The Point Zero Zero One Percent


– Rant # 173 –


My grandmother was a Bolshevik, and my father a socialist. I came to adulthood during the turbulent Sixties, and for two decades I’ve been surrounded by gay-loving Bible-trashing academics. So it should come as no surprise that my political sympathies and intuitions are all pretty much clustered to the left of the left of center. But that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the skill with which Donald Trump has tapped the bigotry and paranoia that is the American ethos, or be exasperated by the dated lameness of Bernie Sanders chalking up all of America’s woes to the greed of the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent.

That kind of rhetoric might have got him elected, or at least nominated, fifty years ago. But in 2016 greed is just the we’re-too-Christian-to-say-fuck word for fuckin’ lucky. And who doesn’t admire luck? In fact if greed is anything in the ethos of 2016 America, it is, as the Donald says it is, what makes America great!

And my colleagues it seems – bless their cotton socks – have joined Sanders in this charming but jejune reduction of the entire discipline of economics to greed versus ‘Sharezies!’

Sanders can be forgiven. He’s a mere politician. But my colleagues should know better. There has never been, is not now, nor ever will be, a polity driven by “what I can do for my country” rather than “what my country can do for me.” That “We’re all in this together!” makes for heartwarming rhetoric, but it’s a con. We’re in this together only because for there to be “nature red in tooth and claw”, prey and predator must stand in sufficient proximity to each other.

But my colleagues, having taken the metaphor too much to heart, suppose prey and predator are two distinct subspecies of humans: us, the good people, the prey to these voracious predators, and these predators, the greedy people, the evil people. Apparently they’re like the Borg in Star Trek, or the Nothing in The Never Ending Story. They are the Great Destroyers!

We can all understand what motivates us, the good people. We want to enjoy our families and friends, we want to live reasonably well, and we want to feel we’ve accomplished something by the end of each day. But what, pray tell, motivates the greedy people, the evil people? No human being could possibly consume a billion dollars worth of anything in a hundred lifetimes. So why could they possibly want to accumulate any more than that?

Unless my colleagues can answer that question without begging it – as in, What they want is power! – I think the obvious answer is they don’t. They don’t want wealth for its own sake. Beyond what they need for their family and friends, and for living reasonably well, their wealth is merely a bi-product of what they’ve accomplished by the end of each day. For my colleagues to suppose otherwise is to suppose these people really are incomprehensible. But if they’re incomprehensible, what business do my colleagues have assigning motivations to them?

I think I’m better qualified to pronounce on what the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent are like, and on what they want. How so? Because over the course of thirty-six years, from 1975 to 2011, I worked side by side with about thirty of these people, every one of them a member of the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent.

What we – by which I mean mostly they – were doing was managing the second largest private charity in the world, a charity funded entirely out of their pockets, and which, since it was chartered in 1903, has financed the lion’s share of all the orphanages in territory “currently or formally under the protection of the French Republic”, which includes almost all of West Africa and, until the fall of Saigon in 1975, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos.

In the 113 years of its existence, this foundation has spent not a penny raising money. To save on administration its assets of $7 billion US are managed by one man working pro bono out of his tiny law office in Paris. It’s a devoutly Catholic organization, and yet over the shrill objections of the Vatican it distributes condoms in every orphanage it supports. Its Board of Governors, which numbers twelve, meets for four full days four times a year, agonizing over issues you couldn’t imagine, or wouldn’t want to if you could.

As it happens all but two of these greedy evil people were French, the other two were Saudi Moslems, and none were American. So my colleagues could dismiss what I’m about to report on the grounds that, after all, they weren’t the Koch brothers. But they were the Koch brothers. Certainly the Koch bothers simulacra from the perspective of my colleagues’ counterparts in France, who also judge these people unredeemably avide et mal.

Now let me tell you just how avide et mal. For 116 hours straight, from the early hours of August 5th 2011, to late in the evening of August 9th, eleven of these greedy and evil sub-humans, every one of them a Koch-like multi-billionaire, sat huddled on the couch or on the floor of a hotel suite in Paris, taking turns catching a few hours sleep in the suite’s only bedroom, trying to figure out how to prevent seventy nameless Libyan teenagers who had miraculously made it to the border with Chad, from being sent back to Tripoli where they’d have been summarily executed, teenagers some of whom were probably former Gaddafi thugs, some assuredly with blood on their hands, but all claiming to be orphaned by the street justice being meted out by the rebels from Benghazi who were then in the process of taking Tripoli.

Now tell me, what do you suppose motivated those eleven Koch brothers and sisters to do that?

And while you’re at it, tell me the difference between how the Nazis managed to dehumanize the Jews so they could exterminate them, and your dehumanizing of the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent so that, come the revolution, you can blithely dispossess them?

Your bigoted bête noire-ing of the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent is born of ignorance. You can overcome this ignorance by taking a billionaire to lunch. Don’t know any? I do. Would you like me to arrange it?

Look, you feckless ignoramuses. The beauty of money is that it’s fungible. Those trillions you think are being hoarded in some Uncle Scrooge-like vault somewhere? They’re not there. They’re at work all around you. They’re processing and moving the oil from under the ground over here to heating someone’s home over there. They’re taking the Durham wheat being grown on the Regina Plains and making the pasta that feeds sixty million Italians. They’re developing and producing the vaccines being injected into the arms of a billion wriggling children. What the fuck else did you think that money was doing?

If you think there’s a better system – and I’m all ears if there is – that’s one thing. Let’s work on that together. But to think that the current system squanders wealth on the Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent is just unconscionably stupid. The Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percent spend about .001% of their wealth on themselves. The rest of it is covering your mortgage, asshole!

One final comment, and then I’ll shut up. Well, at least for today.

Calling someone like one of the Koch brothers, or one of my thirty Point-Zero-Zero-One-Percenter friends in Paris, greedy or evil or psychopathic or the devil, is easy, not to mention a tad cowardly, when you’re not saying it to his face. So if you think I’ve been indecorous in my comments here, you might want to consider the moral force of the words tu quoque. So, you clean up your language and I’ll clean up mine. Deal?

