Have a Seat

28 September 2015

In a restricted entry of several months ago, I briefly mentioned an episode (about fifteen years ago) in which someone attempted to kill me. On Tuesday of last week, I was telling the story more fully to my neighbors Claudia and Ren.

At the time of the attack, I was very frustrated and upset with what was happening in my life, and had elevated levels of adrenaline and of cortisol. That may have saved my life.

As I sat in a lounge, I was approached by a very large fellow; he was well over six feet tall, and well over 200 pounds. (By comparison, I’m about 5 ft 10 in and I probably weighed something less that 150 pounds.) He told me that I was telepathically disrupting his thoughts.

I grimly noted to myself that here was one more thing gone wrong. Then, aware of the underlying humor but expressing myself in a serious manner, I asked Would it help if I moved to the other side of the room?

His reply was No, but I think I know what would.


If I killed you. He lifted a chair with which to strike me.

I shot to my feet, and grabbed the chair by a cross-piece. He found that he couldn’t much move it — which was because my body was so wired. (I was holding it with just one hand, keeping the other immediately free; but, with what was in my blood-stream, one hand was enough.)

Thwarted, he listened as I tried reasoning with him, and I talked him out of trying to kill me.

Claudia wanted to know what I’d said to him. After all these years, I simply don’t remember.

She also asserted that my reäction was unusual; that most other people would have attempted to shield themselves with their arms while cowering in their seats. Until she made that assertion, I’d not thought about that point; but I believe that she’s right. A typical person would probably have done that, perhaps crying for help or for mercy. Had I done that, I would have had my arms fractured and my head injured; I might have been killed.

But, as far as I can recall, none of the typical response occurred to me; I didn’t even consider doing those things. I don’t think that I calculated that such a reäction would fail; I just didn’t give thought to responding in that way. (After I had hold of the chair, I considered calling for help, but decided to bring the situation under control without assistance.)

So, after Claudia’s assertion, the scientist in me asked why not. The best answer that I have is that my actual reäction was implicit in my ethos. While I’d never given conscious thought to the question of what my childhood rôle models would do in a situation such as that, and didn’t ask myself in that moment, I was responding much as any one of them would. Curt Newton would have grabbed the chair; Solomon Kane would have grabbed the chair.

I Still Don't Know Why He Ever Liked that Guy

23 September 2015

Years ago, a friend and I were talking about something, and he mentioned Hitler. I declared

I don’t know why you ever liked that guy!

in reply to which he barked

Oh! That is a lie![1]

Well, no, it wasn’t a lie. I escalated by betting him dinner on the matter. Then I explained to him that, since the truth of a proposition is a precondition for it to be known, one of the ways that I could not know why he’d ever liked Hitler would be if he’d never liked Hitler. Another way would be if I’d never believed that he’d liked Hitler, regardless of how my friend really felt about Hitler.

Indeed, the contradiction of I don’t know why you ever liked that guy! is I know why you at some time liked that guy! Formally,[2] [formal logical expression] So,

I don’t know why you ever liked that guy!

was a truth (though perhaps not a simple truth, as he’d had trouble seeing it).

Having won the wager, I waived the prize; my objectives in betting had all been met. Now, had he won the wager, then I’m sure that he’d have collected; but had I claimed, as he’d thought, that he’d once liked Hitler, then he’d have been quite justified in extracting the dinner; it would have disincentivized my insulting him in such a way, and off-set the felt sting of the calumny.

[1] That was how he spoke. He often began with Oh!, and when learning English in Hong Kong he had been taught to avoid contractions.

[2] (2015:09/24): I have edited the formal expression, seeking to have it capture more completely the structure of the natural-language expression.

Thought for Food

13 September 2015

As a society becomes more affluent, the marginal cost of reducing toxins from its environment decreases, and still other things may propel a culture to reduce their presence.

Of course, a substance is toxic to the extent that its ingestion, inhalation, or topical application is harmful. Part of the implication, then, of substituting less toxic products for those previously used or offered is for the new products to become more ingestible, more food-like. That’s not to say that we’re trying to create a world in which we do eat everything, but we’re none-the-less moving towards a world in which we could eat everything.

