Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Intelligent Designer and ... teeth

It's common among skeptics and secularists of various types to point toward the shortcomings in human evolution to refudiate postulators of an Intelligent Desiger — a critter which is, of course, actually the old literalist Christian dual-omni god in a thin shift of philosophical drag.

The most common retorts to the ID from the world of bad human design if designed and evolved have traditionally involved three body parts or areas: bad backs, fallen arches, and stuffy, infected sinuses. (Appendices have fallen off the chart as we realize they actually do something in us and other critters and their continued existence doesn't refute the IDer.)

I'd like to submit a fourth body part, from personal experience: teeth.

The good old dog of Intelligent Design didn't even recognize that H. sapiens would invent crop domestication, and then, after finding a way to sift wheat from chaff would learn how to sift wheat bran from white flour? Or how to squeeze juice out of a certain cain plant, then boil that juice down to white crystals?

The IDer also didn't anticipate, per an old Isaac Asimov story, that we would live 2-3x as many heartbeats as the typical mammal?

But! The IDer let sharks renew their teeth regularly ... as in regularly ... and individual teeth, not a whole set at once.

And, we don't even have to be sharks. Per this site, elephants, kangaroos and manatees continue to grow new teeth from the backs of their mouths, at least for their molars.

Oh, and beyond IDers?

Why hasn't a laser-based system of burning teeth out, at least above the stem of the root, been invented to replace the barbarity of a yanker? 

Editor's note: I plan on at least occasionally doing a second blog post a week on this site this year. A few of these additional posts may be like this one, combining personal experience (at 6-5, born flat-footed, with a tall back that sometimes "goes out," and allegedly "enlarged adenoids" as a kid) of having visited the "yanker" earlier this year.

Thursday, January 14, 2021

James Harris awakened me from my Humean dogmatic slumber

 I'm sure that he had no idea he was doing this, though we've had a brief exchange of emails, focused on Hume's racism and related issues.

But, he did.

What follows below is an edited and expanded version of my Goodreads review of his 2015 biography of Hume.

A week from now, I plan to post an edited version of my review of E.C. Mossner's old 1954 bio, including some points of comparison (and definite contrast) with Harris.

This is the second in a series, one that started with last week's post about presentism, as that piece was focused on Hume (as a stand-in for Enlightenment philosophers in general) and racism.

After the Mossner biography post, I plan to post every other week about some specific aspects of Hume as brought to new focus, and awakened from uncritical dogmatic slumber about Hume, by Harris and Harris prodding me into looking at some of Hume's lesser works, or anew at some of his major ones, and his major ideas.

With that, let's dig in!

Hume: An Intellectual BiographyHume: An Intellectual Biography by James A. Harris
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a tough, tough book to review. I took a lot of notes. Early on, my appetite whetted by the Introduction, I would have been very ready to five-star it. The framing of Hume as a man of letters, or to go French along with the mot of him as "le bon David," as a "litterateur," seemed a promising new focus. And yet?

Direct vs indirect passions is an interesting matter, one that was but touched on by Harris. It probably could have been studied even more, and by Hume as a philosopher as well as Harris analyzing him as a philosopher. (One of the upcoming posts in the series will be about "young Hume" vs "old Hume," whether or not there were two different Humes, and if so, how much "the passions" was part of that split.

Harris rejects the claim that Hume was a "divided" philosopher. So does the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Other commenters on this book accept that, and accept Hume's own claim he rejected the Treatise because it was "the manner, not the matter" of how it read, rather than what it said. Rather, this is to accept Hume's public self-preservation at face value. Especially on the issue of the passions, Hume DID reject "the matter" of the Treatise and never did accept it — or return to it — again. (Mossner disagrees, and I think he has "the goods" to at least partially support this.)

Then, the biggie. I knew what to look for, as far as how Harris handled it.

By the time I got to Harris' mishandling (that's the best I can call it) about Hume's infamous footnote about "the Negros" in "Of National Characteristics," it lost a star right there, and was slipping a bit before then. Sadly, at the time of this review on Goodreads, no other reviewer had noted this there.

