Formal Logic, Part II

Part I is here, along with the text we're using. We'll begin today with Section 1.10, because I want to talk about logical equivalence.

Last time we talked about validity, and the difference between Aristotle's ideas of validity and modern ones. But there's another way of talking about validity in logic, which is this: an argument can be said to be valid if it is truth-preserving. That doesn't mean that it guarantees truth (see the section on "soundness"), but that a valid form will preserve whatever truth is there. If your propositions are true, a valid form will ensure that your conclusion is also true.

Truth-preservation is also why we can say that two apparently very different arguments are logically equivalent. What it means for two arguments to be logically equivalent is that the two arguments are true or false together, 100% of the time. If you go through the exercises of building truth tables, you'll see that the truth tables for the two arguments will be exactly, precisely the same in every case.

Consider one of his examples:

1) Either it is raining, or it is snowing but not raining.

2) Either it is raining or it is snowing.

Since this is the inclusive "or," if it is both raining and snowing both of these sentences are considered true (because the "either it is raining" part is true). Symbolically, (1) would be rendered (R v (S & ~R)), and (2) would be (R v S). If the "R" is satisfied, the sentence is true; if the S is satisfied, both sentences are true if it is not raining. Both sentences are false if it is neither raining nor snowing.

There's a shorthand way of saying that two logical sentences are equivalent, which is called the biconditional. It is rendered in natural language "if and only if," or in philosophical shortcut, "iff." It has several logical symbols, but where I come from we use the triple bar: ≡.

Note, though, that this kind of equivalence goes both ways. 1≡2 means 2≡1. That is not the case for every sort of sentence we would render in natural language with "only if." "He is a bachelor if and only if he is an unmarried male human" is a biconditional (as well, in this case, as a tautology) because wherever one set of things will be true, the other will, and vice versa.

The other kind of 'only if' is a material conditional. You could say "If John gets hired, then Mary will get hired." But that does not mean that the truth of John's hiring is equivalent to the truth of Mary's hiring. It means that "John will get hired only if Mary gets hired."

That's properly:

3) J -> M


4) J ≡ M

We can see they are not equivalent by building the truth table.

J M | (3) | (4)
T T | T | T
T F | F | F
F T | T | F
F F | T | T

Because the truth values of the claims do not hold together, the material conditional form of the statement is not logically equivalent to the biconditional. And while (J ≡ M) is the same as (M ≡ J), (J -> M) is not the same as (M -> J). The table for (M -> J) I will leave you to work out on your own as an exercise, if you choose, but you will see it comes apart from (J -> M).

Preserving the truth is what this is all about.


September 11, 2001, was a really bad day to get a lethal snakebite in Myanmar and need an air evacuation.  Now there's a new first-aid treatment for neurotoxin-type snake venom that was inspired in part by one unfortunate scientist's experience.  The treatment doesn't break down the venom directly, but it helps you live with it a bit longer while you get to  a hospital or your body breaks down the venom naturally:
Most neurotoxins work by attacking the neuromuscular junction – the regions between the nerves and the muscles that trigger the muscles to move when the brain signals them. They do this by blocking an essential neurotransmitter – acetylcholine – from passing from the nerve to the muscle, telling it to move. The result is paralysis, even in the crucial lung muscles. . . . 
A patient in this predicament needs antivenom, a molecule that deactivates the venom directly. Neostigmine cannot do this, but can allow what little acetylcholine is able to get past the venom to move freely. And in an emergency, you need every second.
Rattlesnake vaccine is good, too, though it's available only for dogs and horses, not people.  It's not expensive, and most of the time it converts a real medical nightmare into a minor inconvenience.

Satellite view of global shipping


What we know

From Maggie's Farm, this Reason article about seven common misperceptions, including the idea that markets make people mean (or poor).

Salve Nos

This Latin song has a lovely opening line: "Save us, star of the sea."

"15 Minutes Prior"

Boy does this seem familiar.

H/t Mr. Sparkle, who introduced me to one of the British military humor sites.

...And Shove It

Taranto reports that a Tennessee news editor lost his job over a headline borrowed from an old Johnny Paycheck song.

Don't feel bad. Authority figures of a certain cut have always found that song offensive to their heightened sense of dignity.

Good News!

The Executive branch has graciously granted Congress a waiver from Obamacare. There was some real concern there that the people who passed this law might have to abide by it.

Or, as the first comment says, "Whew! You don't know what a relief it is, knowing our rulers won't have to pay some of their own personal expenses."

Some Help on NSA Programs

The MSM occasionally still produces helpful journalism. Here are two pieces on the NSA question that are useful in following the issue.

First, General Alexander speaks to the Black Hat hacker conference. This is what the best defense of NSA looks like, constructed for a conference of people whom the NSA knows will see through any obfuscations. So this is the upside.

