A Philosopher's Blog

Believing What You Know is Not True

Posted in Epistemology, Philosophy, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on February 5, 2016

“I believe in God, and there are things that I believe that I know are crazy. I know they’re not true.”

Stephen Colbert

While Stephen Colbert ended up as a successful comedian, he originally planned to major in philosophy. His past occasionally returns to haunt him with digressions from the land of comedy into the realm of philosophy (though detractors might claim that philosophy is comedy without humor; but that is actually law). Colbert has what seems to be an odd epistemology: he regularly claims that he believes in things he knows are not true, such as guardian angels. While it would be easy enough to dismiss this claim as merely comedic, it does raise many interesting philosophical issues. The main and most obvious issue is whether a person can believe in something they know is not true.

While a thorough examination of this issue would require a deep examination of the concepts of belief, truth and knowledge, I will take a shortcut and go with intuitively plausible stock accounts of these concepts. To believe something is to hold the opinion that it is true. A belief is true, in the common sense view, when it gets reality right—this is the often maligned correspondence theory of truth. The stock simple account of knowledge in philosophy is that a person knows that P when the person believes P, P is true, and the belief in P is properly justified. The justified true belief account of knowledge has been savagely blooded by countless attacks, but shall suffice for this discussion.

Given this basic analysis, it would seem impossible for a person to believe in something they know is not true. This would require that the person believes something is true when they also believe it is false. To use the example of God, a person would need to believe that it is true that God exists and false that God exists. This would seem to commit the person to believing that a contradiction is true, which is problematic because a contradiction is always false.

One possible response is to point out that the human mind is not beholden to the rules of logic—while a contradiction cannot be true, there are many ways a person can hold to contradictory beliefs. One possibility is that the person does not realize that the beliefs contradict one another and hence they can hold to both.  This might be due to an ability to compartmentalize the beliefs so they are never in the consciousness at the same time or due to a failure to recognize the contradiction. Another possibility is that the person does not grasp the notion of contradiction and hence does not realize that they cannot logically accept the truth of two beliefs that are contradictory.

While these responses do have considerable appeal, they do not appear to work in cases in which the person actually claims, as Colbert does, that they believe something they know is not true. After all, making this claim does require considering both beliefs in the same context and, if the claim of knowledge is taken seriously, that the person is aware that the rejection of the belief is justified sufficiently to qualify as knowledge. As such, when a person claims that they belief something they know is not true, then that person would seem to either not telling to truth or ignorant of what the words mean. Or perhaps there are other alternatives.

One possibility is to consider the power of cognitive dissonance management—a person could know that a cherished belief is not true, yet refuse to reject the belief while being fully aware that this is a problem. I will explore this possibility in the context of comfort beliefs in a later essay.

Another possibility is to consider that the term “knowledge” is not being used in the strict philosophical sense of a justified true belief. Rather, it could be taken to refer to strongly believing that something is true—even when it is not. For example, a person might say “I know I turned off the stove” when, in fact, they did not. As another example, a person might say “I knew she loved me, but I was wrong.” What they mean is that they really believed she loved him, but that belief was false.

Using this weaker account of knowledge, then a person can believe in something that they know is not true. This just involves believing in something that one also strongly believes is not true. In some cases, this is quite rational. For example, when I roll a twenty sided die, I strongly believe that a will not roll a 20. However, I do also believe that I will roll a 20 and my belief has a 5% chance of being true. As such, I can believe what I know is not true—assuming that this means that I can believe in something that I believe is less likely than another belief.

People are also strongly influenced by emotional and other factors that are not based in a rational assessment. For example, a gambler might know that their odds of winning are extremely low and thus know they will lose (that is, have a strongly supported belief that they will lose) yet also strongly believe they will win (that is, feel strongly about a weakly supported belief). Likewise, a person could accept that the weight of the evidence is against the existence of God and thus know that God does not exist (that is, have a strongly supported belief that God does not exist) while also believing strongly that God does exist (that is, having considerable faith that is not based in evidence.


