Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Reason # 56

Apparently my contribution to the 56th reason to love New York has so far gone unnoticed.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

How do you say "go-bag" in Yiddish?

For those of you who think that NYC has no love for her native Yiddish speakers, the NYC Office of Emergency Management does have a copy of their emergency preparedness card in Yiddish. Since I could not find it on their site I thought I'd make it available to those of you who only speak Yiddish and are very web-savvy, and don't mind my crappy scanner. (In English Spanish French Chinese Russian.)

(If you liked that, this is going around. Funny stuff.)

Happy Chanukkah

Posting has been light lately. I have been busy, as usual. For those of you who do not know, I defended my dissertation last week. I am swamped with papers that need to be graded, and I am feverishly working on some writing. So in sum, there is lots going on. I apologize if I have been slow to respond.

I hope you are all having a happy Chanukkah.

Monday, December 08, 2008

Key Food

Everyone in the neighborhood knows Mamadou Doucoure, or at least they know him as Mohammed the snappy dressed manager at Key Food on Montague Street. He is the nicest and friendliest employee at the Key Food in Brooklyn Heights for at least 15 or 20 years now. In some sense he is a neighborhood institution. I have no doubt that Key Food is screwing him, and they need to get their act together. It is good to see the Times picked up on this story that has been floating around the nabe for a few weeks. Mohammed is the greatest asset Key Food has. Given their high prices, mediocre selection, and the fact that Gristedes recently reopened, they really can't afford to generate any more ill will.

Everyone likes Mohammed. No one really likes Key Food. Do the math.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Jacob and the well

Thoughts on this week's Torah portion:

This week's parsha had me somewhat annoyed. I was reading something rather annoying about the patriarch Jacob. I hope the following is not reading in to the text too much, but it seems to me to be the surface meaning of the text and I assume I am not the first to notice this. (This seems like something Steven Brams might think up. I should really read his book.)

While Jacob was walking through the land of the people of the east in search of his relatives in Haran, he comes across a bunch of flocks of sheep and their owners surrounding a well. Apparently the group of people who used the well did not trust each other or anyone else very much. So the group devised a clever system for preserving access to their water such that they could all see who is taking what, and also be reasonably certain that no one was taking more than their share and that no stranger took their water.

Here is what they did: they covered the well with a boulder of some sort that was so heavy that it could only be moved by all of them together. So if a stranger came and wanted to take some water himself or water his own flock he could not as it is unlikely he could move the boulder alone. The same holds if one of the members of the group wanted to take some water without the others. The only way one of them can get water was if all the others agreed. That is, they all gathered at the well and moved the boulder together and all saw how much each other took.

It is as if the only way to access a safe that we share in common was for each one of us to have a key, and the safe could only be open when we all insert our key. This way the only way to access the safe is if we all access it together. It is a great system that eliminates the need for trust and presumably allowed some desert people who would otherwise have been fighting over water rights to the well, to share the water.

But then along comes a stranger Jacob who is somehow capable of removing the boulder himself, presumably through brute physical strength. He notices that if he did so he can earn some advantage for himself and his relative, but mostly he would impress some girl who he thought he had a shot at because she is a relative. So he removes the boulder and allows his relative to take water from the well without waiting for the rest of the owners.

If I were one of the shepherds there, I would have been both elated and scared. I get to water my flock early, but on the other hand, I now know that Rachel can water her sheep at any time without the rest of us. She now has access to the water any time, and we still need her, or at the very least, we still need most of the rest of the group. A well has a finite supply of water. If one of the members has unlimited access, and the rest have to ration themselves, the one has a definite advantage and the potential to deprive the rest of water.

Jacob single-handedly broke down the system that enabled trust between the various shepherds, and probably screwed the whole neighborhood.

Naturally Lavan wants Jacob to work for him and tend his sheep. Jacob has access to the water anytime making Lavan no longer dependent on the coalition.

Lavan then invites Jacob to stay with him, which he does for 30 days. Then seemingly out of nowhere Lavan offers to pay Jacob for his services. We were not told that Jacob had begun to work, so it seems to be Lavan's way of asking him to stop freeloading. Lavan then conspired to keep Jacob on for 14 years. This advantage was worth both of Lavan's daughters and two maids.

Jacob became Lavan's shepherd, and there is no reason to think that he did not use his strength advantage for Lavan's flocks. That is why the flock multiplied as much as it did; their flock was able to get more water than all the other flocks - Jacob was able to get as much as he wanted for his flock.

Lavan and Jacob were now conspirators. Rashi claims that when Jacob was first sent word to Lavan that he was around, he alluded to his ability to be Lavan's "brother in deception". Rashi of course meant that Jacob was warning Lavan that he could not be conned, but in reality what Rashi should have intended was that Jacob was saying "you can't con a con man".

And this is exactly what seems to happen. Jacob manages to take possession over a good chunk of Lavan's household. His wife steals stuff from her father's house. Jacob takes his father-in-law's camels and sneaks out of the town, where Lavan is now pretty powerless to do anything.Jacob wins in the end.

Jacob does not seem like the good guy here.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Song in the Key of WTF???

Erran Baron Cohen (Sacha's brother) just released a bunch of Hanukkah songs and videos. I have to admit I kind of enjoy the new twist on the old tunes, but can someone please explain the following two things:

1) Why are they using an Israeli dreidel in (what I presume is) England?
2) Why are they spray-painting Yeshua (Jesus) on the wall in the background of the video? (Is there another meaning or an inside joke I don't get?)

Friday, November 14, 2008

Moore's paradox (With a(n evil) twist)

I just thought about the following:

Here is an ethical version of Moore's paradox, or more precisely an ethical instance of Moore's paradox:

Consider the following:

1. P
2. I am morally barred from believing that P
3. If I am aware of P, psychologically, I must (believe P or believe not P)
4. I believe not P (from 2-3)
5. Moore's paradox(from (1) and (4))

(Moore's paradox is what results from saying "P, but I don't believe it.")

The above argument holds with the assumptions (1)-(3). I do not think that they are difficult to argue for. (1) claims that some P is true. Easy enough.

(2) is a bit trickier, and may be where the weak point here is. Are there some facts that are so immoral that one should not believe in them even with evidence?

There are some beliefs X such that if you believe them you are evil. Consider a sentence of the form:
#=Members of race x are all liars in virtue of their being members of race x.
Presumably believing # makes one a racist. Racism, let's say, is evil. So believing # makes you evil. One is morally barred from doing things that make one evil. So one is morally barred from believing #.

(3) is a Jamesian Epistemic-Moral Law of Excluded Middle (JEM-LEM). William James argues, I think convincingly, that as a matter of rational psychology it is impossible to be agnostic about certain things. I take it that there are #-like Ps that are susceptible to the JEM-LEM.

Hence the paradox. Here, we have a case of "P, but I am not allowed to believe it". Can this happen?

Note as an aside that if you deny (4) because you don't accept (2) then you may be committed to cases like the following:

There are also also arguments that I take seriously that claim that there is some knowledge that compel moral action in the same way that some knowledge will compel rational belief. Let us say that you know that your neighbor is dying and with negative effort, cost and risk, you can call an ambulance and save his life. (That is to say that you know that you will be rewarded for doing so after the fact.) It is hard to argue that you are under no moral obligation to help.

So beliefs can compel actions. And if you deny that you may have certain true beliefs P, you can get a situation where you have an action that you are obligated to do (from the fact that P is true and you believe it) but may be barred for moral reasons from doing it because it is immoral.

Friday, November 07, 2008

Yes we can

I never understood the Shabbatai Zvi phenomena . . . until now.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008


The voting place in my hood was totally run by morons. There were essentially two lines, and zero signs, except for the ones that said "vote aqi". The first line was long and only for people in election district 111. the second line was for all others who did not know which election district they were in. If you were not in 111, you went on the other one, or looked for someone to show you the secret line for people in 112, 113, and 130. There were only two people doing this and they were way overwhelmed. They spent most of their time asking people if they were in Election district 111 or "other". So most people ended up on the 111 line, only to find out that they were on the wrong line and had to talk to someone to find out which election district they were in. A little sign that said "111 - this line, don't know - that line, and all others - inside", would probably have saved the average voter in my election district about 10-15 minutes this morning.

