Friday, March 30, 2012

Congratulations to Bill Dembski!

Bill Dembski has a new job as the "Phillip E. Johnson Research Professor of Science and Culture" at the Southern Evangelical Seminary. I know all readers of this blog will join me in congratulating Prof. Dembski in obtaining this position, for which he is most suited.

Southern Evangelical Seminary's doctrinal statement says "We believe in the special creation of the entire space-time universe and of every basic form of life in the six historic days of the Genesis creation record. We also believe in the historicity of the biblical record, including the special creation of Adam and Eve as the literal progenitors of all people, the literal fall and resultant divine curse on the creation, the worldwide flood, and the origin of nations and diverse languages at the tower of Babel." I wonder if Prof. Dembski will be required to recant his belief in an old earth?

Thursday, March 29, 2012

David C. Levy Should Not be Allowed Anywhere Near an Institution of Higher Learning

In the Washington Post, some moron named David C. Levy opines:

An executive who works a 40-hour week for 50 weeks puts in a minimum of 2,000 hours yearly. But faculty members teaching 12 to 15 hours per week for 30 weeks spend only 360 to 450 hours per year in the classroom. Even in the unlikely event that they devote an equal amount of time to grading and class preparation, their workload is still only 36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals. Yet they receive the same compensation.

This guy is the president of some education group? And a former Chancellor at the New School? He shouldn't even be allowed near a university.

Anyone who thinks that the time spent in a classroom dominates the activities of a university or college professor is a moron. For each hour that I teach, for example, I spend 2-4 hours preparing - and that's for a course I've taught many times. Add in constructing assignments & course web pages, marking, helping students during office hours, and a conservative estimate is that the work needed for a 3-hour class is something like 10-15 hours per week. Now, how about creating new courses or revising old ones? Teaching a course you haven't taught before takes something like 10-12 hours preparation per lecture, at a minimum.

Then there are all the other activities: advising students, serving on committees, giving public lectures, and so forth. And I haven't even mentioned research: believe it or not, even at small colleges some faculty do research.

Yet David C. Levy thinks faculty members' workload is "36 to 45 percent of that of non-academic professionals". Get real.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Charles Rice: Question and Answer Session

There was a brief question-and-answer session after the main talk, which was unfortunately dominated by two questioners. I didn't take detailed notes. Again, my comments in brackets.

First questioner: "So, isn't the Enlightenment really another Dark Age for Catholics"?
Rice: Yes. Our culture has lost its mind. You should pray the rosary. One of the things we are missing is an appreciation of spiritual reality. We are more than material beings. We know this because we can do two things that a material being cannot: abstraction and reflection. An abstract idea does not exist in the material world. [Pure assertion. There is no reason why a "material being" could not abstract or reflect, and there is good evidence that some animals can do abstraction and reflection.]

Another questioner: The bible approves of slavery. Doesn't that make God unjust?
Rice: Slavery in the bible means something different from the slavery we think of today.

After the lecture was over, Rice suggested he would take additional questions informally. I approached him and tried to ask about a passage in his book, 50 Questions on the Natural Law. The passage in question reads:

"It would make no more sense to force a day-care center to hire an acknowledged or practicing homosexual than it would to make a bank hire an acknowledged or practicing thief."

Holding a copy of the book, I said, "I understand why a bank would want to not hire a thief, because a thief might steal from the bank. But why would a day-care center want to not hire a gay person?"

Rice responded, "Read the book." I replied, "I have. But it's not clear. What is the rationale you are implying?"

Rice said, "Look, I already said I'm not going to answer any questions on that topic." I replied, "It's a shame you don't have the courage of your convictions to defend your views." Rice began to look rather annoyed.

Rice said, "At least you bought my book." I said, "No, I borrowed it from the library." And that was that.

[In my view, a scholar has an obligation to defend his published views in his area of expertise. I don't know why Rice refused to do so; perhaps it is because the passage is indefensible. Even if he didn't want to do so last night, Rice could have said something like, "I don't want to get into that here, but if you give me your e-mail address, I'll address your question later." But he didn't. In my mind, he has spectacularly failed his obligation as a scholar.]

