Archive for the 'Epistemology' Category

On Intuitionism

by Jason Stotts

Note: What follows here is the first draft of a philosophical essay on intuitionism that will appear in my forthcoming book Eros and Ethos in an appendix.  I’m publishing it here because I’d like feedback on it to improve the draft.  Please leave your feedback below as a comment below or email me at Jason(at)

What I want to do now is to analyze the idea of intuition and of intuitionism to attempt to understand the phenomenon here and how it operates.  Through this, I don’t want to explicitly refute intuitionism, although I think this is a necessary consequence of our analysis, but rather, I want to show the underlying process that makes up intuition and pull back the veil on it, revealing it for what it really is.  It’s not that I think intuitionism is necessarily wrong, but it most certainly is not necessarily right and we need to consider the thoughts and beliefs we get from our intuition carefully.

Intuition has historically been thought to be the mind’s ability to have immediate access to the truth, without any conscious input.  As an example, you are reading a mystery novel and not thinking consciously at all about the book, when suddenly you just realize that you know who the killer is. Or, you’ve been going over and over a problem in your head and you suddenly have the answer days later when you’re about to go to sleep. This is, apparently, your intuition working to give you the truth even though your conscious mind did not know it.  Thus, intuition is taken to be some kind of direct access to truth.  Now, many have thought that this “direct access to truth” has a divine source and that their god or spirits were giving the truth to a person and this matches the attendant feeling of just knowing and being certain, as though the knowledge were given to us by the divine.  So, the question is, how does this happen?  How can we understand intuition as a real thing in the world without having to rely on explanation based in fantasy and wish?  In order to answer this, we need to take one step back.

I think my theory of emotions (cf. Chapter 2) precisely captures the connection of what we call consciousness and sub-consciousness.  Our conscious mind is the one that is in our control (or, perhaps, we think of ourselves as our conscious minds). It has powers like teleological judgment, abstract reasoning, integration, and differentiation, etc.  It would be inconvenient at best, and completely stifling at worst, to try to live our complex lives with all of our mental functions in our conscious control.  It would simply be too much to attend to at once.  To fix this problem, much of what we need to get through our days is automatized.  This is both natural and desirable.  For example, I need to think critically and engage when learning a new skill like driving.  Once I’ve mastered it, though, I barely need to consider the mechanics of it when I’m doing it.  In fact, once the activity is thoroughly automatized, attempting to consciously focus on it makes the action clumsy and awkward.  This is because our conscious mind has let go of the information and given it all to the subconscious mind.  Now, the conscious mind could choose to relearn it, but, again, there is only so much the conscious mind can hold at once, and so everything we choose to keep there must displace something else.  This should not be understood to mean that everyone has the same capacity in their conscious mind, since clearly we all do not.  What it does mean, though, is that when we learn and automatize a skill, it leaves our conscious mind and resides entirely in our subconscious.

When people talk about using their subconscious for different ends, and let us be clear that this definitely happens, what they have done is to program their subconscious with certain routines and let it operate as normal.  For example, any writer worth his salt knows that writing has two distinct phases: drafting (the putting of words onto paper) and editing (making that into good writing).  In drafting, the writer must let his subconscious freely bring forth his ideas in language.  This is because language is another automatized ability that we have.  Attempting to use language consciously is terribly inefficient and may even be nearly impossible for most language users.  If you doubt this, try to use language consciously: spell each word and sound it out as you go, make sure to conjugate each verb as you go.  Make a conscious choice about tense and make sure you can explain why you chose that tense and not another.  Make sure that you carefully choose each individual word and be able to explain why you didn’t choose any other.  The very enterprise would be prohibitively hard.  The good writer has worked long and hard to develop his writer’s voice and his presentation style.  It is not only what we choose to say as writers, but how we say it and how it affects our audience.  This, however, is far too much to think about consciously.  In fact, if a writer were to try, it would completely stymy the entire process and force the writer to plod along from word to word, with each sentence being an achievement.  It would be, in short, impossible.  The automaticity that our subconscious mind affords us is absolutely critical throughout our lives and this is especially clear for the writer.  For this reason, we utilize the great power of our subconscious.

