In light of that, doesn't Ehrman's argument sound very strange? He has to assume from the outset that classic Trinitarianism, the very proto-orthodoxy that he thinks this change was introduced to support, is not a viable view, or he couldn't claim that it makes no sense. It makes perfect sense according to that view, and it's exactly the sort of thing you'd expect someone holding the view to accept as true.

Finally, if "the unique God" is theologically puzzling, as it might be for a copyist who doesn't fully grasp classical Trinitarian theology, then we have a perfectly good explanation of how a copyist might have gone from "the unique God" to "the unique Son" if the latter is indeed more easily understood, as Ehrman says it is.

Maybe some of the other reasons might be good reason to withhold judgment on which reading is earlier or maybe even to favor "the unique Son". I'm not doing a comprehensive look into which reading is likely to be better. I just thought this particular argument is especially problematic, and yet it seems the one Ehrman takes to be most decisive.

Obama Oversaturation

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Whenever a commercial begins to play so often that it seems like it's airing every commercial break, I begin to lose patience with whatever it's advertising, even if it was something I tend to like or support. I'm curious how oversaturating the market with the same awful Obama ad every single break of Stargate Atlantis and Sanctuary is supposed to help Obama rather than just turning off any undecided voters who might be watching. People watch science fiction to get away from stuff like politics, not to have it show up every time the show takes a break. It would be different to do that on cable news, where most people watching are actually interested in what's going on in the world, or they wouldn't have that channel on. At least when I watch tonight's Heroes it will be on DVR.

It's bad enough that he's got his own channel now and intends to do a Ross Perot the week before the election, but the same tired commercial five times an hour is getting a bit annoying. I'm not at all sure it's an effective strategy in the longest election in American history, when most people are getting tired of the campaign and want it to be over, to get in everyone's face and encourage them to think of you as the late-night guest who just won't go home and let you go to bed in peace. That's not a way to make people happier to vote for you.



The 247th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at RodneyOlsen.net. 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 the complete list at christiancarnival.com.
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:

Leibniz's mill argument

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This is the 48th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at some arguments roughly based on Rene Descartes' arguments for dualism. This post considers a very different sort of argument for dualism from Gottfried Leibniz.

Leibniz asks us to imagine walking around inside a large mill or factory. If we are merely physical, then a tiny person walking around inside your brain would be seeing the same sorts of things you see when walking around the mill. There are physical things going on, things we understand through science. We know exactly what those things involve, and they don't involve thinking. Why, then, should we think a physical organ like a brain involves thinking? So dualism must be true. The main intuition behind this is that physical processes don't seem to explain how thinking can come about. It seems too mysterious for a physical brain to explain.


If the simplest theory explaining the evidence is probably the best, then a theory without all that extra mind stuff is better than one without it, given that they both assume the physical world exists. Leibniz thinks he avoids this, since he claims materialism doesn't explain thinking. He says you need to go beyond the physical world to explain thinking. If so, then dualism is necessary to explain something. The principle of simplicity applies only if you've got two theories that equally explain the evidence, but if dualism explains it better, then go with that.

Materialists reply that he hasn't explained anything. He's said physical things don't explain thinking, but he hasn't said how immaterial minds do any better. What is this immaterial mind thing supposed to be, and how does it explain thinking any better than physical processes? The physical processes may lead to thinking. It's sort of mysterious how they'd do that, but that doesn't mean they don't. Dualism hasn't added anything like an explanation, just the claim that something else is needed. So has the dualist really explained anything? If not, the materialist says, then the simplicity principle tells us to be materialists. Materialism hasn't explained all the evidence, but dualism doesn't do any better, so they're on equal footing in terms of explanations. Then we go with the one without the extra souls, and we hold to the materialist view.


(Keep in mind that the story gets complicated if you include George Berkeley's idealist view, which denies the existence of anything beyond our minds. According to his view, the world is also simpler than dualism, since only minds exist and not external physical objects. In terms of simplicity, this view is as good as physicalism/materialism.)objects. In terms of simplicity, this view is as good as physicalism/materialism.)


