Sunday, 9 September 2007

Twenty Years Ago

9-9-87 . . . A student came to see me before class this afternoon. She said that she has “an attitude problem” with the course [Introduction to Philosophy]. Specifically, she sees no value in questioning her most secure beliefs, which include religious beliefs. “I’m forty years old, I made my mind up a long time ago about these things, and I’m not going to change,” she said. I gathered that she wanted a pep talk, or at least an explanation of the point of the course. Obviously, it’s not my job to talk students into staying in my course, but I had time to kill and looked upon it as a challenge. First I asked her if [sic; should be “whether”] there was any possibility that her most firmly held beliefs would change. She said “no,” but eventually admitted that it was possible. I then explained that, for many people, including me, there is intrinsic value in learning—in being challenged intellectually. “In fact,” I said, “there’s a chance that you’ll come away from this course with even more firmly held beliefs. You may come away with reasons for what you believe.” This went on for twenty minutes or so, after which she decided to stay in the course. I noticed that she was especially attentive to what I said during the lecture.

The idea of a college student being so dogmatic leaves me cold. You see, I’ve always thought that any idea that can’t withstand a challenge isn’t worth having. The test of a belief, in fact, is its ability to withstand evidence and argument. So when a student somes [sic; should be “comes”] along and admits to being dogmatic, and expresses an unwillingness to even consider opposing positions, I’m temporarily startled. As an instructor, I had to back up, so to speak, to deal with her. I could not assume the obvious: that learning is fun and that there is intrinsic value in examining various positions. I had to light a fire of curiosity in her before she could begin to get anything out of the course. Later, during the lecture, I explained that we would be employing a particular method of belief-formation in this course: rationality. There are other methods, I said, including faith. Although I, personally, commit myself to reason and rational argument, I acknowledge that there are other roads to be followed. So in this course, I said, we’ll see how far (if anywhere) reason can get us. That seemed to satisfy the students, freethinkers and dogmatists alike.


See here for a New York Times story about polygamy. Many people are concerned that if two men or two women are allowed to marry one another, there will be no principled way to prevent polygamy. (This is known as a “logical slippery slope,” as opposed to a “causal slippery slope.”) They reason as follows:

1. Polygamy is unacceptable.
2. There is no morally relevant difference between polygamy and homosexual marriage.
3. Homosexual marriage is unacceptable.

The argument is valid, so there are only three replies to it. The first is to reject the first premise, i.e., to hold that polygamy is acceptable. The second is to reject the second premise, i.e., to identify a morally relevant difference between polygamy and homosexual marriage such that polygamy is unacceptable while homosexual marriage is acceptable. The third is to accept the conclusion.

Here’s another way to look at it. The following propositions are inconsistent:

1. Polygamy is unacceptable.
2. There is no morally relevant difference between polygamy and homosexual marriage.
3. Homosexual marriage is acceptable.

Everyone must reject at least one of the propositions. Which do you reject? If you reject 2, please state the morally relevant difference.

Yankee Watch

Both the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees won today, so Boston’s magic number to eliminate New York is down to 14. Alex Rodriguez clobbered his 52d home run of the season today. Isn’t it ironic that the Yankees were winning the East Division title without A-Rod, and now, with him, they lose? A-Rod is the kiss of death. Why do you suppose this is? Two things come to mind. The first is that his huge salary prevents his team from spending money on other players. The Yankees, for example, could have two top-notch pitchers for $25,000,000 per year. The second is that his presence on a team causes dissension.


You’ve heard the expression, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Here’s my addition to the stock of proverbs: You can never have too many napkins in the car. Please add a proverb to this list. It should have the form, “You can never [blank].”

From Today’s New York Times

To the Editor:

The presidential nominating process is outrageous. It should be thrown in the dustbin, along with the antiquated Electoral College.

Any electoral system that gives the citizens of Iowa or New Hampshire—or other less populous states, or “swing” states or any state—a disproportionate and unfair amount of influence in nominating and electing the president must be rejected as unsuitable for our country.

Less-populated states already get widely disproportionate representation in the Senate. Giving these same states disproportionate influence in nominating and electing the president is unfair and undemocratic.

We would be better served by having one national primary or caucus day in the spring, when everyone votes at the same time and has equal influence with every other citizen. Then in November, we should have a direct, popular-vote election for the president, with a runoff election between the top two finishers in December if no candidate receives 50 percent of the popular vote.

Our nation needs a presidential election process fit for the 21st century, not the 19th.

Dan Wentzel
Santa Monica, Calif., Sept. 2, 2007

Note from KBJ: Leave the Electoral College alone. The framers of the Constitution knew what they were doing when they created it.

A Year Ago



The editorial board of the New York Times continues its ugly campaign of impugning the motives of those of us who want our immigration laws enforced. This time, we’re “xenophobes.” According to the Oxford English Dictionary (2d ed.), “xenophobia” means “a deep antipathy to foreigners.” I have no antipathy (deep or otherwise) to foreigners; I have antipathy to lawbreaking (by foreigners or anyone else). Why is that so hard for the board to understand? Then again, maybe it’s not lack of understanding that explains the board’s constant resort to personal abuse. Maybe the board is unwilling to do the painstaking work of constructing an argument, the premises of which people like me accept, and the conclusion of which is what the board believes. In other words, maybe the board is lazy. It’s so much easier (and, one guesses, satisfying) to attack persons than to formulate or respond to arguments.

Alan R. White (1922-1992) on Artificial Language

Advocates of an “ideal” language sometimes have a motive other than a desire to change our ideas. Linguistic analogies can mistakenly lead us to believe in logical analogies; e.g., ‘Lions are hunted’ and ‘Tigers are thought of’; ‘Bears are savage’ and ‘Centaurs are fictitious’; ‘Snakes exist’ and ‘Snakes bite’; ‘Tea is pleasant’ and ‘Milk is white’; ‘The lines meet at infinity’ and ‘The roads meet at Doncaster.’ Since apparently “language disguises the thought; so that from the external form of the clothes one cannot infer the form of the thought they clothe” (Wittgenstein), some philosophers have advocated a new language whose linguistic differences would be exactly correlated with logical differences. But this plan is both undesirable and impossible. It is impossible, for, in addition to the fact that we never know what new differences will appear between ideas which are in many respects similar, the new language, untested as it is in comparison with the great age of natural languages, would probably give rise to fresh problems of its own. Even if it were possible, it would be undesirable because not only can we better avoid our difficulties by becoming aware of them, but we become aware of them in the first place by closer attention to the very language in which they occur. We can see, for example, that existence, unlike biting, does not mark a characteristic. For while it might be said that most snakes bite, but some do not, it would be nonsense to suggest that most snakes exist, but some do not. Furthermore, the ambiguities which an artificial language tries to banish are one source of a natural language’s wealth. Philosophers who propose an artificial language are like people who, on discovering minefields in a beautiful garden, go to live in a snake-infested desert instead of marking the mines.

(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 116 [italics in original])

Safire on Language