high five

[1] Free will.

~ The thoughts are free!

~ So you think!


The belief in free will is an epistemic illusion. The belief may not be mandated by nature, but nature has prepared us to adopt it as soon we are nudged along by our cultural environment [which is, of course, also part of nature; think what this does to your belief that there is a distinction between nature and culture]. If I complain that free-willers use their epistemic illusion to explain and excuse their moral and moralistic views on the necessity of punishment, I cannot take a moral stance vis-à-vis them without falling into dreaded coherence. So I will refrain from mocking free-willers. This may seem like a freely made choice to you, but I know that you know better.


Favorite phrase from the rhetorician’s scrapbook: Proteron hysteron. If you don’t get it, don’t worry; it’s an egg-and-chicken thing.


Word of the day: Euphuism: that which I am trying to avoid today.


Back in college, I was going to write this paper on metaphysics, but my typewriter broke.

[2] Buddha’s illumination. As I understand it, a bodhisattva is someone who has a strong wish to achieve enlightenment, as Siddharta did. How do we know then whether Bill is a bodhisattva? Because he says so. That is enough. Bill’s claim needs no validation because desire is not defined by necessary traits, states, or behaviors. It gets tricky when Bill claims he is a more advanced bodhisattva than Bob (Bob might disagree). Bill might claim that he has had the desire to find enlightenment longer than Bob has (Bob could dispute this claim unless he his younger than Bill and Bill claims he has always had that desire – I am bracketing out their potential dispute over having had the desire in previous lives and have had it continuously in their mind-stream, i.e., even between incarnations. Bill might refer to more dedicated enlightenment-seeking behaviors, but doing so, he gets on the thin ice of having to explain how behaviors are relevant; n.b., behavior is separate from desire.

Kon Buddha

A buddha is someone who has attained enlightenment. How do we know that this is so? If enlightenment is a rarefied condition or experience, we, who have never known it, cannot recognize it. This, at least, is my take. You might argue that we, who are not the sun, can look up and recognize the sun for what it is. By analogy, the endarkened many can recognize the enlightened few – somehow. We recognize the sun by his physical light, and so we recognize a buddha by her spiritual light. What is this spiritual light? I will have to leave it to my buddhist friends to explain its nature. If they don’t succeed, I must conclude that the acceptance of the idea that Bill is a buddha can only come from Bill himself, the claims he makes to persuade a few, who then go forth and persuade some more, until we have a significant chunk of persuaded humanity.


Phrase of the day: argumentum ad verecundiam


[3] Carnivory. When contemplating the Dalai Lama’s dietary pickle, I came to the conclusion that if you want to eat meat you must be willing to kill an animal. In most of human (pre)history, there was a proximity between the eater and the eaten. Most individuals participated in the hunt or witnessed it, or they were involved in the slaughter of domestic animals. We now live in a world in which meat comes to us as an industrial product. Most of us rather not think about the fact that the Beef Stroganoff used to be a bull stroganoff or that the Scallopina Milanese used to be a Lombard pig. Since I wish to remain a carnivore, I decided to kill a rooster (under the guidance of an expert). I learned that before you cut his throat to let him bleed out, you thrust a knife through his open beak to cut the brain. It’s quick. I felt nothing. I helped with the plucking but opted out of the gutting. 


[4] Shower power. Entering a shower not in my house (sometimes even in) remains a source of apprehension for me (as confessed here). After having been a student of shower design (and how it goes wrong) for several years now, I was hoping to reduce the probability of unpleasant surprise. In particular, I had come to believe that no shower design could reduce me to a help seeker. I learned otherwise in a Best Western hotel in Long Island City, Queens, New York. The fixture looked confidence inspiring at first. There were separate levers for heat and volume (see pic 1), although the position of the former would make sense only relative to the position of the latter . . . but hey. But how could I get the water to come out of the showerhead and not out of the tub tap? I looked for pins, levers, and switches all over, to no avail. Then I noticed a

shower sign

sign daintily placed off to the side, at mid-height, in the soap cradle. It instructed me to pull the golden ring (see pic 2). What? Only the Ring of the Nibelungen came to mind. With my feet already wet, I surrendered ignominiously and called the reception. The young lady had no idea what’s what, but promised to send a shower technician upstairs. Back in the shower, and before the friendly hydro-engineer arrived, I stumbled into the solution. There was a golden ring under the tub faucet (see pic 3). If you didn’t know it was there, you could see it when crouching in front of the back of the tub, which, I assure you, is a rather unnatural position. Then, in hindsight, the drawing on the sign made sense. Trouble is, it is supposed to make sense in foresight. If I may add a pedantic note, I’ll have you notice that on the

sign, the faucet, which is below the showerhead in actuality, is depicted as being above it. After one-trial learning, my ablutophobia is restored.

