Monday, April 24, 2006

All The President's Men

It's sad, but I never got around to watching the film All The President's Men until this weekend.

For the last few years, I have lamented the sorry state of journalism in America, and wondered where all the Woodwards and Bernsteins got to. Surely, I reasoned, budding journalists would emulate the dedication and resourcefulness of these two journalists because the breaking of the Watergate story was probably the single most notable Pulitzer prize win in journalistic history. By cracking the complex Watergate case, and saving America from mass corruption, Woodward and Bernstein became journalism heroes.

Yet, most contemporary journalists are content to remain mere entertainers. White House reporters are the sorriest of the bunch. They rarely demand answers when the President or his spokespeople tell blatant lies. I have personally witnessed Bush justify the invasion of Iraq by telling reporters that Saddam Hussein barred the UN inspectors from entering Iraq. In both cases, the reporters failed to follow up Bush's comment with the correction that it was the United States that forced the UN inspectors out of Iraq, not Hussein. Now, if I know these facts, shouldn't a White House reporter?

Of course, it's not exclusively the journalists' fault. American media corporations (save for PBS) feel little or no duty to serve the public by informing them of news and current events. The corporations will argue that if Americans wanted news, they would ask for it. And they are right. However, it's reasonable to ask whether any competent leader of the United States would think the status quo is acceptable. After all, if our leaders aren't going to demand excellence from us, why do we need leaders at all? But I digress.

The interesting thing I learned from the movie was that the generations of 1970's weren't so different from our own. Even after Woodward and Bernstein amassed a considerable volume of circumstantial evidence, Gallup polls indicated that fewer than half of Americans knew the name Watergate. It took a whistle-blower to come forward and connect the dots (all the way to the White House) before the American people came to their senses.

Today, getting public awareness of such issues is even harder than it was in the seventies, when TV news sources were more widely received. The handful of broadcast channels that existed were required to provide the public service of professional journalism in exchange for their access to the public airwaves. In today's era of cable TV, most of us rarely watch the news. Today, we could choose to watch nothing but, say, auto-racing TV shows, and never be inconvenienced by people telling us that our democracy is in jeopardy.

All of this is relevant because the Watergate gang are back. Karl Rove led the College Republicans, a bunch of political thugs who ran dirty tricks in the Watergate era. Indeed, Rove was the protégé of one Donald Segretti, the dirty trickster who did time for his misdeeds. The Watergate scandal was about more than just a burglary. It was a systematic effort to corrupt democracy coordinated from within the White House. The Watergate coverup was an effort to hide this criminal enterprise.

How soon we forget. Today, Republican operatives are being investigated for dirty tricks in the 2004 campaign. Specifically, James Tobin was recently convicted for jamming the phones of Democratic activists on Election Day in the New Hampshire. Given this information alone, it's plausible that this was an isolated incident. However, the press knows more than this. Tobin was George W. Bush's regional campaign director. On the day of the phone-jamming, there were numerous phone calls between Tobin and the White House, suggesting White House coordination. The approximately $15,000 it cost to implement the phone-jamming was deposited to the local campaign primarily in three $5,000 increments, suggesting that the cost of the jamming was covered by Republican sources with coordination. Finally, the Republicans have spent $6 million, no doubt out of the goodness of their hearts, to pay the legal bills of Tobin, suggesting a coverup.

It's Watergate all over again. I just hope that Americans care this time.

Saturday, April 15, 2006


Sorry for the dearth of recent posts. I've been very busy with actual work. Here are some of the thinks I've been thinking about recently...

Philosophical invariance: it's like the concept of symmetry in physics. I think that many philosophical ideas might be equivalent under certain transformations. Writing philosophical arguments in a more consistent and formal way might expose these symmetries.

Politics. It is time for Rumsfeld to go. Why do the Republicans insist on rewarding incompetence? How big a screw up do you have to make before you get fired, or resign in shame?

She's just being intransigent...

Intransigent? I though that meant homeless?

No, that's indigent.

So what are native Americans?

They're indigenous.

Who knew doctor(logic) liked cute fuzzy bunnies! They're delicious!

Thursday, April 06, 2006

Parodies of Positivism

Logical positivism is more subtle than it looks.

Consequently, my debates with dualists (e.g., here and here) degenerate into, shall we say, less-than-generous characterizations of materialism and logical positivism. Here are a few misconceptions.

Parody 1: The materialist believes everything is physical.
Incorrect. She claims that only the intelligible parts of the universe are logical and governed by natural laws. The materialist can admit that there might well be unintelligible (inconsistent, random, inexplicable) parts, but she will insist that we cannot know anything about such parts.

Parody 1B: The radical empiricist believes everything is physical or everything is ideal.
If mental sensation and physical sensation are two sides of the same coin, then it does not follow that the coin has two heads or two tails. Saying they are the same kind of thing actually says that mentality and physicality are joined in some other aspect, specifically by their experiential nature, their regularity and their consistency. It says that, like physical phenomena, intelligible mental phenomena are consistent and governed by rules. A priori, it does not declare that the mind is reducible to laws of physics, nor that the mind must be wholly explicable.

Parody 2: The logical positivist says that statements are meaningless unless physically verifiable, e.g., in a lab.
I, too, would laugh at such a claim. However, the actual claim is that thoughts (expressed as propositions) are semantically meaningful when they are models of past or potential experience. Physicality is not a requirement.

A thought that purports to be a mental model must specify what experiences (mental or physical) are implied and denied by the model. If there are no such experiences, then the thought is not a model at all, but just a thought. Such non-model thoughts have either precluded the existence of the modeled thing by their definition (they are confusions), or they were never intended as models in the first place (they are art).