First to the Tribe


– Rant # 172 –


 By a belief being true I mean its corresponding to some actual state of affairs. (What it is for a network of synapses in the brain, or a sequence of phonemes in the air, or a set of chicken scratches on a piece of paper, to ‘correspond’ to a state of affairs, and how these pick out that state of affairs rather than some other, has never been made clear to me. But let’s just ignore that.)

By contrast, by a belief having epistemic warrant I mean its being one one would be well-advised to embrace. By being well-advised I mean it gets her through the night, which is a metonym for contributing to her flourishing, where by flourishing is meant what she wants out of life, as distinct from what others might want out of her.

It should be clear, then, that truth and warrant are birds of very different feathers. For example, if I have exactly $35 in my wallet, and you’ve guessed this, then it’s as true for you as it is for me that I have exactly $35 in my wallet. But whereas I, having just counted it, have strong epistemic warrant in believing I have exactly $35 in my wallet, you have virtually none.

But the epistemic warrant for a belief is not confined to the likelihood of its being true. The likelihood of Christianity being true is … I was going to say pretty damn close to, but no, it really is zero. But if I lived under a Christian theocracy whose thought police carried an indefeasible mind reading device on one hip and a pistol on the other, I’d have pretty decisive warrant for believing every word of the Gospel’s nonsense.

The reason why people conflate truth and warrant is because ninety-nine times out of a hundred the two coincide. People who believe the truth generally fare better than those who don’t. But all this shows is that truth is an instrumental virtue, and therefore, given that there are exceptions to its instrumentality, a defeasible one.

This is not to say that having at the truth couldn’t be, for some people, an end in and of itself. And if such a person would rather choke to death on a truth in her craw than live to a ripe old age with a falsehood on her lips, well, to her I say God’s speed. But for the rest of us, let’s remember there’s a reason the widow’s paying us the mite she can ill afford. She wants us to tell her what to believe, in the hope that right-believing will make her life go better. Better by whose lights? By hers, not ours.

Perhaps another way to put this is this:

Prior to our having taken the Darwinian turn, by epistemology was meant the study of knowledge, and by knowledge was meant justified true belief. We studied knowledge because we wanted to get some of it. And we wanted to get some of it because we thought God would reward us if we did. “Believe in me and thou shalt be saved!” You know, that sort of thing.

Now, however, we’ve lost interest in God, and so likewise with truth, and so likewise with knowledge. Now we’re only interested in identifying the norms for belief-acquisition, and we’ve come to think of the norms for belief-acquisition in precisely the way we think of any other mental algorithm or protocol that’s been naturally selected for.

To none of my colleagues is any of this rocket science. In fact it’s pretty close to a duh. So that said, now let’s put this duh on the back burner, just for a moment.

By one’s tribe I mean those on whom one depends for her survival, delectation, and companionship. Outside the tribe “the life of man [is] solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” The human animal knows this. No matter how intolerable we may find it, we’ll do whatever we must to remain in the tribe, unless and until we find one more to our liking and that’s willing to take us in.

But there’s a penalty for jumping ships this way. If you’ve abandoned that tribe for this one, what makes us think you won’t abandon this one for yet another? So for that reason tribes enjoy a certain stability. But also because even if your tribesmen are assholes, better the assholes you already know than the assholes you’ll have to get to know.

Tribes can be individuated and identified by any number of sortals, natural or artificed, and/or combinations thereof. It’s true that only one such sortal is commonality of belief, but one such sortal is commonality of belief.

This is not to say a tribe must share a set of beliefs. Christians do but Jews don’t. Neither do members of most Philosophy departments.

Individuals are allowed to belong to more than one tribe, provided those tribes are not in conflict. If they are then one has to choose. Those of us old enough to remember video stores are especially sensitive to how burdensome choice can be. So tribes minimize this burden by packaging beliefs into pre-selected sets. This packaging has been naturally selected for because it saves us from having to think our way through each and every issue we’re required to have an opinion on. It’s much more efficient for the tribe to have done that work for us.

We might think we’ve done that work ourselves. My colleagues certainly think so. But one doesn’t have to press them too hard to out this as a delusion. But as noted in Rant # 171, we don’t press each other on this delusion because we don’t want to be assholes to each other. Why? Once again, because being an asshole gets you turfed from your tribe.

But the truth of the matter is that the reason why most anthropogenic global warming (AGW) proponents are also advocates for gun control is because the tribe to which AGW proponents belong just also happens to advocate gun control. And of course the same holds true, mutatis mutandis, for those who deny AGW and support the Second Amendment. What does one issue have to do with the other? Not a damn thing. But, not unlike your cable TV service, that’s how they come packaged.

The difficulty arises when one tries to rationalize a tribe’s belief-package, that is, when she tries to induce some common denominator to the tribe’s various positions. That’s when she runs headlong into the under-determination of rule by data. For example, if a tribe is pro-Life you’d think it would also be anti-capital punishment, the common denominator being that life is God’s to give and take away. But in America, at least, you’d likely be wrong. You’d think that those who oppose Big Tobacco and Big Oil would likewise oppose Big Pharm, because they’re all, well, ‘Big’. But to oppose Big Pharm is to get into bed with the anti-vaxer lobby. So the common denominator has to be something else.

True, provided you’re willing to ad hoc your way to it, consistency can always be found. But the more honest answer to why any of us believe p and q and r, is that we belong to the tribe identified by its subscription to p and q and r.

Now let’s take that pot we put on the back burner and empty it into the saucepan we’ve just had on the front. What we get is this:

When faced with a choice about what to believe, attend first to the tribe and only then – and at that only if you’re at your leisure – to the evidence. The reason for this is simple. Your survival, delectation, and companionship is far more likely to hang on maintaining solidarity with your tribe than getting at the truth, at least at the truth of most things.

