A Philosopher's Blog

Pardoning Witches

Posted in Ethics, Law by Michael LaBossiere on October 31, 2008

In America, the Salem Witch trials are well known. However, people were executed for witchcraft in other places, such as England. There have been recent attempts to get pardons for those convicted long ago of witchcraft in England.

While there has been support for the pardons, the official position is this: “To receive a royal pardon, the test is a high one. Evidence must prove conclusively that no offense was committed or that the applicant did not commit the offense. It is not enough that the conviction may be unsafe — the applicant must be technically and morally innocent.”

Given this standard of being technically and morally innocent, there seem to be four main options regarding the pardons.

First, the state can take the position that witchcraft is literally real (magic, deals with Satan and all that) and that the witches were punished for an actual crime. Hence, there are no grounds for pardon. It would, of course, be interesting to see the proofs offered for the reality of witchcraft.

Second, the state can take the position that witchcraft is not literally real but that the witchcraft allegedly practiced by such people was a crime and hence they were not technically and morally innocent.

Third, the state can take what seems to be the obvious position. Since there seems to be no evidence that witchcraft is real, it follows that those convicted of witchcraft had to be both technically and morally innocent. After all, convicting someone for witchcraft would be like convicting someone of being a unicorn. As such, those convicted of witchcraft should now pardoned.

Fourth, the state can regard the matter as not being important enough to be worth the effort to go through the pardon process. After all, those involved have been dead a long time and a pardon can do them no good.

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James Dobson’s 2012

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 30, 2008

James Dobson recently wrote a piece of science fiction-a letter written from a future America under the domination of Obama. In this Obama Apocalypse, America is a gunless land of gay marriage and other moral horrors calculated to terrify the religious right. Pornographic magazines proliferate and painted whores leer from their pages at children at every news stand. Old ladies get run over because there are no Boy Scouts to walk them across the street. The entire Bush administration is in jail, no doubt being shanked in the exercise yard. America is militarily weak and Christians are an oppressed minority. Sadly, zombies are not mentioned; but perhaps they can be assumed.

Given Dobson’s influence and fame, this letter does require a response. While it is tempting to respond by dismissing it as a mere paranoid rant, the letter does raise points worth considering.

From a critical standpoint, the letter has two major flaws. First, his extreme claims require equally strong supporting evidence and such evidence is lacking. Dobson’s methodology seems to be primarily the use of the slippery slope. He simply asserts that these bad things shall come to pass if Obama is elected and does not provide a logically convincing case for such an outcome.

Second, his vision of the future seems wildly implausible. America is a conservative country and the extreme changes he envisions simply seem all but impossible in so short a time. While the President does have power, he does not have the power to work such radical changes. Nor does the Supreme Court, despite what Dobson claims in his letter. Dobson also indulges in a classic persecution fantasy, namely the delusion that Christians are persecuted in America and that such persecution will be even more extreme under Obama. America, as almost everyone else realizes, is religiously tolerant and (more importantly) is predominantly Christian. As such, the idea of Christians being a persecuted minority by 2012 is absurd.

That said, Dobson’s letter does raise some reasonable concerns. While his fictional future seems to be an impossibility, he is right to warn people to carefully consider their voting choices and to be concerned about what the future might bring. It is always wise to be wary when handing power to people. As history shows, things do not always go as people hope.

Dobson is also correct in considering the possibility that dominance by one party can lead to serious moral and practical problems for America. While the government cannot reshape America into the Dobson’s vision in a mere four years, it (or rather the people that make it up) can do a significant amount of damage. After all, just imagine a letter from 2008 sent back to 2000. Such a letter would tell of an America that had engaged in torture, created secret prisons, and violated basic liberties. It would also tell of the botched handling of natural disasters, an economic meltdown and two wars. Such a letter would certainly be terrifying.

In light of the past eight years, we should heed Dobson’s warning and be on guard against moral decay and disaster. If only such a warning had arrived eight years ago.

Quick Breakups

Posted in Humor, Relationships/Dating by Michael LaBossiere on October 29, 2008

In today’s high speed and high tech world, there is really no time to do an old fashioned breakup. After all, texting your former partner “imbrkingupwu” takes far too much time. Adding an explanation takes even more precious time that could be spent updating your status on Facebook or Twittering with the twits. Of course, breaking up without giving any reason can be a bit heartless, even in today’s uncaring world. So, to solve this problem I have created the following breakup list. Each entry has a number, so when you want to break up with someone, simply send the message bu# (where # is replaced with the number for the breakup reason, given below).  For example, texting bu 4 sends the message “I’m breaking up with you because I just discovered I’m bi, but I’m swinging the other way now.” Be sure to send the url for this post along with the message so the person can look up the reason.

