Truth, Carson & Politics

At the end of October, 2015 the remaining Republican candidates engaged in what the media billed as a debate. Many people have been rather critical of the way the moderators managed the debate and the questions they raised. While some attribute their behavior to political bias and present it as evidence of the dreaded liberal bias of the media, a better explanation is that the main concern of the moderators was to maximize the number of eyeballs watching the event. Substantive questions about the nuances of policy and their answers tend to bore people. Questions that compare Donald Trump to a comic book villain and pit the contestants against each other are entertaining and more likely to draw an audience.

While the quality and intent of the “debate” moderators are matters of interest, my main concern in this essay is the matter of truth and its relevance to politics. I am well aware that the cynical view that truth matters in politics as much as Jek Porkins mattered in the attack on the Death Star. While people often shrug and make jokes about politicians being liars when the matter of truth in politics comes up, if truth does not matter much in politics, then we are to blame. We accept the untruths of those who share our ideology, though we pounce with ferocity on the lies of the opposing team. In fact, we even pounce on the truths of the opposing team. This is largely due to well-studied psychological biases. Fortunately, there are those who make it their business to assess the claims of the political class. Most notable among them is Politifact.

While politicians grow a bounteous crop of untruths in their minds, I will focus on one interesting example of Ben Carson and his relationship with Mannatech. Carl Quintanilla, one of the moderators, asked Carson about his relationship with this company:


Quintanilla: There’s a company called Mannatech, a maker of nutritional supplements, with which you had a ten-year relationship. They offered claims that they could cure autism, cancer. They paid $7 million dollars to settle a deceptive marketing lawsuit in Texas, and yet your involvement continued. Why?


Carson: Well, it’s easy to answer. I didn’t have an involvement with them. That is total propaganda and this is what happens in our society. Total propaganda. I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them. Do I take the product? Yes. I think it’s a good product.


While some might regard this as a “gotcha” question or an example of the liberal media bias, it is actually as reasonable to ask this of Carson as it would be to ask Hillary Clinton about her various financial connections. These sorts of questions are legitimate inquiries about judgment, character and the sort of interests that might influence a politician. They also are relevant in terms of what potential scandals might emerge.

Carson was also given a clear test of character: would he bear false witness in regards to his own deeds and say something false or would he set himself free with the truth? His choice was to say he “didn’t have an involvement with them.” Unfortunately, this claim contradicts the known facts. The Wall Street Journal has laid out Carson’s ties to this company. Politifact has, not surprisingly, rated his claim as false. They did not, however, apply the lowest ranking, that of Pants on Fire.

No doubt aware that Carson had make an untrue claim, the moderator endeavored to press him on this point:


Quintanilla: To be fair, you were on the homepage of the website with the logo over your shoulder.


Carson: If somebody put me on their homepage, they did it without my permission.


Quintanilla: Does that not speak to your vetting process or judgement in any way?


Carson: No, it speaks to the fact that I don’t know those… See, they know.


At this point, the audience began to boo Quintanilla, presumably in defense of Carson. This was not particularly surprising: Fox New and conservative politicians have been pushing the “liberal media” and “gotcha” question talking points very effectively and a dislike for non-conservative media is very strong in many conservatives. To be fair to the audience, they might not have known that Carson said something untrue and that the moderator was endeavoring to make that clear—which is what should be expected in a forum that should involve challenging questions.

However, the audience did not need to be aware of the particular facts that made Carson’s claim untrue. There was no need for them to have done research since he refuted his own claim about not being involved with the company in his reply. Carson said, “I did a couple of speeches for them, I did speeches for other people, they were paid speeches, it is absolutely absurd to say that I had any kind of relationship with them.” A reasonable interpretation of the claim that he “didn’t have any kind of relationship with them” is that he had no relationship with the company. Doing paid speeches for the company would certainly seem to be involvement and a relationship. The facts, of course, point to a significant involvement with the company. But, even without those facts, his own claim he was paid by the company shows that he was involved with the company.

It could be claimed that Carson meant something else by “involvement”  and “relationship” and he could be defended on semantic grounds—much as Bill Clinton attempted a definitional defense regarding the word “sex” when pressed by the Republicans. To be fair, “involvement” and “relationship” could be taken to require more than being paid to give speeches. To use an analogy, while a hooker might be paid to provide a man with sex, this does not entail that she is involved with him or that she has a relationship with him. As such, the audience could be forgiven for booing the moderator for endeavoring to take Carson to task for saying an untruth. The audience members might have honestly believed that being paid to give speeches does not count as involvement or a relationship and presumably they would extend this same principle to Democratic candidates who have been paid by various interests yet are not “involved” with them.

When pressed by Jim Geraghty of the National Review about this matter, the Carson camp engaged in an intriguing semantic defense involving the path by which the compensation reached Carson and what actually counts as an endorsement. The reader is invited to view the video featuring Dr. Carson talking about Mannatech and judge whether or not this should be considered an endorsement. To my untrained eye, this seems indistinguishable from other paid endorsements I have seen. As such, it seems reasonable to hold that Carson spoke an untruth and some of the audience rushed to defend him for this. Neither is surprising, but both are disappointing. Especially since Carson’s poll numbers are doing just fine. Either his supporters do not believe he said untrue things or they do not care. Both of these explanations are worrying.


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The Left’s Defection from Progress

Note: This is a slightly abridged (but otherwise largely warts and all) version of an article that I had published in Quadrant magazine in April 1999. It has not previously been published online (except that I am cross-posting on my own blog, Metamagician and the Hellfire Club). While my views have developed somewhat in the interim, there may be some advantage in republishing it for a new audience, especially at a time when there is much discussion of a “regressive left”.


In a recent mini-review of David Stove’s Anything Goes: Origins of Scientific Irrationalism (originally published in 1982 as Popper and After), Diane Carlyle and Nick Walker make a casual reference to Stove’s “reactionary polemic”. By contrast, they refer to the philosophies of science that Stove attacks as “progressive notions of culture-based scientific knowledge”. To say the least, this appears tendentious.

To be fair, Carlyle and Walker end up saying some favourable things about Stove’s book. What is nonetheless alarming about their review is that it evidences just how easy it has become to write as if scientific realism were inherently “reactionary” and the more or less relativist views of scientific knowledge that predominate among social scientists and humanities scholars were “progressive”.

The words “reactionary” and “progressive” usually attach themselves to political and social movements, some kind of traditionalist or conservative backlash versus an attempt to advance political liberties or social equality. Perhaps Carlyle and Walker had another sense in mind, but the connotations of their words are pretty inescapable. Moreover, they would know as well as I do that there is now a prevalent equation within the social sciences and humanities of relativist conceptions of truth and reality with left-wing social critique, and of scientific realism with the political right. Carlyle and Walker wrote their piece against that background. But where does it leave those of us who retain at least a temperamental attachment to the left, however nebulous that concept is becoming, while remaining committed to scientific realism? To adapt a phrase from Christina Hoff Sommers, we are entitled to ask about who has been stealing socially liberal thought in general.

Is the life of reason and liberty (intellectual and otherwise) that some people currently enjoy in some countries no more than an historical anomaly, a short-lived bubble that will soon burst? It may well appear so. Observe the dreadful credulity of the general public in relation to mysticism, magic and pseudoscience, and the same public’s preponderant ignorance of genuine science. Factor in the lowbrow popularity of religious fundamentalism and the anti-scientific rantings of highbrow conservatives such as Bryan Appleyard. Yet the sharpest goad to despair is the appearance that what passes for the intellectual and artistic left has now repudiated the Enlightenment project of conjoined scientific and social progress.

Many theorists in the social sciences and humanities appear obsessed with dismantling the entirety of post-Enlightenment political, philosophical and scientific thought. This is imagined to be a progressive act, desirable to promote the various social, cultural and other causes that have become politically urgent in recent decades, particularly those associated with sex, race, and the aftermath of colonialism. The positions on these latter issues taken by university-based theorists give them a claim to belong to, if not actually constitute, the “academic left”, and I’ll refer to them with this shorthand expression.

There is, however, nothing inherently left-wing about wishing to sweep away our Enlightenment legacy. Nor is a commitment to scientific inquiry and hard philosophical analysis inconsistent with socially liberal views. Abandonment of the project of rational inquiry, with its cross-checking of knowledge in different fields, merely opens the door to the worst kind of politics that the historical left could imagine, for the alternative is that “truth” be determined by whoever, at particular times and places, possesses sufficient political or rhetorical power to decide what beliefs are orthodox. The rationality of our society is at stake, but so is the fate of the left itself, if it is so foolish as to abandon the standards of reason for something more like a brute contest for power.

It is difficult to know where to start in criticising the academic left’s contribution to our society’s anti-rationalist drift. The approaches I am gesturing towards are diverse among themselves, as well as being professed in the universities side by side with more traditional methods of analysing society and culture. There is considerable useful dialogue among all these approaches, and it can be difficult obtaining an accurate idea of specific influences within the general intellectual milieu.