By the way, news reports say that Rice will give a secret, by-invitation-only seminar for faculty today and teach a philosophy class. In the past, these additional seminars have been publicized and available for everyone who is interested. But not this year. I guess the Pascal lecture committee would rather have secret seminars away from people who might dare to ask inconvenient questions - which Rice probably would refuse to answer, anyway.

Summary of Pascal Lecture by Charles Rice (Part 2)

I'm continuing with my summary of what Charles Rice said. My comments are in brackets.

Next, Rice asked, "How do you know using just your reason that there always had to be an eternal being?"

He quoted a line from Rodgers & Hammerstein's The Sound of Music: "Nothing comes from nothing; nothing ever could." [But quoting music lyrics doesn't constitute a coherent argument. It seems to be that assertions like "nothing comes from nothing" are just that; assertions. In the view of modern physics, particles and anti-particles can, in fact, come from nothing.]

Finally, he revealed his deep argument for why there always had to be an eternal being: "Of course there had to be an eternal being."

Pope John Paul asked, why is the something rather than nothing? The culture where we live rejects that. The principle of our society is the dictatorship of relativism. "All things are relative": but if true, then that statement must be relative. And legal positivism is the jurisprudence of relativism. The foremost legal scholar of positivism was Austrian philosopher Hans Kelsen (1881-1973). Philosophical relativism is the philosophy of democracy. If everybody agrees, no one can tell what is right or wrong, so philosophical absolutism leads to totalitarianism. Legal positivism says that a norm of any content can be a valid law, and that justice is an irrational ideal. However, Rice disagreed with all that, saying we could pass a "John North extermination law" and we would know it is wrong. Kelsen, however, would have said "stop emoting, for we can't know what is just." After World War 2, Kelsen wrote, "Auschwitz & the Soviet concentration camps were all based on valid law". What do we give up and what have we invited if we can no longer say that Auschwitz is unjust? [It's like Rice never heard of any other legal theory. How about John Rawls and his Theory of Justice?]

The three principles of modern society are secularism, relativism, and individualism. Take the Obama health care mandate as an example: is conscience important? Oliver Wendell Holmes said "The purpose of law is to enforce the taste of the dominant group." But John Paul said that relativism is the philosophy of totalitarianism; if you don't have common reason, then all you have left is force. Natural law says you can know objective reality.

Take a pen. Can it be a battleship?

A door presents itself to me. How do we know it is a door? Because of our senses, both internal and external. The internal senses are imagination, memory, instinct, and common sense. Our active intellect abstract the essence of the door and passes it to the passive intellect which forms an idea. Idea: that by which we know. [Shouldn't our models of perception and cognition be based on what we know about neuroscience, rather than archaic 13th century views of the world?]

Judgment is the 2nd activity of intellect. Truth is the conformity of a statement with reality. If I say, "that is a geranium" while pointing at the door, that is false. There is a principle of non-contradiction. Can a pen be a pen and not be a pen? No, a thing cannot be and not be at the same time in the same aspect. [I'm not sure this is precise enough to mean anything, but even so, in modern physics, it is possible to create a system that is both vibrating and not vibrating at the same time. The real world could well be more complicated than simple Aristotelian logic might suggest.]

What is good? "The good is that which all things seek." All things, not just persons. [What good does a rock seek?]

There are 5 basic inclinations that are natural and self-evident. Choosing to prove this, he asked people what they were. Answers from the audience were empathy, trust, happiness, sex, food, and understanding. But Rice was clearly disappointed by these answers, and gave these instead, from Thomas Aquinas:
1. seek good, including the highest good, God
2. self-preservation
3. preservation of the species
4. live in community
5. to know and to choose, to use intellect and will
[Again, why should we base our reasoning & law on what some 13th century philosopher, ignorant of biology and neurophysiology, said? In modern biology the idea that a "basic inclination" of an organism is the "preservation of the species" is laughable; that's group selection.]

You can reason from all basic inclinations to understand why theft, murder, etc., is wrong.

Nevertheless, sincere people will occasionally take opposite positions on a moral issue. How can you tell who is right? We have the ability to know objective moral wrong. You are culpable only if you know it was wrong.