Moreover, at least 20 percent of the people on line, and in the polling building were wearing Obama shirts or buttons. I really thought that was illegal.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Economic regulation

I am loath to have an opinion about why the recent market crisis happened, as I know little about markets or crises. But it seems to me that the problem does not lie in the fact that the market was too regulated or too unregulated, but rather poorly regulated. I suspect that Richard A. Epstein seems to have gotten it right. In his defense of libertarianism, he suggests something like this (and I may be getting this very wrong): when government subsidizes some loans and guarantees others, who wouldn't want to be a lender or own such a loan? The return is almost guaranteed. And as the law of supply and demand has it, when everyone can now afford to borrow money for homes, the prices will go up. But this is not sustainable for long. How high can prices go, and how many subsidies can be issued? And how long can people live beyond their means? So too many people start defaulting on their loans, the price drops for everyone, and now homes that were bought on the assumption that there was a high demand (and so at a high price) are now worth less because there is now a lower demand. And since the people who buy and sell things like loans are able to spread this risk throughout the system in diversified portfolios, when the mortgage market went bad, lots of portfolios started faltering. When lots of portfolios dip, everyone is scared and pulls their money out of the market. The rest is familiar. Less money in the market, the less business have to work with, and thus the poorer our country and hence investors, become. (How the libertarians get blamed for a problem the government started is beyond me.)

But anyway, it seems to me that the government is not doing a bad job regulating the credit markets, but rather it was undermining the credit markets when it found a way to artificially increase the price of houses temporarily, by making the money used to buy them cheaper and easier to get. So people who could afford less were buying more, and it didn't dawn on too many people that this can only hold up so long because the government seemed to be keeping the money cheap.

Look, we have all had to make sacrifices to get what we want. Modernity generally implies finding ways to do more with fewer sacrifices. The government seemed to think it found a route to home ownership without the sacrifice. It didn't. The government's plan needs work. I hope that we learned a valuable lesson in what sorts of economic policies do not work, so maybe we can get it right next time.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

The man who cheats students

Nick Mamatas is the bane of my teaching existence. He calls himself a writer. I suppose he is entitled. He does write and he does make a living off it. He writes term papers for students who can't write their own. He writes mediocre papers and and sells them to college kids who are desperate enough to pay him some $500, so they can spare themselves the half-hour of reading and five pages of writing.

The first amendment allows him to write what he wants. Any wrong doing that comes from what he does come from the students who submit Mamatas' work as their own, not from Mamatas himself. It is a bit annoying that he gets the $500 for a class I am teaching, and not me, and maybe I should get in tot his business, but that is another story. But what gets me is the arrogant self-righteousness in his article.

Though Mamatas really does not need to defend what he does, he certainly manages to get very defensive. He explains that though he might have felt a bit "skeevy" doing this, the blame really lies with the universities:
The students aren't only cheating themselves. They are being cheated by the schools that take tuition and give nothing in exchange.
Clearly if he is doing their work, the students are not being evaluated and forced to learn.

It is hard to imagine where he gets off saying this. The universities accept all sorts of students. We give them instruction and then we evaluate them. If the students manage to bypass our evaluation schemes, then how is that our failure? And the man who manages to do the bypassing for the students is now blaming the university??? Clearly many students are getting nothing out of their college education - he is the reason why. The students should fail. And I have caught many papers that have been ghostwritten and failed many students. Perhaps I should spend less time teaching and more time coming up with ways to make sure that students do their own work.

Fuck him.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Now they tell me . . .

Apparently there is a prayer now that gay Jews recite over anonymous one-night stands. The relevant piece of Talmud used to justify this has just been discovered (by me) and I include it here.

Ta Shma: On experiencing unexpected intimacy one makes the beracha "who created passion and wove it throughout creation" as it says [in Genesis] "In the dark, in a strange place, our father Jacob encountered a stranger with whom he grappled all night".

But is not this [verse] talking about an angel or a messenger of god - not interested in gay sex? Yes, but it was a male angel, and male angels are always interested in gay sex. Is this verse not talking about wrestling and not grappling? Yes, but grappling is the same as wrestling, and wrestling is the same as "doing it".

[The bracha] is made by everyone, according to the house of Hillel. The house of Shammai claims it is only for homosexual sex. Both agree that one makes the beracha if both people are Jewish, and Beit Shamai is more stringent claiming that one makes it if he or she is the only Jew in the hook-up. Hillel however agrees that if the sex is so anonymous that you don't know if the other person is Jewish then there is a safek and you don't make the beracha as it is a safek over a d'rabanan. However, if you picked up the other person in a synagogue, in New York, in a bank, or a bookstore, there is a chazakah that he or she is Jewish and even the house of Hillel holds that one makes the beracha. What kind of bookstore does the saying refer to? A New age-bookstore, but not in a bookstore chain.

But did we not learn that Rabbi Dorf says "A one-night stand is officially an act of prostitution in the Jewish tradition"? Yes, but there is no conflict, because in the case of prostitution, if it is good, you would pay for it again, in the case of a one-night stand with someone you met in a bar, you do not want to repeat the experience with the same person because situations like this devolve in to same-sex marriages.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

A new low

When someone invents a new "chumra" or stringency for Orthodox Jews it tends to spread till all Orthodox Jews have to do it and it becomes ingrained as part of the society. This is true for all sorts of bizarre practices. If this new institutionalized Orthodox racism / Ashkenazi supremacy comes to the U.S., I will have a second very good reason never to send any children I may have to a Jewish school. (Institutionalized covered-up child molestation being the first.)

Monday, September 22, 2008

Chai Elul

Just to make this clear: Chai Elul is not a Jewish holiday.

Unlike Americans, or members of some other countries, who make holidays out of individuals' birthdays, Jews do not do this. We do not honor individuals in this manner. Catholics tend to honor saints like this. I wonder where Habad picked it up.

It is admirable that Hassidim want to assimilate so much that they take on such local and Pagan practices, but when traditional Jews invent holidays, it is to celebrate events, like the events surrounding the Hannukkah story, the Purim story, and perhaps the founding of the state of Israel.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Who wants Peace Now?

I was reading the headline for this article: Americans for Peace Now: Engage with Iran and I thought, y'know what might work: If the group Iranians For Peace Now demanded that their government engaged in good faith talks with the US. Surely with that kind of pressure from their core constituencies neither Ahemedinejad nor Bush could resist open negotiations with the other.

Then I realized that a) no one cares what Americans for Peace Now thinks. Certainly not mainstream America. b) When the time comes that Iran tolerates an organization called Iran for Peace Now that advocates open dialogue with America, there will be no need for discussion, and as long as there is no such organization, it seems like there is not much we have to say with them.

One thing that these Peace Now-type groups will never seem to get is that when there are two sides and one advocates non-violence and the other advocates wiping the Great Satan from the face of the Earth, it makes little sense to talk. What can they offer each other? Peace on non-violent terms can only begin when both sides understand that there can be some middle ground.

In the case of Iran and the US, I don't see the US moving toward a position where it agrees to partially wipe itself or its allies off the map. So perhaps Iran has to make the first rhetorical move, and show that it has demands and interests that are more in line with what Americans can negotiate with.

Americans for Peace Now will continue to stay irrelevant until they stop smoking all that weed and realize how naive their positions really are.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

In the Organic Market

This was in the organic market in Cadman Plaza in Brooklyn Heights / Downtown Brooklyn last week.



Thursday, September 04, 2008

ACLU fights to keep religion in public schools

The ACLU has a long history of fighting to keep religion out of public schools. Of course, sometimes we should not blame them for failing to do this, they cannot fight every case. But now they are fighting to keep religion in a public school.

