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Sophisticated October 26, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Language, Philosophy.
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In ancient Greece, the sophists were intellectuals who charged money for teaching the art of rhetoric. They were of the opinion that language cannot be used to uncover truth, but is rather a tool for convincing others and getting one’s way. They maintained that language can be used to construct equally valid arguments which lead to opposite conclusions.

There is a tale about a student of the sophist Protagoras (known for saying that “man is the measure of all things”), who declined to pay at the end of his lesson — claiming that he had not in fact learned any persuasion skills. Protagoras thought for a moment, then suggested that they argue the case before a judge. If the judge ruled in Protagoras’s favor, then the student must pay; on the other hand, if the judge found in the student’s favor, then the student must have learned some persuasion skills from Protagoras after all, and should therefore pay for the lesson.

The student considered Protagoras’s proposition, and finally declared that he had no objection to taking the case before a judge. After all, if the judge should find in the student’s favor, then he need not pay; and if the judge ruled against the student, that would show that the student’s rhetorical skills remained poor — and so Protagoras had not earned his fee.

The Greek philosophers detested the sophists.

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A fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin October 22, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Equality, Ethics, Religion.
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Shmuley Boteach writes that extreme homophobia among the religious stems from a “fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of sin.” He distinguishes between moral transgressions and religious transgressions:

The mistake of so many well-meaning people of faith is to believe that homosexuality is a moral rather than a religious sin. A moral sin involves injury to an innocent party. But who is being harmed when two, unattached, consenting adults are in a relationship? Rather, homosexuality is akin to the prohibition of lighting fire on the Sabbath or eating bread during Passover. There is nothing immoral about it, but it violates the divine will.

One of the worst effects of religion is making people think that obedience to the purported word of God is as important as (or even more important than) the actual well-being of those around them. In this case, Boteach ignores the obvious fact that labeling gays “an abomination” does cause injury to innocent parties — and is therefore immoral by his own definition! What would he suggest we do when “divine will” conflicts with morality? After all, the Bible doesn’t merely frown upon homosexuality; it commands that homosexuals be executed. Just like women who are not virgins on their wedding night, or those who worship other gods. Would Boteach be willing to carry out such sentences?

The moment you admit that morality deals with preventing suffering, you must realize that even if we had good reason to believe that homosexuality violates God’s will, it wouldn’t matter. Boteach’s distinction is actually between norms for which there are good reasons — and hence can be derived rationally with no need for divine command — and those that are just arbitrary whim, which ought to be discarded the moment they cause someone harm. “Sin” does not exist; there ain’t no such thing as a victimless crime.

By the way, since Boteach concedes that no one is harmed by a relationship between consenting adults, does he support marriage equality for gays?

For the record, I am in favor of gay civil unions rather than marriage because I am against redefining marriage.

For the record, that’s bullshit. It’s no different from saying (in the 1950s) that marriage is defined as between two people of the same race, so interracial marriage is out. I know this may be hard for the orthodox to grasp, but if a legal definition is unjust, we can change it. The essence of marriage is a state-recognized union between people, and it should be available to all citizens equally. If you want to discriminate against someone, you need a better reason than because your imaginary friend said so.

Stupidity below and love of power above October 20, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education, Politics.
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Winston Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter, and I often wonder if this will ever cease to be the case. After all, if we look around us, the organizations that are most innovative and efficient, that are best at encouraging excellence and learning from mistakes, are not run democratically. Steve Jobs doesn’t need a majority of his company’s employees (or of his customers) to approve his every strategy. Generally, the greater the number of people who participate in making a decision, the worse the decision will be. (It is said that a camel is a horse designed by committee.)

Of course, this is all fine so long as Steve Jobs doesn’t have the power to put anyone in jail, levy taxes, or declare war. We have learned the hard way how important it is to limit the power given to any individual. The problem is that our system of government seems to mostly produce politicians whose main (if not only) skill is getting people to vote for them. And sadly, this is still most easily accomplished by appeals to emotion (especially fear), rather than by rational argument. Moreover, politicians have an interest in perpetuating whatever state of affairs will cause people to continue voting for them.

In “Freedom and the Colleges,” Bertrand Russell claims to have no doubt that democracy is the best form of government, and yet:

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power — namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for them to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

We need our educational system to produce a population that is rational enough and critical enough and well-enough informed, so that politicians will leave a five-minute conversation with the average voter feeling neither smug nor depressed, but challenged.

