Monthly Archives: December 2013

Humanity Enhanced coming your way

My newest book – from MIT Press in this case – is Humanity Enhanced: Genetic Choice and the Challenge for Liberal Democracies.

Humanity Enhanced is based on my PhD dissertation from Monash University, completed back in 2008. That PhD program turned out to be a big part of my life (as those of you who know me well are already aware, this was actually my second PhD, completed relatively late in life; my original PhD was an Eng.Lit. one from well over 20 years before).
Humanity Enhanced cover
The text has been reworked quite heavily since the original PhD dissertation, which was entitled “Human Enhancement: The Challenge to Liberal Tolerance”, supervised by Justin Oakley, and examined by Gregory Pence and Nicholas Agar.

Compared to the PhD dissertation, Humanity Enhanced has been expanded and elaborated in some respects, simplified in others (and especially in its language), updated, rejigged to deal with certain issues raised by the anonymous reviewers for MIT Press, and generally altered and lengthened sufficiently to be a quite separate work.

It includes a lengthy (and I hope useful) discussion of the therapy/enhancement distinction that does not appear in the original dissertation. I did write something along these lines at the time before deciding that it was not appropriate in that context. My interest was not so much in “enhancement” in some way that contrasts with “therapy”, but with the actual or postulated technologies of genetic choice that had been so controversial in the years leading up to my PhD program (notably after Dolly’s announcement in 1997). Still, the issue of a supposed therapy/enhancement boundary remains controversial, so I decided to say something about it in an appendix, if only to explain some of the problems with the idea, and why I am reluctant to see any such boundary as crucial either for the purposes of moral decision making or those of public policy.

That is not to say that no boundary line can ever be drawn. If, however, we push too hard on the concept of a therapy/enhancement boundary, we may find it very unsatisfactory for our needs. With some specific issues, it may fail to deliver any clear result or may appear to deliver one that is rather remote from what we really care about. There may be a range of cases where it provides a useful shortcut for our thinking, but I doubt that it is helpful with cases that are of genuine philosophical interest and difficulty.

While MIT Press is announcing Humanity Enhanced with an official 2014 publication date, and it bears a 2014 copyright date inside the book, it has actually been available for purchase for three or four weeks now, at least from Amazon.

Humanity Enhanced stands alone; you can read it easily without reference to any of my other work. To get a more complete picture of my position in legal and political philosophy, however, it is best to read it in conjunction with my 2012 book Freedom of Religion and the Secular State. Both deal with aspects of legal/political philosophy and liberal theory. Between them, they give a rather comprehensive picture of my position in legal and political philosophy, which is not to say that they tell you how I would vote on every policy issue that comes up.

Indeed, my philosophical position gives a quite wide discretion to voters, electorates, political parties, and legislatures to disagree reasonably on such issues as exactly what laws should be enacted, what economic policies to pursue, what punishments to impose for various crimes, etc. I don’t claim that we can simply read off “correct” answers to such issues from our philosophical positions, although I do claim that we should agree to rule out some arguments as good justifications for our laws and policies. If my arguments for that are accepted, many substantive policy positions become very difficult to justify (since the most obvious arguments are ruled out), while others become very difficult to oppose reasonably.

To take just one example, I think it would be difficult under current circumstances to put a convincing and legitimate argument against making provision to recognise same-sex marriage – we could argue about the details, perhaps, but there seems to be no good argument against providing for some kind of regime for recognising same-sex marriage under conditions identical to, or at least very similar to, those relating to opposite-sex marriage. I develop the argument in Freedom of Religion and the Secular State.

In Humanity Enhanced I focus on technologies of genetic choice, such as preimplantation genetic diagnosis to select embryos, human reproductive cloning to bring into the world a child with a particular genome, or genetic engineering in the sense of altering an embryo’s DNA (and hence its genetic potential). I argue that public policy in this area has shown a considerable degree of illiberalism and even moral panic. We can, I suggest, do better than this. Next time we are confronted with some apparently scary innovation we can ask whether its prohibition is really justifiable in accordance with secular and liberal principles such as we’ve inherited from the Enlightenment.

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Monetizing MOOCs


Money (Photo credit: 401(K) 2013)

Having been a professor for a while, I have learned the obvious: fads come and go in higher education. In some cases, a fad turns out to not be a fad—that is, it lodges in the system and becomes part of it. At this point, MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) seem to be a fad. Within the academy, administrators and some faculty sing the praises of the MOOCs…at least until one starts asking for specific details. Then the song turns to whistling and a bit of hand waving, followed by a quick departure from the stage. Outside of the academy, MOOCs have also become a subject of buzz—there are those eager to use MOOCs as money siphons and others who delight in throwing around the term at every opportunity—ranging from motivational speeches to training sessions.

While there is a multiplicity of issues relating to MOOCs, one obvious point of concern is how the MOOCs are going to be monetized. That is, how will the MOOC companies make money in order to sustain the MOOCs and, perhaps, make a profit.

One of the biggest and best known MOOCers is EDX. This nonprofit is funded by MIT and Harvard, which puts it in a fairly good position in terms of money. Since EDX is a non-profit, it does not face the burden of generating a profit. Since it is backed by two academic powerhouses with considerable funding, it can rely on them for the cash needed to keep their MOOCs MOOCing. That said, EDX might not be able to rely on the funding indefinitely and even a non-profit needs cash flow to keep it in operation.