Does it really matter whether “the Holy Spirit proceedeth from the Father and the Son”, a.k.a. filioque, or from the Father alone? Probably not. But it does matter to whether you’re Catholic or Orthodox, and that matters to whether you’re Croat or Serb, and a mere decade ago that mattered a whole lot as to whether you’d have been dead or alive.

Be honest. You’re not Jewish. Does it really matter to you whether the Holocaust really happened? But it certainly matters to how many dinner parties you’ll be invited to.

There are exceptions, of course. If I’m convinced Vesuvius is going to blow within the hour, but my tribe will laugh at me when it doesn’t, I’m gettin’ the hell outta Pompeii anyhow. But I’d have to be pretty damn certain before I’d court such ridicule. Or I’d have to be a philosopher, for whom the courting of ridicule just is what makes one a member of the tribe.

That said, the reason why my colleagues subscribe to positions outside their field of expertise – positions about which they know pretty close to nothing – is that they belong to the tribe that subscribes to those positions. But this is not a criticism. What makes my colleagues idiots is that they think it is, and so they think they have to deny it.

But why do they think they have to deny it? I believe the Battle of Hastings took place in 1066. I believe six million of my co-religionists were murdered between 1939 and 1945. I believe these things for no other reason than that I belong to a tribe characterized by a particular chain of trust about the construction of history. If I had to apologize for this I’d be admitting I know virtually nothing at all about history. And that’s precisely a species of the skepticism that at least one of my colleagues rightly rails against.

Down the hall and around two corners, we have a colleague – do we really have to call him that?! – who’s bought into every ‘denialism’ and every conspiracy theory you could have imagined, and a few you couldn’t have. (Did you know the Fukushima tsunami was set off by a nuclear device planted by Mossad on the floor of the Pacific to punish the Japanese for voting in favor of the PLO becoming a member of the World Health Organization? Well, you do now. ) Do the rest of us think he’s crazy? No. But we do think he’s subscribed to an epistemic tribe whose cherry picking of data is driven by an anti-American and anti-Zionist agenda.

Now stand outside yourself and ask how any different from this you appear to anyone who’s not a member of your epistemic tribe. Not a whole lot different, but of course you can’t see that.

If any of this be doubted, conduct an experiment. Break ranks with your tribe on one of these tribe-defining issues, and see if you can last a week before assuring everyone it was all just a joke.

Now imagine you actually do part company with your tribe on one of these issues, and so you won’t be able to pretend, at least with any integrity, that it was all just a joke. Here’s not what you’re going to do. Here’s what you’re going to have already done. You’re going to have taken preemptive action. You’re going to have not allowed yourself to have parted company with your tribe.

But now comes the kicker. How do you know you haven’t done just that?

Texting and Driving


Most accidents are caused by carelessness, most car accidents by careless driving. Careless driving can be caused by any number of things, including impairment but also a desire to impress one’s buddies. Or, less plausibly, one’s date. Impairment, in turn, can be caused by any number of things – overtiredness, forgetting one’s glasses, having to pee – only one of which is a high blood alcohol level. But we don’t punish anyone for having to pee. We punish him for his careless driving. So some libertarians argue that neither should we be disciplining anyone for drunk driving. We should discipline him if, but only if, he’s violating the rules of the road.

But the argument proves too much. It’s not slaloming the center line that causes a head-on. It’s failing to be on the right side of the road when another vehicle is approaching in the other lane. So it should be perfectly legal to slalom. And of course the same could be argued vis a vis firing a gun down main street. If there’s no one on the street, no harm no foul!

But then why not take the same view of attempts? Any number of things could have caused that fatal shooting, including that the victim was mistaken for a deer. But we don’t jail people for making legitimate mistakes like this. Another possible cause is someone was intending to kill him. We should outlaw intent and success, since otherwise we can’t outlaw anything. But why should we outlaw intent alone? So if the gun jammed, then once again we have no harm and so no foul!

All right, so the libertarian argument fails. We can outlaw drunk driving. But why make it a case of criminal endangerment? Other than at the moment of failing to hand the bartender one’s keys, drunk driving isn’t an intentional offense, whereas failing to shovel one’s sidewalk within 24 hours of a snowfall most often is. For the former you get a criminal record, for the latter a modest fine. Isn’t this ridiculous?

No. The reason for this isn’t rocket science. We criminalize, even strict liability offenses, when the possible consequences are sufficiently dire. If as many people died as a result of unshoveled sidewalks as die by the hood ornaments of drunk drivers, we would make failing to shovel your walk a criminal offense.

But that being the case, why haven’t we made texting and driving a criminal offense? A decade ago texting killed or maimed a tiny fraction of what drinking did. Today that ratio is reversed. [Insert link.] Today texting kills or maimed far more people than drunk driving did even before we had criminalized it. And yet I predict that texting and driving will never be made a criminal offense. Certainly not in my lifetime.

What this shows, I submit, is that there’s more to criminalization than deterring harm. In fact harm need have nothing to do with it. It’s political. If marijuana kills, it kills like tobacco kills, and only if one smokes as much grass as a smoker smokes cigarettes. That’s pretty much unheard of. By contrast, alcohol kills by the millions! But marijuana was the drug of choice of those people. It’s only been since it became the drug of choice of our sons and daughters that we started thinking of decriminalizing it.

Texting while driving is what we all do, where by ‘all’, according to the latest stats, is meant well over 90% of us. [Insert link.] And we’re not going to give it up. We accept that if we’re in an accident and it can be shown we were texting at the time, we’re probably going to be found at fault. And we might even accept being pulled over and fined if a cop sees us texting behind the wheel. But a criminal record? Don’t be absurd!

The criminalization of drinking and driving has reduced its frequency, and so it has saved lives. Far more lives would be saved by criminalizing texting and driving. Or by just making it impossible, which can be easily done. We already have the technology. But it won’t happen. It won’t happen because we can no longer breathe if we’re cut off from knowing where Caitlyn is in the mall now as distinct from twelve seconds ago.

