A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.7: Distinguishing Best Explanation From Ad Hoc Explanation

I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concept 1.6, click here; Concept 1.5, click here; for Concept 1.4, click here; for 1.3 here; 1.2 here; 1.1 here.

Concept 1.7. Distinguishing best explanation from ad hoc explanation. A sign that you may not be seeking the best theory surrounding the truth of a matter, and instead protecting a favored theory—one you want to be true over all others—is if you’re doing a lot of ad hoc reasoning in response to objections to it. We might call this ad hoc-ing. Ad hoc is Latin for for this explanation or moment only or add here for a special purpose, as when a business or bureaucracy forms an ad hoc committee to address an unforeseen situation. Ad hoc reasoning is deployed in, as it were, unanticipated or emergency situations; i.e., situations where a thesis or claim has failed to foresee an important objection or is at an impasse. When you engage in ad hoc explanation, you’re trying to save a favored thesis or belief from pointed and skeptical questions—or new and disconfirming data or competing theses—by seat-of-the-pants rationalizing that cannot be generalized to other theses of the same type. Here are two example sentences deploying ad hoc (seat-of-the-pants) reasoning:

My psychic powers failed today because the audience had too many doubters in it.

UFOs exist, but they never land on the White House lawn because they prefer not to be seen.

These explanations save the theses in question (the claims that psychic powers and UFOs are real), but at the expense of adding additional claims to them (psychic powers are real and they don’t work in the presence of doubters; UFOs are real and they don’t want to be known). That is, they add convenient, “just so” premises to blunt the force of obvious objections: If you have psychic powers, why did they fail in the presence of witnesses today? If UFOs exist, why do they never land on the White House lawn?

With the addition of a premise (a claim supporting another claim) to each thesis, the theses become less simple and probable—though still logically possible. In ad hoc premise adding, skeptical questions and new data are not really being anticipated or naturally incorporated into a theory or claim, but deflected with an additional claim or premise that is logically possible, but maybe not subject to empirical verification (reality testing). The ad hoc explanation, with each new premise added to the original claim, thus renders the explanation less plausible. But because there are lots of logically possible ways that the world can be that cannot be verified by evidence—we may, for example, be a dream in the mind of a butterfly—if you are willing to believe things absent evidence, then you can engage in a lot of “ad hoc-ing” to save your favored beliefs, theories, explanations, and behaviors from skeptical inquiry and new data. Ad hoc premise generating can also be a sign that someone is arguing in bad faith (their motivations for posing such explanations are something other than the truth or the good).

One way to push back against ad hoc rationalizers is to deploy in response Occam’s razor, formulated by William of Occam (1285-1347), in this manner: “No more things should be presumed to exist than are absolutely necessary.” That is, if you can keep things simple, do it. Don’t multiply premises unnecessarily. Ad hoc, seat-of-the-pants rationalizing, multiplies premises. Occam’s razor shaves them off. Maybe psychic powers fail in the presence of skeptics—and UFOs never land on the White House lawn—because neither psychic powers nor UFOs exist.

“Seek simplicity and distrust it.” So the principle here is: quite often–and arguably, most often–the simplest explanation is best. And in some instances, mathematics can be deployed to support Occam’s razor. As a matter of sheer probability, for example, two inductions being true are always going to be at least slightly less likely than a single induction being true. Each time a premise is added to an inductive thesis, the odds of the combined premises being true must necessarily come down (induction, recall, is about probabilities, not certainties). If, for instance, you’re 90% certain a particular woman is a Democratic voter, 90% certain she’s vegetarian, and 90% certain she signed your friend’s animal rights petition, the odds that you are actually right about all three of these in combination is not 90%, but drops statistically to 72% (.9 x .9 x .9 = .72). If you also infer, say, with a confidence of 65%, that she’s a feminist, then the odds that she’s all four of these things come down further still (.72 x .65 = .468 or 46.8%). With just four inferences or assumptions surrounding the woman in question, your odds of being right about her on all of these matters have plummeted to under 50% (assuming you scaled your levels of confidence surrounding each claim accurately in the first place). Occam’s razor proceeds with caution in the multiplication of premises, thus increasing our odds that we’re on the right track.

But a caution to simplicity (Occam’s razor) as a criterion for evaluating truth is offered by the mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead: “Seek simplicity and distrust it.” Why distrust it? One reason is that humans tend to find comfort in things they can control, and simple models or explanations might thus serve an emotional bias for control, distorting the complexity of the matter at hand, as in the politician’s behavior can be summed up in one word: greed. If you accept this simple heuristic (rule of thumb, model) for the politician’s behavior, you’ve got a lot of control over the processing of news you encounter about him or her, and you don’t have to expend energy thinking about it, but you may judge their words and actions wrongly, or fail to anticipate how their actions might impact your life. Simplicity as a criterion can arrest a deeper inquiry, and can open people up to such things as the availability heuristic (landing on the nearest and simplest rule of thumb, model, or map that comes to mind for explaining a problem or situation). Occam’s razor, used too casually, can signal lazy thinking.

So ideally, the critical thinker wants to locate heuristic rules of thumb, models, and maps that–like Goldilocks in search of her soup, chair, and bed–are just right. (That is, useful and attending to the right signals in the noise, neither more nor less complicated than necessary.)

Writing 1.7.1. Imagine yourself as a playwright or screenwriter generating a funny scene between two characters. One has made a claim that is a lie, and the other is suspicious. Have the lying character field and answer pointed questions from the skeptical character, engaging in ad hoc, seat of the pants, explanation all the way.

Writing 1.7.2. Select a claim you regard as especially complicated, and unnecessarily larded with unnecessary and ad hoc rationalizations, and write a paragraph slicing and dicing it with Occam’s razor. What’s a simpler explanation or thesis, and what makes it better than the claim you’re deconstructing?


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A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.6: Distinguishing The Logically Possible From The Actual

I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concept 1.5, click here; for Concept 1.4, click here; for 1.3 here; 1.2 here; 1.1 here.

Lesson 1.6. Distinguishing the logically possible from the actual. As the three laws of logic suggest—and the early Wittgenstein observed—what we can say meaningfully about the world consists of an infinite number of logically possible sentences, but never impossible ones. The penguin flew to the moon is a logically coherent and meaningful sentence. Whether it is actually true or not is another matter. The penguin flew over and under the moon at the same time, however, is not a logically coherent sentence. It violates the law of non-contradiction, and you can’t even visualize it. The penguin sort of flew to the moon and sort of didn’t is also not a logically coherent sentence. It cannot be visualized. It violates the law of the excluded middle. The car is in the garage and on the street is also not a coherent sentence. I’m a married bachelor is not a coherent sentence. You cannot visualize, let alone think, such sentences. Thus, when we say that something is not, strictly speaking, logical, or not logically possible, we are speaking of words in relation. If the words make no sense in relation, then they cannot correspond to any actual state of affairs in the world itself.

Making distinctions is often central to reasoning, and so one way to think about the merely meaningful sentence in contrast with the factual sentence is to distinguish the logically possible from the physically possible, the technologically possible, and the actual. Something might be logically possible–a penguin flying to the moon–but not physically possible. When we test penguins’ ability to fly, we find that, though they are birds, they in fact can’t actually fly at all, let alone to the moon. It may one day, however, be technologically possible to put rockets on the backs of penguins that are powerful enough to propel them to the moon. We might also one day engineer bionic or robotic penguins that can fly over an survive on the moon. One day, perhaps, the moon might be terraformed (made earth-like, with an atmosphere). You may thus judge that it may be plausible—or even probable—that technology will one day make it possible for biological penguins to fly around and live on the moon. But that still doesn’t mean it will actually happen. What is plausible, possible, or probable does not always become actual. And if you put rockets on the backs of bionic penguins, we run into disputes over definition: is a bionic penguin with a jet pack and capable of surviving on the moon still a penguin?

We also might distinguish the logically possible from the actual in a still more fine-grained way, holding up a logically possible proposition for scrutiny from the vantage of a continuum, gray-scaling it. Bacterial life on Mars may thus be deemed:

highly improbable



possessing even odds

probable (possessing better than even odds)


highly likely

nearly certain


logically necessary


Another example: someone might claim—“On the dark side of the moon is an advanced alien civilization from another galaxy, hiding”—which is logically possible, but how plausible is this? One might also make other distinctions. Observe, for instance, this claim: There has been the evolution of another planet in the observable universe that looks almost exactly like our own. It’s logically possible, but it would seem to be highly improbable. Yet, because of the vast extent of time and space involved, it may nevertheless be deemed likely–or even inevitable. If the universe is infinite in space and time, it might even seem to make such a claim logically necessary.

Deductions, inductions, and abductions. With logical possibility and the three laws of thought or logic stabilizing our words in their definitions and our sentences in their coherences, we can move further over the bridge of logical possibility (the many things contending for the truth concerning a matter) to truth (that one thing that is actually the case). We can do this by evaluating sentences (claims) through deduction, induction, and abduction. Two of these methods for getting at the truth of matters are ancient, going back to Plato and Aristotle, and the third (abduction) is more recent, going back to the mathematician and philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce (1839-1914).

Deduction and induction are grounded in the syllogism, which is two premises supporting a conclusion. Abduction is grounded in criteria and data evaluation, reasoning one’s way to the best explanation concerning a matter via experience or the scientific method. All three–deduction, induction, and abduction–are easy to learn and easy to remember, both as to what they are and what distinguishes them. The classic example of a deduction is the following:

[First premise] Socrates is a man. [Second premise] All men are mortal. [Conclusion] Therefore, Socrates is mortal.