Hume was challenged on his racist views in his own time, above all by the Scottish philosopher James Beattie. Harris treats both the footnote and Hume's editing of it, and why, in only a footnote. He then claims that it was NOT in response to Beattie, though the evidence is pretty clearly against him. Worse, in an email, he said he couldn't remember what he wrote. This area will be covered much more in the specific post.

Also, the sharpness of Hume's reaction to Beattie undercuts le bon David, which is part of Harris' whole focus.

How it handled his "Essays Moral and Political" in general shoved it into three-star territory. That said, Harris later admitted to me that he agreed many of the essays are "shallow" [and they are], along with other things. I'll be offering a few thoughts on "Of National Characteristics" as part of a piece on Hume and race and going beyond my "presentism" piece.

Then, his handling of Hume the historian moved it back into four-star range.

But, next, while this is an intellectual biography, it could have been more personal on the Hume-Rousseau situation. Finally, tying back to "that footnote," Hume's reaction to James Beattie — and Harris' take on that — undercut "le bon David" of legend.

Harris claims Mossner, in his bio of Hume, is too hagiographic. 

And, that leads me to the New York Review of Books, take, which said: "Mossner’s life of Hume is suffused with an affection for its subject that, according to Harris, sometimes obstructs a 'properly dispassionate' examination of the facts.” This is the petard-hoisting area. Again, I think Harris is guilty of some of this himself.

I'll touch on some of this when I do my comparison-contrast of Mossner's bio with Harris'.

Next, whether it's Hume himself stressing the claim, or Harris burnishing it? On "The Natural History of Religion," polytheistic gods weren't, and aren't, always kind and cuddly, and monotheistic ones aren't always harsh father figures. Contra the former, see Shiva, or even more, Kali. Contra the latter, see the deified versions of the Buddha in many "denominations" within Mahayana.

The book was generally good on Hume's skill as a historian. And, I agree that Elizabeth was an absolute monarch and that the Stuarts got bad press. Nonetheless, in his later revisions to his volumes of history, Hume comes off as a "trimmer." If that's part of how one gets to be "le bon David," pass.

View all my reviews

Thursday, January 07, 2021

Thoughts against presentism

 In calling David Hume a racist or Aristotle sexist, professional philosophers such as Massimo Pigliucci have accused me of "presentism."

I reject the charge because I reject the concept.

Briefly, here's why.

As I see it, "presentism" is an absolute adjective.

All I have to do is find one non-sexist in Aristotle's Greece, or one non-racist in Hume's Great Britain, and the idea is undermined.

And, while I may not think of particular Britons, some of the French philosophes were certainly anti-racist. And, I point to Aristophanes' "Lysistrata" as anti-sexist.

And, a quick Google let's me go straight to a contemporary of Hume's, per this piece:

Hume was challenged on his racist views in his own time, including by the Scottish philosopher James Beattie, who wrote: "The empires of Peru and Mexico could not have been governed, nor the metropolis of the latter built after so singular a manner, in the middle of a lake, without men eminent both for action and speculation.

"Boom," in a word. (That said, Beattie only challenges his anti-Indian racism directly.) THAT said, per this philosophical essay, Hume revised his original racism agasint Blacks and American Indians to just an anti-Black racism in specific response to Beattie.

THAT said, the IEP, in its article on Beattie, reports that his magnum opus, "An Essay on the Nature and Immutability of Truth," made Hume mad in general. Wiki, in its piece on the essay, notes Beattie had a habit of slash-and-burn attacks on opponents. And, a note: The essay, in German, was part of what "awoke Kant from his dogmatic slumber."

Read the whole IEP article. Beattie offers a good refutation of racism in general.

Of course, Hume wasn't alone among Enlightenment philosophers, and said philosophers, while writing about morals, did little for practical moral advancement in their societies.

