Monthly Archives: January 2011

Philosophy & ESP

Daryl Bem became a minor media star recently with his paper on ESP. While his work has been subject to some rather serious criticism (mainly in regards to the methodology) it does raise some interesting matters.

Bem’s paper discusses nine experiments he has conducted over the past ten years.

In one experiment Bem had 100 students take a memory test and then had them practice the words they had used in the test. He claims that “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words.”

In his famous porn experiment, the subjects were asked to pick which virtual curtain concealed an image on the computer. Once the choice was made, a program randomly “placed” an image “behind” one curtain or the other. According to Bem, the subjects were able to pick the curtain that “hid” an image 53% of the time when that image was erotic. They were able to pick non-erotic photos only 50% of the time. He claims that “What I showed was that unselected subjects could sense the erotic photos, but my guess is that if you use more talented people, who are better at this, they could find any of the photos.”

While I am rather skeptical of his claims, I will assume (for the sake of the discussion that follows) that his results are statistically significant. On this assumption, some interesting issues in epistemology and metaphysics arise. At the core, the main matter is how information from the future would be “known” (epistemology) and what features reality would need in order for this to occur.

As noted above, Bem seems to take his tests as indicating some sort of backwards causation. Normal causation (if one dares to use such a phrase) involves time’s arrow always flying one way: towards the future and not back from the future. But, if the subjects “know” about the future or, more generally, that their present mental states are affected by future events, then it would seem that time’s arrow can fly both ways.

On the one hand, this seems to be rather implausible. After all, the general consensus among layman and experts would seem to be that time is a one way sort of thing and that causation does not work backwards in time.

On the other hand, time is a rather odd sort of thing and it would be hasty to assume that our assumption about time being one way is correct. After all, time travel certainly has a lot of appeal and it can be argued that it is at least possible. As such, perhaps it is not impossible for events of the future to have an impact on peoples’ mental states in the relative past. This, of course, would require that people have some seemingly unusually epistemic capabilities, but that is what ESP is all about.

Of course, it does seem somewhat extreme to conclude that our concepts of time and causation are fundamentally wrong and to embrace some rather dubious epistemology because some college students appear to be marginally better at picking out the porn. As such, it would seem sensible to consider some alternatives.

Since I recently taught about Hobbes and I am currently teaching about Spinoza, one possibility that occurred to me is that a deterministic universe could be used to explain these results without a need for any change in our concepts of causation, time or epistemology. If the events of the future follow of necessity from the events of the past, then sensing the future would not need to be a matter of the future somehow causing effects in the past. Rather, a person could predict the future based on what they know (or believe) about the present and the past. Since our epistemic abilities are rather limited, then our predictions would tend to be rather limited as well.

Speaking of dead European philosophers, Leibniz seems to provide a metaphysical system that would allow for the sort of ESP that Bem seems to be discussing.

Leibniz claims that the world is composed of monads and that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world. Crudely put, each of us is a monad (or rather the dominant monad in a collection of monads). Leibniz famously claimed that the monads have no windows-nothing comes out of or goes into the monads. This raises the obvious problem about how you, for example, can read this blog. Leibniz’s answer is that each monad mirrors or represents the entire world-though the clarity varies. As he sees it, when God created the universe, he created all the monads and each monad has all its experiences “placed” within it. To use a crude analogy, the movie that is your life is placed on a DVD that is placed within your mind. It plays and thus you have the experiences you do. As such, when you read this blog, your inner DVD is playing that experience for you.
Fortunately God has synced up all our inner DVDs so that they play in pre-established harmony. So, for example, if my inner DVD is playing so that I am “hearing” you speak, your inner DVD is at the point where you are “speaking” to me. Since each of us contains within us all our experiences, it would thus seem possible for people to “skip ahead” a bit and “see” events that have not yet happened. While this would seem like seeing the future, it would simply be like seeing what is on the DVD by skipping around in the scenes rather than playing the movie out normally. Thus, the students who were able to pick out the porn could have “skipped” ahead to see the porn on their inner DVD and thus known what to pick “ahead” of time.

Leibniz also claims that “each body feels all that happens in the universe, so he who sees all, might read in each what happens everywhere.” This would seem to allow for the possibility of the sort of ESP Bem is discussing.

