Saturday, February 28, 2009


I know I've talked about it before, but I'm going to do it again, damnit.

In the world of truth and justification, there are... actually, I don't know why we combine truth and justification. While, yes, it's true that if we could ascertain what is true we would be perfectly justified. So, in that sense, a quest for truth coincidentally ends with the attainment of justification.

But even if you disagree on all other points, you have to admit that absolute truth has yet to be attained as we speak, and as such it seems reasonable to separate truth and justification.

But regardless, in truth and justification, there are two opposing views: coherentism and foundationalism. In coherentism, a person is justified in a belief if that belief is coherent with their current set of beliefs. This leads to some interesting problems, such as if I live in a bubble and have never seen grass, I can say that grass is purple and be justified in the coherentist view. I actually don't see any reason to say this is even a problem. I think it's perfectly acceptable to say that anyone is justified in a belief if they have no beliefs in contradiction with that.

As an outside observer, we can say a belief in purple grass is wrong, but we know that because of other beliefs. And remember, saying it's unreasonable to believe anything without evidence, such as of purple grass in the yard, is a belief itself that affects our entire system of beliefs. In the bubble example, you must also eliminate beliefs like skepticism and empiricism. If I only have two beliefs, hypothetically, of purple grass and cows that bark, both beliefs are justified. They aren't neccessarily true, but there's some major problems with that.

What's true? I can define very well what it is to be justified in a coherentist view: no beliefs contradict. It's that simple. Nothing else must be assumed. No deductive or inductive connections must be made between them, because that implies a more complex set of processes going on than just coherency. DO any two beliefs result in a logical contradiction? If one does, then the assumption must be made that the idea which contradicts the fewest beliefs must be held up as justified.

But for foundationalism, they must be positively concerned with truth. But what is true? What makes the statement "grass is green" true? Does it correspond to reality? Well what does that mean? Correspond to our perceptions of reality? Or to actual reality. What's reality?! I don't mean to fly off into some bizarre and esoteric philosophical black hole, but you can see why the nature of foundationalism is difficult to accept, for me. Coherentism is simple and requires nothing more than our beliefs. It requires no sense perception; no sight, hearing, or taste. It only requires beliefs of any nature and a lack of logical contradiction.

And even if we are to say that for useful applications of a coherentist theory, such as in science, the size and complexity of the underlying belief set must be judged to be adequate, that itself is a belief. A belief that affects all other beliefs in a system that makes us question what we see and know that it, because of our limitations, results in an inherent and irrevocably non-zero chance that our belief system will be incoherent in the future. This is science! And look at what that's done for us.

For example, archaeologists were perfectly justified in believing that dinosaurs looked a particular way in the salad days of the science in the 1800's. We now know that they were wrong, or at least less accurate than we are. In all likelihood, we will discover that we are totally inaccurate on some aspects of our beliefs, but that doesn't mean we aren't justified in those beliefs now. That's why scientific theories are so strong. They are coherent beliefs that do not contradict lots and lots of other experimentally confirmed beliefs. We can feel decently secure in them because if a contradictory belief does arise, it must also contradict all of the other beliefs and as I mentioned earlier, whichever belief contradicts the most beliefs must be held the most suspect.

That doesn't mean that one contradictory idea isn't the right idea. Einstein's theory of special relativity was like that, but it resulted in a massive, new scientific system that is even more coherent than the old one.

I also disregard the argument that a larger coherent system is more likely to be correct than a smaller system. I think any coherent system is equally justified. What we add to our own system is a belief that if a belief system is large, it's better than one that is small because in the past larger belief systems, for example scientific theories, have proven to be accurate. That itself is a belief that must be included in our belief system that is based on things other than raw beliefs. It includes sense perception, and interactions with our environment. We're not talking about experiment. We're talking about beliefs and nothing more.

In many cases, we have coherent systems of belief that are perfectly coherent with the world, equal in size and complexity, but completely contradictory. There are cases of this in theoretical physics and mathematics all the time. Again, I don't see any problems here. You just continue building up coherent beliefs in both systems until one falls apart. Again, that happens in math and physics all the time. Personally, I also think cases like those happen because of our own problems in divvying up reality into packets of information called numbers.