Other big MOOCers include the for-profit Coursera and Udacity. Unlike the non-profits MOOCers, they face a dual challenge: 1) having enough cash to stay in operation and 2) making a profit. For profit MOOCers are typically funded by venture capitalists who are gambling that the MOOCs will be MOMMs (Massive Online Money Makers).

One rather obvious challenge of monetizing the MOOCs is the “Open” in “Massive Open Online Courses.” For the most part, “Open” is taken to mean “free.” One obvious problem with a business model based on giving away the sole product for free is that free product does not, in general, result in much income. The obvious solution to the lack of income from being free is to make the product non-free. However, this would require changing how people see the “Open” in “Massive Open Online Courses” or changing “MOOC” to “MOC” (For “Massive Online Courses”).

If MOOCs become online paid classes, then they would need to offer services that people would be willing to pay for and they would need to compete with established alternatives (such as universities). This could be done by providing a better or cheaper product—or, as some for-profit colleges do, massive advertising and perhaps a bit of deceit.

Not surprisingly, the for-profit colleges do provide an excellent look into how to monetize a MOOC. The for-profit colleges have managed to tap into federal money quite effectively: in 2011 25% of all Department of Education financial aid money went to the for-profits. They have also tapped into Pell Grants and veteran’s educational benefits. No doubt the for-profit MOOCers will endeavor to follow the same tactics, only with the MOOC spin on the selling. MOOCers are already hard at work lobbying and have enjoyed considerable success, especially with certain governors. As such, student financial aid seems to be a likely source of money for well-connected MOOCers. Of course, this would just be the same as the for-profit colleges, only with massive classes. This might result in change in education from a small scale operation (in terms of class sizes) to what could be regarded as industrialized education: massive production via automation. Naturally, there are concerns about the quality and value of such massive courses—at least to those who are concerned about education.

MOOCers can also make money by selling their services to existing universities. Based on my own experience and a bit of research, many administrators and politicians are excited about using MOOCs to reduce the cost and increase the availability of public education (and funnel money to the right people). A university might fund MOOCs and allow students to take them for free (which would be the traditional MOOC) or they might offer MOOCs as they would offer an online course of their own—by charging students a fee. This might seem to be an odd approach for a university—like a sign shop hiring someone else to make their signs or McDonalds hiring a catering service to make the food they will sell. After all, universities already have people who create and teach classes, namely professors. Why not have university faculty create and run the MOOCs? The obvious answer is that faculty are often not “the right people” when it comes to who should be receiving the money.

Another approach, borrowed from the freemium games, is to provide the basic product for free and then make money charging people for extras. For example, a student might be able to take a class for free, but have to pay a fee to get a certificate proving that she passed the course. This would require offering courses where the certificate would mean something (or hoping that people will buy them to print to hang on their walls). As another example, the basic course could be free, but students would have to pay for extra tutoring or access to premium course material. Given the success of freemium games, this could be a viable option for the MOOCers—provided they can offer premium options that people will buy in quantities enough to sustain the MOOCer. One point of concern is, of course, that the freemium approach could run counter to one of the “selling” points of MOOCs, namely that they are supposed to open education up to the masses. If people have to shell out for premiums and these premiums are actually important or essential to the course, then the divide between those who can afford to pay and those who cannot will exist in the land of MOOCs—just as it does in traditional higher education. But, perhaps the premium content would still be far less than the cost of traditional education.

Whatever the approach, the MOOCers are going to need to monetize the MOOCs. This might result in the MOOCs ceasing to be MOOCs—that is, becoming just more online for-profit colleges (only with really big courses). Then again, maybe MOOCs will go the way of Friendster rather than becoming the Facebook of education.

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Kant & Sexbots

Robotina [005]

Robotina [005] (Photo credit: PVBroadz)

The Fox sci-fi buddy cop show Almost Human episode on sexbots inspired me to revisit the ethics of sexbots. While the advanced, human-like models of the show are still things of fiction, there is already considerable research and development devoted to creating sexbots. As such, it seems well worth considering the ethical issues involving sexbots real and fictional.

At this time, sexbots are clearly mere objects—while often made to look like humans, they do not have the qualities that would make them even person-like. As such, ethical concerns involving these sexbots would not involve concerns about wrongs done to such objects—presumably they cannot be wronged. One potentially interesting way to approach the matter of sexbots is to make use of Kant’s discussion of ethics and animals.

In his ethical theory Kant makes it quite clear that animals are means rather than ends. They are mere objects. Rational beings, in contrast, are ends. For Kant, this distinction rests on the fact that rational beings can (as he sees it) chose to follow the moral law. Animals, lacking reason, cannot do this. Since animals are means and not ends, Kant claims that we have no direct duties to animals. They are classified in with the other “objects of our inclinations” that derive value from the value we give them. Sexbots would, obviously, qualify as paradigm “objects of our inclinations.”

Interestingly enough, Kant argues that we should treat animals well. However, he does so while also trying to avoid ascribing animals themselves any moral status. Here is how he does it (or tries to do it).

While Kant is not willing to accept that we have any direct duties to animals, he “smuggles” in duties to them indirectly. As he puts it, our duties towards animals are indirect duties towards humans. To make his case for this, he employs an argument from analogy: if a human doing X would obligate us to that human, then an animal doing X would also create an analogous moral obligation. For example, a human who has long and faithfully served another person should not simply be abandoned or put to death when he has grown old. Likewise, a dog who has served faithfully and well should not be cast aside in his old age.