What this says is that whereas our being social animals was naturally selected for, our environment has changed such that our sociality is now going to select against us. Given the stats and projections on texting-related deaths on our streets and highways, by some estimates texting will have driven us to extinction within two generations. That’s faster than even unchecked global warming is predicted to wipe us all out. It follows, therefore, that by any measure texting is a far more urgent threat than global warming, vaccination refusal, and Creation Science combined.

Go ahead. Call me Chicken Little. A prophet is never honored in his own country.

Trigger Warnings


I take it that no one thinks we have a categorical obligation not to upset each other. But many of us think, myself included, that we have the right to try to protect ourselves from being upset. And so to give effect to this right, some people think others have an obligation to provide me with (what’s come to be called) a ‘trigger warning’, i.e. fair warning that they may be about to upset me.

In all likelihood they won’t upset me. (Is anyone shocked by the “mature subject matter, depictions of violence, scenes of nudity, and strong language” the networks feel compelled to warn us about at the outset of some standard Friday night fare?) But better safe than sorry. So we allow the pro-Life lobby to display their posters of aborted fetuses in the hallway leading from the Student Union to the gym. But we warn potential users of that hallway so if they don’t want to be exposed to those images they can reroute themselves.

On the surface this seems reasonable enough. But it presupposes two things. First, that we all share a common take on what others might find upsetting. And second, that you don’t have a right to try to circumvent my efforts to protect myself. Huh?

Well, as often as not you want to upset me. As a pro-Lifer you want me to be upset when I see what an aborted fetus looks like. Or as an anti-Zionist you want me to be upset by the image of an Israeli gunship casting its demonic shadow over a Palestinian child clutching a teddy bear. That is, you want me not to be able to avoid facing the parallels between Gaza and the Warsaw Ghetto.

Let’s take these two presuppositions in order.

I teach Philosophy of Religion. Let’s face it. Our religious beliefs, including my own, are a hoot. If we can’t laugh at our faiths we can’t critique them. And if we can’t critique them we can’t deepen them. I make this clear in the course outline, and again on the first day of class. But unless I write every word of every lecture well beforehand – which I’m not going to do – how am I to give fair warning about what might come out of my mouth next? Hell, even I don’t know what I’m about to say until I’ve already said it.

I know not to use the n word or the c word. But can I mention them? I know there are no jokes about Mohammed. But Jesus on the cross saying, “Peter, I can see your house from here!” has never raised a scowl. If some day it does, should I have given fair warning that it was coming? And if I do, what’s the student to do? Keep popping in and out of the room until class is finally over?

Sometimes I say ‘fuck’. So do you. Do you know when you’re about to say fuck? I don’t. I could make it a policy never to say fuck in the classroom or the office or the hallway. But maybe, to be on the safe side, I should make it a policy never to say ‘damn’. And then, to be even more considerate of some Mormon coming straight off his mission, to never say ‘darn’.

Maybe I should learn to talk like Ned Flanders. But hang on. That won’t save me from the wrath of those who find okely dokely offensive. Who could find okely dokely offensive? you ask? Anyone who associates it with Ned Flanders, Flanders with kindergarten Christianity, and kindergarten Christianity with atrocities too numerous and horrible to mention. But if I can’t say fuck or shit, you’d sure as hell better check out the etymology of the heebie jeebies. And while you’re at it, check out golly gee.

Okay, ‘nuff said. The second issue, recall, is whether I can try to do an end run around your right to cover your ears in class, or to refuse to read the assigned text, if thine ears or thine eyes offend thee. As your professor, can I test you on your command of this material? Obviously yes, since otherwise I might only be able to test you on what you knew before registering for my class. Multiply this across all forty of your classes and you’d be entitled to a degree without learning a damn thing!

If I’m a pro-Lifer, can I leave an image of an aborted fetus on the screen of one of the computers in the library? Obviously yes, since otherwise neither could the university leave its logo on the screen, lest someone should find it offensive. Somewhere in that logo two lines cross at right angles. This is subliminal Christian proselytizing, up with which, as a Jew, I will not put!

The women’s washroom is a designated refuge against prurient male eyes. I have no objection to the university likewise providing Moslem students with a Mohammed joke-free room. The problem is Sunni and Shiite students may then just go at each other instead over the legitimate heir to the Prophet’s authority. If you think Donald Trump can be incendiary, try the streets of Baghdad.

No, the most we can do is promise our students freedom from physical injury. Protection of their sensibilities is both beyond our power and contrary to our very raison d’etre.

A related, but not to be conflated issue, is whether we should be allowing the likes of Holocaust deniers to speak on campus. This is a tough one. It’s not that Jewish students are likely to attend the event. But the very fact that others are is bound to make them feel uncomfortable. And understandably so.

The problem is that we have members of faculty, never mind students, who feel the same way about global warming deniers, or anti-vaxers, or any number of unpopular positions. If for the university community anything is a res judicata – anything at all – then we are no longer a university.

The only exception is what might undermine the safety of a community member, and that includes her feeling safe. Hence the perfectly defensible injunction against incitement. But if Holocaust denial is incitement, it’s not Jewish students who need protecting from newly minted anti-Semites; it’s the denier who needs protection from Jewish students. But then it’s the speaker who, if we’re to be courteous, should be afforded a trigger warning.

The University of Chicago recently sent a letter to its incoming class of 2020 saying pretty much what I’ve just said. [Insert link.] That it should have been necessary to say it does not speak well for what high school students think university is about. Perhaps instead of a trigger warning that there’ll be no trigger warnings, at the bottom of a student’s acceptance letter should be written the words: Warning: The University of Chicago is a university.



Protected Competition


Look, if we want to stay in shape we have to exercise. Exercise is boring, and so we won’t do it unless we can challenge ourselves by adding some kind of skill to what’s otherwise just raw movement. Now we’ve upgraded to playing a sport. But a sport is boring, and so we won’t play it unless we can challenge each other by making it competitive.