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Guardian Angels

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on January 22, 2016

AngelOn an episode of the Late Show, host Stephen Colbert and Jane Lynch had an interesting discussion of guardian angels. Lynch, who currently stars as a guardian angel in “Angel from Hell”, related a story of how her guardian angel held her in a protective embrace during a low point of her life. Colbert, ever the rational Catholic, noted that he believed in guardian angels despite knowing that they do not exist. The question of the existence of guardian angels is certainly an interesting one and provides yet another way to consider the classic problem of evil.

In general terms, a guardian angel is a supernatural, benevolent being who serves as the personal protector of someone. The nature of their alleged guarding varies considerably. For some, the guardian angel is supposed to serve in the classic “angel on the shoulder” role and provide good advice. For others, the angel provides a comforting presence. Some even claim that guardian angels take a very active role, such as reducing a potentially fatal fall to one that merely inflicts massive bodily injury. My interest is, however, not with the specific functions of guardian angels, but with the question of their existence.

In the context of monotheism, a guardian angel is an agent of God. As such, this ties them into the problem of evil. The general problem of evil is the challenge of reconciling the alleged existence of God with the existence of evil. Some take this problem to decisively show that God does not exist. Others contend that it shows that God is not how philosophers envision Him in the problem—that is, He is not omniscient, omnibenevolent or omnipotent. In the case of guardian angels, the challenge is to reconcile their alleged existence with evil.

One merely has to look through the news of the day to see a multitude of cases in which a guardian angel could have saved the day with fairly little effort. For example, a guardian angel could inform the police about the location of a kidnapped child. As another example, a guardian angel could exert a bit of effort to keep a ladder from slipping. They could also do more difficult things, like preventing cancer from killing children or deflecting bullets away from school children. Since none of this ever seems to happen, one obvious conclusion is that there are no guardian angels.

However, as with the main problem of evil, there are some ways to try to address this specific problem. One option, which is not available in the case of God, is to argue that guardian angels have very limited capabilities—that is, they are incredibly weak supernatural beings. Alternatively, they might operate under very restrictive rules in terms of what they are allowed to do. One problem with this reply is that such weak angels seem indistinguishable in their effects from non-existent angels. Another problem ties this into the broader problem of evil: why wouldn’t God deploy a better sort of guardian or give them broader rules to operate under? This, of course, just brings up the usual problem of evil.

Another option is that not everyone gets an angel. Jane Lynch, for example, might get an angel that hugged her. Alan Kurdi, the young boy who drowned trying to flee Syria, did not get a guardian angel. While this would be an explanation of sorts, it still just pushes the problem back: why would God not provide everyone in need with a guardian? Mere humans are, of course, limited in their resources and abilities, so everyone cannot be protected all the time. However, God would not seem to suffer from such a limitation.

It is also possible to make use of a stock reply to the problem of evil and bring in the Devil. Perhaps Lucifer deploys his demonic agents to counter the guardian angels. So, when something bad happens to a good person, it is because her guardian angel was outdone by a demon. While this has a certain appeal, it would require a world in which God and the Devil are closely matched so that the Devil can defy God and His angels. This, of course, just brings in the general problem of evil: unless one postulates two roughly equal deities, God is on the hook for the Devil and his demons. Or rather, God’s demons.

As should be expected, guardian angels seem to fare no better than God in regards to the problem of evil. That said, the notion of benevolent, supernatural personal guardians predates monotheism. Socrates, for example, claimed to have a guardian who would warn him of bad choices (which Stephen Colbert also claims to have).

These sort of guardians were not claimed to be agents of a perfect being, as such they do avoid the problem of evil. Supernatural beings that are freelancers or who serve a limited deity can reasonably be expected to be limited in their abilities and it would certainly make sense that not everyone would have a guardian. Conflict between opposing supernatural agencies also makes sense, since there is no postulation of a single supreme being.

While these supernatural guardians do avoid the problem of evil, they run up against the problem of evidence: there does not appear to be adequate evidence for the existence of such supernatural beings. In fact, the alleged evidence for them is better explained by alternatives. For example, a little voice in one’s head is better explained in terms of the psychological rather than the supernatural (a benign mental condition rather than a supernatural guardian). As another example, a fall that merely badly injures a person rather than killing them is better explained in terms of the vagaries of chance than in terms of a conscious, supernatural intervention.

