Category Archives: philosophy

Is the evil impulse good?

I learned this teaching from Rabbi Rebecca Ben-Gideon last week and have been turning it over in my mind:

Rabbi Nahman said in Rabbi Samuel’s name: ‘Behold, it was good’ refers to the Good Desire; ‘And behold, it was very good’ refers to the Evil Desire. (It only says ‘very good’ after man was created with both the good and bad inclinations, in all other cases it only says ‘and God saw that it was good’) Can then the Evil Desire be very good? That would be extraordinary! But without the Evil Desire, however, no man would build a house, take a wife and beget children; and thus said Solomon: ‘Again, I considered all labour and all excelling in work, that it is a man’s rivalry with his neighbour.’

This is from Bereshit Rabbah 9:7.  Ambition, here, is understood as a manifestation of Yetzer Hara, the evil impulse.  David Holzel writes about this view of yetzer hara in the context of the Star Trek episode “The Enemy Within,” the one where Captain Kirk splits up into Good Kirk and Bad Kirk.  Holzel says the yetzer hara isn’t really all bad, and Nahman seems to agree.  Here’s a Talmud story on a similar theme:

It is said that two thousand years ago, a group of Rabbis encountered the Yetzer Hara amidst the destruction of Jerusalem. Knowing that the evil impulse was to blame for the devastation of their Holy Temple, they grabbed him and wrestled him into a chamber pot, where they held him. Ready to destroy the Yetzer Hara, one Rabbi interjected. “Who knows what will happen if you destroy him. Hold him for three days and see what happens!”
The Rabbis waited patiently for three days and then began scouting the city. Immediately, they noticed that the world was beginning to rot away. People stopped doing business. Chickens stopped producing eggs. Families stopped building houses. Immediately, they knew what they had to do. They let him go, knowing that the world could not be sustained without him. (Yoma 69b)

But here’s what I don’t get. If the yetzer hara is a morally neutral complex of desires (the physical/material/selfish part of human nature) why is it called the evil impulse?  It could have been called something else — “the animal nature” or something.  I feel like it’s a basic feature of Jewish thought that things are called what they’re called for a reason.  Nobody argues that lashon hara isn’t actually bad.  If it weren’t bad it wouldn’t be called lashon hara!

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Logical endpoints

More on Aaronson (see previous post for context):

I was struck by this commment Scott made on Gil Kalai’s blog:

Yes, I admit, I do have the moral philosopher’s (or for that matter, the mathematician’s) habit of trying to take stated principles to their logical conclusions, even if many people would regard those conclusions as “irrelevant” or “absurd.” (To take a different example: “People should have the right to own whatever weapon they want, since merely owning it doesn’t harm anyone.” “OK then, what about nuclear missiles?” “That’s irrelevant and absurd! I was talking about guns.”) Is this habit something I should apologize for?

and this reddit comment he quotes approvingly:

I think the reason Dworkin comes up in discussions like this is because her thinking is the logical endpoint of mainstream feminist theory.
It goes something like this:
1) Women are systematically oppressed by men
2) If 1 is true, how can a woman ever consent to sex or practically anything else with men? Any “consent” a woman gives will be given under duress because she is being systematically oppressed.
3) If any “consent” a woman gives is under duress (because every decision and choice a woman makes is under duress because she’s being systematically oppressed), then women can never ever give consent in any dealing with men.
Dworkin, to her credit, was so logical that she came to this conclusion and accepted it. All logical thinkers will probably come to this conclusion which is why nerds and STEM people will like and understand Dworkin. She’s logical. She makes sense.

For my own part, I find this idea of taking political and moral principles to their logical conclusions to be very weird.  And I don’t think it’s “the mathematician’s habit,” as Scott says.  At least, it’s not this mathematician’s habit.  Being a mathematician doesn’t incline me to apply Boolean operations to ethical principles; on the contrary, I think being a mathematician makes me more alive than the average person to the difference between mathematical assertions (which do behave really well under logical operations) and every other kind.