The subconscious is not some magical thing, though.  Good writers are not born with the subconscious ability to write, this is a skill that must be mastered and perpetually practiced. We can program the subconscious different ways, the artist uses one routine, the writer another.  The man who walks is using one routine, the man who rides a bike another.  Our subconscious is capable of holding many, many, routines in it and every time we learn a new skill (subconscious routine), we add it to our subconscious.  Of course, if we don’t practice these skills, they may fade from our subconscious.  Our subconscious is not a permanent storehouse and I’m sure all of us have had the experience of trying to recall a previously mastered skill and finding ourselves out of practice or “rusty.”  When we need these previously mastered skills, when I need to ride a bike in the first time in many years, for example, I don’t consciously think about what to do, I rely on my subconscious to supply me with this information.  If it has been too long and the skill has faded too far, then I can supplement this with conscious learning, which allows me to use the skill and also re-sharpens my subconscious routine, helping me to do it again in the future.

Now, our subconscious is not limited to physical skills, but can also handle even complicated mental problems.  For example, have you ever been mulling over a very complex mental problem and then have the answer suddenly come to you later, when you’re doing something completely different?  This is your subconscious taking on the mental problem and working on it for you beneath the surface.  You need your conscious mind to live in the world and we can’t always be focusing on mental problems: we need to eat, get to work, bathe, etc.  Luckily we can quickly transfer this problem to our subconscious where our minds can continue to work on it, even while we’re consciously engaged in other tasks.  Of course, if you want to do this consistently, you need to develop a subconscious routine for this.

This ability to sub-consciously work on even very complex mental problems outside of our conscious mind is precisely what we call “intuition.”  Or, rather, it’s called intuition when our subconscious returns the answer to the question it’s been working on.  When we get this answer, it seems to just come to us without us having to consciously think about it (because we haven’t), and we know that it’s right.  This attendant feeling of truth, or correctness that comes with the idea, is because it, naturally, conforms to all the information we have about the issue.  In this sense, it necessarily fits given the information we have available to us.  This is why it feels like it’s definitely true: as far as we can tell, it is.  On the other hand, we may not have all the information.  For example, I may notice that my wife has started acting suspiciously, staying out late with friends, taking secret phone calls, and evading questions about her actions.  I might think nothing of it, then suddenly be hit by the intuition that she’s cheating on me.  And, given the information my subconscious has, it does fit.  So, I commit to confronting her after work, get home, walk in the door, and am met by a gigantic surprise party for my birthday.  Just because the intuition feels true and fits the information, does not mean it is true.  And this is the danger of intuitionism: our intuitions will always feel true and they will always conform to the information we have, but that does not mean they are actually true.

In a very real way, intuitionism is the deification of our own subconscious into an oracle of truth.  And this is absurd, because we all use our subconscious to store automatic routines, memories, and knowledge.  Our subconscious is the great machine right below the surface.  But it is not infallible.  We have all mis-recalled information we were certain of, forget skills at inopportune moments, and generally asked our subconscious for something that it wasn’t able to give us.  Just because we intuit something, does not mean it’s true.  We must use our conscious judgment to determine its truth by treating an intuition as a hypothesis and seeking more information in order to determine whether it is true or not.

Our intuitions cannot serve as a source of justification for a belief, they are based only on our own beliefs and the information available to us and have no necessary connect to reality. When we say that we intuit something, what we mean is this: I got this idea from my subconscious and it just “feels right” to me. This is entirely insufficient to determine the truth of the matter.  In case more refutation is needed, consider how different people have different intuitions: few philosophes seem to share intuitions about what is right and moral.  If intuition were a direct access to truth, this is impossible.  If, on the other hand, we are right, then this only makes sense as different people will have different beliefs and have different information available to them.  In fact, not only can we understand it from our perspective, it is a necessary consequence of our perspective.

Ultimately, intuition can be very useful in life, but it tells us only about our own beliefs and nothing necessarily about the truth.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

by Jason Stotts

I think the idea of “too much of a good thing” being bad is nonsense and it is based on an incorrect understanding of “good”. For Objectivism, for something to be “good,” it must promote the life of the agent. Good, for Objectivism, is not intrinsic, or by divine decree, or some non-natural property.

