Sunday, 2 September 2007


I leave you this fine evening with a column by Bruce Bawer.

Addendum: Here is the long version of the essay.


Yesterday, in Burleson, Texas, I did my 17th bike rally of the year and my 413th overall. Although it was just as hot and humid as it was the previous week, there was a different feel to the rally, since it’s now September. The weather will change this month. There will be hot, humid stretches, to be sure; but there will also be cool, dry air coming in from the north every now and then. By October, you never know what you’ll get. It could be sweltering one week and frigid the next. I love autumn. It reminds me of Michigan, where I grew up. The difference is that Michigan’s autumns are followed by several months of cold, snow, and ice. We rarely get snow or ice in Texas, and it’s never as cold.

This was a rescheduling of the rally that was rained out in late May. You may recall that I drove to Burleson, stood in the rain with my friends for a few minutes, and decided to go home. I felt guilty about doing this, so, when I got home, I ran 6.6 miles. Later, I learned that the rally had been canceled and rescheduled for fall. I was delighted to hear it, because otherwise yesterday would have been an open day, as far as rallies are concerned. Since I paid in May, I didn’t have to pay yesterday. The rally organizer simply gave me a new number to pin to my jersey. I thought the turnout might be small, given the circumstances, but in fact it was quite large. Many people who did the Hotter ’n Hell Hundred a week ago are in good shape, and don’t want to lose it too quickly. Just about everyone I asked as I rode had done the 100-mile course in Wichita Falls. Cycling is flourishing in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex.

Only two of my home boys showed up: Phil and Randy. Joe and Julius wimped out. I saw four other friends (Kevin, Pat, Don, and Don’s wife Donna) at the start, and as usual invited them to ride with us, but they prefer to ride at their own pace. None of us felt like hammering. I think we’re all still feeling the effects of the Hotter ’n Hell Hundred. It takes a few weeks to recover from the toll it takes on the body. I’ve noticed the same thing when I return from week-long Western tours. You think you’ll be in great shape for the rallies when you get back, but you don’t go any faster. I’m sure the riders who complete the Tour de France go through the same recovery process. Perhaps that’s why so many riders use performance-enhancing drugs. It’s not so much to help them perform as to help them recover.

Phil, Randy, and I rode in packs early on, which was fun. We covered 19.5 miles the first hour and 18.5 the second, for an average speed of 19 miles per hour after two hours. Our first stop (of three) was in Grandview, at the southernmost point of the course. The rest stop is on main street. Grandview is a typical Texas town, with brick streets, red brick buildings, and friendly people. This is the only rally in which riders are offered pineapple, which is one of my favorite fruits (raspberries are my favorite). I ate a big chunk of pineapple as well as a slice of watermelon and two soft chocolate-chip cookies. Mmm! Riders milled about, filling their bottles, talking, eating, using the porta-potty, and stretching. After about 10 minutes of down time, we mounted our steeds and galloped out of town (just ahead of the sheriff).

The route back to Burleson was scenic, but there were many small hills, which slowed our pace. We also had a light headwind. Some of the roads were little more than country lanes. At one point, we came upon a CareFlite helicopter in a meadow. Farther up the road, we saw an ambulance and rescue workers. Cyclists clogged the road, so we had to come to a stop. As I squeezed through, I noticed a bridge with concrete abutments. Rescue workers were hauling gear up from the stream below. Later, I learned that five bicyclists had crashed on the bridge, some falling into the stream. One had to be evacuated by helicopter. It was a somber occasion. These were bicyclists just like us. I don’t know what caused the crash. Someone must have done something wrong, for crashes don’t just happen. Perhaps someone touched the wheel of the rider in front of him or her, which brought trailing riders down. Perhaps there were too many riders in the group to allow all of them to squeeze through the narrow passage at the same time. I’m sure many people who passed through were saying, “There but for the grace of God go I.” I’m an atheist, so I said, “There but for the grace of the cycling gods go I.”

