Thursday, December 31, 2015

Old chestnuts, roasted afresh

Q:  Do bears poop in the woods?
A:  Actually no.  It is rumored that they used to, and perhaps the occasional wayward baby bear still does;  but modern bears use chemical port-a-potties, like everyone else.

Q:  Is the Pope Catholic?
A:  Actually not.  It is a central tenet of Catholicism that, in matters of faith and dogma, Catholics must acknowledge themselves subordinate to the Pope;  and the Pope can hardly be subordinate to himself:  that would be a logical contradiction.
Never thought of that, did you?  So, while His Holiness no doubt cherishes fond memories of having once been Catholic, and retains friendly feelings towards the faith even still, he is not himself --strictly speaking -- actually Catholic.

Q:  Why is the sky blue?
A:  It isn’t.  It’s black -- go out any night and see for yourself.
As for the blueish glow that some people fancy they see at other times (except when cloudcover removes the illusion), that is simply a side-effect of light-pollution.

~  Ask Doctor Justice ! ~
~~  Science U Can Trust (TM) ~~


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Tunisie: anniversaire de la mort de Mohamed Bouazizi

A l’occasion du 6me anniversaire de la mort de Muhammad al-Bu`azîzi  auto-immolé, nous remettons notre essai de l’époque.


Well over a century ago, Karl Marx set out to come to grips with history  by discovering its laws of motion.   The philosophical and scientific underpinnings of this enterprise were significant;  the allusion to Newton, deliberate.

In the aftermath, the laws he developed (the labor theory of value, the falling rate of profit, etc.) have proved a most uncertain guide to actual events on the ground.   This does not per se refute these laws themselves -- to see this, we need look no farther than physics:  Knowledge of the Schrödinger equation, Maxwell’s equations and the rest, is of little help in predicting the evolution of a hurricane  or the flight of a bat.  And even in the classical arena of a single billiard-ball, prediction quickly breaks down  unless the table is one of a sharply restricted set of shapes.

A fortiori, predicting human events at any granularity finer than that of the Kondratieff cycle  finds little support in the laws of Marx.    To discern the trigger of events (as opposed to their full background), we almost need to stand Marx on his head:  A man will not revolt because he is poor, but he may well take to the streets from resentment of his better-off neighbors.   A huge amount of what happens in the world  is the immediate result of wounded pride.  SUPERBIA, and its thwarting, lies coiled at the heart of events.

Pieter Bruegel der Ältere -- Das schlimmste der sieben Laster


Thus, consider the astonishing wave of revolts these days in the Arab world.   The ultimate fostering causes and conditions  are many;  but the spark that toppled the first of the dominoes  was the self-immolation of the Tunisian Muhammad al-Bu`azizi (محمد البوعزيزي -- usually transcribed Bouazizi).

Why did he do it? 
The standard narrative is a dumbed-down, sanitized version of the actual roilings of Geist und Zeitgeist -- spirit and the spirit of the times.  As:
When police confiscated his produce because he didn’t have a permit he became so sad that he set himself on fire in protest.
(Actually, lack of permit was not the problem:

… the desperate act of an unemployed man. Mohammed Bouazizi, 26, distraught when police confiscated his unlicensed produce stand, set himself on fire
-- Mona Eltahawy Washington Post, Saturday, January 15, 2011
(Not quite right to call him unemployed;  he worked as a street vendor.)

Likewise Le Monde (5 Jan 11):
Ce diplômé au chômage s'était aspergé d'essence devant la préfecture, après s'être fait confisquer la marchandise qu'il vendait dans la rue par la police municipale parce qu'il n'avait pas les autorisations nécessaires.

(Actually he was not a diplômé -- he may not even have finished high school.   This meme crept in probably because it conforms more exactly to a self-pitying standard Western narrative:  college graduate can’t find employment commensurate with his/her own outstanding excellence.)

And the New York Times:
March 1, 2011
Future historians will long puzzle over how the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, in protest over the confiscation of his fruit stand, managed to trigger popular uprisings across the Arab/Muslim world.

Future historians  may indeed wonder, if that is the narrative they are working from.  Such an account leaves it incomprehensible why the man resorted to such an act -- “They took my bahnahhnahs!   Pass the kerosene!” (shades of the Walrus and his Bucket) -- nor why it resonated so sharply among the populace:  the more so since, as these same accounts acknowledge, petty police harassment of vendors was an everyday thing:  a harassment that, indeed, pales beside the tortures that go on in the prisons, out of sight.   And it highlights the foolishness of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks who point fingers at the intelligence community and demand to know why it did not predict this.

This morning, the Washington Post belatedly alludes to the truth:

The psycho-sociological crux is front-and-center in this earlier, better article:

Slap to a Man’s Pride Set Off Tumult in Tunisia
Faida Hamdy, a 45-year-old municipal inspector in Sidi Bouzid, a police officer’s daughter, was single, had a “strong personality” and an unblemished record, her supervisor said. She inspected buildings, investigated noise complaints and fined vendors like Mr. Bouazizi, whose itinerant trade may or may not have been legal; no one seems to know.
On the morning of Dec. 17, when other vendors say Ms. Hamdy tried to confiscate Mr. Bouazizi’s fruit, and then slapped him in the face for trying to yank back his apples.
“She humiliated him,” said his sister, Samia Bouazizi. “Everyone was watching.”

The point was not the apples, but being publically bitch-slapped by a policewoman.