Well, as things not intended to be eaten become more like food, of logical necessity food becomes more like things not intended to be eaten, even if the food hasn’t changed at all. Indeed, even if the food is itself becoming safer, if other products are still more rapidly reducing their toxicity, then food becomes more like things not intended to be eaten.

Considered thoughtlessly the idea that food is becoming more like things not intended to be eaten seems dire. But, really, it is a natural consequence of other things becoming in some way better, without food getting any worse.

Repeatedly, someone takes note of how there’s stuff in our food that is also in, say, our anti-freeze. Not the stuff that used to be in our anti-freeze, mind you, but the stuff that’s now in our (far less toxic) anti-freeze. Or maybe it’s not anti-freeze. Maybe it’s flame-retardant, or an anti-foaming agent, or some-such. There’s stuff in our food that has other uses, which makes it sound scary, because we remember that the sorts of things that once were put to those uses would do terrible things to living tissue.

And someone who hasn’t made — or chooses to ignore — the connection between attempts to employ less toxic substances in those other uses gets on the radio or on Facebook or some-such, and tells us that this-or-that thing being sold as food contains this-or-that chemical which is elsewhere used to do something formidable. And a bunch of people rail as if modern life is being made ever more poisonous, when — at least in the case in question — rather the opposite is true.

Let that be a lesson t'ye!

31 August 2015

Yester-day after-noon, I misread a rumpled sign in the distance. It was an advertisement for guitar lessons, but I thought that it offered GUILT LESSONS

Of course, I wouldn’t expect guilt lessons to be seriously and openly advertised (though some college courses seem indeed to be guilt lessons). Rather, I had thought that the advertisement were a joke or a work of art. I suppose now that this were a matter of illusory found art.

Ungodly Answers

26 August 2015

I’ve recently posted a couple of entries that bear upon belief in G_d. In one, I noted how it is that we may have a legitimate sense that some events are guided by a purpose, which purpose is not that of any human being, yet is after all also not that of gods either. More recently, I challenged the notion that morality must or even can originate in commandments of G_d.

It isn’t my intention to produce a parade of entries about G_d, nor to deal with the subject comprehensively in this 'blog. But the theme of G_d has been on my mind enough to provoke this one further entry. Like the previous two entries, this one will critique an argument for the existence of G_d, but will not attempt a disproof of that existence. I would be surprised if any of the reasoning that I provide in this entry were novel, but I hope that my exposition will be helpful.

One of the reasons that people believe in G_d is that they believe that She provides an explanation for the existence of the universe.

Part of the problem here is in being a bit careless about to what one refers with the word universe; that word has multiple meanings.[1] It would be abusive to presume that a theïst were using one of the narrower meanings — a currently closed set of interacting energy and matter — and show how that which we inhabit could have been creäted by previous mindless processes within some larger cosmological system. The theïst would naturally and rightly insist that by universe he meant that larger system.

For purposes of this sort of discussion, I think that, by universe, we really ought to mean reälity. However, a lot of theïsts want to assert that G_d is outside of what they call the universe. Now, saying X is outside of reälity is really saying that there is no X, that there’s no more than an idea which is not instantiated. Plainly, when theïsts say that G_d is outside of what they call the universe, they don’t mean that She is unreal; they must mean to divide reälity into at least two parts, one of which is G_d, and the other of which is something that they call the universe. Likewise, for those who more generally claim that G_d not is not entirely contained by what they call the universe, though all or part of it might be within Her; they do not mean that the remainder of G_d is unreal!

What they’re claiming is that, at one time, reälity was just G_d, and then She brought that which they call the universe into existence, perhaps external to Herself or perhaps within Her (in which case we might speak and write of two parts, one of them being the universe, and the other being the rest of G_d) or perhaps partially internal to Her and partially external.

