Halloween logic

Saul and the Witch of Endor, by Washington Allston

A few days ago, Rod Dreher posted some thoughts about séances, mediums, and the like.  This prompted me to arrange some thoughts about the topic as a formal argument.

  1. Either disembodied spirits operate in the world, or they do not.
  2. If they do not, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would not be able to deliver the service which they advertise.
    1. Moreover, any good we might incidentally receive in the course of our dealings with mediums would be, on the one hand, offset by the harm we would be doing by supporting a fraudulent business, and, on the other hand, would likely be available in other forms, offered by trustworthy psychotherapists or other honest dealers.
  3. If disembodied spirits do operate in the world, either they have intentions concerning our well-being, or they do not.
  4. If they do not have intentions concerning our well-being, we ought not to do business with mediums, as they would in such a case have no messages to convey to us.
  5. If they do have intentions concerning our well-being, either those intentions are all alike, or they are not all alike.
  6. If they are all alike, either all of them are friendly, or all of them are hostile.
  7. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are friendly, the degree of suffering and injustice humans endure in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  8. If all the intentions disembodied spirits have concerning our well-being are hostile, the degree of prosperity and good feeling humans enjoy in the world suffices to prove that those spirits are of little consequence in the world.
  9. If disembodied spirits are of little consequence in the world, we ought not to do business with mediums, as the information they offer is of insufficient practical value to justify the investment, not only of money, but of intellectual attention and emotional energy, which they demand.
  10. If disembodied spirits exist, have intentions concerning our well-being, and are of great consequence in the world, points 7 and 8 above show that some of them must be friendly towards us, while others are hostile.
  11. There is not now and likely will never be an empirical test to determine whether a particular disembodied spirit is friendly or hostile in its intentions concerning our well-being.
  12. Either there are mediums who can facilitate communication between us and disembodied spirits, or there are not.
  13. If there are not, then we ought not to do business with mediums, for the same reasons explained under point 2 above.
  14. If there are, then we ought not to do business with mediums, as we would have no empirical test to determine whether the spirit communicating with us through the medium was a friendly spirit providing information that would lead us to good, or a hostile spirit providing information that would lead to our destruction.
    1. Even if a friendly spirit did provide us with information that would benefit us, the success of that act of communication would likely bring us back to the medium for further consultations.  Since there is no test to distinguish friendly spirits from hostile ones, each further consultation would represent another opportunity for a hostile spirit to approach us.
  15. Therefore, we ought not under any circumstances do business with mediums.

I rather wonder what the relationship is between a logical construction like this and the sorts of games fortune-tellers play.  Games such as the Tarot, the I Ching, the Ouija board, etc.

Once, when I was in a logic class in college, the professor said something he usually had occasion to say at least once a week, “A valid argument is one where, if you accept that the premises are true, you must accept that the conclusion is also true.”  What made this occasion different was what he said next: “You may wonder where that ‘must’ comes from.  Who says you ‘must’ accept the conclusion of a valid argument if its premises are true? That would appear to be an ethical statement.  In that sense logic is a subfield of ethics.”  This remark was particularly striking coming as it did from a professor who taught only logic, metaphysics, and the philosophy of mathematics.  He never taught ethics or anything too obviously derivative of ethics.  But it did seem unavoidable to him that logic was ultimately rooted in the moral sense.

A culture might regard a particular divination game as a holy act of obligation.  It is certainly the case that many groups of people defined by religion look on each others’ practices as so much traffic with the spiritual forces of darkness.  Perhaps the rules of logic according to which I constructed the argument above would seem to some or other religious group to be as peculiar and as unwholesome as the rules of a séance would appear to me.

David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats”

I like the original Star Trek and I like web comics, so it should be no surprise that I like David Morgan-Mar’s “Planet of Hats,” a web comic that recapitulates the original series at the rate of one episode every Wednesday afternoon.

He’s into the third and final season of the show now, and I think he’s a bit unfair to those late episodes.  For example, the one up now is “Plato’s Stepchildren.”  Mr Morgan-Mar draws that one with wax crayons, creating the most childish image possible, and explains in the notes that when he watched the episode in preparation for the strip its childishness was the aspect of it he most wanted to bring out.

