Friday, July 30, 2010

Irony Proof

Reading Matt Ridley's book The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, he has this to say with reference to Plato:

The endless modern laments about how texting and emails are shortening attention span go back to Plato, who deplored writing as a destroyer of memorizing.

And Plato did it in writing. I wonder what that means?

Kierkegaard didn't think there was any point in trying to directly argue people out of the modern philosophical point of view.  Modern philosophy is irony-free because it is not subjective; to become subjective means to understand the meaning of irony. But whatever is said ironically can also be taken in its direct sense; we can, if we choose, interpret Plato as simply meaning directly what he wrote, as Ridley does. There is no way to prove, in any way acceptable to modern philosophical demands, that there is any more to Plato than this.

But, thank God, there is...

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Massachusetts About to Do It Again

With all the universities in this state (sorry, "Commonwealth"), it's amazing how many folks can't fathom simple logic.

Massachusetts is about to enact a law such that it must cast its Presidential Electoral Votes for the national popular vote winner. Now there are four possibilities concerning the popular vote:

1) The Massachusetts popular vote goes for the Democrat, and the national vote goes for the Democrat.

2) The Massachusetts popular vote goes for the Republican, and the national vote goes for the Republican.

3) The Massachusetts popular vote goes for the Democrat, and the national vote goes for the Republican.

4) The Massachusetts popular vote goes for the Republican, and the national vote goes for the Democrat.

The proposed law makes no difference with respect to possibilities 1 and 2. Possibility 4 is a practical impossibility. So the only practical opportunity for the law to take effect is possibility 3. In other words, the effect this law will have will be to elect a Republican in the peculiar case that the Republican wins the popular vote but would lose the electoral vote. Massachusetts to the rescue! As Jeff Jacoby has pointed out, this law would have forced Massachusetts to vote for Richard Nixon rather than George McGovern in 1972.

When Scott Brown was elected to the Senate after Massachusetts changed its laws in 2004 to prevent Mitt Romney from appointing a Republican to fill the vacant seat of "President" John Kerry, I thought there might be a God. If Massachusetts manages to put Romney (or even more delicious, Sarah Palin) into the White House in 2012, despite losing the MA popular vote, I'll know there is a God.

Monday, July 26, 2010

On Philosophy at Second Hand, with Specific Reference to Kant

This is the first post in what I hope is at least a two-part series, discussing the benefits of reading the great philosophers directly rather than at second-hand.

Arthur Schopenhauer, in the Preface to the Second Edition of The World As Will and Representation, In Two Volumes: Vol. I, has this to say about reading the great philosophers:

In consequence of his originality, it is true of him in the highest degree, as indeed of all genuine philosophers, that only from their own works does one come to know them, not from the accounts of others. For the thoughts of those extraordinary minds cannot stand filtration through an ordinary head.

The reason for this is not necessarily that the philosopher's thought is too sophisticated for the ordinary head to conceive. Just the opposite is more likely the problem: It is just in his simplicity that the great philosopher is most likely to be missed: For philosophy is about "first ideas" or the bedrock of our rational approach to the world. What distinguishes the great philosopher is his ability to reveal and analyze the first ideas. But just because they are first they are very easy to miss, because we naturally look past them. We habitually look past them.

And we do so for very good reasons. We don't need to think about first ideas to get on with the ordinary business of life. We take them for granted and deal only with the secondary questions that confront us: Can I afford a new house, what school my kids should attend, how to fix a car, etc. Our lives would grind to a halt if we constantly had "first questions" in mind - which is the basis for the perennial indictment of the philosopher that he is "useless", and why Aristotle described philosophy as the most noble but least necessary of endeavors. We operate more efficiently the more we can take these basic questions for granted, and so we develop habits of mind that put, and keep, these ideas in the realm of assumed background and, perhaps, even actively discourage the mind from uncovering them.

The great philosopher, then, is doing something that, in a sense, does not come naturally and even "goes against the grain." He uncovers the background that the mind wishes would stay there so it can get on with the "real" business of thought. So when we read a philosopher, the drift of our mind is to find a place for his thought within the categories with which our mind is already comfortable (I discuss this phenomenon in relation to materialists and St. Thomas in this post.) Of course, it may be that the philosopher's primary goal is to challenge those very categories.