In other words, if the two premises in a deductive syllogism are true, the conclusion is 100% certain. Socrates is indeed a man; all men are indeed mortal; therefore it’s 100% certain that Socrates is mortal. It must be the case.

By contrast, induction concerns conclusions that are less than 100% certain:

Socrates has a runny nose this morning. It’s allergy season. Socrates may have an allergy.

Again, induction deals with conclusions that have some degree of plausibility or probability attached to them, and so is distinguished from deduction, which deals with 100% certainties. And abduction takes induction further, brainstorming possibilities and ranking them:

Some logically possible theories that might account for Socrates’s runny nose are the following: allergy; a cold virus; psychosomatic illness; the devil; a side effect of medication; an invisible gremlin tickling Socrates’s nose with a tiny, invisible feather. For a variety of good reasons, I dismiss some of these as ludicrous, others as unlikely, and therefore choose allergy as the most likely, best explanation.

In other words, abduction is reasoning to the very best thesis or explanation. In trying to get at the truth of a matter, you don’t want just any logically possible induction or hypothesis that accounts for the facts surrounding it. Instead, you want to lay out your options and reason your way, both logically and empirically (that is, experientially), to what appears to be the best hypothesis. Abduction is attentive to new data, seeking to reconcile it to what one already thinks one knows (one’s background knowledge).

Writing 1.6.1. Describe in your journal a state of affairs that is logically possible, but not yet actual, and appraise how plausible you think it is that it will come to pass or be. (For example, the end of war over the next century; the prospect for an alternative energy economy to evolve over the next three decades, etc.)

Writing 1.6.2. Write a deductive syllogism and an inductive syllogism (two premises accompanied by a conclusion). Recall that, with a deductive syllogism, if the premises are true, then the conclusion is 100% certain, but with an inductive syllogism, there is only a possibility that the conclusion is true. (Socrates will die vs. Socrates probably has a cold).

Writing 1.6.3. Generate a list of plausible inductions surrounding a question (either an imaginative question or a factual one), and reason your way to what you regard as the best or most important induction about it. In a paragraph, discuss your conclusion, and why you see it as the best answer to the question. Question examples: Why are dogs preferred to birds as pets? How might my life turn out if I change my major from biology to art? If we ever detect a radio signal from an alien intelligence, what will most likely be the chief consequence for the course of the human decade after the discovery?

Writing 1.6.4. Write some sentences that clearly violate the laws of logic and think about what it is, exactly, that makes them either impossible to visualize or to think.

Writing 1.6.5. Write a paragraph in which you describe something that might be logically possible, but which you take to be physically impossible or technologically impossible, and explain why. For instance, imagining a person moving from one side of our galaxy to the other side of our galaxy within a single second is logically possible, but is neither physically nor technologically possible because to do so would violate the speed of light, the fastest thing in the cosmos (light travels at 186,000 miles per second; no human can travel faster than the speed of light).


Image result for deduction, induction, abduction

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A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.5: The Three Laws Of Thought

I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concept 1.4, click here; for 1.3 here; 1.2 here; 1.1 here.

Concept 1.5. The three laws of thought. The idea that there are three laws of thought or logic, on which all other thought and rational discussion necessarily depend, can be traced to classical and medieval philosophical thinkers, and continues to be widely accepted by philosophers today. The three laws of thought are the following: A is A (the law of identity); A is not A and non-A at the same place and time (the law of non-contradiction); and A is not sort of A and sort of not A (the law of the excluded middle). For example, imagine a woman telling her partner the following:

I’m pregnant. I’m not pregnant and not pregnant at the same place and time; I’m not kind of half pregnant and kind of half not. If I’m pregnant, I’m pregnant.

Notice in all three cases, if the statement “I’m pregnant” is true, that it is not logically possible for the woman to be in any other state than the one on offer.

These three laws of logic are especially helpful for definitional focus–are we talking, for instance, about a tadpole or a frog?–and for keeping definitions from shifting in the course of argument–you called it a tadpole, now you’re calling it a frog, so which is it? But that’s not all the laws of logic are good for. They are also the very conditions for thought itself. Aristotle, writing of the law of non-contradiction in his Metaphysics, Book IV, states the following:

[W]e have now posited [put forward as true] that it is impossible for anything at the same time to be and not to be, and by this means have shown that this is the most indisputable of all principles.

Applying this to speech and writing, it means that words and sentences must have sufficient precision of meaning, and consistency of meaning, to communicate something significant and to be understood. Otherwise, one who both means something and does not mean something at the same time, denying the law of non-contradiction, has actually said nothing. And so here’s Aristotle again:

[I]f he means nothing, such a man will not be capable of reasoning, either with himself or with another.

Indeed, it’s arguable that coherent sentences are not even possible, save for the three laws of thought, and thus a key test for coherence is whether these laws have been violated and whether you can actually visualize the sentence, thus thinking it.

Wittgenstein and the distinction between what is meaningful and what is fact. The logician and philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) career is divided by scholars into an early and late period. In his early period, Wittgenstein’s picture theory of meaning, worked out in his Tractatus, emphasizes vison’s deep connection to logic. (Think of how cartoons so readily suggest what is logically possible.) In his Tractatus, the early Wittgenstein identifies the logically possible unit of language to be, not the word in isolation, but words in relation, deployed in coherent sentences. He suggests that a coherent sentence that might be true is meaningful, and a coherent sentence that actually corresponds to some aspect of a real state of affairs is a fact. Making a distinction between what is meaningful and what is a fact is another way of talking about the logically possible and the actual. So a fact can be thought of as two things in logical relation (the car is or is not in the garage) that correspond to a true state of affairs. If you look, the car really is either in the garage or not. The proposition can thus be either logically or visually pictured. We can see in our mind’s eye an unmarried bachelor or a car in a garage, but we cannot see a married bachelor or a car both in a garage and not in a garage at the same time. Here’s Wittgenstein (Tractatus 3.001, 3.032):

‘An elementary fact is thinkable’ means: we can form a mental picture of it. […] It is as impossible to say something that contradicts logic as it is to draw a figure that contradicts the laws of space or to specify the coordinates of a nonexistent point. 

And so our mental world is built up around propositions that Wittgenstein might classify as either meaningful (logically possible sentences) or facts (logically possible sentences that correspond to this or that actual state of affairs in the world). No thing or word is an island, but is, rather, chained into relations. Wittgenstein also puts it this way: “In an elementary fact the objects hang in one another like the links of a chain” (2.03), and “God can create anything so long as it does not contradict the laws of logic” (3.031). And so Wittgenstein’s second sentence in the Tractatus is this: “The world is the totality of facts, not of things” (1.1). Again, Wittgenstein seems to have said this because no thing in the world or word in a sentence is an island. The irreducible unit of meaningful or factual language is the logically possible relation (no married bachelors; no frog that is both a tadpole and frog at the same time; no car that is both in and out of the same garage at the same time).

Wittgenstein’s toy cars and dolls. What inspired Wittgenstein’s insight that a sentence really only makes sense when it reflects a logical relation or a state of affairs in space and time? According to his Notebooks, Wittgenstein was thinking of newspaper accounts of courtroom reenactments of car accidents. Reenactments were done using toy cars and dolls. This proved to be a eureka moment for the young Wittgenstein, for it occurred to him that this is exactly what a coherent sentence does: it maps, pictures, or models objects in logically and visually possible “states of affairs,” which the reader then apprehends and “sees” (turns into a logically consistent, mental picture).

Writing 1.5.1. Imagine you’re writing a play or screenplay in which one character tells another character something they either don’t want to hear or actually want to hear quite badly. (“I’m pregnant.” “We’ve won the lottery.”) Write it in such a way that one tries to pin down the definition of a word or concept, and the other tries to muddy-up what the word must mean, and its consequences, perhaps violating one or more of the laws of thought or logic along the way. (“You mean, you’re sort of pregnant?” “No, I’m pregnant,” etc.)

Writing 1.5.2. Write in your journal about an imaginative, but nevertheless meaningful or logically possible, state of affairs (“It’s logically possible that…”). Then write a paragraph in which you describe a state of affairs that you take to be factual or actual (“This really happened:…”).


Image result for hippie toy cars and garage


Image result for hippie toy cars and garage


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A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.4: Spanning The Bridge From Logical Possibility To Truth

I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concept 1.3, click here; for 1.1 here; 1.2 here.

Concept 1.4: Spanning the bridge from logical possibility to truth. Given that the starting and stopping points for arguments are context dependent on audience, worldview, and ideology, it might be argued that any consistently shared reasoning across worldviews and cultures is a mirage—and is undesirable in any event. Ultimately (it might be claimed), nothing can be wholly ruled out as impossible because a global consensus can never be arrived at regarding first premises. Maybe you really did see a penguin fly. Maybe an angel or space alien really did talk to the leader of your group. History teaches us that people have, at one time or another, used reasoning to reach just about any conclusion they’ve wanted, raising the question of whether reason and logic can ever really be trusted. Perhaps Orwell’s ambition for objectivity—to “see what is in front of one’s nose” absent bias, passion, and ideology—is a delusion. Maybe a mediated encounter with reality (and it appears that an unmediated encounter is impossible for humans) necessarily means that experience and interpretation are going to always be subjective, never objective, and thus any claims we make can be likened to ice cream: you like vanilla, I like mint, and there’s no way to arbitrate whose sense of taste is better.

