Archive for February, 2012


The sound of buzzcuts

So I used to get my hair cut at John’s Barber Shop up on Route 6. It was a slightly cramped and slightly antique little place off the parking lot, tucked behind the stores that face the road. John was a small energetic barber with an Italian accent and a small staff of sub-barbers, most of them as far as I remember female, John and the staff and many of the customers at least as old as me, maybe even one generation back.

It was a fun place to go for my once-or-twice-a-year haircut, because they would always tease me about the amount to be removed (most of the other male customers being in for short conservative cuts to their lightly oiled black hair), and because it felt like a piece of reality in a way that the Family Salons in Malls never quite did.

(And the one time I got my hair cut at the Family Salon in the Mall and casually told the guy “oh I don’t know, maybe like yours is!”, it was John’s that I went to to have the resulting rat-tail removed. Not that I have any moral objection to the vaguely Hell’s Angel guy I saw in the mirror afterward, but it was profoundly Not Me.)

Eventually John stopped being there very often, and the sign changed to “John and Frank’s” I think it was. And now the sign is just “Frank’s”, and I like to think that John is retired with good wine and lots of Italian grandchildren running about.

Frank is a young guy, maybe thirty, tall and thin, vaguely Russian, but not the pale Caucasian Russian; something darker and hardier. He’s expanded the place, put in nice wood flooring, a glass-fronted case with plants in pots on top and containing some random Salon supplies that no one ever looks at, a rack of old magazines, a refurbished Ms. Pac-Man game, and some extra chairs.

Today as I’m sitting there watching the little boy have his hair cut (“Just him”, I said as we came in, “mine’s still short”, and everyone laughed because they tease me about my hair here still), there are three of them working: Frank, and a shorter guy, maybe Italian (one of John’s grandchildren?), with a buzzcut and a Yankee’s cap worn backwards, and a big muscular chocolate-brown guy with a shaven head and tattoos on his upper arms. Frank is doing the little boy’s hair. Even though he’s having it cut so short that M will be surprised when we get home, it’s still the longest cut I see them give anyone while we’re there. Everyone else is buzzcuts, or shaven sides with a modern not-Mohawk in the center, or something along those lines. (I don’t remember ever seeing a woman in the place since it stopped being John’s.)

It still feels more real-life than the Mall, and everyone is joshing and “how are ya man”ning each other, and being all “I can’t believe we had snow, I was pissed off!” and “You get caught with a suspended license it’s worse than not having a license at all, that’s crazy shit, bro”. I’m sitting with my iPad reading Charlie Stross and listening to Chicks on Speed and electronica on my bluetooth earphones (when I sit up and stretch Frank says “Wake up! You’re playing with that thing too much, is why”, meaning the iPad), and the TV on the wall in one corner is showing soccer as I think it usually is (more evidence that Frank is some sort of European, or maybe just that it’s the XXIst Century now).

And I put a quarter into the M&Ms-for-charity machine, and it gives me a nice handful of good old-fashioned milk-chocolate M&Ms.

Frank always charges us extra, I think, because the little boy and I never come in until our hair is longer than any other four of his customers ever let theirs get between them. But it’s probably no more than the Mall, and it’s more interesting.

On the way out, I say that I’ll be back once my hair’s long, and they laugh.



Hee hee.

Back to whatsisname Plantinga soon, I promise. Conditions permitting. Offer void where prohibited, licensed, or taxed. Not to be used as a life-saving device.


More on Alvin Plantinga’s “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality”

I actually wrote “Is it rational to believe random stuff for no good reason?“, or 80% of it anyway, twice; WordPress whimsically threw away the first version.

In the second version there, I left out one argument that I discussed the first time. Between saying that he doesn’t believe in God by choice, and saying that the atheological evidentialist objector may regard the theist-without-evidence as sick or malfunctioning, Plantinga argues that there is not a general obligation to have evidence for everything you believe, thus:

[T]here seems no reason to think that I have such an obligation. Clearly I am not under an obligation to have evidence for everything I believe; that would not be possible. But why, then, suppose that I have an obligation to accept belief in God only if I accept other propositions which serve as evidence for it?

Well, he’s not so much arguing as he is baldly asserting, with a “clearly” in there for emphasis. But we can think about what he might mean by it.

I can think of three things he might be saying here.

First, he might be pointing out that I’m not obliged to have prepared in advance evidence for everything that I believe. That would be an awful lot of stuff to carry around with one just in case, so to speak, either physically or cognitively. And that’s fine, it seems reasonable to state the requirement of rationality that one should be able to produce good reasons for one’s beliefs, if asked, not so much that one should be aware of those reasons at all times.

Second, he might be making a sort of foundational or preconditional argument, saying that we can’t have evidence for stuff that is so basic to thinking itself that it’s really a precondition for anything even counting as evidence. Things like the reality of the past (as opposed to the world having sprung into being ready-made ten seconds ago), not being a brain in a vat, etc. You can’t really have evidence for them (or against them) since ex hypothesi they are entirely consistent with all of our experiences.