A second way of refuting Massimo, Dan Kaufman, et al would be to hoist Hume by his own petard.

If nobody at the time of Aristotle were anti-sexist, and nobody at the time of Hume were anti-racist, than to use Hume's own phrasing, anti-racism or anti-sexism must have arisen "viz a miracle."

On anti-racism, the third way of refuting Massimo and Dan is to refer to any number of recent insightful books of social history which show the rise of "race" as a social construct in early Enlightenment Europe. 

So, I have three refutations of presentism in the charge of racism against Hume. (And, against Locke, Kant, Voltaire and others of this era.) I have two refutations of presentism in the charge of sexism against Aristotle.

And, bonus? One is directly philosophy-connected, via linguistic philosophy. (Sidebar: I wonder how much the issue of what is an absolute adjective and what is not has been studied in modern linguistics and philosophy of language.)



Schedule of related blogging:

  1. A more in-depth look at Harris' bio of Hume than my Goodreads review, Jan. 14;
  2. A more in-depth look at Mossner's bio of Hume than my Goodreads review, Jan. 21;
  3. Hume, racism and general bigotry, and ultimate rank hypocrisy, Feb. 4;
  4. Le bon David: David Hume as litterateur, Feb. 18;
  5. Young Hume vs Old Hume: The passions and more, March 4;
  6. Is David Hume just a bundle in my mind? Or just a petard hoisting? March 25.

Sunday, January 03, 2021

Luther excommunicated

A little over six months after issuing his Exsurge, Domine bull against Luther, Pope Leo X took the final step 500 years ago today and excommunicated Luther. At least he got the perverse pleasure of Leo issuing a second bull just to announce the excommunication. The photo above is from National Geographic's piece, with a modern re-enactment of Luther's famous, or infamous, burning of Exsurge in December 1520.

That's part of what made Luther's trip to the Diet of Worms a few months later dicey. Charles V (whether "Great" or not) could revoke the imperial safe-conduct at any time, and claim (or even gin up) papal pressure. Luther, having been called a Hussite plenty of times in the past, was aware of just what happened to Jan Hus.

Although Lutherans trail several other Protestant groups in the US, globally, the different wings of Lutheranism are behind only the Anglican Communion, as NG notes.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Thoughts for liberal Christians on the "solstice star"

Jupiter and Saturn on Dec. 21 had their closest conjunction in 400 years and their closest nighttime, visible one in about 800 years.

And, fitting for methodologically naturalist science, it's on the winter solstice.

And, I appear to have indeed gotten it, as ragged as it is, on camera, handheld, as you can see at left. That would be Jupiter at left in the photo, and I believe Io above and Europa below.

And, per a blog post of several years ago on my primary blog, as far as modern explanation of the development of our Solar System, Laplace is the reason for the season. That's French astronomer Pierre-Simon Laplace, who articulated the "nebular hypothesis" more than 200 years ago.

For  latest modern modelings on how the nebular Solar System developed, see this great Nautilus piece. Among other things, it explained why Jupiter and Saturn likely moved out, rather than in closer to the Sun, as they gained mass.

From here on out, I'm going to expand on what I wrote on my primary blog about this conjunction, to reflect further on the title of the post here.

Per two paragraphs above? As a secular humanist, I can appreciate the wonder and joy of astronomy without having to put either Christian or New Age veneers over it. I can also appreciate the wonder of reaching across 800 years of history. But also, unlike some of Laplace's older peers (Diderot, d'Holbach even more) I don't have to act like a Gnu Atheist, either.

After I did editing of pix and an initial wrap on the blog post (I already had the Nautilus and my old blog post in place yesterday) I started thinking about "miracles" of human ingenuity.

First, of course, is the cultural evolution in astronomical understanding that led Copernicus to re-invent the heliocentric theory and for it to gain acceptance. Then came the big step of Kepler's gathering of empirical evidence to establish elliptical orbits. Then, Galileo with Venerean phases giving empirical support for heliocentrism. And so forth.

