Saturday, March 25, 2017

A Late Start on Lent

I did not receive the Ashes this year; and have no excuse, nor lessons to tell.  But it is never too late to … shut up;  so, no more posts until I am better instructed.

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Continuum: Mainstay or Menace? (erweitert)

The Continuum:  the original sin, from whose fecund loins
came all that is non-constructive in mathematics.
-- Anon.

Kronecker dismissed mathematical entities beyond the natural numbers as “Menschenwerk”.  An average practicing mathematician (who uses such entities all the time) may  agree with him to this extent:

(1)  Our intuitions about the natural numbers are clear and solid.   So long, indeed, as one deals only with some set of actual numbers (thus, a finite set), nothing especially surprising  or even all that interesting  turns up.  If we extend our horizon to the actual infinite of the set of all natural numbers, we meet some concepts that take getting used to (Hilbert's hotel):  but once we’ve done so, they seem natural enough.

(2) The rationals and negative integers  definitely, the algebraic numbers  probably, pretty much come along for the ride (that is, you can hardly exclude them once you’ve accepted N), and they still bring in no paradox – being, after all, of the same cardinality as the natural numbers themselves.  Though, a case could be made that these are not “entities” of the same standing as the integers, which in a sense we can hold in our hands (embodied in oranges, say), but rather abbreviations for operations on integers.  Thus, we cannot hold minus-two oranges in our hands; minus-two is not a thing, but a bookkeeping device. 

(3)  The real numbers, by contrast, are … a piece of work.  Maybe even Menschen-work, except that one could hardly imagine Menschen coming up with anything so intricate and even bizarre.  Their very cardinality baffles intuition  -- and the independence of the continuum hypothesis  shows that we are right to be baffled.  [Note:  The simple infinity of the integers already baffles *untutored* intuition;  but eventually you get the idea.  Click on the Label "Hilbert's Hotel" for further exemplification.  Whereas, the cardinality of the continuum is more like... Hilbert's Nightmare...] All sorts of queasy consequences arrive for simple quantification (cf. Quine re.  objectual vs. substitutional quantification).  The reals were invented (discovered?) for purposes of analysis, which in turn was developed largely for the sake of physics: but it now appears that physics (whether in its quantum cast, where Uncertainty provides a certain indissoluble granularity; or in the Wolframesque finite-automata approach) might not actually require, or afford, a continuum.

And yet standard mathematics speaks indeed ontologically of the reals, not merely pragmatically.  Thus for instance, Rudin’s standard text (Principles of Mathematical Analysis, 3rd edn. 1976, p. 8):
We now state the existence theorem [emphasis in original] which is the core of this chapter.
Theorem. There exists an ordered field R which has the least-upper-bound property.

The author then mentions that the proof actually constructs the Reals out of the Rationals.  This is, of course, the most solid sort of proof of all – not one of those Cantorian diagonalization thingies that has you winding up assenting to the Infinite Woodchuck, without ever quite knowing how you got into such a fix.  It gives you an actual recipe for the construction of these extended numbers, as concrete and explicit as for baking a cake.  And yet… all kinds of things can be thus “constructed”, at will, including items which presumably are not part of the furniture of the universe, in the sense that angels actually sit on them.


A roaring vote of confidence in the continuum  is voiced by the noted mathematician René Thom:

“God created the integers and the rest is the work of man.”  This maxim spoken by the algebraist Kronecker  reveals more about his past as a banker who grew rich through monetary speculation  than about his philosophical insight.  There is hardly any doubt that, from a psychological and, for the writer, ontological point of view, the geometric continuum is the primordial entity.
-- “’Modern’ Mathematics: An Educational and Philosophic Error?”, in American Scientist (1971), repr. in Thomas Tymoczko, ed., New Directions in the Philosophy of Mathematics (1986, rev. 1998), p. 74.

That is in-your-face Platonism, with which, quâ Realism, we have no quarrel.  But the psychological claim seems dubious:  Our intuition of the continuum is probably no more than a vague notion of a smear (and not very infinite at that, neither going out nor going down).   And as for the ontology … When we first meet the Real numbers mathematically (that was the very first thing we did in first-year calculus, with the opening chapter of Spivak’s text), we conceive them as the completion of the rationals.  And such they are indeed:  only, with respect to the metric provided by the absolute value.   With a p-adic valuation, you get a different completion of the rationals, the p-adic numbers.   Lastly, the surreal numbers augment the continuum in yet a different unexpected direction.  (I have less than no intuition about any of this.)