If you don’t like competition you can get off (what you regard as this train to perdition) at any point. But if you’re riding the train let’s not hear you whining about competition damaging the fat kid’s self-esteem. And by the way, the fat kid isn’t stupid. Giving everyone a participation ribbon at the close of the school’s Field Day doesn’t make him feel any the less a loser.

But what we can do – and what we have done – is create protected categories of competitors. For example, a disabled athlete can compete in an abled-athletic competition, but not the other way around. A boxer can fight above his weight class but not below it. And yes, there are even summer camps for fat kids only. Where we draw the line – how fat is fat? – might have to be arbitrary. But that’s no different than the arbitrariness of the drinking or driving or voting age.

But whereas weight is something that can easily be measured, disability may require a tad more sensitivity. Fortunately, for the purposes of competition at least, the disabled want to be considered disabled. So the only question is whether they’re disabled enough.

And the same will be true of gender. In most sports women are happy to be regarded as women so they don’t have to compete against men. But occasionally they want to “C’mon, bring it on!” And when they do they often find that men have made being male a protected category. Why? Not because we’re afraid of the competition. Maybe because we find it unchivalrous to beat a woman. But mostly, I suspect, it’s because it would turn something that was erstwhile macho into something, well, girly.

As a man, I have no problem making my manhood a protected category. Guys’ night out at the pub becomes something completely different when it’s replaced with couples’ night at the tapas bar. But the issue that athletic organizations – from grade school to amateur to professional to Olympic – are currently struggling with is the very opposite. It’s when we men want to crash the hen party. And what makes this issue especially challenging is that it’s not one issue but several. At a minimum it’s the following three:

There are erstwhile males – at least according to their birth certificates – who’ve undergone a full physical conversion to female. Are they to be allowed into the protected category of female? There are males – at least according to their birth certificates – who simply self-identify as female. Should they be allowed into the protected category? And, finally, there are females – at least according to their birth certificates – who have natural testosterone levels that give them a significant advantage over their sisters. Should they be expelled from the protected category?

In all three cases, no matter what we do it’s going to seem unfair. But it’s an unfairness born not of anyone’s bigotry but of the way we’ve all carved up the world. For most humans, musculature, genitalia, orientation, and demeanor, come packaged within certain parameters recognizable by the man on the Clapham omnibus. But for these three categories of people these properties have come apart. It’s easy to say, Well, we’re just going to have to re-jig our gender concepts. Of course we are. But the question is precisely how.

One thing we can do, I suppose, is look at musculature the way we look at weight. We don’t care about your genitalia or testosterone levels or orientation or demeanor, any more than we do your eye color. All we care about is your muscle mass to weight ratio, or something like that.

This might work for some sports, but what about female body builders? Body building, not unlike figure skating, is an aesthetic sport, and the aesthetics of it are very different for men and women. The judge would be comparing Greyhounds to Chihuahuas, and so the winner would be the equivalent of best in show. We could do this, of course. But Greyhounds and Chihuahuas don’t want to compete against each other. It might seem more fair. And no doubt it is. But Greyhounds would regard this new sport as too, well, Chihuahua-ish.

I could rehearse a dozen more problem cases, but the bottom line is probably clear. We were doing just fine before these ‘borderline’ people forced us to rethink how we carve up the athletic world. But it’s not just athletics. It’s also washrooms and paternity leaves, the pop charts and the Academy Awards. No more top male vocalist. No more best supporting actress. It’s a brave new world for which we’re as yet conceptually ill-equipped. We’ll get there. But in the meantime we’re going to feel ourselves trying to fit a round peg into a square hole.

Okay, this has been helpful, but not very. Let’s see if we can do better.

On the assumption that form follows function, we might want to ask ourselves what we want competition to do for us. Are we just playing “I’m the king of the castle, and you’re the dirty rascal!”? If so, then why not just assign each of us a fat kid to compete against? Then tomorrow he can compete against an even fatter kid, and so on. That way there’ll only be one loser on the whole playground. I’m guessing some white guy can take home the gold in the prestigious hundred meters if we don’t let any black guys compete in it. But would that be a medal to be all that proud of?

So I’m guessing there may be something else – or at least something in addition – that we’re trying to achieve here. Could it be – excellence? That would explain why winning against a particularly slow field in one of the qualifying heats – and you can see this on the face of the winner – is not much of a victory. Even the winner of the final has less to celebrate if he doesn’t beat his own previous best.

So if this is right, then winning plays second fiddle to upping one’s game. And if this is right, then the question to ask is not what grouping of competitors is fair, but rather what grouping is most likely to promote personal bests, the personal best even of the runner who comes in dead last.

If running in a league of one’s own will achieve that end, fine. But that’s unavailable to the three types of people we’re talking about here, since she (assuming we should call her that) has no ‘own’. So instead she needs to run in the league that will most propel her. If running with the men will just discourage her, then run with the women. If running with the women won’t be enough of a challenge, then run with the men. If running with neither will do it for her then she should just find something else to do with her time.

But what about the other woman alongside whom she’s elected to compete? She’s in the same position our ‘butch’ woman would have been in if she’d elected to compete against the men. But unlike our butch woman, there is no protected butch-free class to which she can downgrade. In asking that Caster Semenya be barred from competing with other women, what one’s asking is that we create such a class. [Insert link.] But if we accede to creating a butch-free class, why not a fit-free class. And eventually we’re back to each of us having our own fat kid to run against.

So it seems to me that not just Semenya but any woman should be allowed to compete in any sport against the men, unless those men are prepared to acknowledge that this would undermine the masculinity of the sport, which, not unlike guy’s night out, should they so wish they have a right to protect, dammit.

To suppose otherwise – to suppose we do not have a right to decide who we’ll play with – is to take athletics out of the realm of play and place it alongside access to housing, entrance to law school, and eligibility for government employment. And in fact this is precisely what’s been happening, as athletics have become springboards to participation in more lucrative activities, like product endorsement.