This is not a narrative that Western liberals wish to hear.  Neither Thomas Friedman,  sucking such factors as “Google Earth”, “the Beijing Olympics”, and “something I’ve dubbed ‘Fayyadism’ ” out of his outsize thumb to explain it all, nor Hillary Clinton, peddling her one-size-fits-all Wellesley agenda around the world, is furthering comprehension.  Nor will Marx help much -- more like Freud.

Die materialistische Theorie,  auf den Kopt gestellt

Update:  Indeed, as reported in the 4 April 2011 New Yorker: "The initial slogan was 'Dignity Before Bread', because Bouazizi was humiliated.”

[Update 6 Aug 2011] Sidi Bouzid:  the sorry, sodden aftermath.

In Tunisian Town of Arab Spring Martyr, Disillusionment Seeps In

[Update 2 April 2012] 
Triste mise à jour:

[Update 16 Sept 2012]  Reflections on the subject, in the wake of the Anti-Islamic Video affair, that led to the storming of embassies:


The basic point here is not new.  Perhaps the bottom of this page may become a repository of similar observations.  Thus, Christine Stansell (American Moderns, p. 140), on the anarchist Emma Goldman (whose floruit antedates America’s entry into WWI, and thus the Russian Revolutions and the foundations of the subsequent CPs):
She argued that it was “spiritual hunger and unrest”, not just economic oppression, that drove people to rebel.

Bertram D. Wolfe's autobiography, A Life in Two Centuries (1981):
War fits even less than nationalism into the materialist interpretation of history.  … The driving forces of modern war are fierce untamable mass massions -- pride, anger, xenophobia … The ‘war aims’, the material motives and calculations, had hastily to be improvised after war erupted, to give the irrational explosion … an ostensibly rational explanation…

And, again in a Muslim context:

Pakistan’s generals and diplomats  were proud but easily bruised.
-- Steve Coll, Ghost Wars (2004), p.  516

In the American sociological tradition, motives similar to these (which I have called by the grand old word Pride) have been discussed more academically and sedately under the rubric status anxiety.  A valid perspective, certainly, but one that does not quite manage to get its arms around the deep upheavals that are shuddering through much of the world today.  You don’t go to the public square and set yourself on fire out of status anxiety.

For a classic analysis of the role of Thwarted Superbia  as the hidden key to mass behavior, see the account by Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage" (1990).


When a subset seeks political independence,

Its intellectuals will exchange second-class citizenship [in the extant larger polity] for a first-class citizenship [albeit in a second-rate state] plus great privileges based on rarity;  its proletarians will exchange hardships-with-snubs  for possibly greater hardships with national identification.
-- Ernest Gellner, Thought and Change (1964), p. 172

[Updates & Afterthoughts]

Gideon Rachman meint, dass die Anerkennung eines verletzten Nationalstolzes in vielen internationalen Krisenherden eine wichtige Rolle bei der Konfliktlösung spielen könnte. "The implication of all this is that solving international conflicts may involve thinking as much about emotions as about interests. Sometimes the concession required to address a sense of national or cultural humiliation may be impossible. Nobody is going to concede a caliphate to tend to the wounded feelings of Isis. But sometimes the gestures required to restore a sense of national pride may be relatively minor. Greece does not seem to have extracted significant concessions from its creditors. Nonetheless, a display of national defiance, combined with some linguistic and technical changes, appears to have mollified the Greeks for now. As the west contemplates a dangerous conflict with Russia and the ambitions of China, it might remember that symbols can sometimes matter almost as much as substance."
(Financial Times vom 09.03.2015)

[Update 9 February 2016]   What the media remembers of this signal incident, has settled back into banal economism, passing over  in silence  the angles explored above:

Kasserine was one of the cradles of the Arab Spring, which started in 2011 when a street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in a neighboring province after being stopped by the police from selling his produce.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Modus tollens tollendus est ! (iterum re-updated anew)

In philosophy there are very few  and perhaps no valid  logical-impossibility  or reductio ad absurdum  proofs.
-- Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue (1981; 21984), p.  101

Wer A sagt, muss auch B sagen.
-- old folk-saying

Die bürgerliche Stellung des Widerspruchs
-- L. Wittgenstein, Philosophische Untersuchungen, #125

An example of epistemological ‘character armor’:

All scientific research programmes may be characterized by their ‘hard core’.  The negative heuristic of the programme  forbids us to direct the modus tollens at this ‘hard core’.  Instead, we must use our ingenuity to articulate or even invent ‘auxiliary hypotheses’, which form a protective belt around this core, and we must redirect the modus tollens  to these.
-- Imre Lakatos, “Morphology of Scientific Research Programs”, in I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (1970), p. 133

In political or religious ideology, there are obvious analogues of this ‘hard core’.  (E.g. 'sacred cows'.)


[This exercise originally began as a simple application of cool, unruffled logic  to a sociopolitical topic too hot to handle in less rarified terms.  The point was, If you were logically consistent, you would … (taceo).  But a working-out of the general intellectual idea  led, inevitably, towards that domain (mathematics, logic itself) where the very idea of consistency is most at home;  and led, less obviously, to a kind of backhanded defence of inconsistency  (wherein we follow our countryman Emerson, in his depreciation of that ‘hobgoblin of little minds’).

Modus tollens is that figure whereby, when a proposition entails a falsehood, that proposition is infirmed.   The procedure finds general acceptance among the logically inclined.  This essay considers cases where otherwise logical people nonetheless kick against the pricks of this restriction.

We now return to the original plan.]