Sally Ferrell is an open Quaker. As such, her religion preaches pacifism. And she is taking this religion to a school in North Carolina. In a bizarre twist, the ACLU is citing her right to preach her religion in public school and claiming it as a first amendment issue!

The CNN article is pretty clear about the Quaker roots of Ms. Ferrell's pacifism:
Ferrell knew she would never let their son enlist. Growing up in a Quaker household, she remembered her mother, Anna Schuder, espousing nonviolence.
And again when she looked to a source for pacifism:
She began collecting materials from anti-war groups like the Quaker House in Fayetteville.
So the origin of her fanatical religious views are not in questions.

That is all not to say that the views are not admirable, many religious views are. Take the Jewish sabbath. Who cannot admire a day where one just has to relax and divest themselves of toil, labor, and many of the trappings of modern life. But that is still a religious view, and preaching that in school is unconstitutional and should not be defended by the ACLU. And if a man with a long beard and yarlmuka walked in to a public school and demanded that he have the first amendment right to preach taking a day to unplug from their wiis and X-boxes in a public school, we would accuse him of trying to foist his religious views on our impressionable youth; and rightfully so.

(The same is of course true for Gandhian pacifism. Though he might have had some admirable beliefs about resisting tyranny, Gandhi was a pacifist because he had some bizarre belief about the purity of the soul being diminished by the performance of violence. Clearly these views were pernicious when seen in the light of his exhortation to Jews to merely allow themselves to be killed by Nazis rather than resist.)

When creationism is taught in high school by a fanatical evangelical Christian, no one pretends that the creationism and the Christianity are independent. One can try to argue that their teaching of creationism is motivated by a yearning for finding the truth about human biology completely independent of their biblical beliefs, but no sane person would believe that.

The same is true in the pacifism case. One can try to argue that Ms. Ferrell's views are independent of her religion, but she is pretty open about the source of her Quakerian pacifism, and she should be treated as the religious fanatic that she is. Someone like that should not be allowed in to public schools to force her religion down the throats of the students - and the ACLU should not be defending them.

In Quaker schools it seems appropriate to let them preach their religions there. But in public schools, which are run by the government, perhaps only the government should be allowed to preach. And the government is not allowed to make any law favoring one religion over another. Presumably, there can be little objection to the government promoting agendas favorable to the country in government schools, providing it doesn't unfairly stigmatize a political party that it out of power, or its members.

But one can argue that by allowing the Army in they are favoring non-pacifist religions over pacifist ones like Quakers. And this would of course be true. It would be about as true as saying that since all school lunches are neither kosher nor hallal, they are promoting all other religions over Judaism and Islam. This is of course true, but beside the point. In both cases the government is simply not taking in to account any religious beliefs - not about food or war, it is merely promoting its interest in the absence of any religious input.

So the ACLU should not be defending this. And, as an aside, Ferrell seems to have many complaints about recruiter tactics. However, one should keep in mind that whatever recruiters do to get people to sign up, they are apparently not as bad as the tactics the ACLU uses to get people to donate. (You know something is wrong when even the Village voice is complaining about the ACLU!)

Sunday, August 17, 2008

hapy T"U Bav

I hope everyone had a happy T"U B'Av and Shabbat Nachmu.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008


Posting has been kind of light lately. Sorry. A lot has been keeping me busy over the summer. Now I am in PA doing some useless Army stuff. Lots of reading, writing, and the usual. I feel like lately I just don't have much to say, or the inclination to say it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Being Aish'd

It is good that this was finally said out loud.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In Israel

"D" and I have been getting around a bit. We spent the night with a relative in Pardes Hannah a few days ago. We went to Ein Gedi and did the mud thing, the floating on the Dead Sea thing, some nature walks, and checked out a Talmud-era synagogue. We stopped in Jerusalem on the way back and we are headed to Haifa this afternoon for dinner. So far, so good.


The philosophy of science has a long history. But it's modern history has it as a goal to understand the underlying logic of science, the scientific method, and scientific discovery.

The modern history of the philosophy of science starts with Francis Bacon. In what has now been dubbed "Naive Baconianism" the theory went that scientists amassed data and a theory somehow emerged about the data.

This was subsequently replaced by Popper's falsificationism where the claim is that scientists ever attempt to falsify their theories by proposing falsifying hypotheses and then testing them, ultimately either offering corroborating evidence or a falsifying instance.

Another competitor for a theory of how science works is Kuhn who said that science works in paradigm shifts. That is, there is a research program and scientists work with it until something better comes along.

Fayerabend also offered an alternative, so did Lakaos.

But what we are seeing now is the emergence of a new way of looking at the logic of science - the petabyte method. We take a massive amount of data - more than we ever could have handled previously and see what data emerges from that. The method allows for all sorts of unorthodox results, and much of it is largely independent of the paradigm that a given science works with. Of course the computer models still make assumptions about the data, but they are able to crunch the numbers in a way that is irrespective of what the numbers mean. It is very "structuralist" or "Hilbertian" in that way. I suspect that philosophers of science will have to start rethinking their views on Bacon, as scientists increasingly rely on huge data sets and computationally intense formulations of results.

More on this to come.

Sunday, July 06, 2008

In Tel Aviv

"D" and I are in Tel Aviv right now. We've taken in some of the beach, some sun, and other things Israeli. Tomorrow we are off to Arad, we think, and then Ein Gedi. So far so good here in Israel.

Friday, June 27, 2008

My 'hood

I am back home now from a week-and-change in KY, and I took an hour to re-explore Brooklyn Heights. It is still as beautiful as ever. . . . more or less.

Almost every day since the beginning of the summer I noticed that somewhere on Montague Street there are annoying people, usually working in teams of two or more who want to stop you on the street and ask you to sign something, or more likely to contribute to some cause or other. I seem to recall last year when the Turkish restaurant had people on the street harassed people, I was very annoyed, same goes for the time the Jews for Jesus did it a year or two ago, and I think I am at that point now. It is either the Save the Children people, the ACLU, gay activists, DNC, Obamaheads, or some other do-gooder group that will not let me walk down the street unmolested. Is there some way to stop these people? Is this legal or are the police just too scared to enforce the law when it comes to the ACLU?

(Apparently this problem is at least 14 years old.)

Secondly, there are these hideous structures ruining the view from the southern part of the promenade. For months, these ugly scaffolds have been hanging around and I was wondering what they are going to be used for. Now I found out. They are used to pump water from the river in to the river.

There are four things I think worth considering here. First, the environmental impact on extracting metals from the ground, making steel, molding it to scaffolding, transporting it to Brooklyn and Govenors Island etc is non-negligible. In the grand scheme of things it isn't much, but it is something.

Secondly, It also takes electricity to run, and I don't know who is paying for that, but when office buildings are being asked to cut electrical use so that the grid doesn't go down during peak times, what can possibly justify the expenditure on this? Pumping hundreds of thousands of gallons of water upward takes lots of energy.

Third, the amount of tax-payer funded bureaucracy that went in to approving and planning this is also not negligible. It is not like someone filled out a form and it was approved and that was the whole government expense. I can't imagine how much this must have cost the taxpayers.

Finally, and I think most importantly, the things are useless and pointless. They are supposed to be "waterfalls" but really they look like construction sites without buildings after it rained, with torrents water falling off of them. Ugliest piece of "art" I've seen in a long time. And worse, the only way to really get a good view of them is to be standing in middle of the river. New York is not that desperate for attention or good art that we have to resort to this.

They attract people to the promenade to stare and take pictures of this crap, and that does little help but make parking that much harder around here (though I don't drive) and ups the demand (and hence price) for the restaurants and other stuff in the neighborhood (which I and most of the residents have little financial interest in). They are like tourists, but from here.

I can't wait for them to take down this junk.

Thursday, June 26, 2008


I am now leaving Kentucky where I spent the past week and change in charge of someone else's unit. It was a pretty good experience and I had a lot of fun.

I hope I never have to come to KY again.

I am exhausted.

