Sunday, October 30, 2005

Review of Graham Priest's Logic: A very short introduction

Graham Priest's Logic: A very short introduction is very short and is about logic. But it is not an introduction. That is not to say that it is too hard to be introductory, it is not, if you are even the slightest bit bold in the face of a little bit of symbolism and mathematics. But the topic it introduces is not standard logic.

This is a book more about its author than its subject. Graham Priest is well known amongst logicians and philosophers to have an agenda, and it comes out strongly in this book - too strongly. For example chapter 7 suggests that "->" might not be truth-functional. This is true, but it is not introductory stuff. I'll explain why in a moment. Exploiting the ambiguities in natural language for its counterexamples, or apparent counterexamples in logic is annoying and is a bad way to introduce modern conjunctions. For example when he exploits the ambiguity of "and" to sometimes mean "and then" and ignores canonical logical conjunction which has no such ambiguity. Paradoxes (and drawings of such - as Priest has done in earlier papers) appear to be interpreted as a problem whose real solution appears to be a Priestian paraconsistent logic. This is hardly standard or accepted.

In another place Priest endorses the use of fuzzy logic to solve the sorities paradox. (Perhaps I am being hard on him here, as this may just be an "in" to fuzzy logic.) He then shows how it must fail as a solution. But of course there are a number of ways to diagnose and solve the problem, fuzzy logic being only one of them.

In short he presents too many controversial issues as solved problems with one bad answer that does not work. Letting Priest write an introductory book on logic is like letting Dembski teach a course on introductory evolutionary theory. It becomes a course on each and every alleged problem with the theory - which is fascinating - but barely scratches the surface when it comes to offering a clear report on the going paradigm in logic. This is bad for two reasons: 1) Some problems are only big problems for Priest, who likes to "solve" them with his own version of logic, and 2) it leaves the reader wondering what good logic is if it is just as system full of holes and problems. On the whole logic is a profound system allowing for all sorts of useful stuff from digital watches to artificially intelligent robots. It is not too bad as a system to base philosophy or mathematics on either.

On the positive side it does at the end cover a very nice and judiciously chosen range of topics, though I did not like how they were handled. And while he does have a specific agenda that comes out on every page, he is eminently qualified to write a book of this kind. He is a top-notch writer and thinker.

It is also nice that the book ties in many of the logic exercises with some classic problems in philosophy, especially the philosophy of religion. I especially liked the discussion of Pascal's Wager in the section on decision theory.

I would highly recommend this book to someone who has learned a bit of logic and now wants to go deeper. It is a good and quick read and very rewarding. I would not recommend this book to someone who wants to learn for the first time what logic is. This is for someone who wants to know for the second time.

Review of Tom Segev's Elvis in Jerusalem

One gets the feeling that when Tom Segev came to his English-speaking publisher with a book called A Post-Zionist Manifesto she looked at him and said it would never sell, better rename it something that will get the attention of at least some demographic who might enjoy the book. So they somehow came up with Elvis in Jerusalem: Post-Zionism and the Americanization of Israel.

The book is however a post-Zionist manifesto - but in a scary way. There are a number of reflections on the history of Israel and how its Americanization has led to taking Israel out of its Zionist roots and into post-Zionism.

The book also, however much a contradiction this might be, argues that most of Israel's roots were always post-Zionist. Though there is something very Fahrenheit 451 about the claim that Herzl was the first post-Zionist (p15) (like Ben Franklin was the first fireman). The book goes on to talk about how all of early Israel was really designed as a post-Zionist enterprise. And those things that did not start out post-Zionist like, say, Rav Kook-Style religious patriotism, was responsible for dragging the country in to post-Zionism (p91).

To be completely honest, the book managed to completely piss me off by page 6. There he divides Israelis in to two broad categories: the first is the separatist, hateful, bunch which wants to spitefully wallow in the memories of all the evil done to it. This is obviously an allusion to the right and to a large extent the religious, and certainly the religious right. The second group is simply characterized as those who follow the old adage of loving thy neighbor as thyself - the "Judaism of love and forgiveness". This is supposed to reflect the left.

