Sunday, July 01, 2018

Some philosophers are more equally wrong than others

I like Massimo Pigluicci a lot. He makes philosophical issues accessible to the general public, and he covers a variety of issues. We agree on a lot of issues, like ev psych, will, fairly much on volition and more.

That said, I can't let a comment on this post by Dan Kaufman go without a response. And, since Massimo has twice refused to post moderately (but no more than that) snarky comments by me about Dan's comment, I shall go in more depth, and higher or lower snark, here.

Yes, it's Massimo's blog and he has the right to moderate comments as he pleases. And, this is my blog, and I have the right to write posts as I please. And, beyond evolutionary biology's tit for tat of reciprocal altruism, done subconsciously, on a number of social interactions, I practice it conscientiously.

Anyway, here's the comment, rather the first from that post:
Philip, your reply is a dodge. You claimed that mathematics is empirical. I pointed out that this would entail that mathematical statements are probabilistic, which they clearly are not. Simple modus tollens. To which you reply “it’s random.” 
No one ever died from admitting they were wrong about something. Why not give it a try?
Emphasis on the second graf is mine, because that's what this is about.

First of all, other than a British astronomer named Coel and a Canadian confusednik named Garth, not currently commenting on posts, and DM, not a total favorite of Massimo's either. NOBODY among past or current regular commenters has more difficulty admitting they're wrong than Dan. Dan is right a lot more often than them, but, when he's wrong, he doubles down on it as much as them.

And, Massimo knows that. (Or at least, believes something close to that.) I can mention specific issues, the biggest in my mind being that Dan rejects medical science's claim — and has done so on Massimo's blog — as to what constitutes one standard drink of an alcoholic beverage.

Hence my riff on Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Dan as Napoleon. It's part of why I stopped writing for Dan's site after a couple of posts. I disagreed with the editing-for-content and direction on my second piece and knew it wasn't something he's let me win, or even get closer to 50-50.

If Massimo is going to moderate posts over this issue, then why not start by editing Dan's to remove that second paragraph? Or keep it from being posted in the first place?

And, he let Dan and Philip have a 4-5 comment back-and-forth before that. So, my one denied comment really can't be that much worse in lack of contribution than their original back-and-forth.

(For the wonderers, both of my would-be comments did a pull-quote on Dan's second graf. In the first, I then said "posted without further comment." In the second, I said something about this being similar to "electric" comment of a week or two back. (Dan's blog is The Electric Agora.)

For Philip, it's not a matter of whether he was right or wrong on the particular back-and-forth. (I think he was pretty much wrong, myself, per Dan's first graf.) It was Dan's ... well, Dan's tacit hypocrisy. "Pots and kettles" come to mind. And, nobody else challenged him on it — or, at least, Massimo allowed nobody (else) to challenge him.

I tried again, on Massimo's next blog post. Again, no soap.

And, on a third post, where Dan was clearly wrong, and has been wrong in the past — what constitutes alcohol abuse and similar.
Calling people who regularly drink more than 3.5 drinks a day alcoholics is calling them exactly what they are. They are addicts, just as smokers or drug users are.
= = =
What a load of nonsense. Someone who has a beer with lunch and two glasses of wine with dinner is an alcoholic? If so, the term is useless to make any characterization that would be of any interest to any productive purpose.
And, Massimo even knows, via old convo on Google+, my thoughts on this issue. And he hasn't explicitly disagreed with Dan's wrongness.

And, June 27, another blog post where Massimo didn't post a comment about me being critical of Dan.

Also, June 29, where Massimo truncated a comment of mine in editing to omit:
Funny how Dan keeps wanting to “drop it,” and then keeps commenting. I think St. Ludwig of Wittgenstein would have an observation about that use of language.
And, since Dan is "Mr. Wittgenstein" I'll save that for the future. 

So, there you go, Massimo. If you won't let me hoist Dan by his own petard over there, I'll still do it here.

And make this my featured post, now that I have a pic to go with.