In addition to his monads, Leibniz is also known for his claims about possible worlds, namely this being the best of the lot. Another philosopher who is well known for his work on possible worlds is the American philosopher David Lewis. In his On The Plurality of Worlds Lewis presents the hypothesis that possible worlds are real and that we, in fact, inhabit one. Of course, our world is the actual world to us. He even discusses the epistemological implications of such worlds and considers that they could be epistemically or doxastically accessible to us. Interestingly enough, Lewis’ possible worlds would seem to provide a metaphysical basis for ESP.

In terms of how this would work, one merely needs to assume that there are possible worlds, that we have epistemic access to them (that is, we can know about them or at least have warranted beliefs about their content), and that there are worlds whose timeline is ahead of our own (that is, their present is our future).

This all works out in the following manner. Suppose that Jack is a subject in Bem’s porn experiment. Sitting at the computer, he somehow accesses possible worlds (I’ll just help myself to Lewis’ arguments about how this works). In some of these worlds there are counterparts to Jack who are also involved in experiments being run by Bem’s counterpart. Crudely put, a counterpart to the actual Jack (the Jack in our possible world or Jack@thisworld) is whatever most resembles Jack in another possible world (such a Jack would be Jack@thatworld). In some of these worlds, the Jack counterparts are ahead of Jack@thisworld in the experiment, so that they have seen the results of their picks. In some cases the picks yield porn and in other cases they do not. Since Jack wants to see the porn, he will presumably make his choice based on the results experienced by the other Jacks. Given that Jack presumably has, at best, “fuzzy” access to these possible worlds and that the worlds would not be exactly like this world, the minor increase in correct picks is easily explained. Really.

In this scenario, the future is not causing anything in the past. Rather, Jack is merely accessing a possible world whose present is a counterpart of our future. Nothing could be more sensible.

While this is interesting, it is not without its problems. One obvious problem is that this is rather weird and mysterious. Another problem is that if future possibilities are grounded in the presents of possible worlds, then there would need to be a world for each world’s possible future, thus creating what would seem to be a rather unfortunate infinite regress. But, that seems to be a small price to pay for an account of ESP.

One final thought is maybe we are in an eternally recurring world and a bit sticks from the last time around (like gum on a shoe). So maybe the kids keep getting a bit better at picking out the porn. Who knows, a few million more times around and they will pick porn at 100%.

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TPM Contest: What the hell does this mean?

This is just a bit of fun. Here’s a famous philosopher waxing lyrical about love (I’ve pinched the quote from Andrew Shaffer’s amusing new book, Great Philosophers Who Failed At Love).

We change ourselves into that which we love, and yet remain ourselves. Then we would like to thank the beloved, but find nothing that would do it adequately. We can only be thankful to ourselves. Love transforms gratitude into faithfulness to ourselves and into an unconditional faith in the Other. Thus love steadily expands its most intimate secret. Closeness here is existence in the greatest distance from the other – the distance that allows nothing to dissolve – but rather presents the “thou” in the transparent, but “incomprehensible” revelation of the “just there.” That the presence of the other breaks into our own life – this is what no feeling can fully encompass.

So three questions:

1. Who wrote this? (Should be easyish – but don’t Google!)

2. What does it mean?

3. Is it true?

Probably no prizes, but if a lot of people respond, I’ll possibly throw in something from the TPM Shop. Bonus points available for amusing replies. The judge’s decision – that would be me, by the way – is final!

Authorship and Self-Identity

Ordinarily, we interchange the expressions “writer” and “author”. For example, we advertize events at which an “author” will appear to sign copies of a new book. We introduce the writer behind the table covered with books as the “author”. I am bucking conventional wisdom by claiming that it is impossible to meet the author of a book, because the author is not a person but exists solely in the book as the writer has written it.

This is counter intuitive, so let us examine the differences. Writers are persons who have lives. They are born, grow up, write books, and then they die. Writers can change their minds. Authors cannot. Writers write. Authors come into being only to the extent that they are given an identity in the written work. The author comes to a complete self-identity with the last words. Any changes to the text must come from a writer.