1I don’t have time for you.

2 I just discovered I’m gay.

3 I just discovered I’m straight.

4 I just discovered I’m bi, but I’m swinging the other way now.

5 I met someone who has more money than you.

6 I met someone who has larger breasts than you.

7 I met someone who has a better car than you.

8 It’s not you, it’s me.

9 It’s not me, it’s you.

10 Damn, you got ugly quick.

11 I’m banging your best friend.

12 I’m banging your sister.

13 I’m banging your brother.

14 I’m banging your brother and sister.

15 I’m banging your brother, sister, and best friend.

16 The voices in my head told me it’s time to see other people.

17 I’m back with my ex.

18 I’m now with your ex.

19 I’m now with your ex, my ex, and your best friend.

20 I hate your cat.

21 I hate your 15 cats, except Mr. Whiskerpants. He’s okay.

22 I hate your dog.

23 Your dog ate my cat.

24 Your theological views clash with my metphysical theory.

25 Obama said it is time for a change, so I’m changing you.

26 McCain said “Country First”, so I’m banging the country.

27 I found Jesus, but he’s really far away so I have to leave you.

28 You’re out of crack.

29 I’m confused about my gender.

30 I’m confused about my species.

31 I love you, but I’m not in love you.

32 I’m batsh$t crazy and don’t need a reason.


Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 28, 2008

When Halloween draws close, I watch my favorite horror films and among these are the classic and new zombie films. Interestingly, philosophers have written quite a bit about zombies. Unfortunately, the zombies that philosophers tend to write about are not as cool as the zombies of the horror genre.

The philosophical zombies are beings who look and act just like humans, but lack consciousness. They do not (generally) seek the living so as to devour their brains. Instead, the serve as the victims in philosophical discussions about the mind and consciousness. While many philosophers find this interesting, some find this philosophical use of zombies to be disappointing. When one of my friends learned that philosophers wrote about zombies, he was eager to read these works. After toiling through some of them, he said “you philosophers can really suck the life out of anything…even the undead.” As something of an apology to my friend, I’ve elected to write a bit about the cool zombies.

In the horror tradition, zombies have three main attributes. First, they are biologically dead. Second, they are mindless. Third, they are animate (or re-animated, to be more accurate). Since there is no official Bureau of Zombies, some zombies do not have these attributes.

While zombies are supposed to be dead, there are films and stories in which they are alive. For example, the zombies in 28 Days are still alive and the zombies in Resident Evil are alive at the cellular level.

While zombies are supposed to be mindless, they are sometimes presented as retaining some human intelligence such as the talking zombies in Return of the Living Dead. All zombies have enough mental capacity to recognize and attack the living (though they can be fooled, as in Shaun of the Dead).

All zombies are, as far as I know, animate. After all, non-moving zombies would make for a rather dull movie (Night of the Living Dead Couch Potatoes, perhaps). Of course, their methods of animation vary. The zombies in 28 Days are still alive and are simply humans under the effects of a biochemical agent that makes them mindlessly violent (presumably the substance contains alcohol and something distilled from certain football/soccer fans). Some zombies are dead (or mostly dead) and animated by technology, such as those in Resident Evil and my own Nightsider and “Dust.” Some zombies are dead and animated by supernatural means, such as those in role-playing games like D&D and the classic zombies. A few zombies are animated by natural means, such as strange fungi or plants. There are also zombies whose animation is not explained, such as in the classic Dead series.

Obviously, all of the various zombie types can be philosophically interesting. However, the limits of blogging compel me to limit the discussion to the “stock” zombie: biologically dead, mindless and animated. While such zombies do not really exist (or so we think), they are philosophically interesting because of the combination of these features.

It is easy enough to imagine something that is dead and mindless. A normal corpse meets both of these conditions. If the philosophers who deny the existence of minds are right, then the main difference between a corpse and a living person would be life. Both are mindless, but only one is alive.

Of course, the philosophers who accept the existence of minds also disagree madly about what is meant by the term “mind”, so defining what a mindless entity is lacking can be rather problematic.

For the classic substance dualists, a mindless entity would have a body (made of material substance) but lack the immaterial substance that is the mind. The machine is present, but the ghost is absent.

For the property dualist, a mindless entity would still have the physical properties of the body, but lack the mental properties that compose the mind.

For the functionalist, the mindless entity would have a body but it would not be instantiating the functions that make up the mind. To use a rough analogy, the computer hardware is there, but it doesn’t work.

For other theories of mind, the mindless entity would be (obviously enough) missing what the theory takes to be the mind.