~      ~      ~

It should be obvious that the fundamental objections to racism and sexism … apply equally to speciesism.
-- Peter Singer,  Animal Liberation (1975), p. 6; quoted in Stephen Schwartz, A Brief History of Analytic Philosophy (2012), p. 282.

Singer’s proposition has the form  “P => Q”;  we shall call it the “Singer Sentence”.  It is, so presented, a proposition, and no mere proposal, since he claims that it is “obvious”, presumably because founded upon a generally-accepted principle:  basically, What’s sauce for the goose  is sauce for the gander.    Since that principle is reasonable (we have often invoked it ourselves), though extra-logical, we have no a-priori quarrel with the Singer Sentence at all.

Suppose, however, that you yourself eat meat, wear wool and leather, and are content that rabid dogs should be shot.  Suppose further that -- selfish cad that you are -- you do not, like the saintly naked Jainist, wear a veil before your lips when drinking tea, lest you accidentally imbibe some supernatant insect.   Nor (for shame!)  do you enjoin your dentist and your physician  to refrain from administering anaesthia or antibiotics, on the grounds that these, having been developed with the aid of experiments on helpless animals, are fruit from a poisoned tree.   And suppose that (blast your impudence!)  you do not intend to amend your ways.  Well then, in effect, objectively, you hold that “not-Q”.  What follows from this?

What follows (by the most elementary logic -- the rule known as modus tollens) is that, if you assert the Singer Sentence, then you must needs conclude:  not-P.   -- That, of course, would be a political catastrophe.

Short of adopting Jainism, there are only a few ways out:

(1) Have recourse to a kind of meta-tollentic principle, to the effect that any set of propositions which entail not-P  must itself be denied, P being unantastbar.

(2)  Proclaim the truth of Q, even while continuing your carnivorous habits;  shrug apologetically; reference Emerson re the "hobgoblin of little minds".

(3) Boldly hold the joint and several validity of :
P;  P=>Q; and not-Q. 
Then utter not another word upon the subject.
Such a mindset is known as “doublethink”.  It is not so bad once you get used to it, judging by its millions of satisfied customers.


Whether the ethic of ‘speciesism’, to use Richard Ryder’s term, can be put on a logical footing  any more sound that that of ‘racism’, I do not know.
-- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976; 2nd edn. 1989), p. 10

(That ‘any more’ sounds rather half-hearted …)


There is a different sort of logic-chopping that may be operative in a case like this.   Someone wishes, for non-logical reasons, to assert that Q; then trumps up (fallacious) reasons for asserting that P => Q.   (Thus, currently, in a certain political fringe, the desired outcome is “It’s all Obama’s fault”.  Whatever P may arise in the world, a hasty P => Q is asserted, to reach the desired conclusion.)   But, for psychological and political reasons, I do not believe that Singer himself is here guilty of this:  he in all likelihood does feel ethico-logically compelled to deduce Q, however unwelcome that conclusion may be in many quarters.   For he likewise (by different steps) reaches a quite distinct and socially unmentionable conclusion (this time concerning deformed fetuses or the disabled), and one which is precisely of a nature to enrage that segment of society which would embrace his earlier conclusion about animals.  So, no, Singer was not trying to win any popularity contests.

[Footnote] For those of you in the quandary (2), here is the place 4 U to shop (courtesy of Garrison Keillor):

People’s Meats

Most of us accept strict vegetarianism as the best way,  but many find it difficult to change their eating habits.  People’s Meats is an interim solution.  All of our meat comes from animals who were unable to care for themselves any longer.  Hoping to phase out the operation, we do not advertise hours, prices, or location.  We do not deliver.

~            ~            ~

The analysis above was clad in sociopolitical raiment;  but its skeleton is logical, which is subject-matter-neutral.  Consider the following (which is skeletally somewhat distinct, but in ways  unimportant  for our purpose):

Let P be standard mathematical praxis.   (And here -- as seldom -- we actually are referring to the human practice of mathematizing, rather than to the timeless and species-independent truths of mathematics itself, whatever these may be.   For more on the distinction, see here:
Something similar to the  P => Q step was broached about a century ago; it concludes (while using reasonable background metamathematical assumptions comparable to the “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander” enthymeme above) that this standard practice leads to paradox.  As John von Neumann put it,

A closer study of the merita of the case, undertaken by Russell and Weyl, and concluded by Brouwer, showed that the way in which  not only set theory  but also most of modern mathematics  used the concepts of ‘general validity’ and of ‘existence’  was philosophically objectionable.
-- quoted in James R. Newman, ed. World of Mathematics (1956), p. 2058

Must we then give up P?   Brouwer (a Dutch mathematician who had previously proved important results) now plays the role of Singer, and went on to his logical conclusion:

A system of mathematics which was free of these undesirable traits, “intuitionism”, was developed by Brouwer.  In this system  the difficulties and contradiction of set theory  did not arise.  However, a good fifty per cent of modern mathematics, in its most vital -- and up to then unquestioned -- parts, especially in analysis, were also affected by this “purge”:  they either became invalid, or had to be justified by very complicated subsidiary considerations.
-- id.

(That final clause is a far more dreadful consequence than might be apparent to those outside mathematics, since mathematicians prize elegance and generality of proof. )

Du muss dein Leben aendern ...

So -- shall we bow to these strictures, and surrender our mathematical meat? 

Von Neumann goes on:

Only very few mathematicians were willing to accept the new, exigent standards for their own daily use.  Very many admitted that Weyl and Brouwer were prima facie right, but they themselves continue to trespass, that is, to do their own mathematics in the old, “easy” fashion -- probably in the hope that somebody else, at some other time, might find the answer to the intuitionistic critique and thereby justify them a posteriori.