Second, an analysis of similar testimony presented to Congress. This is part of what the downside looks like.

Could have been worse

I guess the folks in my previous post should be grateful they had only been Googling "wildlife refuges for rescued deer" instead of "pressure cooker" on one computer and "backpack" on the other.  Of course, when the family in this link did the latter, it's anyone's guess exactly who those guys were who showed up to investigate.  For all they can tell now, they may have been from Parks & Wildlife, too.

Too much time on their hands

Sounds like a government division in need of a force reduction.  How many SWAT team members does it take to kill one contraband fawn?

Poor little fellow should have been left where he was found.  Someone meant kindly, but he probably was just in hiding waiting for his mom to come back.  Still, aerial surveillance and a 9-member attack force seem a bit like overkill.  I hope the local community goes berserk.

What Chivalry Is

Chivalry is the quality of a man who can tame a horse and ride it to war.

That's all it is. Everything else associated with it is either a precondition for developing this quality, or a consequence of it. The core of the thing is the man and the beast.

What does it take to tame a horse? It takes courage, not recklessness, but that kind of disciplined and developed courage that comes from learning to fear being thrown, and getting on horses again. It takes self-mastery, because the horse is a prey animal that will amplify your fear. You must learn to ride through it, until even you don't really feel the fear in the same way anymore.

It takes gentleness. A horse responds to the slightest touch. You must be sensitive to its movements, its breathing, the language of its body.

What does it take to ride a horse to war? It takes trustworthiness. The horse must believe in you to charge into the smell of blood.

It takes honor. You can't ride alone. You must build relationships with other men like you, who know they can count on you while there is blood in your body. There is your self-sacrifice, even to death.

What does it build in you to do these things? Some of the things have been said. You get the virtues you practice, as Aristotle teaches in the Nicomachean Ethics. You must have some courage to begin, but you will build courage as you do. You must have some self-mastery, but you will become the master of yourself. You must be gentle, and able to understand another very different kind of living being through touch alone. You will become moreso.

The habit of keeping your word is like any other habit. After a while, it becomes part of you. The habit of honor likewise.

Can you do without chivalry? I don't know. Can you do without men like this?


That's what chivalry is, and that's the root of what people come to call an 'ethos' or a 'system.' But it's easy to be fooled by the accidents. What US Special Forces were doing in Afghanistan a decade ago was not different from what Charlemagne's riders were doing in this core way. It is different in other ways, accidental ways, but this is the essence of the thing.

You can see, with a little thought, how the thing we call courtesy grows naturally out of this combination of gentleness and trustworthiness, a habit of honor and a character that masters itself.

The question to ask is not whether you need chivalry, nor even whether or how to revive it where it is lost. The question you should worry about is whether you can do it without the horse. I think you can, but only if you can recapture that essence in other ways. Wherever possible, it is best to start with the horse.

"Too 'rah-rah, America' . . ."

. . . for the 9/11 Museum?  Seriously?

What Chivalry Is Not

The New York Times has engaged the services of a number of writers to pontificate on the question of whether chivalry can or should be "resuscitated." It would have helped if they had agreed just what it is, this chivalry, that they might want to revive.

In a way it is amusing to see the Times, which has been mocking and undermining chivalry since the mid-19th Century, concerned about the question at all. But you can understand why, seeing the way that leading political figures in New York from the party allegedly on the side of women treat the women in their lives. They can see the ugliness around them, and can dimly remember a fading time when at least some men behaved better. But weren't those men the enemy of all progress?

First, then, let us examine what their various experts think chivalry might be, and why it is not in fact those things. Once we understand what it isn't, I will post separately a definition to explain what it is. Then, perhaps, we can usefully discuss whether it can -- or should -- be revived in Manhattan. It needs no revival here, though of course like every valuable part of civilization it must be constantly replanted and renewed in the young.

1) Emily Esfahani Smith doesn't seem to know just what kind of thing she thinks chivalry is, but she knows that she misses it. Her examples are clear enough, but the remedy is not. She variously says that it has 'kindness at its heart,' but also that 'being good -- being noble -- is at its heart' and that its 'essence is self-sacrifice,' 'whether we name that self-sacrifice chivalry or not.' She gives a nod to Dr. Mansfield's claim that chivalry is a 'manly' virtue, but says women can do it too.

So is chivalry self-sacrifice, in the spirit of kindness and nobility, in a manly way that women can do just as well? No, of course not. For one thing self-sacrifice is practiced by many who are not at all chivalrous: there is nothing of chivalry in the Buddhist monk who begs every day for his supper, yielding everything for enlightenment. Furthermore, there are things a chivalrous man ought not to sacrifice, even in the service of others, such as principles of honor and valor.

