Mar 31, 2010

how much evil can the world afford?

In a recent post, blog-neighbor Mark Olson turns the Problem of Evil around.
The claim is that theodicy is an intractable problem for the believer given the evil in the world. I think that this is not necessarily the case, but that those who object to the current state of affairs have failed to provide examples of a reasonable alternative world. Failing to do that means their theodicy objections lack force, that is they object to a state of affairs which may actually be exactly what is prescribed.
The quantified theodicist, in essence, claims that this is the best of all possible worlds. And, as Olson points out, imagining a better one leads to epistemic difficulties.

1. Some of them involve a failure of imagination. Imagine a world, for instance, in which humans can regrow limbs, or don't ever have to sleep, or are born with built-in iPods. Now imagine a world that you can't imagine. Which is the best world? How do you quantify the answer?

2. Besides, any rigorously logical attempt will be confounded by the Butterfly Effect.

3. Perhaps a probabilistic argument is more likely to succeed:
1. If at least one instance of evil is gratuitous, then this is not "the best of all possible worlds."
2. It is highly likely that at least one instance of evil is gratuitous.
3. Therefore, it is highly likely that this is not "the best of all possible worlds."
4. Of course, the definition of "gratuitous" might just be a form of question-begging.

5. Returning to #1 above, perhaps the answer involves an inversion the Ontological Argument. Although I cannot yet conceive how.

6. Ultimately, the problem of the imbalance in perspectives is a form of self-directed ad hominem. It may be logically defensible that every instance of evil is somehow necessary for a greater good, but it's difficult to argue the point without seeming damned callous.

Mar 29, 2010

actually, we might have started the fire

Freud was wrong about just about everything. One thing he got partly right, though: the death drive, most prevalent in middle school students.
In his "Important Safety Message Parents" posted on the Federal Way School District Web site and mailed to homes last week, Murphy said he was compelled to warn against "a dangerous activity that is increasing in frequency among young people."

" Children are using Axe Body Spray, a popular cologne among young people, to light themselves or their clothing on fire," his letter continued.

"YouTube videos and news reports show the dangerous activity is being practiced across the world. .. Children often don’t have the judgment to understand the dangers in what they view online," he wrote.
This fad is hardly new; I remember some jackass outside Elma's middle school gymnasium using a can of hairspray to reenact critical scenes from The Thing. That was 1990, back when eraser burns were a badge of stupid pride, when Hypercolor T-shirt and Hammer pants and Vanilla Ice warned us of the impending doom of civilization.

It got here all right. It just took longer than some expected.

Mar 23, 2010

Vlatko Vedral decodes reality

According to Vlatko Vedral (who's been mentioned here before), the universe is a quantum computer.
Over the last two decades, a flourishing field of quantum information and computation has generated a wealth of experimental and theoretical tests of information processing at the quantum scale. Vedral is one of the luminaries in this field.

In Decoding Reality, Vedral argues that we should regard the entire universe as a gigantic quantum computer. Wacky as that may sound, it is backed up by hard science. The laws of physics show that it is not only possible for electrons to store and flip bits: it is mandatory. For more than a decade, quantum-information scientists have been working to determine just how the universe processes information at the most microscopic scale.
Combine this with Nick Bostrom's "simulation argument," and, like Hamlet, you start wondering which level you're on, and if there will be any continues when the game ends. (At least I think that's what Hamlet was on about.)

Mar 18, 2010

LD mailbag: resources, plus jury nullification!

Regarding LD in general, and the jury nullification resolution in particular, a reader writes,
Mr. Anderson,

Hey there! I had a great teacher that ultimately helped me win last year, and I thought I might pass on some ideas and resources that otherwise could be helpful.

As for evidence, I highly recommend looking up the WNDI Debate Camp Files. A Google search of that name will bring up a site that includes a comprehensive brief that is completely free.

Although many won't try to delve into philosophy, the most useful book in my debate career has been Dr. S. E. Frost Jr.'s book The Basic Teachings of the Great Philosophers. The citations are quick and easy explanations over the tough concepts, great for explaining philosophy in a case or rebuttal.

Now for the topic...

The affirmative is quite easy to run on this topic, and I think you have it pretty well covered on the site.