Take the early and the late Wittgenstein as an example from philosophy. We have a choice of authors here. The author of the early “Tractatus” and the late “Philosophical Investigations” are very different, though Wittgenstein, the writer, wrote them at different times of his life. Like bugs caught in aspic, the authors of the early and late works look at us unblinking. Every time we open the “Tractatus”, we see an author who confidently comes to the end of philosophy, while the author of the “Investigations” is more circumspect.

Authors often show a confidence that writers do not feel. Just a glance at original drafts of canonical works reveals the rewriting and crossing out that went into the production of the final text. However, when the book goes off to the printer, the author in the text has been fixed by the writer in the stance of addressing its target audience. For the distinction between the author and the writer also exists between the “audience- to-which- the- writing- addresses- itself” and the actual reader who happens to pick up the book and look through it.

A writer can never be as self-identical as the author in a text. This is because the author is not free to reconsider the views that it puts forth in the book. This is one of Plato’s main complaints about writing; namely, that the author cannot be cross-questioned. Books and their authors keep saying the same words over and over, like the sequence of notes in a symphony. The author’s identity is fixed in a way that the writer’s identity is fixed only in death.

This realization changes how one looks at the writings of philosophers, particularly professional philosophers. In an academic world of “publish or perish,” there is, understandably, considerable motivation to get into print, to get a ‘name’ for oneself in one or another sub-specialty of philosophy. It is understandable that graduate students and non-tenured faculty, as living writers, have considerable anxiety and hope riding on their writings. Compare these writers with the ‘authors’ in the texts they manage to publish.

Writers who can break into the published world of philosophy have played the game impressively. However, usually, none of the anxiety and self-doubt of the writer is in evidence. The author confidently takes on all comers, has read all the relevant papers, has a consistent argument that fits into the already established debate. This is not an easy thing to do, and to carry it off with aplomb is precisely not to reveal what is at stake for the writer. One must make it look easy. Of course, nothing is at stake for the ‘author,’ for the author exists only in the text.

The self-identity of an author is complete. The same can be said for the ‘readers-in-the-text’ to whom the text is eternally addressed. All the time it takes to read a book comes from the life of an incompletely self-identical and mortal human being. Philosophical writing, for the most part, seeks to persuade a persuadable audience to follow an argument and agree with its conclusions. The function of the author is, first, to convince a selected audience of the truth of the arguments presented; and, second, to show the incoherence or unlikelihood of countervailing arguments from other authors.

Extremism in Defense of Liberty…

While running on the Florida State University campus I ran over a chalked advertisement for the Young Republicans. The ad began with a paraphrase of Goldwater’s famous quote: “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”

After seeing this, I thought about it for the next six miles. Like most runners, I find that I think I think best when running. This blog post will provide an interesting test of that thought.

On the face of it, the claims made in the quote seem to be in error by definition. After all, extremism seems to entail going beyond what is actually needed to defend something and that justice, by its very nature, requires a balance between excess and deficiency.

To use an analogy, imagine a doctor who said “I would remind you that excessive medication in the defense of health is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of well being is no virtue!”

Obviously, excessive medication would be (by definition) too much and hence injurious rather than beneficial to health. As such, this claim would be in error. In the case of well being Aristotle seems to have established quite well that moderation (avoiding excess and deficiency) are the key to well being.

As such, while the claims might have a rhetorical o dramatic appeal they seem to be fundamentally in error.

It could, of course, be replied that I am begging the question against Goldwater by taking “extremism” as being on par with “excessive” and taking moderation to be the mean between excess and deficiency. It could be contended that Goldwater means something else by these terms. To be specific, the extremism he is referring to could be taken as what is seen as being extreme but is, in fact, just what is needed to defend liberty. In the case of moderation, he is not talking about the mean but rather by being a political moderate and willing to compromise and take a middle ground.

Interpreted in this way, what he would seem to be saying is something like “I would remind you that doing what it really takes to defend liberty, even though it might seem extreme to some, is no vice! And let me remind you also that taking the middle ground and compromising too much in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.” This seems reasonable enough.

Interestingly, if the quote is taken literally, then he seems to be simply wrong. Extremism is going beyond what is needed and moderation (neither excess nor deficiency) is what is required by justice (otherwise it is not just). If the quote is taken less literally, then it merely amounts to a rhetorical way of saying something that is true but not particularly controversial or interesting.