So far it looks as if the traditional arguments for dualism from such noted figures as Descartes and Leibniz are good at expressing intuitions that dualists have but not as helpful in offering reasons for materialists to abandon materialism.In the next post, I'll start looking at one of the strongest arguments against dualism to see if the arguments for materialism are any better.

Isaiah and Jewel pictures

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Sam has posted some more pictures of the kids, this time focusing on Isaiah and Jewel.

Christian Carnival CCXLVI

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The 246th Christian Carnival is up at Tale of a Kansas Girl.

Checking In

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I'm in the middle of some serious revisions on the "Harry Potter and Destiny" piece, whose next draft is due tomorrow. I'm down to 5364 words. I don't need to write anything new, but I do need to figure out how to get it down to 4200 words. The longer this takes the less time I'll have for grading, and I have about a week's worth of grading to do by Friday. So I'm not even going to take the time to pull out a set of notes from my teaching to reformat for the blog.

I did want to note that I've reached a surprising stage in life. I've now had my first instance of discovering one of my kids forging my signature. Ethan has to record a book he read four days a week, and each is supposed to be signed by a parent. He's taken to writing them in himself, and since I wasn't immediately present but across the room, he decided to copy the scrawl from the signature above so as not to leave an incomplete blank on his sheet (if only he did this with the name and date lines). It was just about perfect, too. He has problems writing letters with precise enough motions, but he has no trouble at all forging my signature perfectly.

Meanwhile, it was Sophia's fourth birthday today, and Sam's got some pictures up. [Update: Sam put up a fuller post with more pictures and text at the picture blog, so I've changed the link.]

This is the 47th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post finished up the section devoted to issues related to freedom and moral responsibility. This post begins the next topic, the human mind.

Materialism - the physical or material world is all there is (or, more particularly about the human being, we are merely physical beings). This view is also called physicalism.

Dualism - there are two fundamentally different kinds of things in the universe - physical and mental things. In the case of the human mind, that means our mind (or soul, as some would call it) is a non-physical thing. (This view is technically called substance dualism. Another version of dualism comes up later.)

Leibniz's Law:
If A = B, then A and B share all and exactly the same properties
(In plainer English, if A and B really are just the same thing, then anything true of one is true of the other, since it's not another after all but the same thing.)

It's pretty common in introductory philosophy classes to present three dualist arguments roughly tracing back to Rene Descartes that rely on this principle. If A just is B, then A and B will have all the same properties. If Clark Kent really just is the same guy as Superman, they'll have all their features in common, even if Lois Lane doesn't know it. Many people think these arguments for dualism are unconvincing, but that wouldn't show Leibniz's Law to be false. Leibniz's Law is one of the most sure principles we can get. The arguments have to be questioned some other way.

Argument from Disembodied Existence

1. My mind can exist separate from anything physical.
2. No physical part of me can exist separate from anything physical.
3. Therefore, by Leibniz's Law, my mind isn't a physical part of me.

We seem to be able to imagine ourselves existing apart from anything physical. That's why the first premise seems right. We can't just float off outside our bodies like astral projection, but Descartes didn't think things had to be that way. If it had been different, we wouldn't have had physical bodies. This seems possible. If so, there's a property my mind has that it doesn't share with anything physical - it could have existed without any connection to a physical world.


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Obama on Genocide

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I'm not going to try to claim that Barack Obama hasn't ever changed his stance on Iraq, but this doesn't seem to be such a flip:

From last year:

Democratic presidential hopeful Barack Obama said Thursday the United States cannot use its military to solve humanitarian problems and that preventing a potential genocide in Iraq isn't a good enough reason to keep US forces there," the AP reported on July 20, 2007...

From Tuesday night's debate:

In such cases, answered Obama, "we have moral issues at stake." Of course the United States must act to stop genocide, he said. "When genocide is happening, when ethnic cleansing is happening . . . and we stand idly by, that diminishes us."