But what if we bring our ambition for absolute certainty, objectivity, and global knowledge down just a bit? If there is not a first idea or starting point that can confer on us powers of clarity and confidence for thinking and writing that will convince everybody, and bring all fair-minded people to the same conclusions, might there nevertheless at least be a starting point for thinking and conversation across diverse groups and cultures, regardless of where that thinking and conversation might ultimately lead us? Can we, in short, reason together across our cultural and tribal boundaries, rather than talking past one another, closing in on at least some shared or agreed upon truths?

With such a reduced ambition, there actually is a very powerful idea that has the virtue of simplicity, and can be used to get some objectivity going in conversation. It has been well-known to intellectuals for thousands of years, going back to Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece, and it can at least function as a useful starting point for getting thoughts and conversations going among those who might otherwise disagree, regardless of where those thoughts and conversations might ultimately take us. That first idea is logical possibility. Logical possibility can be defined simply as what’s possible, or, more precisely, the realm of what’s possible–even if a thing is highly unlikely or even barely conceivable, such as a penguin flying.

The baseline here is that a thing, to be logically possible, must be imaginable at some level. Everything that happens in cartoons is thus logically possible. Cartoon rabbits can talk and cartoon coyotes can make traps for cartoon road runners because these things are logically possible; they can be imagined and visualized. But, obviously, it doesn’t follow that it’s either physically or technologically possible for actual rabbits and coyotes to do these things. Nevertheless, if you can think it or imagine it, it’s logically possible. In evaluating the truth of a matter, then, and as a place to start a process of thought with others, logical possibility can be stated in a single sentence: At minimum, there is no thing true that is not logically possible.

An appeal to logic is therefore an appeal to engage one’s imagination and reasoning in a careful, precise, and coherent manner, and it is an appeal to do so with stable, identifiable premises and definitions. An appeal to logical possibility considers as a candidate for truth any meaningful claim (one that is not vague, obscure, or incoherent; one that can be conceived or visualized as a possibility).

Can you see it? There are no married bachelors, and no one can be pregnant and not pregnant at the same time. These are logical impossibilities. They cannot even be depicted in a fanciful cartoon. One cannot see them in imagination, let alone in reality. It is, however, logically possible that a lifelong bachelor of seventy years may decide to marry, though perhaps it is unlikely; and it is logically possible, with a little imagination, that a woman could be pregnant without having ever experienced intercourse, though, again, it would appear to be something highly unlikely. We can imagine ways such things could happen. Logical possibility functions as the first gate through which rational human thought and dialogue might pass across worldviews, ideologies, groups, and cultures, whether implicitly or explicitly. It’s not true that anything is possible. Only what is logically possible is possible. If we agree on that much, we can have a conversation; we can think and reason together. Objectivity has got a toehold. Only what can be coherently imagined, thought, or visualized is possible. Can we agree on this much?

Logical possibility vs. actuality. But just because something is logically possible (the marriage of a seventy year old, and formerly lifelong, bachelor; a woman pregnant without intercourse), it doesn’t make it true. The threshold for believing something, for most people, rarely stops at, “It’s logically possible; so I believe it. It settles the matter for me.” All thought explicitly or implicitly starts there, but it rarely halts there. Logical possibility is a necessary, but usually not sufficient, condition for rational belief. For instance, if a man comes indoors soaking wet on a partly cloudy day, it’s logically possible that he does so because he was caught in a brief thunder storm. But it’s also logically possible that a fire hydrant burst in the street as he was walking home, or that sprinklers came on as he walked across a field. It’s also logically possible that children bombarded the person with water balloons, or that a dispute with a neighbor ended with his being chased off a lawn with a water hose. We can imagine lots of possibilities, and thus context is most likely to dictate whether we inquire and investigate further, and what we end up concluding. Some factors influencing our conclusion might include the following: the truth of the matter may be of high or low importance and interest to us, and therefore our level of attention may be along a spectrum, from close attention to outright distraction; we may assign levels of plausibility to different scenarios, and, because our time is limited for investigation, deploy a heuristic (rule of thumb) to the matter; or we may simply guess and be done with it, turning our attention to a television program.

The consequences of logical possibility as a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for reaching the truth are wide ranging. Logical possibility, in any situation, provides us with a map of the territory for speculation. And on that map, it means there is a bridge that needs to be crossed from the realm of the vast territory of logical possibilities on one side, to the actual truth of a matter on the other. Possibilities are many; the truth is one. Once we absorb the implications of logical possibility’s relation to rational thought and truth, it starts to dawn on us that we cannot even begin a process of crossing the bridge of reason to truth without first taking into account what’s possible—logically possible—either explicitly or implicitly. In the realm of logical possibility, truth is akin to Waldo in a Where’s Waldo? children’s book. On any page, there are lots of candidates for Waldo, but there’s only one Waldo.

Sherlock Holmes. Logical possibility plays a large, implicit role in detective fiction, as when Sherlock Holmes says the following to his partner Watson in the 1939 film version of The Hounds of the Baskervilles:

That’s where crimes are conceived and they are solved: in the imagination. Now, if we…use our imaginations as the criminal does, imagine what might have happened to him [the murder victim] and act upon it [investigate it based on our theory], as I have been trying to do in this case, we usually find ourselves justified.

In other words, Holmes is suggesting that, to solve a crime, one moves from the logically possible to a plausible theory, and then one brings close attention to subsequent experience and experiment, either confirming or disconfirming the theory. Ultimately, the most probable theory of those on offer is the one in which we “usually find ourselves justified”—though, of course, not always. As with crime solving, so with truth-seeking in general.

Alexander Pope, Emily Dickinson, and Aristotle. Thus it seems the human condition is to strive to reason even as we often fail in reason. So it is that we dwell in uncertainties as best we can, as the poet Alexander Pope (1688-1744) observes of the individual:

Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,
A Being darkly wise, and rudely great:
With too much knowledge for the Sceptic side,
With too much weakness for the Stoic’s pride,
He hangs between; in doubt to act, or rest;
In doubt his Mind or Body to prefer;
Born but to die, and reasoning but to err;
Alike in ignorance, his reason such,
Whether he thinks too little, or too much:
Chaos of Thought and Passion, all confused;
Still by himself abused, or disabused;
Created half to rise, and half to fall;
Great Lord of all things, yet a prey to all;
Sole judge of Truth, in endless Error hurled:
The glory, jest, and riddle of the world!

But if dwelling in uncertainty and the prosaic (the workaday material, factual world), struggling with one’s uncertainties in relation to truth and what one should do, is too much for us, there is always life beyond this world; the life of the imaginative artist or poet, who makes a space, at least for a time, to escape such questions, and dwells in possibility, as when Emily Dickinson writes:

I dwell in Possibility –

A fairer House than Prose –

More numerous of Windows –

Superior – for Doors –


Of Chambers as the Cedars –

Impregnable of eye –

And for an everlasting Roof

The Gambrels of the Sky –


Of Visitors – the fairest –

For Occupation – This –

The spreading wide my narrow Hands

To gather Paradise –

Dickinson’s preference for imagination (possibility) over one’s workaday, matter of fact world of prose, is akin to the distinction the philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE), in his Poetics (chapter 9), makes between history and poetry:

The true difference [between history and poetry] is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen….[P]oetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type will on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity.

In other words, while the historian’s imagination is constrained by particular historical facts, the poet’s imagination suffers no such constraint, and yet the poet is still constrained by what is either logically possiblelogically necessary (the rules of logic and non-contradiction: no married bachelors, etc.), or the psychologically and sociologically plausible. Even the poet’s imagination is not wholly unconstrained.

Writing 1.4.1. The philosopher Aristotle, writing more than two millennia ago, observed in his book, Rhetoric, that, when people make arguments, they do so concerning either the past, the present, or the future. Think of a question worthy of arguing about, whether concerning the past, present, or future, and explore in your journal some of the logically possible ways people might go about defending their position on the matter. Example: “It’s logically possible that there is life on Mars. Even absent surface water, it might be underground,…” etc. And argue from the vantage of logical possibility for both sides (“It’s logically possible that there is no life on Mars. Even though Mars may have caves with water beneath the surface, it might be that the evolution of life is a vanishingly rare event,…” etc. Is it easier to move from the logically possible to the plausible by taking one side, but not the other? If so, why is that?

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Posted in atheism, critical thinking, david hume, education, edward feser, Lucretius, philosophy, poetry, reason, rhetoric, science, Uncategorized, writing | 5 Comments

A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.3: Worldview

I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concept 1.2, click here, and for 1.1 here.