Given the above discussion, there seems to be little reason to believe in the existence of guardian angels. The world would be rather different if they did exist, so clearly they do not. Or they do so little as to make no meaningful difference—which is rather hard to distinguish from not existing.

I certainly do not begrudge people their belief in guardian angels—if that belief leads them to make better choices and feel safer in a dangerous world, then it is a benign belief. I certainly have comfort beliefs as well—as we all do. Perhaps these are our guardian angels. This, obviously, points to another discussion about such beliefs.



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Campbell Brown, Protests & Transparency

Posted in Ethics, Law, Philosophy, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on August 6, 2014
Colbert Super PAC

Colbert Super PAC (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Campbell Brown appeared on the July 31, 2014 episode of the Colbert Report to promote the fact that her Partnership for Educational Justice had filed a legal complaint in Albany aimed at eliminating New York’s teacher tenure laws.  In my previous essay, I discussed the main topic, namely that of the points made in the legal complaint. In this essay, I will discuss some interesting points from Brown’s appearance on the Colbert Report.

When Brown went to the show, she encountered some protestors outside the building. Interestingly, she described them as trying to silence her and was rather critical of their presence. Colbert responded by noting that the protestors were exercising their First Amendment rights.

On the face of it, Brown was using a common tactic—accusing critics of wanting to silence those expressing opposing viewpoints and using this as grounds for rejecting, dismissing or ignoring the actual criticisms. To be fair, in some cases critics do explicitly state that their opponent should be silenced—perhaps silencing themselves or being silenced by others. Because I accept the right to freedom of expression, I am against the silencing of critics (I have written on this in other essays). As such, I would oppose those who would wish to silence Brown and prevent her from making her claims.

However, it is important to distinguish between protests/criticism and attempts to silence a person. To protest against someone or something is to express a negative view and this is rather different from endeavoring to silence someone. For example, someone might protest against Brown’s lawsuit by making a sign and standing by the entrance to the building where the Colbert Report is shot. This is expressing a stance against Brown, but unless the person tells Brown to stop expressing her views or tries to shout her down, the person is not trying to silence Brown. Even if the person would be happy if Brown shut up.

To criticize something is to assess and evaluate it, which is clearly different from trying to silence a person. My essay about Brown’s lawsuit was critical—I assessed her claims. However, at no point did I endeavor to silence her.  She has every right to keep making her claims and expressing her views, just as I have the same right to express my own—even when my claims are critical of her claims. To assess is to not to silence. Even to claim someone is wrong is not to silence them. Saying “you are mistaken” is not the same as saying “shut up.”

That said, the tactic of accusing protestors/critics of trying to silence one does have some rhetorical value. First, it allows a person to dismiss or reject protestors/critics with a lazy ad homimen: “they are just trying to silence me, so their claims have no merit.” Second, it has an emotional appeal in that it casts the protestors/critics as being opposed to freedom of speech. The irony, of course, is that this is an attempt to silence the critics.

Another interesting aspect of the discussion was when Colbert asked Brown about who was funding her group and lawsuit. As Colbert, the owner of his own super PAC noted, it is perfectly legal to keep the names of those funding such an organization secret—even when such a group is actively involved in politics. When pressed a bit, Brown used another common tactic—she claimed that anonymity protects the donors from being harassed. This, of course, ties into the previously discussed tactic in which protestors and critics are cast as villains who are trying to silence a person. In this case, the opponents of her views are presumably being presented as the sort of people who would cruelly harass those they disagree with. This would, of course, cast Brown as a brave hero—she is facing the harassment so that the anonymous donors do not have to.

As Colbert noted, not revealing her donors is her legal right. However, the claim that she is keeping them anonymous to protect them from harassment seems rather dubious. While Brown has been subject to criticism and has been protested against, she does not seem to have been subjected to onerous abuse. The anonymous donors would presumably also not be cruelly abused—though they might be criticized.