I agree there is a lot of childishness in that one, but I think it’s intentional.  The story is that a group of people who devoted themselves to the study of Plato’s works and the re-creation of the material appearance of fourth-century BCE Athens have acquired the power of telekinesis.  Plato’s works are addressed to adults, the re-creation of past times is an extremely challenging project, and if we try to imagine the social system that might develop among beings who had the power of telekinesis we might be surprised at all the ways in which the need to pick things up and move them from one place to another shapes our interactions with one another.

So, when we first hear that premise, we might imagine a story in which highly intellectual people develop unfamiliar powers, try to use Plato’s philosophy to learn how to build a society that will channel those powers in constructive ways, and through those attempts learn a variety of unexpected truths, some of them showing that Plato gave the wrong answers to his questions, some of them showing that there were important questions Plato never thought to ask, and some of them showing that there were questions Plato didn’t have to ask, because everyone in his society, unlike anyone in the world of the story, already knew the answers.

That isn’t the story that the makers of Star Trek chose to tell, however.  In the episode, the Platonians developed their telekinetic powers, along with virtual immortality, thousands of years before the Enterprise came to their planet.  Whatever the difficulties of adjustment may have been in those days, they have left no trace for us to see.  All that is visible to us is the end result of centuries of boredom and decadence, a population that has long since exhausted its creativity and spirit of inquiry and uses its powers to derive easy sadistic pleasures.  Of course their behavior is crude and childish; of course our heroes, subjected to their great powers until the end of the episode, are helpless to respond to the Platonians in any but childish ways.  The contrast between the Platonians’ elegant setting and lofty intellectualism on the one hand, and their dismally crude behavior on the other, is precisely the point of the episode.

Several other episodes of Star Trek develop the theme of beings with great powers who have lost interest in any but sadistic pleasures, and so force our heroes to engage in some crude form of physical violence.  One of these is “The Gamesters of Triskelion,” which Mr Morgan-Mar describes as “like someone took all the other episodes of Star Trek, dumped them in a blender, and hit ‘high’ for 30 seconds.”  A species consisting of three creatures have evolved into nothing but brains collects beings from various parts of the galaxy and pits them against each other in fights to the death.  In an episode Mr Morgan-Mar has not yet got round to summarizing, “The Empath,” creatures with giant heads have tortured two scientists to death and proceed to torture Kirk, Spock, and McCoy nearly to death; at the end the creatures claim that they did not do this for pleasure, but as a test to see if a woman whom they were holding prisoner in the same dungeon would volunteer to undergo torture in order to save others.  Our heroes apparently accept this explanation, but what sticks with us is the fact that hyper-intellectual, super-powered creatures resort to torture as their primary means of gathering information.

I think that this theme is the result of the frustration that writers and producers of Star Trek felt with television as a medium.  Knowing all the great high-minded ways in which television could be used to educate and challenge viewers, they were confronted by the fact that the most popular programs were often the least ambitious intellectually and artistically, that a canned laugh-track or a bare-knuckle brawl would beat a probing drama or an incisive documentary in the ratings every time.  That same frustration comes out in the episodes in which the Enterprise crew, representatives of the high ambitions of the series’ creators, find themselves at the mercy of children, episodes like “Charlie X,” “Miri,” “The Squire of Gothos,” and “And the Children Shall Lead.”  The fact that the first three of those come from early in the first season suggests that the creators of the show initially felt pressure from the studio to direct the show to a preteen audience, pressure which they resented.  Certainly that kind of resentment is at work in the other great masterpiece of 1960s American science-fiction television, The Twilight Zone, most obviously in the episode “It’s a Good Life,” in which a child with telekinetic powers turns a small rural town into an extreme nightmare.  I suppose the makers of a science fiction show on TV, in an era when science was thought of primarily as kids’ stuff, would live in fear that children would change the channel and end their careers.

A logical God?