John-Paul said that Catholics have a great advantage in the Magisterium. It is a positive and hopeful document that provides
- dignity of the person created in the image and likeness of God
- solidarity
- subsidiarity: social tasks should be performed by individuals, families, associations, and the State (in that order). The State exists for the person, not the other way around.

Cardinal Ratzinger said, "Adolf Hitler and Stalin could be saints if they really thought what they were doing was right." Synteresis: general moral faculty. Anamnesia: remembrance imprinted in us of the way things were before the Fall.

The Magisterium is an aid recalling to a person the anamnesis of his being. Cardinal Newman said, "I will toast my conscience first and then the Pope." Conscience is whatever you decide? No, that trivializes it and the State need not respect it. The reality is that conscience is transcendent.

Every state or corporation that has ever been has either gone extinct or will go extinct. But every human being who has ever lived will live forever. [You can't base a valid legal theory on a false claim.]

Only if you are willing to say human reason can reach moral truth can you say a law is just or unjust. Rosa Parks: was she morally obliged to disobey the law that said blacks need give up their seat to a white person and move to the back of the bus?
No: if a law is contrary to common good you have an obligation to disobey it unless doing so would cause scandal. Example: income tax. It may be unjust but you have an obligation to obey it. [A little ironic that he would refer to Rosa Parks, since what gay people want is similar to what Rosa Parks fought for.]

But laws that violate the divine good must be disobeyed even at the price of your life. If a doctor in the military were ordered to perform an abortion, would he be obligated to do so?

We must affirm the transcendence of the person over the state. If you're incapable of affirming moral truth, then the state has won. If you're a relativist, you get your rights from the state. Only if you can affirm that you are endowed with rights by your Creator, as in the Declaration of Independence, can you assert these transcendent rights. You have transcendent rights because you're going to live forever.

Rice said, "I ask you to think about this and pray about it. It comes down to a question of God and the common moral code of society, founded on objective reality, and ultimately God. God is not dead; he's not even tired."

He concluded by saying that "the protesters have my admiration and respect" and we "should convey this to them". [I don't buy it. Real respect means he would have addressed some of his bigoted statements about gays, instead of ruling all questions about them out of bounds at the beginning. He could have easily "conveyed" his respect himself, in person, by going to talk with the protesters before or after his talk.]

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Summary of Pascal Lecture by Charles Rice (Part 1)

Here's the first part of my account of Charles Rice's Pascal lecture tonight. For background, see previous posts on this blog. I will try to report fairly what Rice said, but I'm evidently biased. Inside quote marks the quotes are exact to the best of my ability to take notes; other comments are just paraphrases of what he said. My comments are in brackets.

My guess is that there were about 100-150 protesters outside & inside the building, and about 150-200 listening to the lecture inside an auditorium that could hold 500. There were a lot of empty seats, despite the controversy.

Charles Rice: 80-year-old professor of law at Notre Dame & former Marine who looks 65.

Rice was introduced by David B. Perrin, the President of St. Jerome's University, the Catholic university that is affiliated with the University of Waterloo (it used to be called a "church college"). [Perrin pronounced "Pascal" as if it rhymed with the computer language Haskell, and pronounced "Marine Corps" as "Marine Cores", both of which I found odd.] Throughout the night, Rice behaved almost as if it were an undergraduate lecture, moving out from behind the podium, asking questions directly of audience members, and rambling a bit.

By the way, in contrast to all the previous Pascal lectures I've attended, no member of the University's administration was there to welcome and introduce the speaker: neither President nor Provost. This was a pointed statement that the University administration did not approve of the choice of Rice as speaker.

Rice started with a joke, saying he was a lawyer and that "99% of lawyers give the rest of us a bad name". Throughout his approximately one-hour lecture, he had some mild jokes, some of which were more successful than others. He said his talk would be about epistemology - "how do you know?" He quoted Pope Benedict as saying that "modern culture restricts reason to the empirical", but that this was unwise, since if reason can only reach the empirical, it can't reach objective moral truth or God. Questions about objective moral truth and God are dismissed as non-rational in our society, Rice claimed, because reason cannot know anything about them. "We lose the ability to ask if a law is unjust because if reason is limited to the empirical, we can't decide, what is justice?"