The negative is a harder position to run for sure, but can be really persuasive if the resolution is used to its fullest. A proper definition of democracy is the fulcrum of the position I use, as it preempts the ultimate "Jim Crow" or "Fugitive Slave Act" arguments one is destined to hit. My using the 'principle' part of the resolution, one can say that many of these laws were not in line with the principles of the Constitution, and despite having happened historically, are not applicable under the resolution. Even one can go on to say that because many demographic groups were denied participation in the political system, those laws are also inapplicable, especially in a modern sense.

The negative arguments certainly have to revolve around objectivity, and principles such as equality, order, and democracy. The arguments concerning racism, bigotry, etc., can prove to be fundamentally subversive to a democratic system that appreciates political differentiation. Undermining laws at will can be anarchic. Injecting subjective views of the jurors into the objective system of law (that is legitimized by the very people themselves) is more often to be used for ill than for good in a system that represents the principles it was founded upon.

Just a few thoughts, hopefully they helped. If not, thanks for your time!
And thanks for your thoughts.

Mar 15, 2010

politics and daffodils

This Monday afternoon found the legislature in special session. Sign things will wrap up quickly: on a warm March day, the Capitol parking lot emptied precisely at five.

And, really, why would you want to be stuck inside the Capitol when daffodils are blooming?

[Photos courtesy of Melissa Anderson, who shares my political philosophy regarding unreasonably springlike weather.]

Mar 10, 2010

No Curriculum Left Behind

The last time I blogged about the nationalization of American education: a year ago, almost exactly. A year ago, it was ratcheting-up-rhetoric. But words have a way of translating into action:
Maryland and several other states are pushing rapidly toward adoption of new academic standards proposed Wednesday for English and math, adding momentum to the campaign to establish common expectations for public school students across the country.

The District also is on track to adopt the common standards drafted by experts in a project led by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. However, it is possible that Virginia will not join the apparent surge toward approval.
I should point out that my home state--the "other" Washington--is part of the effort. And what might it mean?
Widespread adoption of common standards would mark a watershed for schools, triggering consequences for curricula, textbooks, testing and teaching. Some critics say common standards amount to a thinly disguised ruse to establish national standards under federal control -- an allegation that state and federal officials deny.
They don't have to be a "ruse" to have the eventual--and seemingly inevitable--effect of a national curriculum. Unless the feds dismantle NCLB, which simply isn't going to happen, there will always be a reason to federalize.

Added: a blog-neighbor questions the Common Core standards.

Mar 9, 2010

never bet against a pigeon

Add this to the list of things that make humans exceptional: we are exceptionally bad at probability. Worse than pigeons, in fact.

Mar 8, 2010

the Skinner Box in your PS3

I pity young folks. Cursed with the most incredible technology, it's no surprise that they are online, or at least plugged in, more than researchers imagined possible. David Wong, in an amusing article, explains why:
This is a big source of controversy in the world of game design right now. Braid creator Jonathan Blow said Skinnerian game mechanics are a form of "exploitation." It's not that these games can't be fun. But they're designed to keep gamers subscribing during the periods when it's not fun, locking them into a repetitive slog using Skinner's manipulative system of carefully scheduled rewards.

Why would this work, when the "rewards" are just digital objects that don't actually exist? Well...
On second thought, maybe you don't want to know why.

And I'll add: now I know why the treasure boxes in Assassin's Creed II are worth varying amounts of cash. (I am not a gamer, though. Promise.)

Sidebar: Chris Dahlen joins the cult of Mario.

Mar 5, 2010

the injustice of jury nullification

Is the principle of jury nullification a just check on government power? In an article titled "License to Nullify: The Democratic and Constitutional Deficiencies of Authorized Jury Lawmaking," found in the June 1997 edition of the Yale Law Journal, Richard St. John answers with an emphatic "no." He situates his analysis in the context of attempts by the FIJA (and similar groups) to make nullification a legally protected right by amending state constitutions. (As it stands, in most jurisdictions, juror instructions make it clear that the jury is to merely sift the facts and apply the law, not judge the merits of the law.)