Those more cynical than I might claim that the donors are being concealed for nefarious reasons and there has been considerable speculation about who is the money behind the mouth. Those on the left, naturally enough, tend to suspect a right wing cabal aimed at destroying unions and privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Those of more moderate views might suspect a bi-partisan group that is aimed at privatizing education for the profit of themselves and their cronies. Some might even take Brown at face value: they are people who are concerned with education reform. But, for some reason, they do not want anyone else to know.

Given her current commitment to secrecy, it is somewhat ironic that in 2013 Brown created the Parents’ Transparency Project which was claimed to be aimed at bringing transparency to the negotiation process involving teachers’ unions.

This situation does raise the larger issue of such secret funding. On the one hand, it could be argued that people have a right to privacy when it comes to engaging in legal and political machinations. On the other hand, secret money has at least two negative impacts. The first is that it seems to have a corrosive effect on the openness that is supposed to the hallmark of democratic systems. The second is that it keeps the public in ignorance—knowing who is backing which candidates, causes and law suits seems to be a rather important part of making informed decisions. Of course, it can be countered that the public does not need to know this, that it should not matter who is really funding something, hiding behind patriotic or positive sounding fronts.

I am, not surprisingly, for transparency in such funding. First, I agree that such secret money is contrary to the openness that is so critical to a real democratic system. Secret money deals are appropriate for oligarchies and corrupt states, but hardly suitable for what is supposed to be an open democracy. Second, I believe that people should take responsibility for their beliefs and actions—being able to influence without accountability is morally unacceptable. Third, there is the matter of courage—only a coward hides behind anonymity when there is no real danger beyond people knowing what a person is backing.

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Amazon vs. Hachette

Posted in Business, Technology by Michael LaBossiere on June 6, 2014
Cover of "Kindle Wireless Reading Device,...

Cover via Amazon

As this is being written, Amazon is involved in a dispute with the publisher Hachette. While the dispute has gotten considerable media attention, my main concern is not with the specific battle but with the general matter of the changing nature of publishing and selling books.

I, as shown by my Amazon author page, have published many books through Amazon’s Kindle and Create Space. While Amazon has been subject to some criticism, my experiences as an author have been positive. As I see it, Amazon (and similar open publishers such as Paizo and DriveThruRPG) has some important positive features. The first is that such publishers are open to everyone—this allows independent authors to bypass the elite circles of the self-proclaimed curators of culture and make their work available to the public at no cost to themselves. This sort of open publishing is revolutionary. Second, these publishers general pay very good royalties. For example, authors selling through Amazon can get as much as 70% of the cover price. However, arguments have been advanced in favor of the traditional publishers and these are worth considering.

One stock argument in favor of traditional publishing is the quality argument. This argument does have some appeal.  Since Amazon and other such publishers do not put books through the sort of editorial process followed by the traditional publishers, the books published by independent authors will tend to be inferior. Thus, traditional publishers are needed to protect the quality of books.

There are two obvious replies to this. The first is that the traditional publishers publish significant numbers of books that are not good (such as 50 Shades of Gray and the Twilight series). The second is that independent authors do produce some excellent work. As such, the traditional publishers cannot claim a decisive advantage here. They do, after all, churn out a lot of crap.

Another stock argument in favor or traditional publishing is that it provides extra value to the author. This extra value includes such things as editorial review, layout & design, promotion and other such services. Of course, an independent author can pay for these things herself—after deciding whether or not they are worth the cost.

One thing that is not always mentioned but is of critical importance is that the top traditional publishers enjoy strong connections to the other curators of culture—those that review books, those that interview authors and so on. It is no accident that the authors who are part of the stable of an elite publisher get the media attention that is rather important to having a successful book. It is also no accident that I will never be interviewed on NPR by Diane Rehm or by Stephen Colbert on his show. After all, I am just an independent author with no connection to the curators of culture. This is not to say that an author cannot break through on her own—I have enjoyed surprisingly good sales and some independent authors enjoy amazing success. But, the support of the cultural elites provides a great advantage.