Furthermore, all things must be taken in their proper context. Exercising is good for you, but exercising until you die is bad for you.  So, it must be a case of “too much of a good thing,” right?  No, it’s just sloppy thinking and dropping the context that the good arises from.  The context here is of a normal person doing a normal amount of exercise.  It is not about diseased people, or malformed people, or people whose bodies have been injured.  It is also not about someone doing exercise incorrectly, or doing too much of it, or doing only very dangerous exercises.  It is about how a general rational person should exercise and the idea that “exercise is good for you” exists as a general principle that must be applied to the life of any individual agent in question.

Moreover, saying exercise is good for you is making very particular claims that must be based in reality.  It is making claims like exercise increases your heart rate and that makes your heart stronger and having a strong heart means you will live longer and that makes your life better: thus, exercise is good.  If any link in the chain is broken, the claim “exercise is good” becomes no more than a floating abstraction unconnected to reality and devoid of meaning.  If one of the premises in the chain is actually wrong, then the claim is invalidated: if, for example, raising your heart rate meant that you would actually die sooner, then exercise would not be good for you.

If you recognize how these general “x is good for you” claims work, as abstract principles, and that they must be seated in context in reality, then it’s clear that the idea of there being “too much of a good thing” is nonsense.  It utterly disregards everything that makes the original claim of “x is good for you” true.

Anti-Conceptual Mentality in Action

by Jason Stotts

I don’t usually talk about myself on my blog, because this blog is about ideas and not its author.  I also don’t usually talk about my part time job, because I’m not exactly proud of it.  However, something happened yesterday that was so funny I can’t help but to relate it to you, dear reader.

I work in the wireless industry and part of my job is to help customers that have problems with their phones. Well, yesterday a customer came in complaining that her new phone, that she just got, was not as loud as her old phone. I asked to see it, to make sure that the volume was as high as it could go.  It was at the max, which was 7.  I told her that it was as high as it could go.  She looked at me and, being completely serious, told me that her old phone was better, because it went all the way to 10, which was louder than 7.

I felt like I was having a Spinal Tap moment and if I wasn’t so sure she was serious, I would have thought she was playing a joke on me, but unfortunately she wasn’t.

As sad as it was, it’s a great example of an anti-conceptual mindset.  Since the number 10 is greater than the number 7, that must indicate that the old phone was louder than the new one.  However, those numbers are arbitrary and don’t reference any facts of reality.  If they had been set in a standard, like decibels, then it might have been a cogent thing to say.  But, because she could not look beyond the numbers themselves to the real underlying phenomena, she couldn’t understand what was really happening.

Just in case you’re wondering, I did look it up and, yes, the new phone had a higher decibel rating and was objectively louder.

Holidays: Altruism’s Corruption of the Holy

by Jason Stotts

Some time ago, I met a young woman by the name the name of Julia.  After getting to know her, I was surprised to find that the Fourth of July was her favorite holiday, since I had never heard anyone identify the Fourth as their favorite holiday.  It’s not that I’m surprised by the choice of days, the Fourth is a most deserving day for celebration.  Indeed, what could be better than a secular celebration of freedom, rationality, and the greatest country in the world?  No, it’s not that I thought her choice unworthy; rather, I was surprised that a religious person would identify this secular holiday as her favorite.

The surprise came for me because I knew that Julia is a committed mormon.  I would have thought that she would pick a favorite holiday that was more consistent with her religious (altruistic) convictions, like Christmas, Easter, or Good Friday.  Realistically the only kind of people that I would have expected to declare the Fourth of July as their favorite holiday would be Objectivists: people who understand the value of our country and what it represents in the course of human development.