While making the case against statutory reform, St. John offers several reasons why nullification is unjust. The first: it is patently undemocratic.
Proponents of jury nullification have convincingly argued that nullifying juries make law. Although they would conclude from this that the jury might be understood as a lawmaking body parallel--or even superior--to the legislature,I will argue that this insight demonstrates the crucial and fatal flaw in the case for enactment of the jury nullification power. When legislatures delegate to juries the right to make law, the law becomes not more but less democratically legitimate.
Why is this?
[J]uries can neither represent nor embody the community or its will. Not only do juries fail to reflect an adequate demographic sample of the community, but their voting rules make them minoritarian rather than majoritarian bodies. It is impossible to reform their minoritarian nature without undermining what little confidence we do have in their verdicts' representativeness.
The paradox of supermajorities in all forms, of course, is the same: they tip the scales toward dissenters. St. John also notes that the "minorities" in the jury room are not even necessarily minorities in the wider community, which doubly means that the the mistrial (or, possibly, reduced charge) that results from a hung jury will not reflect the community's wishes.

Of course, this argument doesn't apply to someone who justifies jury nullification on other grounds--or someone who limits jury nullification in principle to a unanimous acquittal.

What, then of the argument that "jury mercy" is a way of reducing government power?
Central to the theory of the "jury veto" is an understanding of nullification as having the potential only to aid the criminal defendant. Although this claim is often made in the abstract, it is also made by those who would seek an open, legislatively enacted form of jury nullification. In order to protect individual liberties, this argument runs, the entire criminal justice system is stacked in favor of the defendant; if the jury, or any other coordinate actor in the process, refuses to convict the defendant, she will be set free. According to one proponent of this view, the jury's exercise of its "power to acquit, notwithstanding overwhelming evidence of guilt... is simply an act of mercy to a particular defendant in a specific case." This definition of nullification as "jury mercy" is not uncommon in the literature. However, the concept is gravely mistaken on three levels. First, on an empirical level, nullifying juries can exercise vengeance as well as mercy; in nearly all recent proposals for nullification, little restraint would be placed on the jury's ability to penalize defendants. Second, on a theoretical level, our criminal justice system serves important ends that would be neglected were guilty defendants to be freed by jury "veto."... Finally, even though we ought to be concerned about the discretion other actors can exercise, additional jury discretion is a dangerous and unsatisfying remedy.
The prohibition of "double jeopardy," the fact that jury deliberations are private, and the fact that jurors cannot be held liable for their verdict, means that juries can act with little accountability.

more power to the referee

The most powerful man in America, at the moment, is a parliamentarian.
As Democrats try to salvage health care reform, there is one man who above all others will help determine its fate, and he is not Barack Obama or Harry Reid or even a member of Congress. In fact, odds are you've never heard of Alan Frumin, the Senate parliamentarian. But when it comes to the complex budgetary procedure known as reconciliation, the filibuster-proof process which Democrats hope to use to make certain fixes to the Senate bill, Frumin is "the defense counsel, he's the prosecution, he's the judge, he's the jury and he's the hangman," says Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Budget Committee.

It will be up to Frumin to decide what parts of the previously passed Senate health care bill Senate Democrats can and cannot amend with a simple majority of 51 votes. House Democrats, who are being asked to pass a Senate bill with which they have some real disagreements, are counting on their Senate colleagues to make a certain number of tweaks after the fact, but that is no easy task.

The problem in using reconciliation is twofold: 1) it's open to amendments and many Republicans Senators, including Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, say they plan on filing hundreds of amendments, potentially gumming up the Senate for months; and 2) under a provision known as the Byrd rule — named after Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia — every provision passed through reconciliation must be deemed relevant to the underlying budget by the parliamentarian.
Or, in other words, "germane to the resolution," a staple of Robert's Rules of Order and classic parliamentary procedure. (The same general principle forbids amendments that merely insert "not" into bills or resolutions as a way of negating their impacts, except in the case of an obvious typo.)

Read the whole thing to learn about the fascinating intricacies of the Senate's parliamentary procedure--and what would make a parliamentarian say, "The rules are perfect and if they're all changed, the rules are still all perfect."

Mar 1, 2010

school bus ad bills dead

A while back I noted a few legislators' novel idea to raise revenue: ads on public school buses.

Today, Slog reports that both such bills died in committee, and will not be resuscitated.

(The initiative to legalize pot is still clinging to life support, and the ACLU refuses to chip in to cover its medical bills. Okay, that's as far as I can stretch that analogy.)