As a final point, I will consider one of the specific points of the Amazon-Hachette dispute. Amazon, obviously enough, wants to sell books at low prices. Hachette, and other publishers, also want to make money. So, the heart of the contention is over the money—if Amazon charges less for Hachette books, Hachette makes less money. If Hachette gets a larger percentage of the sale price, then Amazon gets less. One argument advanced in favor of the publisher getting more is that the publishers can then pay authors more and this is essential in order to keep the top writers writing. This is, of course, based on the assumption that authors are motivated primarily by money.

One obvious reply is that most authors do not make much money, yet they keep on writing. In some cases, the authors are not making much money because (to be honest) the books are not very good. In other cases, the authors are writing for a small audience: academics, gamers and other niches. Since these folks write for little (or no profit) it is clear that authors will write for little (or no profit).

Another obvious reply is that (as noted above) publishers like Amazon offer very generous royalties—so an author could do very well indeed selling through Amazon rather than working with a traditional publisher.

The obvious counter is that while “amateur” authors like myself will keep cranking out books regardless of the profits, the “elite” authors will cease to do so if they are denied large advances and fat paychecks. This would, one might argue, be a great loss to culture. As such, the traditional publishers serve a vital role and need to claim a significant portion of the sales price on books sold through Amazon and other merchants.

One obvious reply is that these authors would still presumably make rather good money even if their publishers made less. Another reply is that these authors could jump ship for Amazon and perhaps make even more money. A third response is that if the “elite” authors quit, there would still be a vast army of independent writers and from their numbers would emerge, as has always happened, a new “elite.”

In closing, I have worked with traditional publishers and with the new model, that of Amazon and other companies. While traditional publishers certainly still have a place, the landscape has been shifting and the traditional publisher might soon go the way of the manual typewriter.


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God, a Yacht and Bitches

Posted in Metaphysics, Philosophy, Religion by Michael LaBossiere on November 18, 2011
Aliosha VII Yacht

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Stephen Colbert recently raised an important theological and philosophical question, namely,”Could God create a yacht so big that he could not fill it with bitches?” This sort of question, obviously enough, parallels some of the classic questions about the nature of God’s omnipotence, such as “can God create a rock that He cannot lift?”

The specific question of whether or not God can create such a yacht would seem to involve considering the specifics of the scenario, such as the size limits of yachts (would a ship of a certain size be too big to be classified as a yacht?) and bitches as well as what would count as being full of bitches (does this mean that the bitches are comfortably occupying the vessel or stacked and stuffed in all the spaces?). However, these complications can be set aside (along with the offensive term “bitches”) in favor of a more general sort of question: can God create a container that He cannot fill?

On the face of it, this would seem to create what appears to be a paradox. If God is omnipotent, then it would seem to follow that He could create a container (such as a yacht) of any size-even one that would be so big that He could not fill it (even given an infinite supply of created bitches). However, His omnipotence would also seem to entail that He could fill any container, no matter how big. After all, He could just create enough things to fill the container.

One potential way out of this problem is to play games with the notion of infinity. Presumably the largest container that God could create would be infinite in size. Presumably the largest number and volume of things (such as bitches) that God could create would also be infinite. Leibniz, in his Theodicy,  writes “and infinity, that is to say, the accumulation of an infinite number of substances, is, properly speaking, not a whole any more than the infinite number itself, whereof one cannot say whether it is even or uneven.” Stealing from Leibniz, perhaps it could be said that when talking about an infinite yacht and an infinite number of bitches it would not be possible to say whether it is full or not. Of course, this seems vaguely (or not so vaguely) unsatisfying.

Perhaps a better approach would be to look at the matter a bit differently. The problem arises from taking the ability to create something so big that He cannot fill it as a positive ability of God. As such, if God did not have that ability, then He would be lacking. But, of course, if he could not fill the object, then he would also be lacking.

However, the idea of an ability to create an object so big that He cannot fill it seems to involve an absurdity. After all, if God could create a hollow object of X size and Y interior volume, then it would seem that He could simply create an object marginally smaller than X with a volume of Y. Thus, the question is actually asking “could God create an object and not be able to create a smaller object (or objects) that would fill the larger object” and the answer would seem to be “no.” After all, objects have volumes and sizes, but so big that it cannot be filled does not seem to be a legitimate property that God could just give to an object. Rather, this property is a relational property between the object and all other things that exist or could exist. Thus, the supposition that God can create objects entails that He can fill any object He creates.