In short, the bulk of mathematicians adopted strategy (3) above.

Brouwer, like Singer, went on to make a pest of himself for many years.  

Intuitionism -- initially a sort of mathematical vegetarianism -- is by no means dead.  Michael Dummet, no crank, espouses intuitionistic logic (I am currently painfully working my way through his essay on the subject, line by line.)   And it has subsequently morphed in ways that are quite beyond me, e.g. in topos theory.

[Footnote 2, a half hour later]  In his essay “The Philosophical Basis of Intuitionistic Logic” (1973), Michael Dummet writes (for our present purposes, the context is unimportant), concerning a proposal that he has just put forward:

What is involved is a thesis in the theory of meaning  of the highest possible level of generality.  Such a thesis is vulnerable in many places:  if it should prove that it cannot be coherently applied  to any one region of discourse,  to any one class of statements, then the thesis cannot be generally true,  and the general argument in favor of it  must be fallacious.  [dbj:  That last phrase has rather a Sherlockian cast to it.]  Construed in this way, therefore, a position in the philosophy of mathematics  will be capable of being undermined by considerations which have nothing directly to do with mathematics at all.

This amounts to offering a hostage to fortune -- specifically, a hostage to modus tollens, in its strong quantified form:    P => x Q(x):  the existence of but a single exception (x  ¬Q(x) )  blows the whole game.


We need not have recourse to anything so rarified as ethics or metamathematics  to be confronted with an apparently (morally, intellectually) scandalous state of affairs:  It stares us in the face in that favorite tow-headed boy of the philosophy of science, physics.   And here, in that most venerable part of it,  Maxwell’s theory of electromagnetism.  Rock-solid in its own day, it survived (and even helped inspire) the introduction of Special Relativity.  It fit smoothly with the new developments in non-EM forces, graciously uniting with the Weak force to form the Electro-weak, and so forth.  And yet, in the context of the atomic theory, it was (if only in whispers) an intellectual scandal, since it predicted that atoms were unstable:  the whirling electrons would radiate energy away and quickly collapse into the nucleus.  Thus, the material world as we know it, could not exist.

Now, one stance of reaction in the face of so bald a challenge, is to say:  “R-r-right!  Science cannot err;  ergo, the world as we know it  does not exist.  Meta-ergo, we all are just brains in a vat.”   Such, in effect, is the path taken by contemporary eliminative materialists -- a shuffling tribe of hunchbacked ne’er-do-wells, who, faced with their irrefutable failure to derive free will, faith, thought, beauty, aspiration, or much of anything of value, from their prolonged and proctoscopic vivisections of sea-slugs and the like (to which the World of Dr Justice, friend to all creatures great and small, responds with the evisceration of eliminative materialists)  -- these gentlemen (stretching that word to its breaking-point), these … bipeds, conclude that Free Will is an illusion, faith and beliefs and reason  all one great gigantic joke, and that we are all just robots, brains marinating in a vat of simulation, or (barely) glorified sea-slugs.   (In this they are partly correct:  the eliminativists -- mark the name -- are but brains in a chamber-pot.)

So, are those who do not take that bold blind path, whenever some contradiction turns up, in a state of intellectual bad faith?

The answer is a subtle and qualified mmmm….n-n-no-o-o …..  For relief, we turn to Quine.


We frequently do turn to Quine for relief,  to savor his elegant pellucid prose, when the cacophony of the agora grows too rebarbative.    Yet it is not for his literary qualities that we seek him now, but for his (jointly with Pierre Duhem) holism.  Specifically, his celebrated doctrine that theses face the tribunal of experience, not single-spies, but as a corporate body.  There are (so to speak) concentric shells of propositions relatively dispensible and relatively central:  but in principle, none is immune to revision.  (Intuitionists have even gone dicking about with the Law of the Excluded Middle, and you don’t get more central than that. -- In that case, Quine was unimpressed:  “When you change the logic, you are only changing the subject.”  Rather a Platonist remark, that, Van.)

Thus, consider again the plight of electromagnetic theory, faced with the atomic paradox.  Its bacon was eventually saved, not by any refinement of that theory itself, but by an entirely unanticipated development:  quantum mechanics.

Now, there is no sense in which a pre-quantum physicist could have said “We saw that coming” or “Toleja so”.   Until the quantum theory arrived from nowhere, physicists had been content to simply live with the contradiction, in the classic fashion of Walt Whitman (“Do I contradict myself?  Very well then, I contradict myself.”)   And their quietism was justifiable, even during the years when no resolution was in sight.  For, Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory had done sterling service  both practically and theoretically, in a host of ways.  [This, I am aware, is intellectually comparable to the classic defense of Mussolini, that he made the trains run on time.]  The fact that it predicted an anomaly on the atomic level … well okay, an anomaly involving THE ENTIRE UNIVERSE BLOWING TO BITS -- but still, an atomic anomaly, not a macroscopic one (save secondarily), suggesting that one might, for the duration (until this beast be slain), simply wall-off the subatomic level (“there be dragons”) and get on with our lives.  It certainly did not make sense to throw out the Maxwellian baby with the anomalous bathwater.