Concept 1.3. Worldview. One large reason human beings do not all accept the same starting points, premises, and conclusions in reasoning is that they do not all share the same Weltanschauung (German for worldview: a broad and agreed upon philosophical orientation). In Western civilization, for instance, two broad worldviews have been in historic tension, and often outright contention: the monotheistic (belief in, and privileging of, one supernatural deity over all others in the public square) and the secular (no particular belief in, or privileging of, any supernatural deities in the public square). These are represented respectively by two cities, their roots extending into ancient times: Jerusalem–the holy city of the three great monotheistic faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity)–and Athens, the historic city that birthed democracy, science, rhetoric, philosophy, and tragic and comic theatre. The civilizations of the East include worldviews associated with Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and Confucianism. Within Christianity, there are broadly divergent worldviews represented by Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant traditions. In Islam, Sunnis and Shiites represent different worldviews. In Judaism, Orthodox and Reform strains represent different orientations to the world. Among secular people, there are fundamental disagreements over what constitutes the best human future–capitalism, nationalism, socialism, environmentalism, feminism, and so on–each of which imply broadly different worldviews concerning human flourishing. Samuel Huntington, in his widely discussed book, The Clash of Civilizations, associates broadly distinct worldviews with different civilizations (the Western world with Christianity and secularism, Islamic civilization with Islam, India with Hinduism, China with Confucianism, etc.). This diversity, Huntington argues, poses (perhaps insurmountable) difficulties for the achievement of a global, unified, singular, and secular civilization over the next century, as aspired to by such eighteenth century Anglo-French Enlightenment thinkers as Voltaire, Francis Bacon, and David Hume—and in the 20th and 21st centuries by such figures as Bertrand Russell, Albert Einstein, Steven Pinker, and Bill Gates.

Worldviews that look to make themselves universal—as with monotheistic cultures and humanistic cultures devoted to universal human reason and rights—may seek to achieve a hegemonic discourse (a unitary discourse in which all fundamental premises are already shared in advance, the starting and stopping points of arguments agreed upon by all). Such a discourse, should it ever reach its universal aim of netting everyone living, would presumably rest, not just on powers of persuasion and pragmatic utility, but on powers of habit and violence, for human imagination and diversity do not generally lend themselves well or willingly to singular or conformist ways of talking, thinking, and acting. History suggests that human beings do not like to be governed in deed or thought absent some degree of consent, and that they grow rebellious when their thoughts and deeds do not feel self-determined (chosen) and in accord with private conscience and tribal affiliations.

So a successful worldview (in the sense that it is widely shared and expanding in the world) relies to some degree on its premises remaining largely beneath the radar of full awareness. As a system of ideas it thus constitutes an ideology that people just don’t talk about all that explicitly. When thought about at all, a worldview as an ideology comes to be associated with common sense, or as a signal of affiliation (what people in this or that tribe assume and practice). Its premises are rarely interrogated willingly by its followers. Scrutiny may be frowned upon–or worse. By habit, a worldview can function largely beneath full awareness of adherents. Unless challenged from outsiders–or by adverse circumstances that seem to suggest it’s not, in fact, functioning very well or usefully–it may go largely unquestioned in public.

Bringing one’s Weltanschauung or ideology into greater awareness. One useful way to bring your worldview or ideology into consciousness is to check your premises, asking questions of them in the light of broad scientific and philosophical categories, such as metaphysics, physics, biology, sociology, psychology, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics. Thus, concerning metaphysics (first things, especially your largest, most abstract conceptual premises), what do you think is really real? For instance, do God, the soul, and free will exist? Are we living in what Space X founder Elon Musk calls base reality–or are we living in a very convincing computer simulation, many steps removed from base reality? Concerning physics (material nature), and all the subsets of material nature that can be studied scientifically (biology, sociology, psychology, etc.), what do you think you know about the world and how it works? Do you believe that the cosmos is vastly old and that life evolves over time? Do you believe that global warming is actually happening, as the consensus of climatologists insists it is? What makes for human flourishing? Is democracy a good thing? How about patriotism? Are the sexes equal? The question of how you know such things is the subject of epistemology (the study of belief and knowledge). The great question of epistemology is: how do you know that the things you take to be true, good, and beautiful actually are these? Do you know by experience, experiment, science, testimony, intuition, common sense, heuristics (simplifying rules of thumb, maps, or models you’ve come up with or accept), authority, expertise, reasoning, emotion, data, statistics, formal logic—or by some combination of these? With regard to ethics, what should you do about what you think you know? What, personally, do you value? Regarding politics, what should we do about the things we might believe in, value, and share together? (Ethics is about individual action, politics collective action). And with regard to aesthetics (the study of art), what’s beautiful? One’s beliefs and attitudes (conscious and unconscious) concerning metaphysics, nature, values, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics make-up one’s worldview or ideology. In this sense, worldviews and ideologies are all around us, and we swim in them every day, perhaps grabbing bits and pieces from the numerous ones on offer, generating our own syncretistic (blended) worldview. The question is whether we do this consciously or unconsciously—and whether coherently or incoherently.

Coherence, background knowledge, and worldview. Attending to coherence is important to critical thinking, and therefore, in terms of rhetoric, to the logos–rationalaspect of your writing. Coherence links background knowledge—the things you think you already know—with incoming data. Take what paleontologists (fossil experts) think they know about the evolution of rabbits, for instance. The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins notes that there should be no fossil rabbits in 500 million year old Cambrian rock strata because rabbits hadn’t evolved until much later. What we would recognize as a rabbit-like mammal does not appear in the fossil record until the Eocene, which spans from 56-33 million years ago. But were a rabbit fossil to be found in Cambrian strata, you would be cognitively dissonant (believing two apparently contradictory things at the same time) if you went on believing in the current scientific narrative of animal evolution anyway. A rabbit in the Cambrian would function, to use philosopher of science Karl Popper’s term loosely, as a falsification of the theory of evolution (at least as currently conceived).

So if you’re being fully coherent, it means that you’re being consistent; your ideas and actions are in harmony with themselves and appear to have a natural fit with reality (the data of reality). But no individual, group, or institution is ever wholly consistent in logic, professed ideals, or relation to reality, and this makes for opportunities to raise issues of coherence in writing and argumentation, such as a question like the following: Does a new claim you are being asked to believe cohere with what you already think you know—your background knowledge? If it doesn’t, something has to give (either the new claim or the background knowledge). Likewise with values: if you profess to be a libertarian—that is, if you believe in individual liberty as the highest human value—yet oppose marijuana legalization, you’re susceptible to the accusation of being incoherent and hypocritical.

Coherence needn’t be an all or nothing deal. A writing teacher who passionately advocates writing, yet rarely writes herself, is incoherent, not as to logic or background knowledge, but surrounding her values. Yet she is not entirely incoherent, for she does write a little. So coherence needn’t be all black or white, but can be grayscale (where a person is partly, rather than wholly, coherent—or coherent in one respect to a thing, but not another). Coherence can also expose oversimplification, where a person is coherent at a surface level, but the coherence dissolves under scrutiny. For example, you might tell a friend that you saw her sister eating a hamburger at a science fiction film, but then she informs you that her sister is a vegan and hates sci-fi. The surface level plausibility of what you believe you saw now appears to be incoherent with what you’ve just learned (the incoming data that your friend’s sister doesn’t eat meat and hates sci-fi). It may have happened, there’s just something that needs explaining: either your background knowledge needs to be updated or what you took to be new data is not as it appears.

There is also the matter of logical possibility in relation to coherence. Strictly speaking, for instance, it is not incoherent to say that one saw a penguin in flight outside of one’s plane window. It does not accord with what we know of penguins scientifically, but it is not logically incoherent. Such a bizarre event, though vanishingly implausible–indeed, unbelievable–can be imagined in the mind’s eye. A cartoonist could draw such a scene, so it’s not logically impossible. And if it’s not logically impossible, then you may have to evaluate the claim’s coherence via other criteria (whether it is physically or technologically possible, etc.). Attending to logical possibility is therefore another route by which one might check for coherence. In attending closely to a matter, and evaluating it, one might check for coherence at numerous levels.

Writing 1.3.1. Attend to the coherence of a piece of writing, and look for different levels of coherence. If it is coherent, what makes it coherent? If it is incoherent, in what ways is it incoherent?

Writing 1.3.2. In your journal, describe to yourself your Weltanschauung, making it explicit. What are some big things you think you know about existence and the world, and how do you think you know them? What are some things that follow from your worldview, ethically and politically? What’s beautiful?

Writing 1.3.3. Attempt in your journal an accurate, measured, fair minded–and perhaps even sympathetic–portrayal of a worldview or ideology that is not your own. What are its merits and demerits? What work does it do (i.e., how does it function within the community that adheres to it)?


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Posted in atheism, critical thinking, david hume, edward feser, Lucretius, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, science, Uncategorized, writing | 6 Comments

A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.2: Notice Where Arguments Start And Stop

I thought I would attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter would be a mini-course in critical thinking for writers. To have a look at Concept 1.1, click here

Concept 1.2. Notice where arguments start and stop. If Orwell is correct that reducing one’s subjectivity and increasing one’s objectivity entails “a constant struggle,” then where one starts to reason would seem to be critical to notice and get right, for that starting point may be grounded in emotions or premises that you have not sufficiently interrogated. So is there a first idea or starting point for reasoning that can assist one in reaching, as with mathematics, objective truth? Put another way, is there a place to begin one’s reasoning so that one might have a chance of reaching conclusions that it would be unreasonable ever to doubt–as in mathematics? And could this first idea or starting point then function as a North Star for reasoning with others, conferring special powers of clarity and objectivity to your writing?

Unfortunately, the answer is almost certainly no. Or, if the answer is yes, there’s no broad consensus as to what that objectively true, first idea or starting point might be, exactly. Why is that? It has to do with premises. Perhaps if we all agreed on that first idea–that first premise–we’d all reach the same conclusions, regarding them as objectively obtained and beyond question—but then again, maybe not. For example, Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas, Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza, and Protestant philosopher Gottfried Leibniz were all very powerful minds and careful logicians (practitioners of logic), and they started their reasoning with the same, ultimate, big idea: God. For each of these thinkers, God functioned as a starting place for their reasoning—and yet they did not reach the same conclusions as to what God implied for the nature of their existence and what should be regarded, ultimately, as the objectively true, good, and beautiful. Though they attempted to reach a greater rationality and certainty in life by taking God’s existence as a key premise, they nevertheless ended their processes of reasoning in very different places.