Prompted by my confusion about her choice, I decided to employ what is probably my favorite word in the English language: “why.”  I questioned her about her choice and was relieved, and gratified, that when I asked her why she liked the Fourth of July so much, she actually paused and gave the question serious consideration.  I say gratified because it sickens me when people treat serious and important questions quickly and without thought: as though I should be satisfied by their regurgitated answer that they formed in haste and never questioned.  Julia’s pause, however, was more than I expected.  While considering the question, I could see in her face that it was causing quite an internal conflict: her face was both enlightened and troubled by her thoughts.  Her first response was a rather disappointed “I don’t know,” which is perhaps the worst answer possible to any question.  If you don’t know the answer, then your response should be “I don’t know and I’m going to find out.” Thankfully Julia was not satisfied with her answer either and began to reflect again.  This time she did discover the answer, although she still does not realize its magnitude.

Haltingly, and uncertainly, Julia began to explain that with holidays like Christmas, Easter, etc., you are obligated to get gifts for people you don’t really care about and you are forced to be around people you do not really want to be around.  In effect she was telling me that she did not like duty and sacrifice, that these things pained her, although she did not then make the full identification.  Suddenly her staccato answer stopped and her eyes lit up: she told me that the reason why she liked the Fourth so much was because you were not obligated to get gifts for people that you did not like and you only had to spend time with the people you love and want to be with.  In effect, she told me that self-interest was the proper modus operandi and that she was only happy when she was acting in her own rational self-interest, which was why she hated the other holidays.

Since I knew that a direct (blunt) mode of questioning might make her defensive, I instead took a tactful approach and tried to stimulate her mind to make the connections that I thought should be self-evident.  So, I said: “I agree that living your life for others is no way to live.  To be happy, you have to live for yourself”.  She agreed and it was evident from her face that my answer had struck a chord with her; an ephemeral flash of comprehension lit up her eyes.

Now, this is perhaps one of the most poignant cases of the dire necessity of philosophy in life and the consequences of its absence or perversion.  Through something as simple as holidays, Julia was starting to recognize the evil of Altruism and the goodness of Egoism.  Her religion, accepted at an age before she had gained control of her rational and cognitive faculties, had crippled her mind.  Yet, it could not prevent her body’s automated defense mechanism, her emotions, from acting to tell her that something was wrong.  Julia’s emotional response to the threat to her life, as a person if not even literally to her physical existence, caused her to begin to question.  Unfortunately, having accepted the premises of Altruism, she could not identify what was causing her to feel that way.  Emotions are not enough for us to live by and they are not always to be trusted; they can be corrupted, so we need something that is more reliable and, if used correctly, infallible.

Yet, unfortunately for Julia, her religious convictions had crippled her rationality by corrupting her most fundamental premises.  Left in this position, where one knows that something is not as it should be because he feels that something is wrong which he thinks should be right, is a deadly position for many.  Instead of questioning the premises causing the contradiction, many people would instead began to question themselves.  Since they “know” that it is wrong to act in their own self-interest, and yet they only feel happy when they do, they began to regard themselves as evil.  However, the trap is easy to break out of once you realize that the only things binding you are your own mistaken beliefs.  Instead of starting with the premise that acting self-sacrificially is right, ask yourself why it is right.  If you can’t answer the question of why it is right, then you’re certainly not justified in believing that it is right.  Floating abstractions are worse than ignorance, because ignorance is at least honest.

It is in the realm of Ethics that philosophy has most abdicated its role as the protector of humanity, so it is hard to condemn Julia for failing to question Altruism when philosophy itself has historically failed to question this most controversial of premises.  Through most of the history of philosophy, it was taken as a given that man had to act self-sacrificially: it was only the beneficiary that was contested.  The simple fact that man could live for himself seemed to escape the notice of these purveyors of sacrifice.

Holidays, however, are supposed to be celebrations and celebrations are supposed to be life-affirming: no one would celebrate the fact that he had a debilitating disease, whereas we do celebrate the good things in life like graduations, weddings, new jobs, etc.  How, then, can most of what we call holidays cause Julia, and many others, to feel a sense of bitterness and sadness?  It’s through the perversion of morality via Altruism and the destruction of legitimate concepts such as “holiday.”  By turning words that should be employed to praise the nobility of the human spirit into words that are reserved for otherworldly father figures, Altruism has taken reverence for life and tried to substitute its antithesis.  Why do we hate buying gifts for people whom we don’t really like and don’t want to be around?  Clearly this is against our self-interest.  If I do not like someone, I am not going to want to give him a gift because I either don’t value him or I value him less than the value of the gift, but our “duty to sacrifice” our self-interest under Altruism demands that we ignore this analysis and give the gift anyway.  Yet this only causes ill feelings all around as everyone senses that acting contrary to their self-interest is wrong, while at the same time they feel that they are trapped and have no choice but to act self-sacrificially anyway.