In particular, I don’t find the argument by the reddit commenter very compelling.  There are lots of feminists (I think almost all feminists!) who sound nothing like Andrea Dworkin, and who pretty obviously think that there exists sex between men and women that isn’t rape.  Is that because they can’t do logic?  I am a STEM person and a feminist and I think systematic sexism exists in the world and I don’t think heterosexual sex is rape.  Is that because I can’t do logic?

No — it’s because I think there are very few assertions about sex, power and feminism which stand in a relation of authentic logical entailment.

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Thoughts on TEDx

I gave a TED talk!  OK, not exactly — I gave a TEDx talk, which is the locally organized, non-branded version, but same idea.  18 minutes or less, somewhat sloganistic, a flavor of self-improvement and inspiration.

I was skeptical of the format.  18 minutes!  How can you do anything?  You can really just say one thing.  No opportunity to digress.  Since digression is my usual organizational strategy, this was a challenge.

And there’s a format.  The organizers explained it to me.  Not to be hewed to exactly but taken very seriously.  A personal vignette, to show you’re a human.  A one-sentence takeaway.  General positivity.  A visual prop is good.  The organizers were lovely and gave me lots of good advice when I practiced the talk for them.  I was very motivated to deliver it the way they wanted it.

And in the end, I found the restrictiveness of the format to be really useful.  It’s like a sonnet.  Sonnets are, in certain ways, all the same, by force; and yet there’s a wild diversity of sonnets.  So too for TED talks.  No two of the talks at TEDxMadison were really the same.  And none of them was really like Steve’s TED talk (though I did read a poem like Steve) or Amanda Palmer’s TED talk or (thank goodness) like the moleeds TED talk.

No room in the talk to play the Housemartins song “Sitting on a Fence,” which plays a key role in the longer version of the argument in How Not To Be Wrong.  So here it is now.

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Rescinding an offer when the candidate tries to negotiate

From the Philosophy Smoker, via Liz Harman:

CANDIDATE HOLDING OFFER:

As you know, I am very enthusiastic about the possibility of coming to Nazareth. Granting some of the following provisions would make my decision easier.
1) An increase of my starting salary to $65,000, which is more in line with what assistant professors in philosophy have been getting in the last few years.
2) An official semester of maternity leave.
3) A pre-tenure sabbatical at some point during the bottom half of my tenure clock.
4) No more than three new class preps per year for the first three years.
5) A start date of academic year 2015 so I can complete my postdoc.
I know that some of these might be easier to grant than others. Let me know what you think.

DEPARTMENT CHAIR:

Thank you for your email. The search committee discussed your provisions. They were also reviewed by the Dean and the VPAA. It was determined that on the whole these provisions indicate an interest in teaching at a research university and not at a college, like ours, that is both teaching and student centered. Thus, the institution has decided to withdraw its offer of employment to you.
Thank you very much for your interest in Nazareth College. We wish you the best in finding a suitable position.

Talk amongst yourselves.

 

Bertrand Russell was emo

Another entry in the series of “towering early 20th century thinkers were emo” (previously:  B.F. Skinner was emo.)  Bertrand Russell, age 31, writing to his friend Gilbert Murray:

I have been merely oppressed by the weariness and tedium and vanity of things lately: nothing stirs me, nothing seems worth doing or worth having done: the only thing that I strongly feel worth while would be to murder as many people as possible so as to diminish the amount of consciousness in the world. These times have to be lived through: there is nothing to be done with them.

This quote is pretty famous but glancing through his letters, holy cow, I had no idea how brutal Russell’s thoughts were.  Here’s his take on math:

Abstract work, if one wishes to do it well, must be allowed to destroy one’s humanity: one raises a monument which is at the same time a tomb, in which, voluntarily, one slowly inters oneself.