But if, instead of asking what brought the universe into existence, we ask what brought reälity into existence, then we’ve not yet got an answer. We have G_d, sitting there, unexplained.

Now, most theïsts are of the view that there was no time when G_d did not exist. Perhaps they imagine that an eternity has already passed; perhaps they imagine that time had a beginning, and G_d were there. Either way, if that is an acceptable claim about G_d, then it is not clear why it would not be an acceptable claim for an impersonal cosmological system. Likewise for just winking into existence ex nihilo after the passage of some time, if such a proposition (entailing the passage of time with nothing to change!) were coherent.

And a claim that G_d is the Great Mystery (accompanied perhaps by a beatific smile) is no explanation at all.

The introduction of the idea of G_d simply begged the question of whence it all came. The begging of the question is compounded if reälity is imagined as in two parts, one of which is G_d and the other is taken to be defined as creäted. Separating reälity into two parts, one G_d and the other called the universe allowed this group of theïsts to confuse and to be confused.

The question of why the universe should be lawful — why there’s logic and math and why various things have physical properties and so forth — is often mistaken for a question distinct from that of whence came reälity. But any thing exists exactly to the extent that it has properties; in a sense, a thing is what it does. When we describe what a thing does, when we give its properties; this is no more or less than describing its laws; the most general laws describe the widest collections of things. (A friend once objected that logic did not seem to be a property of any thing; I told him that logic corresponds to properties of everything.) While it would seem that the universe might in many cases have very different laws, the idea of a law-less universe is incoherent.

[1] Some or all of these meanings have been noted by cosmologist John D. Barrow in The Book of Universes. Unfortunately, in other discussion, Barrow himself is sometimes unclear as to which definition he is employing.

Good Lord!

23 August 2015

[This entry is a reworking of a less carefully written entry that I posted to Facebook on 26 March.]

ἐννόησον γὰρ τὸ τοιόνδε· ἆρα τὸ ὅσιον ὅτι ὅσιόν ἐστιν φιλεῖται ὑπὸ τῶν θεῶν, ἢ ὅτι φιλεῖται ὅσιόν ἐστιν;[1]

as related by Platon
in Εὐθύφρων [Euthyphro] 10a

A classic question is of whether goodness — in the sense of that which is moral or otherwise objectively to be desired — determines the will of G_d, or is determined by the will of G_d.[2]

The notion that whatever G_d wills is, ipso facto, good is called the Divine Command theory of goodness. A fair number of people profess to believe this theory, but few people actually do. One way of testing belief would be to ask, for various X, whether it would be bad for G_d to do X. For example, whether it would be bad for G_d to create innocent souls, and then, beginning immediately, subject them to an eternity of unrelieved suffering. A person who reached for some theoretical greater good somehow achieved wouldn’t be accepting that G_d’s will were ipso facto good; a person who cried out that G_d would not do such a thing because it were evil wouldn’t be accepting that G_d’s will were ipso facto good. Only a person who could honestly declare that it would not be bad for G_d to do any X would accept the Divine Command theory.

Phil Robertson’s infamous speech, in which he presents a hypothetical scenario within which ghastly things are done to an atheïst famly,[3] is an exemplar of an attempt to advance a Divine Command theory that violates the essential feature of that theory. Roberston presumes that atheïsm in turn implies moral nihilism. But he also presumes that none of the things done to the family could be good; that presumption implies that even G_d could not make them good. Robertson expects his audience — even the non-believers in his audience — to be able to see that these assaults are actively wrong. Indeed, he is apparently prepared to bet that, in spite of their unbelief, atheïsts undergoing such trials would form an opinion that something about this just ain’t right.

Well, if G_d cannot make a thing good merely by willing it to be good, then fundamental goodness is independent of the will of G_d. And if goodness is independent of the will of G_d, then the case for goodness is independent of the will of G_d. If G_d should not do things because they are evil, then men and women should not do them because they are evil, for pretty much the same reason as G_d should not, whatever that reason might be.