Thursday, June 14, 2018


I am the Son of God.

I was born, I saw and I fell;
That last part due to mythmakers
Who rejected my message.
My name was Judas, Son of God.

The lies against my name are many.
Some claim I was demon-seized
And sold the man named Jesus
For 30 pieces of silver.
Others say I was his cosmic twin,
Judas Didymus Thomas
Later denigrated to move the force
To the one and only.
Others yet call me Ormazd
To his Ahriman,
The dark side of a dualistic god.
And others still a ???
Fated to play out a role;
A reasoning pawn in a cosmic play.
All are wrong.

Rather —
I was the one, the Monogenetes,
I was the Son of God, the Word made flesh.

Am I jealous of the Nazarene?
But of course. I am the Word made flesh.
With good motive — emotions no less dark
Than my father Yahweh had against Sodom
And against the Amalekites, then against Saul.

I am the Son of God.

I am.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

Socrates moves further down the overrated philosophers list

I've blogged before about overrated philosophers, and why Socrates' earns his place on the list. And I've explained that there's the myth vs. the reality, and my moniker is based on the myth.

Philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, in the latest installment of his Book Club extended blogging series, is tackling Plato's early dialogues in the Penguin Classics series. Well, in this intro to the book initial post in the series, he's sharpened exactly what I think about Socrates and why, therefore, he's overrated.

First, we have the problem of the "historic Socrates." Just like the historic Jesus. I disagree with the likes of Gregory Vlastos as to just how much Socrates can be untangled from Plato, just like it's questionable how much we can untangle a historic Jesus from a New Testament and early Christianity as it evolved down to us today largely based on the weighty shadow of Paul.

To the degree we can disentangle, I think the Socrates of the middle dialogues is already pretty much a Platonic mouthpiece.

Next, what about the other people who sketch him? Throw away Xenophon, but I'm still half convinced or more than Aristophanes was at least half right in depicting him as a semi-Sophist himself. Certainly, in many of his dialogues, Socrates does little more than eristic type arguments designed to refute Sophists – or strawmen versions (remember, other than Gorgias, we have almost no extant writings of them) — without saying "I therefore say virtue is Y," rather than just letting them appear to founder.

I told Massimo about that, too;
I know that in many cases, Socratic answers are implied from Socratic questioning. But, I think Plato doesn’t spell this out so that Socratic reasoning doesn’t get subjected to its own elenchus. 
It’s like a trial, per the parallels, where you don’t have one attorney do a formal closing statement — so that the other one can’t make his or her own closing statement! And, yes, I mean that, too. Because, if Plato as the author gave the ancient equivalent of a semi-formal, stipulative closing argument to Socrates, in some cases, his straw men would look too obvious. While, among the Sophists, we only have writings from Gorgias today, except for scraps, circa 2400 BCE, all the major Sophists had their own books and pamphlets out, of course. In other words, holding a thumb on the scale might work, but three whole fingers would be overkill. Doing it this way? “Made the stronger argument the better,” at least for Plato’s students.
It's very convenient. And, to extend a biblical parallel, that may be part of why Mark, like Philostratus' "Life of Apollonius," doesn't have actual resurrection appearances.

I then realized more about Socrates as an elitist. I do think Izzy Stone projected too much 20th century America into his take on Socrates as an elitist, and didn't look at Athenian, or Hellenic, context.

First, Athens wasn't the only Greek city, or colony, to at least dabble in democracy at this time. Corinth and Syracuse are two other examples. Take note that all three were cities with large revenues from trade.

Note second that Sophists claimed to be able to teach one how to succeed well at "all things polis."

The old, landed gentleman had the time to learn this on his own. The equivalent of "nouveau riche" did not. But, since money can be timelike at times, to reverse a cliche, they would certainly pay for a crash course on operating in the ekklesia, the boule and the court – even if as part of a group rather than one-on-one.

Note that the Sophists weren't teaching in Athens alone. They were visiting other cities. They probably targeted cities like Corinth and Syracuse that were having similar large socio-political shifts.