But this is actually the biggest load of crap for so many obvious reasons. The Judaism that is the right can be construed in many ways that are not nearly as disingenuous self-righteous or inaccurate as this. (Not to mention the amount of logical fallacies here, eg, the false dichotomy, the well-poisoning, . . .)

Then there is the pervasive blame-Israel strand that is just typical of unreflective liberal thinkers. Take the following quote "But war is inevitable. Israelis have looked back a thousand times in an effort to figure out where they erred and what should be done in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past." (p37) So war is inevitable, but naturally Israel could have prevented it. That makes sense.

The book goes on to laud the new history and the new historians because of their wonderful achievements in discovering some facts in the Zionist archives. These facts shed light on the fact that Polish Jews were treated better than Sefardic Jews as immigrants (p129) and other such unknown facts. And of course we are told that the new historians are motivated by the purist of goals, namely truth, as opposed to the old historians whose work was meant "not only to prove the justice of the cause to the non-Jewish world but also to reinforce Zionism's somewhat tenuous position among the Jews themselves."(p 128) I find this somewhat hard to swallow. Not the latter part, mind you. There is no doubt that the early Zionist historians might have been motivated by patriotic ideals, but the plain fact is that the New Historians are as much motivated by their versions of left-wing (anti-)Zionism as the old were motivated by patriotism. Like E.H. Carr said about history: Historians come in with some a priori view of what they think and then they make the facts fit their version. This is more true here than anywhere else.

The book does have some points that are worth taking seriously. The dilemma that Israelis have been talking about almost since the inception of the state is stated as THE problem for Israel: that is how can one reconcile being a Jewish state with being a democracy. When there are too many Arabs, it will be impossible to have a Jewish democratic state. Personally I suspect that when it comes down to it, Israel will go for staying Jewish rather than staying a democracy. That is not necessarily what I want, but what I suspect will happen.

But is there a better way? Can this be resolved? Segev, as any typical left winger, has no real solution. Naturally the old solutions of Avineri and Buber are dumb. A binational state cannot make any sense without the full cooperation of the other nation, and this presupposes some common ground upon which to forge this. There is none. The type of bi-national suggestion of Sami Smooha is discussed at the very end, and rather pessimistically. (I personally find it intriguing, or at least on to something.)

Post-Zionism would seem to advocate that one drop the Jewish and just be a democratic state, and post-Zionists seem to think they are fighting against those who would choose their Jewish identity over their democratic identity.

In reality it seems like a sort of Sophie's choice, asking yourself which part of your identity you are willing to give up. This is a choice that no people I can think of have ever been asked to do. Either choice is a kind of spiritual suicide. It is incumbent on anyone who wants to deal with Israel on any fair level to appreciate the nature of the dilemma. I'd bet your average Israeli sees it this way. They want the comfort of preserving their Jewish identity and their personaly safety, but also the satisfaction of living a liberal life with the democratic values that they cherish.

Overall I was not impressed by the book. It told me little I didn't know, except that somehow there emerged a new-kind of Israeli left that sees itself in the right because it too knows how to rewrite history.

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Review of Pappas' Plato and the Republic

Plato’s Republic is a challenging book to read and to teach too. There is much there that is generally unfamiliar and new especially when encountering the Republic for the first time. Nickolas Pappas wrote a really good guide book that really helps sort out what is going on in the Republic. The Republic is written as a dialogue. Pappas carefully goes through all the main arguments and offers a very sympathetic reading of Plato. Sometime I felt that he was saying what Plato would have been saying had he wrote in English prose instead of Ancient Greek play.

The book is divided in to three parts. The first part offers some preliminary background material on Plato and the Republic. The second part is the bulk of the book. This goes carefully through the argument of the republic piece by piece. There is first the question about what justice is, and then what it is for. Then it goes through Justice int he city, justice in the soul, politics, metaphysics and epistemology, returning to injustice in the city and soul, and then finally to the question of art. The book is mostly broken up thematically, but at the same time it follows the order of the republic, though it does not follow exactly the breakup of the book in to the ten books as we have it.

The third pat deals with a few general questions that one may have when looking at the whole book. "Is Plato really akin to a modern totalitarian?", "Is Plato's use of the Forms consistent?" "How does Plato relate the various kinds of censorship he advocates?". All of these are things we might inquire about Plato when we are done, and so they make up a small part of the book, the last section.