Monday, June 16, 2008


Just got back from a friend's wedding in Wilmington, DE. There is nothing to do in that town. The wedding however was absolutely beautiful.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

spelling issue

So here is something that I have been dealing with for a while, and I have to make a decision about, but I am torn. Any thoughts on this matter are appreciated.

Because of the way Yiddish phonology works, my last name is spelled with two ayyins in it (tzadi ayyin resh mem ayyin resh). My grandfather spells his name with two ayyins, as does one of his two sons. However, my generation is somewhat split. Some of us have dropped the ayyins in order to be in line with the Hebrew spelling (tzadi resh mem resh). The name, I believe, derives from a Yiddish word, so it makes sense to keep the Yiddish spelling. Though the Yiddish origins are a bit obscure. But I am not particularly fond of the Yiddish spelling, and when pronounced with ayyins as a Hebrew word, it sounds a bit bizarre. The word in Hebrew would be meaningless.

Keeping one ayyin as a compromise strikes me as a bit dumb, as it is the worst of both worlds.

I have no interest in actually changing the name, but I am torn over keeping or dropping the ayyins. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

. . . speaking of suing

Not sure how many of you remember the TV show "Sliders", but one scene has been coming to mind a lot lately. The crew lands in a world where some 91% of the population are lawyers and pretty much everyone sues everyone all the time. creepiness ensues.

Given our last post, we thought we had seen it all. But wait. . . middle aged Jewish guy sues thirty-something Asian girlfriend for dumping him. Given the fact that he did this, it is no wonder she left. He was nuts.

What is this world coming to? Obama, a lawyer, apparently believes that the function of the court is to make policy, and not enforce law. Maybe these people are hoping to find a left-wing recently dumped radical feminist judge who will award them money for being pathetic?

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Why didn't I think of this

So a science studies professor freaks out at her students and calls them names because she is unable to convince them that her crazy ideas make sense. So she threatens to sue them.

This is just funny on so many levels. Clearly she is one of those freaks who really believes what she is talking about when she claims that the function of science and technology is to oppress women. She also believes that as an instructor her job is to talk at her students and not to them. She does not seem to believe that there are any standards for making a case, and if her students don't see what she takes to be obvious then they are "fascist demagogues". Clearly she is just nuts, and how she got to teach at Dartmouth is beyond me. And while I don't know that much about teaching, I know that if there is anyone whose job it is to be an adult in the class room - it's the instructor's. Priya Venkatesan has no such belief.

This is so bizarre.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Anyone heard of this John Stuart Mill fellow?

You would think if there was one publication in the world where the writers should be expected to have an inkling of what goes on in Academic life it would be in the Chronicle of Higher Education. Yet a political scientist there, a director of some center of research at Boston College displays the most complete ignorance of the point of his piece. His article laments the lack of attention that J. S. Mill gets among philosophers.

It is excusable to believe that no one reads Mill anymore. Perhaps he never took a philosophy class, or read a philosophy book. But had he done so, he would realize what a fool he is, as I would venture to say that the overwhelming number of ethics texts published struggle with Mill's ideas about utilitarianism and freedom. The overwhelming number of ethics courses and introductory philosophy courses devote some time to Mill's ideas on liberty, free speech, and utility. The majority of advanced texts and courses on Ethics devote time and space to Mill's ideas as well.

Of course the fact that ignorance is completely excusable does not justify his decision to write about it, or the Chronicle's decision to publish it. Did Alan Wolfe just not bother to ask a philosopher at Boston College if people still read Mill? There are plenty of people there who know Mill's work well.

I certainly hope that he does political science better than he does his public laments. I hear his next piece will talk about how classics don't read Homer, or perhaps how mathematicians no longer know geometry, or Protestants no longer pay attention to biblical texts. No wonder people think academics are out of touch.

Saturday, May 03, 2008

In Canada

I am now in London, Ontario 3/5 of the way through a five day conference. Nice place to visit.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review of Ladyman's Understanding Philosophy of Science

James Ladyman's Understanding Philosophy of Science is a pretty good beginning text in the philosophy of science. It is very well organized, and as straight forward as can be. There are two main sections. The first deals with the scientific method, the second deals with the question of realism.

The first section goes through the various stages in the philosophy, especially the question of induction, from the rather naive position of Francis Bacon through falsificationism and the theory of scientific revolutions.

The second section is about the question of realism, especially the problems created by underdetermination, explanation, and inference to the best explanation. There is a very good focus on van Fraassen and the nature of constructive empiricism.

This book is an excellent choice for a first introduction to the main questions in contemporary philosophy of science.

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Review of Wesley Salmon's Four Decades of Scientific Explanation

Four Decades of Scientific Explanation Is an excellent overview of the history of scientific explanation as seen from the standpoint of one of its most significant contributors.

Since the late nineteenth century is is generally agreed that science provides explanations of the phenomena in the natural world. But exactly what does an explanation look like? What form does an explanation take? How do we recognize an explanation and distinguish it from pseudo-explanations and the like?

Salmon's history covers the discussion from Hempel to the state of the art in 1989 when the book was written. He covers all the major theories and all the major questions. The book is highly readable, and definitely a worthwhile investment for those who want to understand this corner of the philosophy of science.

Friday, April 04, 2008


Last weekend "D", "L", and "S" and I spent a few days in Miami. It was quite relaxing. I spent most of my time near the pool working. I think now I am suffering from nice weather withdrawal.

I am off playing soldier this weekend, and hopefully I will be able to get back to doing some serious work after that.

Friday, March 21, 2008


Wishing the world a happy Purim.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Thinkin 'bout prostitution

Today I play devil's advocate.

Elliot Spitzer has caused everyone on the planet to start thinking about prostitution. It seems too obvious that it is a victimless crime, and it boggles my mind why it is illegal at all. Clearly it is illegal because there is some taboo against it, and as enlightened as we are as a society, we have not overcome that.

One reason we consider it such a taboo is that prostitutes do something that no one likes, they show us the truth. We always punish those who show us the truth, because the truth is usually unpleasant. We like our illusions. We like believing that sex is romantic. It is something done by two people who are in love and want to give each other pleasure, and procreate and that sort of stuff.

But as anyone who has any familiarity with what we might call more "primitive" cultures knows, or as anyone who has ever paid for an engagement ring knows, or as any Marxist will insist: sex and marriage can usually be understood in much less romantic terms. Sex and marriage can be quite plausibly construed in financial terms.

Prostitution is in the unfortunate position of making it painfully obvious that sex is merely financial, or at least that sex can sometimes be construed as purely a financial matter, where sex is a service which is paid for as any other service would be. Keeping up the illusions of the romance of sex might be worth enforcing a ban on prostitution all by itself.

But although prostitution does not seem to harm or offend anyone, nor does it seem inherently immoral, there are still a few arguments that can be made for its banning.

Keep in mind that I do believe that it should be legalized. But for the sake of the argument I will put forth a few things to mull over. Consider the claim that prostitution, by being kept illegal, provides a benefit to third parties that outweigh the restriction to your rights to private sexual dealings between consenting adults.

I suppose that old-time conservatives might use this argument to argue that all sorts of deviant sex corrupt public morality, and as such provide a harm to third parties, but they are old-fashioned, and the burden rests on them to define public-morality in a non-question-begging way.

But here are the arguments:
First, because of the de facto nature of who and when we prosecute prostitution, society tends to prosecute (or in any case make a big deal out of prosecuting) only those people who would be seriously publicly embarrassed by such prosecution. That is a good thing, as it discourages people from becoming the kind of person who would seriously be embarrassed by such prosecution. For example, people who make themselves the targets or revenge by publicly embarrassing others with frivolous prosecutions. (i.e., if your hands are so dirty that you've screwed so many people, over little things, that they or their friends in turn are willing to prosecute you for sex, you really might deserve it.)

