Archive for October 8th, 2009


Harnessing the Wind

October 8, 2009

MailI love this interview.  Jon Stewart interviews William Kamkwamba, a boy from Malawi who constructed his own windmill, in his backyard, from junk.  Click on the book to visit his website.


Feeling Randy?

October 8, 2009

Following up on comments earlier in the week, Brian Leiter links to this article in the Guardian on why Rand is ridiculous.

Here, enjoy a taste:

A characteristic peculiar to Rand that detracts mightily from her works in a spectacular way is her enthusiasm for such inanimate objects as machines, trains, high-tension wires, factories and industrial areas of cities. Her unstinting praise of the so-called geniuses of entrepreneurial bent is difficult enough to swallow; but her paroxysms of delight as she ponders smoke-belching steel mills or grease-covered railroad bridges, page after page, will cause thoughtful readers to experience feelings of profound and abject embarrassment.

There’s also this hosanna from a quite different perspective, effectively nudging Reason readers to initiate the Rand revival.  Hallelujah!

But this divergence of viewpoints raises a question for our cynical grand inquisitors: is Randianism a religion?  You can guess my answer by reading my earlier post in response to Roger, and then maybe test your own answer against some of the responses in the comments section, as well as against this counter-example.  Philosopher Richard Chappell of Philosophy, etc. offers some helpful insight in his comment.


Justified True Belief

October 8, 2009

I would absolutely love to respond to Roger’s challenge at much greater length, but I’m afraid I’m heading soon to New York for my sister’s wedding and so can only offer a few short comments.  Roger asks this:

Is belief in climate change a religion?

And the answer is… wait for it… no.  It is no more a religion than belief in the curative power of marijuana is a religion.  To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what a religion is, but it seems to me that religions must involve some appeal to the supernatural.  Since one can offer perfectly feasible naturalistic explanations for both climate change and the curative power of marijuana, whether those explanations are true or false isn’t at issue.  What is at issue is the upshot of the belief.  And, in most cases, the upshot of the belief in climate change is that natural systems, coupled with the introduction of anthropogenic emissions, are affecting the climate.  Nothing supernatural about that.

Now then, none of this is to say that appeals to the supernatural can’t exist in either of the two cases. Certainly there are people who believe every manner of wacky shit, sometimes after partaking of the aforementioned wacky tabakky.  If some nincompoop believes that the Great Hippo of Quincy is manipulating our weather systems to punish us for lionizing elephants and zebras, and also that the Great Hippo of Quincy’s supernatural gesticulations are the root cause of climate change, then I daresay that yes, climate change of the great hippo variety may be a religion.  So too for marijuana.  Fortunately, I suspect there aren’t very many nincompoops of this sort (though I have my doubts).  More on that last link soon.

Moreover, if one believes in superheroes, this could easily seem, on its face, like an appeal to the supernatural.  But it is also not necessarily that.  If one believes in superheroes of the X-men variety — those who exhibit natural powers brought on through genetic mutations — then there is, in this case, no appeal to the supernatural.  Ergo, it ain’t a religion.

The confusion probably lies, I suspect, in a distinction between a genuine unjustified belief and justified beliefs.  (Be careful here to distinguish between genuine and stated beliefs.)  We tend to think that people who have genuine unjustified beliefs — perhaps beliefs that appear to be impervious to external reason exchange, maybe even that simply conflict with beliefs that we hold dear — have no external independent methodology for establishing the truth of their beliefs.  We tend to assume that such steadfast people have some extra-rational commitment.  Unfortunately, I’m not sure it’s that easy. It appears to be a fact about the human condition that we can hold many contradictory beliefs at once, and that we can find some pretty enticing ways of weaving these together. Often we simply don’t have our justificatory apparatus set up and/or lubricated in the right way. There’s nothing religious about this. It’s just the way we keep ourselves sane. And sometimes, we make errors. We’re not terribly great critical thinkers. Until a challenge is presented that pulls the rug out of our other presiding beliefs, I suspect we all try to make sense of what we believe so that we have a mostly coherent picture.

The question about religion is about the nature of the appeal, it seems to me, and not about the steadfastness, truth, or rationality of the belief.


Public Opt-Out?

October 8, 2009

I was intrigued last night by this recent proposal to introduce the public health care option as a federal default position, but then to give states the option of opting-out of the default.  It’s the option option.

Plainly, the objectives of this approach are primarily political — to get the votes in the Senate:

The proposal is envisioned as a means of getting the necessary support from progressive members of the Democratic Caucus — who have insisted that a government-run insurance option remain in the bill — and conservative Democrats who are worried about what a public plan would mean for insurers in their states.

But is it ethically permissible to sacrifice the interests of the unlucky minority in states that may, due to internal political pressures, opt out?  In other words, it appears that by supporting an opt-out option, some people will be unnecessarily disregarded. On its face, this seems like a difficult conundrum. It is particularly difficult if you take the argument seriously that health care is a moral imperative. If health care is a moral imperative, which I believe it is, then one ought not endorse policies that seem poised to leave people behind.  Better to try to get the whole package, the deluxe deal.

I’m not so sure…

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