Probably the least popular of all the familiar arguments that are from time to time offered to prove the existence of God is the Ontological Proof.  Here is a one-paragraph synopsis of Saint Anselm’s version of the Ontological Proof, taken from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The first, and best-known, ontological argument was proposed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th. century C.E. In his Proslogion, St. Anselm claims to derive the existence of God from the concept of a being than which no greater can be conceived. St. Anselm reasoned that, if such a being fails to exist, then a greater being—namely, a being than which no greater can be conceived, and which exists—can be conceived. But this would be absurd: nothing can be greater than a being than which no greater can be conceived. So a being than which no greater can be conceived—i.e., God—exists.

Even believers tend to react to the Ontological Proof with distaste and irritation.  So it was rather interesting when, in 2013, German logicians Christoph Benzmüller and Bruno Woltzenlogel Paleo proved that Kurt Gödel’s demonstration that the basic axioms of Logic K, a form of modal logic developed by Saul Kripke (the “K” in “Logic K” stands for “Kripke,”) imply that the Ontological Proof is sound.

Logic K is not the only possible system of logic, so this implication does not by itself prove that God exists.  What makes Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work so interesting is that Logic K is an extremely simple system, especially as compared with a system like arithmetic, which as Gödel himself showed is infinitely complex in its basic axioms.  The reasoning we use in practical life adds manifold layers of complexity to propositional frameworks such as those of formal logic or mathematics.  If something as specific as monotheism can come springing out of something as spare as the basic axioms of Logic K, then the idea that any form of rigorous intellectual activity can be neutral regarding the kinds of questions monotheism is supposed to answer becomes tenuous.

That is not to say that our cultural formation precedes our intellectual activity, and so that all of our systematic reasoning is infused with the particular circumstances of the society in which we were raised, often in ways of which we are unaware.  It would no doubt be true to say this; however, it is a statement that rests on the findings of the social sciences, expressed in language that has grown up in the development of those sciences.  And the social sciences themselves derive their authority from their status as products of rigorous intellectual activity.  If all such activity is already implicated in theology, then an attempt to confine the implications of Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo’s work to areas already explored by the social sciences is an attempt to minimize the scope of the problem.

A God who holds the world record for eating the most skateboards is greater than a God who does not hold that record

xkcd 1505

Nor is it even to say that as we develop a system of reasoning we are condemned to stack the deck, consciously or unconsciously, in favor of our own religious commitments.  Aristotle grew up in a society in which monotheism was an alien phenomenon which, on those rare occasions when it would be mentioned, was regarded with undisguised contempt. Yet, as such Muslim and Christian commentators on Aristotle as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas showed many centuries ago, Aristotle’s logic works best when it is applied to a monotheistic universe.  Aristotle himself would no doubt have regarded this as a reductio ad absurdum of his work, and would have gone back to the drawing board to produce a new system of logic, one that fit with what he regarded as the real world of multiple gods and other beings whom it was obligatory to worship.  Perhaps he would have succeeded in creating such a system; he was Aristotle, after all, and was as well equipped as anyone has ever been to accomplish such a thing.  But as it happens, he never had occasion to try, and for two thousand years Aristotle’s logic was the prevailing system in the world from India to Ireland.

When Aristotle’s system of logic was in favor, the work of men like Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Thomas Aquinas gave compelling grounds for accepting monotheism.  That Aristotle, as a polytheist from a resolutely polytheistic culture, could not be accused of stacking the deck to produce a system that supported monotheism, certainly added to the force of these grounds.  Nowadays, Aristotle’s logic is obsolete, and so one could hardly expect logicians to become monotheists simply because the Medieval Scholastics found in it support for monotheism.

Still, that it is monotheism that jumps out, not only from a logical system constructed by a rabbi’s son like Saul Kripke on the basis of a metaphysics constructed by vaguely Christian thinker like Leibniz, but also from a system constructed by the thoroughly pagan Aristotle, does make it difficult to claim that the relationship between monotheism and systematic reasoning is entirely an illusion resulting from indoctrination in monotheism.  It is likely that the idea of a single deity who is the supreme creator, ruler, and judge of the world is a sort of default position built into the whole project of codifying the rules of logic.

