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Category: Philosophy

The philosophy of science, empiricism, a priori reasoning, epistemology, and so on.

April 28, 2009 | 65 Comments

Gay marriage and tradition: a continuation

In Big Jake , John Wayne and Bruce Cabot ready themselves for the final battle against the bad guys.

Wayne: Well, Sam, they say the elk in Montana are as big as buffalo this year. We outta go hunt ’em when this is over.

Cabot: I look forward to that. (Sighs). I wish they were buffalo.

Wayne: Yeah. Times change.


Let’s return to the idea of tradition as it is used in arguments for gay marriage, which we can define as the marriage of two—and only two—men or two women.

Last time, we acknowledged that the modifier “only two” in our explication of marriage was the implicit resultant of tradition, by which we meant the customary practices of a people, or activities driven by a common set of beliefs, that is, a culture. This definition is loose enough, God knows, but will be close enough for us.

Fascinatingly, if an opponent of gay marriage brings up the point, “Why not more than two in a ‘marriage’?”, he is usually told he is being absurd or foolish or he is laughed at—which proves that people aren’t thinking deeply enough about the subject, because no matter how disingenuously the question might have been asked, it is exactly the right one.

Tradition forms the largest part of the debate on gay marriage. Obviously, it is not in our tradition to accommodate such unions, but some want to contravene tradition by urging acceptance for gay marriage. This plea is, at least, consistent with itself (but it is not clear how it would not apply to any other tradition; abandon tradition here, and why not abandon it everywhere?).

The difficulty begins, and the argument suddenly becomes inconsistent, when the same people who ask us to abandon tradition want also to embrace tradition by insisting on the word “marriage” to sanctify their vows.

Are you with me? If you want to claim (as some of us have) that we have “evolved” beyond tradition and have no need of it, you cannot consistently and simultaneously seek the blessings of tradition.

Let’s be more specific. Some states have constructed laws which award similar, even identical, legal status as marriage confers (burial rights, powers of attorney, etc.) to partners in a same-sex couple should they ask for it. Strong arguments for these new recognitions have been made, though still with a mind towards tradition, because these laws always talk about “couples” or “pairs”.

Why is this legal recognition not good enough? Why, that is, do people still hunger for something beyond “civil union”? Why the word “marriage”? It is, is it not?, just a word. Why is it such a powerful one?

The reason is obvious: tradition is not so easily abandoned. It is a deep need for humans to have ties with the past, for ceremony and ritual. It is also important to stress that marriage is not just a legal contract between two people, it is an understanding between a couple and society, largely governed by understood rules.

But what, it is now natural to ask, about those places that allow men to take multiple wives, or have customs that differ from ours? Well, if their customs are not our customs, then unless we are seeking to intervene directly in those peoples’ culture (in the form of war, say), they are none of our business. However, the consideration is not entirely irrelevant.

Montaigne writes on a clothing custom in Rome: “When they wore the busk of their doublet between their breasts, they maintained with heated arguments that it was in the proper place; some years after, it has slipped down between the thighs, and they laugh at their former custom and find it absurd and intolerable.”

The banal message—and one we already knew—is that customs and traditions change. An argument on the proper placement of a doublet appears to us trivial, and we also feel that (dangerous) sense of superiority when we regard history: they argued over doublets for goodness sake? How silly. But change the argument to whether jeans should be worn and it becomes immediately relevant and contentious. This point is made so that we can see that there are two things to consider: the relative degree of importance of a custom and the rate at which it is modified.

It is already apparent the degree to which marriage is important. How about that custom’s rate of change?

Certain states and municipalities have sought recently, by extra-legislative means—by, that is, judicial fiat—to mark an abrupt divergence in marriage custom. Judges looked into their constitutions and said, “Aha! We have found hiding in a corner where nobody thought to look before, the right to same sex marriage. It’s a good thing we checked.”

The consequences of these rights hunts are well known. People knew they were being spun (to use the modern term) and, as in California and Iowa, voted the rights back out of existence. Many were still howling over these democratic (and traditional) actions when along came Vermont, which used the same (and now warmly accepted) democratic actions to change their marriage custom.

“Well”, I have heard some say, “that’s Vermont. Those people up there are different.” And if your answer, like mine, is a variant of “Exactly”, then you will have understood this article’s arguments.

April 25, 2009 | 51 Comments

A poor argument for gay marriage

James Randi, and the rest of the psi-cops, have increasingly strayed from their original—and self-appointed—role of policing pseudoscience and the paranormal, and are instead intent on doing battle with any and all religious beliefs—as long as they are Christian.

The psi-cops, or members of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP), have nothing else to do, the paranormal no longer being the urban blight it once was. So they have turned their energies into campaigns to remove “In God We Trust” from currency, and to sniff around The-Federally-Recognized-Holiday-of-December-25th-that-shall-remain-nameless trees on government property for whiffs of religiosity.