So, it would seem, we’ve come a long way from just getting some exercise. It’s about getting fit, being king of the castle, being queen of the castle, and/or striving for excellence. But it’s also about access to positions higher up in the social pecking order. In short, it’s political.

The fat kid knows this. So does the ugly kid. So does the black kid. The rest of us, for whom such access is more automatic, tend not to know it. That’s why we think of play as just play. That’s why we think the way puppies tumble about is just cute, when in fact they’re campaigning for office. That’s why we think the way kittens pounce on each other is just adorable, when in fact, but for their domestication, they’re preparing for nature red in tooth and claw.

So in any competition, I think we should decide beforehand whether we’re going to be just playing or whether we’re going to be playing for keeps. If we’re just playing, then let each of us pick our playmates. If I don’t want to play with you, go find someone who does. But if the latter – if we’re playing to see who gets the million for pretending to like some breakfast cereal – then we’ve moved to the language of marketing. And then what’s at issue is whether the kids to whom the cereal is being marketed are keeping track of who was and was not allowed on the track. My guess is they’re not. All they’re going by is face appeal. But in that case, outside of South Africa, Caster Semenya has a few strikes against her beyond the field against which she placed first, or where she would have placed had she been forced to run against the men.

Does the breakfast cereal industry have an obligation to be inclusive, in this case of black butches, in its advertising campaigns? Does the fat kid have the right not just to run but to be elected class president? These are both political decisions, to be made in the first case by ad executives, in the second by the teacher or the principal. And so likewise it is political how, more generally, we’re handling the demands of transsexual, transgendered, and butch individuals, and those who feel victimized by those demands.

Since I fall into none of these categories, I think it only fair to recuse myself from voting on these questions. Otherwise it would be a bit like a man presuming to have a say on the abortion issue. Besides, as Lincoln is reputed to have put it, sometimes it’s better to remain silent and be thought a [bigot] than open your mouth and remove all doubt.



Burkinis and Bathrooms


Sometime during the Apartheid years in South Africa there was a proposal to do an end run around international condemnation of the regime’s racism by having certain rights – presumably the important ones – attach not to skin colour but to membership in the Dutch Reform Church, whose members just happened to all be white. The proposal was never adopted, but if it had been it would have been the perfect example of targeting a policy objective by ricochet.

As of this writing – August 26, 2016 – thirty beachfront municipalities in France have been searching for a way to perform the same maneuver on the wearing of the burkini on public beaches, which they think non-Moslem bathers will find provocative given recent events in Paris and Nice. [Insert link.] The problem is how to word the ban so as not to prohibit Catholic nuns from wading ankle-deep in the surf to cool off on a hot summer afternoon. [Insert link.] If the burkini is described too physically, it’ll prove indistinguishable from a wetsuit. [Insert link.]But if it makes reference to the religiosity of the wearer, it requires policemen to be both theologians and mind-readers.

Most of us, I take it, find this kowtowing to public bigotry disgusting and wrongheaded. It’s akin to telling a woman how to dress lest her attire provoke the village rapist. Of course in this case the added irony is hard to miss. Instead of telling women to cover up, they’re being required, in effect, to strip down.

But for all the laughing stock the French are making of themselves, there’s a deeper and legitimate issue here, an issue being wrestled with this side of the Pond as well. Legislators in several jurisdictions in the United States have enacted laws requiring patrons of public washrooms to confine themselves to the washroom of the gender indicated on their birth certificates. [Insert link.]

Needless to say this has outraged the transsexual and transgendered community. But put yourself in the place of these legislators. Some may be kowtowing to bigotry. But others are simply trying to protect women from being ogled by straight men in a place that’s supposed to be a refuge from just such prying eyes.

How is such refuge to be protected? What test could be administered for gender identity other than self-identification? Imagine the following interrogation:

“You say you’re female, huh. So why did you identify as a male yesterday when you tried out for the football team?”

“Because I only discovered my true nature today.”

“So you won’t be playing football tomorrow?”

“Not unless I discover, as well I might, that my identification as a female was premature.”

In other words, if we require people to pick a gender and stick to it, we’re denying precisely what the transgender community is all about.

Now it’s true – or so I’m told – that girls develop a pretty accurate creep-detector at a very young age. But are we really prepared to convict someone on the basis of how the complainant felt herself being looked at? I should think not, and I should hope not. So people like me, with strong civil libertarian intuitions, are wont to dismiss the claim, made by the French bather or the ogled washroom patron, that they have a right not to be made to feel uncomfortable. We’re wont to say to them, “No you don’t!” We’re wont to say this as vehemently as I once said it to a female colleague who claimed to have a right not to be offended by anti-abortion posters on campus. “No,” I said, “you do not have a right not to be offended! A fortiori not in a university.”

But how far are we civil libertarians prepared to take this? All the way to public nudity, first on the beach, then on campus, and then in line at the post office? For the moment we say, “But not that far!”, we’ve pretty much handed the farm to our communitarian arch-enemies. Communitarians don’t deny there are individual human rights. They simply argue that among them is the right to belong, to belong to a community. And being a community involves a certain commonality of values, including that there’s behavior that doesn’t break anyone’s skin but is unacceptable nonetheless.

The problem arises when communities overlap, as they do when an American ‘libertine’ wants to flaunt her hair on a street in Tehran, or an Iraqi woman wants not to flaunt her body on a beach in France. The plight of the latter must be especially hurtful. She risked her life and those of her children crossing the Mediterranean to escape the dress code being enforced with whips on the streets of Mosul, only to be told to strip in front of her children on a beach in France.

What’s especially worrying in the burkini case is the invocation of the for-their-own-protection argument. Instead of protecting these women from being assaulted, the law would charge them with provoking the assault. But this is not unprecedented in Western jurisprudence. Shouting racial slurs which are likely to provoke violence can indeed be disturbing the peace. So once again we’re caught between a rock and a hard place.

Is there a principled way to resolve these issues? To come down on one side or the other? Probably, though not without a certain imprecision.