Possibly G_d might be more morally discerning than ordinary persons. But ordinary persons plainly have great difficulty recognizing whatever principles are communicated by G_d, which is why there is so much disagreement amongst theïsts about alleged communications. Faith is not a mechanism of discernment; it is guessing without the guidance of evidence, and a leap of Faith can carry one in any direction. If we are not to make uneducated guesses about morality, then we must hope that some human beings amongst us can make a case that does not itself rely in its foundations upon unproved assertions about what G_d declares — a case, thus, that can be made to atheïsts.

[Insertion (2015:08/31): (Hypothetically, it might be proved that G_d were more morally discerning and had made some moral declaration the basis of which were not understood by other persons. Still, if that proof were not apprehensible to atheïsts, then it would not be a proof by which human beings could reasonably be guided. And I certainly haven’t encountered such a proof.)]

That’s not to say that the will of G_d would be irrelevant to a manifestation of ethical principles; the will of other persons can be important to such manifestations (as, for example, when I think myself morally required not to hurt the feelings of a child); and G_d would perhaps be the most important of persons. But the fundamentals would be prior to the desires of all persons.

Actually, those of us who believe that morals are prior to the will of anyone have a hard time seeing any real difference between taking morality to be no more than the commands of G_d and taking morality to be no more than the commands of some other powerful party of persons. For us, that looks like no morality at all, just the rule of a bully or of bullies.[4]

And, really, a belief in a morality greater than the demands of any person is what underlies the emotional commitment of so many atheïsts to their atheïsm. They believe that G_d would be good, and that G_d therefore could not cause nor allow certain things to happen; but they see those things happen, and so conclude that G_d is not there. It is an implicit and often unrecognized commitment to morality that makes these people atheïsts. (A potential counter-argument to this case for atheïsm might be found in claiming that some greater good were served by the ills observed.)

[1] For consider such as this: Is that which is hallowed loved by the gods because it is hallowed, or is it hallowed because it is loved by the gods?

[2] Of course, one may more generally write and speak in terms that allow for multiple gods (as did Platon). This allows for consideration of disagreement amongst gods, but otherwise adds nothing but verbal awkwardness, and irrelevant discomfort for monotheïsts. Since I expect a greater share of my readers will be monotheïsts rather than polytheïsts, I’ll concern myself less with the discomfort of the latter.

[3] “I’ll make a bet with you. Two guys break into an atheist's home. He has a little atheist wife and two little atheist daughters. Two guys break into his home and tie him up in a chair and gag him. And then they take his two daughters in front of him and rape both of them and then shoot them and they take his wife and then decapitate her head off in front of him. And then they can look at him and say, ‘Isn't it great that I don't have to worry about being judged? Isn't it great that there's nothing wrong with this? There's no right or wrong, now is it dude?’

“Then you take a sharp knife and take his manhood and hold it in front of him and say, ‘Wouldn't it be something if this was something wrong with this? But you're the one who says there is no God, there's no right, there's no wrong, so we're just having fun. We're sick in the head, have a nice day.’

“If it happened to them, they probably would say, ‘something about this just ain't right.’”

[4] See my entry of 20 February 2008 for discussion of the notion that rights are creäted by powerful parties. It is unsurprising that the typical response of classical liberals and the typical response of conservatives to atheïsm should differ one from the other, given that classical liberals and conservatives have very different notions about a need for bullies in human society.

The Veterans Confidence Racket

20 August 2015

The Veterans Health Administration is a con job. I’m sure that many of those working as part of it do not recognize it as a con job. I’m sure that some of those working for it recognize that it is a con job but believe that it can be something more and better, and have been struggling towards that goal. But it is a con job and it will remain a con job so long as it has anything much like its present form.

The declared purpose of the VHA[1] is to provide health-care to military veterans. This mission appeals to those voters who see veterans as deserving reward or compensation for their military service, and it appeals to those contemplating entering such service.

In theory, the provision of this health-care could be entirely by a voucher system, allowing veterans to acquire health-care at state expense but through a market of private producers. The reason that a voucher system is not used is because of its expense.