In order to fix the seeming paradox of holidays we have to remind ourselves that if we want to be happy we must identify what this means and work to achieve it.  We must question our premises and challenge our most basic assumptions — “why” must become our credo.  We must reclaim the words that the altruists have stolen and perverted.  We have to overcome the privation left to us by the betrayal of our philosophic forefathers and seek guidance from ourselves.

Ethics should not be a set of negative commands: instead of telling you what not to do, ethics should help you live your life.  Ethics, properly, is a system of general principles that try to help you lead a good life.  It is the role of Ethics to identify the good life.  It is the role of Ethics to identify the actions and habits that will help you achieve a good life.  It is the role of Ethics to help us lead good human lives.

If living a good life is not your goal, if you instead stick to mystical decadence, then death shall be your reward.  If you truly believe that living a good human life is not good for humans, think about what this means for you: you desire not to be human, which is a desire for death.  It is by living a moral life that we become happy and it is by being virtuous that we live a moral life.  Without ethics, we are without guidance in the most important thing in the world: our very lives.

In order to live a moral life we must learn that egoism is the path to happiness: our lives are our responsibility and if we want to be happy we must concern ourselves with our own interests.  What right could I possibly have to the life of another person?  We must be self-reliant and never ask another to sacrifice for us and never sacrifice ourselves for another.

In order to live a moral life we must learn the true nature of happiness.  Is happiness merely feeling joyful?  If it were, then we could live our lives well by staying in a drug-induced delirium all day, yet clearly this would not be a good life.  So happiness must be more than merely feelings of joy.  Happiness comes from living a good human life: from pride in our accomplishments and from pride in living well.  Pride was once called the crown of the virtues and happiness requires us to pick up this shattered crown and restore it to its glory.

In order to live a moral life, we must throw off the chains of Altruism.  We must either act to further our life or act to diminish it: there are no other choices.  If we want to live and be happy, we must recognize Altruism as the virulent form of death-wish it is.  Self-sacrifice is clearly anti-life; it asks us to renounce our judgment and our life.  Duty demands that we purposefully act against our lives; it asks us to willing and jovially give up our lives.  Do you now see the monstrosity of Altruism, lauded as the supposed salvation of man?  Sure, it can save us: from life.

There are so many ways that we can take our lives back from the black pit of death: the most important is to merely recognize the nature of the struggle and what’s at stake.  After this, all we need to do is recognize changes we can make in our lives, such as with holidays.

Reclaiming holiday would require no more than for all of us to sever them from their religious basis and celebrate them for their value to our lives and there is, indeed, a great benefit in proper celebration.  Instead of sacrificing ourselves at the holidays, let us instead celebrate them with the people we love and really do want to see.  Instead of getting gifts for everyone, let us just get them for those closest to us who hold the most value for us.  Let us turn holidays back into celebrations of life.

As is universally true, even the hardest issue can be made easy by breaking it down into its fundamental components and analyzing these for what they really are, our minds are capable of coming to the truth of any issue with time and knowledge.  The issue of holidays has led us to understand the conflict of Altruism and Egoism; we have come to universal truth from a particular situation.  This is yet another example of the dire necessity of philosophy and its usefulness in life.  Let us hope that Julia, and everyone else like her, can figure out these complicated issues for themselves and they can start to be truly happy in life.  Reclaimed, holidays will no longer be a source of suffering.  Instead, they will be a source of joy and an affirmation of life: a celebration of ourselves.

Same Sex Marriage and Epistemological Confusion: Revisited

by Jason Stotts

After looking over Qwertz’s original essay again, and in light of the clarifying comments I’ve received on my last post on this subject, I believe I owe Qwertz an apology.  When I originally read his post, I took him to be taking a much stronger, and indeed different,  position that it seems he is actually taking.