However, amidst all the intellectual currents and cross-currents, it is possible to find something of a common element in the thesis or assumption (sometimes one, sometimes the other) that reality, or our knowledge of it, is “socially constructed”. There are many things this might mean, and I explain below why I do not quarrel with them all.

In the extreme, however, our conceptions of reality, truth and knowledge are relativised, leading to absurd doctrines, such as the repudiation of deductive logic or the denial of a mind-independent world. Symptomatic of the approach I am condemning is a subordination of the intellectual quest for knowledge and understanding to political and social advocacy. Some writers are prepared to misrepresent mathematical and scientific findings for the purposes of point scoring or intellectual play, or the simple pleasure of ego-strutting. All this is antithetical to Enlightenment values, but so much – it might be said – for the Enlightenment.


The notion that reality is socially constructed would be attractive and defensible if it were restricted to a thesis about the considerable historical contingency of any culture’s social practices and mores, and its systems of belief, understanding and evaluation. These are, indeed, shaped partly by the way they co-evolve and “fit” with each other, and by the culture’s underlying economic and other material circumstances.

The body of beliefs available to anyone will be constrained by the circumstances of her culture, including its attitude to free inquiry, the concepts it has already built up for understanding the world, and its available technologies for the gathering of data. Though Stove is surely correct to emphasise that the accumulation of empirical knowledge since the 17th century has been genuine, the directions taken by science have been influenced by pre-existing values and beliefs. Meanwhile, social practices, metaphysical and ethical (rather than empirical) beliefs, the methods by which society is organised and by which human beings understand their experience are none of them determined in any simple, direct or uniform way by human “nature” or biology, or by transcendental events.

So far, so good – but none of this is to suggest that all of these categories should or can be treated in exactly the same way. Take the domain of metaphysical questions. Philosophers working in metaphysics are concerned to understand such fundamentals as space, time, causation, the kinds of substances that ultimately exist, the nature of consciousness and the self. The answers cannot simply be “read off” our access to empirical data or our most fundamental scientific theories, or some body of transcendental knowledge. Nonetheless, I am content to assume that all these questions, however intractable we find them, have correct answers.

The case of ethical disagreement may be very different, and I discuss it in more detail below. It may be that widespread and deep ethical disagreement actually evidences the correctness of a particular metaphysical (and meta-ethical) theory – that there are no objectively existing properties of moral good and evil. Yet, to the extent that they depend upon empirical beliefs about the consequences of human conduct, practical moral judgements may often be reconcilable. Your attitude to the rights of homosexuals will differ from mine if yours is based on a belief that homosexual acts cause earthquakes.

Again, the social practices of historical societies may turn out to be constrained by our biology in a way that is not true of the ultimate answers to questions of metaphysics. All these are areas where human behaviour and belief may be shaped by material circumstances and the way they fit with each other, and relatively unconstrained by empirical knowledge. But, to repeat, they are not all the same.

Where this appears to lead us is that, for complicated reasons and in awkward ways, there is much about the practices and beliefs of different cultures that is contingent on history. In particular, the way institutions are built up around experience is more or less historically contingent, dependent largely upon economic and environmental circumstances and on earlier or co-evolving layers of political and social structures. Much of our activity as human beings in the realms of understanding, organising, valuing and responding to experience can reasonably be described as “socially constructed”, and it will often make perfectly good sense to refer to social practices, categories, concepts and beliefs as “social constructions”.

Yet this modest insight cries out for clear intellectual distinctions and detailed application to particular situations, with conscientious linkages to empirical data. It cannot provide a short-cut to moral perspicuity or sound policy formulation. Nor is it inconsistent with a belief in the actual existence of law-governed events in the empirical world, which can be the subject of objective scientific theory and accumulating knowledge.


As Antony Flew once expressed it, what is socially constructed is not reality itself but merely “reality”: the beliefs, meanings and values available within a culture.

Thus, none of what I’ve described so far amounts to “social constructionism” in a pure or philosophical sense, since this would require, in effect, that we never have any knowledge. It would require a thesis that all beliefs are so deeply permeated by socially specific ideas that they never transcend their social conditions of production to the extent of being about objective reality. To take this a step further, even the truth about physical nature would be relative to social institutions – relativism applies all the way down.

Two important points need to be made here. First, even without such a strong concept of socially constructed knowledge, social scientists and humanities scholars have considerable room to pursue research programs aimed at exploring the historically contingent nature of social institutions. In the next section, I argue that this applies quintessentially to socially accepted moral beliefs.

Second, however, there is a question as to why anyone would insist upon the thesis that the nature of reality is somehow relative to social beliefs all the way down, that there is no point at which we ever hit a bedrock of truth and falsity about anything. It is notorious that intellectuals who use such language sometimes retreat, when challenged, to a far more modest or equivocal kind of position.

Certainly, there is no need for anyone’s political or social aims to lead them to deny the mind-independent existence of physical nature, or to suggest that the truth about it is, in an ultimate sense, relative to social beliefs or subjective to particular observers. Nonetheless, many left-wing intellectuals freely express a view in which reality, not “reality”, is a mere social construction.


If social construction theory is to have any significant practical bite, then it has to assert that moral beliefs are part of what is socially constructed. I wish to explore this issue through some more fundamental considerations about ethics.

It is well-documented that there are dramatic contrasts between different societies’ practical beliefs about what is right and wrong, so much so that the philosopher J.L. Mackie said that these “make it difficult to treat those judgements as apprehensions of objective truths.” As Mackie develops the argument, it is not part of some general theory that “the truth is relative”, but involves a careful attempt to show that the diversity of moral beliefs is not analogous to the usual disagreements about the nature of the physical world.

Along with other arguments put by philosophers in Hume’s radical empiricist tradition, Mackie’s appeal to cultural diversity may persuade us that there are no objective moral truths. Indeed, it seems to me that there are only two positions here that are intellectually viable. The first is that Mackie is simply correct. This idea might seem to lead to cultural relativism about morality, but things are not always what they seem.

The second viable position is that there are objective moral truths, but they take the form of principles of an extremely broad nature, broad enough to help shape – rather than being shaped by – a diverse range of social practices in different environmental, economic and other circumstances.

If this is so, particular social practices and practical moral beliefs have some ultimate relationship to fundamental moral principles, but there can be enormous “slippage” between the two, depending on the range of circumstances confronting different human societies. Moreover, during times of rapid change such as industrialised societies have experienced in the last three centuries – and especially the last several decades – social practices and practical moral beliefs might tend to be frozen in place, even though they have become untenable. Conversely, there might be more wisdom, or at least rationality, than is apparent to most Westerners in the practices and moral beliefs of traditional societies. All societies, however, might have practical moral beliefs that are incorrect because of lack of empirical knowledge about the consequences of human conduct.

Taken with my earlier, more general, comments about various aspects of social practices and culturally-accepted “reality”, this approach gives socially liberal thinkers much of what they want. It tends to justify those who would test and criticise the practices and moral beliefs of Western nations while defending the rationality and sophistication of people from colonised cultures.


The academic left’s current hostility to science and the Enlightenment project may have its origins in a general feeling, brought on by the twentieth century’s racial and ideological atrocities, that the Enlightenment has failed. Many intellectuals have come to see science as complicit in terror, oppression and mass killing, rather than as an inspiration for social progress.

The left’s hostility has surely been intensified by a quite specific fear that the reductive study of human biology will cross a bridge from the empirical into the normative realm, where it may start to dictate the political and social agenda in ways that can aptly be described as reactionary. This, at least, is the inference I draw from left-wing intellectuals’ evident detestation of human sociobiology or evolutionary psychology.

The fear may be that dubious research in areas such as evolutionary psychology and/or cognitive neuroscience will be used to rationalise sexist, racist or other illiberal positions. More radically, it may be feared that genuine knowledge of a politically unpalatable or otherwise harmful kind will emerge from these areas. Are such fears justified? To dismiss them lightly would be irresponsible and naive. I can do no more than place them in perspective. The relationship between the social sciences and humanities, on the one hand, and the “hard” end of psychological research, on the other, is one of the most important issues to be tackled by intellectuals in all fields – the physical sciences, social sciences and humanities.

One important biological lesson we have learned is that human beings are not, in any reputable sense, divided into “races”. As an empirical fact of evolutionary history and genetic comparison, we are all so alike that superficial characteristics such as skin or hair colour signify nothing about our moral or intellectual worth, or about the character of our inner experience. Yet, what if it had turned out otherwise? It is understandable if people are frightened by our ability to research such issues. At the same time, the alternative is to suppress rational inquiry in some areas, leaving questions of orthodoxy to however wins the naked contest for power. This is neither rational nor safe.

What implications could scientific knowledge about ourselves have for moral conduct or social policy? No number of factual statements about human nature, by themselves, can ever entail statements that amount to moral knowledge, as Hume demonstrated. What is required is an ethical theory, persuasive on other grounds, that already links “is” and “ought”. This might be found, for example, in a definition of moral action in terms of human flourishing, though it is not clear why we should, as individuals, be concerned about something as abstract as that – why not merely the flourishing of ourselves or our particular loved ones?.

