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Showing posts from July, 2017

The Bengal famine of 1943

In 1943 Bengal was a generally accepted name for a large northeastern chunk of the British Raj.

In our own day, part of that chunk is known as Bangladesh. The rest is within India, but is divided into three states: West Bengal, Tripura, and Asam.

However defined, Bengal was the scene of a horrific famine in 1943. More than two million people died either of 'pure' starvation or of diseases common to the region, and seldom fatal except in a body weakened by malnourishment.  The causes of the famine are hotly disputed. Bad harvests were part of it, but the disruption of trading patterns by the war -- which was very close by at this time -- Burma was the front line -- was also part of it. The British government kept the matter as hush-hush as they could manage. They wanted to convey an atmosphere of normalcy in British India to the extent possible. That propaganda-driven denialism surely contributed to the death toll.

Beyond its humanitarian interest, the famine has a lot to do w…


What is faith (or Faith if you prefer)...? and, whatever it is, is it philosophically defensible?

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has a fine brief article on the subject, and it lists seven different "models" of faith.

I'll just list them here and link you to the article because I'll feeling lazy today.

1) The purely affective model -- faith equals confidence;
2) The special knowledge model -- faith means that God has revealed specific truths, and the recipient of the revelation accepts them as such;
3) The belief model -- faith is simply another name for the belief that God exists;
4) The trust model -- my faith in a God isn't the belief that God exists, but a subsequent fact, a sense of trust in the Being whom I already believe to exist;
5) The doxastic venture model -- James' will to believe may fit here. This model takes faith to be a practical commitment to the proposition that God exists, even if it coincides with an acknowledgement that the e…

Objectivity and Justice

Just a brief quote today, from John Rawls.

"To say that a political conviction is objective is to say that there are reasons, specified by a reasonable and mutually recognizable political conception (satisfying those essentials) sufficient to convince all reasonable persons that it is reasonable."

Yes, in context Rawls had also listed the "essentials" to which he makes reference here. But we don't need them for today's point. I think this illustrates the sort of circular reasoning to which constructivists in moral philosophy often fall prey.

This is part of the argument behind his theory of justice as a matter of the principles that would be adopted behind a veil of ignorance by, yes, reasonable people.

The problem is that such work ends up presuming in a word like "reasonable" the whole of its eventual conclusions. So ... my theory is in accord with reason because it is the one with which reasonable people would agree. The people who do agree wi…

Cantor's diagonalization argument

Yesterday's post as gotten me into one of my rare stern-logician frames of mind, so I think I'll stick with that today.

I wonder if I've ever discussed Cantor's "diagonal" proof in my blogging. If not, I'll make good on that now. Cantor refuted the common idea that "infinity" is a single all-inclusive category. Once we get beyond enumeration we've gotten to "infinity" and there is nothing more to be said. Or, at least, so we're inclined to think.

Yes there is, though, Cantor replies, much more to be said. Because for example not every infinity is equal to every other. Some "trans-finite" numbers are bigger than others. The number of real numbers is a larger transfinite number than the number of integers.

Why? Well, diagonals! The question is -- could we in principle create a one-to-one correspondence between every real number and every integer that would allow room for every one of each to show up, eventually, corre…

ZFC Set Theory

I happened onto a logic blog recently and, before my eyes burnt out with the beauty of the abstractions involved, I learned a new term. ZFC Set Theory.

The first two letters, "ZF," abbreviate names, Zemelo and Frankel. Both big names in the history of logic -- I need say no more of them now. The C stands for "choice" as in the "axiom of choice."

Now, that sounds important. What choice can there be in logic?

Well, the axiom of choice involves mutually disjoint nonempty sets. Take for example two such sets: the set of all teacups and the set of all named bodies of water on the planet. The axiom of choice means that for any set of such sets, it is possible to create a transversal set, containing exactly one element from each. Simple enough in this case: I can simple designate one set as consistent of teacup A plus Lake Erie. Another set consists of teacup B plus the Atlantic Ocean. And so forth.

Why is this important? Well, Bertrand Russell in 1904 (when th…

God's Will Changes (in Shariah Finance)

This is big news, both in the world of finance and in that of, well  ... Islamic theology.

In May of this year, [I'm sorry I'm late to this table] a company headquartered in the United Arab Emirates, Dana Gas, declared that $700 million of its sukuk bonds were, simply, invalid. It obtained a preliminary injunction against creditor enforcement. That may have been an opening negotiation ploy in a sense -- Dana coupled this announcement with an exchange offer, proposing to give its creditors new bonds for the old, with a haircut of more than half the value of the old.