While this would seem to create an obligation to the dog, Kant uses a little philosophical sleight of hand here. The dog cannot judge (that is, the dog is not rational) so, as Kant sees it, the dog cannot be wronged. So, then, why would it be wrong to shoot the dog?

Kant’s answer seems to be rather consequentialist in character: he argues that if a person acts in inhumane ways towards animals (shooting the dog, for example) then his humanity will likely be damaged. Since, as Kant sees it, humans do have a duty to show humanity to other humans, shooting the dog would be wrong. This would not be because the dog was wronged but because humanity would be wronged by the shooter damaging his humanity through such a cruel act.

Interestingly enough, Kant discusses how people develop cruelty—they often begin with animals and then work up to harming human beings. As I point out to my students, Kant seems to have anticipated the psychological devolution of serial killers.

Kant goes beyond merely enjoining us to not be cruel to animals and encourages us to be kind to them. He even praises Leibniz for being rather gentle with a worm he found. Of course, he encourages this because those who are kind to animals will develop more humane feelings towards humans. So, roughly put, animals are essentially practice for us: how we treat them is training for how we will treat human beings.

In the case of the current sexbots, they obviously lack any meaningful moral status of their own. They do not feel or think—they are mere machines that might happen to be made to look like a human. As such, they lack all the qualities that might give them a moral status of their own.

Oddly enough, sexbots could be taken as being comparable to animals, at least as Kant sees them. After all, animals are mere objects and have no moral status of their own. Likewise for sexbots. Of course, the same is also true of sticks and stones. Yet Kant would never argue that we should treat stones well. Perhaps this would also apply to sexbots. That is, perhaps it makes no sense to talk about good or bad relative to such objects. Thus, a key matter to settle is whether sexbots are more like animals or more like stones—at least in regards to the matter at hand.

If Kant’s argument has merit, then the key concern about how non-rational beings are treated is how such treatment affects the behavior of the person engaging in said behavior. So, for example, if being cruel to a real dog could damage a person’s humanity, then he should (as Kant sees it) not be cruel to the dog.  This should also extend to sexbots. For example, if engaging in certain activities with a sexbot would damage a person’s humanity, then he should not act in that way. If engaging in certain behavior with a sexbot would make a person more inclined to be kind to other rational beings, then the person should engage in that behavior. It is also worth considering that perhaps people should not engage in any behavior with sexbots—that having sex of any kind with a bot would be damaging to the person’s humanity.

Interestingly enough (or boringly enough), this sort of argument is often employed to argue against people watching pornography. The gist of such arguments is that viewing pornography can condition people (typically men) to behave badly in real life or at least have a negative impact on their character. If pornography can have this effect, then it seems reasonable to be concerned about the potential impact of sexbots on people. After all, pornography casts a person in a passive role viewing other people acting as sexual objects, while a sexbot allows a person to have sex with an actual sexual object.


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Why Do Professors tend to be Liberals?

from Princeton University Press

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One common conservative talking point is that academics is dominated by professors who are, if not outright communists, at least devout liberals. While there are obviously very conservative universities and conservative professors, this talking point has considerable truth behind it: professors in the United States do tend to be liberal.

Another common conservative talking point is that the academy is hostile to conservative ideas, conservative students and conservative professors. In support of this, people will point to vivid anecdotes or make vague assertions about the hostility of various allegedly dominant groups in academics, such as the feminists. There are also the usual vague claims about how professors are under the sway of Marxism.

This point does have some truth behind it in that there are anecdotes that are true, there are some groups that do  consistently express hostility to certain conservative ideas, and some professors do embrace Marxism or, worse, analytical Marxism.

Obviously, I am far from the first person to address these matters. In an interesting and well researched book, Neil Gross examines some of the myths relating to the academy, liberals and conservatives. Gross does make some excellent points and helps shed some light into the shadowy myths of the academy. For example, the myth that professors are liberal because they are more intelligent than conservatives is debunked. As another example, the myth that there is an active conspiracy to keep conservatives out of the academy is also debunked.

As to why professors are liberal, Gross expands on an idea developed earlier: typecasting. The general idea is that professors have been typecast as liberals and this has the effect of drawing liberals and deterring conservatives. A more common version of typecasting is gender based typecasting. For example, while men and women can serve equally well as nurses, the field of nursing is still dominated by women. One reason for this is the perception that nursing is a job for women. In the case of professors, the typecasting is that it is a job for liberals. The result is that 51% of professors are Democrats, 14% Republican and the rest independent (exact numbers will vary from year to year, but the proportions remain roughly the same).

It might be thought that the stereotyping is part of a liberal plot to keep the academy unappealing to conservatives. However, the lion’s share of the stereotyping has been done by conservative pundits—they are the ones who have been working hard to convince conservatives that professors are liberal and that conservatives are not welcome. Ironically, one reason that young conservatives do not go on to become professors is that conservative pundits have worked very hard to convey the message that professorships are for liberals.

While the typecasting explanation has considerable appeal, there are certainly other reasons that professors would tend to be liberal or at least have views that would be regarded as liberal.

One factor worth considering is that professors have to go through graduate school in order to get the degrees they need to be professors. While there are some exceptions, being a graduate student gives a person a limited, but quite real, taste of what it is like to be poor even when one is working extremely hard.