2) Brett McKay writes of chivalry as a kind of manliness, but he is writing defensively so he never defines its value. He points out that the Violence Against Women Act is an example of a similar recognition of differences between men and women; he says it need not be about the 'inferiority or lofty superiority' of women; and that one 'need not fail to appreciate strides toward equality' to recognize things like the facts of the Aurora shooting.

Bizarrely, he goes on directly from that example -- Aurora -- to say, "in a gender-neutral modern world, chivalric acts are non-onerous rituals that faintly echo our relationship to each other when all the layers of civilization are stripped away." But if Aurora is an example of chivalrous acts, it was a set of acts of the most onerous kind. They were not ritual acts, either, acts that intended to symbolize something else in a correct way. They were not symbols, but actions.

3) Abigail Collazo would like chivalry to die, because she thinks it is about "it's about viewing women as fragile, delicate creatures who require special treatment." What she wants instead is a standard of courtesy, as well as for men to recognize that women are strong and worthy of respect.

But! "This isn’t to say that women should never be granted special considerations. In a world of vast inequalities between the sexes, women are uniquely affected by..."

Yes, well.

One might be tempted to say that a genuinely strong woman ought not to need for men to think of her in the way she prefers, whether she thinks she prefers being treated as a delicate creature or an indelicate one. But let us meet one of the delicate flowers of whom the men of chivalry dreamed. This is from Norris J. Lacy's translation of the Prose Lancelot, scroll 125. The story is from the 1200s. Lancelot is traveling to a judicial duel he must fight in, when he comes across a tournament in progress. He watches for a while, but takes no part as he soon must fight for his life.
...soon a maiden appeared before Lancelot, and said, "Lord knight, lend me your shield."

"Why, my lady?"

"Because I need it. It is not doing you any good, and I could use it well."

"How would you use it?"

"I would tie it to my horse's tail and have him led inside my stables whenever I wanted, for the love of good knights who watch tournaments and dare not fight in them."
I imagine Ms. Collazo would have liked her ancestors better than she thinks. Her shaming of Lancelot is as effective in driving him to do her will as any feminist writer has ever been in shaming men into some alteration of conduct.

In any case, chivalry is not chiefly or principally about relations between men and women at all. Those ideas fall out of it, but are not the core of it. If you think of it chiefly in those terms, you are mistaken about it and its value.

4) A man named Keith Bernard, whose qualification to write on the question is apparently that he is 'a DJ and music producer,' appears to view chivalry as mere hypocrisy. The only thing wrong with his opinion is his complete ignorance of the subject.

5) Dr. Richard Abels, formerly of the US Naval Academy, is of the opinion that "Medieval chivalry was an aristocratic ethos designed to distinguish the military nobility of Western Europe from those whom they deemed to be their social inferiors." Well, if that is all it was, of course we don't need it any more; we no longer have that social structure to defend.

His opinion strikes me as a strange one for a man who long served an institution at which he might have met some men of chivalry. It is the opinion of a historian from the school that divides humanity into classes and explains history in terms of the struggles between them. He doesn't seem to connect the men he must have known with the ethic, which he says "promotes violence" and "has faded" as a matter of course given changes in social structures. Given what he thinks he's talking about, it's hard to argue the point. Naturally we don't need a system for propping up an aristocracy or some other category of privilege.

But that isn't what, say, Ms. Smith was talking about at all. The quality she was longing for was not one that propped up men in their privilege, but one that kept them from marching around behaving like apes. Reducing chivalry to something like the fashion of wearing powdered wigs -- to show that you could afford one -- is to miss the core of it.

6) Scott Farrell, a man who really does know something about the subject, wants to explain it chiefly in terms of service to others. In this he captures correctly one of the values of chivalry, the value of honor. He goes on to say, "Of course, there’s more to it than this. Chivalry is a complex ethical and philosophical code that includes ideals like honesty, justice, courtesy and enterprise — all of which the world could use a bit more of."

Well, yes, that's true. But it also makes it hard to see just what it is that is wanted. Do we just want the virtues? If we get honesty, justice, courtesy, self-sacrifice and perhaps one or two others like courage, do we also need chivalry? Is it nothing more than the unity of other, independent virtues?

What is it?