One comfort is that, even if we had a plausible set of empirical and meta-ethical gadgets to connect what we know of human nature to high-level questions about social policy, we would discover significant slippage between levels. Nature does not contradict itself, and no findings from a field such as evolutionary psychology could be inconsistent with the observed facts of cultural diversity. If reductive explanations of human nature became available in more detail, these must turn out to be compatible with the existence of the vast spectrum of viable cultures that human beings have created so far. And there is no reason to believe that a lesser variety of cultures will be workable in the material circumstances of a high-technology future.

The dark side of evolutionary psychology includes, among other things, some scary-looking claims about the reproductive and sociopolitical behaviour of the respective sexes. True, no one seriously asserts that sexual conduct in human societies and the respective roles of men and women within families and extra-familial hierarchies are specified by our genes in a direct or detailed fashion. What, however, are we to make of the controversial analyses of male and female reproductive “strategies” that have been popularised by several writers in the 1990s? Perhaps the best-known exposition is that of Matt Ridley in The Red Queen: Sex and the Evolution of Human Nature (1993). Such accounts offer evidence and argument that men are genetically hardwired to be highly polygamous or promiscuous, while women are similarly programmed to be imperfectly monogamous, as well as sexually deceitful.

In responding to this, first, I am in favour of scrutinising the evidence for such claims very carefully, since they can so readily be adapted to support worn-out stereotypes about the roles of the sexes. That, however, is a reason to show scientific and philosophical rigour, not to accept strong social constructionism about science. Secondly, even if findings similar to those synthesised by Ridley turned out to be correct, the social consequences are by no means apparent. Mere biological facts cannot tell us in some absolute way what are the correct sexual mores for a human society.

To take this a step further, theories about reproductive strategies suggest that there are in-built conflicts between the interests of men and women, and of higher and lower status men, which will inevitably need to be moderated by social compromise, not necessarily in the same way by different cultures. If all this were accepted for the sake of argument, it might destroy a precious notion about ourselves: that there is a simple way for relations between the sexes to be harmonious. On the other hand, it would seem to support rather than refute what might be considered a “progressive” notion: that no one society, certainly not our own, has the absolutely final answer to questions about sexual morality.

Although evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are potential minefields, it is irrational to pretend that they are incapable of discovering objective knowledge. Fortunately, such knowledge will surely include insight into the slippage between our genetic similarity and the diversity of forms taken by viable cultures. The commonality of human nature will be at a level that is consistent with the (substantial) historical contingency of social practices and of many areas of understanding and evaluative belief. The effect on social policy is likely to be limited, though we may become more charitable about what moral requirements are reasonable for the kinds of creatures that we are.

I should add that evolutionary psychology and cognitive neuroscience are not about to put the humanities, in particular, out of business. There are good reasons why the natural sciences cannot provide a substitute for humanistic explanation, even if we obtain a far deeper understanding of our own genetic and neurophysiological make-up. This is partly because reductive science is ill-equipped to deal with the particularity of complex events, partly because causal explanation may not be all that we want, anyway, when we try to interpret and clarify human experience.


Either there are no objective moral truths or they are of an extremely general kind. Should we, therefore, become cultural relativists?

Over a quarter of a century ago, Bernard Williams made the sharp comment that cultural relativism is “possibly the most absurd view to have been advanced even in moral philosophy”” To get this clear, Williams was criticising a cluster of beliefs that has a great attraction for left-wing academics and many others who preach inter-cultural tolerance: first, that what is “right” means what is right for a particular culture; second, that what is right for a particular culture refers to what is functionally valuable for it; and third, that it is “therefore” wrong for one culture to interfere with the organisation or values of another.

As Williams pointed out, these propositions are internally inconsistent. Not only does the third not follow from the others; it cannot be asserted while the other two are maintained. After all, it may be functionally valuable to culture A (and hence “right” within that culture) for it to develop institutions for imposing its will on culture B. These may include armadas and armies, colonising expeditions, institutionalised intolerance, and aggressively proselytising religions. In fact, nothing positive in the way of moral beliefs, political programs or social policy can ever be derived merely from a theory of cultural relativism.

That does not mean that there are no implications at all from the insight that social practices and beliefs are, to a large degree, contingent on history and circumstance. Depending upon how we elaborate this insight, we may have good reason to suspect that another culture’s odd-looking ways of doing things are more justifiable against universal principles of moral value than is readily apparent. In that case, we may also take the view that the details of how our own society, or an element of it, goes about things are open to challenge as to how far they are (or remain?) justifiable against such universal principles.

If, on the other hand, we simply reject the existence of any objective moral truths – which I have stated to be a philosophically viable position – we will have a more difficult time explaining why we are active in pursuing social change. Certainly, we will not be able to appeal to objectively applicable principles to justify our activity. All the same, we may be able to make positive commitments to ideas such as freedom, equality or benevolence that we find less arbitrary and more psychologically satisfying than mere acquiescence in “the way they do things around here”. In no case, however, can we intellectually justify a course of political and social activism without more general principles or commitments to supplement the bare insight that, in various complicated ways, social beliefs and practices are largely contingent.


An example of an attempt to short-circuit the kind of hard thinking about moral foundations required to deal with contentious issues is Martin F. Katz’s well-known article, “After the Deconstruction: Law in the Age of Post-Structuralism”. Katz is a jurisprudential theorist who is committed to a quite extreme form of relativism about empirical knowledge. In particular, his article explicitly assigns the findings of physical science the same status as the critical interpretations of literary works.

Towards the end of “After the Deconstruction”, Katz uses the abortion debate as an example of how what he calls “deconstructionism” or the “deconstructionist analysis” can clarify and arbitrate social conflict. He begins by stating the debate much as it might be seen by its antagonists:

One side of the debate holds that abortion is wrong because it involves the murder of an unborn baby. The other side of the debate sees abortion as an issue of self-determination; the woman’s right to choose what she does to her body. How do we measure which of these “rights” should take priority?

In order to avoid any sense of evasion, I’ll state clearly that the second of these positions, the “pro-choice” position, is closer to my own. However, either position has more going for it in terms of rationality than what Katz actually advocates.

This, however, is not how Katz proposes to solve the problem of abortion. He begins by stating that “deconstructionism” recommends that we “resist the temptation to weigh the legitimacy of . . . these competing claims.” Instead, we should consider the different “subjugations” supposedly instigated by the pro-life and pro-choice positions. The pro-life position is condemned because it denies women the choice of what role they wish to take in society, while the pro-choice position is apparently praised (though even this is not entirely clear) for shifting the decision about whether and when to have children directly to women.

The trouble with this is that it prematurely forecloses on the metaphysical and ethical positions at stake, leaving everything to be solved in terms of power relations. However, if we believe that a foetus (say at a particular age) is a person in some sense that entails moral regard, or a being that possesses a human soul, then there are moral consequences. Such beliefs, together with some plausible assumptions about our moral principles or commitments, entail that we should accept that aborting the foetus is an immoral act. The fact that banning the abortion may reduce the political power of the woman concerned, or of women generally, over against that of men will seem to have little moral bite, unless we adopt a very deep principle of group political equality. That would require ethical argument of an intensity which Katz never attempts.

If we take it that the foetus is not a person in the relevant sense, we may be far more ready to solve the problem (and to advocate an assignment of “rights”) on the basis of utilitarian, or even libertarian, principles. By contrast, the style of “deconstructionist” thought advocated by Katz threatens to push rational analysis aside altogether, relying on untheorised hunches or feelings about how we wish power to be distributed in our society. This approach can justifiably be condemned as irrational. At the same time, the statements that Katz makes about the political consequences for men or women of banning or legalising abortion are so trite that it is difficult to imagine how anyone not already beguiled by an ideology could think that merely stating them could solve the problem.


In the example of Katz’s article, as in the general argument I have put, the insight that much in our own society’s practices and moral beliefs is “socially constructed” can do only a modest amount of intellectual work. We may have good reason to question the way they do things around here, to subject it to deeper analysis. We may also have good reason to believe that the “odd” ways they do things in other cultures make more sense than is immediately apparent to the culture-bound Western mind. All very well. None of this, however, can undermine the results of systematic empirical inquiry. Nor can it save us from the effort of grappling with inescapable metaphysical and ethical questions, just as we had to do before the deconstruction.

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Ghosts of Philosophy

Ghosts of PhilosophyAnd this, my friend, may be conceived to be that heavy, weighty, earthy element of sight by which such a soul is depressed and dragged down again into the visible world, because she is afraid of the invisible and of the world below-prowling about tombs and sepulchers, in the neighborhood of which, as they tell us, are seen certain ghostly apparitions of souls which have not departed pure, but are cloyed with sight and therefore visible.