And this is reasonable also. It means that we can’t demand that all beliefs are based on sufficient evidence, and I think the right rationalist response to that is to say that all beliefs should be based on good reasons, where reasons are a superset of evidence, and also include things being preconditions for thought or evidence itself. Someone may someday come up with a system where we can do rational discourse without presupposing the reality of the past or our own nonvatness, but until that happens we have good reason to believe them, just because otherwise you’re dead in the water.

Third, he might just mean “there’s no reason to require that anyone have any reason for believing anything”, but since interpreted one way that’s just asserting as obvious the whole conclusion that the paper is aiming at (which would be silly), and interpreted another way it’s just weird (of course rationality requires something of our cognitive behavior, or it has no content at all), I will assume that he doesn’t mean that.

So we can take this argument to be pointing out that rationality doesn’t require us to, at all times, have in mind evidence for everything that we believe, but rather that it requires that we can, if asked, produce good reasons for believing each thing that we believe, where reasons are broader than just evidence.

This doesn’t actually work very well as as argument for what he wants to argue, though, since he seems to want to say not just that it’s okay to believe in God even if you don’t have sufficient evidence on the tip of your tongue, but also that it’s okay to believe in God for no good reason at all. And that’s far too strong a proposition to demonstrate by mere assertion.

While I’m here saying more stuff about this Plantinga paper, I’d also like to note not only how he slips from talking about believing in God for reasons into talking about believing in God simpliciter, but also how he conflates theism in general with his particular Christian theism.

Here’s a passage that especially raised my eyebrows:

[The theist] will see the atheist as somehow the victim of sin in the world — his own sin or the sin of others. According to the book of Romans, unbelief is a result of sin; it originates in an effort to “suppress the truth in unrighteousness.”

Of course not all theists have any particular theory about “sin”, or about the causes of unbelief, or about Romans (bookish or otherwise); last I looked, most theists weren’t Christian at all. Again, despite the putative topic of the paper, Plantinga doesn’t seem to be interested in a general philosophical point about the rationality of believing in God without evidence; really he’s just launching a salvo in the defense of Christianity. I’d have more respect for him if he’d just do that, and not pretend to be doing something else…


Is it rational to believe random stuff for no good reason?

So yesterday I got into the car to go get something from somewhere, and I heard the tail-end of an interview with some philosopher-guy. All they said in the twenty seconds I heard was that God and football are the main topics at Notre Dame, although there are a few others ha ha, and then they said his name is Alvin Plantinga, and he has a new book.

Thanks to the magic of the Innertubes, in this case the NPR app for the iPad, I was able to listen to the entire piece (and you can too if that link still works; it’s just six minutes). It’s Alvin Plantinga, who’s an Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Notre Dame, talking in very general terms about how science and religion are compatible, and how in fact it’s “naturalism” (i.e. the idea that there are no “supernatural entities”, by which he means God, because no one believes in Santa anymore) that’s the weird belief, and that science is a great thing, but just limited in scope, and there are lots of things that you can’t scientifically prove, like the reality of the past (that is, the entire universe could have been created five minutes ago in exactly the state that we all remember, and you wouldn’t be able to tell), and (I’m guessing) the divinity of Jesus.

I’m always interested in religious people who claim to have a rational (or rough equivalent) argument for their religiousness, so I poked around the web a bit, and found a site that has a bunch of his papers, and I read a couple of them.

There’s some interesting stuff here, but I think he tends to (rather Searle-like) skip very quickly past the obvious problems with his theories, and dive into the complex and arguable ones instead. Admittedly those are more fun :) but…

On to the arguments! The first paper I read was “Theism, Atheism, and Rationality“; it’s intended as a response to the claim that “[a] person who believed without evidence that there are an even number of ducks would be believing foolishly or irrationally; the same goes for the person who believes in God without evidence”, and that therefore “one who accepts belief in God but has no evidence for that belief is not, intellectually speaking, up to snuff.”

He examines this first as a claim that the “theist without evidence” is violating an ethical or cognitive duty or responsibility that applies to any member of some cognitive or rational community, and that by violating this duty e opens emself to criticism and disapprobation by (other) members of the community, that being the way that communities work.

Plantinga’s first response to this is to note that he doesn’t exactly choose to believe in God. Although there may be “some sort of regimen” that he could use to eventually change or extinguish that belief, it’s not like if offered a million dollars he could just change his belief in a moment.

And that’s fair; no one needs to claim that he’s being irrational on purpose, I don’t think.

So what’s the alternative? The next possibility he considers is that, rather than choosing to do something wrong, perhaps the theist without evidence is defective in some way, broken, or ill, or otherwise malfunctioning. That’s all very well, he says, but the theist might also say that the atheist is broken or ill or malfunctioning or full of sin or whatever, and doing the wrong thing for that reason. How do we decide which one is actually malfunctioning?