One cause for their diversity of opinion had to do with definition. None of these men defined God in exactly the same way, so they didn’t really start their arguments in exactly the same place. As with the butterfly effect in chaos theory—an idea in physics where even a small flutter of a butterfly’s wing in Asia can make exact weather prediction in California, six months later, uncertain—so a small difference in definitions or premises can have large scale effects for ultimate conclusions. Exact starting and stopping points for arguments are thus crucial to notice. Garbage in, garbage out.

Oftentimes the Oz curtain of a person’s way of thinking–if it appears mysterious, confusing, or suspiciously unsupported–can be drawn back by simply asking, “Why did this person start her argument exactly where she did, and why did she stop it exactly where she did?” If this question cannot be answered to your satisfaction, it may be because the author has not stated it outright. This may be for a variety of reasons. It is possible, for instance, that the writer has misread you, her audience, expecting you would treat her points of departure and conclusion as your points of departure and conclusion, granting her opening and closing claims as in need of no additional justification because you are, at those points, at yes with her. (Rhetoric is about getting to yes with an audience.) Perhaps she assumes that you have the background knowledge she does, and are part of her community, sharing her general sensibilities, assumptions, and beliefs, knowing where questions can generally start and stop without a lot of justification or explanation.

But perhaps you’re not part of her community. Perhaps you don’t share her way of talking about things, and so you’re unwilling to start and stop arguments where she does. If, for instance, you do not take as axiomatic (self-evident; foundational; something not in need of additional argument) that all human beings are created by God and created equal, as Thomas Jefferson so famously claimed in the Declaration of Independence (“We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”), then you are in want of additional convincing. You have not reached yes with this message sender, sharing her premises.

What are premises? The word premise was used numerous times in the immediate paragraphs above, but what are premises, exactly? Premises are those explicit and implicit claims that support other explicit or implicit claims or conclusions. They are the things you assume in argument—and that you hope your audience assumes. An example can be found in any enthymeme. Aristotle called a sentence containing a claim and support an enthymeme: “I didn’t get on the plane because grandma dreamed the night before that it would crash.” An enthymeme includes one premise and one conclusion, but relies on the reader to fill in the second premise: the dropped premise. In this case, the dropped premise is that the dreams of grandmas have predictive power—which is obviously a dubious argumentative assumption, and a nice reminder as to why one should always check a writer’s or speaker’s premises (including one’s own). Putting it more formally, an enthymeme is an argument that leaves the reader to supply the missing premise: “Grandma dreamed the plane would crash [first premise]; grandma’s dreams foretell the future [the dropped second premise]; therefore, I didn’t get on the plane [the conclusion].” Support is about getting to the because of your claim—and an enthymeme achieves this in a single sentence. Any sentence with because in it is an enthymeme (whether it appears at the beginning of the sentence or somewhere in the middle), and any sentence with because in it will have a dropped premise that the writer expects the reader to supply without the writer having to make it explicit.

Circular reasoning and question begging. So if the writer or speaker means to communicate specifically to you, and yet fails to address your fundamental doubts, requests for clarification, or objections to their premises, then you can rightly accuse him of circular reasoning or question begging (assuming as true what is not yet agreed on between the message sender and his audience): “How do you know all people are created equal?” “Because God created them that way.” “But how do you know God created them that way?” “Because they’re equal. God would only create people equal.” “But how do you know that?” “I just do.” Round-and-round it might go if no additional, substantial claims are on offer. If a person is speaking to you, but declines to offer additional and substantial premises, claims, or arguments to bring you into agreement with him, then that person is circular reasoning or question begging.

It may be, however, that the person is not talking to you–and as such, that person may not be reasoning in a circle or question begging because the audience indeed accepts the premises on which their arguments are based. If you are not the audience for a message (that is, if you’re an audience crasher, butting-in on an argument being made to another audience)—and the audience being addressed indeed accepts the messenger’s initial claims as self-evident—then it’s not really fair to call the starting and stopping points for his arguments circular or question-begging, but as axiomatic or simply given (things neither he nor his audience call into question, such as, say, the reality of human equality, the authority of Jefferson, Buddha, the Bible, etc.). As the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein (1889-1951) wryly observed, “Arguments have to stop somewhere.” Arguments also have to start somewhere. What audiences will grant a writer, premise-wise, is always an open question.

For instance, note that Wittgenstein’s claim itself can be considered question-begging if you don’t accept it, and he’s talking to you, and yet nowhere in his writings does he offer further justification for his claim. In other words, question begging is audience dependent: it is question begging from the vantage of whom, exactly? Any explanation or justification might invite an additional flurry of “But why?” questions from somebody in an audience, as when a child asks a parent why, exactly, the sky is blue, again and again, never satisfied with the parental explanation. If you ignore the “But why?” question, or arrest it with something akin to “Because I say so,” or “Because that’s just the way it is,” or by pointing to an additional premise that your audience also finds in need of discussion, then you’re carrying on with your argument when premises are unclear to your audience or in dispute. You’re assuming what is, in fact, in question, and thereby begging the question. Begging the question urges a reader or hearer to go with an argument absent additional reasons or evidence; to grant your premises even if just for the sake of argument.

But let’s say we agree with Wittgenstein; let’s grant him his premise. Let’s say we agree that we’ve all got to start and stop our narratives and arguments somewhere. If so, then where an author begins and ends tells us a lot about what an author thinks can go without saying and when enough has been said—and what the author believes an audience will let him or her get away with. If you can’t say everything—or justify everything—then you’ve got to guess what can safely go unsaid. As John Henry Newman (1801-1890) once affirmed in another context: “With you the argument begins; with you, too, it ends; the beginning and the end you are both.”

Writing 1.2.1. Tease out the premises underlying an author’s sentence, brief essay, or opinion article. Notice where the author’s argument (implicit or explicit) starts and stops. Reflect on what the author is assuming in both instances as to his or her audience.

Writing 1.2.2. For each of the these three enthymemes below, supply the key, unspoken premise. Also think of other premises (assumptions) that are lurking around the claims of each sentence, supporting them.

(a) Because President Trump is a temperamental authoritarian, no American should vote for him.

(b) Socrates is a man–and thus will die.

(c) The 22nd century will be bleak because those of us living in the 21st century are not sufficiently addressing global warming.

Possible answers for 1.2.2: 

(a) first premise: Trump is an authoritarian; dropped second premise: authoritarianism is not in keeping with the American tradition; therefore (conclusion), no true American should vote for him.

(b) first premise: Socrates is a man; dropped second premise: all men are mortal; therefore (conclusion) Socrates is mortal.

(c) first premise: the 21st century is insufficiently addressing global warming; dropped second premise: global warming, if allowed to occur, is an existential threat to human flourishing; therefore (conclusion), the 22nd century will be bleak for our descendants.


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Posted in atheism, critical thinking, edward feser, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, Uncategorized, writing | 8 Comments

A Mini-Course In Critical Thinking For Writers. Concept 1.1: Good Rhetoric Is In Need Of Critical Thinking

I’ve decided to attempt the first draft of a college-level textbook, writing it directly into my blog, bit by bit. Feedback and recommendations in the thread comments are welcome, either encouraging or critical. The first chapter is a mini-course in critical thinking for writers; the second chapter is a mini-course in rhetoric for writers. This post starts chapter one. To have a look at other parts of chapter one–or of chapter two–click here

Concept 1.1. Good rhetoric is in need of critical thinking. In classical rhetoric—the art of persuasion—the central appeal is not to audience emotions (pathos), but to reason (logos). Reason might include appeals to such topics (topoi) as those identified by the ancient philosopher Aristotle (384-322 BCE): logic, evidence, comparison, definition, causation, and so on. In writing an essay, for instance, you can have everything going for you rhetorically—an interesting subject, thesis, and genre; an engaging title and opening paragraph; a tone and style that matches your audience’s sensibilities; a thoughtful arrangement of paragraphs—but if you don’t make rational appeals, and don’t reason well when you do, your ultimate success will be in doubt. Like poor grammar, poor reasoning clangs to the ear, leading your reader to say no to your statements or to murmur reluctantly, That doesn’t sound right. It has been said that Benjamin Disraeli once cast shade on another parliamentarian by saying, “I was with you, sir, till I heard your argument!” It’s not always enough to appeal to an audience’s existing desires and prejudices; sometimes you’ve got to support your claims with good, rational reasons. And so it is that argumentation entails critical thinking.

Critical thinking. To write clearly is to think clearly, and to think clearly is to think critically. In a first, naive pass at a definition, objectivity and truth would seem to be essential to it. One might thus define critical thinking in this way:

Critical thinking is the attempt to arrive as nearly and objectively as possible at the truth of a matter.

In 1946, George Orwell (1903-1950), the author of the novel 1984, wrote an essay for London’s Tribune titled, “In Front of Your Nose,” in which he laid out a theory for why critical thinking is so hard: “In general, one is only right when either wish or fear coincides with reality.” Notice that Orwell is making a funny, ironic point, and observe that it rests on a powerful syllogism (two premises accompanied by a conclusion): (1) our deepest hopes and fears lead our reason; (2) they rarely match reality; therefore, (3) our conclusions rarely match reality. In the same essay, Orwell also writes the following: “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” In these two sentences, Orwell provocatively suggests that the difficult part of critical thinking is not the act of concentrated attention to a problem, but of reducing subjectivity and increasing objectivity. The struggle is to never look away; to face the truth without, Oedipus-like, plucking out one’s eyes.