Under our system of law, all is permitted save what is prohibited, and nothing can be prohibited unless a) it’s demonstrably harmful and b) that harm outweighs the autonomous harmfulness of the prohibition. Under this test, in the case of the burkini issue I think the law is being an ass. And I’m assuming the supreme court in France will agree, if, by the time you read this, it hasn’t already. (Hey, just got the news. The French court just quashed the ban. Doncha just love it when you’re proven right like this?)

But the washroom issue isn’t quite so clear. Fortunately neither is it clear that there are no third options. We could make all washrooms unisex and replace all urinals with cubicles. Expensive, perhaps, but probably worth it. We spend a small fortune to accommodate people in wheelchairs. Surely we can spend an even smaller one so everyone can take a crap in peace.



– Rant # 174 –


My colleagues are idiots because they seem to think it unnecessary to tell us to what positions their various labels are attached. We’ve already seen this, back in Rant # 167, in the case of denialism. Instead of offering us a definition of the term they tell us that denialists typically this, or denialists typically that. Well, bears typically eat berries. But so do birds. Here’s a big fury beast that’s not eating berries. I guess it can’t be a bear.

This is why definitions are important. They do something more than characterize the thing we’re talking about. They tell us what we’re talking about.

Let’s talk about Creationism.

Creationism is not the view that God had a hand in bringing the world into being. You can define it that way if you like, but then pretty much every theist in the Abrahamic tradition would be a Creationist. And yet most theists in that tradition, at least here in the West, are perfectly at ease with the Big Bang and the fourteen billion year hypothesis.

Moreover, that God had a hand in bringing the world into being is not the conclusion of the Intelligent Design Argument, since one could hold that He simply dipped His hands into the already-existing urstuff of the world. Or one could hold that in bringing the world into being as He did God was dumber than a bag of nails. Or one could hold that the world was set into motion by an intelligent designer but that intelligent designer wasn’t God. You may recall that Douglas Adams espoused just such a view. Or, as a variation on Adams, one could hold that our planet was seeded by some superior alien species.

Note that it’s no objection to this latter position that it merely pushes the question back onto these intelligent aliens, since the Big Bang has the same problem. All explanations reach their terminus in some brute fact. If it can be a brute fact that God was intelligent, likewise can it be a brute fact that these aliens were.

Moreover the Big Bang neither explains nor attempts to explain the radial asymmetry of the world, other than by citing that asymmetry as just a brute fact about the Big Bang. So it’s open to the Intelligent Design advocate to embrace the Big Bang and claim that intelligence went into this singularity’s already-asymmetrical interior. If you want to say it had no already-asymmetrical interior because, being a singularity, it had no interior, then you can’t explain the radial asymmetry of the world, and so your Big Bang doesn’t explain anything very interesting at all, save that the world was once more compact than it is now.

Thus the only Creationist entitled to that name is the so-called young earth Creationist. The young earth Creationist doesn’t deny the mechanism of evolution through mutation and natural selection, since that view is pretty much analytic. It says only that the replicability of an organism is a function of its being around long enough to replicate. How can one deny that?!

Rather young earth Creationism is the denial of the historicity of the evolution of species through mutation and natural selection. That is, it asserts that species came into being in much the way we now find them. And that’s all it asserts. It says this because it doesn’t think the world has been around long enough for evolution to have done the work attributed to it. But it says nothing about whether species are evolving now, nor whether they’ll evolve in the future.

Last but not least, one can be a so-called young earth Creationist and not be a theist at all. If this be doubted, doubt no longer. I am one such. In fact I’m of the view that the earth is a newborn, exactly and only five minutes old. I do not believe it was designed, intelligently or otherwise. That it came into being five minutes ago exactly as it was five minutes ago is the brute fact at which my explanation reaches terminus. If you think your terminus is any better you are comically mistaken.

So let’s get our nomenclature straight. Theism and intelligent design and Creationism are only contingently associated, and at that only in the minds of believers and my colleagues, whose understanding of these various claims is sometimes as kindergarten as is kindergarten Christianity’s understanding of the soteriology of the Cross.

A claim is answerable for what it claims, and to what follows logically from it. None of these three claims – theism, intelligent design, and Creationism – entails either of the other two. If these claims are to be combined, that they’re being combined has to be made explicit. So before you go on the attack, make explicit what combination you’re attacking. Otherwise you run the risk of just strawmanning. And strawmanning is just a dead giveaway that you’re cutting corners.

You can cut corners on aircraft maintenance, but not in doing philosophy.

Confirmation Bias


– Rant # 171 –


Okay, this is now the 314th time I’ll have said it. I take no interest, one way or the other, in any of the The-Sky-is-Falling-No-it’s-Not claims and counterclaims currently consuming many of my colleagues’ time. (And, unfortunately, their students’ class-time.) But I do take an interest, in fact a keen one, in their interest in these issues. I’m especially interested in the role confirmation bias plays in their so-called ‘research’ into these matters, and in just how oblivious they are to that role.

For example, I’d have thought that all I had to do was say, Look at your bookshelf. What does that tell you?

“That anthropogenic global warming is real.”

Ah, no, what I meant was, have you read any of what you call the denialist literature?

“No need to. “


“It’s all been refuted.”

By …?

“By every one of those books on that shelf.”

Well, all I can say is, nice work if you can get it! Nice work too going from

1) Global warming may have worsened the drought which may, in turn, have exacerbated the political conflicts leading to the civil war in Syria, to

2) global warming is the cause of the civil war in Syria!

Well, at least it’s nice to know that, pace Tony Hall, not everything is the machinations of those mephistophilian Zionists.

Another’s confirmation bias is a hard nut to crack. But it can be done, provided you’re persistent. What you have to do is ask, “What makes you think that’s been refuted?” And then, to whatever he answers, “What makes you believe that?” And so on. Eventually your interlocutor will have to admit that he’s taken that refutation on faith, which means he’s likewise taken on faith the position being unsuccessfully refuted. In fact he hasn’t done any honest epistemic toil at all!