He then said he was "frankly surprised to the objection to my participation in these lectures. I'm just a guy from Mishiwaka, Indiana. Why should I get singled out?" [I found this disingenuous. He's not just "a guy", he's a law professor at a major university who has inserted himself into public controversies before, such as when he protested Obama's selection as commencement speaker at Notre Dame. So it's a little ironic that he claims not to understand why someone would protest his own selection as a speaker. I think he knows quite well.]

The objections, Rice said, are because "I advance the teaching of the Catholic Church. I plead guilty. I fully agree with all the teachings of the Catholic church. Jesus Christ, who is God, lives in and teaches through the Catholic church. I respect the protesters and their protest. I admire their tenacity."

He went on to rule out any questions about anything except the subject of his lecture: "Don't take what I say as disparagement, but I'm not getting into these subjects in this lecture. It would be a disservice to the foundational issues to allow the discussion to be diverted into another agenda. Questions will have to be limited to things covered in the lecture. I don't want the focus to be diverted." [I found this a transparent ploy to avoid answering any hard questions about his extensive record of bigoted statements. It is ascholarly and disgraceful.]

He said, "We're going to talk about conscience. What is it?" Thomas Aquinas said it is "how we judge the rightness of wrongness of a particular action." Is there an objective standard, or is it simply your decision? Pope John Paul 2 said our society says "whatever I decide is right for me".

The Enlightenment's goal was "to organize society as if God does not exist". That is its basic principle.

He then asked a number of people in the audience individually if they think God exists. First person: "No." Second person: "No." Third person (me): "No!" [I think he was taken aback by this; he's probably not used to so many people disagreeing with one of his basic beliefs. Well, Waterloo is not Notre Dame, where he's used to teaching.] Finally, someone in the audience said, "I do!"

Rice then tried to move to causality. He said, "If I drop a pen" and asked why it fell, and you said, "No reason", would anybody believe it? There are things, he said, that are self-evident. One is the "principle of sufficient reason": every effect has a cause. [I don't understand why people elevate this claim to a universal. Causality might fail, for example, at very small or very large scales. For example, when an individual U-238 atom decays, what is the cause of its decay? The modern view of physics at the quantum level (admittedly not shared by all physicists) is that randomness is really "built in" and some "causes" are only statistical, not the deterministic ones envisioned by Rice. It seems to me that as a scholar, he needs to deal with this objection forthrightly.]

God is "an eternal being" and people "are immortal". "Only spiritual beings, such as humans, can abstract and reflect." [This seems just like a groundless assertion to me. I think Rice needs to read some ethology, such as the work of Gordon Gallup and Frans de Waal. It is not clear at all that the ability to abstract and reflect is restricted to humans; indeed there is evidence that baboons and apes can do so.]

More tomorrow...

Photos from the Pascal Lecture Protest

Here are three photos from tonight's protest of Pascal lecturer Charles Rice. That's UW Philosophy prof Tim Kenyon at the bottom.

Tonight's Pascal Lecture and Protest

Tonight Charles Rice from Notre Dame will be on campus at the University of Waterloo to present the annual Pascal lecture. I wrote about Professor Rice and this invitation before, but here are some more thoughts in advance of tonight's talk.

1. There will be a silent protest before and during the talk, from 6 to 9 PM, in the Theatre of the Arts, Modern Languages Building, on the UW campus. One organizer is Shannon Dea, a philosophy professor at UW. The organizers ask that you (a) refrain from interrupting the lecture in any way (b) wear rainbow-themed clothing (c) bring posters (but not on sticks) (d) cooperate with UW security. This is a good, peaceful way to let Charles Rice and the Pascal lecture committee know your disapproval of Rice's views. (Sample Rice quote: "It would make no more sense to force a day-care center to hire an acknowledged or practicing homosexual than it would to make a bank hire an acknowledged or practicing thief." - 50 Questions on the Natural Law: What It Is and Why We Need It, Ignatius Press, 1999.)