There is perhaps a special danger in democratic abuses of power-namely, that being collective they are stimulated by mob hysteria. The man who has the art of arousing the witch-hunting instincts of the mob has a quite peculiar power for evil in a democracy where the habit of the exercise of power by the majority has produced that intoxication and impulse to tyranny which the exercise of authority almost invariably produces sooner or later. Against this danger the chief protection is a sound education designed to combat the tendency to irrational eruptions of collective hate. Such an education the bulk of university teachers desire to give, but their masters in the plutocracy and the hierarchy make it as difficult as possible for-them. to carry out this task effectively. For it is to the irrational passions of the mass that these men owe their power, and they know that they would fall if the power of rational thinking became common. Thus the interlocking power of stupidity below and love of power above paralyzes the efforts of rational men. Only through a greater measure of academic freedom than has yet been achieved in the public educational institutions of this country can this evil be averted.

Imposing ignorance October 8, 2010

Posted by Ezra Resnick in Democracy, Education.
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Under the headline “Coercive imposition of Western culture,” Yitzhak Levy, a former education minister of Israel, criticizes the attempt by “academics, public figures and the courts” to enforce the study of “core curriculum” subjects in state-funded schools (including Haredi schools):

The country’s “Western elite” has decided that in order to earn a living and compete in the labor market, 10- to 18-year-olds should study mathematics and English. Many believe this to be a self-evident truth. However, it can be shown to be untrue on several grounds.

The first, and most important, argument is that there is no need to study mathematics and English for eight years in order to gain mastery of these subjects in a way that opens the door to various types of jobs, even in high tech. Private institutions that prepare students for matriculation exams, as well as pre-academic courses in higher education institutions, have proven that one can attain a high level on matriculation exams in these two subjects as a result of studies that last a year or two, and are undertaken at any stage of a person’s life. Since this is the case, why should studies in these two areas be forced upon those who are not interested in them for such a lengthy period?

First of all, notice that in that last sentence Levy conflates parents and their children as if they were a single person. It is Haredi parents who are not interested in having English and math taught to their children. Levy is not suggesting that we let children decide for themselves what they want to study. (Can a kid in a Haredi school decide that he is not interested in studying Bible or halacha?) There are indeed many things we do not allow children to decide for themselves, and parents are usually those responsible for protecting the interests of their children — but the rest of us have the right and the obligation to make sure parents are not abusing their power and harming their children, physically or mentally.

Now, even if it’s true that some 18-year-olds can acquire a complete math and English education in a 2-year program, there are certainly many who have neither the opportunity nor the capability to do so. In the best case, such a person faces enormous barriers and is starting out from a severely disadvantaged position. The fact is that close to 70 percent of Haredi men do not work, and education is surely a big part of the problem.

In any case, though, Levy misses the main point of education. Being able to get a job is important, but it is not the most important thing in life and it is not the most important function of schools. Until our children are mature and informed enough to choose their own goals in life, we have an obligation to give them the best available knowledge and the best known tools for learning and thinking. We don’t study math just so we’ll be able to make change at the supermarket, but in order to develop abstract and logical thinking and give us the tools necessary for further learning (mathematics is “the language of science”).

We live in a democracy, where the power belongs to the people, but democracy depends on an informed citizenry. Imposing 18 years of ignorance on a child cannot be excused by the fact that afterward he will theoretically be free to learn whatever he wants by himself. By age 18, a person’s interests, learning habits and worldview are largely solidified. An 18-year-old who’s never had a history lesson in his life could theoretically go read a history book on his own, but does that excuse us from teaching all our children about World War II and the Holocaust (for example)?

Levy’s attempt to frame the issue as “trying to impose Western culture on Jewish culture” is especially ludicrous. Like it or not, English is essential nowadays for virtually all knowledge-based enterprises — the majority of scientific papers are published in English, and it is the most popular language on the World Wide Web, to name just two examples. And how exactly is mathematics “Western?” There is only the math that works, and Levy relies on it every time he uses an airplane or an elevator. Does Judaism offer its own alternative biology and astronomy and medicine? Well, actually, it does — but they’re wrong. If Levy got leprosy, would he go to a Western-educated doctor or to a priest? Is the idea that the Earth orbits the sun a Western imposition on traditional Jewish geocentrism? Whatever is actually true about the world is independent of culture and nationality.

While democracy depends on an informed citizenry, religious indoctrination depends on ignorance. A broad education is intended to empower children and ensure that every option is open to them, so they will be free to choose their own life. Haredi parents, however, are bent on forcing their own belief system and way of life on their children by cutting off all other options. I do think that every child, certainly in Israel, should learn about the basics of Judaism, and parents who wish to can supplement extra Jewish studies. But no parent has the right to disable his child by imposing ignorance.