In the case of EM, it turned out that there wasn’t even any bad bathwater to discard:  electromagnetism survived intact.   In the case of the aether, the anomaly was the Michelson-Morley experiment, whose results were later explained by yet another where-did-that-come-from new revolutionary theory, Special Relativity;  and in this case, the aether theory had to be discarded.   But both cases illustrate the thesis of Quine-Duhem, that when a body of doctrine is challenged, it is not initially evident which pieces must eventually give, and some may be close to the core of the structure.   In the case of Relativity and quantum theory, the transmogrification went deeply into the core indeed, upending our notions of space, time, causality, and continuity.   In retrospect, those curiously stable atoms seem not so bad;  the explanation is harder to live with than was the thing that was unexplained.


A word on our less-than-effusive approval of Quinean holism.
It is all too easy to imagine self-serving uses of such a principle.  As, Dennis the Menace, caught with his hand in the cookie-jar, exclaims:

“Mother, do not prejudge!  Granted, your B-fibres seem to present an image of someone resembling young Master Dennis with his arm hovering above a receptacle of some sort.  The hand itself -- which you suspect of larceny -- is not visible;  perhaps it has been tragically amputated, in which case the young fellow is more to be pitied than blamed.  Yet, how are we to reconcile this dubious alleged image with the far more desireable thesis that his character is pure as the driven snow?  Remember:  Propositions face the tribunal of experience as a corporate body!  Perhaps 'tis but an illusion of swamp-gas;  nay, perchance the fault lies somewhere in that oft-critiqued principle of Induction …”

(Later, as he sits with his pookie-bear in the familiar corner, he steams:  “But I had her epistemologically …”)


Of all human endeavors, surely mathematics is the most sensitive to refutations, however slight.    Yet behold this brawny scoffing attitude, specifically as regards the central and indispensible Calculus (famously the target of Bishop Berkeley’s barbs -- which it shrugged off):

If the calculus had not been ‘justified’ Weierstrass-style, it would have been ‘justified’ anyway.  The point is that the real justification of the calculus  is its success.
-- Hilary Putnam, “What is Mathematical Truth?”

Breezy, that!  Huey Long couldn’t have put it more pithily.


And now let us bring it all on home:  confronting the challenge of modus tollens, when a refutation or contradiction or paradox is met, in its home territory of mathematical Logic

Celebratedly, the great German logician Frege  fell into despair (his masterwork already in galleys), upon being informed by Russell  of the latter’s eponymous Paradox. 
There we see  the logical conscience  at its most delicate.  For  Russell’s paradox, worthy though it be, is rather far-fetched, involving sets-that-are-members-or-not-members-of-themselves  (to which your average mathematician, let alone physicist, will say:  Huh??), all too reminiscent of the well-known but trifling Barber Paradox, involving a purported barber who “shaves everyone who does not shave himself”.  Paradox:  Does he shave himself???   Answer:  Fageddaboudit;  ain’t no such barber.

Rather other was the case of Quine’s Mathematical Logic.   In the version of its first edition (1940), this was shown to entail a contradiction.
Now:  an axiomatic system of logic, such as ML, is so tightly knit, that one bad apple really does spoil the whole barrel -- you can’t just shrug and say, “Nobody’s perfect.”  The situation in question, is generally held to be a catastrophe -- that any system which can derive a contradiction, can derive any proposition at all.
However, Hao Wang stepped in (ever the gentleman), and tidied things up, and all was well:  put right  in the second edition.
Haec fabula docet:  Contradictions are a bummer,  but don’t commit suicide  on their account.

[Footnote]   The Duhem-Quinean corporate-body doctrine  can be stated in terms of modus tollens, thus.  Given

            P1 + P2 + … Pn => Q
we conclude
            ¬P1  ¬ P2 …    ¬Pn
That is, at least one of the co-conspirators whose conjunction led to a falsity, must itself be false.
But this does not imply  that the eventual valid conjunction will involve most or even any of those Pi;  we might even toss the whole lot of them overboard, and usher in a whole different set of conjuncts, to accomplish what we previously attempted with the P’s.  Such, roughly, describes the introduction of quantum mechanics, or the refutation of astrology, or any other paradigm-switch between incommensurables.

In his section on Quine-Duhem, Lakatos writes: 

Some people felt intuitively that the modus tollens from refutation  may ‘hit’ very distant premisses  in our total knowledge,  and therefore were trapped in the idea that the ‘ceteris paribus clause’ is a premiss which is joined conjunctively with the obvious premisses.  But this ‘hit’ is achieved, not by modus tollens, but as a result of our subsequent replacement of our original deductive model.
-- Imre Lakatos, “Morphology of Scientific Research Programs”, in I. Lakatos & A. Musgrave, eds., Criticism and the Growth of Knowledge (1970), p. 186


On a related note, another look at the notion that, should you ever derive a contradiction -- not as a tollentic hypothetical, but as the result of a deduction -- it’s Game Over for everything you’ve ever done.  A noted logician writes:

In an inconsistent system, every proposition is a theorem.
-- Hao Wang, From Mathematics to Philosophy  (1974), p. 42

Yet a few pages later  he qualifies this:

There is a generally accepted principle  that a contradiction implies everything.  We may yet distinguish proofs of the system which go through contradictions  from those which do not.
-- Hao Wang, From Mathematics to Philosophy  (1974), p. 47


Purely linguistic note:  A savorsome turn of phrase for the modal-tollentic move, one which I had not previously encountered:

Assume  towards a contradiction  that there is a set U  T that is not in T’.
-- Volker Runde, A Taste of Topology (2005),

~    ~     ~

There is a curious parallel, or at least an analogy, between, on the one hand,

(1) the foundational challenges to mathematics  alluded to above, together with, not a refutation of that challenge, but a broadly dismissive (and, arguably, pragmatically well justified) response on the part of professionals in the field;

and on the other hand

(2) recent broad-bore philosophical challenges to adaptationism (neo-Darwinism), along with the overall reaction of evolutionism’s professionals: indifference or -- the socio- and noö-politics of the thing being what they are -- foaming hostility.