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Proposal: SuperPAC

Posted in Business, Law, Politics by Michael LaBossiere on November 3, 2011
Stephen Colbert

Stephen Colbert (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

A stock “criticism” of the Occupiers is that they lack solutions. While I make no pretense of speaking for the 99% (or even the 53%) I thought I’d try my hand at making a reform suggestion.

Interestingly, some of the best and most honest analysis of our political and economic systems is done by comedians. For example, Stephen Colbert’s development of his PAC and Super PAC made it clear how that sort of stuff works while, at the same time, presenting a criticism of said system (although Colbert has been accused of having an agenda of his own).

While people should clearly be allowed to organize so as to raise money for political causes, the Super PAC seems to have two fundamental problems in that it allows unlimited donations and also anonymous donations. This allows those with the financial resources to secretly fund whatever cause or candidate they desire.

As might be imagined, this gives those with significant resources considerable influence on the political system-both in terms of shaping what appears in the media as well as potentially gaining influence over candidates. To counter this, I would suggest that limits need to be placed on these contributions so as to make the political playing field somewhat more level and to reduce the influence of big money over politicians.

It might be contended that this is a limit on free speech since spending money has been equated with speech. On the face of it, while spending money can be an enabler of expression (buying TV time, for example) it does not seem to actually fall under what would count as an act of expression in a meaningful sense. Also, given its corrupting influence on politics it could be argued that even if it is free speech, it is harmful and hence can be limited (just as free speech does not allow one to yell “fire” in a crowded theater or to buy a politician directly with bribes). As such, placing limits on such donations seems to be reasonable and just.

In regards to the anonymous part, that is also a problem since it prevents accountability and also prevents people from determining who is, in fact, funding the SuperPACS. It seems safe to assume that companies and people prefer to be anonymous because they believe that it would not be in their best interest to have people know what they were funding. However, given that the political process in a democracy should be open, there seems to be no compelling reason to allow such anonymity. If an appeal to free speech is made, this can easily be countered: a right to free speech does not entail that people have a guaranteed right to anonymous speech.

It might be objected that people who face danger from speaking can legitimately claim a right to anonymous speech as their only means of free expression. However, while those donating money might suffer some harm if people knew about their donations, this would not be a case in which they need to hide in order to avoid wrongful harm. To use an analogy, a person who likes to insult people on the web might be harmed if people knew who s/he was, but being a jerk does not entitle a person to anonymity. Likewise, giving to SuperPACS that might harm a company’s reputation if it were known is not a legitimate justification for anonymity.

Given that there are no compelling reasons (other than as vehicles of corruption) for SuperPACs and they seem rather harmful to the democratic process I propose that they be eliminated. Failing that, I want one.

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Not Intended to be a Factual Statement

Posted in Humor, Philosophy, Politics, Reasoning/Logic by Michael LaBossiere on April 13, 2011
Jon Kyl

Image via Wikipedia

Planned Parenthood is a favorite target of some conservatives, perhaps because they sometimes seem to regard it as an abortion factory. As such, it was hardly surprising when Senator Jon Kyl claimed that abortion is “well over 90% of what Planned Parenthood does.”

Kyl’s claim is (as Colbert, Stewart and others have pointed out) far from the truth. The famous pie chart shows that the figure is 3%, although what Planned Parenthood reports is actually a bit over 10%. In any case, it is clearly not 90%.

If Kyl had simply made this error and left it at that, then the matter would probably have quietly faded away. However, the attempt made at damage control was rather odd (but comedy gold for Stephen Colbert). His office released an official statement asserting that Kyl’s claim was “not intended to be a factual statement.” Colbert has, of course, been dropping some Twitter delivered mockery bombs all over Kyl and has also inspired his Nation to join in. Kyl certainly seems to have brought this on himself, first with his wildly incorrect statistical claim and then by that rather bizarre reply.