Second, it provides an enforcement mechanism for people who should not be frequenting prostitutes, not to frequent prostitutes. Married men, for example, are presumably contractually obligated (via their marriage contract) not to have sex with prostitutes. So the public prosecution of prostitution provides an enforcement mechanism for an otherwise unenforceable/unenforced breach of contract. That is, at least one type of infidelity becomes known to your spouse. A conviction of solicitation is not nearly as embarrassing if you are not married, and so the argument that it disproportionately punishes married people is quite the point. (Perhaps there is an argument that it should only be a crime for married people. Of course there is also an argument that married men need prostitutes the most, and there is thus a utilitarian argument for allowing them to violate their marriage contracts without repercussions.)

Thirdly, the ability to purchase sex cheaply (or for market value, anyway) makes it difficult for non-prostitute women who generally want to retain a monopoly on sex. That is, during a marriage, women can use the provision of sex, or more or less interesting sex as bargaining leverage in marital negotiations. Unmarried women want to reserve sex as an incentive for men to be in relationships with them.

The ability of non-prostitute majority to retain sex as leverage should outweigh the benefit to the few women who are attempting to put sex on the free-market. So the argument claims that it harms the set of female non-prostitutes.

Then again, one could argue that restaurants do the same thing, by making good food something that is commodified, and mothers and wives and girlfriends no longer have a monopoly. But there are too many disanalogies for this to be worth pursuing.

Again, I think that all the above arguments are not quite good, but I leave it as an exercise to the reader to find the problems.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Review of David Corfield's Toward a Philosophy of Real Mathematics

(Apology in advance. This may just be a hasty emotional outburst. I think I had a stronger negative reaction to the book then I should have. The author is clearly a very bright guy, and the book is better than I portray it. If you are interested in the philosophy of mathematics, read it.)

Imagine that you were Catholic, or at any rate well versed in Catholicism and Catholic teaching and practice. Now imagine you encountered a philosopher of religion. Would you have the following gripe?: Philosophers of religion don't seem to deal with what is really important to religious people. Philosophers deal with the existence of God, almost to the exclusion of lots of important philosophical problems.

So, because you don't get why the standard problems are oh-so-important you write a book. In it, you spend a chapter insisting that philosophers must look to the history of religion to understand the real problems of religion that bother its real practitioners. What problem faces practitioners? For example, you might say that looking at history, the Catholic mass started out in some language, I assume Greek (or not), and then turned to Latin, then to the vernacular, and now there is a proposal being floated to return to Latin. The history of why and how is long and complicated, and you bog chapter two down with scholarly minutiae of this history. This is a difficult and controversial question with many serious repercussions. Other religions had the same issues. Reform Judaism's split from orthodox Judaism involved the language of prayer, and Islam still is exclusively Arabic. So whatever western religion you are, chances are that the language issue is important. So why the heck do philosophers of religion act as if the only important questions are those about the nature of God, you ask repeatedly. There are serious arguments in favor of a Latin mass, you say. It is traditional, if was more fruitful in producing scholars, it forced congregants to focus on other parts of the religion, it retained an aura of mystery in the religion. . . Your book then picks on other problems that bother religious people, like food habits, concepts of purity, and the nature of fundamentalism. Each issue does contain some specks of philosophy, though few that would seriously interest most philosophers of religion. Naturally religious people like this approach, because sorting through the Ontological Argument is pretty foreign to their religion, but arguing over what language mass out to be said in is quite familiar to them. So you are hailed as a serious philosopher of religion who takes note of Real Religion, not the fake stuff studied by philosophers.

David Corfield performs a similar service for the philosophy of mathematics. He takes questions that are traditionally off the radar of philosophers of mathematics, and faults them for ignoring them. Then he elaborates on the history and nature of mathematics at great length and with serious depth, and attempts to show that there are real philosophical questions there. Are there? Yes. Am I just being conservative and scared of mathematics by thinking that those are not the important questions? I think not.

Corfield's book could be uncharitably described as warmed-over Lakatos. (I wouln't describe it as such, but I can see it.) I presume that Lakatos and his famous book Proofs and Refutations has more fans in mathematicians than in philosophers of mathematics, likely because the book is just one long mathematical problem, discussed from the perspective of the problem's history, and the history of the concepts contained in the objects of the problem. Lakatos makes some interesting philosophical points along the way: namely he tells us that our mathematical concepts change over time. But more on this in a moment.

But philosophers wonder where the important and interesting philosophy is. And that is the difference between him and traditional accounts of the philosophy of mathematics. His recent blog post about two cultures is thus odd. Besides for the fact that I do not know what philosophical problem is meant when he claims that his goal is to understand the rationality of mathematics through the history of its practice, and the fact that he caricatures traditional philosophy of mathematics by claiming that it is reducible to logicism, it misses the point. In reality it is just that there are different sets of questions that can be deemed philosophical. The ones that traditional philosophers think about are different from his, because they are not easily articulated as interesting philosophical problems, answering the traditional questions about epistemology, metaphysics, and methodology. Perhaps if they were articulated as such, they would appeal to more philosophers. As they are, they are phrased as long mathematics discussions, with some nod towards an ill defined philosophical problem.

Chapter one sets up the book and makes a case for looking at the history of mathematics as it has been practiced by real human mathematicians - with all the baggage that comes with it.

Chapter two gives us a lesson on automated theorem proves and suggests that they are so far only as good as the mathematicians that guide them, and that the real philosophical problems in mathematics ought to be what notation mathematicians need to use. You see, some notations are harder to work with and some are easier - hence the philosophical problem. Get it? Right.

Chapter three makes a philosophical problem out of thinking up conjectures. Can computers do it? Probably not so well.

Chapter four discusses the interesting problem of analogy in mathematics. Many branches in mathematics and many problems in mathematics display interesting analogies with other branches and parts of branches of mathematics. Sometimes it only gets interesting when the analogies fail to hold, sometimes a good analogy can make a whole branch of mathematics obsolete, as all of its questions get reduced to other questions.

Chapter five has an account of Bayesianism in mathematics. A Bayeseian approach as it is traditionally understood in the philosophy of science is there to try to solve the problem of induction. It does so by saying that the logic of science is not inductive in any straight forward way, but rather it is probabilistic. (This is a gross oversimplification.) This is clearly not a problem you will have in mathematics. So Corfield's Bayesianism is restricted to the nature of Bayesianism in mathematics given a subjectivist approach, that is measuring mathematicians' subjective assessments of the probabilities that a given theorem is true.

Chapter six gives a few case studies showing that theories of science often rely on their underlying theories of mathematics, or the outstanding mathematical problems, for their solutions. This is not overly newsworthy, though it is good to have a list of case studies and a nice analysis.

Chapter seven begins Corfield's discussion of Lakatos. He is generally critical, and addresses Fefferman's criticism, and also mentions Steiner's. In some sense he really does nitpick Lakatos to death. I say this as a compliment. Lakatos does make some real mistakes, and does not adequately or fairly represent the history of mathematics, even in the very restricted case he gives.

Chapter eight continues the critique of Lakatos, and this time focuses on the question of what the mathematical research program is. This looks a bit more familiar to philosophers of science. This follows the traditions of Kuhn, Popper, Lakatos, and Fayerabend in looking for the methodology behind scientific, and in this case mathematical research. Corfield claims, correctly, I think that Lakatos' view of the history of science cannot be simply carried over to the history of mathematics. The study of the methodology of mathematical research programs needs 1) some refinements, and 2) more nuance than has been given so far. This program is probably of some interest to philosophers of science and mathematics. The study started by Kuhn was very much in vogue for a bit, though philosophers of science have tended to loose interest in this in favor of the traditional problems in the philosophy of science. Kuhn and co were certainly more influential in the long run outside philosophy than they were in it.

Chapter nine is about the question of what lead to the acceptance of groupoids as an important field of study.

Chapter ten is perhaps the most disappointing. I say that because it shows the most promise and delivers the least. We are offered that tantalizing suggestion that higher-order algebra has something interesting to offer philosophers. What we are actually given is a description of roughly what higher-order algebra is, and thus suggestion that it is of a higher level of abstraction, and that some of the notation can be done in pictures. (Repeating some other philosophers who unconvincingly tried to show that pictures are philosophically interesting.) The idea of infinitesimals, sets, and modals held real promise as a field of philosophical research, and they panned out because people were able to show that there were questions that philosophers could ask and try to settle about them. I had hoped that we would at least see some real questions or suggestions about higher order category theory or algebra, but we did not. What is it about them that a philosopher might want to know about that is not there with all other branches of mathematics? That is the only thing I want to know. There is no satisfying answer given.