For example, today I received my Randi-gram, a weekly email, in which was quoted John P. Stoltenberg from Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, who gave Randi a list of suggestions he wishes us less enlightened folk would adopt.

I don’t want to argue for or against gay marriage—be very clear on this point—nor do I want my opinion on the matter to distract anybody from thinking about what is actually of interest, which is the logical status of an argument often used in this debate.

Here it is:

If you don’t believe in gay marriages, don’t have one.

If you are of the left, upon hearing it, you are required to chuckle. Not laugh out loud, mind—because that would come across as maniacal—but you should let a warm glow infuse your features as you nod and fill yourself with congratulation for being in on an unanswerable zinger.

The argument is stupid. Stoltenberg himself—and Randi as his explicit endorser—while not knowing it, must have felt a nagging tickle deep inside that would not let him leave it alone, because he included as an addendum this gem:

If you don’t believe in euthanasia or in physician-assisted death, then die your own way.

It’s the same flawed argument, and if Stoltenberg (and his many followers) would have abandoned his smugness and taken it one step further and applied it to something he did not devoutly wish, he would have seen it instantly.

Here is the same argument, the same guts of it, applied to two different subjects (Stoltenberg used the first):

If you don’t believe abortions, don’t have one.


If you don’t believe in murder, don’t comment one.

Or phrased more fully: look here, unenlightened person, let those of us who enjoy murder have our fun. If you don’t like it, just don’t kill anybody for fun or for profit.

Still don’t get it? Then how’s this?

If you don’t believe in child molestation, stay away from playgrounds.

The argument is now splayed open, its logical cancer obvious. It is the same as saying, “I want my way, let me do what I want, and if you don’t like it, don’t do what I do.” Anybody whose mind wasn’t excessively muddled by Mill would blush coming out with that naked statement; but dress it up in “rights” language (never responsibilities) and it somehow becomes beautiful. Truly, clothes make the argument. That few recognize its limitations must be because of our ever-increasing slide toward self indulgence in every aspect of public life.

For future reference, and because it’s used in other debates besides gay marriage, we’ll need a name for this line of reasoning (one might already exist, but I don’t know of it). Let’s call it the gimme argument, because it means “give me what I want because I want it, regardless of whether what I want is right or wrong.”

To gay marriage supporters: you accrue no benefit by using an argument that is not just flawed but ridiculous. The job of an argument is to convince, not to bludgeon, obfuscate, or distract, as this one does. It is doing you no favor.

But thinking about it, I understand the inclination to the gimme argument in this case. Let’s imagine this conversation to see why.

A: “I want gay marriage.”

B: “What’s marriage?”

A: “A union of two people, etc.”

B: “Why two people?”

Here, A is stumped. The only recourse A has is to history and tradition, which are in his favor (in most places in most times) in agreeing marriage is between “two people”, but utterly against him for saying “between two men” or “between two women.” You can’t invoke the authority of tradition for the first part of your argument and then claim tradition has no meaning for the second part. So A is reduced to saying “I want it.”

And that’s not necessarily a bad line of reasoning, as long as it is conjoined with supplementary statements that support it. What does not support it is to say, “And I should get it, even though you say it is wrong, because I want it.” Then it becomes the gimme argument.

April 6, 2009 | 13 Comments

The only two reasons for statistics

This short post is for reference. I will point back to it from time to time.

Reason 1: to say something about the past

Examples: counting seasonal numbers of wins by the Detroit Tigers, or the number of Republican state senators, or how many people you had over last Christmas.

All are raw numbers, counts, tallies, collected to say something about a historical circumstance and for no other reason.

No probability models are needed here, or they are all trivial. For example: what is the probability the Tigers won more than 90 games in 2008? It is either 0 or 1 just in case they either did win more than 90 games or they did not (they did not).

In order to say something about the past—about data we have already collected—we just need to look and count and nothing more.

Most sports statistics fits here, as do other areas of trivia. Any kind of record keeping counts.

Reason 2: to say something about things not yet seen

If you have not yet seen a thing, you are uncertain about what state that thing will take.

If you are uncertain, you quantify that uncertainty using probability. All probability statements are conditional on some evidence.

Evidence usually consists of two things: (1) historical data and a probability model that accounts for that data plus (2) the probability model said to explain the thing we have not yet seen.

(1) and (2) are frequently the same; sometimes we do not need (1); we always need (2).

For example, given just the evidence that “This is a six-sided die, and just one side is labeled a 3” then the probability of the thing “We see a 3 when the die is tossed” is 1/6. No historical data was needed to make this statement.

To quantify the probability of other unseen things, historical data is typically used. For example, the thing “The Detroit Tigers will win more than 90 games in 2009” is unknown as yet. To say what the probability of it is, we can collect historical data, assign a probability to it, and then make a quantification.

More than one probability model can be assigned to the historical data and the thing. This leads to two consequences, both crucial to remember.