So when we read a great philosopher at second hand, there is a danger that what we will read is the philosopher's thought as recast into the comfortable categories of the interpreter.  This happens with Kant when he is introduced in the following common way: We human beings have (at least) five senses. We know and encounter the world through them. But we see that other animals have different ways of appreciating the world through their senses, and even have different senses altogether. Bats, for example, detect objects through echo location. Some species of fish (sharks, I believe) sense the electromagnetic field of their prey. What must the world look like to a shark? Can we even conceive of what the experience of a shark is like? (See the famous paper of Thomas Nagel on this topic, although he focusses on bats and not sharks.) We come to see that the world is not given to us directly in its own terms, but comes to us recast in the terms dictated by our cognitive apparatus. Thus arises the Kantian distinction between phenomena and noumena, or "things as they appear to us" and "things as they are in themselves."

Now this is very close to what Kant is getting at (in my opinion, of course - I am well aware that my mind is subject to the same propensity to think in familiar channels as everyone else, so if anyone really wants exposure to Kant, he should be read directly rather than through me. Put your irony back in its holster). But "close" can be disastrous when interpreting philosophers, precisely because "close" may miss just the jump out of familiar channels that makes the philosopher significant. Absent this jump, everything that follows takes on a different meaning and you will end up in a very different place than the philosopher intended; just as Routes 1 and 93 start in very close parallel out of Boston, but if you travel on Rt. 1 rather than the intended 93, you will end up very far from where you hoped.

The introduction to Kant given above is vulnerable to a straightforward objection. If we know things only as they appear to us, rather than things as they are in themselves, then the question of what it is like to be a shark or a bat changes meaning; in fact it loses meaning. "Shark" and "bat" are just constructions our cognitive apparatus puts on experience; asking "what it is like to be a shark" is then just asking what it is like to be this particular kind of cognitive construction. The object of the question has changed; it is no longer some thing-in-itself outside ourselves (about which we can know nothing at all on the Kantian view), and instead has become a subjective question concerning the nature of inner experience. And it makes no sense to ask "What is it like to be a cognitive construction", because cognitive constructions have no inner lives; they are aspects of our inner lives. It is like asking what it is like to be the color red or to be a dream.

What, then, becomes of the initial case for the plausibility of Kantian philosophy? That case only had plausibility because we assumed, "naively" we later discover, that when we think about "bats" and "sharks", we are in contact with real things out there about which it makes sense for us to discuss their inner lives. But this is only possible if we can know something about the thing-in-itself, verboten knowledge according to Kant. So the Kantian philosophy destroys the ground of its own plausibility.

Someone to whom this objection occurs, and who is familiar with Kant only through the common introduction given above, may have nothing further to do with Kant after concluding that it is Kant, and not himself, who is being naive. And this would be a tragedy, because while there are good reasons to reject Kant's philosophy, this isn't one of them, and, even philosophers who are wrong have things to teach us, especially great philosophers like Kant. But a man is unlikely to give Kant further time if he has concluded that he was so obtuse as to not anticipate the objection given above. (In fact, it's a good clue that a critic has not really understood a great philosopher if he thinks he has a devastating, and obvious, refutation of the philosopher's basic idea. To borrow from Hume's argument against miracles: Is it more likely that the critic hasn't understood the philosopher, or that all the bright minds who have studied the philosopher over many years simply missed the obvious retort?)

Kant is not subject to the objection because he does not base the plausibility of his philosophy on meditations concerning the inner lives of other animals. He bases it on the only possible thing he can: The data of our own consciousness. In the Transcendental Aesthetic, Kant proposes to the reader that space and time are not things we empirically discover; they are in fact forms of empirical discovery. We do not first experience the tree over there and myself over here, and then discover space as the thing separating us. No, the very distinction that makes possible the experience of the tree as something distinct from myself is the distinction of space. Space is prior to the experience of trees in the sense of being constitutive of it; and the only candidate for the agent of constitution is our own consciousness. So the experience of space is really an experience of the demands of our own cognitive apparatus on reality; and everything experienced in space is an experience of whatever is out there only insofar as it has been reconstituted in terms of space through our consciousness. A similar argument is adduced for time.