Of course, sometimes people take “mindless” to just mean “really stupid” rather than literally lacking a mind, so perhaps zombies could have minds. They would just be very limited minds on par with those of the lower animals. After all, zombies do have to move around and seek the flesh and brains of the living and that implies some cognitive abilities. Then again, philosophers such as Descartes have argued that animals can function quite effectively without minds so perhaps zombies can as well. Obviously, much depends on what is meant by “mind” here. This would lead to a discussion as messy as a zombie snack, so I will leave it at that.

Getting a dead, mindless body is easy. As any necromancer or mad scientist will tell you, the tough part is getting it to walk around on its own.

One way that corpse could be animated is by technological means. In fiction, it is usually a strange chemical, tailored viruses, or some other plot device. There seems to be no physical impossibility in getting dead organisms to move (after all, electrical shocks will move dead limbs). Getting them to move in ways similar to how they moved in life does seem to pose a serious challenge, but seems to be a challenge in engineering and such rather than a philosophical problem.

Another means for animating corpses is via supernatural means. In D&D, zombies are created by magic and are infused with negative energy (the opposite of the positive energy of living creatures). Perhaps negative energy is a cousin of Dark Energy. Or not. In any case, the notion of negative energy (and magic) does not seem to have much philosophical merit, but is handy as a game mechanism. Another type of supernatural zombie is the sort that is animated by another spirit that drive the corpse it inhabits. These spirits are typically taken to be mindless entities (that is, really stupid). Obviously, philosophy no longer deals in spirits (aside from the bottled variety).

Interestingly, the notion of unintelligent animating forces was once accepted by some scientists and philosophers.  For example, Aristotle seems to have taken the soul (or part of it) to be an animating force. Given this, it would be easy enough to imagine an “anti-soul” that moved dead bodies (as opposed to bringing life).

In some ways, the notion of mindless forces is still accepted-provided that the forces are taken as natural rather than supernatural. The possibility that forces could effectively drive a dead body is certainly interesting (and creepy). However, there seems to be no indication that this is actually possible.

Obviously, I do not intend this blog to be taken as a serious philosophical work-I’m just having some Halloween fun.

Obama and Assassination

Posted in Politics, Race by Michael LaBossiere on October 27, 2008

When Obama first started running for President, one of my students asked me if I thought he would be assassinated if it looked like he had a chance of being elected. The student was fairly sure that there would be an attempt, if not several, on Obama.

My first thought was that assassination as a political tool in America seems to have hit its zenith in the 1960s. Since then, most attacks against political figures have been conducted by individuals with mental illnesses (like the attack of Reagan). Hence, I speculated that Obama might be the subject of an attack, but that it would most likely be of the Reagan sort rather than a calculated political assassination. Of course, I have enough cynicism to consider the possibility of that sort of assassination as well.

Sadly, it turns out that the student’s question was prophetic: two men have been arrested for planning to go on a killing spree against blacks that was to end with an attempt to kill Obama.Their initial killings were supposed to involve 14 and 88-two numbers that are important to certain white supremacists (“h” is the eighth letter in the alphabet, and 88 is supposed to stand for “heil Hitler”). In the case of 88, the plan was to attack a school and kill 88 black students. The final part of the plot is as bizarre as it is horrible: they planned to drive as fast as they could at Obama, shooting all the way-while dressed in white tuxedos and top hats.

Fortunately, the two were arrested and the charges are stacking up against them. However, this does make me wonder if there are others who are planning something similar. While the overwhelming majority of Americans would be horrified by such murderous acts, there are no doubt a few who would applaud such crimes. There are also, obviously enough, some people that would be willing to commit such terrible acts.  While these people are very few in number, all it takes is one person to get within shooting range. This is a sobering and terrifying thought.

If Obama were assassinated, it would be a catastrophic event for our country and would tear at the social fabric in devastating ways. Such an event would no doubt lead people to believe that America is a viciously racist place and that the whites will not permit a black person to be President. Many people, to say the least, would react to such a terrible event with incredible anger and perhaps even violence.  It would be a terrible day for America and would have an enduring impact on whites and blacks in ways that cannot be entirely foreseen but would most likely be very bad indeed.

I do worry that others are planning on trying to kill Obama. I know that law enforcement personal and the Secret Service are protecting him, but I remember seeing (on TV) Reagan getting shot. So, I worry that someone will get close with a gun. I worry for my country and what might happen. I am sure other people are worried as well. But, it is better to be guided by hope than ruled by worry and fear.