As a final point, I have noticed that people often use this quote in an “argument by quote/slogan” in an attempt to justify what actually are extreme and immoderate policies and rhetoric. Of course, merely quoting someone hardly serves to prove a claim (although it can be taken as an argument from authority)-though some folks seem to think that this does so with finality.

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Pathological Gaming

Video games have been accused of being corrupting influences that lead to violence and other bad behavior. A recent study now appears to show that gaming can lead to pathological gaming-a state that seems to be on par with other serious and harmful addictions.

The study in question was conducted in Singapore using 3,034 students from grade 3 to grade 8. The study found that 7.9-9.9% of those in the study could be classified as pathological gamers. Interestingly, 16% of those classified as pathological ceased to fit this classification over the two years while only 1% of the participants shifted from non-pathological to pathological. While the study was limited to one country, the results are supposed to be consistent with what would be found in other countries.

The study revealed that risk factors for becoming a pathological gamer include the time spent gaming, the person’s social competence and the person’s impulse control. Not surprisingly, people who spent more time gaming while possessing less social competence and impulse control were more likely to become pathological.

This is a matter of concern because there seems to be a link between being a pathological gamer and depression, anxiety, social phobias and reduced school performance.

Not surprisingly, certain spokespeople for the gaming industry rushed to condemn the study. After all, if a solid link were made between video games and psychological harms, then it would seem likely that costly lawsuits would soon follow. Of course, the mere fact that the folks in the gaming industry has a financial stake in the matter does not prove that their criticisms are mistaken.

In any case, the study does raise some interesting concerns and does provide a clear focus for discussing causation.

Even it is assumed that there is a correlation between playing video games and the harms the study purports to reveal, there are still legitimate questions about the causality involved.

First, there is the possibility that cause and effect are being reversed. To be specific, people might turn to playing video games excessively because they are depressed, doing poorly in school and having other problems. If so, the video games would not be the cause of the problem. Rather, the pathological gaming would be the effect. To use an analogy, a person who drinks excessively and is depressed and unemployed might be drinking because he is depressed and unemployed.

Naturally, it is worth considering that there might be a feedback mechanism in play: people turn to video games because of these problems and this approach makes the problems even worse. Alcohol presents a clear analogy here: people do turn to drink because of problems and then the drinking can make things worse.

Second, there is the possibility that there is a third factor that is causing the alleged cause and effects. To illustrate this, consider an example from my own life. When I was 15 my mother bought me a copy of the D&D Basic Set. Soon after, I became less social (aside from gaming), I was depressed, my grades dropped badly and I spent a lot of time playing D&D. While it might be tempting to explain these problems by blaming D&D (which was blamed for all sorts of things then), the real reason was that shortly after I started gaming my parents went through a rather rough divorce. After things settled down, I still played D&D (and video games) and my grades, socialization and so on recovered and then improved significantly. As such, my spending a lot of time on D&D did not cause my problems. Rather, the divorce caused me to spend more time on D&D and caused many of my problems.

As such, it is worth considering whether or not there are other factors that are causing the pathological gamers to be both pathological gamers and suffer from the various problems attributed to them.

Third, it is worth considering whether the problems are actually specifically caused by video games or whether it is some other factor, such as the excessive time spent on one activity. To use an analogy, consider blaming obesity on junk food. While this has some appeal, it is not actually the type of food that causes obesity but rather the quantity. A person could eat a diet of bacon wrapped Twinkies and not get fat, while someone else could eat health food in massive quantities and get very fat. If it is the excessive time spent that causes the trouble, then video games might be off the hook for the blame. Then again, there might be something about video games that makes them a special risk. Going back to the junk food analogy, it is tempting to blame junk food because it is high in calories and very appealing.

Based on my own experience, I am inclined to hold that excessive time spent on a single activity can lead to problems-be it video games, a sport work, or texting. However, it does seem reasonable to consider that video games are crafted to be addictive and that they might have more capacity to create problems than other hobby activities.