Whether or not the reader finds the argument compelling (and I reiterate the point that this is my interpretation of Kant, and Kant was a much greater philosopher than I am, so it is better to read him directly for the argument), the point is that Kant has not stolen any bases by implicitly referring to a knowledge of things-in-themselves that he will later claim is impossible. This may seem an obscure point but it is what distinguishes the genuine Kantian philosophy from the bastardized, self-contradictory, pseudo-Kantian philosophy that has become part of our "default" intellectual furniture. Repeating a point I have perhaps made in too many posts, much of the contemporary philosophy of mind, I believe, takes a pseudo-Kantianism for granted. Any time you here someone talking about how the brain constructs experience or "models" the world, you are listening to someone on the Kant Express; but they very likely have not taken Kant seriously enough. 

Returning to my earlier point that our minds tend to want to run in familiar grooves, our minds have an almost overwhelming impulse to talk about things as they really are. (Of course, I think we have this impulse because we really can talk about how things really are, but that's another story.) Kant recognized this facet of our nature in saying that metaphysics, while an illusion, is an inevitable illusion. The pseudo-Kantians of today don't have Kant's discipline; they want to talk about how the mind (or rather, "the brain") is essentially a modeler of the world or a constructor of experience from sensation, and innocently suppose that they are talking directly about a real-world, thing-in-itself object called "the brain" when they do so. If we have trusted Kant enough to read him directly, then we can see the self-defeating nature of the project; it is the same self-defeating feature found in the typical introduction to Kant. 

The penalty for being a pseudo-Kantian is the same as the penalty for all philosophical confusion: A lack of self-understanding. This lack of self-understanding is why so much of the contemporary philosophy of mind has the character of a circular firing squad. ("The most striking feature is how much of mainstream philosophy of mind of the past fifty years seems obviously false." John Searle, The Rediscovery of the Mind, p. 3). It seems so obviously false because it is: Everyone is trying to square a circle. They are trying to show how the brain, through purely material operations, is the causal foundation of consciousness and thought. But since "the brain" is itself a construction of consciousness, the project is really about explaining consciousness in terms of itself, or rather consciousness in the terms of whatever a particular philosopher decides to take seriously about consciousness. In any case, it is circular, and no one seems like they will run out of ammunition any time soon.

Coming soon, I hope: On Philosophy at Second Hand, with Specific Reference to Plato.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

David Brooks on the Moral Sense

David Brooks of the New York Times has a piece here on the origin of what he calls the "moral sense." The article starts this way:

Where does our sense of right and wrong come from? Most people think it is a gift from God, who revealed His laws and elevates us with His love. A smaller number think that we figure the rules out for ourselves, using our capacity to reason and choosing a philosophical system to live by.
Moral naturalists, on the other hand, believe that we have moral sentiments that have emerged from a long history of relationships. To learn about morality, you don’t rely upon revelation or metaphysics; you observe people as they live.
Brooks goes on to describe the naturalist case for the evolutionary development of the "moral sense." Right off the bat, however, Brooks has posed what I can only call a false alternative, a phrase I now have a visceral reaction against since Barack Obama so often abuses it. ("There are those who pose the false alternative between spending trillions of dollars you don't have and fiscal sanity...") Anyway, God gives us the "rules" in a number of ways. One way is through direct revelation, another way is through the natural law:

When Gentiles who have not the law do by nature what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness and their conflicting thoughts accuse or perhaps excuse them... Rom 2:14:15.

There is no conflict between the natural law known by reason and the divine law known through revelation; both have their source in God. This would even include Brooks's evolution-based morality since God, if He is, would not have His Purposes stymied by evolution. Evolution would then be just another way God could reveal His Will to us. In other words, God created the kind of world in which we live, knowing that we would evolve the right sort of moral rules.

But we've got to dismiss the evolutionary basis for morality, not because it is exclusive of a Divinely Revealed morality, but simply because it is incapable of serving as a basis for morality in any case. Moral rules concern the relationship between the possible and the actual; they criticize what we are doing in terms of what we should be doing but are not. But if your moral rules are entirely based on "observing people as they live", then your rules will necessarily be nothing more an affirmation of already-existing arrangements. And no one needs rules to tell them to keep on doing what they are already doing anyway.