Physical or mental existence (essence, as some would put it) is a correlation between mental and physical patterns of sensation, i.e., it is actual correlation of a mental model with an experience. A unicorn is a meaningful concept because I know what experiences I would interpret as a unicorn. However, I only know that unicorns exist when I correlate my model with implied experiences.

Thus, logical positivism analyzes mental models for consistency. If a mental model is found to preclude correlation with any particular experience, then the mental model is not a model at all.

So, what is meaningful for the logical positivist? When the logical positivist says that a proposition is meaningful, she means only that the proposition is a valid model of mental or physical experience.

This is a far more practical scheme for avoiding category errors than any attempt to place individual words in categories. Words have different meanings in different contexts (language games), so it is important to establish meaningfulness at the model or proposition level.

Parody 3: Logical Positivism cannot accommodate concepts like love or justice.
The meaning of a proposition (a mental model) is contained in its predictions of experience. The meaning of "unicorns exist in Africa" is in its predictions about what experiences will constitute its verification or falsification. The meaning of the Golbach Conjecture is contained in its predictions about prime numbers. Similarly, the meaning of "I love you", while somewhat imprecise, still makes predictions in behaviors and emotional experience.

From here, it is easy to see that the claim that logical positivism is blind to justice or dignity couldn't be further from the truth. I have a mental model of justice and dignity that specify what experiences justify such labels (for me and for most people I know). Logical positivism would only deny the meaning of justice if it could show that there could be no experience that validates the mental model of justice.

Parody 4: Logical Positivism rules out many things accepted in daily life.
Logical positivism excludes only a handful of purported mental models. It only rules out those thoughts which by definition have no experiential test. For example, whether or not we have "free will" has no experiential test whatsoever. Therefore, logical positivism says that it is not a model at all. It's just a thought (and a rather confusing one at that).

Sometimes, mental models are deliberately defined as being untestable through experience. "God is good" is one such model. It is generally claimed that no experience can falsify the proposition. But of what could such a thought possibly be a model? Nothing at all and everything at once. It's like statement "God is everything you experience," which is at best a relabeling of "everything you experience."

My view of logical positivism might be considered unorthodox. I don't aim to create some "unity of science" program, or rule out courses of study that have well-defined experiential tests. I am just a proponent of the Principle of Verifiability in its broadest sense.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Connecting Authoritarianism and Moral Absolutism

I know the connection sounds obvious. I think there's a definite correlation between authoritarianism and absolutism whether the leaning is left or right. However, in a recent discussion of moral objectivity, it occurred to me to consider what possible difference absolutism might make.

Suppose Rob the moral relativist and Abe the moral absolutist each engage in practices that the other finds morally wrong.

The Rob thinks Abe is committing immoral acts, perhaps due to Abe's personal nature, accidents of history and so on. That is, Rob finds Abe's actions to be distasteful. Rob will take action to change Abe's practices. He will try to persuade Abe not to commit the immoral acts, perhaps by describing the adverse consequences of those actions. Rob may agree to live under a treaty while reserving the right to trying to persuade Abe to change his ways. If the acts of Abe are sufficiently wrong in Rob's subjective view, he may use political measures or force to stop Abe.

How will Abe's actions be any different from Rob's? Even if morality is objective, Abe cannot be certain that he is correct - his must reserve some doubt because it has already been conceded that objective morality doesn't preclude people from being incorrect about it. So Abe will try to persuade Rob to act morally, but Abe may decide to make a treaty with Rob. If Abe has sufficiently strong objections to Rob's behavior, he will try to coerce Rob.

It could easily be argued that Rob and Abe will do the same thing independent of their views on the objectivity of morality.

However, it could also be argued that moral absolutists are less likely to enter treaties (i.e., be liberal). My sense is that holding to views of objective morality makes one less liberal (and more authoritarian), whether one's morality is right-wing or left-wing.

A moral absolutist is more likely to coerce on the issue of abortion or gun control than is a moral relativist. The relativist can be expected to do what he thinks is best, but feels a lesser commitment to abstract principle.

We can see this by analogy to physics and mathematics. There is a form of authoritarianism in science stemming from its objectivity. Repeated experiment trumps personal opinion every time. The principle is that if we can deny empirical fact in one place, then anything can be justified. That's why we don't tolerate flat-Earthers in the scientific community.

Likewise, the moral absolutist is committed to holding the line on every little moral issue, independent of import. If the principle of objectivity can be broken in one place, then what is to stop it being broken elsewhere?

The moral relativist sees morality like taste in food. Gastronomically, there is widespread (though not total) compromise and liberalism. We don't feel that if our friends eat foods we don't like, that it breaks some deep principle, and that if we don't nip it in the bud, people will start eating bicycle chains and pond scum.

Analogously, the moral relativist is more open to differences in moral behavior, as long as they aren't excessively offensive to his sensibilities. For example, the relativist may find abortion to be distasteful, but will not coerce a woman to come to term against her will. As long as his wife or daughter aren't forced to have abortions, the abortions of others do not represent a threat in the form of a challenge to an overarching principle. Similarly, a relativist who dislikes guns is willing to compromise with gun owners as long as his family isn't threatened by gun violence.

I've long been aware of the correlation between liberalism and relativism and between authoritarianism and absolutism, but I don't recall having thought formally about the possible mechanisms linking the two.

Recognition of this connection may prove useful in formulating political compromise.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Then And Now

You know things are bad when even our Secretary of State gets heckled on state visits to Britain. Or when she admits to our country making thousands of mistakes in Iraq in the last three years.

Remember the good old days when the American president would be warmly welcomed by the people of foreign lands? How about just allied foreign lands?

Do a search for Clinton's travels and you'll find few incidences of mass protest. You'll also notice that Clinton actually visited other countries on a regular basis!