While it was quite some time ago, I recall getting my meager paycheck and trying to budget out my money. As I recall, at one point I was making $631 a month. $305 went to rent and I went without a phone, cable, or a car. Most of the rest was spent on food (rice puffs and Raman noodles) and I had to save some each month so I could buy my books. I did make some extra money as a professional writer—enough so I could add a bit of meat to my diet.

While I was not, obviously, in true poverty I did experience what it is like to try to get by with an extremely limited income and to live in cheap housing in bad neighborhoods. Even though I now have a much better salary, that taste of poverty has stuck with me. As such, when I hear about such matters as minimum wage and actual poverty, these are not such theoretical abstractions—I know what it is like to dig through my pockets in the hope of finding a few missed coins so I can avoid the shame of having to return items at the grocery store checkout. I know what it is like to try to stretch a tiny income to cover the bills.

I have spoken to other professors who, not surprisingly, had similar experiences and they generally express similar feelings. In any case, it certainly make sense that such experiences would give a person sympathy for those who are poor—and thus tend to lean them towards liberal positions on things like food stamps and welfare.

Another factor worth considering is that some (but obviously not all) professors are professors because they want to be educators. It is hardly shocking that such people would tend to accept views that are cast as liberal, such as being pro-education, being in favor of financial aid for students, being in favor of intellectual diversity and tolerance of ideas, favoring freedom of expression and thought, and so on. After all, these are views that mesh well with being an educator. This is not to say that there are no exceptions. After all, some people want to train others to be just like them—that is, to indoctrinate rather than educate. However, these people are not nearly as common as the conservative talking points would indicate. But, to be fair, they do exist and they perform a terrible disservice to the students and society. Even worse, they are sometimes considered great scholars by those who share their taste in Kool Aid.

Given that conservatism is often associated with cutting education spending, cutting student financial aid, opposing intellectual diversity and opposing the tolerance of divergent ideas, it is hardly surprising that professors tend to be liberals and opposed to these allegedly conservative ideas. After all, what rational person would knowingly support an ideology that is directly detrimental to her profession and livelihood?

Thus, what probably helps push professors (and educators) towards liberalism and against conservatism is the hostility expressed against professors and educators by certain very vocal pundits and politicians. Fox News, for example, is well known for its demonization of educators. This hostility also leads to direct action: education budgets have been cut by Tea Party and Republican legislatures and they have been actively hostile to public educational institutions (but rather friendly to the for-profits). As such, the conservative pundits who bash educators should not express shock our outrage when educators prefer liberalism over their conservatism. Naturally, if someone insults and attacks me repeatedly, they should hardly be surprised when I do not want to embrace their professed values.

It would seem, in part, that the reason professors are liberal is because certain conservatives have done an excellent job demonizing the profession. So, conservatives would tend to avoid the profession while those that enter it would tend to be pushed even more away from the right. So, if the right wants more conservative professors, they need to stop doing such a good job convincing everyone that professorships are for liberals.

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Is the NSA a Fascist Tyranny?

Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini in Munich, G...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As anyone who follows the news knows, the NSA has been engaged in a massive spying program that seems to involve activities that are both immoral and illegal. However, it is interesting to consider whether or not the NSA is more than just a violator of the law and ethics. As such, I will endeavor to address the question of whether or not the NSA is a fascist tyranny.

While the term “fascism” gets thrown around loosely by both the left and the right in America, it seems best to defer to one of the experts on fascism, specifically Benito Mussolini. Mussolini claims that “fascism denies that the majority, by the simple fact that it is a majority, can direct human society; it denies that numbers alone can govern by means of a periodical consultation…” The NSA nicely fits into this model—it has operated without the approval or even the knowledge of the majority of the citizens of the United States.

It can be objected that the approval of certain elected officials and secret courts suffices to preserve the core democratic values of majority rule and consultation of the governed.  After all, there are many activities that are handled by representatives without the citizens directly voting.

This reply does have some merit: the United States is primarily a representative democracy and the will of the citizens is, in theory, enacted by elected officials. However, the NSA certainly seems to be operating largely outside of the domain of public decision and informed agreement. The extent of its intrusion into the lives of the citizens and the scope of its power certainly seems to demand that the NSA be subject to the open channels of democracy rather than allowing decisions to be made and implemented in the shadows.

One key aspect of fascism, at least according to Mussolini is that the “Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone….”

The NSA seems to, sadly enough, fit this concept of fascism. The NSA is literally organizing the nation and it is clearly denying citizens key liberties by its intrusions. Fittingly enough, these grotesque violations are defended in terms that Mussolini would appreciate: no important liberties are being infringed on…but it they were, it would be to protect the state from harm.

Rather importantly, the way the NSA has been operating shows that the deciding power has been the State (that is, secret courts and officials in the shadows of secrecy) and not the citizens.

Thus, it would seem that the NSA is fascist in nature. This is hardly a surprise given that this sort of police state surveillance system is a hallmark and stereotype of the oppressive fascist state. What remains to be seen is whether or not the NSA is tyrannical in nature.

As with “fascism”, people on the left and right throw around the term “tyranny” without much respect for the actual meaning of the term. To ensure that I am using it properly, I will go back to John Locke and make use of his account of tyranny. Given his influence in political philosophy and the American political system, he seems like a reasonable go-to person for this matter.