Consider in particular  a recent (2010) volume co-authored by Jerry Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarelli, the well-written if pugnaciously titled What Darwin Got Wrong.
Their basic thesis is extensively and subtlely argued; hopefully I don’t overmuch crush it by fitting it into the following nutshell:

=>  The (currently hegemonic) gene-centered adaptationist theory  empirically does not work; indeed, for quite general reasons (having little to do with biology per se) it could not work even in principle;
=> A holistic, phenotype-cum-ecosystem-cum-kitchen-sink-centered approach  might -- might -- prove valid, at least in principle;  but in practice, the problem is intractable from a nomologically explanatory standpoint, apart from occasional lucky breaks.

Or, in the author’s own undistorted prose (p. 127):

To be sure, none of that actually shows that there aren’t laws of selection:  there may be, on the one hand, units of phenotypic change, and, on the other hand, units of ecological change;  and there may be laws that connect the two.  But there’s no reasons to suppose, as adaptationists routinely do, that the units of phenotypic change  are anything like what we generally think of as individual phenotypic traits.

(For connoisseurs of academic-polemical rhetoric, there is actually a sly move here.   While rhetorically conceding the possibility of a pheno-unit/eco-unit correlation, thus retrodictively legitimizing the latter two theoretical posits, these supposititious entities “units of ecological change” are by no means as familiar as other entities in the ontology of biology, and on the face of it  sound sort of bogus…)


We must distinguish two categories of challenge to any received body of doctrine:  The Anomaly; vs. Foundational.   The former (speaking just psychologically now) can either represent a mere annoyance  (or even:  Something to be hidden from the fickle general public at all costs, lest they overestimate its importance -- e.g.,  Evolution, Climate Change, anything medical), or a (possibly career-making) challenge.   The latter, to almost everyone, from the man in the street to the faculty lounge, tend to be just d*mned annoying.

Thus, consider  the Lasting Atom Scandal of the pre-quantum years, a poster-child example of Anomaly. (Nobody called it that, but  in all candor  they should have.)  This was phenomenologically egregious (in ways even a layman could understand), and had to be resolved somehow (some day, by someone else) -- indeed, imagine that the problem existed today, rather than a hundred years ago:  You’d have Republicans calling for the de-funding of physics, demanding e-mails archives, etc.  But it did not necessarily challenge -- certainly it did not set out to challenge, chin-foremost -- the nature of (say) Time, or Energy, or  for that matter  the existence of atoms (which had indeed been doubted by scientists, much later in history than most folks realize, but on quite different and less sophisticated grounds).

This anomaly, as we have seen, turned out to be handled in the most gratifying way possible:   We got to retain all the Maxwellian E-M we had laboriously learned, and now the new Quantum Mechanics stepped in (Jeeves-like)  to handle the anomaly.

More recently, there actually have been some challenges to physical theory  at a more basic level:  Time, which hoped to have escaped further challenge  by being subsumed into Space-Time, is once again on the carpet, from string theorists and others, who maintain that such parameters should fall out of a final theory, and not be input to it.  

Had such a challenge been posed, say, in the nineteenth century, it would have been an impudent kick at the foundations.  But now it (allegedly)  grows out of theory:  The theory may be mistaken, but it calls Time into question because it thinks it has something better. 
Much of the history of physics has been like that -- which is partly why it has been (politically) such smooth sailing.   Michaelson-Morley presented an Anomaly to the aether theory -- but no-one had been going around snarkily dissing ideas like distance and simultaneity until Special Relativity came along and re-conceived these.  This was (to use the Hegelian terminology, which here does fit) not a destruction, but a sublation  of the old ideas.

Sometimes there will be a simple anomaly, such as the discovery of continuous-but-nowhere-differentiable-functions, or space-filling curves.  These are eventually gobbled up and incorprated into a more robust and sophisticated mathematics.
Often an original sui-generis gnarly anomaly  will suggest a more general research program:  As, We need to pay closer attention to matterns of continuity and convergence (pointwise, uniform, almost-everywhere, etc., on the analytic side; and eventually the full exfoliation into the neighborhood-systems of topology).
Quite otherwise are challenges that come out of nowhere and that threaten to knock the stilts out from under you.  Russell’s Parodox, reaching Frege at press-time, did not strike him as another delightful puzzle to wrestle with some Sunday morning, but as a poisoned dart in his life-work.   Though they individually made numerous important positive contributions, the lytic work of Gödel and of Brouwer can be read this way, challenging the very notion of validity, truth, and proof.   Denial of the Excluded Middle indeed!  “Sirs, there you go too far!”  (“When you change the logic, you are merely changing the subject.” -- Quine, dyspeptically.)

Schematically (in your worst nightmare):
“Miller has reduced mathematics to set-theory;  and Spiller has shown that set-theory is rotten at its foundations.  Therefore everything that you are doing, or have ever done, or ever could do in your sorry life, is utterly worthless.”

(Pontius Pilate; Brouwer; post-Modernists):  “What is truth, anyway?  Huh? -- Meh.”