Writing 1.1.1. In a paragraph or two, reflect on how hope and fear interact with one’s reason. Why do you suppose, as Orwell suggests, our hopes and fears so rarely sync up with the way things actually are?


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Posted in atheism, critical thinking, education, edward feser, philosophy, reason, rhetoric, Uncategorized, writing | 13 Comments

Pareidolia, Google Deep Dream, Wittgenstein’s Aspect Seeing, and Friedrich Nietzsche

The below YouTube video on Google Deep Dream strikes me as an important reflection, not just on artificial intelligence and art, but on the human condition in the sense that pareidolia (projecting images, moods, ideas onto things) is far more pervasive in us than in the most trivial examples (seeing Jesus in a piece of toast, a face on Mars, etc.). Pareidolia is, in fact, the way we habitually draw out and amplify signals from the noise of our existence, seeing aspects one at a time–first this, then that–akin to Wittgenstein’s famous rabbit-duck drawing, in which one sees a rabbit or a duck–or one, then the other, in alternation–but not both at the same time. And the aspects we see become habitual, bringing us to confirmation biases–akin to how Google Deep Dream works.

Nietzsche too thought we were all under the spell of a dream–that dream being the metaphysics inherent in human language, as when we deploy, say, an adjective to designate what aspect we will see as “essential” about a noun (mean bear, frightening cat,  providential star, etc.). Indeed, for Nietzsche, the noun itself is grounded in a deluded metaphysics of ahistoric stability and autonomy that doesn’t actually exist–and the verb gives the noun “causal powers” it doesn’t actually possess, as in the sentence, The man muscled his way to the front of the line.

And so, to abuse Shakespeare a bit in the service of Nietzsche, and far less sonorously: “The adjective, dear Brutus, is not in the thing / But in ourselves, that we are imaginative creators, judgers, projectors, and amplifiers of images, moods, ideas.” (Julius Caesar, Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141).*

In other words, we are artists.


*Shakspeare’s actual quote: “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

Posted in aesthetics, atheism, atomism, beauty, david hume, edward feser, God, Lucretius, meditation, philosophy, poetry, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Miracle, Mystery, and Authority in the Catholic Land of Oz: Edward Feser vs. Pope Francis on the Death Penalty

Pope Francis is changing the Catechism of the Catholic Church–a summary of Christian belief–to declare that the death penalty is now “inadmissable” for Catholics. Here’s The New York Times:

Pope Francis has declared the death penalty wrong in all cases, a definitive change in church teaching…Francis said executions were unacceptable in all cases because they are “an attack” on human dignity, the Vatican announced on Thursday, adding that the church would work “with determination” to abolish capital punishment worldwide.

This shift in what it means to be an orthodox Catholic has Catholic philosopher Edward Feser crying foul on the grounds of contradiction:

[T]he [pro-death penalty] traditional teaching clearly meets the criteria for an infallible and irreformable teaching of the Church’s ordinary Magisterium….how the new teaching can be made consistent with the teaching of scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and previous popes [is not explained]. Merely asserting that the new language ‘develops’ rather than ‘contradicts’ past teaching does not make it so. The CDF [Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith] is not Orwell’s Ministry of Truth, and a pope is not Humpty Dumpty, able by fiat to make words mean whatever he wants them to. Slapping the label ‘development’ onto a contradiction doesn’t transform it into a non-contradiction.

Two matters at the forefront of Feser’s concern are the demoralization of conservative Catholics and the end of the idea that the Church in key teachings is infallible:

The effect [of prohibiting the death penalty] is to embolden those who want to reverse other traditional teachings of the Church, and to demoralize those who want to uphold those teachings.

If capital punishment is wrong in principle, then the Church has for two millennia consistently taught grave moral error and badly misinterpreted scripture. And if the Church has been so wrong for so long about something so serious, then there is no teaching that might not be reversed, with the reversal justified by the stipulation that it be called a ‘development’ rather than a contradiction. A reversal on capital punishment is the thin end of a wedge that, if pushed through, could sunder Catholic doctrine from its past—and thus give the lie to the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled.

So which will Feser suggest be thrown overboard: “the claim that the Church has preserved the Deposit of Faith whole and undefiled” or Pope Francis himself? Feser’s vote is that Pope Francis should be seen as the fallible one:

If Pope Francis really is claiming that capital punishment is intrinsically evil, then either scripture, the Fathers and Doctors of the Church, and all previous popes were wrong—or Pope Francis is. There is no third alternative. Nor is there any doubt about who would be wrong in that case. The Church has always acknowledged that popes can make doctrinal errors when not speaking ex cathedra—Pope Honorius I and Pope John XXII being the best-known examples of popes who actually did so. The Church also explicitly teaches that the faithful may, and sometimes should, openly and respectfully criticize popes when they do teach error. The 1990 CDF document Donum Veritatis sets out norms governing the legitimate criticism of magisterial documents that exhibit “deficiencies.” It would seem that Catholic theologians are now in a situation that calls for application of these norms.

In other words, Feser sees a stark choice: pretend the Catholic Church on key matters has been and is infallible or pretend that popes “not speaking ex cathedra” are.

But there’s another option, isn’t there? Maybe on big issues they’re both fallible; maybe that’s the curtain Professor Feser doesn’t want to look behind. Perhaps the tension is between fallible people in the present feeling morally and intellectually compelled to correct the blind spots, errors, and absurdities of fallible people from the past.


Posted in atheism, atomism, david hume, edward feser, God, philosophy, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Thirteen Climate Atlases Shrug, Departing for France

The flight, because of Trump, of our most precious resource: human brain capital. (Mind wells are far more valuable than oil wells.) Trump has inspired a brain drain of no less than thirteen climate researchers to France. This recalls Einstein’s early exit from Nazi Germany in 1933: he could discern the direction of the political winds from Hitler’s rise to power. It’s what happens when the Anglo-French Enlightenment comes under assault by anti-Enlightenment, despotic know-nothings: the practitioners of reason at the highest levels emigrate to greener pastures. Atlases shrug.



Stalin and Mao, BFF

Posted in atheism, brexit, climate change, donald trump, hillary clinton, science, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Relativity (A Poem)


This is whatever can be measured between us.

For instance, two birds share one sign, tail feathers

touching, heads back in song, a heart of gray sky framed

between them. But look again, for each line clocks

a difference. One breaks off, another begins. Attention flows

to the details. Then it’s back toward this upward glance

into some larger change of one bird now missing;

the gray heart gone; the sky cold, clear, alone. There.

2o tree along sierra hwy

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Self Calming: 86 Ways To Activate Your Parasympathetic Nervous System

Below is a concise self calming list I recently brainstormed for myself–and I thought it might be helpful for others as well. I keep a copy on a single piece of paper in my pocket and look at it periodically through the day. It has some eccentricities, so if one or more of the ideas is not clear, ask about it in the thread and I’ll do my best to explain what I was attempting to capture.

The ideas are an eclectic mix of insights derived from places like Buddhism, neurobiology, philosophy, and literature. If you’re not already clear on this, the sympathetic nervous system is associated with stress (the four Fs: fear, fleeing, fighting, mating) and the parasympathetic with calm. And of course the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems interact with one another, so reaching a state of calm or eudaimonia (well being, flourishing) isn’t necessarily about just suppressing the sympathetic nervous system in favor of the parasympathetic, but activating it more skillfully (in sex, for instance, the parasympathetic nervous system activates in foreplay, the sympathetic in orgasm).

The items on the list roughly cluster into categories: discipline and energy (as preconditions for anything in life to happen); wellness (exercise, diet); meditation; general self calming; simplicity; ecology; creativity; venturing forth (novelty seeking and risk taking); networking (connecting with others); and the questioning of habitual narratives.

If I were to boil down the list to just four words, they would consist of a metaphysical claim accompanied by an overriding, parasympathetic practice: one thing, no reaction. That’s probably quite a few historical thinkers–East and West, from Buddha to Spinoza to Schopenhauer–in a nutshell.