Just as it does not follow from the fact that Logic K rests on axioms which, taken together, imply the existence of God, that God in fact exists, so it would not follow from God’s status as a default hypothesis of formal logic that God in fact exists.  Like all other human activities, formal logic is a byproduct of any number of particular and contingent circumstances, starting with the biological adaptations that enabled our ancestors to survive, continuing through the particularities of our cultural backgrounds, and continuing through the countless vicissitudes that make it possible to distinguish the life of one individual from that of another.  It may well be that formal logic, mathematics, and the sciences, pursuits in which only a small minority of the people in the world today and only a minuscule percentage of all the people who have ever lived take an interest, will ultimately prove to be trivial matters sharply limited in their ability to cast light on the weightiest matters.  Perhaps the sorts of things most people find more interesting and which a majority has always found to be more interesting will prove to be more powerful aids to understanding, or perhaps systematized reasoning in the forms we now know will ultimately turn out to be relatively trivial preparations for some new form of understanding that awaits us in the future.  Perhaps neither of those things will happen, but we will simply come to accept a tendency to monotheism as a not-very-interesting shortcoming inherent in projects to codify the rules of correct reasoning.

Of course, monotheism is also a minority pursuit in the overall picture of humanity.  At no point in the history of the world has a majority of the human race been monotheistic in its views.  Today Christians, Muslims, Jews, and members of other monotheistic groups are probably more numerous than ever before, yet they still comprise well under half the world’s people.  What is more, monotheism seems to have been invented only once, in Babylon during the Captivity, while polytheism, animism, ancestor-worship, and other religious orientations all likely arose independently in many times and places.  In that context, monotheism looks like a freak occurrence.

It is that very freakishness that makes the recurrence of monotheism at the roots of logical systems a matter of interest.  If something so particular can keep cropping up wherever people make their most intense attempts to be general, what oddities might come out of the far more complicated sets of axioms that underlie applied reasoning?  In the light of what Professors Benzmüller and Woltzenlogel Paleo have shown about Logic K, we could hardly be surprised if hidden somewhere in the axioms of trigonometry were a recipe for kosher chicken soup, or for that matter if a description of the Loch Ness Monster were encoded somewhere in Newton’s Laws of Motion.

Scott Walker withdraws from the 2016 presidential race. I withdraw my estimate that Scott Walker has a 90% chance of being the Republican nominee in the 2016 presidential race

No idea which of those other clowns will make it, though.  John Kasich waited a year too long to start campaigning, Marco Rubio has too many skeletons in his closet, Jeb Bush doesn’t even have his own mother’s sincere endorsement, and none of the others is at appealing to the GOP donor class.  Maybe Messr.s Kasich, Rubio, and Bush will all stay in the race long enough to divide the mainstream Republican vote and allow one of the protest candidates to squeak in as the nominee.  Probably not- probably Bush will be the next to go, and Kasich won’t catch on beyond the scale of John McCain’s 2000 campaign, and Rubio’s closet door will stay tightly enough closed that his skeletons won’t prevent him facing off against Hillary Clinton.  But still, it is a remarkably volatile situation.

Why are some shy people interested in politics?

Dude stole my game

As a child, I was both unusually shy and unusually interested in politics.  As early as the age of eight, I was reading up on campaigns and legislation.

I think that what appealed to me about politics was the same thing that made me so shy.  In politics, I saw people interacting according to rules that were explained in words and charts.  Those explanations represented a promise that political activity would eventually be comprehensible.  I could start by learning the rules, and work out from there in my efforts to figure out what was going on among the people involved.  Moreover, the adults I knew best, when the topic of politics came up, would speculate and try to puzzle out what was really going on among political figures.  Meanwhile, in the actual social life around me, I saw people interacting in ways that I found utterly mystifying.  In something like ordinary small talk, I couldn’t find any set of rules that I could start by learning, and it seemed that not only all of the adults in my life, but even all the other children knew exactly what was going on and couldn’t understand why I was confused.