Brooks quotes a professor who compares the moral sense to our sense of taste:

By the time humans came around, evolution had forged a pretty firm foundation for a moral sense. Jonathan Haidt of the University of Virginia argues that this moral sense is like our sense of taste. We have natural receptors that help us pick up sweetness and saltiness. In the same way, we have natural receptors that help us recognize fairness and cruelty. Just as a few universal tastes can grow into many different cuisines, a few moral senses can grow into many different moral cultures.

There is, however, no gainsaying taste. Some people like sweet foods, others like salty foods. Some people act fairly and others with cruelty. We haven't gotten to morality yet until we can say that it is better to act fairly than with cruelty, and that can only happen when we acknowledge that the possible (how people should act) has authority over the actual (how people in fact do act). I believe it was Kierkegaard who wrote that the poet is higher than the historian, because the poet criticizes the actual in terms of the possible. The evolutionist is an historian.

There was a time when slavery was a universally accepted human institution. At such a time, basing morality simply on how people live, we would have to conclude that slavery is a morally acceptable institution. There was a phrase popular back in the sixties that went if it feels good, do it. The evolutionary morality version of this is, if you are already doing it, keep on doing it. But who needs to be told that? No more than than they need to be told to keep on doing what feels good.

Now the supporter of evolutionary morality might object this way: Our studies show that evolution has endowed children with an inborn sense of justice:

This illustrates, Bloom says, that people have a rudimentary sense of justice from a very early age. This doesn’t make people naturally good. If you give a 3-year-old two pieces of candy and ask him if he wants to share one of them, he will almost certainly say no. It’s not until age 7 or 8 that even half the children are willing to share. But it does mean that social norms fall upon prepared ground. We come equipped to learn fairness and other virtues.

Slavery, the supporter of evolutionary morality will say, clearly conflicts with this inborn sense of justice. Therefore slavery is wrong. It just took people a while to figure it out, but when they did, it was because they realized slavery conflicted with their evolutionary developed sense of justice.

This doesn't work because if, for centuries, people had no problem approving of slavery despite the rudimentary sense of justice they were born with, then clearly slavery did not conflict with this sense of justice. The evolutionist is just reading back into his rudimentary sense of justice his preferred moral results. In other words, he's slipping the possible in by the back door. If our principle is to "observe people how they live", and if they live in happy accord with a slave-based society, then we have no possible basis on which to condemn that society. And historically, that is not how slavery ended. The slave trade ended in the 19th century because the British Navy decided that a world without slavery was preferable to a world with slavery (the actual one), and further decided to bring this preferable world about at the end of a cannon.

The only way to get to morality is through the notion of a final cause for man; in other words, to acknowledge that man has a rationally appreciable point to his existence that he is free to bring about (or not bring about) through his actions. The final cause serves for him as an ideal, as the possible which he has not yet brought into existence, but should. But the primary reason Darwin offered his theory of evolution was to banish final causes from the world; in doing so he banished any rational basis for ethics as well. This isn't to stay that people can't still behave morally in the era of Darwin; it only means that any attempt to make sense of their behavior in Darwinian terms must fail.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Cana and Being a Spiritual Superhero

That's Tintoretto's Wedding at Cana that's now the banner of my blog. The miracle at Cana is perhaps my favorite that Christ performed. It's got a self-verifying quality to it that some of the other miracles lack. That Christ would miraculously cure the sick is something we might expect when God visits Earth; it's the kind of serious thing we imagine God would do, and therefore we can imagine someone imagining he did it. But who would imagine that the first miracle God would perform would be... to refill pots of wine so that a party could continue? And who would further imagine that God would perform this miracle because his mother asked him to? The miracle has a frivolous quality to it that is everlastingly shocking, as though the miracle really belongs in the Gospel According to John Blutarsky.