Locke defines “tyranny” as follows:

Tyranny is the exercise of power beyond right, which nobody can have a right to.  And this is making use of the power any one has in his hands, not for the good of those who are under it, but for his own private separate advantage.  When the governor, however entitled, makes not the law, but his will, the rule; and his commands and actions are not directed to the preservation of the properties of his people, but the satisfaction of his own ambition, revenge, covetousness, or any other irregular passion.

While the extent of the wrongdoing by the people at the NSA might never be known, it is clear that the power handed to them has generally not been used not for the good of the people. Those in charge have made their will and not the law their rule—despite being basically let off the legal leash by compliant courts and public officials, the NSA still engaged in illegal activity and thus acted tyrannically.

Some folks at the NSA even abused their power on the basis of “irregular passion.” One rather pathetic example is that some NSA personnel used the resources of their employer to spy on those they were romantically involved with or interested in.

As such, it would seem evident that the NSA is tyrannical—or at least a tool of tyranny. What remains is to consider the proper response to tyranny. Locke, not surprisingly, had a clear answer:

Where-ever law ends, tyranny begins, if the law be transgressed to another’s harm; and whosoever in authority exceeds the power given him by the law, and makes use of the force he has under his command, to compass that upon the subject, which the law allows not, ceases in that to be a magistrate; and, acting without authority, may be opposed, as any other man, who by force invades the right of another.

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Hyperbole, Again

English: Protesters at the Taxpayer March on W...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hyperbole is a rhetorical device in which a person uses an exaggeration or overstatement in order to create a negative or positive feeling. Hyperbole is often combined with a rhetorical analogy. For example, a person might say that someone told “the biggest lie in human history” in order to create a negative impression. It should be noted that not all vivid or extreme language is hyperbole-if the extreme language matches the reality, then it is not hyperbole. So, if the lie was actually the biggest lie in human history, then it would not be hyperbole to make that claim.

People often make use of hyperbole when making rhetorical analogies/comparisons. A rhetorical analogy involves comparing two (or more) things in order to create a negative or positive impression.  For example, a person might be said to be as timid as a mouse or as smart as Einstein. By adding in hyperbole, the comparison can be made more vivid (or possibly ridiculous). For example, a professor who assigns a homework assignment that is due the day before spring break might be compared to Hitler. Speaking of Hitler, hyperbole and rhetorical analogies are stock items in political discourse.

Some Republicans have decided that Obamacare is going to be their main battleground. As such, it is hardly surprising that they have been breaking out the hyperbole in attacking it. Dr. Ben Carson launched an attack by seeming to compare Obamacare to slavery, but the response to this led him to “clarify” his remarks to mean that he thinks Obamacare is not like slavery, but merely the worst thing to happen to the United States since slavery. This would, of course, make it worse than all the wars, the Great Depression, 9/11 and so on.

While he did not make a slavery comparison, Ted Cruz made a Nazi comparison during his filibuster. As Carson did, Cruz and his supporters did their best to “clarify” the remark.

Since slavery and Nazis had been taken, Rick Santorum decided to use the death of Mandela as an opportunity to compare Obamacare to Apartheid.

When not going after Obamacare, Obama himself is a prime target for hyperbole. John McCain, who called out Cruz on his Nazi comparison, could not resist making use of some Nazi hyperbole in his own comparison. When Obama shook Raul Castro’s hand, McCain could not resist comparing Obama to Chamberlain and Castro to Hitler.

Democrats and Independents are not complete strangers to hyperbole, but they do not seem to wield it quite as often (or as awkwardly) as Republicans. There have been exceptions, of course-the sweet allure of a Nazi comparison is bipartisan.  However, my main concern here is not to fill out political scorecards regarding hyperbole. Rather, it is to discuss why such uses of negative hyperbole are problematic.

One point of note is that while hyperbole can be effective at making people feel a certain way (such as angry), its use often suggests that the user has little in the way of substance. After all, if something is truly bad, then there would seem to be no legitimate need to make exaggerated comparisons. In the case of Obamacare, if it is truly awful, then it should suffice to describe its awfulness rather than make comparisons to Nazis, slavery and Apartheid. Of course, it would also be fair to show how it is like these things. Fortunately for America, it is obviously not like them.

One point of moral concern is the fact that making such unreasonable comparisons is an insult to the people who suffered from or fought against such evils. After all, such comparisons transform such horrors as slavery and Apartheid into mere rhetorical chips in the latest political game. To use an analogy, it is somewhat like a person who has played Call of Duty comparing himself to combat veterans of actual wars. Out of respect for those who suffered from and fought against these horrors, they should not be used so lightly and for such base political gameplay.

From the standpoint of critical thinking, such hyperbole should be avoided because it has no logical weight and serves to confuse matters by playing on the emotions. While that is the intent of hyperbole, this is an ill intent. While rhetoric does have its legitimate place (mainly in making speeches less boring) such absurd overstatements impede rather than advance rational discussion and problem solving.


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Researchers Discover Backwards Causation Particles

English: Matt Smith at the 2011 Comic Con in S...

Dr. Smith answers questions about F-ons and D-ons. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While time travel has long been the stuff of science fiction, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have found proof of backwards causation. In the normal course of events, a cause must occur before the effect. In backwards causation, the reverse happens: the cause occurs after the effect.