2. I've been reading some of Professor Rice's writings on "natural law"; they are so boring and unoriginal I could probably give his lecture for him. Here is some of what we are going to hear:

  • An objective natural law exists and is binding on all of us.
  • Natural law effectively coincides with Catholic dogma on subjects like homosexuality, birth control, etc.
  • Gay people are "objectively disordered"
  • The best way to understand the world is by following medieval thinkers like Thomas Aquinas, ignoring 8 centuries of progress in science
  • Animals have no rights
  • Evolutionary biologists are wrong; people could not have descended from ape-like creatures because we have souls.

3. The local media coverage of the lecture and its protesters has been -- no surprise -- absymal. The Waterloo Region Record, our local paper, has spectacularly failed in its obligation to explain what the controversy is about. The coverage has been so bad that today's paper carries a letter to the editor in protest, written by student Stephanie Chandler.
I single out one reporter, Terry Pender, for his particularly egregious reporting. Here is an archive of some of the local coverage:

4. The University of Waterloo has a well-deserved reputation for censorship in the past. Ironically, it's usually been the University administration that was responsible. From newsgroup censorship to removing newspapers from the University library with coverage of the Karla Homolka case to Ethics Committee harassment of Professor Ken Westhues for remarks he made in a course, to removing copies of the Imprint, the student newspaper, because of articles about sexual topics, the University administration has rarely stood up for the principles of free speech and academic freedom.

Students have, on occasion, unfortunately aped the administration. The most recent infringement was the shameful treatment of speaker Christine Blatchford, whose first talk had to be cancelled because three student protesters failed to move from the stage. Thankfully, this one time the UW administration did the right thing, and apologized and rescheduled the talk.

However, the impulse to censor lives on, as shown in this article that quotes a student, Ashling Ligate, as saying “He [University president Hamdallahpur] could cancel this. He could have sent a much stronger statement.”

More later...

Sunday, March 18, 2012

"Proof" of Fermat's Last Theorem

One problem with the proliferation of "open access" journals is the decrease in quality. A good example is this "proof" of Fermat's Last Theorem by a guy who seems to specialize in rather eccentric papers. This paper was passed around to great laughter at the van der Poorten memorial conference in Australia. (The list of keywords alone is funny to a professional mathematician.)

This journal - the Journal of Mathematical and Computational Science - and its editorial board should be ashamed of publishing this junk.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Friday Moose Blogging

Here is a koala from Australia -- or, as it is commonly known -- the "Moose of the Treetops".

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A Puzzle

Still here at the van der Poorten memorial conference in Newcastle, Australia. The following problem occurred to me:

What is special about the integer 2007986541?

The labels for the post may give some hints.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

A Compass Puzzle

So I'm here for a week in Australia at the memorial conference for Alf van der Poorten.

I can tell it's really Australia because they are selling Kellogg's "Rice Bubbles" in the supermarket instead of Rice Krispies.

But there's another way to tell that it's the Southern Hemisphere, since I have a compass with me. Can you figure out what it is?

Shocked! Shocked!

This week's Shocked! Shocked! episodes are particularly funny.

David Limbaugh, who (if possible) seems even more talentless and vile than his brother Rush, is shocked! shocked! that people would dare to criticize his brother. Doing so constitutes "the most radical display of hate and intolerance" that he's witnessed in years! Bonus wingnut points for David -- he manages to mention Saul Alinsky. (Hat tip -- Ed Brayton.)

Lisa Kennedy Montgomery, aka "Kennedy", a Christian who hosts a morning radio show in Los Angeles, recently said something stupid about atheism and was shocked! shocked! to find that people would dare criticize her about it. That's what the good folks at Reason magazine think deserves a column. (And over at Uncommon Descent, they call the 39-year-old Ms. Montgomery a "girl".)

Ms. Montgomery's column is yet another example of something I've noticed before: the tendency of Christians --- who presumably think religion is a good thing --- to use religious terminology in a negative way to describe atheism and evolution. The criticism she received was a "Biblical floodgate"; the criticism exhibited "the same fervor the religious use"; atheists exhibit "intense—even religious—zeal". (Along the way, she hilariously misspells "Maimonides" -- pseud alert!)