Thinking of Nothing

Is it possible to think of nothing and remain awake? Is thinking of nothing the same as not thinking at all? Is being conscious of something the same as thinking? Do all thoughts take objects? Where do ‘objects of thought’ come from? Perhaps these are odd questions. Usually there is no need to ask. Thinking is about something or other.

We spend a lot of time thinking about the future. This includes all the mundane things we have to plan for and carry out. It includes thinking about what is coming up for our health, education and job prospects, relationships, the state of the economy, politics, retirement, taxes, death; in short, all the things that people care about that point to the future.

We spend most of the rest of the time thinking about the past. I think of the good times and the bad times, the people I have known. Sometimes an old landscape comes before my imagination, now covered with houses and roads, sometimes a flower I have seen, or the smell of orange blossoms in spring. I think of old loves and passions, the turmoil of youth, the work of middle age, and the reflections of later life. Looking back, we can try to see the meaning hidden in events that were too close and involving to be understood clearly at the time.

Can objects of thought come from the present? I do not see why not. Bringing your attention to sensations or perceptions of objects brings you directly to the present. This is because the living body is rooted in the present in a way that thinking is not. For example, to become conscious of the feeling in your left foot is to come into the present of your body at a particular moment. Similarly, becoming aware of the specific perceptual qualities of an object also brings you to your senses. So if you were to see a rare bird and remember to pay attention to its color, and the flash of its wings, this, too, brings you into the present of your body as perceptual system. All too often one is ‘elsewhere’ when the bird passes by. In addition, there are contemplative practices that fill the present meaning, as in Plato’s intellectual contemplation of the Forms or religious contemplation of sacred symbols. However, such objects are not temporal in the same way as sensations or objects of perception.

Yet more objects of thought come from subjects like logic, mathematics and geometry. The objects of these studies are universal necessary truths that do not depend upon contingent facts for their validation. I can intuit some simple truths like this. For example, I can see a circle is round and a square is rectangular. So, if I take up a position, as Spinoza suggested, “under the aspect of eternity”, I am thinking about something that does not change over time. Every time I look at a circle, I can be sure to see its circular shape. Some objects of thought are timeless.

Have I left anything out? What about “Mindfulness?” Does mindfulness count as thinking about something or nothing? By “mindfulness” I am thinking of a dedicated or “single-minded” mindfulness. Roughly speaking, this form of mindfulness brings one into the present moment without comment or judgment. One is simply in watchfulness over what transpires within one’s field of bodily/mental experience. Mindfulness is word free, a simple awareness of a present actuality that cannot be named, but can be encountered in stillness. Chattering to oneself destroys it. The words that make up our descriptions and explanations distract us from the moment.

One can be mindful in different ways. I am mindful of the pavement so that I do not trip, or mindful of the feelings of others. I am mindful of putting the silverware away, conscious of putting each fork or knife into it proper place. Here, we are still thinking of things, albeit in a mindful way that brings us more fully into the present moment. Nevertheless, discursive or calculative thinking is incompatible with ‘single-minded’ mindfulness.

So, can one think of nothing and remain awake? The answer is ‘yes’ in the case of ‘single-minded’ mindfulness. It is thinking of nothing in the sense of not categorizing things or making calculations about them. It is neither having abstract truths before one’s imagination, contemplating symbols or images, nor attending to sensations. ‘Single-minded’ mindfulness is neither engaged in the world, nor apart from it. It does not tell itself stories, valuing or negating, wishing or hoping, but receives and accepts whatever is going on as long as it continues; allowing thoughts and feelings, words and images, to exist as soon as they arise and to let them go as soon as they are ready to leave.

Freedom of (Angry) Expression

After the terrible shootings in Arizona, some folks rushed to use the spilled blood as fuel in their political machines. Some hurried to blame the right, especially Sarah Palin and her infamous map of “surveyor symbols.” Others leaped to place the blame on the left.

Among the more reasonable folks and experts the consensus arose that the shooter was motivated by neither the right nor the left. Rather, he seemed to have made his choice under the influence of his own troubled mental states. As such, the blame seems to rest (as it should) primarily on the person who pulled the trigger. This incident did, of course, raise legitimate concerns about various relevant issues such as whether or not more laws should be created in the hopes of preventing another incident like this one.