-Plato’s Phaedo

While ghosts have long haunted the minds of humans, philosophers have said relatively little about them. Plato, in the Phaedo, did briefly discuss ghosts in the context of the soul. Centuries later, my “Ghosts & Minds” manifested in the Philosophers’ Magazine and then re-appeared in my What Don’t You Know? In the grand tradition of horror movie remakes, I have decided to re-visit the ghosts of philosophy and write about them once more.

The first step in these ghostly adventures is laying out a working definition of “ghost.” In the classic tales of horror and in role playing game such as Call of Cthulhu and Pathfinder ghosts are undead manifestations of souls that once inhabited living bodies. These ghosts are incorporeal or, in philosophical terms, they are immaterial minds. In the realm of fiction and games, there is a variety of incorporeal undead: ghosts, shadows, wraiths, specters, poltergeists, and many others. I will, however, stick with a basic sort of ghost and not get bogged down in the various subspecies of spirits.

A basic ghost has to possess certain qualities. The first is that a ghost must have lost its original body due to death. The second is that a ghost must retain the core metaphysical identity it possessed in life. That is, the ghost of a dead person must still be that person and the ghost of a dead animal must still be that animal. This is to distinguish a proper ghost from a mere phantasm or residue. A ghost can, of course, have changes in its mental features. For example, some fictional ghosts become single-mindedly focused on revenge and suffer a degradation of their more human qualities. The third requirement is that the ghost must not have a new “permanent” body (this would be reincarnation), although temporary possession would not count against this. The final requirement is that the ghost must be capable of interacting with the physical world in some manner. This might involve being able to manifest to the sight of the living, to change temperatures, to cause static on a TV, or to inflict a bizarre death. This condition can be used to distinguish a ghost from a spirit that is in a better (or worse) place. After all, it would be odd to say that Heaven is haunted. Or perhaps not.

While the stock ghost of fiction and games is incorporeal entity (an immaterial mind), it should not be assumed that this is a necessary condition for being a ghost. This is to avoid begging the question against non-dualist accounts of ghosts. Now that the groundwork has been put in place, it is time to move on to the ghosts.

The easy and obvious approach to the ghosts of philosophy is to simply stick with the stock ghost. This ghost, as noted above, fits in nicely with classic dualism. This is the philosophical view that there are two basic metaphysical kinds: the material stuff (which might be a substance or properties) and the immaterial stuff. Put in everyday terms, these are the body and the mind/spirit/soul.

On this view, a ghost would arise upon the death of a body that was inhabited by a mind. Since the mind is metaphysically distinct from the body, it would be possible for it to survive the death of the body. Since the mind is the person, the ghost would presumably remain a person—though being dead might have some psychological impact.

One of the main problems for dualism is the mind-body problem, which rather vexed the dualist Descartes. This is the mystery of how the immaterial mind interacts with the material body. While this is rather mysterious, the interaction of the disembodied mind with the material world is really not anymore mysterious. After all, if the mind can work the levers of the brain, it could presumably interact with other material objects. Naturally, it could be objected that the mind needs a certain sort of matter to work with—but the principle of ghosts interacting with the world is no more mysterious than the immaterial mind interacting with the material body.

Non-dualist metaphysical view would seem to have some clear problems with ghosts. One such view is philosophical materialism (also known as physicalism). Unlike everyday materialism, this is not a love of fancy cars, big houses and shiny bling. Rather, it is the philosophical view that all that exists is material. This view explicitly denies the existence of immaterial entities such as spirits and souls. There can still be minds—but they must be physical in nature.

On the face of it, materialism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts. After all, if the person is her body, then when the body dies, then that is the end of the person. As such, while materialism is consistent with corporeal undead such as zombies, ghouls and vampires, ghosts would seem to out. Or are they?

One approach is to accept the existence of material ghosts—the original body dies and the mind persists as some sort of material object. This might be the ectoplasm of fiction or perhaps a fine cloud. It might even be a form of energy that is properly material. These would be material ghosts in a material world. Such material ghosts would presumably be able to interact with the other material objects—though this might be rather limited.

Another approach is to accept the existence of functional ghosts. One popular theory of mind is functionalism, which seems to be the result of thinking that the mind is rather like a computer. For a functionalist a mental state, such as being afraid of ghosts, is defined in terms of causal relations it holds to external influences, other mental states, and bodily behavior.  Rather crudely put, a person is a set of functions and if those functions survived the death of the body and were able to interact in some manner with the physical world, then there could be functional ghosts. Such functional ghosts might be regarded as breaking one of the ghost rules in that they might require some sort of new body, such as a computer, a house, or a mechanical shell. In such cases, the survival of the function set of the dead person would be a case of reincarnation—although there is certainly a precedent in fiction for calling such entities “ghosts” even when they are in shells.

Another option, which would still avoid dualism, is for the functions to be instantiated in a non-physical manner (using the term “physical” in the popular sense). For example, the functional ghost might exist in a field of energy or a signal being broadcast across space. While still in the material world, such entities would be bodiless in the everyday meaning of the term and this might suffice to make them ghosts.

A second and far less common form of monism (the view that there is but one type of metaphysical stuff) is known as idealism or phenomenalism. This is not because the people who believe it are idealistic or really phenomenal. Rather, this is the view that all that exist is mental in nature. George Berkeley (best known as the “if a tree falls in the forest…” guy) held to this view. As he saw it, reality is composed of minds (with God being the supreme mind) and what we think of as bodies are just ideas in the mind.

Phenomenalism would seem to preclude the existence of ghosts—minds never have bodies and hence can never become ghosts. However, the idealists usually provide some account for the intuitive belief that there are bodies. Berkeley, for example, claims that the body is a set of ideas. As such, the death of the body would be a matter of having death ideas about the ideas of the body (or however that would work). Since the mind normally exists without a material body, it could easily keep on doing so. And since the “material objects” are ideas, they could be interacted with by idea ghosts. So, it all works out.


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Dr. Ben Carson & Stomping on Academic Freedom

As a professor and a citizen, I have a stake in higher education. As such, the positions candidates take on education matter a great deal to me. As this is being written, presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson has taken the lead among the Republican candidates. While pundits have been predicting that he (and Trump) will flame out and be surpassed by the “serious candidates”, the two men seem to be trading places at the lead. As such, Carson’s views are certainly important to consider.

Carson, who is known for speaking out against the “speech police” has proposed that speech on college campuses should be monitored by the federal government for “extreme political bias.” Carson presented some of the details of his plan on Meet the Press and presented it as aimed at preventing tax-payer money being used to fund propaganda at universities.

While Carson asserts that he has “thought about this” plan, it is still a bit short on details. However, Carson has sketched the basics and says that, “the way that works is you invite students at the universities to send in their complaints, and then you investigate.”

To show that there is a problem worth solving through the imposition of the power of the federal government, Carson presents a single example: “for instance, there was a university – I’m sure you’ve heard of the situation – where, you know, the professor told everybody, ‘Take out a piece of paper and write the name ‘Jesus’ on it. Put in on the floor and stomp on it.’ And one student refused to do that and was disciplined severely. You know, he subsequently was able to be reinstated…”

When Chuck Todd raised the point that such a policy would violate the First Amendment, Carson assured him that “it’s not a violation of the First Amendment, because all I’m saying is taxpayer funding should not be used for propaganda. It shouldn’t be.” In response to the concern that what Carson regards as propaganda might be regarded by others as free speech, Carson replied that “Well, that’s why I said we’re going to have the students send in. And we will investigate.”

Such investigation will apparently be limited to liberal “propaganda.” In an interview with conservative radio talk show host Dana Loesch, the concern was raised that the same policy could be used to monitor conservative political speech. Carson assured Loesch that very strict guidelines would be put in place and these would protect conservative political speech.  Carson makes it clear “…that’s why I used the word ‘extreme.’ I didn’t just say ‘political bias,’ I said ‘extreme political biases.’”

While I might be accused of “extreme political bias”, I believe all citizens who value the First Amendment, regardless of their political leaning, should oppose Carson’s policy. I will endeavor to support this claim with arguments and will begin with the infamous “stomp on Jesus” incident.

The story, as told by Carson, is indeed an awful one. No student should be compelled to stomp on the word “Jesus” and a student who refuses to do so certainly should not be punished. If professors were going rogue like that at state schools, then intervention by the authorities would be warranted. The problem with Carson’s story, which he repeats regularly, is that it is not true. The actual facts are that the point of the exercise, which is from a standard textbook and has been used for thirty years without issues, is that the students will be reluctant to stand (not stomp) on the paper and this will start a discussion on the power of words and how this power is grounded by cultural values. It is true that the student was subject to official action, but this was for the way he treated the instructor and not for refusing to step on the paper. Unfortunately, the story became part of the mythology regarding the liberal horrors of the public university and is still haunting the minds of some like a terrible ghost.

While the fact that the evidence Carson advances to justify his policy is untrue does not show his policy is itself flawed, it does serve to undermine the claim that there is even a problem that needs to be solved. As such, the policy would seem to be a solution in search of a problem. Carson could, of course, try to find other examples of extreme political bias at public universities—but in order to be legitimate examples they would need to actually be true. However, even if extreme political bias was being expressed at public universities, there is still the question of whether or not such a policy would be defensible.