In light of this, let me revisit some of the philosophical problems in the post in a different way.

Both Qwertz and I would agree, I think, with the proposition that the terms “husband,” “wife,” and “spouse” are all relational concepts (much like friend, brother, mother, etc.).  Further, I don’t think we disagree about the point that in a relational concept, the essence of the concept is not be found in the people in the relationship, but in the relationship itself.  For example, friendship is not to be found in a person, but is how that person acts and behaves to their friend: the “friendship” itself is the relation of two people to each other.  Further, I think we both agree that the specific relationship that is dealt with here is the marital relationship.  None of these points are contentious.

The point of contention is in how do we define these words.  I agree with Qwertz that: “The simple definition of ‘husband’ is ‘a married man’.”  The problem is that I think he goes wrong when he says: “But the concept actually subsumes all the fundamental properties shared by its units.”  I think that in the case of relational concepts, the entire concept rests only on the relationship itself, and not in the units. Let’s take an example, a bad marriage is not one where the partners in the relationship are immoral, but one where the relationship itself is not working.  This is because the marriage is not just the same as the partners, the marriage (the relationship) is almost like a third thing to the partners.  Having two virtuous people in a marriage does not mean that it will be a good marriage: they may still not be right for each other.  This brings us to the issue of: is being a good X part of the concept of X?  I say no.  In order to even say “good X,” one must first understand what it is to be an X.  Only once it is understood what it is to be an X, can someone then say “…and this is what it would be to be a good X.”  This point is critical because Qwertz is asking whether things like dominance and submission need to be part of the concept of marriage.  Clearly not.  I can imagine a married couple where the man is not masculine and the wife is not feminine and perhaps they don’t even love each other–but they’re still married.  He’s actually asking whether or not certain things should be part of the concept of a good marriage, or a proper marriage (and these are legitimate questions).

The concepts we are dealing with here need to be defined by their essentials and only their essentials.  What is essential about being a bachelor is that he is an unmarried man.  What is essential about being a mother is that she has given rise to offspring.  What is essential to being an X in a relational concept is that X exists in a specific relationship.  To concretize it back to our case: the relationship itself we call “marriage” and men in these relationship are “husbands” and women in these relationships are “wives.”  To ask the further questions about “good marriages” et cetera are a different, and later, question.

Traditionally, of course, being a husband entailed having a wife, but only because marriage was defined as a “union before god of a man and a woman.”  If we go back only slightly further, marriage was an arrangement between two men to exchange property (specifically a woman).  Remember, it was not very long ago that women were property and to rape a woman was an offense against her father, who owned her, and not against her herself, since she had no legal or moral standing.  The thing is that the definition is evolving: it is certainly not before any gods for we Objectivists.  I think more interesting questions about marriage involve what the nature of marriage is: is it a union of two people before the state?  Just their declaration of their love?  A promise to act as a single unit henceforth?  A contract that is dependent only on the parties to it?  There are some really interesting and challenging questions about marriage.  However, I do not find the definitions of husband and wife to be among these, which is not to say that one cannot be interested in them.  If one is having a problem with the words, like Qwertz is, then he is doing the right thing by probing into the subject.

I think part of the problem fueling this is that the “official Objectivist position” on homosexuality is that it is immoral or, if not immoral, then at least a tragic mistake brought about by psychological errors and/or problems.  I certainly don’t have the space or inclination to take on this whole issue here, but I will be posting a revised version of a speech I gave to the Ohio Objectivist Society last year that details my position.  I’m changing some of my arguments based on refinements to the ideas I’ve had since I wrote it last year. Nevertheless, it is foolish to say that because you think the penis has metaphysical primacy, that homosexuality is immoral (if you don’t understand this, go and find all of Rand’s references to these issues and piece her argument together, otherwise I’ll explain in my forthcoming post).

Finally, I want to address Shea (Cogito) and his hysterics yesterday.

Shea: really?  Calm down, people make mistakes.  First of all, I told Qwertz that I published this on the day I did it (see the picture).