Some people do, of course, want to pass laws against  speech containing violent rhetoric and images that are suggestive of violence-at least when these are directed at politicians.  The hope is, naturally enough,  that such laws will help prevent future incidents.

Those who traffic in angry rhetoric were quick to angrily denounce such proposals as violating their right to free expression. While I am not in agreement with the angry rhetoric, I do agree that such laws would tend to violate that right. I also contend that such new laws are neither needed nor desirable.

One reason to not add new laws is the obvious fact that actual threats of violence are already against the law. As such, there does not seem to be a compelling need to add new laws to make illegal what is already illegal.

However, some of the suggestions involve laws that go beyond outlawing actual threats. The idea seems to be that new laws should cover vaguely threatening rhetoric and suggestive images.

While this might have some appeal, to expand the laws to restrict expression that might merely be seen as vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence (like cross hairs on a map) would seem to infringe too far into the freedom of expression without adequate justification. After all, restricting the freedom of expression requires justifying that restriction-typically on the basis of harm or potential harm. Something that merely seems threatening or suggestive does not seem to be harmful enough to warrant such a restriction.

These two points could be combined into something of a dilemma: if an act of expression is an actual threat, then it is already covered by existing laws and hence no new law is needed. If an act of expression cannot be classified as an actual threat, then it would seem to be protected by the freedom of expression and hence no new law is needed. Thus, there would seem to be no need for new laws in this area.

There is also the practical concern that laws vague enough to cover what is vaguely threatening or suggestive of violence could easily be misused by politicians against their opponents and critics. This would, as some have said, have a chilling effect on free speech.

In light of these reasons, it would seem that no new restrictions on expression should be made into laws. This, oddly enough, puts me in agreement with folks who want to continue to use angry and violent political rhetoric. However, I do disagree with them in a key way.

While I do agree that people should be free to spew hateful rhetoric that does not cross over into actual threats and incitements to violence, I also believe that people should tone down the violent rhetoric and the anger. At the very least, people should consider whether their anger is proportional to reality. Political discussion and the general good are not well served by vitriol. They are not aided by disproportionate anger. They are not enhanced by rage. While we do have disagreements, we should remember that we are not blood enemies and that we can discuss our differences in a rational way, free of allusions to violence. Before sputtering in rage, we should think of those people lying dead on the tar and temper our words. After all, their blood shows us the true fruits of hatred and rage.

My point is, of course, that there is an important distinction between what people should be allowed to express and what they should choose to express. To use an analogy, there should be no law that forbids spouses from referring to each other as “whore”, “sh@thead” and so on. However, spouses really should not use such language with each other. Likewise for the angry rhetoric-people have the right to use it, but they should really consider not doing so.

Night thoughts on vigilantism

Suppose that you’re the American media, and you’re trying to make sense of the recent mass murder and attempted assassination in Arizona. There are many simple ways that you can try to come to terms with the event. And since you’re the American media, you are going to treat the process of explanation as if it were as easy as doing a multiple choice test. So the murders happened because a) Jared Loughner is crazy; or they happened because b) America’s crazy; or, c) We don’t know one way or another. Using the pencil provided, pick one (1) option that best fits your answer.

You can predict which answers people will give by asking them their party affiliation and political ideology. Partisan Democrats will point to SarahPAC‘s crosshairs. Ideological democrats will tend to be skeptical that we can tell a simple causal story that will explain these seemingly unexplainable acts. And Republicans will say: he was mentally incompetent, and had nothing to do with the right-wing regime.

Me? — I’d have a hard time filling out my Scantron sheet. Based on the evidence, it’s reasonable to think that Loughner is not mentally competent. But I don’t know if the alleged assassin is mentally competent — that’s one of the things that we’re going to have to find out. And I don’t know if the climate of hostility is responsible for the actions of someone who is not mentally competent, because I don’t know how you go about holding a culture responsible for anything. But that doesn’t mean that the culture of violence and vigilante justice didn’t help cause it.

That’s option d): all of the above.


While we may not know much about the details of the case, we certainly do know that post-9/11 politics is unhinged from reality. The right-wing noise machine is the vanguard of the American Tea Party movement. We also know that the vanguard of the Tea Party self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence against civilians. And we know that Loughner was influenced by the right-wing group American Renaissance. So if the right-wing vanguard has created a society that acts as an incubator for violent resentment, and if this culture gave an outlet for a disturbed mind, then it would be a plausible explanation for why Loughner’s actions took the form that they did.