So I find problems with all arguments against practical coherentism. The scientific argument, where we need to define justification outside of mere non-contradiction, implies the application of a skeptical stance which is itself a belief that results in a non-coherent belief system when certain parameters have been met, e.g. a belief system of insufficient size. If we remove that scientific belief, our belief system is totally coherent.

Obviously, that sort of "scientific" coherentism, where beliefs are of low justification when nascent, is very useful for everyday use, but it requires a belief on top of the raw belief system that affects the entirety of the system. For example, I am sitting at a table and believe my foot is now mauve. It is totally coherent for me to believe that my foot has spontaneously turned mauve. But I have other beliefs which make me doubt that. I've never seen a foot turn mauve. Bodily systems would prevent it.

As such, I believe that feet never turn spontaneously mauve. This belief is non-contradictory with all of my other beliefs. If I then look and see that my foot has turned mauve, after calling a doctor, I must reassess my belief system. Where is the contradiction happening? Perhaps my friend secretly painted my foot while I wasn't looking. Perhaps I missed a recent scientific article documenting the thousands of previously unknown cases of mauve feet.

In all but the most extreme case, the scientific system is not thrown away because the system is so large and throwing it away would result in countless contradictions. So in the end, I fall back to a raw coherentist quest. I must find where the contradiction is taking place. My scientific system says feet do not turn mauve, so my first order of business is to acquire new beliefs that help to explain the seeming contradiction.

There is one more attack that foundationalists can muster, namely that our confidence in our own beliefs is in fact a foundation that coherentists implicitly rely upon. Nonsense, says I!

There is a concept in psychology stating that there is no homunculus. This neo-foundationalist implies a homunculus, where a little person exists somewhere in the mind which is inherently separate from body, memory, and even beliefs. That we are separate from our body is acceptable. If I lose my arms and legs, I am still me. That we are separate from our memories is a bit less acceptable, but still adequate. If I forget everything, the effects of my memories on me can remain, so I am still here even if I forget most everything about my past. But separating "me" from my beliefs is distilling "me" down to something that's basically non-existent.

I think that beliefs about beliefs, so-called metabeliefs, are not a special class of belief. If I say "I believe in God," then say "I believe I believe in God," is not only needlessly repetitive, but also problematic. How do I know I'm holding a belief about a belief? Am I merely holding a belief about a memory of a belief? And if that's the case, memories are subject to the skeptical argument, and as such cannot be foundational.

And even if we say that our beliefs are the foundation we can trust, it doesn't matter. Foundationalism is a quest for truth, not justification. Cogito ergo sum is a foundationalist statement. It is a logically self-sufficient statement. Saying "I know what I think" is a statement of startlingly little power. It cannot be used as a foundation because I think it's only slightly disconnected from just saying "I think what I think." And even if it is a powerful statement about knowing what I know, how does that extend to be a foundation upon which to build knowledge? It doesn't. Unless we want to take the position that reality is merely our experience of it, a phenomenalist approach, knowing what we know is just that. It has no connection with reality which is what truth is supposedly after.

Coherentism is real. It's what we use on a day-to-day basis. It can be taught, learned, and applied. Foundationalism, and in fact any other system of justification, fails. By sticking to coherentism in justification it gains power in the real world. It succeeds in science and in law.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Protect the Children!

I've ranted about people pushing agendas by saying we need to protect children from various evils roaming about the world with the sole purpose of hurting our children. Generally, once the agitprop of child protection is stripped away, the reality of the situation is, if not outright wrong, shaky.

Well, the children aren't the only thing that apparently needs protecting, it's the populous. That poor, stupid, ignorant populous that is so easily harmed by evil ideas.

I got started on this thought line after visiting the page on Wikipedia of banned books. It makes me feel very good that on the list, the books that were banned in the US either faded away or were directly overturned by the courts. It reminds me why the US actually is the best country on Earth. A mandated respect of freedom is written into our laws.

Many countries are, in many ways, technically freer than the US. But none of them have the laws negating the possibility of censorship. Laws that make the profound assumption that no ideas or creations can be harmful. Nowhere else on Earth is that found.