We find it difficult to accept one of the obvious implications of Cana: Christ expects us to have a good time. Maybe not with Animal House level excess, but the man who thinks he's too busy being holy to have an occasional beer with the lads is probably missing something important concerning what Christ is about (this post is inspired by a recent exchange I had in the comment box at the Maverick Philosopher blog on this subject. As usual, I was an utter failure at getting anyone to see my point.) Indeed, we tend to think that being seriously religious must involve being seriously miserable. So serious, in fact, that the necessary misery involved is reason enough to dismiss the claims of Christ altogether. Perhaps Christ performed the miracle at Cana, and spent so much time at parties, just to remove the excuse of those who avoid religion with the claim that they are not cut out to be spiritual superheroes.
But whereunto shall I esteem this generation to be like? It is like to children sitting in the market place. Who crying to their companions say: We have piped to you, and you have not danced: we have lamented, and you have not mourned.  For John came neither eating nor drinking; and they say: He has a devil. The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say: Behold a man that is a glutton and a wine drinker, a friend of publicans and sinners. And wisdom is justified by her children. Matt 11:16-19.
Like most other reasons for dismissing Christ, the refusal to entertain the idea that Christ doesn't expect, in fact doesn't even want, us to try to become spiritual superheroes comes down to the sin of pride. The implication is that Christ is satisfied with spiritual mediocrities. Who wants to be mediocre? But there it is. Peter, James and John were not spiritual superheroes - especially Peter, yet he was chosen to be the primum inter pares, better to show forth the glory of God, who is content to work with mediocrities.  Nor are the saints spiritual superheroes; they are just mediocre enough to give up doing it themselves and allow God to takeover.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Thinking and Doing

The Maverick Philosopher has an aphorism here, that I will quote:

The thinker, because he is a thinker, cannot naively live his life of thought, but must be tormented by doubts regarding it.  The doer, because he is not a thinker, can naively live his life of action.

And which is the philosopher? The doer or the thinker? The philosopher is neither; the philosopher is the man who unites thought and deed; the one who "understands the abstract concretely." (Kierkegaard) At least he was once understood thus.

The ancient philosophers were not tormented by doubts about their lives, because they had not yet separated thought and deed in the modern fashion. For the ancient philosopher, thought was a deed, which was why the Socratic cross-examination was a fruitful method of philosophical investigation. To force a man into a contradiction was to force a change in his life, because men lived immediately in their thought. Today, we are not bothered by contradictions, since our thought bears no necessary connection to our lives. The intellectual,  the man who manages to live serenely while advocating an array of bizarre and self-contradictory doctrines, is a peculiarly modern phenomena.

Philosophy is held in such ill-repute today because, once the separation between thought and life is made, the penalty of contradiction disappears. The critics are then quite justified in dismissing philosophy as a gassy exchange of opinions from which nothing decisive can emerge. If philosophy is to be renewed, it will only be by thought and life being reunited.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Douthat on Shrek

Ross Douthat has a review of the latest Shrek film in the June 21 National Review that reassures me that I'm not just a lone, crazy voice in the wilderness when it comes to this series, which I've hated from the get-go. He nails it exactly right:

What Sex and the City did for the love story, Shrek has done for the fairy tale: It's taken a classic genre and purged it of any trace of innocence, substituting raunch, cynicism, and a self-congratulatory knowingness instead, and then tying up the jaded narrative with a happily-ever-after bow.

Our culture robs children of their innocence as early as it can; and it is only in that innocence that the real meaning of fairy tales can be perceived. I believe this is one of the primary truths we learn from G.K. Chesterton. When we are older, we cannot but assume a critical distance from what we read. The child is still in the process of forming his self; what he reads (or is read to him) becomes a part of him in a way it never can again. For Chesterton, every truth worth knowing he learned in the nursery.

It is bad enough our children are exposed to things that destroy their innocence early on, and make the appreciation of fairy tales more difficult. Now, in the Shrek series, the fairy tale tradition itself is subverted. This constitutes a kind of inoculation against the power of fairy tales. Douthat is as depressed about this as I am:

I have a horrible feeling that the Shrek franchise offers millions of kids their first exposure - and worse, their last - to the Brothers Grimm and Charles Perrault.

The result is the sort of impertinent, self-satisfied young adults whom I encounter among my children's peers. They are not exactly insolent; but they are already jaded at age 17 and unselfconscious in their conviction that the world offers nothing before which they should bow. The notion that there might be something out there that might be more grand, significant and awesome than themselves is something that can't occur to them; they've been inoculated against it as they might have been inoculated against small pox. That such youths are somewhat unpleasant is not the major point. It is that they have been robbed of the virtue of humility that is the prerequisite for eros, the deep and mysterious longing in the soul for it knows not what. To draw on Chesterton one more time, we can perceive the gigantic only to the extent that we are small.  This is one of the primary lessons of fairy tales, a lesson our children can no longer learn... at least as long as Shrek and its ilk is available to them.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Making Money from Tuesday's Child

Here's a way to make money from the Tuesday's Child problem, assuming you can convince people that John Derbyshire is right and the probability in question is 13/27 (or 0.48, nearly even odds).