There is also a good breakdown of the main premises that the Republic uses in its arguments that seem pretty handy.

Pappas' Plato and the Republic is well done. It is a great guide to the Republic, the best I've seen yet, and I daresay even to Plato's work in general. If you are ever studying the Republic or you are intimidated by it, start here. It is extremely rewarding.

(Incidentally, I read the first edition. There is now a second one out and I am pretty sure that it does not differ substantially.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Paulos correct, but only telling half the story

John Allen Paulos has a history of saying things that while not profound, make an incredible amount of sense. He is someone who has a history of taking a mathematical look at the world, and often hits on really interesting points.

This Article on Intelligent design is a case in point. He pursues a fascinating analogy between the emergence of very efficient free markets and Darwinian evolution. Now when you think about it is not the most profound analogy, they are both things that have naturally emerged. Therefore they naturally have an appearance of efficiency. No one in their right mind would ask who intelligently designed our economy.

Each price is set by market forces. Nothing costs more than people are willing to pay for it. Certainly nothing that any of us use. No one deliberately made sure that every drug store has the toothpaste that most people around there use. If it didn't someone would open up a store that did have it and people would buy their stuff there.

So there is a very clear analogy between an argument for efficiency of free markets and their value, with Darwinian evolution. But here is my problem. Paulos then goes on to marvel that there are all these people who are so anti-Darwin and yet so pro-free market. How could they, he wonders, be so prepared to favor the notion of efficient emerging markets, and yet reject the notion of emergent efficient biological mechanisms.

Now, personally I believe in both - self-organizing markets, and self-organizing biological systems. I think they are both perfectly reasonable explanations for how we get these rather efficient systems, both organic and economic.

But Paulos does not seem at all amazed that there are massive amounts of people out there (mostly called "academics") who think that it is so obvious that the most naive form of Darwinism is true, but vigorously fight and propagandize shamelessly that self-emerging markets are horrible ways to design economic systems, and that the only way to get real efficiency is via central planning.

He does not bother to mention the minions of academics who, since Marx, fought very hard to have an anti-Darwinistic economic notion become mainstream academic thought (at least outside economics departments). And academics, unlike your average anti-Darwinist, should know better.

Paulos is forgetting that analogies are two way streets. Your average academic, if I am not mistaken, thinks that a soviet-style economy, where a central "intelligent" agency simultaneously decided the prices and distribution of millions of goods and services is naturally preferable. There is no spontaneity or emergence in socialist markets, and yet academics have no problem believing that 1) this is the most equitable, and more importantly, 2) this is the most efficient.

So Paulos pointed out a big flaw in the reasoning of those who liked the free market but didn't like Darwinism. He goes so far as to practically mock their inconsistency. But somehow the standard left-wing dogma which is equally inane, goes unmocked. Somehow Darwinism is really the same as free markets, and so anti-Darwinists are dumb. But he feels no need to tell us that the free market is the same as Darwinism and anti-Free marketeers are dumb too. Why can't he say that? It is the natural flip-side.

Somehow when the left and right make the same mistake (which they are both equally dumb for making) only the right gets ridiculed. Sad.

Saturday, October 15, 2005

Review of Dr. Tatiana's Sex Advice to all Creation

One wonders why a book on evolutionary biology would have a blurb on its jacket by Barbara Eherenreich. Seems like a way you would market a pathetic book to people who would rightfully be uninterested in reading about evolutionary biology and thought that reading a $24.00 book with her endoresment would make them more socially aware.

That said, you’d be wrong. I can’t answer to the whys of Ehernreich’s name on the jacket, and reading it will not likely make you more socially aware, but Olivia Judson's Dr. Tatiana's sex advice to all creation was not half bad. I actually enjoyed it. Again, it is not as the front cover proclaims “the definitive guide to the evolutionary biology of sex”, but it is a fun read. (Who the hell decides what goes on dust jackets of books? Though the picture of the two bugs on the front is very pretty.)

Over the course of this popular book we find “letters” to a fictitious advice columnist form all sorts of creatures which allows the author to talk at length about the wide variety of sexual habits and strategies found in nature. It is my guess that most of the examples are from insects, but there is a great deal of other creatures represented.