Sure they were teaching how to make the stronger argument better. Don't tell me that most of Socrates' peers in Athens' "ancien regime" didn't do similar. Socrates' elenchus just has a better press.

Socrates, in this sense, strikes me as a mid-1800s British Tory landed gentleman caviling against Whig merchants seeking more political, and social, power. Remember that Britain passed its first political reform bill in the 1830s AND started shifting toward free trade at that time, both of which benefited these Liberal-leaning merchants. Disraeli's bid to further expand the electorate in the 1860s was a direct bid for more everyday voters to join the Conservatives to offset this.

Finally, there's the broad picture of Socrates that Plato paints. In a different way, he looks like as much a strawman as most of his Sophist (and other) opponents. That's especially true when you factor in what Plato said about how he was Athens and why – and the Oracle of Delphi saying that.

Add in Socrates' claim to have been motivated by his personal daimon since childhood, and you get someone who comes off as smarmy at a minimum and sanctimonious at a max.

Here's my take on that, befitting for an Existential Comics strip, of a boiled-down version of Socratic dialog:

Socrates: Hey, Gorgias, do you know what the oracle at Delphi said about me?
Gorgias: No, what?
Socrates: That I’m the wisest man in Athens.
Gorgias: Really?
Soc: Of course, I’m far to humble to believe that, at least not without testing it.
Gor; Of course not.
Soc: So, I figured I would ask others, people whom I and society deem wise, what they know about things like virtue and goodness.
Gor: I see.
Soc: So, that’s why I’m talking to you now.
Gor: OK, so what would you like to talk about.
Soc: Can you tell me what you understand virtue to be?
Gor: Virtue is A.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: Virtue is B.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: Virtue is C.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: Virtue is D.
Soc: Nope.
Gor: I give up.
Soc: You know, I’ve talked to 14 other philosophers, Sophists and non-Sophists alike. You know what else, Gorgias?
Gor: NO, I don’t know what else, Socrates.
Soc: Glad you asked back. Every conversation has ended this same way.
Soc; You know what that means, Gorgias?
Gor: NO, I DON”T know what that means, Socrates.
Soc: I guess I am the wisest man in Athens. I at least admit what I don’t know.
Soc; And you know why?
Gor: NO, I DON”T know why, Socrates.
Soc; Because, from childhood, I’ve been guided by this wonderous inner daimon, to whom I owe my ultimate authority.

Smary at the least? Sanctimonious? Insufferable even? At least somewhat, and at times?

If the Platonic caricature is halfway close to reality, I don’t understand why Socrates wasn’t hauled up on charges earlier. Perhaps he was tolerated ‘on sufferance,’ to be mocked by an Aristophanes and others, until the loss of the Peloponnesian War and the two coups made people finally admit they were that tired of him.

Friday, May 04, 2018

Ehrman hits foul ball with rise of Christianity book

The Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an EmpireThe Triumph of Christianity: How a Small Band of Outcasts Conquered an Empire by Bart D. Ehrman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Nice try in theory, falls well short in reality

This was a book tough to rate.

I generally like Ehrman. I generally think that mythicists unfairly belittie him, though I disagree with some specifics of his own supporting material offered for a historic Jesus.

The idea of the book isn’t new, but presented in popularizing form from a knowledgable New Testament scholar, promised to be good, possibly very good.

But, it fell short. Short enough in some ways that I took fairly detailed notes at chapter breaks.

Without explicitly saying so, Ehrman seems to indicate that Christian evangelism and Christiam miracle-working both had moderate boosts for the early decades of Christianity, but then it was primarily word-of-mouth, just like you and I buy a car or toothpaste today.

However …

First, the evangelism issue is nowhere near as simple as Ehrman paints.

First, we know that Christianity was NOT the only evangelistic religion of antiquity.