First, we need to convince seven of your neighbors of Derb's analysis, to wit, that the probability in question is 13/27. Then we need to find a large number of fathers with two children, at least one of whom is a boy. It doesn't matter on what days they were born. Have them bring the birth certificates. I hope you will agree with me that the probability that any father in this group has two boys is 1/3 (or 0.333, not 0.48).

Then we segregate the fathers into seven groups according to what day of the week the boy was born on. If the father has two boys born on different days of the week, have him flip a coin and join son #1's group if heads, son #2's group if tails.

Have the group with a boy born on Tuesday line up, and then repeatedly knock on neighbor #1's door and say:

"I have two children. At least one is a boy. He was born on Tuesday. Two dollars will get you three if I have two boys."

Hopefully neighbor #1 will take the bet, having been convinced that he's getting good odds. He's getting a 3:2 payout on a bet that he thinks is approximately 1:1.

Have the group with a boy born on Wednesday line up, and then repeatedly knock on neighbor #2's door and say:

"I have two children. At least one is a boy. He was born on Wednesday. Two dollars will get you three if I have two boys."

Do this with the groups for the remaining days of the week and remaining neighbors. As far as we are concerned, we are paying out at 3:2 a bet that is actually 2:1! (A fair payout would be four dollars for every two dollars bet. We are paying out as though the odds were 2/5 or 0.40. Our advantage is 7%, better than the house advantage in a typical casino game. ) 

As far as any single neighbor is concerned, he's simply seen a repetition of the Tuesday Child problem. Everybody who knocks on his door says the same day of the week. Once you've got all their money, they might get suspicious, but you've got the birth certificates to back it up... and the (bogus) mathematical analysis. Some people are just lucky, you will tell them.

The Tuesday's Child Game

In this post I discussed the so-called Tuesday's Child problem in probability theory. The theory (with which I disagree) is that the probability of that the speaker has two boys is 13/27. I think the probability is actually 1/3. I've made a crude Java applet, the Tuesday's Child Game, to demonstrate the point.

Since the theory claims the odds are approximately even that the speaker has two boys, if I give you anything better than even odds, you are probabilistically ahead of the game. The applet pays off at 3:2 so,
according to the theory, you should win a lot of money.

If you are still interested in this problem, and can get $100 before going broke, let me know.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Tuesday's Child

Here is a post at the corner concerning a probability question. It leads to a number of other posts and to Derbyshire's analysis here. If you follow the chain of posts back, it leads to other sites and considerable debate over the interpretation of this problem.

The analysis is tricky only if the problem is interpreted in something other than its straightforward, plain meaning. The statement of the problem is:

"I have two children. One is a boy born on a Tuesday. What is the probability I have two boys?"

Now the problems all come from that "born on a Tuesday" clause in the middle sentence. Take that out, and everyone agrees on the answer:

"I have two children. One is a boy. What is the probability I have two boys?"

This is the classic coin-flip enumeration problem. Having children is like flipping a coin, with heads = boys and tails = girls. The possible outcomes for two consecutive coin flips are:

Heads - Heads
Heads - Tails
Tails - Heads
Tails - Tails

or, in the boy girl terms:

Boy - Boy
Boy - Girl
Girl - Boy
Girl - Girl

Since we know that at least one of the children is a boy, the last case is ruled out and the probability that the speaker has two boys is one in three.

Returning to the original problem, the analysts all seem to think the phrase "born on a Tuesday" is very significant, but they can't agree on its significance. I don't think it adds anything to the problem at all. In the straightforward, obvious interpretation, it is only a statement after the fact of birth concerning the day of birth. It's like saying the boy was 8 lbs at birth, or was born with blue eyes. It doesn't say anything about the prior possibilities of weight or birthdays; it is only a statement about what in fact occurred. It doesn't say that one or both boys couldn't have been born on a Wednesday. If that had happened, the consequence would be that the problem would say:

"I have two children. One is a boy born on a Wednesday. What is the probability I have two boys?"