One concern, raised by Chuck Todd, is that such a policy would seem to clearly violate the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” While I am not a constitutional lawyer, having the state investigate speech at universities and then impose funding cuts in response to speech found to violate Carson’s policy would seem to be unconstitutional. Since this is a matter of law, I must leave this to those who are constitutional lawyers—and I am confident that if President Carson has such a policy implemented it would soon be before the Supreme Court.

A second concern is the matter of academic freedom. While academic freedom does come with responsibilities it clearly protects the expression of views that might be regarded by some as extreme political speech. This applies to speech that would be regarded as left, right or center. So, for example, the discussion of socialism, anarchism and fascism is protected by academic freedom. It is also important to note that academic freedom does not entitle a professor to mistreat, abuse, threaten or bully students. In many ways, academic freedom is an academic version of the First Amendment and arguments in favor of free speech in general can be used to defend academic freedom. There are also numerous excellent reasons that have been advanced in defense of academic freedom. While the short scope of this essay forbids making a full case for academic freedom, one rather compelling reason is that academic freedom is essential for advancing knowledge and developing intellectual abilities.

While some might be tempted to say that academic freedom is a tool of liberals, there is the excellent point raised by the conservative radio show host Loesch.  Carson’s policy is a weapon that could just as easily turned from targeting liberals to targeting conservatives with a change in political fortunes. While Carson was quick to claim that conservatives would be protected from his policy, it should be obvious that if a policy can be set by a right leaning president to ban “extremely biased” liberal speech on campuses, then a policy could be set by a left leaning president aimed at banning “extremely biased” conservative speech on campuses. As such, while some conservatives might be tempted to support policing liberal speech on campus, they should consider the Golden Rule. If that is not appealing, they should remember that when a legal sword is forged, it is usually happy to cut anyone—even the hand that once wielded it. So, before making that sword, it is well worth thinking about how much it would hurt to be hit in the face with it by the next person in office. Metaphorically speaking, of course.

A third concern is that Carson’s plan casts students as spies (or snitches). This is problematic for a few reasons. One is the moral concern about having students serve as agents of what would seem to be the thought police. While this is not an argument, the thought police and their spies are never heroes in American films. And this is for a good reason: they are not heroes. A second is the practical concern that students would misuse this power. While most students would not use a threat of a report to the Carson thought police to improve their grade, the history of thought policing does show that there are always people who are willing to use it to their advantage. Since the complaints would be a matter of ideology rather than matters of fact this sort of policy seems to be fraught with peril for professors and education.

Given all these problems, Carson’s proposed plan should be opposed by everyone who believes in academic freedom and the First Amendment.


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Why Paul Ryan is Not a Hypocrite

Paul Ryan acted quite rationally in imposing conditions on the Republicans of the House in return for running for the position of Speaker. After all, they wanted him to take the job far more than he wanted it, thus putting him into a strong bargaining position.

A devoted family man who returns home from Washington every weekend to spend time with his wife and children, it is no surprise that one of his conditions is that he will not give up his family time. Despite the fact that his condition seems to exemplify traditional family values, he has drawn criticism from the right. The more vocal attacks have, of course, come from the left. The main accusation is that Ryan is a hypocrite because his insistence of maintaining a work-family balance starkly contrast with his voting record. To be specific, Ryan has relentlessly voted against bills that would assist working Americans to have a better work-family balance of the sort he insists on having.

On the face of it, the charge of hypocrisy would seem to stick since Ryan seems to be acting inconsistent with his professed values. Interestingly, the hypocrisy could be seen in at least two ways. One is that Ryan’s action of insisting on a work-family balance is inconsistent with his stated beliefs about bills that would allow improved work-family balance for employees. A second is that Ryan’s actions of voting against such bills is inconsistent with the values implied by his action of insisting that his “employer” grant him the desired work-family balance.

While it is certainly tempting to say Ryan is in error when he opposes improving the work-family balance for others while insisting on it himself, this would be a case of the ad hominem tu quoque fallacy. This fallacy is committed when it is concluded that a person’s claim is false because it is inconsistent with something else a person has said or what a person says is inconsistent with his actions. The fact that a person makes inconsistent claims does not make any particular claim he makes false (of any pair of inconsistent claims only one can be true—but both can be false). Also, the fact that a person’s claims are not consistent with his actions might indicate that the person is a hypocrite. But being a hypocrite is different from being in error. For example, a heroin user who says that using heroin is unhealthy does not thus prove that using heroin is actually healthy. As such, showing that Ryan is in error would require more than just pointing to an alleged inconsistency between how he votes and what he insists as a condition of taking the job of speaker. That said, an accusation of inconsistency does have some moral weight.

One legitimate way to criticize Ryan is to argue that he is not consistently applying a principle. A principle is consistently applied when it is applied in the same way to similar beings in similar circumstances. Inconsistent application is a problem because it violates the principle of relevant difference. This is the view that different treatment must be justified by relevant differences.

Criticizing someone on the basis of inconsistent application involves showing that a principle or standard has been applied differently in situations whose differences do not warrant the different application.  In the case at hand, it is generally assumed that Ryan’s principle is that people should have a work-family balance. He applies this principle to himself by insisting that being Speaker of the House will allow him his family time. But, he is inconsistent because he does not apply the same principle to other workers—as shown by his consistently voting against bills that would ensure that employees had more family time.

When a charge of inconsistent application is made, there are various responses. One is for a person to change her actions so they are consistent. So, for example, Ryan could start voting in favor of bills that allow more family time to employees. This seems rather unlikely.

A second way is to dissolve the inconsistency by showing that the alleged inconsistency is merely apparent.  One way to do this is by showing that there is a relevant difference between the situations. In the case of Ryan, if it could be shown that there is a relevant difference between him and other people that entitles him to be granted the work-family balance that he has voted to deny others. And to get that balance from other people who have also voted to deny it to others. It could, for example, be argued that the Speaker of the House position, like other high positions, should come with benefits denied to those of lesser status. To use an analogy, a university might have a principle that employees who perform their jobs well get a bonus. If there is a shortage of funds, the university might grant bonuses only to administrators and justify this by arguing for a relevant difference between administrators and everyone else. It is clearly possible to disagree with such claims of relevant difference and other employees would be likely to do so.

If being Speaker of the House grants a relevant difference that warrants the difference in treatment, then Ryan is no more a hypocrite than a university president would be for handing out bonuses to administrators on the basis of a relevant difference—even if she denied bonuses and raises to the faculty. The challenge is, of course, to justify the alleged relevant difference.

A third approach is to eliminate the apparent inconsistency by arguing the attributed principle is not the person’s actual principle.  For Ryan to be a hypocrite in this case, he must hold the principle that explicitly states or at least entails that employees are entitled to the sort of work-family balance he wants. However, Ryan does not seem to hold to such a principle. Rather, he has espoused what can be regarded as an explicitly selfish value system. As Amanda Marcotte contends,  Ryan seems to be acting in accord with his values which are largely those argued for by the philosopher Ayn Rand. This view was laid out quite clearly in her Virtue of Selfishness  in which she argues in favor of the moral theory of ethical egoism. This is the view each person should act in his or her own self-interest and is contrasted against moral altruism, which is the view that a person should at least consider the interests of others. Altruism is also exemplified by the injunction to love thy neighbor as thyself and the Golden Rule.

It is in Ryan’s self-interest to have the family time he wants, so his principle would simply be that he should receive this family time. Under ethical egoism of the sort explicitly embraced by Ryan, he would be acting in a moral manner—by attempting to maximize what is of value for him.  This principle does not entail that other people should receive a guarantee of an improved work-family balance. So, when he votes against bills to allow employees a better work-family balance, he is not being a hypocrite. He is being perfectly consistent with his value system.

If he is a proper ethical egoist, he would also accept that other people should act in their own self-interest—this is what distinguishes the moral theory of ethical egoism from simple selfishness (which is not a moral system). As such, he should accept that other people should try to get the work-family balance they desire. But he should help them only on the condition that doing so would be in his self-interest, which he clearly thinks it is not. As such, if he is an ethical egoist, he is not a hypocrite—under that moral system he would be acting morally. If, however, he subscribed to a more altruistic moral system (such as the sort advocated by Pope Francis), then he would seem to be a hypocrite. After all, he is not loving his neighbor as he loves himself.


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Werewolves of Instantiation

WerewolfWhile the truly classic werewolf is a human with the ability to shift into the shape of a wolf, the movie versions typically feature a transformation to a wolf-human hybrid. The standard werewolf has a taste for human flesh, a vulnerability to silver and a serious shedding problem. Some werewolves have impressive basketball skills, but that is not a stock werewolf ability.

There have been various and sundry efforts to explain the werewolf myths and legends. Some of the scientific (or at least pseudo-scientific) include specific forms of mental illness or disease. On these accounts, the werewolf does not actually transform into wolf-like creature. The werewolf is merely a very unfortunate person. These non-magical werewolves are certainly possible, but are far more tragic than horrific.