I can hear some of you gentle readers bristling at one of these premises. You might think that it is very bold for someone to say, “so-and-so self-consciously attempts to goad people into violence”. Like Jon Stewart, you might shudder at any suggestion that there is a causal connection between the culture of vigilantism and Loughner’s attack.

But you have no right to bristle. There’s no reasonable doubt that their explicit intent is to legitimize violence against civilians. Consider these opinions about the fate of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange:

“I’d like to ask a simple question: Why isn’t Julian Assange dead? …Why wasn’t Assange garroted in his hotel room years ago? It’s a serious question.” Jonah Goldberg, National Review Online

“Julian Assange should be targeted like the Taliban.”Sarah Palin

“This fellow Anwar al-Awlaki – a joint U.S. citizen hiding out in Yemen – is on a ‘kill list’ [for inciting terrorism against the U.S.]. Mr. Assange should be put on the same list.”G Gordon Liddy, former Nixon advisor and ex-felon

And so on. That is their vision of justice. As a corporate whole, they think they’re The Punisher. The vanguard believes in do-it-yourself homicide, not law and order or due process. Vigilantism is a lynchpin of the Tea Party ethos.

Notice: I am not saying that the case of Julian Assange is identical to that of Gabrielle Giffords. Nor do I bring it up in order to suggest that Loughner was directly influenced by the right-wing vanguard — presumably, he has never met Palin in person, for instance. My point is that you can’t underestimate the causal role of a climate of violence. You might absolve the vanguard of responsibility for crimes committed by irrational actors — but you can hold the vanguard accountable for bringing about the culture.



To see what I’m arguing against, consider Brandon’s recent post (at the philosophy blog Siris). Brandon rightly calls for moderation and temperance by saying:

In cases like this it is important not to over-read the evidence. There is at present no evidence whatsoever linking Loughner to Sarah Palin, and no evidence whatsoever that Loughner was influenced by Palin’s crosshairs list (or, since it had become a popular device in the past three or four years, any of the many bullseye/crosshairs/target lists, Republican or Democrat, that predate Palin’s). There is at present, in fact, no clear association of Loughner with any political group… All these are rather elementary examples, and don’t require much more than basic critical thinking skills and a little research.

(Note: this was written before we found out that Loughner is associated with American Renaissance, so it’s not fair to criticize Brandon for not making that connection.)

The quoted paragraph includes a red herring. For, the way I see it, the “climate of violence” argument doesn’t depend on us knowing anything about Loughner’s “link” to Sarah Palin. A culture is a feature of populations, not just particular interacting persons. You don’t need to know the details about how a society connects specific people with other specific people in order to understand how the culture has had a predictable influence. You just need to establish that the person plays some role in the culture, and that the culture has certain features. By analogy, we will sometimes explain a case of the flu by saying, “there’s a flu going around” — we don’t bother going through the effort of naming the exact person who gave you the virus.

I find it puzzling that Brandon seems to want more evidence before we can offer responsible explanations on the basis of what we have. Our explanations will, of course, be revisable and tentative. And just because we say that the Tea Party helped cause these events, doesn’t mean we’re entitled to lay the blame on particular people. But we can sure blame particular people — the vanguard — for making the culture in the first place.


There is another possible objection. You might say that, even if the climate of violence played some role in Loughner’s crime, it would still not be Palin’s fault for producing that culture of violence. The idea is that there is some analogy between Palin’s role in the Tucson murders and Marilyn Manson’s role in the murders at Columbine. In the next post,  Some time soon, I’m going to show you how this analogy is completely off base.

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Is Motherhood Liberating or Confining?

This past year, two significant feminists have spoken out against an increasingly popular trend in parenting. French philosopher Elizabeth Badinter says that today’s mothers are experiencing a “relapse to times long past.” American essayist Erica Jong writes that contemporary motherhood is like a “prison.” Are we truly experiencing a devolution in women’s liberty?