The head researcher, Dr. Juanita Ocheloco said that hearing anecdotes from fellow faculty members put her on the track that led to the discovery. “At the end of every semester, I would hear stories about students who earned F and D grades experiencing retroactive problems. For example, one student who failed a statistics course lost his grandmother to backwards causation caused by his F grade. Another student who earned a D, was retroactively injured in a car accident. Although he had seemed fine all semester, his D caused him to have an accident two months before the end of the semester.”

At first the researchers considered the obvious hypothesis: students were just making up stories to play on professors’ sympathy and to try to avoid the F and D grades. However, Dr. Albert Ninestein’s research revealed that D and F grades shed D-on (pronounced “Deon”, as in “Deon Sanders”) and F-ons (pronounced “ef-ons”, not to be confused with FU-ons) respectively.

Dr. Ninestein said, ‘it was really a matter of luck—I happened to be testing out my theoretical particle detector at the end of the semester and caught all these particle flows. I traced them back to the university’s servers and got the IT folks involved. We pinpointed the emissions to the servers used for grades. A deeper analysis showed that the D and F grades were shedding these particles like mad.”

Additional investigation revealed that D-ons and F-ons, like tachyons, travel backwards in time. Unlike tachyons, D-ons and F-ons exhibit considerable malicious intent: they have been shown to kill the relatives of students, cause mysterious and unprovable illnesses and injuries, and do other bad things. Said researcher Dr. Matt Smith, “Those particles are right bastards.”

Dr. Smith added that the particles seem to travel via the internet and that they attack through smartphones, tablets and laptops. “At our request, the university has issued a warning to all students and relatives about the danger to their health and well-being posed by these particles. We are working round the clock to develop shielding to stop the particles from travelling back in time to do their damage. Until then, the university has adopted a policy of not issuing any D or F grades. This has proven to be a success: the number of retroactive cases of illness and injury has dropped to zero.”

When asked about her next project, Dr. Ocheloco said that she was working on finding the particle that “makes journalists write about whatever damn thing passes as research these days” and also a doomsday weapon made from squirrels.

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Smart Phones & Sad Students

HTC Aria android 2.2 smart phone review

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Several years ago I was teaching a night class and noticed a student smiling broadly with his arms twitching a bit. Looking closer, I noticed that his hands were moving rapidly under the desk—I immediately thought “well, this could be the most awkward and bizarre moment of my teaching career.” Fortunately, it turned out to be my first encounter with a student using a phone to text in class rather than the awful alternative. Since then, I have seen smart phones take over not only my classes, but the world. Like digital versions of Heinlein’s puppet masters, they are the new rulers of humanity.

Like most educators, I saw it as obvious that the phones would be an impediment to the students. After all, if a student spends the class time texting, booking their faces, and gazing upon the awful majesty of grumpy cat, then they will not be paying attention to what is occurring in class. While some students are capable of self-educating (or effective cheating), a failure to pay attention would generally have a negative impact on the GPA of a student. I predicted, correctly, that the phones would evolve and become ever more distracting. I am now waiting to see whether or not wearable tech becomes a thing with students—just imagine the impact of things like Google Glasses on students.

Apparently other educators share my concern about the impact of smartphones on students. Recently Kent State researchers Andrew Lepp, Jacob Barkley and Aryn Karpinski did a study of 500 university students. The study involved tracking phone use, measuring happiness (defined in terms of anxiety and satisfaction) and retrieving official grade point averages. The study population was composed of 500 undergraduates taken equally from each class (freshman, etc.) and included 82 different majors. As such, the study seems to be adequate in size and diversity in regards to the target population.

The analysis showed that as phone use increased, GPA decreased and anxiety increased. The overall conclusion was that high frequency users will have a lower GPA, greater anxiety, and less life satisfaction than those who are lower frequency users. Naturally, these results involve college students. However, it seems reasonable to infer they would apply more generally.

On the face of it, these results seem intuitively plausible and it makes sense to accept that increased phone use can lead to lower GPA, greater anxiety and less life satisfaction. First, it certainly makes sense that a student who spends more time using the phone is most likely spending less time paying attention in class, studying and doing coursework. This would tend to have a negative impact on the student’s GPA. Second, the lower GPA could certainly lead to more anxiety and less satisfaction. Third, there are various other studies that link the things people do on phones (like checking Facebook and seeing the awesome staged photos and crafted status updates of friends) that cause dissatisfaction.  As such, these results seem believable.

That said, as with any causal claims it is important to consider alternatives. First, the possibility of a common cause must also be considered. The basic idea is that when it seems like C is causing effect E, it might be the case that C  and E are both effects of a third factor. In the case of the phones, it might be the case that there is a factor (or factors) that are making students anxious, making them less satisfied, lowering their GPAs and causing them to use their phones more. Personal issues, such as with family or with a significant other, are likely candidates for common causes. In fact, it certainly makes sense that this could be the case in some instances.

Second, there is the possibility of reverse causation. The gist is that when it seems as if C is the cause of E, it might be the case that C is the cause of E—that is, the causal arrow is backwards. In the case of the phones, it might be a low GPA that leads to the anxiety and dissatisfaction and they lead to more phone use.

Third, there is also the possibility of mere coincidence—after all, correlation is not causation. However, the existence of clear causal mechanisms makes it unlikely that it is just coincidence.