There are also many supernatural accounts for werewolves—many involve vague references to curses. In many tales, the condition can be transmitted—perhaps by a bite or, in modern times, even by texting. These magical beasts are certainly not possible—unless, of course, this is a magical world.

There has even been some speculation about future technology based shifters—perhaps by some sort of nanotechnology that can rapidly re-structure a living creature without killing it. But, these would be werewolves of science fiction.

Interestingly enough, there could also be philosophical werewolves (which, to steal from Adventure Time, could be called “whywolves”) that have a solid metaphysical foundation. Well, as solid as metaphysics gets.

Our good dead friend Plato (who was probably not a werewolf) laid out a theory of Forms. According to Plato, the Forms are supposed to be eternal, perfect entities that exist outside of space and time. As such, they are even weirder than werewolves. However, they neither shed nor consume the flesh of humans, so they do have some positive points relative to werewolves.

For Plato, all the particular entities in this imperfect realm are what they are in virtue of their instantiation of various Forms. This is sometimes called “participation”, perhaps to make the particulars sound like they have civic virtue. To illustrate this with an example, my husky Isis is a husky because she participates in the form of Husky. This is, no doubt, among the noblest and best of the dog forms. Likewise, Isis is furry because she instantiates the form of Fur (and shares this instantiation with all things she contacts—such is the vastness of her generosity).

While there is some pretty nice stuff here in the world, it is sadly evident that all the particulars lack perfection. For example, while Donald Trump’s buildings are clearly quality structures, they are not perfect buildings. Likewise, while he does have a somewhat orange color, he does not possess perfect Orange (John Boehner is closer to the Form of Orange, yet still lacks perfection).

Plato’s account of the imperfection of particulars, like Donald Trump, involves the claim that particulars instantiate or participate in the Forms in varying degrees. When explaining this to my students, I usually use the example of photocopies of various quality—perhaps arising because of issues with the toner. The original that is copied is analogous to the Form while the copies of varying quality are analogous to the various particulars.  Another example could be selfies taken of a person using cameras of various qualities. I find that the cools kids relate more to selfies than to photocopies.

Plato also asserts that particulars can instantiate or participate in “contrasting” Forms. He uses the example of how things here in the earthly realm have both Beauty and Ugliness, thus they lack perfect Beauty. To use a more specific example, even the most attractive supermodel still has flaws. As such, a person’s beauty (or ugliness) is a blend of Beauty and Ugliness. Since people can look more or less beautiful over time (time can be very mean as can gravity), this mix can shift—the degree of participation or instantiation can change. This mixing and shifting of instantiation can be used to provide a Platonic account of werewolves (which is not the same as having a Platonic relation with a werewolf).

If the huge assumptions are made that a particular is what it is because it instantiates various Forms and that the instantiations of Forms can be mixed or blended in a particular, then werewolves can easily be given a metaphysical explanation in the context of Forms.

For Plato, a werewolf would be a particular that instantiated the Form of Man but also the Form of Wolf. As such, the being would be part man and part wolf. When the person is participating most in the Form of Man, then he would appear (and act) human. However, when the Form of Wolf became dominant, her form and behavior would shift towards that of the wolf.

Plato mentions the Sun in the Allegory of the Cave as well as the light of the moon. So it seems appropriate that the moon (which reflects the light of the sun) is credited in many tales with triggering the transformation from human to wolf. Perhaps since, as Aristotle claimed, humans are rational animals, the direct light of the sun means that the human Form is dominant. The reflected light of the full moon would, at least in accord with something I just made up, result in a distortion of reason and thus allow the animal Form of Wolf to dominate. There can also be a nice connection here to Plato’s account of the three-part soul: when the Wolf is in charge, reason is mostly asleep.

While it is the wolf that usually takes the blame for the evil of the werewolf, it seems more plausible that this comes from the form of Man. After all, research of wolves has shown that they have been given a bad rap. So, whatever evil is in the werewolf comes from the human part. The howling, though, is all wolf.


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Solving the Attendance Problem

While philosophy is about inquiry and students should be encouraged to ask questions, there used to be one question I hoped students would not ask. That question was “do I need the book?” I did realize that some students asked this question out of a legitimate concern based on the often limited finances of students. In other cases, it arose from a soul deep hope to avoid the unbearable pain of reading philosophy.

My answer was always an honest “yes.” I must confess that I have heard the evil whispers of the Book Devil trying to tempt me to line my shelves with desk copies or, even worse, get free books to sell to the book buyers. But, I have always resisted this temptation. My will, I must say, was fortified

by memories of buying expensive books that were never actually used by the professors in the classes. Despite the fact that the books for my courses were legitimately required and I diligently sought the best books for the lowest costs, the students still lamented my cruel practice of actually requiring books.

Moved by their terrible suffering, I quested for a solution and found it: technology. Since most of the great philosophers are not only dead but really, really dead, their works are typically in the public domain. This allowed me to assemble free texts for all my classes except Critical Inquiry. These were first distributed via 3.5 inch floppies (kids, ask your parents about these), then via the internet. While I could not include the latest and (allegedly greatest) of contemporary philosophy, the digital books are clearly as good as most of the expensive offerings. The students are, I am pleased to say, happy that the books they will not read will not cost them a penny. Yes, sometimes students now ask “do I have to read the book?” I say “yes.”

Since I make a point of telling the students on day one that the book is a free PDF file (except for the Critical Inquiry text), I rarely hear “do I need to buy the book?” these days. Now students ask “do I have to come to class?” I have to take some of the blame for this—my classes are designed so that all the coursework can be completed or turned in online via Black Board. Technology is thus shown, once again, to be a two-edged sword: it solved the “do I have to buy the book?” problem, but helped create the “do I have to come to class problem.”

When I was first asked this, I was a bit bothered. After all, a reasonable interpretation of the question is “I think I have nothing to learn. I believe you have nothing to teach me. But I’d rather not fail.” Since I have a reasonably good understanding of what people are like, I am confident that this interpretation is often correct. Honesty even compels me to admit that the student could be right: perhaps the student does have nothing to learn from me. After all, various arguments have been advanced over the centuries that philosophy is useless and presumably not worth learning. Things like logic, critical thinking and ethics could be worthless—after all, some people seem to do just fine without them. Some even manage to hold high positions. Or at least want to. However, I am reasonable confident that the majority of students do have something to learn that I can teach them.

After overcoming my initial annoyance, I gave the matter considerable thought. As with the “do I have to buy the book?” question, there could be a good reason for asking. This reason could be that the student needs the time that would otherwise be spent in my class to do things for other classes. Or time to grind for engrams and materials in Destiny. The student might even need the time to work in order to earn money to pay for school.

This was not the first time that I had thought about why students skipped my class. Since April, 2014 I have been collecting survey data from students. While as of this writing I only have 233 responses, 28.8% of students surveyed claimed that work was the primary reason they missed class. 15% claimed that the fact that they could turn in work via Black Board was the reason they skipped class. This reason is currently in second place. 6% claimed they needed to spend time on other classes.

There are some obvious concerns with my survey. The first is that the sample is relatively small at 233 students. The second is that although the survey is completely anonymous, the respondents might be inclined to select the answer they regard as the most laudable reason to miss class. That said, these results do make intuitive sense. One reason is that the majority of students at Florida A&M University are from low-income families and hence often need to work to pay for school. Another reason is that I routinely overhear students talking about their jobs and I sometimes even see students wearing their work uniforms in class.

While it might be suspected that my main concern about attendance is a matter of ego, it is actually a matter of concern for my students. In addition to being curious about why students were skipping my class, I was also interested in why students failed my courses. Fortunately, I had considerable objective data in the form of attendance records, grades, and coursework.

I found a clear correlation between lack of attendance and failing grades. None of the students who failed had perfect attendance and only 27% had better than 50% attendance. This was hardly surprising: students who do not attend class miss out on the lectures, class discussion and the opportunity to ask questions. To use the obvious analogy, these students are like athletes skipping practice and the coursework is analogous to meets or games.

I have been testing a solution to this problem: I am creating YouTube videos of one of my classes and putting the links into Black Board. This way students can view the videos at their convenience and skip or rewind as they desire. As might be suspected given the cast and production values, the view counts are rather low. However, some students have already expressed appreciation for the availability of the videos. If they can reduce the number of students who fail by even a few students each semester, then the effort will be worthwhile. It would also be worthwhile if I went viral and was able to ride that sweet wave of internet fame to some boosted book sales. I do not, however, see that happening. The fame, that is.

I also found that 67.7% of the students who failed did so because of failing scores on work. While this might elicit a response of “duh”, 51% of those who failed did not complete the exams, 45% did not complete the quizzes, and 42% did not complete the paper. As such, while failing grades on the work was a major factor, simply not doing the work was also a significant cause. Interestingly, none of the students who failed completed all the work—part of the reason for the failure was not completing the work. While they might have failed the work even if they had completed it, failure was assured by not making the attempt.