The physicist Schrödinger is less sure:

The idea of a continuous range, so familiar to mathematicians in our days, is something quite exorbitant, an enormous extrapolation of what is really accessible to us.
-- Erwin Schrõdinger, “Causality and Wave Mechanics”, repr. in translation in: James R. Newman, ed. World of Mathematics (1956), p. 1059

And from an Intuitionist (close kin to a physicist):

This could be done  by seeing the continuum as something that is infinitely becoming, instead of already being.
-- Dennis Hesseling, Gnomes in the Fog:  The Reception of Brower’s Intuitionism in the 1920s (2003), p. 333

(Compare our old friend the actio/actum distinction.)
Might be fine for physics, doesn’t work for math.  ‘See’ it however you like; that uncompleted-account doesn’t jibe well with Cantor-style constructions.


One might say:  The continuum feels unproblematic enough, so long you take it for granted, as just some kind of smooth dense slippery thing, like mud.  Yet so soon as you pause to enquire more nearly, you are back in Saint Augustine’s predicament with regard to Time: “Quid est tempus? Si nemo a me quaerat, scio …”


Even in a universe which (like Wolfram’s) abjures the continuum, the continuum might turn out to be mathematically indispensible for its treatment.   Cf. the indispensible role of “imaginary” numbers in electromagneticsm or quantum mechanics, even though all observables must be real-valued.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

The crown-bound brows of the Bard of Hibbing (expanded)

Well I recall, in 1965, listening to the new album “Highway 61 Revisited” in my parents’ basement;  thinking:  This is the real deal.   Unlike much of the pop music my generation has enjoyed, this will last (thought I);  people would still be listening to it,  fifty years from now.

Then the decades went by, his career veered into less interesting avenues, and his voice lost much of its timbre and zing; I no longer followed his activities.

Yet lo -- Who would have predicted that, half a century from 1965, not only would people still be listening,  but the old codger would still be touring.  A lot.  Amazing.

And now the Nobel Prize.   Kind of out of left field, but one of the committee members made the valid point:  that, going back as far as Homer, poetry has been meant to be performed, even sung.  And this, in many different cultures.

The rustic troubadour, in a lyrical mood

So:  A tip of the stetson to you, old man.

~  [The genre now shifts  from memoir  to sotie] ~

It is not for us to add any groat’s-worth of comment to his abundantly documented biography.   Yet we do take comfort in having been, apparently, the only HRNS [highly-respected news site] to document Ibn-Guthrie’s  brilliant but little-known 1965 concert in Oslo:

[Footnote] I just checked the link for this song:
Remarkably, it is still available -- most songs by the Prairie Skald  have been deleted or disabled on YouTube by the Copyright Police.   The Norwegian lyrics of this one  apparently protected it -- de minimis non curat Attila.   If this trend continues, by 2076, all Internet content will be in the Norwegian language.


Meanwhile, the snarky, fairly brainy site Boulevard Voltaire, is underwhelmed:

Nobel de littérature : aujourd’hui Bob Dylan, demain un « twittérateur »

They offer a political décryptage for the Committee’s choice, which I leave to your perusal.  That the choice might be politically motivated is not out of the question:  certainly this year’s choice for the (always highly politicized) Peace Prize makes no sense at all aside from such a perspective.  (And it’s not the obvious one -- nothing to do with the FARC really.  But my keyboard is running out of pixels, so you’ll have to figure it out for yourselves.)


Back to the blind bard of the Achaeans.
Whatever might have been their origin in oral performance, some folks have felt that such hit ditties as “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey” read pretty well on paper too.  Whereas Zimmerman’s lyrics, so displayed, are thin stuff.  He himself took them seriously as poetry; the lyrics were printed in full on the backs of his albums of circa 1965. 
I recall in the late ‘sixties, when (excellent) bootleg albums  were appearing (like the Basement Tapes), a book of poems came out, Tarantula.    Still very much a fan, I almost bought a copy, but, glancing at it first, was obliged to toss it aside.  (Lennon’s In his own Write was actually amusing by comparison.  Heck, I even enjoyed Ono’s Grapefruit -- now there’s a collecter’s item.)

