If ever a book needed a Kindle edition, this is it

From the review in American Scientist Online of Margaret A. Boden’s Mind as Machine: A History of Cognitive Science:

It is fortunate that Mind as Machine is highly readable, particularly because it contains 1,452 pages of text, divided into two very large volumes. Because the references and indices (which fill an additional 179 pages) are at the end of the second volume, readers will need to have it on hand as they make their way through the first. Given that together these tomes weigh more than 7 pounds, this is not light reading!

Pricing would be tricky, though. Amazon is asking $188, which is $62 off list price. What would be a reasonable charge for a volume (actually two!) which one could not lend out, or donate to a library…?

5-year-old as a "National Security Risk"

It seems that the TSA has been lowering the bar for hiring new staff; it looks like a single-digit IQ is sufficient to get hired here in Seattle. From Consumerist:

A 5-year-old boy was detained as “security risk” because he had the same name of someone on the TSA “No-Fly” list. The TSA had to conduct a full search of their persons and belongings. When his mother went to pick him up and hug him and comfort him during the proceedings, she was told not to touch him because he was a national security risk. They also had to frisk her again to make sure the little Dillinger hadn’t passed anything dangerous weapons or materials to his mother when she hugged him.

Varieties of secularism

Interesting talk by Wilfred DeClay of the University of Tennessee from the Pew Center’s colloquium on Religion and Secularism. Here’s the thesis:

Alexis de Tocqueville was very impressed by the degree to which religion persisted in the American democracy and that religious institutions seemed to support American democratic institutions. What Tocqueville was describing, in fact, is a distinctly American version of secularism. It points in the direction of a useful distinction, which I made briefly at the outset, between two broadly different ways of understanding the concept of secularism, only one of which is hostile or even necessarily suspicious of the public expression of religion.
The first of these is a fairly minimal, even negative, understanding of secularism in the same way that Isaiah Berlin talks about negative liberty. It’s a freedom from imposition by any kind of establishment on one’s freedom of conscience. The second view, what I called the philosophical view or positive view, is much more assertive, more robust, more positive by affirming secularism as an ultimate and alternative faith that rightly supersedes the tragic blindnesses and, as [Christopher] Hitchens would have it, [the] “poisons” of the historical religions, particularly so far as activity in the public realm is concerned.

I would prefer “world-view” to “faith”, but no matter. It would also be good to find a different word for the second kind of “secularism”, but no single term seems to fit. It would need to cover atheism, agnosticism, and probably various pantheistic and deistic positions.
In any case, I believe that the rise in prominence of this second kind of secularism is directly related to the increasing attacks on the first kind of secularism which we’ve seen over the last 20 years. When (e.g.) evangelical Christians try to smuggle religion into schools, a response of “You are infringing on my personal beliefs” is seen as more effective than “You are upsetting a historical consensus about the interpretation of the First Amendment.” (Christians, even when culturally dominant, are attracted to a mythology of persecution that goes back to the Romans; ironically, this makes them more susceptible to protests about “religious persecution” than on arguments about political rights.)

Cognitive dissonance, middle-aged white male subdivision

Channel-surfing this evening ((After watching a recording of Aston Villa losing to Manchester United in the F.A.Cup – got to keep my priorities straight! Lovely goal by Wayne Rooney, back from his sick-bed.)) I came across Dan Rather and three middle-aged white journalists discussing the women’s vote in the New Hampshire primary, as well as the possibility of a “Bradley effect” ((The tendency of white voters to overstate their intention to support black candidates.)) in the recent opinion polls. I’m not looking for tokenism, but a little “domain expertise” would be nice…
Meanwhile James Fallows explains why Kristol is full of shit, as well as being a talentless hack. But we already knew that.


Last night my PowerBook suffered the same Power Management Unit-related failure that I’ve described before, and so today I booked a session at the “Genius Bar” in the Bellevue Apple store. Inevitably, the “Genius” was unable to reproduce the problem: we restarted and power-cycled the machine several times, but it always restarted successfully. We agreed that it was probably something to do with the power load: I normally have my PowerBook plugged in to a FireWire hard disk, another USB disk (for Time Machine), an external display, a couple of camera docks, and an iPhone dock. I use a powered USB hub, but even so I’m sure that the load affects the PowerBook’s power subsystem. “Oh well: at least it’s working,” said the genius, as he sent me on my way.
I got home, and fired up the machine. Everything looked OK… except that I couldn’t connect to the Internet. According to Network Preferences, I was connected to my AirPort Express hub, but I had a self-assigned IP address. I re-entered the WEP password ((Yes, I know WEP is broken, but I have a couple of legacy devices that don’t do WPA.)), but I still couldn’t get out. Re-acquire DHCP… nothing. Reboot PowerBook… nothing. Power-cycle AirPort Express… nothing. Run AirPort Assistant… it couldn’t see the AirPort Express. Finally (guess what) I reset the PMU on my PowerBook, re-entered the WEP address (and the date, etcetera), and mirabile dictu I was back in business.
My diagnosis: the PMU is dying, slowly, and inducing a variety of failure modes. The trick is going to be inducing a hard failure,, or at least a failure that the Genius will take seriously. Time to start systematically unplugging stuff and testing for failure, I think…

"Dignified" v. "efficient"

Following up on my thoughts yesterday about the wasteful character of the U.S. political system, here’s a nice observation from a BBC piece on the subject:

In the middle of the 19th Century, Walter Bagehot [noted] the distinction between what he described as the “dignified” and the “efficient” elements of the British constitution.
The “dignified” part was, of course, the monarch (with some help from the royal family and the House of Lords). The “efficient” part was the prime minister (along with the cabinet and the House of Commons). No doubt Bagehot over-simplified, but it was an arresting formulation, it has (if anything) become more true since his own time, and it describes a way of doing things which has been widely replicated elsewhere in British life, whereas it is relatively rare in the US.

