Tuesday, 27 March 2007


Here is Thomas Sowell’s latest column.


Check out these images from a mountain-bike stage race in South Africa. If you click an image, it enlarges. I’ve never been on a mountain bike.


Will Americans accept a female commander in chief? See here.

Thomas Nagel on Reductionism

The fear of religion leads too many scientifically minded atheists to cling to a defensive, world-flattening reductionism. Dawkins, like many of his contemporaries, is hobbled by the assumption that the only alternative to religion is to insist that the ultimate explanation of everything must lie in particle physics, string theory, or whatever purely extensional laws govern the elements of which the material world is composed.

This reductionist dream is nourished by the extraordinary success of the physical sciences in our time, not least in their recent application to the understanding of life through molecular biology. It is natural to try to take any successful intellectual method as far as it will go. Yet the impulse to find an explanation of everything in physics has over the last fifty years gotten out of control. The concepts of physical science provide a very special, and partial, description of the world that experience reveals to us. It is the world with all subjective consciousness, sensory appearances, thought, value, purpose, and will left out. What remains is the mathematically describable order of things and events in space and time.

That conceptual purification launched the extraordinary development of physics and chemistry that has taken place since the seventeenth century. But reductive physicalism turns this description into an exclusive ontology. The reductionist project usually tries to reclaim some of the originally excluded aspects of the world, by analyzing them in physical—that is, behavioral or neurophysiological—terms; but it denies reality to what cannot be so reduced. I believe the project is doomed—that conscious experience, thought, value, and so forth are not illusions, even though they cannot be identified with physical facts.

I also think that there is no reason to undertake the project in the first place. We have more than one form of understanding. Different forms of understanding are needed for different kinds of subject matter. The great achievements of physical science do not make it capable of encompassing everything, from mathematics to ethics to the experiences of a living animal. We have no reason to dismiss moral reasoning, introspection, or conceptual analysis as ways of discovering the truth just because they are not physics.

(Thomas Nagel, “The Fear of Religion,” review of The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, The New Republic 235 [23 October 2006]: 25-9, at 28-9)

From the Mailbag

The SAT (Scholastic Achievement(?) Test) is a university entrance examination that is administered to prospective college students in the United States. Recently, in addition to its “math” and “English” parts, an essay was added to assess the writing skills of test-takers.

Those who grade these essays must follow strict rules, a consequence of which is that students are guaranteed a good grade if they memorize the form of a good essay and lard their writing with the right buzzwords to demonstrate understanding of concepts (e.g., “indigenous,” “culturally advanced,” “plethora,” “myriad”). But content is really irrelevant. For a teacher’s anecdote about grading such essays, see here. More “how to write an SAT essay” instructions here.

Mark Spahn (West Seneca, NY)

Best of the Web Today


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Knight of the Living Dead,” by Slavoj Zizek (Op-Ed, March 24), is an ominous reminder of how far America has drifted from its core values thanks to the exploitation of fear by the Bush administration.

The officially sanctioned torture of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and the suspension of civil liberties are a permanent blight on the nation’s moral character. We have already lost the “war on terror” since we have allowed ourselves to be deprived of our most important assets: our morality and respect for the rule of rational and civilized behavior.

President Bush’s shallow intellect has blinded him to the common humanity of all peoples. This regression to the Dark Ages (when faith rather than reason ruled) is due to his naïve absolutist view of “good versus evil” and “us versus them.”

It is a tragic irony when we start using our “moral superiority” and the pre-ordained correctness of “the American way of life” as a reason to commit immoral acts.

Deepak Doraiswamy
Landenberg, Pa., March 24, 2007

Note from KBJ: The letter writer believes (or so I infer) that torturing Mohammed was wrong. I wonder how he or she got to that conclusion. There are three possibilities:

1a. Torture is wrong, whatever the consequences.
2a. Torturing Mohammed was wrong.

1b. Torture is wrong, but can be justified if enough good comes of it.
2b. Not enough good came of torturing Mohammed.
3b. Torturing Mohammed was wrong.

1c. An act is right (i.e., not wrong) if and only if it maximizes the good.
2c. Torturing Mohammed did not maximize the good.
3c. Torturing Mohammed was not right (i.e., it was wrong).

The first inference exemplifies absolute-deontological thinking, the second moderate-deontological thinking, and the third consequentialist thinking. Most people reject 1a, so, construed as an argument, the first inference won’t persuade many people. (Most people reject absolutism.) If the second argument is the one the writer intends, he or she must justify the second premise (2b), not merely assert it. If the third argument is the one the writer intends, he or she must justify the second premise (2c), not merely assert it. Also, most people reject 1c, so, construed as an argument, the third inference won’t persuade many people. (Most people reject consequentialism.) In short, the writer has done no more than express an opinion about the moral status of Mohammed’s torture. Gee, thanks for sharing your opinion!

A Year Ago