Given that Kyl was launching an attack on Planned Parenthood and grounding his attack on the claim that the vast majority of what it does is abortion, then he certainly seemed obligated to make factual statements. After all, it hardly seems right to simply make up non-factual claims in such a context.

Then again, maybe Kyl is more versed in philosophy than the media is giving him credit for. In philosophy we distinguish between factual statements (matters of fact) and non-factual statements (statements that are not objectively true or false). Relativists and subjectivists about truth hold that truth is not objective. So, perhaps Kyl is a relativist or subjectivist. If so, what appeared to be a factual statement was, to Kyl, actually not. If so, his reply makes perfect sense.

Of course, there is a bit more to the reply from Kyl’s office. The full reply is that  it was “not intended to be a factual statement but rather to illustrate that Planned Parenthood, a organization that receives millions of dollars in taxpayer funding, does subsidize abortions.”

This seems perfectly reasonable. After all, the general principle seems to be that it is reasonable to infer from some to 90%. For example, if some Republicans have been caught doing things in airport bathrooms, then it is reasonable to illustrate this by saying that 90% of Republicans are secretly gay. That’s just good logic.





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Stephen Colbert a Threat to Philosophy

Posted in Humor, Philosophy by Michael LaBossiere on October 18, 2010
Stephen Colbert and his wife Evelyn McGee-Colb...
Image via Wikipedia

In a recent show, Stephen Colbert used the  expression “begs the question” in a way that moved him onto the Threats to Philosophy Board (#1 Threat: Hemlock). This is because he used the phrase incorrectly and while wearing a tie.

When people use “begs the question” in this manner, they actually mean “asks the question” or “raises the question.”However, the term “beg the question” already has an established usage as the name of a logical fallacy.

To beg the question is a logical fallacy that involves assuming what is to be proven. For example, if someone says “cheating on a test is wrong because it is wrongfully taking a test”, then he is begging the question. In effect, the person is saying “the reason cheating on a test is wrong is because it is wrong.”

One might wonder why this should be regarded as a problem. After all, it might be argued, people ought to be able to use words anyway they wish. If people use “beg the question” to mean “raises the question” then so be it.

While it is true that the meaning of terms is largely a matter of convention, it seems to make little sense to use “begs the question” to mean “asks the question.” After all, there are already perfectly good phrases to say “asks the question”, “raises the question” and so on. There thus seems to be little need to steal “begs the question.”

The matter of putting him on the threat board was not taken lightly. He was already under consideration for his use of “truthiness” and the damage that was doing to logic. Students now ask about “truthiness” tables and think that there is something called validityness (an argument such that if all the premises have truthiness then the conclusion has truthiness).

Obviously, Colbert must be stopped before he does to philosophy what hemlock did to Socrates and what MSNBC does to itself.

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Posted in Technology by Michael LaBossiere on April 3, 2010
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Today is the day the masses can acquire an iPad. Sadly, I will not be among these. No, Apple did not give me one in a clever marketing move. Rather, I will be among the many who do not have an iPad.

I must admit, the iPad is appealing. This might be due to the massive amount of free advertising Apple has been getting. As Stephen Colbert pointed out, Newsweek made the iPad the feature story for this week. Poor Amazon had to actually buy ad space on the back page of the same issue to push their Kindle. Colbert also spent much of the show waving around his new iPad. CNN also did a feature on the iPad as well. Apple clearly knows how to use the media folks to get this free coverage. Can you imagine a car company getting this sort of attention because it made a bigger car from a smaller model?

The iPad is definitely cool. However, it is still basically just a bigger iPod Touch/iPhone. Although I would gladly accept one as a gift, I could not justify spending that much for so little. For about the same cost, I could get a fully functional notebook (or a netbook and an iPod Touch) that would do so much more than the iPad. True, the notebook would not be as cool, sexy or hip…but it would be more useful and do pretty much everything the iPad actually does (other than funnel money to Apple via  the app store).

As I have mentioned before, the iPad is both too much and too little. It is too big to give it a clear portability advantage over a netbook. It is also too little in terms of not being a full computer. If I am staying in one place, I can just use my netbook or PC. If I am moving around a lot, I can just use my netbook or iPod touch.