Ashoka’s Buddhist missionaries to the West went as far as Macedonia and Cyrenaica. Four hundred years later, Clement of Alexandria and other Christian fathers knew about ongoing Buddhist proselytizing. And, Will Durant even speculated it may have been an element in Christiann missions. See more here.

Either Ehrman is surprisingly uninformed here. Or else, Ehrman’s definition of antiquity is narrow. Neither speaks well for this book.

That said, per reading between the lines in Acts, and in some of Paul’s letters, and my take on J. Massyngberde Ford’s Anchor Bible volume on who wrote the original core of Revelation, we know that at least a few followers of John the Baptist evangelized.

Paul himself mentions Apollos and Peter, even talking about Peter getting paid to take his wife with him.

So, Ehrman has a foul ball here.

On the miracle working, whether real or not, Ehrman doesn’t mention that this was common outside Christianity. Indeed, Jewish charismatics such as Honi the Circle Drawer come to mind. Or Morton Smith’s “Jesus the Magician.” Or the name Simon Magus. Ehrman doesn’t go into a lot of depth here. He even mentions Apollonius of Tyana, the contemporary of Jesus, but never goes into detail about his own reported miracle-working.

So, if Christian miracles were more powerful than Jewish, Greek philosophical, or pagan religious ones, why? They were all common.

It’s true that no ancient author writes an unbiased account of this in detail. But Ehrman, while noting that no actual such miracles likely happened, doesn’t explain why Christians were perceived to be (as he would seemingly have us believe) better miracle-workers or magicians.

And, if evangelism were as low as Ehrman thinks it was after Paul, and pagans and philosophers did magic, too, then why was word-of-mouth as successful as Ehrman thinks it was?

Reality is that, with people like Polycarp, or Clement of Rome, their letters to other churches were surely part of an ongoing program not just of church maintenance but church planting and spreading. Look at the pseudo-Pauline letter to “Ephesians.” Originally a circular letter, it probably was written in similar spirit.

And, the third failing, a partial one.

I agree with Ehrman that many of the details of Rodney Stark’s projected growth rates of Christianity don’t withstand scrutiny.

However, even though Decius’ persecution wasn’t specifically against Christianity, Diocletian’s was. In a sort of analogy, American whites will start to flee suburban neighborhoods and even whole communities when an influx of minority population, and above all, African-American population, hits a certain percentage, usually around 10 percent.

Ehrman doesn’t ask if a similar phenomenon were in play here. If it was, his believed population percentage of Christians, empire-wide, was too low at the time of Diocletian to be such a trigger. Now, the persecutions were carried out most commonly in the eastern half of the empire, and we have some fairly good indications Christianity was stronger there.

Nonetheless, Ehrman doesn’t follow up.

A fourth partial failing, in my opinion?

Ehrman seems to believe Christianity was not just majority-gentile, but strongly so, by circa 100 CE.

Yet, he fails to mention the “desynagoging” that happened circa 100 CE, per John. If this really did happen, it undercuts Ehrman’s thesis. If it didn’t, he should have offered a bit of exegesis on John here to explain this.

Despite John speaking bluntly of “the Jews,” I think something did happen.

Finally, Ehrman makes a partial version of the same error Stark does on population growth, and it’s connected to his overlooking or ignoring Buddhist evangelism.

He focuses on growth within the Roman Empire.

Armenia became officially Christian in 301 CE, nearly a century before Theodosius so proclaimed Rome. Various kingdoms that today make up Georgia became officially Christian before that time. Ulfilias proselityzed Goths, presumably with some Goths previously Christian, before Theodosius. Legends of Thomas Christians aside, there were Christians in India before this time. Ditto for ancient Nubia, beyond Rome’s Nile frontier.

In critiquing and criticizing Stark, I have noted all of this and said that at least 10 percent of Christians at the time of Constantine were outside imperial borders.

And, of course, by the period that closes Ehrman’s book, Christianity had not swept “the world.”

Finishing up this last section of the notes as I got ready to post this led me to take Ehrman down from three to two stars. Several three-star readers seemed too kind in their detailed reviews.