Getting him to see that won’t convert him, or even make him agnostic on the question at issue. But with any luck it’ll shut him up. And maybe that’s enough to make your Herculean efforts worthwhile.

But none of this will happen. Why not? Because no one has the requisite persistence. Beyond the second or third question you’ll be rightly judged – in fact you’ll judge yourself – as just being churlish. Being churlish is just one notch below being an asshole. Nobody wants to be an asshole. And so that’s how your interlocutor gets to go on deluding himself. If no one calls him on his confirmation bias he has no reason to believe there is any.

So as it turns out confirmation bias is not an individual epistemic vice. It’s a collective one. We’re supposed to be a corrective to each other’s faulty reasoning. In reality we become accomplices in it.

What’s to be done about this? Apparently not a damn thing!

If You Wanna Be Serious, Lighten Up


– Rant # 170 –


Some conceptions of God are incoherent. On pain of irrationality, those can be rejected ab initio. Others are coherent but they violate Occam’s Razor. Those can be rejected but they don’t have to be. And still others are coherent, and they do some explanatory work, but they don’t do that work as well as any number of alternative hypotheses. Those can be embraced without pain of irrationality because there’s a certain subjectivity in what counts as better and worse workmanship.

Let me come clean. I am (what I call) a sympathetic atheist. I’m sympathetic to theism on two fronts. First, and as just noted, I don’t think someone has to be an idiot to believe in a God provided her conception of Him is not incoherent. And second, though I would – and apparently I have – bet my immortal soul on there not being a God, I wouldn’t bet the family farm on it. (Though to be honest, the latter is made slightly easier by the fact that, being Jewish, it’s probably been a couple thousand years since any of my ancestors owned a farm. Come to think of it, being that I’m a Levite, it’s unlikely they ever did. But I digress.)

Most of my colleagues, on the other hand, are foaming-at-the-mouth atheists, otherwise known as spittle-hitting-the-walls atheists, otherwise known as true-believing atheists. I can say this because a true-believer need not be, as Alvin Toffler thought she must, impervious to any evidence that challenges her belief. There need simply be nothing that could count as evidence that could challenge her belief.

In that sense I’m also a true-believing atheist. That is, if Jebus himself came wafting down through the ceiling, I would reject him today as surely as did my ancestors two millennia ago. The difference between me and my colleagues is that I don’t foam about this rejection. And that’s why I can and do teach Phil of Religion with both integrity and openness.

But openness does not entail reverence. I’m as irreverent about Abraham or Jebus or Mohammed or Joseph Smith as any Jim Jeffries wannabe could be. But I get the impression that my colleagues have this reversed. They think it unseemly to be irreverent but perfectly acceptable to be dismissive. And so they, and their students, miss out on all the fun a Phil of Religion course can be. There’s no fun for anyone in dismissing a student’s most cherished beliefs. But irreverence for those beliefs is an invitation to everyone not to take herself so seriously. And not unlike a good shit, taking oneself less seriously is always cause to smile.

Dismissal is not irreverence, and irreverence is not dismissal. They’re not orthogonal, they’re incompatible. Nothing irrelevant is worth ridiculing, and nothing ridiculous is irrelevant.

But if I’m right about this – and I am – then for God’s sake apply it in your own courses. Have a little fun with anthropogenic climate change, or the irresponsibility of vaccination refusal, or whatever you’re in high dudgeon about this week. You’d be amazed how more seriously your students will take what you hold most dear if they can see that you have a sense of humor about your holding it so dear.

Granted there’s nothing funny about 7000 people drowning this summer trying to make the crossing from Tripoli to Lampedusa. But there is something funny about the media thinking those deaths warrant less attention than some radio show host being accused of not ‘curb[ing his sexual] enthusiasm’.

Humor supervenes on incongruity, and so does philosophy. If it’s funny it’s probably philosophically interesting. If it’s not it’s probably not.

Why else do you think most people are getting their news from John Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and John Oliver? And being far better informed about what’s going on in the world than those who watch Fox News.

My Colleagues’ Residual Theism


– Rant # 169 –


Look! I realize it takes time to adjust. But it’s been over a century and a half since you were offered the Darwinian turn. It’s time to shit or get off the pot.

Prior to Origin of the Species, the axiom underpinning our understanding of the world was intentionality. Everything, from the most sub of sub-electronic particles, to the orbit of the planets and beyond, was infused with the stuff, infused either with its own telos, as Aristotle thought, or with the capital-P Plan of some Author of It All, as many of our religions teach.

Darwin replaced all this with a simple mechanism called natural selection. There are things that perdure and there are things that replicate. In either case they do so not because they want to perdure or replicate, but because nothing destroys them before they do. And that’s all there is to it, because that’s all there need be to it.

But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t eschew the religious weltanschauung and still hold on to its explanatory schemata. You can’t talk about evolutionary progress, or one species being more advanced than another, or say anything, anything whatsoever, that even hints at teleology. Because if it hints at it it smacks of it. And if it smacks of it you’ve backtracked to that split in the road, you’ve rejected the turn, and you’ve retaken the straight road, the one that leads to either salvation or perdition, depending on whether you have or haven’t “paid mete adoration to [your] household god”. But definitely not to a Nobel prize in science.

Now then, I have a colleague who thinks it would be a shame if the human species, having advanced so far up the evolutionary ladder, should go extinct. ‘Advanced’ and ‘up’ are already dead giveaways, and to suppose there’s a species called humans is to reveal a realism about natural kinds that likewise smacks of teleology.

But it’s his notion of ‘shame’ that most intrigues me. In whose eyes would it be a shame? The only way that question makes sense would be if we change it to, In capital-W Whose eyes would it be a shame?

Now personally I’m just fine with the utterance, “It would be a shame if …” making no sense. But he’s not. And among my colleagues he’s not alone in this kind of cherry picking from someone else’s orchard. So this is the 169th reason my colleagues are idiots. Tomorrow I’ll offer you the 170th.