(As a criticism of the book, it is annoying that despite the existence of real criticism of some key ideas that he deals with, they do not appear in the book. For example, the notion of revolutions in mathematics is taken for granted, as is the legitimacy of Lakatos' idea in general. Joseph Dauben, a giant in the history of mathematics, whose essay must be well known to Corfield, famously disagreed with Crowe about the existence of revolutions in mathematics. There are also some very critical reviews of Lakatos' Proofs and Refutations in the literature that are well worth reading that Corfield ignores.)

To be honest, I do find many of the problems discussed in the book interesting, but I fail to see how many of them are philosophical. (I hope the author was not pulling one of those "let me show you a lot of math, therefore I must be right.) Many are really psychological or sociological. The problem with this is that there is a good reason why we do not see mathematics and science papers starting out "Well, first I thought X, then I realized that X was wrong, so I changed Y, and got a proof for Z. Then I had lunch and realized that I can get a proof for W if I only . . ." No one cares what got you to the theorem or the proof. Your personal history of conjectures, subjective probabilities, luncheons, conferences, and the clever insights you used to get you to the proof are not what makes up a philosophy of real mathematics. Real mathematics is what appears in mathematics journals. Everything else is part of a philosophy of real mathematicians. They are a fascinating bunch, but not necessarily a subject of philosophical reflection.

That being said, the structure of mathematical knowledge and discovery probably ought to be a part of the philosophy of mathematics. One wonders however how that could be done. Is there a logic that really describes the whole process for each case? I would doubt it, and perhaps that is what makes the problem so uninteresting - the fact that it is truly intractable.

Corfield may be doing mathematics from the inside, but he is doing philosophy from the outside. He misses the questions that are important to real philosophers. Chapter one approvingly quotes Diderot in an epigraph saying "To speak informatively about bakery you have got to have put your hands in the dough." By this token, Corfield hasn't said much about bakery, but rather he has given us a cookbook of recipes that people rarely use. Let me end with the following challenge to Corfield: Stephen Stich and Adam Morton write
Why is there so little philosophy of mathematics? . . .One explanation might be that mathematics is hard , and philosophy is hard, so the philosophy of mathematics might be doubly hard. . . . But it cannot be the whole story since very sharp and troubling points in the philosophy of mathematics can be made with elementary mathematical examples. One reason why a philosopher of mathematics needs to know some advanced mathematics is to call the bluff of others. Irrelevant by terrifyingly technical exposition is common in second rate work. . .
Corfield writes that
the prospective philosopher of mathematics quickly gathers that some arithmetic, logic, and a smattering of set theory is enough to allow her to ply her trade, and will take some convincing that investing the time in non-commutative geometry or higher-dimensional algebra is worthwhile. One of the main purposes of the book has been to argue against this.
I do not know who is right on this one. But if Corfield is, the burden of proof is still on him (or perhaps he would be magnanimous enough to show us even if it wasn't) to show that there are interesting enough philosophical problems that can only be solved if we are aware of the higher mathematics being done by groupoid theorists, and mathematicians who study higher-order algebras.
We see a few not-so-very-interesting problems, and a lot of fancy modern mathematics, but few clear convincing arguments that the two have met.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

On proportionality, again

As more and more rockets come down on the Israeli town of Sderot, I was thinking about Israel’s response to the rockets a year and a half ago. I remember Israel being charged with having a disproportionate response to the shelling by Israel’s bombing in south Lebanon. I thought at the time that this was an absurd claim, and I still do. Today, Bret Stephens has a column on the proportionality calculus which essentially says that there is no proportional way for Israel to reasonably respond to the rocket attacks.

I agree. I think that there are two connected reasons why the demand for Israel's response to be "proportional" is absurd.

First, it took me about a year to realize the following irony about proportionality. Proportionality is not a value in either Jewish or Islamic notions of just war. So there is an attack by an Islamic group, a response by a Jewish group and these Christian “moral thinkers” telling the Jews that they are not adhering to Christian principles of just war in the engagement.

Does anyone else hear “cultural imperialism”?

Did I miss Augusine’s authorial hand in the Geneva Conventions?

Again, while the light of intuition might claim that some kind of proportionality ought to be a part of any theory of just war, there are more and less reasonable versions of what it can be. The ones claimed last summer were the ridiculous ones. But even so, there is no a priori version of what is to count as proportional and what is not.

Like I mentioned last summer, it is clear that sending a nuclear weapon to solve a minor trade dispute is disproportional. But on the other hand, Israel, for all its shelling, did not achieve the status quo ante, which is the goal of proportionality, to do just enough to rectify the situation. Israel did not get its soldiers back. Assuming that there is a chance that they can somehow accomplish this with enough military action, they have not yet even put up a “proportional” fight. Israel still has way more fighting to go till they hit “proportional”. So there is no clear line that makes it easy to understand what it would be to be proportional.

It seems like legalistic religions like Judaism and Islam don’t have to deal with these line-drawing problems. They have rules telling them how and when they fight. Christianity, which is more (for the lack of a better word) theologico-philosophical, and less legal, has to first answer these questions about what proportionality is before it can come to an understanding of who is in the right on the in bello issues. (And anyone who knows what the phrase “conceptual analysis” means knows that there is no way to figure out what “proportional” is.)

This kind of thinking then just encourages Christian thinkers to work their way backward - first decide who you don’t like. Then draw your line so that the side you are initially prejudiced against looses.

Which takes me to the second reason. What we really see from this is that despite the intuition that we need some sort of proportional response, proportionality is most likely incoherent. There are just too many real cases where a country has no feasible response if it is to act proportionally. Obviously you can't tell a country that it just has to let its citizens get shelled and killed because the country has no options that meet your moral standards.

It also seems obvious that asking some "Christian" European country (or collection thereof) to go in and solve this problem in some way that they deem proportional will not work. After all, it was their colonialist meddling incursions in the Middle East that started these problems in the first place.

So I take it that from a moral perspective, the problem is unsolvable given the Just War paradigm that thinkers who operate in a Christian tradition use. That means that their condemnatory rhetoric is merely that - rhetoric. Rhetoric that agitates against one side for not solving an intractable problem merely reflects a prejudice against that side. Moreover, I see this as an argument for political realism in this case.

Thursday, February 21, 2008


I hope you all caught the lunar eclipse last night. It was awesome!

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Review of Moshe Koppel's Meta-Halakhah

(Note: Normally after reading a book, I would just type out something as an afterthought and post it here. This time is no different, but this time it comes with an apology to the author. This book deserves more than some afterthoughts, I am just not in a position now to write any up right now.)

I think Jewish philosophy took some wrong turns over the years. Let me explain. A significant portion of Jewish philosophy has always been, parasitic, if you will, off all other philosophy. This is not a bad thing. To the contrary. Jewish philosophy, in its good days, took the latest tools from the mainstream philosophers, and applied them to problems of Jewish concern - sometimes integrating them with Jewish thought, or criticizing them from the perspective of Jewish thought, or criticizing Jewish thought thought from the perspective of the most modern pieces of secular philosophy. Some of the most prominent Jewish philosophers did that, and it is mainly because of their ability to do that so well, that we now see them as part of mainstream thinking. When we think of Philo, Maimonides, Gersonides, Mendelssohn, Albo, Krochmal, and many others, this should be readily apparent.

Modern Anglo philosophy broke with European philosophy with the works of Frege and Russell. As the story goes, Russell broke off with Hegelian idealism, and two streams of thought started - one caught on in English-speaking countries, and the other on the
continent. That is not to say that there is not a lot of overlap in the questions they ask, the methodology they employ, or the answers they give. But there are considerable differences between them, and for better or worse, philosophers in the "continental tradition" and philosophers in the Anglo "analytic tradition" do not read each other's works much. The Anglo philosophers tend to see their philosophy through the light of formal logic, whereas the philosophers on the continent tend to see their philosophy through the light of sociology. These are different takes on philosophy.