Ehrman – and his agent who suggested this – should either have committed to an additional 20-30 pages and more rigor, or else suggested this as a series of magazine essays only, or similar.

The one problem with this review is that, at least on Amazon, where I read through reviewers, it basically left me in the company of mythicists who wrongly attack Ehrman. I gave several them a piece of my mind on their reviews.

View all my reviews

Wednesday, April 18, 2018

A better bio of Luther than Metaxas

It's actually Michael Massing's new parallel biography of Luther and Erasmus.

Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western MindFatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind by Michael Massing
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

There's not a lot of new stuff here for me, especially on the Luther side, but the dual biography concept, when done well, can stimulate some 'aha' and Massing generally does well.

The two biggies on differences are first, one of personality and temperament. Erasmus' irenic style never could have led a Reformation and Luther never could have calmed his down enough even to be the best of organizers of what a Reformation needed in terms of management.

As a result, Erasmus in general was more kindly disposed to human fraility and at least occasionally meeting people halfway. Had he been in Luther's shoes, he never would have treated Melanchthon as shoddily as Luther sometimes did.

As an aside, Massing also gives a good base-level explanation of how differences between Luther and Zwingli, in terms of how they developed their reformations differently, were sociological as much as theological.

I did learn a few tidbits, one of which I could have learned in Lutheran seminary, had it been taught there. And that is that Luther's polemics against the Jews weren't just a late-life, poor-health issue. They started with his lectures on the Psalms years before the 95 Theses. He later tamped them down, after the Reformation took off, in hopes of converting Jews. Until they didn't.

And, it was Karlstadt, not Zwingli, who first questioned the "Real Presence" in the Eucharist, and he did so on the basis of Greek grammer and not metaphoric speech common to Greek, German and English. Karlstadt pointed out that the "this" in "This is my body," can NOT refer backward to "bread" because it's a different gender in Greek. That, too was never mentioned in Lutheran seminary, probably because, although Luther railed against Karlstadt for this, he never refuted it — because, of course, he couldn't.

There is one notable error here that doesn't affect the flow, and a matter of framing that kind of does.

Given that the second big difference between Luther and Erasmus was on free will, and that BOTH had an Augustinian background, it would have been nice for Massing to include a little bit more about just how "minor" of a saint Augustine is seen as being in the East. He does talk a small bit about Orthodoxy's take on Augustine, but not a lot.

The outright error? Paul never claimed to be a Roman citizen, contra Massing. The unknown author of Acts claimed it for him.

View all my reviews

In case you're not a regular reader here, this is my review of Eric Metaxas' horrible take on Luther.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Saplosky's 'Behave' doesn't fully do so

Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and WorstBehave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert M. Sapolsky
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A 3.5 star "magnum opus" needs some philosophy in general and Hume in particular

The book is not horrible, but it's not all that it could be or that some reviewers crack it up to be. Content, lack of content, and lack of editorial connectivity are all problems.

One biggie on the good side is about dopamine. Sapolsky, with all the latest on that, shows just how much dopamine can NOT be the "addiction neurotransmitter." (There are still plenty of the uninformed who think it is.)

1. On dopamine, at one point it becomes about rewarding anticipation of an actuality, not the actuality
2. Neurons have at least 5 dopamine receptors. D4 is the most studied … the DRD4 gene controlling for it has at least 10 different variants. The 7R form, with seven repeats of one stretch of the gene, is associated w/novelty seeking, addiction, promiscuity, risk taking etc. BUT the risk taking can be for good causes.
3. A particular variant has at most 3-4 percent effect on novelty seeking.
4. What constitutes ‘novelty seeking’ still varies from person to person.
5. In addition, the DAT (dopamine reuptake) gene also comes in different varieties.
6. Even an anticipation of a lessening of an electric shock of a Pavlovian operant conditioning type will raise dopamine

Then, I love this footnote:

Footnote, page 66: Dopaminergic responses to sexually arousing visual stimuli are greater in men than in women. Remarkably, this difference isn’t specific to humans. Male rhesus monkeys will forgo the chance to drink water when thirsty in order to see pictures of — I’m not quite sure how else to say this — crotch shots of female rhesus monkeys (while not being interested in other rhesus-y pictures).