Is (dis)belief in damnation more important than (dis)belief in God?

I’ve just finished reading “Who Knows?: A Study of Religious Consciousness” by the philosopher and inveterate riddler Raymond Smullyan. It’s less of a “study” than a collection of thoughts on three topics, loosely inspired by his reading of Martin Gardner’s “The Whys of a Philosophical Scrivener”. The first part is about the relationship between belief in God and belief in an afterlife, and for me it was spoiled by the casual and uncritical assumption of dualism. (How can you endorse the idea of life after death without taking a look at the arguments for and against dualism?) The third is all about “Cosmic Consciousness”, and my instinctive reaction of “Woo” was exacerbated by random nonsense about “planes of existence” and the supposed directionality of evolution. Ugh!
But in chapter two, Smullyan takes on Hell, and this is worth the price of admission.
Martin Gardner argued that the question of (non-)belief in god was “the deepest, most fundamental of all divisions among the attitudes one can take toward the mystery of being.” Smullyan seems to argue that a more important dichotomy is between those who believe in ((And “endorse”, to eliminate belief based on fear.)) the doctrine of eternal, infinite punishment and those who reject it. Obviously, most atheists reject the doctrine ((“Most”, because theism and life after death are logically independent, and I’m no expert on the consequences of beliefs about reincarnation and karma.)), but so do many Christians. Smullyan distinguishes four groups of Christians: ((He doesn’t have much to say about Judaism, and even less about Islam.))

  • An ultra-soft Christian believes that there is no such thing as eternal punishment.
  • A soft Christian believes that God is unable to prevent the sufferings of the damned.
  • A hard Christian believes that God is unwilling to prevent the sufferings of the damned.
  • An ultra-hard Christian believes that eternal punishment is good and just, and that a truly good person will take pleasure in the sufferings of the damned.

Smullyan introduced an amusing approach to the question. “If God asked you to vote on the retention or abolition of Hell, how would you vote?” Not surprisingly, many of the believers that he asked were strongly conflicted about their responses!
For me, the most depressing part of the book was reading the poisonous language of “ultra-hard” thinking. Most of Smullyan’s quotations date back to the 18th and 19th century (Jonathan Edwards, for example), but we have all encountered plenty of contemporary examples. They believe that the “suffering of the wicked” is good in itself. And these beliefs have consequences in the real world. As Smullyan says:

I firmly believe that all of us – the best of us! – have cruel and sadistic tendencies; that is part of our animal heritage. And the one socially acceptable outlet for our sadistic needs is retribution. I cannot fault a person for feeling retributive – that is only natural, as I have indicated. I fault only the approval of retribution. I believe that retributive ethics is one of the main forces – if not the main force – that is holding back our civilization. I predict that as we become more civilized, the decline in retributive ethics, the decline in the belief in hell, the decline in the approval of capital punishment, the decline of war, the decline in crime – all these things will come to us hand in hand.

It seems to me that the emergence of a vocal atheist “opposition” has in large measure been provoked by a “hardening” of the religious population. “Hard Christians” (and, presumably, “hard Muslims”) seem all too ready to appoint themselves as the agents in this world of an uncompromising, and essentially sadistic God. In this confrontation, it seems to me that “ultra-soft Christians” should logically be allied with the atheists. (Smullyan argues, and I agree, that the “soft Christian” position is incoherent.)

The strange state of the GOP, and other thoughts

Over at Orcinus, Sara has some interesting thoughts on the strange state of the Republicans in this election: ((UPDATE: Josh’s comment at TPM: “At this point it seems clear that the big take away from the Republican debate is that these are six pretty tired old guys who can barely get enthusiastic enough to answer the questions.” Another reader wondered “Is it me, or do Thompson and McCain seem like those old guys who sit in the balcony on the Muppets?”))

It’s striking how many of this year’s GOP hopefuls were guys who would have had zero chance, who wouldn’t have even made it through the money primaries, in any other year. The very motliness of the crew is a testament to the fact that the center is no longer holding — because if it were, they wouldn’t be there. A functional Bush regime would have picked a successor, and used the past four years to position him for a win. The fact that that didn’t happen is yet another testament to their looming failure. Nobody’s interested in continuing their policies. Nobody even wanted so much as their blessing.

This got me to thinking about the opposite kind of problem which the Democrats have. In recent years I’ve come to the conclusion that the US system is intrinsically wasteful of talent. Things are arranged so that natural allies are forced into a long drawn-out fight. Because they tend to share policy positions, they are forced to rely on personal denigration, thus guaranteeing that they won’t be able to work together after the primaries.
Back home in the UK, for example, the Democrats would have a dream team, a cabinet ready to take over and govern effectively on all fronts. They’ve got a PM, a Chancellor, a Foreign Secretary, a Home Secretary… But over here, they’re forced through a meat-grinder of a system which pretty much ensures that most of that talent will be wasted. ((And of course the whole toxic mess discourages many talented people from even putting themselves forward.))
Presidents ought to be symbolic leaders, restricting themselves to opening highways, holding garden parties, leading charitable appeals, and giving the eulogies at state funerals for national heroes. If you let them do more than that, they’ll try to become kings or emperors, and that always ends in tears.