We averaged only 15.94 miles per hour for the final 1:29:34, which gave us an average speed of 17.69 miles per hour for 61.8 miles. Compare that to the 18.26 miles per hour I had a week ago for 102.6 miles. That’s the difference hills make. My maximum heart rate for the day was 158. My average heart rate was 119. I burned 1,907 calories. My maximum speed was 29.4 miles per hour, which is less than the average speed of professional time-trialists on courses of about 40 miles. I think I speak for Phil and Randy when I say that it was a pleasant late-summer rally. I’m glad the organizers rescheduled it.


It’s over for my beloved Detroit Tigers. They blew a 7-0 lead and lost to the Oakland Athletics, 8-7, in 10 innings. This is the sort of baseball that broke my heart a year ago. I hope the Tigers plummet in the standings. Their pitching has been atrocious all year and shows no sign of improving down the stretch. Someone else will have to demolish the New York Yankees if the Bronx Bombs earn the wild-card berth.


It should be obvious to anyone who’s been paying attention that Iran is determined to build a nuclear weapon. See here. The question is whether we (the United States) will allow it. The United Nations is worse than useless when it comes to enforcing its edicts, and we learned during the run-up to the invasion of Iraq that we can’t count on Europe, which is immobilized by doubt, guilt, and timidity. Iran may become the main issue of the 2008 presidential campaign. The American people will want to know whether the candidates vow to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. Any candidate who doesn’t make such a vow will lose, and deservedly so. Yes, we should pursue diplomatic means; but there’s only a small chance that they will succeed. We have to be willing and able to destroy Iran’s nuclear capacity by force, which is the only language fanatics understand.

Alan R. White (1922-1992) on the Behavior of Concepts

There is nothing mysterious in the distinction between being able to do something, e.g., use concepts or words, perfectly well and being able (or unable) to state how we do it, a distinction which G. E. Moore characterized as that between ‘knowing what one means by a certain expression’ and ‘knowing the correct analysis of the meaning of that expression’. Most of us can speak grammatically, argue logically, and make and appreciate jokes without knowing or being able to say exactly how we do it. “God has not been so sparing to men,” said Locke, “to make them barely two-legged creatures and left it to Aristotle to make them rational.” What Aristotle did, as a logician, was to discover and formulate the rules which intelligent and logical people implicitly employ, just as Berkeley and Zeno attempted, though with only partial success, to discover the ways in which we use the ideas of existence and infinite divisibility. So, Augustine remarked, “What is Time? If no one asks me, I know; if someone does ask and I wish to explain, I no longer know.” Socrates considered philosophy to be getting to know something which in another way we know already. Philosophers are to the users of ideas, including themselves, like preachers to practitioners, critics to poets, grammarians to native speakers, map makers to explorers of the unmapped, and Molière’s philosopher to M. Jourdain who had been speaking prose all his life without knowing it.

There is no reason, for example, to suppose that Plato, Descartes, the logical positivists, and Ryle employed different concepts of knowledge. Where they did differ was in their theories about the nature of the concept which they, like you and me, all employ. Plato and the logical positivists, for example, confined knowledge to what is necessarily so, which for Plato meant his heavenly forms and for the logical positivists the analytical truths of logic and mathematics. But theories about the nature of a concept cannot be used to suggest that there is something wrong with the concept—that, for example, we should not say, as we all do, that we know various things about the world, about other people, and about the future. Furthermore, it is a short step from concluding that we should not use our concepts in the way we do, that we should not say what we do, to concluding that the things we express with the help of these concepts are false. It was against the former conclusion that Moore appealed to “ordinary language” and against the latter that he appealed to “common sense.” The actual behavior of the concept is itself the test of the rightness or wrongness of theories about it, just as the properties of a chemical substance furnish the criterion of scientific theories about it. One can be pretty sure that a philosopher who concludes from his study of a concept that there is something wrong with it has made a mistake about it. Plato and the logical positivists, for instance, probably concluded that knowledge can only be of what is necessarily so because they incorrectly interpreted the fact that if something is known to be so it must be so as the supposition that if something is known to be so it is something which is necessarily so, instead of correctly as the fact that if something is known to be so it necessarily follows that it is so.