As I grew up, I did find rules I could understand and follow in my interactions with others, and by the time I was college age I was about average in my number of friends and level of comfort in social situations.  As that developed, my interest in politics tapered off.  So one evening when I was in college, my phone rang and it was my brother asking me what a particular presidential candidate had just said in a televised debate.  Remembering me as I’d been several years before, he was surprised to find that I wasn’t watching the debate, and amazed that I had to get off the phone because I was going out on a date.

I’m still interested in politics, as readers of this blog will have noticed.  I do find it difficult to resist a political discussion when I’m among friends, and even more difficult to avoid mentally dwelling on political topics when I feel isolated from friends.  But I’m a married man whose wife is only mildly interested in politics as such, and we have a fairly active social life.  For my wife, politics is interesting mostly when it relates to feeding the hungry and stopping war.  She is a Quaker by conviction, and her religion puts those issues at the center of public life.  For many of our friends, politics is interesting as a way of building a feeling of team spirit.  They enjoy getting together with others who all root for the same political party, much as they enjoy rooting for the same sporting franchises. I recognize the importance of the issues and am not immune to the appeal of team spirit, but my background as a one-time obsessive who found in politics an intelligibility that eluded him in everyday social interaction inclines me to value process, impartiality, and fair play to an extent that is alien to most of my acquaintances.  I think that it is important that there should be people who have that inclination, and so I think that people with such a background, depressing as it undoubtedly is in some ways, have a contribution to make to the political life of the community.

It is probably best that we make our contribution in roles outside elected office, however.  I can think of a number of strong introverts who have attained high political office, and they haven’t generally turned out too well.  People who knew Richard Nixon all remarked on his intense shyness; it was by dint of great intelligence and self-discipline that Nixon was able to rise to the US presidency.  When that self-discipline broke down, though, Nixon plunged into a whirlwind of anger and self-pity that expressed itself in bizarre behavior, most obviously in regard to the Watergate matter.   Barack Obama seems to be just as deeply introverted as was Richard Nixon, though more self-disciplined- certainly Mr O has never allowed himself a public display like Nixon’s infamous 1962 “last press conference”:

I’m no fan of Mr O, any more than I am of Nixon or any other US president since Warren G. Harding.  While it is possible that Richard Nixon and Barack Obama may, as shy children, have been drawn to politics for the same reasons that I was drawn to it, their time as active participants in politics at the highest levels kept that experience from settling into a concern for process, impartiality, and fair play, and indeed the two of them stand at the opposite extreme from me in regard to those values.  So the role that people like me ought to play is not one in which they are directly involved in competition for office or particularly influential as individuals, but in which we are a subset of the population whose goodwill policymakers would like to have.  That’s where blogs each of which attracts about a hundred readers a day come in.  A site like this one is of infinitesimal significance by itself, but considering that a couple of hundred thousand of us maintain similar blogs, we as a group occasionally sway enough opinions that policymakers are wise include us as one factor in their decision-making processes.

There are other ways in which introverts can have an influence on the political process, of course.  Rich introverts can give money, introverts with special expertise can become staff aides, introverts with the time to devote to it can volunteer for campaigns and make themselves indispensable to parties and candidates, etc.  But all of these forms of involvement tend to engage the competitive drives, and can very quickly undermine the very qualities that give our contribution its value.  So something like blogging is essential for the shy citizen to do all s/he can to promote the common good.

New issue of Star Pilot

Issue 12 of Star Pilot is now appearing online.  Issues 1-11 are available here for the low, low price of $1.50 each, or the even lower price of $15.00 for the whole series.  It’s highly recommended.  Issue 12 gives the backstory of the mysterious Julio Clemente introduced in issue 11.

Civil disobedience works when it makes the authorities look like sore losers

xkcd 1431, from October 2014

A week or two ago, one of the biggest news stories in the USA was about a woman named Kim Davis, the elected Clerk of Courts in Rowan County, Kentucky.  Ms Davis became nationally famous by refusing to issue marriage licenses, claiming that her religion forbids her to issue such licenses to same-sex couples and acknowledging that the laws of the United States forbid her to treat same-sex couples differently than opposite-sex couples.  When the courts ordered her to do that part of her job, Ms Davis at first went to jail rather than comply, then returned to work, delegating the issuing and registering of marriage licenses to an assistant.