To control costs, provision has largely been by state-run facilities. Some people imagine that costs will be kept in check because of elimination of profit, because of technical efficiencies achieved through vertical integration, and because of recruitment of superior personnel willing to work for lower salaries. But the elimination of profit means the elimination of the profit-motive, which elimination in turn inhibits the search for new and better ways of doing things. Vertical integration might be able to exploit technical efficiencies, but a greater problem of economic calculation confronts any attempt to administrate a large-scale allocation programme. And the state is simply not very good at recruiting superior people on-the-cheap.

The problem of economic calculation bites especially hard, and the VHA cannot actually get its costs down to those of private provision through the market. The VHA can, however, lower its evident pecuniary costs by reducing the quantity or the quality of the health-care that it provides. In other words, it can shift the cost to veterans, in the form of unmet promises; in the form of suffering and in the form of death. That is how the VHA can and does control costs.

When the VHA was launched, there was almost surely a sincere belief that it could deliver at a discount. However, there have since been many decades for state officials to observe that it has not; there has been ample time to recognize that it cannot. Yet instead of being forthright in explaining what it would take to provide veterans with the benefits that they were promised, and instead of preparing to meet the promises now being made to recruits, the deception continues. As failure continues to come to-light, there will be further reforms that fall short of what is actually needed to meet the promises, because fraud saves the state a considerable amount of money, and protects the mythology under which the state preserves and accumulates power more generally.

I have noted that health-care could be provided to veterans by way of a voucher system, but if one respected the sensibility and character of military veterans, and trusted the strength of voters, then a better thing to do would be simply to give veterans enough money that they could buy the same amount of health-care (in part by purchasing insurance), but to allow them to spend that money as they chose. At the margin, a bit more or less of something else may reasonably be more important to some veterans than a bit more or less of health-care.

If veterans are intelligent, economically rational, and of good character, then they will use the money appropriately. If they are stupid, irrational, or sociopathic, then they may spend the money inappropriately, and later seek a bail-out from the tax-payer in the event of an emergency, and voters might give that to them.

I leave each reader with responsibility for his or her judgment on that matter.

[1] The VHA is the best-known part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, aka the Veterans Administration, to the point that VA usually refers to the VHA, and that VHA and Veterans Heath Administration aren’t much used. None-the-less, I’ll employ the more precise term and abbreviation hereïn.

The Economy of Conscription

14 August 2015

[Every now-and-then, I’m provoked or otherwise prompted to explain the false economy of conscription. What prompts me to do so now is the ill health of James Earl Carter, since, after all, that alleged champion of human rights restarted registration for the military draft.]

There is a wide-spread belief that the burden of taxation is somehow reduced by conscripting service. Usually the service under consideration is military. The notion is that, with a conscripted force, one only has to pay an average soldier some amount MC, whereas with a volunteer force, one has to pay an average soldier some greater amount MV. So people think that there’s a per-soldier savings of


This thinking is utterly wrong.

First of all, conscription involves its own peculiar costs of administration and of enforcement. Those are far more substantial than most people imagine, and even if we use an accountant‘s notion of cost, the difference between the annual cost of a volunteer army and that of a conscripted army would come to less than $30 per soldier.

But an accountant’s notion of costs really misses the Big Picture here.

Imagine that the state got people into the service (army or whatever) by promising them MV, but then, once they were enlisted, declared a surprise tax (peculiar to their pay)


That would be a tax exactly equal to the supposed savings. Defrauding them in this manner wouldn’t have reduced the tax burden; rather, it would have enabled it.

If the state had used more overt force to get those same people to enlist — threatening them with imprisonment if they did not — the tax wouldn’t be reduced; it would merely be disguised. Their financial loss would be just the same,


exactly that amount of tax that people mistakenly believe would be saved by using conscription. The supposed savings was no savings at all, just a tax that people failed to recognize as a tax.