On the personal side? The camera and lens I used to shoot that photo? Arguably better than ones I would have paid 10 times as much for 15 years ago.

And, per the verse from Proverbs? Not always, but often, with all our new knowing, has come new understanding as well.

And, now to the header in more detail.

I saw plenty of #ChristmasStar hashtags on Twitter. This ignores, of course, that it fell on the solstice, per good old Laplace. It also ignores that the ancient world had all sorts of winter festivals, that Christianity "pegged" Dec. 25 as Christmas' date because of a festival of Mithras and other things, such as the date that the Romans celebrated the winter solstice and emperor Aurelian setting the festival of Sol Invictus on that date. Also, fittingly, since Saturn is one of the two planets in the conjunction, and Saturnalia ran Dec. 17-23 on the old Julian calendar, that we could call it the #SaturnaliaStar just as much as the #ChristmasStar.

To this point, I'm primarily refuting fundamentalist and conservative evangelical Protestants, traditionalist Catholics, etc.

But, now we're going to speak to liberal members of suburban and urban congregations within ELCA Lutheranism, the United Methodist Church, etc.

Some of you were tweeting #ChristmasStar, too, of that I have no doubt.

Well, let's look at Matthew's story, specifically 2:1-2, 9:

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” … 

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was.

A few notes.

The opening would seem to indicate a traditional star (including the "planetoi," as known in Greek), interpreted in the light of Zoroastrian / Babylonian astrology.

But, ordinary stars don't stop. Planets do. Venus and Mercury, being inside Earth's orbit, cannot stop overhead, though. So, that would leave Mars, Jupiter and Saturn.

But, would that really be enough for Magi to say "This is it!"? After all, Mars in opposition and standstill is stopped relative to every place on Earth. Ditto for something like a Great Conjunction, excepting nearness to the horizon affecting visibility, of course. (Update: Mars and Venus have their own "great conjunction" on July 12. And, although Venus cannot be directly overhead, arguably, because of its moving, it could kind of fulfill the Magi's alleged perception. Plus, Venus is brighter than Jupiter and Mars is brighter than Saturn. OTOH, Venus-Mars conjunctions happen much more often than Jupiter-Saturn ones. As in, every 2.1 years on average, 10 times more frequently than Jupiter-Saturn, meaning that it would be no big deal, even a really close conjunction.)

So, we are presumed to be invited to see this as a miracle. Just like Joshua making the sun stand still.

Well, if you're a non-literalist Christian, that leaves you with only two logical alternatives.

Either you accept that there was a literal miracle, or you accept that Matthew, writing some sort of pesher on various passages from the Tanakh, went way overboard on trying to sell this as a literal miracle.

Because, just like Joshua making the sun stand still, and contra the bogus story that there's a computer that traces planetary and solar moves back 3,100 or whatever years until it hits a glitch, there is, per people from David Hume to Carl Sagan, NO EVIDENCE for such a thing. That doesn't even take into account the psychological factor that there were world civilizations 3,100 years ago that would have reported a 28-hour day or whatever.

And, an ordinary planetary opposition, or a close conjunction even with an opposition, would not have been eye-catching like this, quite literally.

So, non-literalist Christians about Moses or whatever? You're invited to extend your non-literalism further.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Platonic Noble Lie No. 2 from Fauci

I blogged this summer about Anthony Fauci's Platonic Noble Lie from the spring about how Americans didn't need to wear masks and worse, how he doubled down on it for motivated reasoning or whatever this summer.

Now he's at it again.

Fauci has admitted that 70 percent immunity is way too low for herd immunity on coronavirus, that the country needs at least 80 percent, maybe 90 percent.

Dr. Fauci said that weeks ago, he had hesitated to publicly raise his estimate because many Americans seemed hesitant about vaccines, which they would need to accept almost universally in order for the country to achieve herd immunity.

Now that some polls are showing that many more Americans are ready, even eager, for vaccines, he said he felt he could deliver the tough message that the return to normal might take longer than anticipated.