I think that any country or social order that feels the need to censor anything is a fundamentally weak social order. If mere words are an actual threat to the persistence of that social order, it should, for lack of a better word, die. Maybe it doesn't have to die in some cataclysmic way, such as the USSR, but it must die and give way to a different foundation that is stronger.

In the US, in every case, censorship has been defeated. Fear and intolerance has faded in favor of rational thought, in both a legal and everyday sense. We have had our mistakes. The Red Scare is the biggest one I can think of. But Lenny Bruce is a close second. But even decades after Bruce's death, we can't help but look back and correct our mistakes. He was pardoned in 2003. And the Red Scare is now, rightfully, seen as one of the US's darkest hours. A time when we were so scared and so stupid, that we ruined countless people's lives.

But in other countries, even today, we have ongoing censorship. Germany bans any Nazi literature, demonstrations, or groups. Australia has a nasty penchant for banning video games. And we have de facto censorship in many countries, such as Germany, where publications, movies, or games are not technically banned, but "restricted." Only those restrictions are so oppressive that they effectively prevent any sales from taking place. Such as not allowing a display or advertising of the product, and the product's existence is only allowed to be revealed if the customer already knows about it and directly asks. That means that countries such as this; countries that are otherwise seen as Western and cultured, are weak and inferior in a very deep, foundational way.

And while I think it is an obvious statement to say that countries that have made a habit of banning things in the past have been weak countries (USSR, Guatemala, etc.) I don't think people who call for the banning of things in this country think in that way. That what they are saying is that our country is weak and that our people are weak. I not only take them to task for explaining how, exactly, that is the case, but I also say that they are downright unamerican for making such a statement. We are nothing without our freedom, and the most basic element of freedom is to think and say what we want.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

A Life Well Lived

Much of religion is something I wouldn't want. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan lived in a cave contemplating God. He hardly ever ate. He bordered on being a vegetable.

The entire point of a monk's existence was to hang around doing nothing more than contemplating God. Just look at Saint Benedict! He may not have actually become some cave-dwelling hermit, but that doesn't matter. He's portrayed as doing that and having been all the more pious for it. Again, the ideal is the same.

I wouldn't want that. No one would want that! I would rather be cursed to a life without a connection to God and actually get stuff done. I want to build things, write stories, and paint pictures. I would rather live a life of pain and achievement than ecstasy and inactivity.

In the same way, the prospect of falling from Grace rankles me. Who wouldn't WANT to be out of the garden of Eden. I want to grow my food. I want to shepherd my animals. Who is God to say we cannot have knowledge. Our greatest asset is our mind. No knowledge is bad. If I live in damnation, so be it. I'll be happy for the rest of time knowing that it is not God, but I who defined my life in whatever meager way I'm capable of doing.

What a ridiculous God when all of the interesting people are damned. And that's a fact. Janis Joplin? Damned. Oscar Wilde? Damned. Most of our Presidents are likely damned. The entire team behind the Manhattan project? Oh boy are they fucked. How is God the highest form of anything.

Goodness, wisdom, power. God is the purest Good. Living like some weird ghoul in a cave seems absolutely antithetical to that God. Goodness comes from action, not some blissful vegetative state. Wisdom comes in life, not in a cave. And power comes from understanding, and that must necessarily include God's creation as well as God's nature.

Any parent doesn't want their child to be reverent and obedient. While that classical idea of children seen and unheard remains, that's an exaggeration. No good parent would ever want that. Good parents want their children to leave, to grow, and to succeed on their own. A child returning to the nest is a failure, not a goal. And any good parent wants their child to exceed them. They want to child to be faster, stronger, smarter, and achieve more. They want the absolute best for them. God must want that. He wants us to to exceed Him. If God is infinite, so shall we be.

I would rather, and I'm being serious, face an eternity of damnation for even a short period of true freedom on Earth. And if that means turning my back on God, so be it. I'm happier for it. Any God that requires my reverence, my supplication, and my obedience is a tiny God indeed.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Cake. They Want Cake.

There was a fantastic article in the New York Times Magazine about female desire last Sunday, the 1st. It was a generally insightful article with lots of perspectives, or as many perspectives as could be wedged into a relatively short space.