The trend in question, attachment parenting or, a similar variant, green-parenting, encourages mothers to breastfeed, make baby food from scratch, frequently carry them around in a sling, and to generally not be absent the first 3-5 years of the child’s life. Badinter and Jong both see this as severely restricting of a mother’s time. But that is not enough to warrant criticism. On their view, this trend is problematic insofar as it has become so popular and in cases so self-righteous as to eliminate alternate ways of mothering. Women are pressured to always be at their baby’s side, and if they’re not, then they’re made to feel guilty. In this oppressive environment, argue Badinter and Jong, mothers are likely to toss out their ambition with the bath water. In short, Badinter and Jong believe that the ideal for mothers today is counter to the feminist ideal of self-actualization. But is this true?

Not according to everyone. There are some who argue that being a mother is a political act. For instance, these mothers extol breastfeeding because by denying to buy formula, they are shunning consumerism and so sticking it to the man. Similarly, they reject the medicalization of birth, in which hospitals and pain killers alienate women from their bodies. For these women, being a mother is empowering because it allows them to take back control over something that they feel society has progressively taken from them: their bodies and their relationships to their babies.

Who is right? Badinter and Jong have us believe that in the current climate, motherhood keeps women from acting in the world, whereas the other school of thought tells us that motherhood can have a significant impact on society. Yet both sides argue that they are feminists fighting the good fight against oppression. In a way, this is an iteration of the age-old battle in feminism between defenders of women’s individualism and defenders of women’s ability to nurture others. It seems that the question of whether motherhood is liberating or not requires us to answer a deeper question: are we best defending women’s liberty by advancing their individuality or rather their woman-ness?

Huck Finn

The classic book, Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, is no stranger to controversy. The latest incident involves an edition that replaces the “n-word” with “slave”, presumably to sanitize the book.

While it might seem intuitively wrong to make such a change, there are some reasons that can be used to justify this change.

First, the n-word is regarded by many as offensive to a degree that warrants its removal from art. Of course, it might be argued that the n-word is still dropped with great regularity. However, it could be replied that since Twain was a white man, he should not have used this word (or should not use it were he writing today) and hence the search and replace is correct. It could also be argued that no one should use the word and hence it is acceptable to remove it from works, regardless of the skin color of  the person using it.

Second, this book is one of the most banned books in America, presumably because of the n-word. The book is, however, an important work of literature. By replacing the offending word, this sanitized version of the book should be somewhat more appealing to squeamish school boards. As such, this could provide a compromise situation. Students would be able to read a book very much like the one Twain wrote. Those concerned with protecting the youth from the word could be satisfied with this alteration.

However, there are some very good reasons as to why the book should not be changed.

First, there is the obvious matter of freedom of expression. Changing the word is, in effect, a form of censorship. If artists have a right to this freedom of expression, then this sort of censorship would seem to be unacceptable.

Naturally, it can be argued that the right of the artist is outweighed by the offensive nature of the word. There are, of course, always good reasons to restrict freedom of expression so as to protect people from harm (the yelling of “fire” being the stock example). The question is, of course, whether the alleged harms of leaving the word  in the book exceed the right of the artist (even though he is dead).

It could be pointed out that the modified edition is but one edition, thus allowing readers to chose which version they read. As such, the artist’s freedom of expression remains intact and the freedom of choice for the readers is expanded. This seems to be a point worth considering.

Second, there is the concern that such a change violates the artistic integrity of the work. It could be seen as being on par with someone putting shorts on David because the nakedness of the statue offends him.  The word that is being replaced could be regarded as a integral part of the work and the change could thus be seen as damaging the artistic integrity of the book.

Tied into this is also the matter of historical integrity. Modifying past works, be they artistic or otherwise, because people find some of the content offensive, seems to be rather problematic. One of the main problems is that this sort of approach seems to embrace what might be regarded as a type of dishonesty-a willingness to change things so as to avoid what offends.

Third, the publishers of the modified version are, of course, selling the book as being by Mark Twain. However, this modification means that the product is not truly just Twain’s work anymore. As such, it would be incorrect to present it as being the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. Rather, it should be the Modified Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, based on the Original Version by Mark Twain.

This does seem to be a reasonable matter of concern.

Overall, it seems that the work should not be altered in this manner.