Ms Davis described her actions as a principled case of civil disobedience, comparing her arrest to the arrests of Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks for defying regulations that enforced racial segregation.  Her opponents compared her to the officials who ordered those arrests and to other last-ditch defenders of de jure racial segregation.  As a supporter of gender-neutral marriage, I am inclined to be unsympathetic to Ms Davis, and being aware of my bias against her I hesitate to endorse an unflattering characterization of her.  But there is in fact a strong resemblance between what she did and what the defenders of Jim Crow did in the 1950s and 1960s.  After the US Supreme Court handed down its ruling in the case of Brown et al. vs the Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas in 1954, the slogan among Southern white politicians was “Massive Resistance,” and that “Massive Resistance” did indeed include just such acts by elected officials as Ms Davis has committed.  Most spectacular of these acts of defiance was Governor Orval Faubus’ 1958 decision to shut down Arkansas’ entire public school system rather than allow black and white students to attend the same classes.

Orval Faubus started defying the laws of the United States after the federal courts, national public opinion, and the consensus of the country’s corporate and financial elite had turned against his side.  While his office gave him considerable power, for example enabling him to keep the schools in Arkansas’ capital city of Little Rock closed for a whole year, his actions therefore struck most Americans as petulant and childish, ultimately dooming his own political prospects and bringing his side of the civil rights issue into disrepute.  In other words, he came out of the controversy looking like a loser, and segregationism came out of it looking like an ideology for losers.  The first rule of politics is that people don’t want to follow a loser, so Faubus’ actions were costly to his side.

Ms Davis is in the same position.  Most Americans support gender-neutral marriage.  That majority has been growing rapidly, and in a very few years, if present trends continue, it will be as difficult for a person who openly opposes gender neutral marriage to be elected to public office anywhere in the United States of America, even Rowan County, Kentucky, as it now is for a person who openly opposes race-neutral marriage to be elected to public office.  Therefore, if elected county clerks were to be granted the power to decide what sorts of couples would be allowed to marry, that would be of little benefit to opponents of gender-neutral marriage.  Indeed, as opposition to gender-neutral marriage takes on the same stigma that has long attached to opposition to race-neutral marriage, county clerks might find themselves tempted to play for popularity by refusing to register marriages that began with weddings performed by clergy who will not marry same-sex couples.  That may be illegal, but it would be popular now for a county clerk to refuse to register marriages that began with weddings performed by clergy who will not marry interracial couples, and doing the same thing to anti-gay clergy will very probably be popular in the near future.  The only worldly hope social conservatives will have once they become a small and unpopular minority is the hope that other small and unpopular minorities have, which is that public officials will scrupulously follow the law.  By refusing to follow the law herself, Ms Davis and the politicians who have embraced her have ensured that social conservatives will look ridiculous when they demand that officials respect their legal rights.  Looking ridiculous is another form of looking like a loser, and as such a step towards political extinction.

Blogger Rod Dreher is a social conservative, opposed to gender-neutral marriage on religious grounds, and he sees all this very clearly.  I’ll close by quoting some remarks of his from a recent post on the same theme as the paragraph above:

Russell Moore and Andrew T. Walker of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission have a column out ripping the Supreme Court, the Kentucky governor, and the federal judge in the Kim Davis case, but the piece also makes a very important point about religious liberty and prudential judgment:

[W]e must recognize the crucial difference between the religious liberty claims of private citizens and government officials. Let us be clear: Government employees are entitled to religious liberty, but religious liberty is never an absolute claim, especially when it comes to discharging duties that the office in question requires. While government employees don’t lose their constitutional protection simply because they work for the government, an individual whose office requires them to uphold or execute the law is a separate matter than the private citizen whose conscience is infringed upon as a result of the law. It means the balancingtest is different when it comes to government officials because of their roles as agents of the state. Government officials have a responsibility to carry out the law. When an official can no longer execute the laws in question due to an assault on conscience, and after all accommodating measures have been exhausted, he or she could work for change as a private citizen, engaging the democratic process in hopes of changing the questionable law.