[Afternote]   It is a highly useful feature of the Blogspot interface, that it allows hot-linked Labels.    So for instance, were you disposed to read more by or about Mr. Hao Wang, for example, you would simply click on his name in the Labels field, and you will see every post so Labeled, in reverse chronological of posting.   But, annoyingly, there is a stringent limit on how many Labels any given essay is allowed.  We filled this one up with mathy stuff and now have no slack left over for the Darwiny bits.  So here you go:

Note:  The last two are not redundant upon each other, and indeed have (I believe) zero overlap.  Darwin was not an ultra-Darwinist;  “Je ne suis pas marxiste” -- Marx.

Additional relevant Labels, which (boo, blogspot) would not fit into the Label field  for this post:

[Post-Afternote]  Other examples of modus drasticus tollens.
A mittel-europäischer rationalist recalls “those golden, and, all in all very peaceful final decades of the colonial system”, and adverts ad the hermeneuts:

The argument seems to be -- Descartes led to Kipling.  We repudiate Kipling, so we must repudiate Descartes as well.   The expiation of colonialism must include the repudiation of clarity, for that had been but the tool of domination.
-- Ernest Gellner, Language and Solitude (posthum. 1998), p. 176

We, by contrast, raise a glass to Kipling;  so if this Descartes fellow had anything to do with it, chap can’t be all bad.

“During five literary generations, every enlightened person has despised him,  and at the end of that time  nine-tenths of those enlightened persons are forgotten, and Kipling is  in some sense  still there.” -- George Orwell, 1942

Modus tollens has surprisingly many enemies. Intuitionists, indeed, reject it:

The intuitionist position is that one can only state “P or Q” when one can give either a constructive proof of P  or a constructive proof of Q.  This standpoint has the consequence that proofs by contradiction (reductio ad absurdum) are not valid.
-- José Ferrerós, “The Crisis in the Foundations of Mathematics”, in Timothy Gowers, ed., The Princeton Companion to Mathematics (2008), p. 150

Holism à la Duhem-Quine  skirts it with a flanking maneuver:

… arguing that a given observational consequence is deduced  not from an empirical hypothesis alone, but rather from the conjunction of this hypothesis with the relevant set of auxiliary assumptions.   Hence, the failure of the observational consequence does not deductively refute the hypothesis by modus tollens, when taken by itself, but discredits only its conjunction with the pertinent auxiliaries.  
--  Th. Kupka, “Introduction”, in: Adolf Grünbaum, Collected Works, vol. I (2013), p. 2


Another example from a political context, where propositions are surrounded by swarms of sensitivities --  Re series of premises and conclusions relating ethnicity, nationalism, and industrialism:

The argument is impeccable.  Its premises are valid.  How can a valid inference from true premises  yield a conclusion which appears to be wholly refuted by historical reality?
Ernest Gellner, Nationalism (1997), p. 32


Quite different in purpose and detail from the classical modus tollens, is the assumption of a premise known to be contrary to fact, but where you have antecedently proven (at great expense of elbow-grease) that the assumption of this simple premise does not effect the results of calculations which otherwise must be carried out laboriously.  As, when (having slogged through a bit of integral calculus) you prove that, in calculating the gravitational effects of a ball, you can pretend that the entire mass of the ball is concentrated at the center:  an enormous simplification.  Or again:

We can get the correct answer for the probability of partial reflection  by imagining (falsely) that all reflection comes from only the front and back surfaces.
-- Richard Feynman, QED (1985), p. 107

The elegant idiom for introducing such a foredoomed hypothesis is “Suppose, per impossibile, ...”

At the antipodes from the “tollendus” camp, are the celebrants of falsification or falsifiability, associated  in particular  with the name of Karl Popper. ...


An inner layer of the onion

The lead article in this morning’s New York Times  features a lengthy look-back on a scandalous story from March of 2015:  the mob-murder of a woman in Afghanistan, upon charges that she had just burned a Koran.    To publish such a follow-up is quite commendable, as so many complex events are misconceived during the initial period of their media notoriety.  At the time, the story was reported along the lines of:   Yes, she apparently burned one, who knows why, but she was already known as a lunatic, and should not have been held responsible for the act, let alone murdered. 
An investigation followed, and the paper today states:  Farkhunda had not burned a Koran.”   An obviously crucial point (logically, legally), entirely independently of whatever further feelings or philosophy you might personally entertain (and, as usual, we are dealing here only with the logic of the case, not trying to push one opinion or another).  -- But why, then, (you will immediately wonder) had the mob set upon her?  -- Ah, wheels within wheels.

What is alleged to have happened is this: 

Farkhunda first visited the Shad-Do Shamshira shrine … It was a Wednesday, women’s day at the shrine, when men are not allowed.  The women commiserate about their lives.  They visit the fortuneteller to buy amulets to help them get pregnant, find a husband, or have male children.  Known as tawiz, the amulets usually consist of writings on a small piece of paper  that a woman can pin to her body or keep in a pocket.  Farkhunda was appalled at the way the women’s superstitions were being exploited … She confronted … the fortuneteller.

The article then veers off in a more salacious direction, not strictly relevant to the crux of the story, about how the fortuneteller was selling Viagra and condoms on the sly.    To prevent Farkhunda with trashing her trade, the fortune-teller evidently decided that the best defense is a good offense, and accused her of burning the sacred volume;  that was passed to the mob, and grisly events followed.

There is a religious background here, however, which is crucial to the case;  and ultimately puts all this in quite a different light (theistically/legally;  no defense intended  of the quick-trigger savagery of the mob).