Here’s the list:

86 ways to activate your parasympathetic nervous system: (1) call up (trigger) discipline, Shakti (energy), & Lila (jazz, the brain’s play & seeking systems); (2) imagine a possible future you want & delay gratification for it, exercising the anterior prefrontal cortex; (3) “do the harder thing” (R. Sapolsky), not the easier, exercising the ventral medial & dorsal lateral prefrontal cortex; (4) precommit (remove temptations to strengthen resolve); (5) practice curiosity, critical thinking, attention to detail, excellence, resilience, & grit (stick-to-itiveness); (6) face the truth (ask pointed questions & stay for the answers); (7) say, “I’ll handle it” (have inner confidence) & “I’ll feel the fear & do it anyway”; (8) say, “You’re never going to feel like it”—then do the harder thing; (9) practice Zen no thinking, mindfully observing things via target-vow-witness: i.e. halt deliberation & say “ah so” to whatever surprising, pleasant, unpleasant, distracting, random, or entropic event comes along (example: “I’ll walk from here to that distant light, noticing what I experience in 5-4-3-2-1,” then ask along the way, “What’s it like to be alive?”); (10) have a Zen no-thought morning ritual (think habit, habitus, & neuroplasticity—and also think Sartre, choosing oneself in advance); (11) exercise aerobically for one hour and work muscle groups (arms, abs, legs) to boost GABA, neurogenesis, endorphins, serotonin, oxytocin, dopamine, and glutamate, preferably out of doors (run, bike, swim); (12) dance, stretch, do yoga, or tai chi; (13) eat flax seeds & broccoli, go vegan, fast, or eat only between noon & 6pm (think “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels” & “beans are really, really good for you”); (14) take supplements (fish oil, D, tumeric); (15) self-administer dopamine by breaking macro-goals into micro-goals (have a check-off list with deadlines: “I’ll be in the gym by 5am”); (16) set goals & say no to whatever takes you off of them, but also be atelic—or atelic with telic things (think process & practice, not project & goal; performance art, not outcome); (17) dampen reactivity with an even temperament (go from a soundtrack of desire to a meta-soundtrack of non-reactivity); (18) accept the bent nail (Heidegger’s dasein, Dogen’s uji) and all future engine failures now (the cup is already broken); (19) dampen pre-traumatic stress syndromes with Ram Dass’ “be here now” and E. Tolle’s “is now okay?”; (20) after a trigger, breathe with mouth shut or practice breath work, like alternate nostril breathing or breath counting, taking your reactive, default mode network—the spell of your usual head chatter—off-line; (21) notice the delusions of the evolutionary matrix (in-out boundary delusions; delusions for sex, food, status, etc.), then hack the matrix by breathing evenly, noticing things but not reacting, like a lion on a hill; (22) exercise your attention and discipline muscle—pre-frontal cortex—via meditation (fix unconditioned attention on the present, without tanha—thirst—& don’t grasp or push away, but feel the heat—tapas—& stay); (23) notice at what stage of rising-ripening-rotting a thing is & follow it without passion, cultivating wisdom; (24) think: “This will pass” and “This moment can be a chance for practice”; (25) watch karma burn, run, flow off; (26) be in no hurry, have no preferences; (27) see that nothing is simple, but consists of parts, & so take nothing personally (think No Country for Old Men: “I got here the same way the coin did”); (28) after vipassana, replace any remaining, spell-casting negative or reactive self-talk with wisdom-based, rational self-talk (rational emotive or cognitive behavioral therapy); (29) in place of rumination, pan out & see language games, systems, & subsystems as Earth’s cathedral façade, then do tratak (focused subsystem meditation, noticing the inner logic of one of its alcoves); (30) be the Buddha mind (wind moves, flag moves, mind moves); (31) be the radio: broadcast what comes; (32) as you ironically wait on joy, grace, & the law (truth) to visit thee, go from room-to-room with calm and sympathy (think Coleridge’s “Dejection: an Ode”; think Kafka’s The Trial; think of the peculiar spotlight of space-time you so improbably inhabit—and of entropy and Max Ernst contemplating Prague Castle and Charles Bridge as a precarious, traumatic, and “fortuitous meeting of two distant realities on an inappropriate plane”); (33) drop desire to see inside & outside as one (one thing, no reaction; Emerson’s transparent eyeball—then “I choose love awareness”); (34) see each as aspect of you—and you as aspect of each (think HBO/Atlantic shorts series Question Your Answers, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Indra’s net, sunyata, and Wittgenstein’s aspect seeing); (35) be in uncertainties (“I don’t know”; neg. capability; think: “There’s the way I think things are and become, and the way things are and become”; mantra: “My model may be wrong” or “My model may not match reality”); (36) think Bell’s Theorem, seeing seemingly unentangled things as really entangled, like water & H2O (if this, then that; if not this, then not that); (37) think of choice, chance, & accident as limited views on a broader, strange attractor determinism, akin to a failure of perception of a deeper interconnection, and so come to calm (Spinoza); (38) reduce serotonin suppressing cortisol by getting or giving a massage (tap, pound, squeeze, rub, brush off, scratch, tickle, poke); (39) soak or shower; (40) trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response; (41) relax muscles & exercise imagination (let go; do somatic quieting or biofeedback, savoring the positive in memory or fantasy); (42) hold thy tongue; (43) go still & silent (play dead, corpse pose, nap: nothing sounds as good as silence feels); (44) get dark sleep or sleep outside; (45) pet your puss cat or pooch; (46) let go perfectionism; (47) make peace & default to peace, your sanctuary nature; (48) make love, not war; (49) make a mental passage to India with ahimsa (nonviolence), satyagraha (truth-telling), aparagraha (non-grasping, non-materialism), santosa (contentment), & saucha (cleanliness); (50) declutter (keep green & clean); (51) unplug; (52) take no action (A. Ginsberg: “It’s never too late to do nothing at all!”); (53) don’t shop: it’s never too late to buy nothing at all; (54) reduce alienation by simple, ecological acts (make toothpaste; dry clothes on a line; compost orange peels); (55) plant a tree; (56) build an upcycled, tiny house; (57) find financial peace (goal: debt-zero; think Camus: money buys time for higher life; think Whitman: “I loafe and invite my soul / I lean and loafe…hoping to cease not till death”; think Coleridge: “The soul itself must issue forth, / A light, a glory [halo] … / Enveloping the Earth”); (58) read or write in a quiet place; (59) do art or photography or sit with an art or photography book, magnifying glass in hand; (60) make or listen to music or poetry, enacting time; (61) slo-mo: pause to ask questions, linger, look, & feel (think what a photograph achieves by arresting time, generating a crawl space around it; think Museum Hours, savoring sights, essential oils & other aromas, sounds, textures & tastes, eating slowly & taking small bites); (62) notice a process (its stage; its parts in that stage; what it’s embedded in) & count patterns (how many trees, exactly?); (63) notice a thing odd, sui generis, ugly, beautiful, true, or good within a process (name & un-name the thing; integrate & disintegrate it); (64) think happening : notice that all things (nouns) are really events and relations in combination (C. Rovelli); (65) be in nature or listen to nature sounds; (66) venture out, travel, or watch slo-TV; (67) get sunlight & rock hunt; (68) look into the sky, day or night, or catch sunrise or sunset; (69) do a new thing (“365 days—no repeats”; think “This can be an experiment”); (70) be grateful and reframe: be more Pollyanna than Cassandra (catch your negativity or disconfirmation bias; bias your default mode network toward the positive—and if things go bad, you’ll handle it); (71) straighten posture/power pose; (72) practice self-other compassion & forgive self-others; (73) practice a bit more extraversion; (74) be with others, share, & make friends; (75) take a walk-and-talk; (76) expand your circle of empathy; (77) find village roles you can play (elder leading a group; cook at a festival); (78) engage in meaningful, ecological, hopeful work & projects; (79) bring to a cause your solidarity, rebellion, & imagination, i.e. come under a spell of Dionysus—a theatrical ecstasy—but just for fun (don’t play it too seriously); (80) watch comedy (be ironic, smile, laugh—boosting endorphins); (81) notice the poet’s fictions (the dramas of imagination; Milton’s “sport of winds”; Magnolia’s “This is the part of the movie where…”); (82) play the poet’s fiction’s light, not locking in on one narrative, but noticing that “there is more than one way to look at a thing” (L. Clifton); (83) subtract imagination from the poet’s fictions & see what’s left (W. Stevens); (84) fake it till you become it: reflect on how it is to think, feel, & behave at your best—and how your thought/behavior is maladaptive or adaptive (Blake-binding or Blake-releasing of life); (85) enter present experience without tightness (be loose, relaxed, open, flexible, accepting—i.e. enact hospitality, welcoming each moment as one might while on an LSD trip); (86) don’t make pain important (Nietzsche)—and open to pain, frustration, failed models, fatigue, complexity, uncertainty, your modular brain, and competing goods (accept, don’t deny; no need to Picasso/Minotaur pose)—and don’t make them excuses to forestall action (the Hamlet Syndrome)—now choose (Nietzsche & Sartre).


Image result for dial it back luther damn

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With Stormy Daniels, The Power of Sex–Not the Russians, Not the Majority of Voters–May Finally Achieve Trump’s Unraveling


Did Donald Trump pay Stormy Daniels to help him win the presidency or was he just keeping a secret from his wife? If it’s the former, he has foisted a fraudulent marital persona before the country to achieve election and also did something illegal (campaign fund usage has to be disclosed). If it’s the latter–if he was hiding an affair from his spouse–then he has committed fraud against his wife, proving they don’t have an open marriage. So it’s one or the other–or even both at the same time. In either case it’s fraud–fraud against Melania, fraud against voters, or fraud against both.

And if in a Los Angeles courtroom Stormy Daniels is granted the right to sue Trump, discovery will open him up to still further disclosures, including his past behavior with women in general–patterns not just of affairs, but of sexual assault and harassment.

So notice these sentences in The New York Times today. They strike me as ominous:

“A lawsuit opens the door, and judges almost always allow for a plaintiff to have a fishing expedition,” said Robert S. Bennett, the Washington lawyer who represented Mr. Clinton in the Paula Jones case. The questions could include, “Have you paid other people money?” he said….It could have simply been a personal matter…of Mr. Trump wishing to keep a secret from his wife.

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Tariffs Are for Friends of Trump–But Not the Rest of Us

Jeffrey Dorfman’s recent essay for Forbes on Trump’s steel and aluminum tariffs is titled, “On Steel Tariffs, the Math Just Doesn’t Add Up.”