Jason Kilborn calls this an "existential crisis" for the whole field of Islamic finance, or Shariah-compliant finance, of which these bonds were an example.

Does Dana Gas propose to change the rules -- rules that supposedly represent God's will, by its own sayso?

Well, no. Not exactly. But kinda.

Here is Kilborn's take:…

Threat Circuits, not Fear Circuits

Regular readers know of my interest in the nature and origin of emotions.

Recently I came upon a certain story about the work of a neuroscientist named Joseph LeDoux.

It seems that LeDoux tried to study fear in rodents. This meant (he thought) asking the question: what is happening in the brain of a rat when it perceives a threat? He learned a good deal about the two distinct "roads" by which news of the threat gets to the amygdala, the quicker but less informative "low road" and the slower higher-info "high road." 

BUT ... this was the part that struck me and that may be of philosophical significance ... LeDoux came in time to the conclusion that he hadn't been studying fear at all. He had been studying survival circuits and threat conditioning Such things should be named, or renamed, in a way that cleanses them of the subjective and human-centric notion that the rats are "afraid" of something merely because the sight or smell of it causes…

Happy Bastille Day

Something French would seem to be called for today.

Also, I happen to have a thing about Broadway musicals.

Okay, so should I riff on Les Mis?

No, I think I'll go further back than that. In 1973, a production of Candide trod the boards. This of course was a work of satirical prose fiction by Voltaire, adapted for Broadway by Hugh Wheeler, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Richard Wilbur and Stephen Sondheim.

I will quote some of those lyrics today, I trust within the limits of whatever counts as "fair use" of a 44 year old play.  I don't know how the whole notion of "intellectual property" is going to survive the case of the monkey selfie, though....

Anyway, the below is from what is known as the "Lesson Song." The character of Pangloss is introduced as the house intellectual of a patron's castle. When we first see him, he is giving a lesson on his Leibnizian theodicy.



The Immobility of Nomads

Gilles Deleuze, interpreting a passage in Arnold Toynbee, says that Toynbee "shows that nomads in the strict, geographical sense are neither migrants nor travelers, but on the contrary, those who do not move, those who cling on to the steppe, who are immobile with big strides, following a line of flight on the spot, the greatest inventors of new weapons. But history has never begun to understand nomads, who have neither past nor future."
I like the literary (not a logical) paradox there. Yes, if we think of an American "snow bird," travelling every November from New York to Florida, traveling every April back to New York, then we can think of him changing his habitat and remaining constant in his habit. Year after year this comes to look less like travel than like immobility with big steps. 
Toynbee was all about challenge and response. The Big Picture in his writings is that a civilization faces some crisis and either responds creatively or fails. If its response…

Concluding a Discussion of the Supreme Court's Term: Sex

Praying the Gay Away

Back in July 2015 I wrote, in my round-up of THAT recently completed SCOTUS term, about the Court's decision to deny cert in KING v. CHRISTIE. This left standing the decision of the 3d Circuit C of A upholding New Jersey's ban on"conversion therapy," that is, on giving the "pray the gay away" stuff the mantle of science.

Two years later, there is another denial of cert to report in much the same situation.

Again the Court preserved a legislative rebuke to such therapy by denying cert.  There was a shade of difference. The earlier case was presented as a "free speech" challenge, this one as a "freedom of religion" challenge. Since Hobby Lobby, the  freedom-of-religion clause has been very chic in right-of-center circles. Personally, though, I thought that the earlier challenge had some prima facie plausibility, as I said at the time. I can't say t…

Continuing a Discussion of the Supreme Court's Term: Constitution

[Despite my efforts to straighten things out, the fonts, spacing, etc, in this post has ended up an ugly hodge-podge. My apologies. - CF] 

To first amendment lawyers, this is preeminently the term in which Matal v. Tam found that the disparagement clause of the trademark statute infringes upon the free speech right under the first amendment. The court was unanimous as to the judgment (that the "Slants," a dance-rock band, can be trademarked as such) though there were differences as to the reasoning.

Hugh C. Hansen, law professor at Fordham, has called this “one of the most important First Amendment free speech cases to come along in many years.” 
Simon Tam and his fellow band members made for sympathetic defendants. They obviously were not disparaging their own Asian background. They were appropriating a stereotypical slur concerning Asians’ eyes, in the tradition of many groups throughout history who have turned insults into badges of honor. The Washington Redskins are a less s…