Sorry, but I don't see any inconsistency here. He doesn't think preventing a potential genocide is a good enough reason for a military presence in another nation. He does think stopping one in progress gives a moral imperative to stop it. To make this work, he'll have to provide arguments for why the first case is merely potential and not a serious enough risk to worry about removing troops completely from the situation, or he'll have to argue that it's never ok to intervene until after the fact. I don't think either argument is easy to make. I'd need to see more than I've seen to convince me, anyway. I also don't know of any instance when he's tried to make that case. But it's not necessarily an inconsistency or a change in view.

It's perfectly fine to point out when politicians change their views in order to get them to explain the change (but don't assume a change is a sign of flipping for mere political reasons if there's a plausible explanation for that change in views, as there sometimes is). It's also fine to ask them to explain how two statements fit together if they don't think they've changed their views. I don't think Obama's statements on gun control fit together at all, despite his claim not to have changed his views. I also don't think his explanations of his past connections and votes are consistent with each other or with the past. But his critics need to be a little better at restricting themselves to genuine examples of conflicting statements, or even the legitimate questions about his honesty, revisionism, and political expediency are going to be seen as mere political plays without substance.

It's counter-productive to use flimsy reasoning against a candidate, because those inclined to give the benefit of the doubt (and undecided voters probably are) aren't going to be moved by the real criticisms if they constantly see bad ones. The mainstream media and lefty blogs have now ruined their chances at any legitimate criticisms of Sarah Palin move the conservative base, because they can't trust anything anyone says against her. The fact that a political opponent who has been vocally against her has led the investigation of the firinng of Mike Wooten is going to lead to immediate distrust of what little criticism of her their report contains (it's mostly critical of her husband). The base will of course have no problem playing this stuff up to no end, but that's not going to move undecided voters very much.

Ehrman on I Timothy 3:16

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I've been reading through Bart Ehrman's Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why. The best short evaluation of the book (as opposed to the several good book-length responses) is Craig Blomberg's review. My general sense so far is that it's a weird mix of:

1. a very readable and helpful overview of the history of textual criticism of the New Testament
2. an excellent guide to standard contemporary textual criticism
3. some particular views along that way that I find too critical for reasons that I find unmotivating (but Ehrman doesn't always admit when his conclusions are controversial, so it might sometimes be hard for a beginner, who will be the typical reader of the book, to separate out claims that derive from standard text-critical consensus and views that Ehrman holds idiosyncratically)
4. the occasional strange argument for a smaller claim that doesn't seem at all to support what he says it supports

I noticed a couple examples in the last category in the last chapter I read, and I wanted to blog about one of them now. The other will probably follow on another occasion.

Chapter 6 of the book deals with textual variants in the manuscript tradition that involve changes that copyists made in New Testament texts for ideological reasons. He highlights three controversies in the early church, and for each controversy he finds instances of changes in the manuscript tradition that were motivated by ideology, usually to prevent an original reading from possibly being misunderstood to teach the opposing view. I have no interest in denying that this happened, but one of the examples he gives seems to me to be very unlikely to have been ideologically motivated.

In I Timothy 3:16, one difference occurs in the manuscript traditions between "Christ, who was made manifest in the flesh" and "Christ, God made manifest in the flesh". Ehrman suggests that the change from the former to the latter was motivated by anti-adoptionist ideology. Adoptionists took Christ to be merely human but adopted by God as his Son due to his being sinless. Such a change would support the anti-adoptionist agenda of those Ehrman calls proto-orthodox. However, it's completely bizarre for him to say this particular change was "made to counter a claim that Jesus was fully human but not himself divine" (p,158), and the reason I say this is because what Ehrman himself says about the case two chapters earlier, a discussion he does refer to in the section at hand.