Now, neither birth-control nor aphrodisiacs are per se normally forbidden in Islam (though abortion is); for the latter, consult this jolly summary:

But the amulets (and the fortuneteller) are quite significant here to the essence of the story, and the article does not spell this out.
The reader might get the impression that Farkhunda was simply objecting to the use of the shrine as a place of commerce, and upbraided them the way Jesus chased the money-changers from the Temple.  But the commerce in fortunetelling and amulets is islamically much worse -- as though the Temple-defilers had been selling pagan idols rather than merely changing your drachmae into denarii.   Mainstream (Sunni) Islam is quite emphatic in condemning pagan survivals and polytheistic deviations;  here Wiki quotes a hadîth (saying of the Prophet) against amulets:

وفي الحديث: مَن عَلَّق تَمِيمةً فلا أَتَمَّ الله له. وتعليق التمائم من فعل الجاهلية، كانوا يعتقدون أنه يدفع عنهم الآفات

The word used here for ‘amulet’ is tamîmah; the verb here, atamma, is from the same root, and the saying has the air of a bit of wordplay.  The word used in the article, tawiz, is from classical Arabic  ta`wîð  (accented on the second syllable; rhymes with seethe), from a root meaning ‘to seek refuge (from evil, with God)’, familiar in the common apotropaic phrase  a`ûðu bi-llâh.
As for fortune-telling, that too is deprecated as a survival of the jâhiliyyah (the Days of Ignorance before Islam) -- though in practice, a kind of Koran-based analogue of the bibliomantic sortes Virgilianae does survive, in the tolerated form of the istikhârah. 

Thus, at this point (as the article does not notice), Farkhunda appears, on the face of it, as a defensor fidei, in the face of her backsliding compatriots;  and thus, prima facie, a charge that she burned a Koran  would seem absurd.

But now comes a crucial further development, which the article quite glides over:  It seems that, in her iconoclastic zeal, Farkhuna went on to burn some of those amulets by setting a fire in a trash can.   Left to their own devices, readers may recall Christ’s equally vigorous action in the Temple, overturning the tables of the money-changers.  And had these amulets been, say, jade idols, there would have been no Islamic problem with destroying them -- indeed, ISIL and and Taliban deem it a duty, blowing up pagan statues far and wide.   Only … that is not what the ‘amulets’ are.  Reread the description: “the amulets usually consist of writings on a small piece of paper”.   Umm… What kind of writings?  “Today you will meet a tall dark stranger”?  “Help I’m a prisoner in a Chinese fortune-cookie factory”?  No:  typically, verses from the Koran.

Thus, it would appear that, indeed, Farkhunda did burn the sacred verses after all;  only, in the form of loose pages, rather than a bound book.  And that distinction is religiously immaterial.   It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that she was, then, within the culture, actually guilty  more or less as charged.


Secular readers will be unmoved by all that, and feel justified in not even attempting to understand what is really going on theologically (and thus, within Sharia, legally).  But abhorrence of burning God’s word, or even (in whatever secular context) the mere name of God,  is familiar, not only in Islam, but in Abrahamic religion generally. We deal with the matter here:

The ancient Jews, whether learnèd or otherwise, were loath to burn any scrap of writing, lest it contain, somewhere within it, the name of God (or rather, in keeping with the Hebraic decencies, the name of G*d).   Accordingly  those  who lived in Cairo, buried all excess scrip and scripture, in storerooms and cemetaries.


Such folk-superstitions as talismans and fortune-telling  may have a particular flavor in Muslim lands, but much of it is an area rather than intra-confessional phenomenon.  Thus, consider the folk-belief in the Evil Eye, characteristically circum-Mediterranean.

Two examples from my personal experience -- everyone involved being highly educated and long living in America.

(1)  A Christian woman originally from Lebanon was introducing her class to Lebanese culture, and mention the tradition of the dreaded al-`ayn.   Of course, she said (standing there in fully modern Western dress), that’s all just superstition, people don’t really believe in it anymore, only … A change came over her, and her eyes turned inward, as she reminisced.
“Just last month something happened… I had a very fine tall potted plant in the entry-way, and a friend came to visit, and remarked on how nice the plant was.  And … the next week … it had withered and died!”
That would be a prototypical case of hexing via the Evil Eye, whose essence is envy.
Thus:  Hint to non-initiates.  When dealing with people from a Mediterranean culture, be especially cautious of praising their children, and being careful to dot your discourse on such subjects with mashaallaah!, which reputedly draws the sting of the Eye.

(2)  I once took dialect tutoring from a woman originally from Baghdad.  Though Muslim, she did not seem to have narrow religious views -- her parents had sent her to a Jewish school for one year, simply because it was conveniently in the neighborhood;  and she sometimes prays to the Virgin Mary (“since only she would understand a woman’s troubles”).  The class went well.
Later, two (Christian) young women, colleagues of mine (one blonde, one brunette, as we shall note so as to tell them apart) shared tutoring-sessions with the same teacher.  But the brunette noted that the teacher would never look directly at her, though she was at ease with the blonde.   When the brunette would ask a question in Arabic, the teacher (looking away) would respond in English -- vitiating the point of the class.
“As the weeks went by, I got more and more frustrated,” she reports.  “And then I noticed that, each week, the teacher had put on yet another piece of turquoise jewelry.”   Suddenly she realized what had been going on:  this young woman had blue eyes (not very, though), and that feature is said to be characteristic of al-`ayn.  The turquoise stones function as (blue) amulets against this.