It is no knock on his song-lyrics as lyrics  to say that they fail to impress on the printed page.   One of the finest lines of all time, from the world of music, goes:

Bom ba-bom bom,  ba-dang ba-dang dang,
ba-ding ba-dong ding   BLUE MOON.

No seriously, it’s great;  but you have to hear it, not read it.

Okay, that said:  We could still defend the Committee’s decision on the grounds that it recognizes the oeuvre, not sub specie printed poetry, like that of the modern eye-poets, but as a Gesamtkunstwerk, the music no more abstractable from than lyrics  than flesh from bones, or “The Godfather” from its soundtrack.

In any event, the Nobel committee was not the first to consider pop lyrics an integral part of the poetic canon, next to T.S. Eliot  and all the rest.  For, the anthology of American poetry published in 2000 by the prestigious Library of America, includes ditties from Tin Pan Alley (Ira Gerschwin, Lorenz Hart) and Delta Blues (Blind Lemon Jefferson  et alia).   And indeed, as I near the end of reading through both volumes, it may be affirmed that those offerings, while hardly standouts, are at least entertaining and worth reading  -- an evaluation that I would deny to (alas) a great deal that made it into these volumes, and that from  famous pens.

[Update 26 March 2017]  A judicious and enjoyable survey of the state of affairs, by David Orr, may be savored here:

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Singapore twistystich

A wa-ry cat   with a lopped-off tail
dashed   past  a plaster    lion
and disappeared
behind a forecourt wall.

-- Mark Abley, The Prodigal Tongue (2008), p. 62

Julian the Apostate mini-multistich

I folded the letter
into many squares,

than the other.

[--Gore Vidal, Julian (1964), p. 199]

Friday, March 17, 2017

Julian the Apostate multistich

“Do you think I would have minded  that?”
She turned  full on me,
and the  large  black  eyes       blazed
like obsidian
in the sun.

[--Gore Vidal, Julian (1964), p. 157]

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Code Red

            Code -- Red!
            Rest in bed.
            Time to soothe
            your sleepy head.

{ for more about the lovely snow,
   gently press …    here …. }

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Kahneman, Dyson; Freud and James; plus Pinker (expanded)

Daniel Kahneman is an intellectual grey-eminence of the past several decades.  If you read at all, you have met some of his ideas (usually written in conjunction with his trusty sidekick Tversky) , though generally at second-hand.  Now he has written his own lengthy and systematic account of his research, aimed at a lay audience.

Most reviews of Daniel Kahneman’s new book (Thinking:  Fast and Slow) simply choose a few from his wealth of anecdotes  and recount them.  Not a bad plan -- they are all worth hearing.  By contrast, Freeman Dyson, in a typically canny offering in the current New York Review of Books, goes beyond the usual review, offering some trenchant personal experiences that illustrate the cognitive case being made, and -- quite surprisingly in the current climate -- puts in a word for Freud:  not the Freud of Die Traumdeutung or the cigars, but of the seminal Psychopathologie des Alltaglebens.   He concludes: “The insights of Kahneman and Freud  are complementary rather than contradictory.”
Noting that neither Sigmund Freud nor William James comes in for mention in Kahneman’s long book, Dyson also outlines the present relevance of this giant of psychology (and one of the heroes of this blog).

Make no mistake -- Kahneman, like Steven Pinker, is one of psychology’s good-guys, plumbing the richness of human experience  though coming to mostly dry and deflating conclusions.   Unlike the eliminative materialists (which includes many of the tribe of neuroscientists), they do not take mere mechanism as a posit, rather than as an occasional result.  James and Dyson, unlike most of their scientific colleagues then and now, have thought deeply about religion and take it quite seriously;  our family had the benefit of Dyson’s teaching at the Presbyterian Church in Princeton.   His invariably broad and thoughtful perspective is ever welcome.