We must be very clear about the distinctions here between persons acting as an agent of the state and persons being coerced by the state in their private lives. If the definition becomes so murky that we cannot differentiate between the freedom to exercise one’s religion and the responsibility of agents of the state to carry out the law, religious liberty itself will be imperiled.

I can’t make the point more strongly or clearly than these Southern Baptists — both conservatives — have done here. If the public comes to think of religious liberty as the constitutionally guaranteed right to ignore the Constitution whenever it suits us, the cause of religious liberty — which is guaranteed by the First Amendment — is going to suffer tremendously.

Conservatives are supposed to understand the difference between the vice of cowardice and the virtue of prudence. If religious liberty means that even officers of the state can defy the law without consequence, then it makes every individual a potential tyrant. The Kentucky Pentecostal county clerk who refuses the gay couple a marriage permit in principle legitimizes the California Episcopalian county clerk who refuses to record marriages performed by ministers of churches that don’t marry same-sex couples.

Is this really what orthodox Christians want? You had better think hard about it, because we are on the losing side of the same-sex marriage question, and on gay rights in general. Louisiana is one of the most socially conservative states in the country, but a generation from now, gay marriage will be the majority opinion even here.

Whom we mourn

May Ethan Schmidt and Amy Prentiss, who were shot to death yesterday in Cleveland, Mississippi, rest in peace, and may those who love them commemorate their lives by living as fully as possible.

Ethan Schmidt, a professor at Delta State University, was killed in his office; Amy Prentiss was killed at home.  As a “school shooting,” Ethan Schmidt’s death dominated US cable news for several hours, and led to massive law enforcement activity on and around the campus of Delta State.

That coverage and law enforcement activity led me to think about social class. What if Ethan Schmidt had been killed at his workplace, not as the professor he was, but as the liquor store clerk he might have been?  Would MSNBC, CNN, and Fox have given the event saturation coverage?  Would dozens of square miles have been subjected to a virtual state of martial law, with multiple local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies on site, until progress was made in the case?  Or would the whole thing have been unlikely to make the front page even of the local paper in Cleveland more than twice, and would the one police officer assigned to investigate the case have faced a challenge trying to get the resources necessary to conduct a proper investigation?

I think of a friend of mine who for some time had two part-time jobs.  He taught a couple of French classes in the same university where I teach. He also worked as the night clerk at a liquor store. Had he been (God forbid!) shot in his office at the university, no doubt it would have provoked the same massive response from the media and law enforcement that followed the death of Ethan Schmidt.  Had he been (God forbid!) shot at the counter in the liquor store, perhaps there would eventually have been some kind of news story about his distinguished record as a teacher on several continents, but for him in his capacity as a liquor store clerk, surely there would have been the same underwhelming response that usually greets crimes against people in that line of work.

May all liquor store clerks killed at work rest in peace, and may those those who love them commemorate their lives by living as fully as possible.

Plato’s allegory of the cave is easy to attack, hard to defend, and impossible to escape

Two recent Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal comics:

From 9 September:

And from 14 September:

As do dystopian classics like E. M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops,” the second strip transfers the world of illusion that Plato presents as the default human condition to a certain time, a future that is presented as a possible outcome of specific present trends.

Some more thoughts about the 2016 US presidential candidates

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker: Mega-billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch seem to have settled on Mr Walker as their preferred candidate, and most of the other super-rich guys who finance the Republican Party seem satisfied with their choice.  Some eccentric billionaires might choose to boost other candidates, and there are candidates who might be able to keep their names on ballots throughout the process without big money backing, but the way the US process works, the Kochs (pronounced “Cokes,” as in what may as well be Mr Walker’s personal anthem, “I’d like to sell the Kochs the world, to do with as they please/ I’d like to sell the Kochs the world, and make the workers scream…”)

Former Florida Governor John Ellis “Jeb” Bush: Entered the race as the presumed front-runner, has struggled to stay in the top tier.  Perhaps he ran for president of the wrong country.