However, in the real world, the draft doesn’t end up getting the same people who would have been tricked by promising pay and then taxing some of it away. It draws from a larger population, some of whom might be making less money than they would in the service, but a great share of whom are making more even than MV (the pay at which enough volunteers would be found). If someone is indifferent between her job in the private sector and the job that she has as a conscript, except for the pay, then the implicit tax that she pays is


where MJ was her private-sector pay. For example, if MJ was $60K and MC is $15K, then she is paying an implicit tax of $45K.

Because of this sort of situation, even if we ignore the peculiar costs of administration and of enforcement that I mentioned earlier, the tax burden of conscription is greater than that of paying recruits enough for an all-volunteer service.

However, in the real world, people are not indifferent between jobs (except for pay). Some people are willing to take a pay cut to defend their country; and, obviously, those people might pay a lower implicit tax (if conscripted).[1] But other people wouldn’t choose to go into certain lines of work — such as soldiering — for all the wealth in the world. The only thing that gets them into the conscript force is the fact that the certainty of being punished by their state is an even worse fate in their eyes. So let MW be the wealth of the whole world; the tax paid by each of these conscripts is something greater than


In some cases, it can be summarized thus

And that, folks, is the actual tax cost of conscription.

Registration for military service was reïntroduced by James Earl Carter in an attempt to seem efficacious after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Early in his campaign, Ronald Wilson Reagan was saying that he would end that registration; but, as it became plain that he could win the election without maintaining that promise, he walked away from it. William Jefferson Clinton, who had dodged the draft as a young man, decided that young men during his Administration should none-the-less be required to register.

[1] I say might because a revulsion towards the conscription itself could subvert that willingness.

Plight of the Bumble Bee

14 August 2015

The subject of bumble bees arose yester-day, reminding me of the time, many years ago, that I bathed one.

Bumble bees burn a huge amount of energy; they’re always rather close to starvation. Seeing a bumble bee, and thinking of their energy demands, I was curious as to how she would reäct to refined honey from a honey bee; so I got a spoonful of the stuff to offer to the bumble bee.

The bee and I did not handle it gracefully, and she fell into the honey. Now the bee was covered with sticky stuff, which was drying in the sun. She would probably starve to death, caked with food; and it would be my fault.

I carefully put the bee on a fence-post, and then got some cotton swabs, some tepid water, and a tooth-pick. I periodically dipped the tooth-pick into the honey (still in the spoon), and then daubed the bee’s mouth-parts with it. In between, I swabbed her with the tepid water.

It took a long time to clean that bee. She endured the whole process rather well; I don’t recall her ever acting agitated. Eventually, she was clean and dry and flew away.

Now, when I told this story in the 'blog that I once had on LiveJournal, someone responded as if my cleaning the bee were an act of charity; I didn’t and don’t see it as such. I had actively brought disaster upon a benign creature. If I had not subsequently cleaned that bee, then I would have been its killer; there is no counting me as its saviour for having set things right.

But I do enjoy the thought that, with all that honey in her, she were probably buzzed.

A Matter of No Pinterest

5 August 2015

A number of visitors have pinned images from this site to their boards at Pinterest. These actions wouldn’t bother me, except that I am very offended with the way that Pinterest attempts to compel visitors to log-into their site to look at boards, and to register an account even to contact them over an issue. Pinterest throws a mask between their content and a visitor (and have tweaked the coding of the mask to prevent its blocking).

I used to have a Pinterest account, but I walked away from it over the demand that I be logged-in to see what my then-girlfriend had pinned to her boards. I find now that Pinterest has the chutzpah to mask the specific set of images from this site pinned to the boards of various of their users.

(Pinterest can drive visits to a site. But I don’t allow such concerns to determine the management of this site.)

In order to obstruct the pinning of images from this site to Pinterest, I have added the tag

<meta name="pinterest" content="nopin" />

to the headers of this 'blog. This obstruction is imperfect, but Pinterest uses Amazon Web Services, and I don’t want to block everything else that does. Nor do I want the code for this 'blog to test each visit to see whether the Pinterest client is attempting to effect a pinning.