But perhaps the best part were the responses. Generally, even in the Times, the letters section is a wasteland of idiotic ranting and people who think they have something to say. This one was notably different. The insights of the writers were a profound addition to the original body of the work. I enjoyed reading every one, even the obligatory feminist rant.

Thankfully, the Times also posts the letters section. If you're prompted to "sign up" for the times (It's free! Like, yay!) and you don't want to, go to and get yourself a sign in.

May of the responses highlighted the difficulty in separating innate sexual drives and culture. It's obvious that what is and isn't attractive can vary greatly from culture to culture. In some cultures fat is hot, and in others, it's thin. Hairy, not hairy. Broad and stout, willowy. But certain characteristics transcend culture. It's very difficult to say we know which is which with certainty.

A couple of them targeted the claim that female sexuality is narcissistic, or females are not specifically desirous, themselves, but want to be the object of desire. The first response, from Aruna D’Souza, and the third, from Dalma Heyn, both highlight that women may not be specifically narcissistic, only that in a world dominated by female-oriented imagery, women must respond in a way that connects their sexuality with the male-dominated sexuality of the outside world.

Heyn specifically mentions that the Times' own choice to litter the article about female sexuality with images of females, which is an assumed male perspective, as opposed to images of males, or an assumed female perspective, illustrates the social problem.

I think this is a biting insight, but I respond with the Cosmo argument. Cosmo magazine is written by women for women. As such, it can certainly maintain and perpetuate stereotypes, social expectations, and all sorts of negative psychological constructs, but one would expect it to cater to the underlying, primal psychological makeup of women to sell magazines. Even here, the magazine is filled with images of women. Obviously, there are a few men, but it's primarily women.

Granted, the same goes for the counterpoint to Cosmo, Men's Health. It's filled from cover to cover with images of ripped men. Still, the male market has a litany of lad-mags, such as Maxim, FHM, and Stuff, which cater almost exclusively to male sexuality. And what is that? Lots of hot babes in skimpy clothing. There is no analog for females. There is no Maxette Magazine that's loaded with images of men. Playgirl magazine failed and is now basically soft-core porn for gay men.

If there was an underlying driver, even if it was squelched by culture and society, I just don't think that these magazines would have behaved in this way. Playgirl would not have failed. And there would be something that vaguely resembles a female Maxim on the market. Yet here we are, with all of the female oriented magazines filled with images of women.

So while I'm unsure of the narcissistic theory of female sex drive, much of it rings true. To what extent that is the result of evolution and culture is to be decided.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Strong Like Bull

All of life is nothing more than a strong argument. Skepticism can apply to nearly every aspect of life. Our sense experience is involuntary, and it provides us with a stable, coherent picture of reality. While others would argue otherwise, I find the involuntary nature of sense experience to be an adequate reason for accepting it.

We cannot be sure, but we can conclude that reality is, more or less, as we see it as highly probable.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009


I was in the Disney store the other day and was shocked to see Wall-E crap everywhere. Then it hit me, that Wall-E, especially from a company such as Disney, was a $180 million insult to the average Disney product buyer.

Think about that. Who is the average person you see wearing a t-shirt with Pooh on it? This doesn't apply to souvenirs from Disney World, only those shirts purchased at Target or Wal-Mart. That's right. Fat, stupid, trash. I'm not saying that all people who wear these shirts are fat, stupid, and trashy. I'm only saying that a higher than normal number of people who wear these shirts fulfill those three characteristics. Don't even get me started on people who wear stuff with Warner Bros. characters on them.

And I can only hope that Disney realizes the irony of walking into a Disney store and being able to buy disposable garbage that will likely end up in a dump within a few months with the fucking Buy n Large logo on them!

In fact, I'm sure they recognized that, which may account for the relative dearth of Wall-E products in comparison to other Disney movies. For example, on Amazon, a search for Wall-E and then toys results in 294 products, of which about half are actual Wall-e products. Monsters Inc. nets 305, with a little over a third being Disney products. Disney Cars lands an impressive 1,260, with about 75% being for the movie. 532 for The Incredibles. Disney Princess barfs up an amazing 2,585, with almost every item being a Disney product.