Then, the next day, you come along and tell him the same thing directly underneath my comment.  Did you think he wouldn’t see my comment, but would see yours?  And then your melodramatic blog post: “I posted a comment on Jason’s post, but since he moderates his comments and may not approve mine I wanted to post it here for posterity.”  I was at work and couldn’t approve your comment the very moment you wrote it.  I am terribly sorry for the inconvenience.  The way commenting works on Erosophia is that comments from a author need to be approved the first time, but not subsequent times.  As long as you use the same e-mail address to post your comments, you only have to be moderated once.  This prevents spam on the blog, but without making commenters fill out annoying captchas.  Perhaps instead of over-reacting next time, you could just leave a comment or shoot me an e-mail ([email protected]) and just say “hey, I think you may have misunderstood Qwertz’s position.”

Same-Sex Marriage and Epistemological Confusion

by Jason Stotts

I am a fan of the blog WoPSR run by “Qwertz.”  He generally has good analysis and frequently deals with interesting legal issues.  Unfortunately, this time, he strayed too far afield and right into my bailiwick.

In his essay “Rand’s Razor v. Gay Marriage” Qwertz takes the position that for a married homosexual to use the word “husband” or “wife” is inappropriate.  Why?  Because: “I have always found myself a bit nonplussed [d. surprised and confused] whenever I hear someone mention his husband, or her wife. […] This mental response of ‘there’s something not quite right about that usage’ is subtle, but consistent, which makes me think it is not inconsequential and deserves investigation. There are two possibilities: either I subconsciously do not accept a man in a same-sex marriage as a proper unit of the concept ‘husband’; or such a person is not properly a unit of the concept.”  Thus, his reason to think that it is inappropriate for a gay man to use the word “husband” to refer to his spouse is because it makes him feel uncomfortable.

I think he is right that there are two possibilities for this: 1. that he does not accept same-sex marriage or 2. that same-sex marriages should not use “husband” or “wife.”  I’m certainly going with 1 here, but just to be fair, let’s look to the concepts of husband and wife and see if there is something about them that prevents their use in same-sex marriages.

Husband and wife are what is considered a “relational concept,” much like friend, brother, daughter, etc.  In a relational concept, the essence of the concept is not be found in the people in the relationship, but in the relationship itself.  For example, friendship is not to be found in a person, but is how that person acts and behaves to their friend: the “friendship” itself is the relation of two people to each other.

So, we know that “husband” and “wife” are relational concepts, but to what do they relate?  Well, clearly they denote a marital relation: that is, that one is in a relationship that we call marriage.  To say that a woman is “a wife” is to say that she is married; to say that she is “my wife” is to use the possessive, to say that she is married to me.  The concept wife just denotes that a woman is in a marital relationship: but it does not specify with whom. In order to specify with whom, one must add additional information to the concept.  This is very important because the concept that Qwertz is using is “wife+heterosexual+married to a man.”  He’s attempting to load a concept with information that does not belong in it.  Let me draw an analogy with “bachelor,” which everyone who has ever had a philosophy class knows, is “an unmarried man.”  Bachelor is a negative relational concept, it denotes that a man is not in a marital relationship.  Now, imagine if we “Qwertz” the concept and make Bachelor “male+heterosexual+not married to a heterosexual female.”  He’s filling the concepts with information that is unnecessary.

All of this is ironic, as Qwertz asserts that he’s using Rand’s Razor (a coinage by Rand that is a reference to William of Ockham) to mean that: “concepts are not to be multiplied beyond necessity—the corollary of which is: nor are they to be integrated in disregard of necessity.” (ITOE 72).  It’s ironic because his addition of unnecessary information would require that we create a whole host of concepts, like his “gay husbands.”

Thus, I think it’s safe to say that his option 2 falls flat: there is nothing in the nature of the concepts “husband” and “wife” that would prevent them from being applied to a same-sex marriage.  This, by process of elimination, leaves us with option 1: Qwertz does not accept same-sex marriage as legitimate.  Frankly, that’s a personal problem and, Qwertz, you need to just get over it.  Just because it makes you feel uncomfortable does not mean that you should attack same-sex marriage: that is the modus operandi of the christians.