(a) If the evidence that implies what probability to model to use is ambiguous, then that evidence that leads to the model you use should be made explicit; and

(b) The probability statements made by conflicting models are all correct (assuming no computational errors, of course).

If model A says the probability of a thing is x and model B says it has a probability of y, and x does not equal y, neither probability is wrong before we see the thing.

After we have seen the thing, we can compute the probability that model A or model B is correct.

All that is found in statistics books falls under this branch. Anytime a prediction, or forecast, or prognostication is made, it is this type of statistics.

To specify a probability model means specifying the value of certain parameters. In the die example, the value of the parameter was deduced. In models that use historical data, most or all parameters cannot be specified example and usually remain unknown to some extent.

Do not be fooled that most statistical procedures revolve around finding estimates to the parameters of the probability models. These estimates are not necessary and are at best proxies to what is of interest: real, tangible, observable things.

Modern statistical methods is designed to make probability statements about observable things (like the numbers of Tigers wins) in such a way that the uncertainty in the parameters is accounted for.


Suppose you have observed global mean temperatures (suppose, too, this quantity is unambiguously and suitably defined) from 1900 up through 2009. What branch of statistics can answer the following:

(i) What is the probability the temperature increased from 1900?

(ii) What is the probability that the temperature in 2009 will be larger than that in 2008?


If anything above is ambiguous, let me know and I’ll fix it. In a big hurry today.

March 23, 2009 | 31 Comments

What scientific or technological advance would you most like to see in your lifetime?

The real geeks among us long for synthohol. Only Class A nerds know, or admit to knowing, what it is, too.

But I have to tell you, your potential partner’s drinking it won’t make you any better looking. Better to stick with the real thing.

I’d surely like to see cheap, readily available fusion power. With unlimited energy comes unlimited possibility.

Medical advances never really grabbed my interest. Probably—and luckily—because I don’t have any sicknesses.

Would be good to see genetics progress to the point where we can reliably clone humans so that we don’t deprive the world of another me.

Proofs of various unsolved problems in math would be, as Martha says, a good thing, but, eh. Math will never cease, there is no natural stopping point, no real goal.

I can go to my grave—not happily, but resignedly—without knowing what the unified theory is, or whether string theory or something deeper is true.

But what I’d really like to know—I mean know, for certain—is whether life exists, particularly sentient life, on other planets.

When I was younger and, if it can be imagined, even dumber than I am now, I used to think such a discovery would put a lot of people in their place. I didn’t then appreciate the resiliency of belief.

cluster AGC-11H

So now I would like to know just for myself. For reasons I can’t quite explain, finding extraterrestrial life would make me very happy. I would feel like all is right with the universe.

When I was a kid, we didn’t know that other stars had planets. We suspected, of course: Because there were so many stars, there surely had to be other planets. But it wasn’t until recently that we had external proof.

The same sort of reasoning suggests there are extraterrestrial life forms. Certainly life is tenacious here on Earth. Kill it en mass with rocks from outer space or choke it with planetary-wide volcanic gas, it always bounces back stronger than before.

The ease with which life forms exploit any potential niche here at home is reasonable evidence it can do so elsewhere. Still, we haven’t even figured out if life made it on Mars. We’re not done looking, but it’s at least obvious that life wasn’t extraordinarily fruitful on the red planet. Well, we still have Io to explore.

We have looked for signals from space. I hope we get lucky with this, but any communication we do find won’t be an accidental one. That is, it is very unlikely we’ll be able to ear whig an alien conversation.

There is some fancy math that shows the more efficient a signal gets the more it looks like noise. Species that are more advanced than us are likely to communicate efficiently, and even in ways we don’t yet know, so overhearing gossip on an interstellar hydrogen-line party line is unlikely.

Thus, the signals we do eventually capture almost certainly will be broadcasts saying, “We are here, we are here, we are here!” The people at SETI are keeping their ears open.

Then there is Enrico Fermi’s question, sometimes called a “paradox”, which it most certainly is not. Fermi wondered that, since there are so many possibilities for life to have evolved to the point of technological superiority over us, why haven’t we noticed any of them?

To call this a paradox is to make the assumption that all other sentient life is as gregarious as our species. Or it assumes that we are interesting enough for superior beings to take notice of us. Or that our betters haven’t figured out how to duck into the multiverse. Or whatever.

But Fermi’s question is a good one all the same. We haven’t notice any Bracewell or Von Neumann probes, for example. (Probably better not to have seen any of the later.)

Nor have we seen the spectral signal of any Dyson spheres, or even Niven-like ringworlds. In short, no eternal evidence at all of any extraterrestrial civilization. So far.

I’ve got maybe 30-50 years left (my clan appears long lived), so I still have hope.

Still, it wouldn’t be all bad if we were the first sentient species. Our descendants, if they make it that long, would have bragging rights among the other species that eventually evolve. We’d be able to say, “We’re number 1! Eat that, proto-virus from cluster AGC-11H!”

That’s my desire. What’s yours?