[5] Critical theory. A reader of my post The experience of the paranormal complained that I “scoff ignorantly at what [I] don’t understand.” I differ. I scoff gnorantly. Seriously now, after several posts articulating my skepticism regarding paranormal claims in general and Daryl Bem’s presumed demonstrations of psi in particular, I wrote “The experience” as an attempt to understand the power of unusual experiences and the appeal of fanciful (paranormal) explanations thereof. While I sympathize with the appeal of these experiences and the need to explain them somehow, I abhor the attitude they beget in some individuals.

Let me review some of the common themes. Skepticism regarding paranormal claims often takes the form that there is no convincing empirical evidence (yet) for the claim. Critics may point out ambiguities in the study design or outright methodological flaws. They may also refer to failures of replication. To this, advocates of paranormal claims can perpetually hold out the hope that the definitive study is just around the corner (or they refer to older studies that were discredited long ago, but the discreditation has been forgotten). The hope for the decisive experiment is nourished by the sense that even the most adamant critics of method seem to agree that the claim can be supported in principle. Then another study comes along, generates excitement among the hopeful and elicits a critical reception among the skeptics. This cycle can go on for decades or centuries, as it has in the case of psi. No individuals in either camp will ever need to feel compelled to surrender their starting position. This is not an efficient way to make progress.

It is more efficient to present an existence proof, for everyone to see, once and for all, that X exists. Unfortunately, the detonation of the first atomic bomb at Alamogordo, New Mexico, on July 16, 1945, was such an existence proof. To now say that atomic bombs cannot be built, and have never been built, requires an elaborate conspiracy theory. It would be extraordinary if there were a Manhattan Project on psi and if it were proved once and for all that Robert sent thoughts to Edward, once he had figured out how to do it, and then patented the technology.

In the absence of positive existence proofs, critics of psi can surrender to the endless cycle of claim and critique, or they can make a stronger claim that certain feats are impossible in principle. I think there are great advantages to this approach. It recognizes that once we have learned positive lessons about Nature, we have learned that by implication that certain other things are impossible. Once we know that the Earth travels around the Sun, we know that the reverse is not going to happen. Even Hume, who took pains to argue that this inductive inference is illogical, was content to accept it.


Advocates of psi, or those who just want it to be true because they think they have experienced it, sometimes counter the impossible-in-principle argument with the charge that this argument is doctrinaire and smacks of closed-mindedness. Perhaps absence of proof is not a proof of absence, but that does not mean that anything is equally likely to happen. If, for example, you wish to hold on to the hope that telepathy is possible, and if you construe your hope as open-mindedness, where would you draw the line between that which is possible in principle and that which is not? Suppose you also have a soft spot for telekinesis. You have seen gifted people demonstrate it on TV. Whatever object they were seeming to move was right in front of them. Now how about combining the distance factor of telepathy with the physical movement factor of telekinesis? Why not advocate the belief that you can lift a glass of raki in Istanbul by force of will? Why not add the dimension of time and advocate the belief that you can lift the glass of raki in Istanbul a week hence by thinking about it now? Why not add the direction of time as a factor and advocate the belief that by thinking about lifting a glass of raki in Istanbul now you make it so that it lifted (seemingly on its own) last week? One could go on making the belief ever more exotic. 

The question is whether an advocate of what now seems a rather modest claim of telepathy in the here and now at some point turns into a critic. Either there is such a point, which means that the advocate agrees that the “this is not possible in principle argument” is agreeable in principle. Or there is no such point, which means the advocate believes that anything is possible and nothing is impossible – in principle. I am afraid that the latter attitude is little else but rhetoric. It is completely unshackled from any burden of providing evidence or logical coherence. Can we retroactively undetonate the Alamogordo bomb? Why sure. Why not? Anything is possible. To say it can’t be done is doctrinaire and closed-minded.


Instructors often need a few minutes to 'decompress' after teaching a class session. What do they do before or during class? 'Compress,' 'depress,' or just 'press?'

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