Footnote:  I subsequently borrowed an audiobook of Thinking:  Fast and Slow from the library, to listen through in stages along my commute.   Alas, it turns out not to be suitable for that medium, save perhaps for a beginner.   Far too much of it is platitudinous  -- boring to sit through, while the reader-aloud drones on.    With a printed work, your eyes rapidly scans past the overly familiar, and plucks the occasional novel niblet.
Part of the problem is adumbrated in this passage from America’s premier psychologist of the nineteenth century:

Philosophers long ago observed the remarkable fact that mere familiarity with things is able to produced a feeling of their rationality.
-- William James,  “The Sentiment of Rationality”, in The Will to Believe (1897).

Kahneman rediscovers that remarkable fact, with much spilling of ink, waving of hands, and conducting of unsurprising experiments. 

More interesting in what James writes immediately after that, showing that today’s postmodernist-style relativists  have also not brought forth something new under the sun:

The empiricist school has been so much struck by this circumstance  as to have laid it down that the feeling of rationality and the feeling of familiarity  are one and the same thing, and that no other kind of rationality than this exists.

(I have satirized that dreadful mindset  here.)

In an earlier essay, we examined the politics and natural selection of sex as reflected in the writings of Steven Pinker.   There is a Kahnemanian cognitive dimension here as well, of which we now give an example.

Pinker wades patiently through the swamps of Political Correctness;  we salute his perseverence.   It really is remarkable, the sort of emotionally-founded cognitive distortions he must contend with.

Thus, consider this thought-experiment:  Imagine that some researchers published a study suggesting that the higher crime rate for American Blacks is a consequence of innate criminality.  They would of course be denounced by Blacks and their champions;  but would scarcely be denounced as blaming White crime victims.  So much is obvious.

Yet now put in different substitutions for x and y, and though the logical structure has not changed, the political picture has changed entirely.   The Blank Slate, p. 161:

Even heavier bipartisan fire has recently been aimed at Randy Thornhill and Craig Palmer  for suggesting in their book A Natural History of Rape  that rape is a consequence of men’s sexuality.  A spokesperson from the Feminist Majority Foundation called the book “scary” and “regressive” because it “almost validates the crime and blames the victim.”

By contrast,  men as such  did not object.  We’re used to it.
The average zealot would be quite incapable of perceiving the logical parallelism between the two accounts.
Similarly Pinker, op. cit., p. 372, re the "Laws of Behavior Genetics":  "It is because the laws run roughshod over the Blank Slate, and the Blank Slate is so entrenched,  that many intellectuals cannot comprehend an alternative to it, let alone argue about whether it is right or wrong."  A depressing, accurate, and important observation.

Here and elsewhere, Pinker counters the Noble-Savage ideology that whatever is found in nature must be good.  P. 164

It is inherent to our value system that the interests of women should not be subordinated to those of men, and that control over one’s body is a fundamental right  that trumps other people’s desires.  So rape is not tolerated, regardless of any possible connection to the nature of men’s sexuality.

So far, the standard viewpoint, sensibly put.  But then Pinker, whose logical scalpel is sharp, cuts down another level to make a quite interesting philosophical point:

Note how this calculus requires a “deterministic” and “essentialist” claim about human nature:  that women abhor being raped.  Without that claim  we would have no way to choose between trying to deter rape  and trying to socialize women to accept it, which would be perfectly compatible with the supposedly progressive doctrine that we are malleable raw material.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
Nook lovers are book lovers!
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *
For college psychology instructors:
Here is an experiment you can do with your class, if you don’t mind being denied tenure.

Divide your students randomly into two groups, and send them to separate rooms.  To the first group, present the sentence:

Men are hot;  women are cold.

(This is along the lines of such parlor-game titles as “Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus”.)
To the other group, present this sentence:

Women are hot;  men are cold.

Assignment:  Discuss.
Prediction:  Both groups will denounce their respective sentence as sexist and anti-woman.

[Postscript]  Chesterton anticipated this sally:
Re G.B. Shaw:
He has pleased all the bohemians  by suggesting that women are equal to men;  but he has infuriated them by suggesting that men are equal to women.
-- G.K. Chesterton, Heretics (1905)

Kahneman, as Dyson points out, avoids discussing religion; this is probably just as well.  Pinker -- whose range of interests is extraordinarily broad -- to his credit  does not avoid it;  indeed he quotes (pp. 186-7) from the magnificent 1996 address by Pope John Paul II on the subject of Natural Selection and the “ontological  discontinuity” (we have treated of this subject here);    but analytically, in this arena, he is not at his best.  On page 189  he dishes up an absurd false-dichotomy:

Who says the doctrine of the soul is more humane than the understanding of the mind as a physical organ?