The answer to this question is the same as the answer to the Tuesday question and to the simpler question that does not refer to a day at all: 1/3.

Derbyshire calculates the probability as 13/27. He can only get there by interpreting the "Tuesday clause" as affecting the prior probabilities of birth. In other words, the case of two boys born on Wednesday need not be included in our enumeration of cases because it wasn't possible for both boys to be born on Wednesday, since we know one was born on Tuesday! I hope everyone can see the post facto fallacy in this reasoning. Anyone who would buy this line of reasoning is playing the role of the father in the following comic scenario:

One day you get a letter from the town correcting your son's birth certificate. He was born two seconds after midnight so he was actually born on a Wednesday rather than a Tuesday. With a heavy heart, you sit your son down and tell him the unfortunate news: "I'm sorry to tell you this son, but I'm not your real father. My son could only have been born on a Tuesday, and I've just learned you were born on a Wednesday."

By the way, this problem is not comparable to the Monty Hall problem. The Monty Hall problem is a genuinely counter-intuitive probability result. The Tuesday's Child problem is more like a riddle or joke that depends on deceptive or ambiguous language.

Is Free Will a Contingent Possibility

With respect to this post at the Secular Right, Kierkegaard cannot be bettered:

Freedom is never possible. It is either actual or it is not at all.

Put another way... anyone who wonders if he is free (or even could possibly wonder if he is free) is already free.

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Toy Story and Religion

I just saw the wonderful Toy Story 3 with my wife and daughter, and it put me in mind of an argument I read years ago at the Internet Infidels. I haven't been able to find the article (it was in the "Agora", which they no longer seem to have), but the gist of it was straightforward. Toy Story, the argument goes, is a parable of atheism. It is the story of Buzz Lightyear, a man living in a false world of imaginary Space Rangers and Evil Emperors, finally brought back to reality when his illusions are punctured. Buzz hangs on to his illusions as long as he can but, finally summoning the courage to find out the truth one way or the other, puts them to empirical test. One of his "special powers" is supposed to be an ability to fly, so he jumps off a second floor bannister in an attempt to prove it. Naturally, he falls to the floor, and is broken both physically and spiritually. But the story has a happy ending as Buzz is not only physically repaired, but learns to accept the non-dramatic and mundane truth that he is but a child's toy. Would that the Buzz Lightyears attending Mass every weekend could follow his example.

The argument is a good example of how atheist arguments can be perfectly sound but miss the target. The Christian can accept the argument in its entirety, and even applaud with the atheist Buzz's breakthrough to a true understanding of his nature. For it is not in his dreamworld as a Space Ranger battling Emperor Zurg that Buzz has found religion (or, at least, religion in the sense of a metaphysical religion like Christianity), but rather when he recognizes the true cause and source of his being; and that cause is a Creator who made him in light of a final cause: To be of service to a child in providing him joy in the form of a toy. And it is only when Buzz comes to terms with his destiny (a destiny created for him) that he can be truly happy.

Buzz Lightyear is no product of an atheist universe. If Toy Story were an atheist parable, then Buzz and the other toys would be the accidental result of a brute physical process. In those terms, their destiny as a child's plaything would have as much purchase as any other destiny; which is to say, none. Indeed, it would have no more purchase than Buzz's Space Ranger worldview. We can reimagine Toy Story in atheist terms in the following way: Finally tiring of Woody's attempts to "enlighten" him out of his Space Ranger fantasy, Buzz pulls Woody aside and lets him in on something. Of course, Buzz says, I know there is not an Emperor Zurg in the sense you think I think there is, and that I can't defy gravity. So what? Your insistence that I am "meant" to be a child's plaything is as much a fantasy as my Space Ranger worldview. The difference between us is that I know whatever purpose I give my life is purely of my own fantastic creation, while you are under the illusion that you "know" the "true meaning" of every toy's existence. You are, in a word, naive.

Why isn't the atheist version of Toy Story produced? It certainly isn't because Hollywood is afraid of offending religious believers. It's just because few people would want to see it. The story is boring. It's a story that can be told only once, and it was told long ago. It's the story of the discovery that, in the end, there isn't really anything worth discovering; a discovery that, if it puts an end to anything, it puts an end to storytelling.