Freedom of work and speech

FireDogLake is unhappy about a new federal-rights lawsuit that could accomplish what Proposition 32 did not in California, which is the elimination of a union's right to extract fees from unwilling workers and use them to promote political causes inimical to the worker:
Over the years the U.S. Supreme Court has generally upheld union practices that require public-sector employees to first pay dues and then opt out if they don’t support a union’s political activities.  The practice was upheld in a two-decade old case known as Abood v. Detroit Board of Education.  But in an unrelated 2012 case, the Supreme Court suggested that the high court’s earlier Abood decision may have been a mistake. 
“Justice [Samuel Alito], writing for five justices, went out of his way to raise doubts about the Abood decision and, in effect, to invite a test case to overturn it,” wrote Peter Scheer in the Huffington Post.  “The Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association lawsuit is an RSVP to that invitation.”
Miss Manners assures us that RSVPs are always correct.  The lawsuit's polite sponsor, the Center for Individual Rights, is a suitable invitee.   It was behind the 1996 Hopwood v. Texas case, which succerssfully challenged affirmative action in the University of Texas's selection process, and LaRoque v. Holder, which challenged the same pre-clearance requirements under the Voting Rights Act that were overturned last month in Shelby County v. Holder.   It was also behind California's Proposition 209, a successful 1996 anti-affirmative-action ballot initiative.  CIR has defended James O’Keefe in disputes over California’s anti-tape recording statute, as well as Anita MonCrief, an ex-ACORN executive who was sued by her old group.

Supporters of California's mandatory union dues are worried that a Supreme Court precedent in this case could spell doom for mandatory union dues nationwide.  The CIR link above takes you straight to a donation page.

Shadow government

Andrew McCarthy recently wrote that he wished the supporters of government surveillance programs would do a better job of defending what he thinks are essential programs.  Today, Mark Steyn explains why he thinks the "national-security right" is shrinking:
But the real reason why there are fewer defenders of their programs than Andy would like is the subject he tackles in his excellent books:  the ideological faintheartedness of the United States.  In this struggle, our enemies hide in plain sight, but Western governments will not confront them in plain sight.  As I wrote here last month:
Because the formal, visible state has been neutered by political correctness, the dark, furtive shadow state has to expand massively to make, in secret, the judgment calls that can no longer be made in public.
Operational secrecy probably makes sense to most Americans, but we'd like to think that they still have a voice in policy.

Is Civilization A Bad Idea?

...asks the publicly-funded news organization broadcasting on publicly-funded airwaves.


I enjoyed this article about the adaptation of transport to the lack of paved roads, especially this photograph of windbarrows, which could move large loads on a narrow path:

Formal Logic, Part I

I told Tom I would accompany his early posts on Aristotle's logic with a companion series on formal logic as it is practiced today. It will be very introductory, and will take as its textbook Richard C. Jeffrey's Formal Logic: Its Scope and Limits.

I'm going to be attempting no more than to introduce the basic concepts, with an eye toward showing how modern logic and Aristotle's logic differ. It's mostly for Tom, because he said he was interested, but perhaps some of you may find it interesting as well. Formal logic is not my chief area of interest in philosophy, of course, so if any of you are well-versed you will probably find points of disagreement which you are free and welcome to argue. For those of you who haven't studied it, I hope I can provide a solid enough introduction to make it worth your while.

The online text is the Fourth Edition, and it has lost what I think is a helpful explanation from earlier editions -- I suppose he thought on reflection that it was too basic. The earlier piece talks about truth, and it points out two things very helpful to keep in mind when doing formal logic:
It is the job of pure logic to point out that if it is true to say
Tom stole it,
then it is equally true to say
Tom stole it or Dick stole it.
He goes on to point out that in natural language we would find the second statement to be much LESS true, assuming we know for a fact that Tom stole whatever it was. Pure logic doesn't deal in greater or lesser degrees of truth. It is purely binary: a statement is true, or it is not true. Since it is true that "Tom stole it or Dick stole it," the statement evaluates as true.

He has a second example on the other side. There exist albino crows, which means that the following statement is false:
All crows are black.
But of course the next statement is true:
Nearly all crows are black.
That means we'd be inclined to say that "All crows are black" is NEARLY true. But there is no 'nearly true' in pure logic, any more than there is 'less true.' It is true, or it is false. So "All crows are black" is false. (Examples are from the 1967 edition, pages 3-4.)

The Fourth Edition begins with validity. That gives us a good early point of contrast with Aristotle, who had a notion of validity that I think is actually better than the one in use in modern logic. See section 3.2 of this article, and contrast with what Jeffrey says. What is the difference, exactly? Do you agree with me that Aristotle is on stronger ground, or do you disagree? What are the strengths of each approach?

It's Exactly Alike, Except For Being The Opposite

Now here's a title guaranteed to grab the attention: "The John Kerry Republicans."
During the 2004 presidential campaign, John Kerry was widely ridiculed when, in discussing Iraq and Afghanistan war funding, he declared, “I actually did vote for [it] before I voted against it.”

Well, now 50 House Republicans can say the same thing about their votes on the National Security Agency’s (NSA) terrorist surveillance program.
The author, Marc Thiessen, goes on to claim that this represents a kind of hypocrisy. However, he misunderstands the force of the problem Kerry had in 2004.

The problem wasn't that Kerry had changed his mind. People change their minds on the basis of new evidence.