The iBook does nicely target some niches, though. It seems like it will hammer the Kindle fairly badly as an eBook reader. It has a color screen and provides so much more than the Kindle (although the Kindle does have that “free” wireless connection). If I were a big fan of ebooks, I would certainly buy an iPad. But, I still prefer books and magazines.

It will also appeal to students. While it is really not very good for taking notes or typing a paper (although the kids today have some amazing texting skills that might allow the iPad to work this way), it does provide an excellent way to ignore a boring professor during class. Plus it has that cool factor that hip young kids will love.

The media capabilities will also appeal to folks who want portable entertainment and have the extra money for such gadgets. Of course, the iPad won’t run Flash. While Apple’s professed reason seems to be about security, running Flash does not seem like a significant risk. In any case, it would seem that this is a choice that should be left to the user (just like with other computers).

I suspect that Apple has locked Flash out to protect its app store. After all, if developers could just crank out Flash apps for the iPad (and iPhone), they would probably be much less inclined to go through Apple’s app store, thus hurting Apple’s income. Adobe has attempted to “bypass” this by providing a means by which Flash apps can be converted into apps suitable for the app store. This might help allay Apple’s “security concerns.”

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The Colbert Report in Iraq

Posted in Politics by Michael LaBossiere on June 9, 2009
Cropped screenshot of Bob Hope from the traile...
Image via Wikipedia

By appearing on stage with a golf club, Stephen Colbert consciously stepped into the shoes of Bob Hope. Bob Hope was, of course, perhaps best know for his involvement in the USO-first appearing as a young comedian during the Revolutionary War with his his famous King George III impressions.

It is good to see a celebrity of Colbert’s status in Iraq, bringing some live entertainment to the troops. Compared to WWII, such support from the famous folks seems to be a bit lacking. Of course, these days soldiers have ready access to television and the internet, so their isolation is not as great as in those days. However, there is still something special about having a person actually there, live on stage-as opposed to appearing on TV or YouTube.

While it might seem odd to have a comedian who pretends to be a right-wing pundit go to Iraq, Colbert seems quite popular with the troops. While Colbert has been critical, in his comedic manner, of the war and George Bush, he has been consistent in his respect for American soldiers and has encouraged his viewers to support the troops and their families.

This nicely illustrates that we have, in large part, learned a valuable lesson from the Vietnam war. This lesson is that a person can be critical of the war and the politics around that war without turning against the American soldiers fighting that war. The way American soldiers were treated during the Vietnam war by some Americans is a shameful part of our history. For the most part, American soldiers are respected for what they have done and people generally recognize that the few shameful acts are the actions of individuals and not reflective of all the men and women and uniform.

It might seem odd to some to have a comedian entertaining the troops. However, this is actually an excellent choice. People learned in previous wars that comedy is one of the best breaks from war. No wonder that Bob Hope was one of the most popular USO acts over the years. As such, having a comedian go to a war zone is not frivolous or insulting. Rather, it is giving the troops something vital to human life-some fun.

President Obama also participated in the first show-ordering a general to shave Colbert’s head. It was a nice bit, nicely delivered. While some might think that such a comedic bit damages the dignity of the office, it was a good idea and nicely shows the nature of the American presidency.

While having a sense of humor does not make one a leader, it is a virtue in a leader. The ability to be funny and appreciate humor shows wit. The ability to participate in such humor also shows that a person does not take himself too seriously. While a leader should be serious, being too serious and taking oneself too seriously are generally not good things. As an extreme example, take the “dear leader” of North Korea or various other dictators.

As far as the nature of the presidency goes, we do expect (or hope) that our president is person of distinction and dignity. However, we also expect the president to be one of us and not completely aloof and detached. As such, we tend to appreciate a president with a sense of humor. Also, America has never had a king. We have no history of being ruled by someone who is supposed to be divine or divinely appointed (although Katherine Harris indicated she believed God picked Bush to be president and some folks claim that that others see Obama as being like God) . Our leaders are just people, elected by other people and we seem comfortable with that. As such, some dignified comedy from the president is just fine-especially when he is doing so as part of a USO show.

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