How about this: let’s just all accept that some people are gay and they deserve to be happy.  They deserve to have relationships, to be in love, and to have their love recognized by others and the state.  There is no danger in this to heterosexual marriage or children or the nature of society.  The only danger it has is to our unchallenged beliefs that we will be forced to confront–and that’s the real fear isn’t it?  That we’ll all have to look inside ourselves and actually think about homosexuality.

TED: Temple Grandin

by Jason Stotts

In one of the most epistemologically interesting videos I’ve ever seen, Temple Grandin talks about what it is like to think as an autistic person.  From the description:

Temple Grandin, diagnosed with autism as a child, talks about how her mind works — sharing her ability to “think in pictures,” which helps her solve problems that neurotypical brains might miss. She makes the case that the world needs people on the autism spectrum: visual thinkers, pattern thinkers, verbal thinkers, and all kinds of smart geeky kids.

The implications for epistemology that different minds can think differently is astounding!  In fact, it could completely change the way that epistemology is done today.  Instead of assuming that one human nature means that there is one right way to think, it might mean that there are multiple valid ways to think.  This means that we may have to have an epistemology that is capable of accommodating these different thinking styles.  For example, “pattern thinkers” have a distinct advantage for mathematics and music.  As an abstract cognitive thinker, I find music and art impossible, but Philosophy very easy.  Epistemology should be able to integrate all of these different ways of thinking and be able to give a cogent account of them.

I’m going to be getting her book soon and I’m planning an essay on this subject for sometime in the near future, after I learn more about it.  Until then, take a look at her video from TED.

Dr. Tiller Was Murdered

by Jason Stotts

Last May, Dr. George Tiller was gunned down by a religious fanatic in a church.  The fanatic’s name was Scott Roeder and he defended his actions by saying that he was justified in the killing because Dr. Tiller was an abortion doctor who was “murdering unborn children” who could not defend themselves.

A jury, however, has reasonably concluded that Roeder’s actions were nothing less than premeditated murder.  (Fox News)

This case deeply saddens me and I think that there are some very important lessons that one can learn from it.

The first is that the irrationality of faith is antagonistic to reason and civilized society as well as being a deadly danger.  Faith can justify anything; literally anything.  A person can have faith that they see their god and he tells him to kill a child or start a war.  There can be no check on this if you admit faith as a valid method of thinking and acquiring knowledge: if you admit faith as a principle, the murderer is simply the more consistent adherent of his faith since he actually follows it.  However, as Nietzsche says: “A casual stroll through the lunatic asylum shows that faith does not prove anything.”

A somewhat different issue is that language can influence your thoughts.  To refer to the mass of cells growing inside a woman as a “fetus” (correct) as opposed to an “unborn child” (incorrect) is an epistemological error.  A child is a developing human that has reached the stage where it can survive as a discrete entity.  That is, a child is something that can live by itself and does not have to be fed through an umbilical cord.  It would be more correct to call it an “unborn baby,” but here too the critical distinction about the ability to live as an independent existent comes into play.  It’d be better to think of it as “still developing  into a” baby.  However, until it has independent existence, it has absolutely no moral status.  This is because it is a potential human and not an actual human until it is born and gains independent existence.

Religious dogma has perverted thinking here because it needs it’s god to give the developing baby a soul in order for it to fit into their framework of understanding.  This “ensoulment,” to use the catholic term, is nothing but a fiction that is necessitated by their insistence upon the Platonic eternal soul that comes from their god.  There is no evidence of a soul, it is an article of faith.  However, on the religious viewpoint, once a being has a soul, it is a human.  That’s just nonsense.  However, for a religious person it means that a fetus is a person and has full moral consideration, since it is ensouled.  I think the only logical conclusion is to deny abortions to religious people and let anyone else have free access to them.

The point, though, is that failure to have clear thinking can have deadly consequences and in this case a good man was gunned down senselessly by a religious fanatic whose mind was perverted by his faith.


For a fuller account of my position on abortion, see my essay “Truly Pro-Life: Personhood and Abortion“.