The problem is that Kerry was trying to convince a crowd who favored "it" that he was their guy, because he had supported their cause before he voted against it. That argument -- "I was on your side before I voted against you" -- is really worthy of the ridicule it received.

House Republicans now are talking to voters who are increasingly, and rightly given recent revelations, suspicious that the NSA program really does have adequate oversight and limits. They're telling the voters, "We once thought this seemed reasonable, but as we have learned more we, like you, have developed concerns."

It's true that both situations involve mind-changing, but otherwise they are precise opposites.

Aristotle’s Categories

My first reading was Paul Studtmann’s article in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP), “Aristotle’s Categories.” The Categories basically lays out Aristotle's ontology — what exists and what you can say about what exists. Studtmann falls prey to a very common malady in academics, an inability to write for true beginners. I supplemented my reading with a much more amenable SEP article by Robin Smith, “Aristotle’s Logic,” which, along with Grim's explanations in email, helped me understand some unexplained terms and concepts in Studtmann.

There were a couple of interesting things to me about the Categories. The lesser interesting thing is Aristotle’s ontology itself. In essence, he claims there are substances and accidents. Substances exist independently while accidents only exist in substances. For example, a human being is a substance while skin color and height are accidents. You can’t have color by itself; color only exists as a property of a substance.

Substances and accidents are further categorized into universal and particular. Sadly, I discovered that universal accidents are not what happens when God goes on vacation and forgets to turn the gravity off. Instead, universal accidents are the concepts of accidents, such as redness. Universal substances are similarly concepts of particular substances. Humanity would be a universal substance, while Steve Earle would be a particular substance.

Aristotle prioritizes particular substances, calling them first substances; all the rest depend on them for existence: humanity doesn’t exist without individual humans, redness doesn’t exist without apples and other particular things that have that color. Here, he firmly disagrees with Plato, and I agree with him.

Although they use different and somewhat less precise terms, the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation is easily explained with this set of categories. The bread and wine maintain their accidents, but their substances are transformed into the body and blood of Christ.

But that’s old news. More interestingly on this occasion, Aristotle uses the term ‘said of’ for something that only exists in something else, an interesting use of grammar to describe reality. Studtmann informs us that some philosophers have tried to argue that Aristotle was really laying out a theory of language, but too much of the Philosopher’s work treats words as referring to actual things and most philosophers take the Categories as an ontological work, not a linguistic one. Even so, the Categories basically come down to substances and things you can say about substances. The Latin for the title is even the Predicamenta, The Predicates.

Language is a fascinating and important part of philosophy, and I’ll come back to it again.

Second look at Detroit?

Maybe the Democrats who've been pointing to Detroit lately as the poster child for libertarian principles are onto something, after all.  If so, there's hope even for Somalia.

In my old neighborhood in Houston, we all chipped in and bought private security to beef up our patrols.  It was entirely voluntary at $100/year--well within almost anyone's budget.  The ones who opted out were understood to be getting a free-rider benefit to some extent, but as long as they didn't mind forgoing perks like a special vacation watch, no one minded all that much.

Much more can be done privately that we often assume.

Conversion stories

Re AGW.  They're all in one direction, of course, since they come from Watts up with That.  On the other hand, have you ever heard of anyone who converted from deep skepticism to firm AGW belief?

Birth of a party

My eyes popped at the three-year swing in these poll results on NSA surveillance and the proper balance between security and privacy.
As the author notes, every faction swung wildly except for moderates in both parties.  A huge majority overall believe the government will use NSA surveillance data for purposes other than to fight terrorism.  The author wonders whether a third party will coalesce out of the libertarians on the left and right.

Origins of other life, and more on negative capability

From the NYT book review of "What Darwin Got Wrong," which was linked in the Dyson interview that was linked in my prior post:
How does one detect life on Mars?  One suggestion was to send up a sort of microscope, collect some dust from the Martian surface, and see if anything wiggled.  If it wiggles it is alive.  This seemed too unsophisticated for the space scientists. 
Instead they sent up a sort of vacuum cleaner filled with a nutrient solution containing a radioactively labeled simple sugar.  If the dust sucked up from the surface contained living cells, they would start to grow and divide, metabolize the sugar, and release radioactive carbon dioxide, which would be detected by a counter.  The Mars lander never detected any life activity although it was determined to be in perfect working order.  But that does not mean that there is no life on Mars.  It means that there is no life in Martian dust that grows on the sort of sugar provided.  This device certainly would not have detected a science-fiction Martian.  What the space scientists had done was to provide an ecological niche for a specific kind of life that they knew from earth, a niche that does not match a vast variety of earthly organisms.  If you do not specify the kind of organism you are looking for you cannot specify its ecological niche.  Perhaps the space program should look again for wiggly things.
This quotation is a casual aside in the review, but I liked it even more than the main body.  It's so difficult for us to think about the development of life in any way but our own, as if the development of DNA itself were not something of a long shot, and something we have no reason at all to suppose might develop spontaneously in parallel on another planet.