While the alternatives are worth considering (and probably hold true in some cases), it does seem sensible to accept that higher phone use is a detriment to students (and people in general). While I would oppose schools passing regulations limiting student use of phones (after all, I consistently hold to the right of self-abuse and poor decision making), I do think that university faculty, staff and administrators should make students aware of the harms of phone use and should encourage students to look away from their phones more often, especially in the classroom. So, kids, if you do not want to be stupid, sad and a failure, put down that phone.

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The Meaning of Life

Primordial Soup, via Professor James Brown, NC State

Where do we even begin?

A writer on Scientific American’s blog, Ferris Jabr, has posted a piece on vitalism, siding with what is a fairly common contemporary position in philosophy: that life cannot be truly distinguished from non-life. It is often assumed that to consider life a separate category, one has to believe in a religious or supernatural component special to living things. In fact, the way Jabr represents Aristotle, it sounds like the Ancient philosopher would agree to such a claim:

Aristotle believed that, unlike the inanimate, all living things have one of three kinds of souls: vegetative souls, animal souls and rational souls, the last of which belonged exclusively to humans.

But this is a misrepresentation of Aristotle’s theory. The exploration of life in Aristotelian philosophy is extensive, and like much of his work, not always fully cohesive, but at least it is clear that “soul” for Aristotle is unhindered by the connotations it has gained through centuries of association with the church. Fabr links to Dan Dennett who does provide a little more clarity, if you read far enough (it’s not that far, but it’s past the first couple mentions of Aristotle’s soul):

“Yes, we have a soul, but it’s made of lots of tiny robots!” … The “tiny robots'” in question are cells (such as neurons) and even tinier robots (such as motor proteins and neurotransmitter molecules) that have evolved to form amazingly ingenious armies of operatives, uniting to form an organization-as Aristotle said-that sustains not just life, like the vegetative soul, and not just locomotion and perception, like the animal soul, but imaginative, rational, conscious thought.

Soul for Aristotle is organization -“the imprint in the wax” in one analogy – and the different kinds of souls he discusses are important aspects of organization in a world he defines as made of substances. So his first distinction is between substances and elements – those things that are organized toward a certain form or purpose (substances), and those that are, basically, “heaps.” The distinction is obvious at higher levels: if you break a rock, or a fire, it becomes (or can become) multiple rocks, multiple patches of fire. But if you break a donkey it will never become multiple donkeys. An element is the same throughout, and a portion of the element is just a lesser amount of the same.

The issue can arise of where plants fit. Sometimes you can split one tree into two, for instance – does that mean they are elements? Aristotle argues that they grow toward a certain form, and that is specific to living things. It has parts and is organized to maintain its form – roots which draw in nutrition, fruits which allow for reproduction, and so on. Of course, we create artificial things which are organized (and it is useful to be aware of the word organ-ized here – this doesn’t mean it has a pattern, but rather that it has specialized parts which work together toward a shared end). Things which human beings make may be organized, but they don’t grow or reproduce themselves. Aristotle’s famous example here is that if you were to bury a bedstead, it might sprout the start of a tree, but it would never grow another bedstead.

We process our artificial creations so much more now that sometimes people are surprised to remember that everything we use began as natural elements, but for the Ancients the difference between natural and artificial was pretty obvious – creatures, trees and rocks in the wild, versus those humans have shaped into usable or desirable items. Has the complexity of technology changed the definition? Well, the fundamental difference is that in nature, the substance is self-organizing, whereas in artifice, we’re the ones putting it together. That seems impossible to get around, but in theory an artificial life could be created and let loose so that our input was no longer necessary – a growing, self-moving, reproducing robot, a car that fixed itself and had baby cars. Without this, a robot that speaks or acts is not lifelike, but only mimicking a few chosen behaviors according to mechanical rules. For Aristotle, life is not simply mechanical. But that doesn’t mean it’s supernatural.

Patricia Churchland is well known for a mechanical view of consciousness, a view which stems from a simplistic dualism that english-language philosophers are a little too likely to embrace: either there must be a magical, inexplicable spirit that inhabits a body, or the body must be a machine just like a car or a computer. What they forget is that artificial machines are our secondary creations, and they are not representative of the full complexity of a living thing. Not surprisingly, this mechanical attitude toward life and consciousness became especially popular in the industrial and technological ages, as humans became more familiar with machines, and spent less time observing nature.

Returning to the Ancient view is useful, and Aristotle’s three levels of soul point out what is specific to life. The starting point is a growing substance, something actively organizing itself toward a unity and able to gather nutrients and dispel waste in the achievement of that formation. The next state is animal life, which adds the ability of perception and self-movement. The third level is temporal awareness and the ability to compare, or rationality. When Churchland suggests that “you are your brain” she is both making an obvious statement and an incorrect one – in fact, you are you, which is to say, the whole thing, although yes, your brain is generally speaking more fundamental than most other parts of you. You could lose both your arms and legs, have many organs replaced by artificial ones, have terrible facial scarring, and still sort of be who you are. But in many very real ways you would lose a lot of yourself. And in truth you could suffer various kinds of brain injury and still sort of be who you are, too. Still, with no brain at all, there would be no starting point, and you could definitely lose a kidney or a finger without it having all that enormous an impact, so comparatively speaking, it’s fair to focus on the brain.