More modern European Jewish philosophers like Franz Rosenzweig wrote within the tradition of Hegel and the Europeans. The tradition continues with Levinas doing Jewish-like philosophy within a very Franco-European tradition. (Sometimes manifested in works of people like Marc-Alain Ouaknin.)

All of this is not about being territorial. Rather it still about the "wrong turns" I mentioned. J. B. Soloveitchik, perhaps the most important Jewish philosopher in the English-speaking world alive in my lifetime, also took inspiration from much of the
European existentialism in which he was educated. Naturally, an industry grew up studying Soloveitchik. What has failed to happen in Jewish thought was any attempt at analytic Jewish philosophy - that is Jewish philosophy that has emerged using the tools of modern 20th and 21st century Anglo thought. (There are some works that might be classified as exceptions.)

I think that for all I don't like about it, Moshe Koppel's Meta-halakhah might have been the first book that competently employs the tools of modern logic and analysis to Jewish thought. Koppel tackles some of the hardest and trickiest problems that Halakhah (Jewish Law) faces. These are not questions about any particular law, or legal problem, but rather he asks the questions about the foundational issues about the law. Jewish law is notoriously complicated. There are disputes, reconciliations, open questions, and principles of derivation. Some of the toughest moments come when we ask questions like: can all of Jewish Law be derived mechanically from the original Law (at Sinai)? What is the nature of an "interpretation" of Jewish law? How could Moses not have understood the laws being taught in his name by Rabbi Akiba? What does it mean for the Torah to be a "living" document and also be divine? If God has the law up in Heaven that is perfect, why do we consider it a foundations of Jewish Law that the Torah is "not in Heaven"? Why was it so bad to write down the law? Isn't it better, if the law is perfect, to have it down so it does not get changed?

Koppel deals with all these questions, and more using the notions of computability, model, derivability, verifyability, provability, etc. He gives a spirited defense of an understanding of Jewish law that has a two-fold nature. That is there is a level of Jewish law that is intuitive, and a level on which it is logical. He claims that prophets only have intuitions about what the law is, and interpreters of the law are only able to put them in to formal models. Each has its advantages, but both are necessary for the complete functioning and understanding of Jewish Law.

Like I said, because of this book's uniqueness in treating issues of Jewish Law in a sophisticated way it deserves more careful consideration than I am giving it here. I will just say that while I think Koppel's treatment must be on the right track, I am not convinced that it is right. He claims outright that he did not write a scholarly book, and that is correct. He should have. There is some literature that would be useful, and the topic deserves a more extensive treatment. Nonetheless this is a valuable contribution, and the lack of critical reception over the past 10 years since the book came out speaks more of the sorry state of contemporary Orthodox Jewish thought than it does of the book itself.

It should be read by all who want to start understanding the hard questions about Jewish Law.

(PS I'm not sure what the deal with the approbation is. I didn't really understand it. It looked weird.)

Monday, January 28, 2008

Review of A Debate on Jewish Emancipation and Christian Theology in Old Berlin

I have been reading a lot more lately than I have been writing about, but I wanted to throw in a note about the collection By Richard Crouter and Julie Klassen that I just read.

As soon as Jews had some freedom in Germany during the Enlightenment, they started producing an abundance of scholars and men of letters. Each one staked out his own position on Jews and their relationship to the state. From Mendelssohn and on, they advocated for Jewish emancipation from the prejudicial and anti-Semitic laws of the German state. Mendelssohn argued (on philosophical grounds) for simple equality, and a sort of separation of Church and state. David Friedlander, after a long and what must have seemed like fruitless quest to try to improve the Jews and their situation in Germany, argued for mass fake conversion to Christianity.

What do I mean by "fake"? Well, he thought that Jews really didn't need the ceremonial laws, and he thought that no one would know if Jews didn't believe in Jesus when they converted to Christianity, so he asked the State, in an Open Letter, to accept the mass conversion of Jews who agree to stop outwardly practicing Judaism, and get baptized Protestant without actually believing in Jesus.

If you ask me, that misses the point from the perspective of both religions. And the important protestant theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher and Wilhelm Abraham Teller both agreed. Both wrote responses to Friedlander's letter. Naturally they agreed that keeping the Jewish rituals was unnecessary, but they thought that a fake conversion was no conversion at all, and moreover has the potential to harm Christianity. Of course, in accordance with Enlightenment values, neither thought that being Jewish should be a bar to getting rights though.

For Jews, especially those of Mendelssohn's ilk, keeping the mitzvot is Judaism (though they definitely argued in favor of the existence of God). For Christians Belief in the divinity of Christ is Christianity.

Crouter and Klassen collect their three documents as well as anonymous satirical polemic asking for rights for Jews. The translation reads well, and it is a valuable set of documents for those interested in this period.

I wish they would have included more of the responses to Friedlander. There were many written in pamphlets and in the popular press. I would love to have seen some of them. Also, I should mention that there is an essay at the end that feels totally out of place. It is mostly a discussion about the situation of the Turks and their problems with emancipation in contemporary Germany. While it is interesting, it just really doesn't belong here. I am not sure who at Hackett publishers agreed to it. It's point is unclear and except in the sense that Turks and Jews are both not considered German and they both have had problems there, I am pretty sure the essay is unrelated to the others.

(Also, there is one minor error, which I am not sure whether I ought to attribute to Teller or to the translators, but on p 135 they use the term "yom Ha'aretz", which literally means "earth day". The word they meant to use was "am ha'aretz" - literally: people of the earth.)

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

It is about time

It is good to hear that New York is finally evaluating teachers on their performance. The unions were and still are afraid of any standard that might show how incompetent NYC public school teachers could be. There are some great ones (whom I know personally), but judging from my college students who are graduates of the NYC public school system, most of them must be pretty crappy. Many of my NY students graduate borderline literate. Seriously.

No wonder
Randi Weingarten the union president, said she had grave reservations about the project, and would fight if the city tried to use the information for tenure or formal evaluations or even publicized it.
The union's job is to protect the teachers, not the children from the teachers' incompetence. So who protects the children? I bet Randi Weingarten doesn't care.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Happy T"U B'Shevat

Remember to eat your new fruits and stuff. Enjoy.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The Ghandis

Mahatma Gandhi once famously wrote of the Jews:
The calculated violence of Hitler may even result in a general massacre of the Jews by way of his first answer to the declaration of such hostilities. But if the Jewish mind could be prepared for voluntary suffering, even the massacre I have imagined could be turned into a day of thanksgiving and joy that Jehovah had wrought deliverance of the race even at the hands of the tyrant. For to the god fearing, death has no terror.
In other words, if Hitler is killing you, you are better off sitting there and letting yourself be killed rather than fighting because his retarded god would love that more.

His more enlightened grandson Arun Gandhi offers no such advice today to those who are in the position to be harmed by Jews. Rather, the scorn, which the Gandhi family once reserved for Jews who had the audacity to attempt to resist Hitler, is now given to . . . Jews who think that their state's "survival can only be ensured by weapons and bombs".

So a few members of the Gandhi family seem to have it in for the Jews.

Despite the fact that he has offered some sort of apology for what he said, he curiously failed to apologize for the thing that actually offended people. He originally said that Jews were following in the footsteps of the Nazis. Clearly one can see how this might offend Jews. He apologized for saying that all Jews were following in the footsteps of the Nazis, when what he meant was that it was only Israel who was following in the footsteps of the Nazis.

If I may return the insult, Arun Gandhi is following in the footsteps of his grandfather, and I assure the Indian people (who now posses a nuclear arsenal) that I would never accuse them of such a miserable thing.

Update: I just discovered that this article says pretty much the same thing.