On the subject of the book itself, the reviewer notes the extraordinary hostility that has greeted its authors, who are viewed suspiciously as catering to religious extremists.  In fact, they mostly are complaining of a tendency to take literally Darwin's "metaphor" of natural selection and talk as if nature willed a new creature into being.  As evolutionary biologists often note with exasperation, evolution has no foresight.  The reviewer suggests that instead of “natural selection” we should talk about differential rates of survival and reproduction.  That's not very pithy, though, does it?  At least "natural selection" deftly gets across the idea that a few successful individuals are plucked out of the group in the sense of thriving where others fail, such that their descendants come to dominate the population.  The whole idea of calling it "natural" selection surely was to contrast this unintentional mechanical process with deliberate design of the sort that produced poodles from wolves.  But it's true that a lot of anthropomorphic nonsense is talked by supposedly secular biologists who would faint dead away if that tendency were equated with the worldview of the intelligent-design community.  As the reviewer observes:
The other source of anxiety and anger is that the argument made by Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini strikes at the way in which evolutionary biologists provide adaptive natural historical explanations for a vast array of phenomena, as well as the use by a wider scholarly community of the metaphor of natural selection to provide theories of history, social structure, human psychological phenomena, and culture. If you make a living by inventing scenarios of how natural selection produced, say, xenophobia and racism or the love of music, you will not take kindly to the book. 
Even biologists who have made fundamental contributions to our understanding of what the actual genetic changes are in the evolution of species cannot resist the temptation to defend evolution against its know-nothing enemies by appealing to the fact that biologists are always able to provide plausible scenarios for evolution by natural selection. But plausibility is not science.  True and sufficient explanations of particular examples of evolution are extremely hard to arrive at because we do not have world enough and time.  The cytogeneticist Jakov Krivshenko used to dismiss merely plausible explanations, in a strong Russian accent that lent it greater derisive force, as “idel specoolations.”
Even at the expense of having to say “I don’t know how it evolved” most of the time, biologists should not engage in idle speculations.

Negative capability

A commenter over at Sarah Hoyt's place mentioned that Freeman Dyson used to run simulations of systems that might result in a decrease in the world's human population, and that the only factor that consistently worked was the introduction of reliable electricity to fast-breeding cultures.  I spent some time this morning trying to track down more information about that interesting line of inquiry, but failed.  Instead, I came across this refreshing interview with Mr. Dyson on the subject of the origin of life, in which he time and again declines the interviewer's invitation to express a view on a controversy about which he is either not fully up to speed, or about which any answer must be the rankest sort of individual speculation.

Keats famously endorsed "negative capability," the willingness to endure ambiguity.  It may not always be such a terrific idea in moral matters, where it often seems to take the form of choosing not to be aware of what we already know perfectly well, such as that it's not possible to excuse systematic lechery with the phrase "I'm a hugga."  Nor have I ever been convinced by his idea that poetic aesthetics trumps all other considerations.  Nevertheless, the capacity to remain "content with half-knowledge" is a fine thing for a scientist.  Dyson candidly refuses to pretend that he knows what he doesn't.

I particularly enjoyed this exchange:
Suzan Mazur:  You draw an analogy in your book between origin of life and the origin of body plans half a billion years ago, a "sudden efflorescence of elaborate body plans," during the Cambrian explosion.  Have you had further thoughts about this in light of the "evo-devo revolution"?  Did form come first or did form arise from genetic programs? . . . 
Freeman Dyson:  By the time of the Cambrian explosion is very late in the history of life and genetics had become very powerful.  But, of course, we have no idea what happened in detail. 
Suzan Mazur:  How soon do you think we'll get to the bottom of things regarding origin of life, i.e., make the breakthrough? 
Freeman Dyson:  Give it a hundred years, perhaps, but I don't think my prediction is worth anything.  It all depends on what nature says, because nature is always surprising us. And probably in this case too. 
Suzan Mazur:  A hundred years.  You think it's going to take that long? 
Freeman Dyson:  Well I would call that short.
The origin of life is one of my favorite scientific mysteries.  Where I always get brought up short is the explanation for how replication started in the first place.  Once you have both a metabolism ("defined in a general way as the evolution of a population in which some of the molecules catalyze the synthesis of others") and a replicating system, it's easy enough to see how the ones with a successful metabolism will out-replicate the others and glom onto more metabolic resources.  But how do you get started on this pairing?  How do clumps of chemical reactions start to replicate and compete?  Dyson thinks that a profitable area of study would be how pre-biotic chemical reactions spontaneously form a rudimentary metabolism, which they clearly do in the lab; advances in nano-technology are opening the door for better experiments in this area.  Next, he thinks that some kind of primitive self-replicating mechanism formed (rather as crystals automatically replicate) and made its living for a while as a parasite on the metabolic system.  Eventually host and parasite merged and became the earliest precursors to cells, in the form of lipid walls enclosing little globs of water with a lot of stuff dissolved in it.  Later, the replicating mechanism developed into the advanced form of RNA, setting the stage for the "RNA world" that's captured so much attention in recent years.