My initial attempt at solving the problem involved having all coursework either on Black Board or capable of being turned in via Black Board. My obvious concern with this solution was the possibility that students would cheat. While there are some awkward and expensive solutions (such as video monitoring) I decided to rely on something I had learned about the homework assigned in my courses: despite having every opportunity to cheat, student performance on out of class work was consistent with their performance on monitored in course work. It was simply a matter of designing questions and tests to make cheating unrewarding. The solution was fairly easy—questions aimed mainly at comprehension, a tight time limit on exams, and massive question banks to generate random exams. This approach seems to have worked: student grades remained very close to those in pre-Black Board days. Students can, of course, try to cheat—but either they are not cheating or they are cheating in ways that has had no impact on the grades. On the plus side, there was an increase in the completion rate of the coursework. However, the increase was not as significant as I had hoped.

In the light of work left uncompleted, I decided to have very generous deadlines for work. Students get a month to complete the quizzes for a section. For exams 1-3 (which cover sections 1-3), students get one month after we finish a section to complete the exam. Exam 4 deadlines at the end of the last day of classes and the final deadlines at the end of the normal final time. The paper deadlines are unchanged from the pre-Black Board days, although now the students can turn in papers from anywhere with internet access and can do so round the clock.

The main impact of this change has been another increase in the completion rate of work, thus decreasing the failure rate in my classes. As should be suspected, there are still students who do not complete all the work and fail much of the work they do complete. While I can certainly do more to provide students with the opportunity to pass, they still have responsibilities. One of mine is, of course, to record their failure.


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Performance Based Funding & Social Mobility Index

Once upon a time, the animals gathered together to decide which of them was the very best. After some deliberation and braying, barking and squawking of opinions, the wisest of the animals realized that they would need a set of standards to decide the best.

All the animals readily agreed, even the grumpy wolverine. A horse raised the question of what standards to use and each animal rushed to answer. The wisest animal quickly restored order and said that each animal should speak in order as selected by drawing lots. The animals recognized this as fair, though the lion did make some noises about the prerogatives of royalty.

Cheetah went first and stated that the only sensible standard was speed in a sprint. The bat went next, insisting that the ability to fly in the dark and hang upside down were the only sensible measures. And so each animal proposed standards that suited them best. Each was enraged when its standard was not accepted and this is why, to this day, that animals no longer speak to each other.

Rankings are very important to academic institutes—and not just in regards to their sports teams. Colleges and universities battle in the academic rankings for the prestige, to impress parents into sending their kids to schools befitting their rank, and to justify those sweet administrative salaries. Some schools are also forced to engage in the blood sport that is performance based funding. My university, Florida A&M University, is one of these schools.

As I have noted in previous essays on performance based funding, Florida A&M University (FAMU) has fared poorly under the standards imposed by the state legislature. To be specific, FAMU has been ranked last since 2013. The punishment is, of course, a reduction in funding. In contrast, the University of Florida has been winning this contest by a significant margin, thus enjoying the fruits (and cash) of victory. The University of South Florida placed second and the University of Central Florida placed third.

The standards used for performance based funding are, I have argued previously, unfair. I will not argue this point here, but will note that the standards used are obviously not the only ones that can be used to rank a university.

One interesting way to rank colleges and universities is to consider one of their historical purposes: to enable social mobility through education. As many others have argued, education has long served as a key means of social mobility. The idea that people can rise from humble (that is economically disadvantaged) beginnings through a college degree has long been a part of the mythology of the American Dream.  It is certainly a part of my family story. The rhetoric of politicians is also heavily laden with words praising and calling for upward mobility and success. Given the importance of social mobility in traditional American values, mythology and rhetoric, it seems reasonable to consider that an important measure of a university’s success.

Conveniently enough, CollegeNET has created a Social Mobility Index that ranks schools in terms of weighted assessment of tuition, the economic background of students, the graduation rate, early career salary and the endowment of the institution. Roughly put, the better a school does in regards to social mobility (enabling people to move upwards via education) the better its SMI.

While FAMU is ranked last by the state’s performance based funding standards, it ranks 19th in the United States in terms of its SMI. FAMU ranks well because 52.8% of the students are low income, the tuition is relatively affordable ($5,785), and the median early career salary is a respectable $45,900.  68% of the freshmen have Pell Grants and 77.8% of them are lower income students. On the minus side, FAMU has a graduation rate of 40.9% and an endowment of only $80 million.

As I argued in previous essays, the low graduation rate can be accounted for by social factors, especially economic ones. Somewhat ironically, FAMU is regarded as a poor performer by the state for the same reason it does exceptionally well at social mobility: it has a majority of low income students and does a good job assisting them upwards—and this is in despite of the tremendous obstacles presented by economic factors and the impact of past and current racism. Since the state standards do not account for the challenges faced by low income and minority students, pursuing a mission that aids social mobility condemns FAMU to the bottom of the state ranking. To use an analogy, if you are trying to help people up from a deep cave with a rope that is being steadily weakened, then it would hardly be a shock if not everyone made it into the golden light of the sun. Yes, I just used a metaphor I stole from Plato.

Interesting enough, the undisputed winner of the state’s performance based funding, the University of Florida (UF), is ranked #260 in terms of its SMI. This is not because it is a bad school—quite the contrary, it is a very good school (unlike my Florida State brethren I have little football animosity against the Gators and can give them their due praise).

UF has an exceptionally good 86.5% graduation rate, reasonable tuition ($6,263), a good median early career salary ($49,500) and an impressive endowment (over a billion dollars). These facts might lead one to wonder why UF is ranked so far behind FAMU. The main reason is that only 11.2% of UF students are low income. Only 29% of UF students are Pell Grant recipients, but 60.8% of them are not lower income students. As such, UF excels at assisting upper income students to become upper income graduates. It does however, very little in regards to social mobility.

The success of UF is hardly surprising—just as economic disadvantage decreases a student’s chance of graduating and likely income, an economic advantage increases a student’s chance of graduating and the likelihood of a good income. To use an analogy, UF is pulling people along a level ground with an ever stronger rope—this is ever so much easier than pulling people out of a deep cave.

There is, obviously enough, nothing wrong with UF helping the relatively well-off remain relatively well-off. In fact, this is laudable. There is, however, something wrong with basing funding on performance standards that ensure schools with low percentages of low income students will excel and thus garner the rewards while schools that contribute to social mobility (and thus face lower graduation rates) will have what little they receive reduced.

As might be suspected, the second place school in the state ranking (the University of South Florida) is ranked #72 by SMI. It has 33% low income students and a 63.2% graduation rate. The state’s third ranked school (University of Central Florida) is ranked 53 by SMI. It has 27% low income students and a graduation rate of 67.2%.

A look at the data for the schools shows a not surprising correlation between the percentage of lower income students and the graduation rate. As such, the relatively low graduation rate of FAMU and the relatively high graduation rate at UF are not aberrations. They are exactly what should be expected due to the impact of economic class on student success.

As discussed in a previous essay, it has been suggested by some that FAMU can improve its ranking by changing its approach to admission. If FAMU lowered the percentage of low income students, it could increase its graduation rate. This would also impact other standards—people who are already from the higher economic classes are more likely to get jobs and more likely to get better paying jobs. This would, however, negatively impact FAMU’s rank in terms of social mobility—instead of assisting people out of the lower economic classes, FAMU would simply be engaged in keeping students in the higher economic classes, thus condemning lower income students to remain in the lower income class.

Someone more cynical than I might claim that the state ranking system is intentionally designed to punish schools that assist in upward mobility and reward schools for maintaining the economic status quo. This, some might say, is part of a broader economic ideology that favors abandoning the less-well off and maintaining a rigid class system and whose words about opportunity are but empty sounds. The less cynical might say that the state system is merely pragmatic—in the face of intentional cuts by the state to the education budget, the remaining funds must be spent wisely on those likely to succeed. These just happen to be those who are already well off, rather than those who are in the lower income classes. Helping the successful stay successful makes good sense and helping those who need help is too much of a risk. After all, if we are pulling people along level ground, then they will almost all make it. If we are pulling people out of a cave, they might not all reach the light of day. Better to just leave them in the darkness, right?


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Ontological Zombies

Zombie 2015As a gamer and horror fan I have an undecaying fondness for zombies. Some years back, I was intrigued to learn about philosophical zombies—I had a momentary hope that my fellow philosophers were doing something…well…interesting. But, as so often has been the case, professional philosophers managed to suck the life out of even the already lifeless. Unlike proper flesh devouring products of necromancy or mad science, philosophical zombies lack all coolness.

To bore the reader a bit, philosophical zombies are beings who look and act just like normal humans, but lack consciousness. They are no more inclined to seek the brains of humans than standard humans, although discussions of them can numb the brain. Rather than causing the horror proper to zombies (or the joy of easy XP), philosophical zombies merely bring about a feeling of vague disappointment. This is the same sort of disappointment that you might recall from childhood trick or treating when someone gave you pennies or an apple rather than real candy.