(It’s interesting to note at this point that while he started out talking about someone who thinks it’s irrational to believe in God without sufficient evidence versus someone who thinks that’s fine, he’s now talking in plainer terms of atheist versus theist; that will become key a bit later.)

It’s easy for the theist, he says, in that correct functioning means functioning as God intended, and God wants us to believe in him, so believing in him is correct functioning. (Which makes alot of unwarranted assumptions about God and belief, but we’ll let that pass for now.) What, he asks, can the atheist offer instead?

Here Plantinga considers, and instantly dismisses, the right answer. The “atheological evidentialist objector” (love the phrase) “may be thinking of proper functioning as functioning in a way that helps us attain our ends“. And that’s basically right: for pretty much any plausible set of plans and goals and desires, believing stuff only for good reasons is much more conducive to attaining them than is believing stuff without good reasons (because it feels nice, or because you saw it in a dream, or whatever). If I believe in a traditional Christian God for no good reason, for instance, I will probably defer various pleasant things on the theory that I will be infinitely rewarded after death as a result; but if I don’t have good reasons to believe that, it’s quite likely false, and I will have deferred those pleasant things unnecessarily.

Plantinga, though, doesn’t look this deeply into the claim. He just notes that although the atheist may not want to believe in God, the theist probably does, so believing in God helps him attain his ends, and the atheist is just wishing that he wouldn’t. But that’s confusing “doing things that help me attain my ends in the long-run” with “doing things that I want to do right now”. One of the benefits of rationality, in fact, is just that it can help us see what will work out best in the long term, even when it’s not the thing we most want to do right now.

Next Plantinga does consider a version of the argument I give above:

A second possibility: proper functioning and allied notions are to be explained in terms of aptness for promoting survival, either at an individual or species level.

And that works, too, and in fact it’s a special case of the end-attaining argument above to the extent that in general our ends include individual and species survival.

Plantinga waves this one away, also, saying “the atheological objector would then owe us an argument for the conclusion that belief in God is indeed less likely to contribute to our individual survival, or the survival of our species than is atheism or agnosticism”, and concludes that that would be a hard argument to make.

I find this baffling! Suddenly, rather than replying to the suggestion that we shouldn’t believe in things (including God) for no good reason, he’s defending theism per se. Surely all that the atheological evidentialist objector (and note that Plantinga has dropped that middle word this time) has to argue is, not that believing in God is less survival promoting than not believing in God, but that believing things for no good reason is less survival promoting than believing things only for good reasons.

And doesn’t that seem awfully plausible?

Plantinga seems to have just dodged here, and that’s disappointing. He seems to entirely forgotten that he started out to respond to the claim that it’s irrational to believe in God without evidence, and reverted to just “well, you can’t prove that believing in God causes bad results!”, which is not the same thing at all.

The last paragraph of the paper is equally disappointing, raising a question that should be so obvious to any philosopher as to not even need asking. I’ll just quote the last three sentences:

The theist has an easy time explaining the notion of our cognitive equipment’s functioning properly: our cognitive equipment functions properly when it functions in the way God designed it to function. The atheist evidential objector, however, owes us an account of this notion. What does he mean when he complains that the theist without evidence displays a cognitive defect of some sort? How does he understand the notion of cognitive malfunction?

If only there were a vast existing literature, much of it not making reference to God at all, about what rationality and cognitive obligation and function and malfunction might mean! If only this vast literature were available in any decent university library, easily accessible by anyone in the Philosophy profession!

Oh, wait…

Next time: the next paper I read, in which Plantinga approaches some of these same things, and some different things, from a different angle, and raises some interesting questions, but still dodges the correct answer. His new book is apparently based on essentially the same argument.

Update: some stuff I forgot to mention. :)


Komen for… Komen

(Another posting complaining about some Internet sighting of an organization behaving badly. A pretty boring subject area in general, or mundane at least, but there’s alot of it out there. We hope to return to our accustomed surreality sometime soon.)

So it’s been reasonably obvious for some time that the Susan G. Komen Foundation is at least as interested in the Susan G. Komen Foundation as it is in, say, finding a cure for any particular disease. When an organization starts using contributor funds to send out attack teams of lawyers after charities that use the word “cure” or the color pink, you know something’s gone off the rails.

Well now that same Komen Foundation has cut off their funding to Planned Parenthood, because (huge surprise) Certain People don’t like Planned Parenthood. Certain People have never liked Planned Parenthood, because they provide contraception (see Comstock Laws and more recently Rick Santorum), and even abortions.

Planned Parenthood uses the Komen funds to pay for breast exams for women who are too young for routine mammograms, but these Certain People have always been more interested in preventing sex and defending the rights of microscopic fertilized eggs than they have in the health of actual walking-around people. So if they can hurt an abortion provider at the cost of some breast cancer deaths, they’re all over it.

Here’s a nice wannabe-viral banner:

Spread it aroun’…

(Although I don’t think they really needed the second apostrophe there; it’s defensible, but barely.)