More important is an understanding of what it means to say you are something. When Churchland claims that you are your brain, she almost makes it sound as if, actually, you’re not. Instead, you’re just controlled by it, and it is some mechanical thing that follows its own rules and forces you to behave according to them. But if you are your brain, if it is a full equation, then your brain is you, too. That is, neurons aren’t causing you to act a certain way. Neurons are just the physical manifestation of you. You are causing you to act a certain way.

Of course, psychology is complex and this does not mean you make every choice on a conscious level. Some of “you” is unconscious. Some of “you” is just biological. Often there is conflict, influence, confusion and habit intertwined. But it is still all you in the broadest sense, by being part of one living substance. And this is key to the idea of life – a human being is alive as a substance, and as a rational animal, which is to say that the fundamental activity of nature is recognizable at each level. This has been referred to in a variety of ways, as desire, will, survival of the fittest, emergence, or spark of life, but we do notice that while rocks endure, life thrives. Life isn’t built by external causes but builds itself – grows toward the completion of an intended design, and produces offspring to repeat the plan – and this stage of existence is definitely notable.

Fabr ends by saying that life is “a notion, not a reality”, which will sound a little naive to any philosopher, given that the epistemological stance on other categories is never addressed. Is the difference between a chair and a desk a notion or a reality? What about between a man and a woman, or a fruit and a vegetable? In other words, is there something special about life that makes it less distinct from non-life, or is the point of the article that categories can have edge cases, and are determined by social use and agreement? If it’s the latter, that doesn’t mean our categorizations are useless or don’t point toward important differences. Perhaps as a scientist he is hoping for more quantifiable categories like the elements, and has concluded that life refers to a broader group. But this is not unusual in our referents, nor does it erase the accuracy of the distinction. Just because something can’t be counted does not mean it isn’t perceived and judged. It may be difficult sometimes to decide if a color is orange or yellow, but those occasional tough calls do not lead us to think there’s no way to see colors at all.

In truth, most people are pretty satisfied with the agreed determinations of what we define as life. Crystals do not grow toward a unified form, but are caused by the attachment of multiple parts to one another. Viruses are distinct from parasites in their simplicity and fundamentally secondary nature – one theory of their origin has been that they regressed from parasites, but in current form they lack the substantial nature of biology as they do not feed or maintain an organic identity but rather use the cells they hijack. (Bacteria which are obligate parasites still have their own metabolic processes; they are reliant on environmental factors). Nonetheless, even with disagreements continuing on an edge case like viruses, life is a meaningful category. It isn’t narcissistic to notice that the movement of living things is different from the movement of dead things. It’s just observant, which is one of the qualities of animal life.

Drones to Your Door

MQ-1L Predator UAV armed with AGM-114 Hellfire...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In a clever move to grab media attention on Cyber-Monday, Amazon announced its plans to develop drone delivery. The United States has, of course, been leading the world in delivery via drone, although we have mostly been delivering missiles Amazon proposes to make drones a much more welcome site—they will be bringers of what you want, rather than bringers of death.

On the face of it, drone delivery is certainly possible. After all, the basic technology already exists and Amazon has deep pockets and political influence. However, the drone delivery system does face some challenges.

One obvious practical challenge is getting the drones to safely and reliably travel from their launch sites to the delivery site and then back. Doing this will require that the drones avoid hitting things like towers, trees, power lines, other aircraft, birds and people. While the drones are probably going to be relatively small and slow moving (compared to the military drones made famous in Afghanistan and Pakistan), a drone could damage property and injure animals and people. However, there seem to be no compelling reason to believe that a drone could not operate as safely as a delivery truck, which is a reasonable standard for drone operations. This will probably require special drone routes that are well clear of conventional airspace and perhaps specialized landing spots for drone deliveries. After all, having a drone just plop down at someone’s front door could be very problematic.

Another obvious practical challenge is the fact that people will interfere with the drones. In some cases, people (mostly kids) will try to catch or knock down the drones for the malicious fun of it. In most cases people will be trying to hijack the drones in order to steal their cargoes. This interference might be done by technological means such as trying to jam the drone or even take control of the drone. Naturally, people will also resort to lower tech methods, such as hitting them with thrown (or shot) objects.

Because of the threats presented by people, Amazon will need to ensure that their drones are protected from jamming and hacking. They will also need to find ways to deter people from attacking the drones. While people are usually reluctant to attack a human delivery driver, the threshold for willingness to go after a drone is certainly lower. One obvious option is to equip the drones with cameras that record the area around the drone, thus enabling videos of thefts and attacks to be sent to the police. This option does, of course, raise moral concerns about drones flying about cities recording from on high. After all, the drones will have a vantage point that will allow them to see into fenced yards and in other areas where people normally expect privacy. Amazon could handle this by erasing the recordings of the drones if no incident takes place or by limiting access to the drone recordings to the police. Of course, it seems likely that police and security organizations might very much want access to the drone recordings—it might turn out that the NSA will use the Amazon drones like they now use our phones—just another tool for the police state.

In addition to the moral concern about spying, there is also a minor moral concern about the fact that drones provide such rapid delivery. In some cases, this could be an important service—a person could, for example, get a critical part needed for their business or car (perhaps delivered right to the car). In other cases, this could simply be yet another way for people to fail in the virtue of patience.

As to the question of whether or not I will use it, the answer is probably “yes”—if only once and only to see that drone touching down in my driveway, chopping up wayward squirrels into chunks with its whirling blades.


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