Faith Based Economy

Posted in Business, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 25, 2008

While some complain about a lack of faith in the world today, they ignore the largest faith based system of them all: the economy. While this might seem to be an odd claim, the case for it is absurdly easy to make.

First, consider money. While money was once either made from valued metals or grounded in something like gold, today it is entirely based on faith. A dollar or pound has worth because people have faith in them (or, rather, what is believed to lie behind them) and, as this faith diminishes, their value declines. Naturally enough, if all faith was lost in a currency, it would be valueless and have use only in terms of what someone could do with bits of paper or metal (or numbers on a computer screen). Interestingly, this is the same thing that is said to happen to the gods (at least in old movies based on Greek mythology) when mortals lose faith in them-they fade away.

Second, consider the stock markets. As the recent financial crisis showed, the perceived worth of stocks goes up and down based on how people feel about the stocks and the economy. When faith is strong, the market goes up. When faith is weak and people are afraid, the market declines. Not surprisingly, the stock market is very much like currency in this regard.

Third, there is the fact that many economists take a patently false model of human behavior on their faith in such classic models. The standard economic models are, in general, based on the assumption that people act in rational ways when engaged in economic activity. This is true of some people some of the time. However, even a casual examination of how people behave shows that they behave in the economic arena the same way they do elsewhere: mostly in ways that are not very rational. The current economic situation makes that abundantly clear. Even without empirical investigation, reason should indicate the obvious: there is little reason to believe that people would miraculously become rational agents when it comes to economic matters. Since belief in the classic models cannot be based on reason, they seem to be an article of faith among the priests…I mean, economists.

Fourth, there is the general faith in seemingly metaphysical forces such as market forces and the ever popular invisible hand. Crudely put, much of Western economic practice has been based on the belief that such forces will make things work out fine and hence there is little (or no) need for actual human supervision (such as government regulation). The parallels to faith in a divine being making the world run right are far too obvious to even need discussion.

Interestingly, many of the same people who believe in laissez faire economics tend to endorse fairly rigorous social control in other aspects of life. For example, American Republicans are well known for being against the regulation of business but very much for strong law and order. They are also inclined to push for the imposition of their moral views via laws (such as outlawing same sex marriage). In the case of business, they claim that the market forces will ensure that everything works out for the best without regulation and that the power of the market forces will make it all right. However, they harbor no such delusions of faith when it comes to life outside of business: people need to be subject to harsh laws and penalties (including the death penalty) or they will act badly. Perhaps the best explanation for this inconsistent view is pure faith. As Hume might say, reason cannot reconcile their two views of human behavior so they must owe their belief to the power of faith.

The Attack that Wasn’t

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 24, 2008

A young McCain campaign worker was recently the center of a rather odd incident.  The gist of the story is that she told the police she had been attacked by a black man because of her McCain sticker. According to her initial story, the man “wrote” a backwards B on her face using a dull knife. As it turns out, she later admitted that nothing of the sort happened-she saw that she had the B on her face and simply made up the story. Not surprisingly, the police have recently said that she has a history of mental problems.

The evidence seems to be that this was not a calculated attack against Obama’s campaign. Instead, it seems to be an unfortunate incident involving someone who clearly seems to be in need of help. Naturally, some people will make note of the fact that the imaginary attacker was said to be a black man and interpret this as involving racism. Some might also suspect that this was not just an unfortunate incident, but that the woman intended to launch an attack on Obama that would stir up the old fears of black men attacking white women.

Interestingly, I do suspect that some people will believe that the attack was real, much as some folks still think that Obama is a Muslim or an Arab. I’m reasonably confident that emails and rumors are already going around that Obama’s supporters (especially black men) are targeting McCain supporters (especially young white women) for violence. I’m confident that McCain does not support such tactics. He certainly seemed genuinely disgusted with and tired of the unfounded attacks on Obama. Of course, the negative tactics that his campaign have adopted certainly have not helped matters.

Fortunately, while we Americans often disagree in very heated ways when it comes to politics, we generally do not enage in politically inspired violence against one another. Not to say that it never happens, of course.

In any case, I hope the woman gets the help she needs.

Why Socialism is Bad

Posted in Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 23, 2008

With the government bailout and the charges of socialism being thrown at Obama, there has been a great deal of discussion about socialism. Given that America lives under the delusion that we are a free-market, capitalist country, it is hardly surprising that socialism is seen as bad. Naturally, this view is correct.

Socialism can be seen as bad in the same sense that oxygen is bad. While this might seem and odd thing to say, it actually fits quite well. Like oxygen, a little socialism is a good thing and enables us to survive. Just imagine what it would be like without the state providing social services, police, military, law and so on. It would be Hobbes’ state of nature. Like oxygen, a lot of socialism is a bad thing. Just as breathing pure oxygen would be very bad, living in pure socialism would be rather bad as well. After all, under pure socialism, the state would own all capital, business and such.