And on marriage:

It is ghastly to watch, in most marriages, the competition as to which is to be torturer, which tortured; a few years, at most, settle it, and after it is settled, one has happiness and the other has virtue.  And the torturer smirks and speaks of matrimonial bliss; and the victim, for fear of worse, smiles a ghastly assent.

All these letters are from the period when his first marriage was breaking up, so maybe he cheered up later?

 

 

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Is the Wild Card game a playoff game?

This is an important philosophical question and I need your help.  Is the game Cincinnati and Pittsburgh are playing tonight a playoff game?  Or is it a game that determine who gets into the playoffs?

Clearly it’s a postseason game; that’s not at issue.  The question is whether it’s like the ALDS, or more like the Game 163 the Rangers and Rays played last night, which in my mind is clearly a postseason game but not a playoff game.

Related question:  is the play-in game for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament a game in the tournament, or a game determining who gets into the tournament?  (I think this is actually the same question but I’m open to persuasion on this point.)

 

 

 

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Blaise Pascal: also emo

This man spends his life without weariness in playing every day for a small stake. Give him each morning the money he can win each day, on condition he does not play; you make him miserable. It will perhaps be said that he seeks the amusement of play and not the winnings. Make him then play for nothing; he will not become excited over it, and will feel bored. It is then not the amusement alone that he seeks; a languid and passionless amusement will weary him. He must get excited over it, and deceive himself by the fancy that he will be happy to win what he would not have as a gift on condition of not playing; and he must make for himself an object of passion, and excite over it his desire, his anger, his fear, to obtain his imagined end, as children are frightened at the face they have blackened.

Whence comes it that this man, who lost his only son a few months ago, or who this morning was in such trouble through being distressed by lawsuits and quarrels, now no longer thinks of them? Do not wonder; he is quite taken up in looking out for the boar which his dogs have been hunting so hotly for the last six hours. He requires nothing more. However full of sadness a man may be, he is happy for the time, if you can prevail upon him to enter into some amusement; and however happy a man may be, he will soon be discontented and wretched, if he be not diverted and occupied by some passion or pursuit which prevents weariness from overcoming him. Without amusement there is no joy; with amusement there is no sadness. And this also constitutes the happiness of persons in high position, that they have a number of people to amuse them, and have the power to keep themselves in this state.

Consider this. What is it to be superintendent, chancellor, first president, but to be in a condition wherein from early morning a large number of people come from all quarters to see them, so as not to leave them an hour in the day in which they can think of themselves? And when they are in disgrace and sent back to their country houses, where they lack neither wealth nor servants to help them on occasion, they do not fail to be wretched and desolate, because no one prevents them from thinking of themselves.

Blaise Pascal, Pensées 139

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Is philosophy worse for women than math is?

My philosopher friends today are all talking about the resignation/firing of Colin McGinn, a pretty well-known philosopher as I understand it, who as it turns out has been sending e-mails to his graduate students describing…. well, there’s no real reason for me to describe it, I leave that kind of filth for the Chronicle of Higher Education.  

Philosophy and math have roughly the same male-female ratio, but philosophy has blogs like What Is It Like To Be A Woman In Philosophy? and math, as far as I know, does not.  Is that because math has actually created a culture friendlier to women than philosophy has?  Or is it because philosophy is closer to the social criticism tradition and philosophers are more likely to want to talk about these things openly?

I have one small data point.  I once heard a philosopher give a talk in which there was a weird joke about you have to be careful not to sleep with your graduate students because [some philosophy joke I didn’t get and don’t remember.]

Or rather, it read as weird to me, because I think it’s highly unlikely that someone would say something like that in front of a roomful of mathematicians under any circumstances.  Or if they did, there would be a burst of murmurs and everyone would be looking back and forth with the “Did he say that?” look.  On this occasion, only I was looking back and forth.  Nobody seemed to think it was weird, not the women, not the men.  It was an informal, jokey kind of talk.  But still.