But the math actually adds up just fine from the vantage of the connected rich. Tariffs are a form of crony capitalism. They protect a politically dialed-in minority and spread the harm across the majority.

We’ll all pay a little more for products with aluminum and steel in them to protect CEO friends of Trump in uncompetitive–but politically connected–industries, and Trump’s tariffs will be spun as a win for the workers in those industries, not the CEOs who will reap the bulk of the payouts from the tariffs.

So it’s a shell game akin to tax cuts (give the minority rich a tax cut and place the burden of it onto our grandchildren in the form of deficit spending).

Trump’s fondness for tariffs is thus part of his authoritarian impulse for gathering power to himself. It’s a move that forces individual capitalists and nations to crawl to the president and say, “Please exempt us from your tariff, Mr. President.” It hurts the overall economy, but not the friends of Trump.

Stalin and Mao, BFF



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If Trump Now Fires Mueller, Collusion with Russia Will Be Happening Every Day in Real Time

Trump is a traitor who won’t defend the integrity of his own country’s election system from Russian election hackers. Think about that. After the indictment of thirteen Russians Friday, Trump is now literally assisting them in a cover-up if he fires Mueller. He is also now colluding with them in real time if he fails to do anything to the purpose of securing the country against future election attacks in 2018 and 2020–or resists deeper inquiries into Russian election hijacking.

What do the Russians have on Trump that makes him want to protect them and not us? And patriotism-wise, why aren’t conservative losing their minds over this? What kind of leader protects himself and another nation against his own nation, downplaying and resisting even basic inquiry? Since 2014 the Russians have been working to upend our democratic republic.

Trump’s electoral college margin was achieved by a swing of just 70,000 votes in three states, and so it is that we now literally have Putin’s president, and not our own, installed in office. In other words, 2016 was not a fair fight–its scales were tipped by Russian interference–and so everyday that Trump now casts shade on Mueller or resists inquiry into that interference is an act of collusion.

Put another way, it’s increasingly apparent that Russian and American oligarchs have been colluding to destroy our democracy. One of those oligarchs is Trump. And it looks like they might well succeed. We thus need to vote in 2018–all of us. Only by Democrats taking back Congress will we arrest this terrible rot that is currently plaguing our democratic system of government. Trump is a Russian wolf in sheep’s clothing. He will not protect us. Patriotic Democrats must step-up, run for office, and vote. 


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Trump Slurs His Speech–Again

It’s not just the fact that President Trump was put on video yesterday in place of a face-to-face encounter with the press, it’s that, when you actually watch it, the screen cuts suggest the possibility that this was pieced together from more than one attempt by Trump to read through the short text smoothly. And his speech seems effortful, not at ease, slow and on the verge of slurring–even in this very brief appearance. It’s a marked contrast from a year ago, at his February press conference, when he seemed more in command of himself and of his speech. He appears ill here. I wonder why more is not being made of what sounds to me like hints of the same slurring problem that he had in Israel last month.


Contrast this with what looks to be better health and a relatively better sense of command a year ago in February 2017 (at his only press conference since becoming President).


I’ll make a prediction: I’m betting Trump will not hold a single press conference in 2018–precisely because he is in accelerated cognitive decline. He’ll be highly guarded from spontaneous exchanges with reporters by his handlers–especially when before cameras–and perhaps he will even dodge extended interviews with newspapers as well (especially after botching his recent NYT’s interview, sounding, again, oddly incoherent).

Look, for instance, at the weirdness of this USA Today article from yesterday. Why is he apparently requiring a shield from the least sparring with journalists? If he is cognitively sharp, and can sustain coherent thoughts on a range of subjects relevant to his responsibilities as President, why wouldn’t he want to put these powers on display, vanquishing his enemies? He’s hiding behind an Oz curtain. Why?


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Does Trump Have Dementia–And If So, Should It Be Made Public?


We can probably all agree that Trump is a clinical narcissist. He may even be a sociopath. So when Trump has his physical this month, there is no need to test for these–though, in an ideal world, we would. It wouldn’t hurt if Trump had a psychiatric evaluation marking one or more of his mental conditions as “official,” but that’s not likely to trigger Vice President Pence and the cabinet to discuss invoking the 25th Amendment for the removal of Trump from office.

Dementia, however, might.

What I want your opinion on is Trump’s upcoming physical evaluation: should he be checked by a physician, or a team of physicians, not just for the health of his heart, but for the health of his brain, i.e. for dementia? That’s very different from whether Trump matches the DSM for this or that mental disorder.

I want to know if a team of neurological specialists judges Trump to have a serious medical condition. I want to know this because Trump has not yet started a war, nor used nuclear weapons, but he could over the next three years. It’s not about whether Trump’s mental states are, say, marked by delusional episodes–it’s obvious that they are–his Alex Jones fandom being Exhibit A. What’s at issue for me in his January physical exam is whether his brain is actually, objectively, clinically diseased.

If the rules of the game for Trump’s check-up this month includes the restriction on the physicians evaluating him that dementia-checking is off the table–then, Houston, we have a problem. One can’t be referred to a specialist for something one is not evaluated for, agree?

And so, should Trump’s medical check-up this month include some sort of sustained initial evaluation for dementia–he is 71, after all–and with specialists getting involved if signs are evident?

That’s all I’m asking. My concern is that a “don’t ask, don’t tell” regime is going to be put in place surrounding the question of Trump and dementia; that the politicos around Trump will keep this “elephant in the room” from going public by simply insisting to the physician or physicians involved that they are there to evaluate his general bodily health (his blood pressure, his basic blood levels, etc.), not his brain’s health.

It’s hard to imagine a narcissist and habitual liar like Trump submitting to sufficiently sustained questioning from a group of physicians looking to evaluate him for dementia–even as he shows public signs of its onset. Trump almost certainly does not want to know if he has clinical dementia–though if Trump were a decent man, one would think he would want to know, if not for his own safety, then at least for the safety of the country and the world.

Would you try to go on being president if a group of specialists diagnosed you with dementia?

Trump might.

So do you agree that Trump should be thoroughly evaluated for dementia as part of his January physical exam even if he himself does not actually want to know? Surely, given Trump’s access to nuclear weapons, a dodged or delayed diagnosis would be enormously reckless, don’t you agree?

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A Life-Affirming Talk on Sustainable Community Building

I like this.


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THE HATE POTATO: Will Trump Hatred Absent Hillary Hatred Prove to Be the Deciding Election Factor in 2018 and 2020?

Something this morning in an analysis of data at The Washington Post by James Hohmann strikes me as extremely hopeful for Democrats. It may prove, in 2018 and 2020, that what holds the Democratic coalition together to beat the fractured Republican coalition is Trump hatred–exactly as Hillary hatred held together the Trump coalition in 2016.

In other words, for the next two election cycles, Republicans may hold the HATE POTATO–which is Donald Trump himself–and they may hold it all by their lonesome. There’s no Hillary to kick around anymore. Here’s the key quote from Hohmann’s article:

Trump keeps talking about Hillary Clinton because it’s the best way to hold his coalition together….In every GOP faction…voters strongly dislike Clinton at about twice the rate that they strongly like Trump. (Similarly, Democrats are held together right now by their near universal disdain for Trump.)

Since Hillary is off of the political basketball court going forward, perhaps all that Democrats really need to do in 2018 and 2020 is to recruit nice, young, centrist, non-scary people to run for offices. Do you suppose they can do it–or will they blow the layup?


Image result for blow the layup gif


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Why Are Some College Students So Lazy?

Maybe it’s an evolution thing. (Of course, everything is an evolution thing.) But what I mean is: all life forms are taking gambles in each moment as to how they’ll expend their energy or conserve it. On the continuum of evolutionary strategies surrounding the value of, say, a college writing class to one’s future and reproductive success, some will put forward a high-energy gambit, others a low one, and still others will fall somewhere in the middle. How much energy is put into an essay is the measure of one’s evolutionary strategy as deployed at a very particular stage of one’s life, and in a very particular context (environment).

Some have guessed they can skate and still get the grade they want, while others might obsess about their essays in ways that are actually counterproductive to their own life development. (They decline a date on a Saturday night to hole-up with a paper that turns out to be shit even after an excess of fretful editing, etc.)

My point is that every human being on the planet is an enormous lottery winner in the evolutionary game, and is now putting forth his or her own gamble toward the future. An individual’s temperamental set-points for laziness and attention-to-detail are there for a reason: they’ve been highly adaptive in the past, either for themselves or for ancestors they inherited them from. As Dawkins famously notes, each individual is the product of a long line of ancestors going back billions of years, and not a single one of them died before producing at least one viable offspring. It’s a stunning string of successes that lead to each one of us. And the college students sitting in our classes have reached reproductive age without yet getting their Darwin Awards (elimination from the gene pool).

What thus looks like a bad sort of laziness brought to this or that college class may in fact be the right sort and level of laziness for the contingent situations our very particular students find themselves in. Each of them are navigating contending demands on their time. Laziness in a class, for instance, may function as a signal to them, by the end of the semester, that they don’t really want to be in college after all, or be an English major, etc.

And where they in fact put their energy, and display no laziness at all, may indeed prove quite successful for them.

I’m not making excuses for college students, just noting how tricky it is to determine what others, in their contingent life experiences, ought to be doing with their time (as if we know). A professor friend of mine who once taught with me at AVC used to say, “Everyone has their journey.”

For perspective, here’s a clip of John Walton fretting over what to do with his time, and wondering what his dad would have told him.

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