Now, this would not be bad just because of state ownership. The state owns the police, the military and so on but we do not say that these are bad because of that. The problem lies with the fact that complete state ownership would be a monopoly of the worst sort.

History has shown that private monopolies are bad and it seems safe to infer that a complete state monopoly would be at least as bad-and even worse because it would be a universal monopoly. Competition, as the free market folks say, is beneficial and encourages better products, technological advancement and so on. Monopolies tend to encourage inferior products, stagnation and so on.

Of course, a pure free market is bad as well-it leads to private monopolies and chaos. To use an analogy, imagine a “free-market “football game with no referees and no rules. While the “best” team would win, the game would be horrific (but no doubt would have amazing viewership numbers). Or, imagine if instead of having police, we relied on a “free market” approach to crime prevention: people would just sort out their problems on their own, perhaps by hiring private security and gunmen to take care of things. That would, of course, be chaos.

Thus, socialism is bad. But so is oxygen.

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Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 22, 2008

While I was not around during the McCarthy era, I did study the witch hunt he helped lead against real and alleged communists. While Americans had grounds to be worried about the Soviets, lines were crossed that should not have been crossed. On the positive side, America seemed to have learned something during this time period. Unfortunately, not everyone took the lesson to heart.

In what strikes me as an act of madness, Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann recently asserted that Obama “may have anti-American views” and urged the media to investigate  Congressional Democrats who might have  “anti-American” views. If only Joe McCarthy were still around to run the hearings.

I do believe that there are people who are anti-American and wish to harm America. Some of these people reside here in the United States. However, I am careful to distinguish between people I happen to disagree with and people who are actually anti-American. Since America is supposed to be a democratic state dedicated to liberty, I think that it is important to allow a great deal of leeway before branding someone as anti-American. Such a person would need to show clear hostility towards the basic principles of the country. They would also need to endorse or engage in activities that are harmful to the United States.  In short, they would have to show themselves as a clear foe of America’s core principles and not merely someone who holds different political and moral views. Obviously, this is not a necessary and sufficient defintion, but should suffice to paint a general picture.

While some people might disagree with Obama and label him as a socialist, he hardly seems to be anti-American. Like McCain, I think he wants to do what is right for America. While I think that Congress has largely proven to be corrupt and ineffectual, they do not seem to be anti-American. At worst, they seem indifferent to America and concerned mostlywith their own agendas.

While this is old news, the most prominent anti-Americans in the country seem to inlclude current and former members of the Bush Administration. After all, basic liberties and rights have been trampled upon and that is rather anti-American. On the left, Ayers’ past behavior certainly marks him as anti-American in many ways. There are also other left wingers who are clearly anti-American and should be seen as such.

I do agree that people who are harming America need to be exposed and dealt with. Fortunately, Bachman has helped us out here. By making such baseless and hateful accusations, she seems to have revealed someone who needs to be carefully watched. This person would, of course, be herself.

Real Americans?

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on October 21, 2008

Most Americans are currently angry and worried about the state of the country. But, the questions arises: are these people real Americans?

Sarah Palin recently raised the issue of whether all so-called Americans are real Americans: “We believe that the best of America is in these small towns that we get to visit, and in these wonderful little pockets of what I call the real America, being here with all of you hard working very patriotic, um, very, um, pro-America areas of this great nation.”

While she does not directly assert that people outside of small towns (the majority of Americans-assuming we should call them that) are not real, patriotic or pro-American, this does seem to be a clear case of innuendo. After all, if city folk are real, patriotic and pro-American as well, why should she make such a distinction between what she calls “the real America” and the rest of the country?

While pandering to certain  voters and their illusions is all part of politics, insinuating that the rest of America is not real, not patriotic and not very pro-American is both insulting and divisive. There seems to be no evidence to show that there really are two Americas that are divided clearly between the unreal cities and the real small towns. Hence, the claim also fails to be an accurate claim as well.

In these times, we need to work together and be united. Such divisiveness and insulting rhetoric is not helping the country at all and might be harmful if people take it seriously. Obviously, we do not all agree on critical moral and political issues. But, most Americans believe that we are in trouble; mostly because we are. These are the times when we need leaders to help bring us together to face our common problems. We do not need any rhetoric that tells the majority of Americans that they are not real. I can only assume that Palin means that a real American is one who agrees with her. However, that is not what it means to be a real American. I disagree with many of my fellow Americans, but I do not think that makes them any less real, patriotic or American.