New York real estate heir-turned-reality TV star Donald Trump: Has attracted a large following among Republicans while espousing ideas that do not fit with the anti-tax, ultra-free trade orthodoxy of the party’s Washington-based policy elite.  I grant that his ideas are not good ones, but the interesting thing he has demonstrated is that there is a market among Republicans for ideas that Grover Norquist wouldn’t like.  Perhaps the next cycle will feature a Republican candidate or two who has ideas that are both unorthodox and good.


Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton: 99% chance of being the Democratic presidential nominee.  If something unforeseen happens to her while the filing deadlines for the primaries are still open, or after she has accumulated a majority of delegates, then Vice President Joseph Biden will likely enter the race and the party’s moneymen will transfer their loyalty to him.  So Mr Biden has a 0.9% of being nominated.  If both Ms Clinton and Mr Biden become unavailable for some reason, then the establishment will find some other stooge to put in that place; former Vice President Albert Gore has been mentioned in that connection, but it could be any of a number of people.  So I’d give “Some Other Stooge” a 0.09% chance.

Former Maryland Governor Martin O’Malley: If, due to some freak occurrence, Hillary Clinton becomes unavailable after the filing deadlines have closed and before a majority of delegates have been selected, then an already announced candidate would likely win the nomination.  Mr O’Malley’s campaign seemed at first to be premised on this remote possibility, that he might be the person to step in should such a thing happen.  He carries some pretty heavy baggage, though, and it’s hard to imagine that the party would rally around so obviously flawed a candidate in the turmoil that would follow Ms Clinton’s sudden implosion at so inopportune a moment.  Therefore, I wouldn’t assign a very large fraction of the 0.01% chance that the party will nominate someone other than Ms Clinton, Mr Biden, or Some Other Stooge to him.  Perhaps 0.001% might be a fair estimate of his likelihood of being nominated.

Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders: A vote for Mr Sanders is a vote for the Democratic Party to move to the left on economic issues, and so I plan to cast my ballot for him.  Were he a viable candidate for the nomination, however, it would be necessary to oppose him vigorously.  I’d say that the biggest problem with US policy in Southwest Asia and Northeast Africa is that we are too supportive of Saudi Arabia’s various projects, as the biggest problem with our policy in Europe and Northwest Asia is that we are too supportive of Germany’s ambitions.  In each case, the tail has wagged the dog so strongly that the US has waged multiple wars that do not promote any identifiable national interest of this country.  Mr Sanders not only does not see it this way, but actually calls for the USA to show even greater deference than it already does to Saudi Arabia.  Be that as it may, Democratic voters are if anything less likely to turn to Mr Sanders as a safe harbor in the event of a Clinton collapse than they are to turn to Mr O’Malley.  The “socialist” label he has from time to time embraced will likely scare many of them off, his ludicrously feeble response when two or three people from Outside Agitators 206 confronted him a couple of weeks ago left him looking like Abraham Beame, and any aggressiveness he might muster in an attempt to breathe life back into his flagging campaign would also alienate the Clintonite voters who would become available in that event.  So 0.001% is a generous estimate of his chance of winning the nomination.

Former Rhode Island Governor Lincoln Chafee: As a bland moderate who is attracting no support the polls can measure, Mr Chafee will probably not have made a negative impression on anyone by the time the voting starts.  Therefore, if he can file delegates, he will be in the best position to become the substitute candidate should something happen to knock Hillary Clinton out of the race between the end of December and the beginning of April.  Perhaps his chance of winning the nomination should be rated as high as 0.005%

Former Virginia Senator Jim Webb: I’ve left 0.003% unaccounted for.  I wouldn’t give more than about a 0.0001% chance to Mr Webb.  I like him a lot, but he isn’t the sort of fellow today’s Democratic Party would find at all appealing.  The other 0.0029% is a reserve in case something entirely unforeseen happens, like a deadlocked convention or a genuine insurgency on behalf of a non-establishment candidate or an asteroid striking the earth and canceling the election, something that is theoretically possible and should be given some kind of numerical value, though it can be disregarded for all practical purposes.


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