Rather than serving as creepy cannon fodder for vile necromancers or metaphors for vacuous and excessive American consumerism, philosophical zombies serve as victims in philosophical discussions about the mind and consciousness.

The dullness of current philosophical zombies does raise an important question—is it possible to have a philosophical discussion about proper zombies? There is also a second and equally important question—is it possible to have an interesting philosophical discussion about zombies? As I will show, the answers are “yes” and “obviously not.”

Since there is, at least in this world, no Bureau of Zombie Standards and Certification, there are many varieties of zombies. In my games and fiction, I generally define zombies in terms of beings that are biologically dead yet animated (or re-animated, to be more accurate). Traditionally, zombies are “mindless” or at least possess extremely basic awareness (enough to move about and seek victims).

In fiction, many beings called “zombies” do not have these qualities. The zombies in 28 Days are “mindless”, but are still alive. As such, they are not really zombies at all—just infected people. The zombies in Return of the Living Dead are dead and re-animated, but retain their human intelligence. Zombie lords and juju zombies in D&D and Pathfinder are dead and re-animated, but are intelligent. In the real world, there are also what some call zombies—these are organisms taken over and controlled by another organism, such as an ant controlled by a rather nasty fungus. To keep the discussion focused and narrow, I will stick with what I consider proper zombies: biologically dead, yet animated. While I generally consider zombies to be unintelligent, I do not consider that a definitive trait. For folks concerned about how zombies differ from other animate dead, such as vampires and ghouls, the main difference is that stock zombies lack the special powers of more luxurious undead—they have the same basic capabilities as the living creature (mostly moving around, grabbing and biting).

One key issue regarding zombies is whether or not they are possible. There are, of course, various ways to “cheat” in creating zombies—for example, a mechanized skeleton could be embedded in dead flesh to move the flesh about. This would make a rather impressive horror weapon—so look for it in a war coming soon. Another option is to have a corpse driven about by another organism—wearing the body as a “meat suit.” However, these would not be proper zombies since they are not self propelling—just being moved about by something else.

In terms of “scientific” zombies, the usual approaches include strange chemicals, viruses, funguses or other such means of animation. Since it is well-established that electrical shocks can cause dead organisms to move, getting a proper zombie would seem to be an engineering challenge—although making one work properly could require substantial “cheating” (for example, having computerized control nodes in the body that coordinate the manipulation of the dead flesh).

A much more traditional means of animating corpses is via supernatural means. In games like Pathfinder, D&D and Call of Cthulhu, zombies are animated by spells (the classic being animate dead) or by an evil spirit occupying the flesh. In the D&D tradition, zombies (and all undead) are powered by negative energy (while living creatures are powered by positive energy). It is this energy that enables the dead flesh to move about (and violate the usual laws of biology).

While the idea of negative energy is mostly a matter of fantasy games, the notion of unintelligent animating forces is not unprecedented in the history of science and philosophy. For example, Aristotle seems to have considered that the soul (or perhaps a “part” of it) served to animate the body. Past thinkers also considered forces that would animate non-living bodies. As such, it is easy enough to imagine a similar sort of force that could animate a dead body (rather than returning it to life).

The magic “explanation” is the easiest approach, in that it is not really an explanation. It seems safe to hold that magic zombies are not possible in the actual world—though all the zombie stories and movies show it is rather easy to imagine possible worlds inhabited by them.

The idea of a truly dead body moving around in the real world the way fictional zombies do in their fictional worlds does seem somewhat hard to accept. After all, it seems essential to biological creatures that they be alive (to some degree) in order for them to move about under their own power. What would be needed is some sort of force or energy that could move truly dead tissue. While this is clearly conceivable (in the sense that it is easy to imagine), it certainly does not seem possible—at least in this world. Dualists might, of course, be tempted to consider that the immaterial mind could drive the dead shell—after all, this would only be marginally more mysterious than the ghost driving around a living machine. Physicalists, of course, would almost certainly balk at proper zombies—at least until the zombie apocalypse. Then they would be running.

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Fox & the War on Cops

After bringing the world live coverage of the War on Christmas from their own minds, the fine folks at Fox have added coverage of the War on Cops. The basic idea is that violence against cops has increased dramatically and that cops are being targeted. Blame is laid primarily on the Black Lives Matter movement and, this being Fox, President Obama.

Unlike the War on Christmas, Fox does have some real-world basis for the claims about violence against police officers. Police officers are, in fact, attacked and even killed in the line of duty. In some cases, officers are specifically targeted and murdered simply for being police. The harming of citizens, be they police or not, is clearly a matter of concern. The problem is that while police do face the threat of violence, Fox’s rhetoric and claims simply do not match reality. Unfortunately, Fox’s campaign has had an impact: there are polls that show a majority believe there is a war on police.

One challenge in sorting out this matter is the fact that “war” is not well-defined. If all it takes for there to be a war on a group is for there to be any violence against that group, then there is a war on cops. A problem with accepting this account of war would be that there would be a war against all or nearly all groups, thus making the notion all but useless.

Intuitively, if there is a war on a group, then what would be expected is high levels of violence against that group. If the war is something that started at a certain point, then there should be a clear and significant upswing in incidents in violence from that point. While working things out properly would require setting and arguing for clear standards (such as what counts as high levels of violence) the statistical data shows that violence against police has been steadily trending downward rather than upward.

Those claiming there is a war on cops tend to note that there was an increase in violence against police relative to 2013—but they seem to ignore the fact that 2013 is currently the lowest point of such violence and 2015 is, if the trend stays consistent, on track to be the second lowest year.  Ever. As such, the claim that violence against police has increased since 2013 is true, but this does not serve as evidence for a war on cops. To use an analogy, if a person was at his lowest adult weight in 2013 and his weight increased since then, this does not entail that he is obese or that he is trending towards obesity.

Given the fact that violence against police has been steadily trending downward and 2015 is on track to be the second lowest year, it seems evident that there is no war on cops—at least under any sensible and non-hyperbolic definition of “war.”

It could be countered that there is a special sort of war on cops, as evidenced by a few incidents involving intentional targeting of cops (as opposed to criminals engaging police trying to stop them). While such incidents are certainly of concern both to police and responsible citizens, they do not serve as adequate evidence for the claim that there is a war on cops. This is because a war is a matter of statistics, not terrifying individual incidents. To reject a claim supported by body of reasonable statistical evidence on the basis of a small number of examples that go against the claim is, in fact, the classic fallacy of anecdotal evidence. And, as noted above, the statistical evidence is that violence against police has been on a steady downward trend, with 2013 being the lowest level of violence against United States police in recorded history.

It could also be asserted that the war on cops is not a war of actual violence, but a war of unfair criticism: the cops are under attack by the liberal media and groups that are often critical of police actions, such as Black Lives Matter.

This is certainly a fair concern: pointing to dramatic incidents involving bad or brutal policing runs the risk of committing the fallacy of anecdotal evidence or the fallacy of misleading vividness (a fallacy in which a very small number of particularly dramatic events are taken to outweigh a significant amount of statistical evidence). As with the war on police, the alleged war by the police must be subject to objective statistical analysis. That said, the sort of criticism of police misconduct and brutality that appears in the media does not seem to constitute a war—at least under a rational definition of “war.”

Since there is no war on cops, Fox and other folks should not be making this claim. One reason is that telling untruths is, at the very least, morally problematic—especially for people who claim to be journalists. Another, and more important reason, is that such a campaign can have serious negative consequences.

The first is that such a campaign can convince police that they are targets in a war. In addition to causing additional stress in what is already a stressful (and often thankless) job, the belief that they are in a war can impact how police officers perceive situations and how they react. If, for example, an officer believes that she is likely to be targeted for violence, she will operate on the defensive and consider fellow citizens as threats. This would, presumably, increase the chances that she will react with force during interactions with citizens.

A second consequence is that if citizens believe that there is a war on cops, they will be more likely to accept violence on the part of officers (who will be more likely to perceived as acting defensively) and more likely to regard those harmed by the police as deserving their fate. Citizens might be more inclined to support the continued militarization of police, which will lead to harms of its own. This view can also lead citizens to be unfairly critical of groups that are critical of brutal and poor policing, such as Black Lives Matter. People might also become more afraid of police because they think that they police are acting within a war and thus more likely to respond with force.

A third consequence is that if politicians accept there is a war on cops, they will support laws and policies that are based on a false premise. These are likely to have undesirable and unintended consequences.

While some might be tempted to say that Fox and others should be prevented from engaging in such campaigns that seem to be based on intentional deceptions aimed at ideological ends, I do not agree with this. Since I accept freedom of expression, I do accept that Fox and folks should have the freedom to engage in such activities—even when such expression is harmful.

My main justification for my view is based on concerns about the consequences. If a law or general policy were adopted to forbid such expression (as opposed to actual slander or defamation), then this would open the door to ideological censorship. That is, Fox might be silenced today, but I might be silenced tomorrow. As such, while Fox and folks should not push such untrue claims onto the public, they should not be prevented from doing so.


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