Another argument against gun control

So this guy Ivaylo Ivanov, who lives right across the street from me, stockpiled six or seven pipe bombs, a pistol, a rifle, a shotgun, two pellet rifles, a crossbow with arrows, silencers, ammunition, a bulletproof vest and a machete. We then find out that he confessed to the anti-Semitic graffiting of the synagogues in Brooklyn Heights in September. I wonder what he was plotting.

Also, call me cynical, and maybe I'm looking too deeply in to this, but while I can understand someone not being aware that their roommate is amassing a small arsenal, you cannot hide your really strong attitudes for too long no matter how infrequently you interact over a period of six years. That being said, it is no surprise that the roommate is a researcher affiliated with . . . Columbia University.

Update (/22): This just keeps getting stranger. Apparently this guy is Jewish and out on bail.

Update (1/23): Even more weirdness. First, while I might ignore the Rabbi's overemphasis on matrilineal descent (or the rather Christian concept of having a congregation pray for the spiritual wellbeing of someone?), I too am skeptical about this man's Jewishness. Second, who would believe that someone trained by the Mossad would clean their weapon with a round in the chamber, or be that mentally unstable in general. And finally, Ivanov seems to have taken a page right out of the Three Kings playbook. Seriously, explosive footballs? How unoriginal.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

An amateurish attempt at Hume scholarship

I'd like to say at the outset that I have not done much research or thinking about the following and it is based mostly on my own common-sense view of what the answer to this problem is. Perhaps more real scholarship should be done on this, but the question really does seem too trivial for anything more than a blog post.

In part 14 of David Hume's Natural History of Religion we find the following sentence
The least part of the Sadder, as well as of the Pentateuch, consists in precepts of morality; and we may also be assured, that that part was always the least observed and regarded.
The context is unimportant to us for the moment. The question I want to ask is what is this Sadder that Hume refers to?

Beyond the fact that it is likely a book, Hume himself gives us no clues. But the two editions of the text I have each have footnotes to this word. They both assume that it refers to a Jewish book. It is clear that it refers to a religious book of some sort, and we have no reason other than the two editors I cite below that it is a Jewish one.

But let us assume that it is a Jewish book. Which Jewish book is it?

One footnote (I am not sure which editor inserted this, it is a footnote in an anthology by Christopher Hitchens, who is a bit careless with sources. Could it be C.H. himself?) says the following:
Sadder refers to the Seder Eliyyahu, a Jewish book of homilies written between the third and thenth (sic) centuries C. E. The Pentateuch is the first five books of the Old Testament.
Another editor, J. C. A Gaskin, who is well known as a scholar in Early Modern Philosophy, writes (in his 1992 edition) the following as a note on the same word:
almost certainly Hume's spelling for the Seder or Siddur, the Jewish book of prayer or worship.

So which is it, the Seder Eliyyahu or the Siddur?

Are these our only options? I think not. There are likely four options I think we must consider. (1) The Seder Olam, (2) The Passover Seder, (3) The Seder Eliyyahu, and (4) The Siddur. There are many more books that have the word "Seder" in the title, but it is hard to imagine one that is as significant as the above four.

Our approach is as follows: What Jewish books would Hume likely have heard of, and given those, to which did he actually intend to refer? Let us examine the four options one at a time.

The first three options might seem plausible on lexicgraphical evidence. Hume spells the word he is refering to as "Sadder", which is plausibly pronounced (in Hume's time) "say-der" as opposed to "sih-dur". The double "dd" however, does make it plausible that Hume was thinking of a word that sounds like "sah-der". More likely Hume copied this spelling from some other source which is unknown to me (us). So spelling-evidence is so far, unhelpful.

(1) Could Hume have heard of the Seder Olam? The Seder Olam is a (actually two) purported chronology(ies) of the world from creation to the rise of Alexander the Great.

My guess is that Hume might have heard of this book. Remember, that although Hume today is known as an important philosopher, in his time, and in his own mind, he was a historian. He quotes heavily from the classical historians, and was well familiar with historical scholarship. It certainly seems plausible that he would have heard of the Seder Olam. What is less plausible is that he read it. It has not (to my knowledge) been translated to English, Latin, Greek, or French - the languages I believe Hume know well. It is also unlikely that Hume would tell us that the content of a history book contains something about precepts of morality, unless he had some reason for knowing that it was the case. The Seder Olam, to the best of my recollection, does not contain much morality. On that basis, I reject option (1) as a possibility.

(2) Could Hume have been talking about the Seder shel Pesach, or more likely the book about the Passover Seder, namely the Haggadah? The argument in favor of this is that the Haggadah is probably the most widely printed of all Jewish books, and it would not be surprising if Hume had come across one in all his time spent in scholarly pursuits. I do not know if Hume would have had access to an English, French, Latin, or Greek one, but it is certainly possible and I would bet that it existed in one of those languages in Hume's time, or at the very least, someone he read may have referred to it.

But again, why would Hume think it is full of morality precepts? Well, in some sense it is. There are plenty of morality references in the Haggadah. References to the good and wicked sons come to mind. But the references to them are not extensive. It is a collection of prayers, and it is the tale of the exodus, more than a morality play. Moreover, while it can plausibly be called the "seder" it is well known as the "Haggadah" or the "recitation". Also, though it is a prominent Jewish book, in the scheme of the Jewish year, it is read once (or twice) at night as part of the Passover feast, it is not a central document of faith on par with the Pentateuch that Hume cites.

(3) Could it be the Seder Eliyyahu? I seriously doubt it. While the book is not totally obscure, one would have to be fairly well steeped in Jewish midrashic (homiletical) texts to get to know this book. It was available in Hebrew by Hume's time, but not in any other language, and it was probably not a common book to have around. I would doubt Hume encountered it. Moreover, Seder Eliyyahu is actually two works: Seder Eliyyahu Rabbah and Seder Eliyyahu zuta which collectively are known as Tanna Devei Eliyahu. It is not important enough to be known solely as "The Seder". While the book does deal with morality, it is a much more sohisticated book. It is a midrash, and a sort of mystical-cosmography. It would be odd for Hume to have assumed that Jews give this work much credence, even if he had known of its existence. Jews take the book seriously, but only to an extent. To the extent Hume would have known about this book, he would know about the nature of midrashic exegesis. The only reason one would have to think this might be the book Hume meant is that it was names by this unknown editor. I do not know what evidence this editor came up with to get this book.

So that leaves us with (4) Siddur. The "Siddur" does get it's name from the word "seder". Hume would definitely have had access to a siddur. In 1738 someone, probably Abraham Meers, under the Pseudnym Gamaliel Ben Pedahzur wrote a translation of the Jewish prayer book and a lot of commentary, which apparently was directed at introducing the Jewish rituals to Christians. (See here here and here.) It is a work that the Jewish historian Cecil Roth described as a book that gives "exaggerated importance to the least attractive minutia of observance and by an undue insistence upon anything of a scrofulous nature". This sounds like the place Hume could have picked up some cynicism about Jewish Prayer. The sentence prior to the one we quoted with the word "Sadder" in it reads as follows: "It is certain, that, in every religion, however sublime the verbal definition which it gives of its divinity, many of the votaries, perhaps the greatest number, will still seek the divine favour, not by virtue and good morals, which alone can be acceptable to a perfect being, but either by frivolous observances, by intemperate zeal, by rapturous extasies, or by the belief of mysterious and absurd opinions." It would be useful if I had a copy of the Siddur in question to see if he spells it "Sadder" as that would clinch the argument that Hume was referring to the Siddur, and this one in particular. But sadly, I do not have access to a copy.

I think I will throw my hat in with Gaskin's footnote that Hume was referring to the Siddur. The Siddur is a book that Hume would have heard of. The first English edition we just mentioned was published in 1738, when Hume was about 27 years old. It was published in London, where Hume would have soon thereafter had access to it. It is likely that Hume came across this book in his studies on religion. It is a major Jewish text. It is the prayer book Jews use daily. It frequently mentions morality, as part of the prayers, and given the edition that Hume was likely familiar with, it seems it was tailored to reinforce the view that Hume already had of religion.