(Alan R. White, “Conceptual Analysis,” chap. 5 in The Owl of Minerva: Philosophers on Philosophy, ed. Charles J. Bontempo and S. Jack Odell [New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1975], 103-17, at 112-3 [italics in original; boldface added])

Note from KBJ: Here are the logical forms (and English translations) of the boldface sentences:

Ksp → ⊢p (If S knows that p, then, necessarily, p, i.e., knowledge presupposes necessary truth)

⊢(Ksp → p) (Necessarily, if S knows that p, then p, i.e., necessarily, knowledge presupposes truth)

According to White, Plato and the logical positivists misplaced the necessity operator.

Yankee Watch

The Boston Red Sox won today, while the New York Yankees lost to the lowly Tampa Bay Devil Rays. Boston’s magic number to eliminate New York is down to 20. A-Rod’s huge salary destroys another team.

A Year Ago


From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

Re “Swift-Boated by Bin Laden” (column, Aug. 26):

Possibly the answer to Thomas L. Friedman’s question about why the Bush administration that Swift-boated Senators John Kerry and Max Cleland can “never manage to Swift-boat Osama bin Laden” is that after six years of using Osama bin Laden as a bogyman and a tool to quell political dissent at home, the administration is simply no longer credible where he is concerned.

The first thing if you want to demonize someone is that people have to believe you. At this point, I’m afraid President Bush has spent his credibility capital.

Paul Gurwitz
Forest Hills, Queens, Aug. 26, 2007

Note from KBJ: The letter writer almost certainly doesn’t realize it, since he is in the grip of Bush Derangement Syndrome, but his final paragraph applies to himself: “The first thing if you want to demonize President Bush is that people have to believe you. At this point, I’m afraid President Bush’s critics have spent their credibility capital.”

From the Mailbag

Hi, my name is Keith K. I am a daily reader of your blog, which I enjoy very much. I am a 2007 graduate of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. I graduated with a BA in philosophy. I have been wanting to email you to ask some advice as to how to refute and reject nihilism. I have been struggling with this affliction for a few years now and I feel it is a mental disease of some sort. I have been an atheist since I was 13, yet I did not realize the full implications of my views until about three years ago. I believe you to be an atheist from reading your blog, please let me know if this is not the case. If that is the case, can you tell me how you have escaped from the jaws of nihilism as an atheist? I ran into it like a trainwreck and have not been able to wrench myself from it in the few years that I have been afflicted by it. Any advice? I would accept any thinkers you may know of or particular books for that matter. I also love baseball, and I particularly enjoy seeing the daily updates of how badly the yankees are doing this year. I am a red sox fan. Any reply would be terribly appreciated. Have a nice day.

Note from KBJ: Keith’s problem is not a logical one, for atheism does not entail nihilism. Some atheists, such as J. J. C. Smart and Peter Singer, are utilitarians, while others, such as J. L. Mackie, Thomas Nagel, and Bernard Williams, are deontologists. I leave to others the question whether it’s possible to be a nihilist without being an atheist, i.e., whether it’s possible to be a nihilistic theist. Is it possible to persuade someone to reject nihilism? R. M. Hare thinks so. Here is my summary of his essay “‘Nothing Matters’: Is ‘the Annihilation of Values’ Something That Could Happen?” chap. 4 in his Applications of Moral Philosophy (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1973), 32-47 (essay first published in 1959):

Hare tells the story of a young man of his acquaintance who read Albert Camus’s L’Etranger (The Stranger) and insisted that “nothing matters.” Hare sat him down for a discussion. He showed the young man that to say that something matters is to express concern for (or about) it, “to be disposed to make certain choices, certain efforts, in the attempt to affect in some way that about which [one is] concerned.” To say that nothing matters is to say that one is unconcerned about “absolutely everything.” The young man admitted that he was concerned about “many things.” In the remainder of the essay, Hare discusses (1) the sources of our values, (2) the impossibility of annihilating values “as a whole” (since “a man is a valuing creature”), (3) the pointlessness of quarrels over whether values are objective, and (4) the confusion between subjectivism (which is an ethical position) and relativism (which is a moral position). In modern parlance, subjectivism is a metaethical theory, while relativism is a normative ethical theory. Hare adds that relativism is “an absurd position”—and “a very pernicious view” to boot!

As for me, a great many things matter. While I’ve always been an atheist, I’ve never been (or been tempted to be) a nihilist.

Safire on Language