In chapter 4, Ehrman gives this example in his discussion of early textual critic Johann Wettstein, who apparently was the first modern textual critic to recognize it. What Wettstein observed is that the difference between the texts is a matter of two small marks. The 'hos' is an omicron followed by a sigma, with a rough breather mark before the omicron. The 'theos' is actually abbreviated to 'ths, which is a theta followed by a sigma, with a marker over the two letters indicating it's an abbreviation. So the rough breather becomes the abbreviation marker, and the omicron becomes a theta, which is an omicron with a line through the center. This could easily be explained by a misread rather than a deliberate change, and one piece of information Ehrman notes (on p.113) makes this even more probable. In one very old manuscript, the line making the omicron a theta is much fainter than the rest of the letter, and in fact it turns out to be a bleedthrough from the other side. It's extremely probable that the scribe simply misread the 'hos' as an abbreviation of 'theos'.

So Ehrman has given very good reason to think this was an unintentional copyist mistake due to someone misreading the word in question because of the bleedthrough. Why, then, does he give it as an example of an ideologically-motivated change to defend proto-orthodoxy against adoptionism? Why does he refer to it as "made to counter a claim that Jesus was fully human but not himself divine" when he's just referred to his earlier discussion, which gave every reason to think this was a completely accidental change. That's an extremely strange mistake for someone who is widely regarded as an excellent textual critic to make. Am I missing something here?

Call a Spade a Niggard?

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There are some interesting moral issues related to the use of expressions that are perfectly ordinary and inoffensive in most situations but are used offensively within a small subset of the population, particularly when there are some among those on the receiving end of such expressions who don't know of the ordinary, inoffensive use of the term in question. It's usually good to show moral deference to the ignorant, if we haven't been in their position of ignorance, giving them the benefit of the doubt. But the ignorant in these cases include both (a) those who use the expression without knowing or the offensive connotation that it has in certain contexts and (b) those offended but its ordinary usage because they don't know about anything other than its offensive use. At the same time, there's always the questions of (c) whether those in (a) ought to have been more aware of what offends people and (d) whether those in (b) ought to have be willing to throw out such serious moral charges based on an ignorance that many might not easily excuse.

I've defended the use of such expressions in many contexts, emphasizing (a) and (d) above while perhaps too easily dismissing (b) and (c), or at least not explicitly laying out the reasoning for why I tend to favor (a) and (d) as more decisive in these kinds of cases. One example that came up in my post was the old expression "call a spade a spade". This one actually goes back to Plutarch in the second century, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, although he used a different metaphor that was later mistranslated by Erasmus in 1542. (It's not generally accessible online except with a password to get through a university firewall, or I'd link to it.)

When I was talking about these cases with my friend and colleague Chuck, who occasionally comments here, he decided to go check the OED to get the history of the expression. He noticed a particularly funny quote that the OED used to exemplify "call a spade a spade".

1647 TRAPP Marrow Gd. Authors in Comm. Ep. 641 Gods people shall not spare to call a spade a spade, a niggard a niggard.

Those who have followed the recent history of offense over normally-inoffensive terms will remember that the black mayor of the District of Columbia fired one of his white aides for using the term 'niggardly', a word that only sounds like a racial epithet if you aren't listening very carefully. Even the NAACP chair, Julian Bond, thought it was crazy to criticize someone for using that word. But I suppose we've now got solid proof that 'niggard' does refer to black people, since Trapp in 1647 used it in parallel with "call a spade a spade". Or does this show that "call a spade a spade" is tied to offensive language because its connection with niggards goes back at least to 1647?

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The 245th Christian Carnival will be taking place this coming Wednesday at The Limitless. 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 the complete list at christiancarnival.com.
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:

Blomberg on Plantinga

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Every once in a while I run into a theologian or biblical scholar discussing a philosopher, and I think it's nice the philosopher is getting the cross-disciplinary attention, but then I read what they have to say about the philosopher, and I wonder how they could possibly have gotten the philosopher so wrong. Alvin Plantinga seems to be on the receiving end of such treatment far too often. I've previously discussed D.A. Carson's criticisms of Plantinga that seem to attack a view nothing like Plantinga's. I've been reading through the second edition of Craig Blomberg's The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, and he seems to me to make some similar mistakes about Plantinga. I don't mean any of the following as a criticism of Blomberg's book in general. Most of the book so far is very good. But I don't think he has an even passable grasp of Plantinga's philosophical views.