If he turns out someday to be right, that would make us mongrels at least twice over:  once from the mating of metabolisms and replicators, and next from the capture of mitochondria by their host cells.

A fitting memorial

Nothing argues more eloquently against the racist tendency to treat young black men on the street with suspicious caution than yelling "This is for Trayvon Martin" while you beat up and rob a citizen.  Dr. King would be proud.

Molon labe

More from the Daily Caller, complaints from the Children's Defense Fund in favor of the "common sense" gun-control legislation that they favor:
The U.S. has as many guns as people.  The U.S. accounts for less than 5 percent of the global population, but owns an estimated 35 to 50 percent of all civilian-owned guns in the world. . . . America’s military and law enforcement agencies have four million guns.  Our citizens have 310 million.  Has this made our children safer?
Yes.  Of course, it depends somewhat on from whom you think they need to be protected.

That explains it

Jamie Weinstein at the Daily Caller reports:
In 1988, Mahmoud Salam Saliman Abu Harabish and Adam Ibrahim Juma’a-Juma’a decided to firebomb a bus of Israeli civilians. 
The result was gruesome.  A 26-year old school teacher, Rachel Weiss, was incinerated, along with her three young children, who ranged from three years old to 9-months. An Israeli soldier who came to their rescue also died as result of the attack. 
Thanks to Secretary of State John Kerry’s nimble negotiating skills, Harabish and Juma’a-Juma’a will reportedly be among the 104 violent Palestinian terrorists released from Israeli prisons in stages as a goodwill gesture by the Jewish state in advance of the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks that are set to begin Monday in Washington, D.C.
My email feed adds:
TheDC Morning is starting to suspect that making John Kerry Secretary of State was a political ploy to make Hillary Clinton look competent by comparison.

Beginning Aristotle: A Disclaimer, a Request, a Plan

I am not a trained philosopher, nor do I play one on TV. The length of time from my first post until this post can be explained by two things: I don’t know how to write interestingly about Aristotle’s philosophy in a blog post, and I’m just exploring that philosophy, so I can’t be terribly informative except in the most mundane, “This is what I learned today” way.

For now, I’ve decided my posts on Aristotle will be a student’s thoughts rather than a synopsis or attempt to be profound (although the humor value of an attempt to be profound cannot be discounted, the prepositions would be all wrong (laughing at, vs. with)). Naturally, I welcome any discussion in the comments, but my request is that you would let me know either here or as we go what you might find interesting in a study of Aristotle. Maybe then I can tailor my writing to my audience a bit better.

Grim’s suggested plan of study:
Roughly, the medieval approach for students is:

1) Start by understanding his logical system. Getting a grasp on just what he means by "substance" and "attribute," and just what his categories are and how they work together, is very helpful.

2) Then read the Physics; the relevant article is here. This is a quite difficult work, and almost no one reads it today, but it's fundamental -- and, in fact, asks some very good questions about the nature of reality that our modern physics often elide past rather than engage.

3) Then read De Anima (see here ( and here ( Once you've understood how he thinks the world has to work, from the earlier pieces, this work will help you understand how he thinks human beings relate to the world and understand it.

4) Then read the Metaphysics ... This will explain what Aristotle thinks about the ultimate ends behind reality. If the Physics explains how things are, this work explains why things are as they are.
5) Finally, engage the Ethics and Politics. These should be read together, because the purpose of politics is to provide a state that supports an ethical life -- a life, in Aristotle's terms, in which the pursuit of happiness is most possible.

That's the plan.

An Acceptable Excuse

A friend of mine is writing a Young Adult novel based in ancient Greek mythology. She asked me to review it for comments. I told her that, unlike other Greek gods who were portrayed as teenagers who spoke in ordinary speech, her male hero Prometheus was portrayed as an adult who spoke with great formality, especially when he addressed the female lead. "He doesn't speak like a teenager, which may make him seem strange to your audience," I said. "He sounds like me."

Her response was, "Well of course he does. He's not a man. He's a god."

Well that's... very flattering, really.