 

 

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There are no new gags

Free idea for my philosopher friends:  put out a call for papers for a volume about baseball and philosophy, called “What Is It Like To Be At Bat?”

Amazon tells me that somebody has already produced a book of articles on baseball and philosophy, but hasn’t used this gag.

But Google tells me that the gag has already appeared several times:  in a blog post, in an article by John Haugelund, and, somewhat memorably, in the last stanza of a poem by Michael Robbins that appeared in the Awl:

I never promised you a unicorn.
But still. What is it like to be at bat?
Just having T.M.I. tattooed on my balls.
The heavy lice that hang from them
run in blood down palace walls.

There are no new gags.  I think Robbins’s poems are interested in the contemporary fact of there being no new gags.

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What is it like to be a vampire and/or parent?

Andrew Gelman contemplates a blog post of L.A. Paul and Kieran Healy (based on a preprint of Paulwhich asks:  it is possible to make rational decisions about whether to have children?

Paul and Healy’s argument is that, given the widely accepted claim that childbearing is a transformational event whose nature it’s impossible to convey to those who haven’t done it, it may be impossible for people to use the usual “what would it be like to to X?” method of deciding whether to have a kid.

Gelman says:

…even though you can’t know how it will feel after you have the baby, you can generalize from others’ experiences. People are similar to each other in many ways, and you can learn a lot about future outcomes by observing older people (or by reading research such as that popularized by Kahneman, regarding predicted vs. actual future happiness). Thus, I think it’s perfectly rational to aim to have (or not have) a child, with the decision a more-or-less rational calculation based on extrapolation from the experiences of older people, similar to oneself, who’ve faced the same decision earlier in their lives.

Here’s how I’d defend Paul and Healy from this objection.

Suppose you had a lot of friends who’d been bitten by vampires and transformed into immortal soulless monsters.  And when you meet up with these guys they’re always going on and on about how awesome it is being a vampire:  “I’m totally glad I became undead, I’d never go back to being human, are you kidding me?  Now I’m superstrong, I’m immortal, I have this great group of vampires I run with, I feel like I really know what it’s all about now in a way I didn’t get before.  Life has meaning, life has purpose.  I can’t really explain it, you just gotta do it.”  And you know, you sort of wish they’d be a little less rah-rah about it, like, do you have to post a picture on Facebook of every person you kill and eat?  You’re a vampire, that’s what you do, I get it!  But at the same time you can’t help starting to wonder whether they’re on to something.

AND YET:

I don’t think it’s actually good decision-making to say:  people similar to me became vampires and prefer that to their former lives as humans, so I should become a vampire too.  Because the vampire is not the same being as the human who used to occupy that body.  Who cares whether vampires like being vampires better than they like being human?  What matters is what I prefer, not what the vampiric version of me would prefer.  And I, a human, prefer not to be a vampire.

As for me, I’m a parent, and I don’t think that my identity underwent a radical transformation.  I’m the same person I was, but with two kids.   So when I tell friends it’s my experience that having kids is pretty worthwhile, I’m not saying that from across an unbridgable perceptual divide — I’m saying that I am still similar to you, and I like having kids, so you might too.  Paul and Healy’s argument doesn’t refer to my case at all:  they’re just saying that if parents are about as different from non-parents as vampires are from humans, then there’s a real difficulty in deciding whether to have children based on parents’ testimonies, however sincere.

(Remark:  Invasion of the Body Snatchers is sort of about the question Paul and Healy raise.  Many have understood the original movie as referring to Communism, but it might be interesting to go back and watch it as a movie about childbearing.  It is, after all, about gross slimy little creatures that grow in the dark and sustain themselves on your body.  And then the new being known as “you” goes around trying to convince others that the experience is really worth it!)

Update:  Kieran points out that the reference to “body-snatching” is already present in their original post — I must have read this, forgotten it, then thought I’d come up with it as an apposite example myself….

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