We find discussions of sexual promiscuity (in males and females), monogamy, creatures who eat their mates before, during and after sex, we find, discussions of aphrodisiacs, rape, battles for mates, creatures who have sex almost in utero, creatures who wait years before having sex, creatures who have one sex two sexes, three sexes and hundreds of sexes. We see why some creatures have little sex and some have a lot.

There are loads of interesting questions there. My personal favorite was the last chapter on virginity, which is why some species have no sex at all.

The book is well grounded in evolutionary theory. There is a clear appreciation for the complexities and also the simplicity of the theory. Everything is presented so as to make sense and be clear. It is a cute read and tells you a lot about an interesting aspect of the diversity of nature. Read it.

PS: To “L” and Christian fundamentalists: please do not complain about the book soley on the grounds that the word “evolution” is mentioned in a discussion of it.

Sunday, October 09, 2005

Spotted on Kings Highway

S took this picture on Kings Highway in Brooklyn today.

Apparently there were a few demonstrations there this afternoon. For some reason if all Jews are on one side of an issue, they are on the other. The Neturei Karta believes that God does not want Jewish Soverignty anywhere until a supernatural messiah comes and hands it to us on a silver platter. Since most Jews are pro-soverignty they are against most Jews. So they pretty much side with any issue that is anti most Jews.

Today they were supporting black antisemitism with Farakahan.

Thursday, October 06, 2005

It's only McCarthyism when a Republican does it

The American Federation of Teachers, which I either belong to, or just got on their mailing list somehow, has an unusually pathetic magazine with stories about educators and how wonderful their unions is.

This month there is a story about Terry Mulcaire (whose name they couln't even spell right) who was one of the ten professors "targeted" to get a note taped on to his door by the Santa Rosa Junior College Republicans, of Petaluma, CA. The story came complete with a picture of another professor looking like he is imprisoned behind a door with a paper with a big red star attached to it. This was the Jr. College Republicans' Operation Red Scare. The note contained a reminder of an obscure California law outlawing the communist indoctrination of students.

The college's response was swift and sympathetic to the besieged teachers. There was a note of sympathy from the president, and there was a general lambasting of the Jr. Republicans by the faculty senate. (I wish there were transcriptions of the lambasting.) There was a clear mentality that the goal, as the article put it was to "excise liberal thinking from the university".

Yes folks, you read that right. The goal of these people, and something that has academics the world over quivering was, the real threat that liberal thinking might be excised from the campuses partly as a result of ten Jr. College kids who put notes with shiny red stars of some offices. Talk about hysterical.

The president was worried that there is a "right-wing effort to ensure that conservative voices are heard - and many feel, liberal ones squelched - on campus". The horror! Right-wing voices heard on college campuses! Fortunately we have the union sponsored lecture by, Ellen Schrecker, an expert on McCarthyism reminding us that we must combat "this inappropriate speech with free speech." Because clearly the republicans should not have had such freedom.

What lunatics I have to deal with in academia. When a Republican says something right-winged it is innappropriate. When it is liberal rants and raves against the government, it is clear thinking freedom. Moreover, teachers seem to find it natural and reasonable that some of the leaders be suspended and the Junior College Republicans be put on probation. No McCarthysim there. After all, What gives Republicans the right to express themselves?

Mulcaire claims that he was targeted because he made clear his passionate opposition to the war in Iraq. Of course if he did this in his classroom it is sad, as he is not a teacher of ethics, reasoning, foreign poilicy, military theory, military history, political science, or anything that might lend itself to a discussion about the rightness or wrongness of war. He teaches English, which might make him eminiently qualified to teach about protest poetry from the 60's or something, if that.

What gives him the right to exploit the fact that he has a podium and students who have to listen to him to "express his opinions" on any subject he wants? I have no idea. That is just wrong, and I assume that he did violate his students rights to a good education. They came in to class rightfully expecting to learn about English, instead he turned it in to a sharing his feelings about the war. That is almost criminal. He now claims that he is no longer teaching "war issues in his English Classes". Maybe they'll move war issues to the mathematics department where it really belongs!?! This has really changed the way he thinks about teaching, he claims.

Maybe this should change the way he thinks about thinking.