“When polls said only about half of all Americans would take a vaccine, I was saying herd immunity would take 70 to 75 percent,” Dr. Fauci said. “Then, when newer surveys said 60 percent or more would take it, I thought, ‘I can nudge this up a bit,’ so I went to 80, 85.”

Problem? His claim that this will make Americans more vaccine-desirous could backfire. One could easily argue the opposite side of the equation.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Classical music in the era of coronavirus

Many major symphony orchestras remain shuttered at this time, of course, and the price to their societies and foundations grows by the day, with questions in some cases about whether they'll ever reopen again.

That said, here in the DFW Metroplex, the Richardson orchestra was advertising a live concert on WRR last month, so smaller groups are taking the plunge in at least one case. (Since smaller, and especially smaller and newer, groups have less of a reserve in foundation dollars, a place like Richardson may have no choice, per the first paragraph.)

So, I started wondering recently if a group like the Dallas Symphony Orchestra couldn't reopen after all. And, by reopen, I mean, along the lines of Richardson, live concerts.

I say a cautious yes, with restrictions on what music gets played.

1. Choral music is out, obviously.

2. You want to try to have as few winds as general, so, no post-Brahmsian music, by date AND by style. (That's you, Wagner.) As Brahms only used trombones in one movement of the First Symphony, that's my cutoff. No boners.

So, we're talking about an actual Beethoven-Schubert-Schumann-Brahms orchestra at max. On winds, that means two flutes, two oboes, two clarinets, two horns, two trumpets. Concer seating? A large horseshoe of sorts around the back edge of the stage. The normal "sound shields" in front of brass instruments now become coronavirus shields for ALL winds.

OK, then what? Say 10 first and second violins. Eight violas. Four cellos, two basses. That's 34 strings plus 10 winds. If it's 12/12 on the violins, OK, 38. One timpanist. That's likely it on percussion. So, 49 players. 

Even pre-Mahler music often has 60 or more on the floor, so, orchestra staffing takes a hit. Whether by seniority, or some strings players rotating in and out on a half-time basis, or what, I don't know. Obviously, unions and symphony organizations/guilds would discuss this. Maybe fight over it.

3. Attendance seating is like this, in a mock-up of a section of three rows, with X being patrons and O being empty seats:




That's 50 percent seating. Is that enough distancing if everybody wears masks? I think. If not, cut to 33 percent. The aisle rows give you some extra space, so you seat a person every third seat with a three-row stagger on the arrangement.

3A. Masks are mandatory. You're booted if you don't wear them or take them off. Period. No disability exceptions. If you're a season-ticket holder, you lose your season ticket.

4. No wine bar, desserts, etc. No "concessions," if the classical music world allows such a gauche term! 

5. Intermission is shorter, because of this. No more than, say, 12 minutes. If you keep it to 10, maybe you do two internissions?

6. Ventilation. Besides installing UV lights on the HVAC air returns? Lobby doors open during intermissions for fresh air circulation. (That would be an advantage of two shorter intermissions.) Now, if it's 0°F in Minneapolis for the Minnesota Orchestra, then ... doors open halfway? But, you still open them. Yeah, this is going to jack heating bills.

7. With the 50 percent seating, a flip side. If you're an orchestra that just does three days of concerts on your programming, guess what? Add Thursdays to the Friday-Sunday. Unions may gripe, but they'll accept if it's getting paid something vs. not playing. If you're a larger orchestra that already does 4x, do you consider 5x? A matinee plus night on selected Saturdays? 

In actuality, the DSO is doing an even more scaled down version of my ideas. Unless they're charging a LOT for the streamed version of their concerts, they can't be making money with 50-75 people in attendance. Question is, how much are they losing and do they consider this a worthwhile "loss leader" for the long term future?

And, actually, it's NOT scaled down in other ways. "Big Brassy Christmas"? Mahler (4th, non-choral) and Shostakovich on the regular fare? Nope. Not smart, IMO.