Sapolsky has a fair amount to say about cultural evolution. No blinding light info, but generally solid.

He pretty much crushes Steve Pinker's "Better Angels" claims about our mega-violent past. (Pinker isn't totally alone in such claims, and he and fellow travelers like creating straw people out of anthropologists.) The reality, Sapolsky notes, and with which many anthropologists agree, is that primitive hunter-gatherers weren't violence-free, but they weren't totally Hobbsian. That said, Sapolsky only briefly references controversy over whether or not Pinker et al cheat by not counting internal violence by the modern state against its own citizens.

Surprisingly, after that kicking of Pinker, Sapolsky is generally accepting of sociobiology and its offspring, ev psych. He's also surprisingly at least halfway accepting of D.S. Wilson's neo-version of group selection. And, with that, for now, the book goes back to 4 stars.

Chapter on morals gets dicey. Gets close to scientism. Says he’ll talk more about virtue ethics later, but doesn’t, not in that chapter. Doesn’t recognize that many serious philosophers don’t consider the trolley problem to be serious philosophy.

And, speaking of, his last chapter, on the justice system, could use a lot of philosophy. And has none. Philosophy is missing elsewhere, too.

He uses Hume to introduce Damasio's idea of "emotional reasoning," which includes modeling hypothetical situations to feel potential emotional affect. But, he doesn't reference Damasio that much after that and doesn't mention Hume at all. Of course, Hume's famous "Is ≠ ought" is VERY pertinent in the justice system chapter, if no place else. The whole emphasis on "neuro-" in this last chapter comes close to scientism, and Sapolsky could use some help on matters of volition, which, rather than "free will," is the preferred terminology among many philosophers.

Then there's an occasional WTF. Here's the biggest, on 486:
In one such study, Michael Tomasello (a frequent critic of de Waal — stay tuned) ....

Stay tuned for WHAT? Per the index, and my reading, that's the only reference to Tomasello (who IS an insightful person) in the whole book.

Similarly, after promising, in the first few pages after that Hume reference, to talk more about Damasio later on, he really doesn't. There's only two brief references to him after the first 100 pages.

In short, although it's been several years since Sapolsky has had a tome, and I've liked his previous work this baby came off in some ways as looking like a rush job which needed a better editor as well as a philosopher to be among its readers.

I'd heard good stuff about it, but, because it's at 4.5 stars, my 3.5 star rating and the non-allowance of half-stars mean I bump it downward.

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Wednesday, April 04, 2018

The biggest lies ...

Are the ones we tell ourselves.

And, with the occasional Hitlerian sub-humanizing lies, these are lies that primarily affect ourselves, and they're primarily internal.

No, they're not Dunning-Krueger effect lies about how wonderfully skilled and intelligent we are in cases where we're not Lake Wobegon above-average geniuses. (That said, they would come in second place.)

No, I see what I call motivational lies as the biggest lies. And, they are?

They're kind of the reverse of Aesop sour grapes lies.

We instead tell ourselves "I really want to do X" before venturing out to do X, or a larger task that in part includes doing X. Variants could be "I'll do X better this time" if we've had problems with X before and similar.

These are the type of internal lies that easily can be flipped to sour grapes lies at some point in the future, of course.

Example: "I really didn't want Y so badly as to work that hard on X," or "Y wasn't worth that much work on X," or similar.

But, we tell ourselves these original motivational lies when we're in a place of partial ambivalence. And, often, the ambivalence is more emotional than intellectual. We can't, or don't want to, commit fully to the work to do Y because something just doesn't feel right about Y. Per the likes of Antonio Damasio, we need to unpack those feelings first, before we go down the road of motivational lies to ourselves.