Coercion and persuasion

Or, as I like to call the alternatives, tyranny and liberty.   I have just finished reading Kevin D. Williamson's very interesting book, "The End Is New and It's Going to Be Awesome."  Though I'm not entirely persuaded of one of his central premises, which is that politics' flaw is its inability to learn from mistakes (more on that later), he's got a very appealing thought experiment in the Epilogue about an alternative to coercion in dealing with the inevitable bad actors among us:
Short of your Hitlers and psychopathic killers, there are some very good alternatives to coercion.  In a world of instantaneous information exchanges and complex social relationships, reputation is extraordinarily important.  We should be looking at ways to use technology to build on that -- something a little more sophisticated than Yelp reviews.
Williamson describes a hypothetical car purchase. You hand the salesman your card, only to see his face fall when he runs it.
YOU:  "My card has been declined?"   SALESMAN:  "No, your card has . . . declined us."  A second later your iPhone buzzes with a text message.
You have signed up for an account alert from BeCool Card Services, which warns you when you are about to conduct a business transaction with a company that has violated one of the principles you hold dear.   Perhaps your car is offered for sale by a company that mistreats workers on Liberian rubber plantations.  Shortly thereafter, the car company's head of marketing gets a similar text message.   Does the company immediately mend its ways in Liberia?  Probably not, but what does the board think when the VP of marketing reports 100 or 1,000 such messages in a single year?

It's an essentially democratic approach, but without the need for a uniform decision binding on any minority.  It's not winner-take-all uniformity.  The winning political party doesn't get to say how the car company treats Liberian workers and ignore what the losing party thinks.  But then, there are very, very few social dilemmas that require a uniform approach, and those arguably are limited to circumstances of outright theft and violence.  Other disputes over who should marry whom, how long the workweek should be, and whether the workplace is hospitable enough to someone of your gender, age, race, or religion might be better handled by the kind of ongoing collective decision-making process that's often called "voting with your feet" or ostracization.   In fact, Williamson argues that the "right of exit" is essential to any form of ordered liberty.  Nothing but the power of another person to say "that won't suit me; I won't combine with you in this enterprise" can ever really keep well-meaning nanny-bullies in check.

Williamson's example is deliberately commercial and impersonal.  We already have traditional social mechanisms for policing behavior by damage to reputation in more intimate settings.  And it's still possible to rely on the police for help with crime -- without dragging them into disputes over gay marriage or the minimum wage.

This "crowd-sourcing" of approval and disapproval certainly has its downside.  Social ostracism can be very costly, and there's no guarantee that what society collectively decides will not marginalize people we think should be heroes.  But that danger is hardly unique to free crowd-sourcing.  At present, a more and more intrusive government takes a vote and then cheerfully imposes the majority view on everyone -- and the government has more than a tarnishing of reputation in its arsenal to enforce the universally binding result.

How will everyone know how to judge all the myriad social evils out there that we now rely on Congress to regulate?  Well, how do they know how to vote at present?  And how to Congressmen know?  They mostly don't.  In practice, they'll vote on the issues they know and care most about and keep their noses out of the rest.

It's not an all-purpose system, obviously.  Williamson approves of voluntary arrangements under which people locked in close proximity with each other agree to adopt community standards for matters that would be unworkable otherwise.  In a city, for instance, the local garbage pickup and potable water systems are likely to be mandatory; if you don't like it, don't live there.  Out where I live, we're free to arrange for our own water and garbage services:  rainwater, wellwater, truck the water in, or support the development of a local MUD; burn your garbage, bury it, or pay for a weekly or monthly pickup of one, two, or three large containers by a private company.  But even in a city, close-huddled citizens probably can figure out a way to address the staggering problem of sugary drinks in oversize containers without calling in the awesome power of the state and demanding a unanimity of practice.

Too good to source

I can't tell where this originated, so I give up on giving CWCID:  George Zimmerman is reportedly changing his name, to ensure that neither the Obama administration nor the press will ever again pay him a moment's attention.  His choice?  "Ben Ghazi."

Which of course reminds me of this:

No, he didn't

Ace recently joked on Twitter that he wasn't even making jokes about Candidate Weiner; he was just taking his information straight from the press conferences.  So when he posted today that Weiner responded to his campaign manager's decision to quit by assuring the public that "We have an amazing staff," I figured he had made it up.   No, no.  As Ace mused,
Meh. I don't know about "amazing." Let's just say "famous" or "well-traveled."

Phony scandals

“If Gov. Christie believes the constitutional rights and the privacy of all Americans are ‘esoteric,’ he either needs a new dictionary or he needs to talk to more Americans, because a great number of them are concerned about the dramatic overreach of our government in recent times,” Paul senior advisor Doug Stafford said.
Washington Times.

Law schmaw

I don't find the President's answer to this interview answer comforting.


Hacker stories that come a little closer to home:
“When you lose faith that a car will do what you tell it to do,” he adds after we jump out of the SUV, “it really changes your whole view of how the thing works.”
H/t Bookworm Room (guest host Earl).