Here is how he describes Plantinga's view:

Traditionally, believers have argued for God's existence by means of various philosophical 'proofs', but many today, theologians included, believe that all such arguments have been shown to be faulty. Some feel that to try to prove that God exists is to deny faith its proper place as the foundation of religion, though it is not obvious why someone should continue to believe a given doctrine if all the evidence contradicted it. (p.107)

After the words "foundation of religion", Blomberg gives the following footnote:

See esp. Plantinga, 'Is Belief in God "Properly Basic"?', pp.189-202. Plantinga believes that certain propositions about God are 'basic' (givens that cannot be demonstrated) but not 'groundless' (without warrant).

That last sentence is entirely true. Plantinga does indeed believe that certain propositions about God are not in need of a philosophical argument. We can know them without any such argument. However, it's simply false that Plantinga can count as an example of the view that trying to prove God's existence denies faith its proper place. It's also wrong to think of him as someone who thinks the traditional arguments for God are faulty. Consider what he says in his online lecture notes called Two Dozen (or So) Theistic Arguments:

I've been arguing that theistic belief does not (in general) need argument either for deontological justification, or for positive epistemic status, (or for Foley rationality or Alstonian justification)); belief in God is properly basic. But doesn't follow, of course that there aren't any good arguments. Are there some? At least a couple of dozen or so.

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245 Oct 8 The Limitless
246 Oct 15 Tale of a Kansas Girl
247 Oct 22 RodneyOlsen.net
248 Oct 29 Fish and Cans
249 Nov 5 Participatory Bible Study Blog
250 Nov 12 Brain Cramps for God
251 Nov 19 Messy Christian
252 Nov 26 Crossroads: Where Faith and Inquiry Meet

Warning: for those who have not read the last two books of the Harry Potter series, this post does include spoilers.

Before she wrote Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling answered a question about the Fidelius charm on her website:

When a Secret-Keeper dies, their secret dies with them, or, to put it another way, the status of their secret will remain as it was at the moment of their death. Everybody in whom they confided will continue to know the hidden information, but nobody else.

Just in case you have forgotten exactly how the Fidelius Charm works, it is

"an immensely complex spell involving the magical concealment of a secret inside a single, living soul. The information is hidden inside the chosen person, or Secret-Keeper, and is henceforth impossible to find -- unless, of course, the Secret-Keeper chooses to divulge it" (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban)

In other words, a secret (eg, the location of a family in hiding, like the Potters) is enchanted so that it is protected by a single Keeper (in our example, Peter Pettigrew, a.k.a. Wormtail). Thenceforth nobody else - not even the subjects of the secret themselves - can divulge the secret. Even if one of the Potters had been captured, force fed Veritaserum or placed under the Imperius Curse, they would not have been able to give away the whereabouts of the other two. The only people who ever knew their precise location were those whom Wormtail had told directly, but none of them would have been able to pass on the information.

This seemed fine to me when I read it. But then I read Deathly Hallows. Hermione Granger seems to contradict the above explanation. She acts as if everyone in on the secret becomes a Secret-Keeper once the Secret-Keeper dies. If that's right, then the secret can be spread after the Secret-Keeper is dead, and it can be spread by anyone who was told the secret. This is why she thinks the Death Eaters know about Sirius' house once they apparate into its location with a Death Eater in tow. As Secret-Keepers, they can reveal the site to someone.

There's one problem with this. Severus Snape was also in on the secret, and he could have told them the secret. He didn't, and he would have had to have an excuse. If the secret couldn't be told by those who were merely told it, then he would still have that excuse. So is this a sign that Hermione is wrong and Rowling's original explanation is correct? Not necessarily. Perhaps Snape was lying about who the Secret-Keeper was, and Voldemort didn't know it had been Dumbledore. Then Snape would still have an out, and he could pretend not to be able to say. So this isn't really strong evidence that Rowling's original explanation was correct after all.

Christian Carnival CCXLIV

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