Already so much has gone wrong.  We do not adhere to the doctrine of the soul (or of free will) because it is “humane”, but because it is true, and we experience it as such.   Nor does such a doctrine impede or even impinge upon the understanding of the brain as a physical organ.  As for the mind as a physical organ, um, did you really mean to write that?  Are we back with Descartes and his lodgement of the soul in the pituitary or the pineal gland or wherever the hell he placed it?
It gets worse.  The consequences of the “doctrine” of the soul (though, in our view, this is rather like speaking of the “doctrine” of the existence of the physical world)  is “letting people die of hepatitis  or be ravaged by Parkinson’s disease  when a cure may lie in research on stem cells…”  Indeed a cure might be thus expedited, or it might not;  the soul is nothing to the issue.   The moral quandary is rather to what extent society is willing to go, to benefit group A at the expense of group B.   Effective but morally debateable maneuvers include:  harvesting stem cells from embroyos;  harvesting embryos; harvesting aborted fetuses; harvesting fetuses not yet aborted but which, for a fittybone, the unwed mother would be happy to sell you.  Plus harvesting organs from dead adults; from living but brain-dead adults; from criminals; from political prisoners; from the luckless, kidnapped for this very purpose.  Perhaps less effective from a flinty Western medical perspective, but quite real and effective to its practitioners, is harvesting such organs as genitals from living children (our group B, here rather at a disadvantage) for use in sorcery to benefit group A (which in their own estimation, includes all the best people).  All these practices may be found in the world today, though generally not in places where the influence of the Holy Mother Church is at its strongest.   John draws the line at one place, Mary at another; and if you were to do a statistical study, it might well be that churchgoers, on average, place it somewhat more towards the less-interventionist end  than do vivisectionists, grave-robbers or eliminative materialists.   That would be sociologically rather interesting, if true;  Pinker has however made no logical point.   Nor does his heroically rising to the defense of helpless Alzheimer’s patients, who apparently are being abused by nuns when these are not otherwise engaged in cackling over the sufferings of Parkinsonians,  contradict anything a theist would say (apart perhaps from heretics like Christian Scientists):  “Sources of immense misery” (notice the purely emotion-evoking addition of the adjective) “such as Alzheimer’s disease … will be alleviated   not by treating thought and emotion of manifestations of an immaterial soul  but by treating them as manifestations of physiology and genetics.”   Amen; hear, hear;  we can all of us drink to that.  Pinker’s lance has pierced a straw-man.

*     *     *
~ Commercial break ~
We now return you to your regularly scheduled essay.

*     *     *

Pinker touches bottom with this assertion:  “The doctrine of a soul that outlives the body  is anything but righteous, because it necessarily devalues the lives we live on earth.”   (Compare:  "The doctrine that we should become adults  is offensive, as it devalues childhood.")
Leave aside that outsider’s-assessment-word “righteous”, analogous to the skewed perspective of the word “humane” above (We believe, or disbelieve, or simply hope, as the case may be, in eternal life, from conviction or revelation or even logic or what have you, but not because such a belief -- true or false -- seems “righteous”).  Notice, though, that qualifier “necessarily”, which changes the assertion from a sociological generalization or barroom opinion  into one of logico-philosophical apodixis.  Yet the only evidence he offers for this extraordinary doctrine  is the self-serving rationalizations (or irrationalizations) of maniacs who kill their kids, and the rants of al-Qaeda suicide-bombers.  (Page 189 -- look it up if you can’t believe your eyes.)
Good - Heavens!  For all we know, some serial killer has excused his crime-spree by an allusion to the Riemann Hypothesis;  the effect of such grotesques upon number theory  will rightly be nil.
Beyond the logical point, Pinker’s assertion is psychologically absurd.   It may well be the case (though God forbid), that those who hope they may one day rest in the bosom of Abraham  are destined to be cruelly disabused;  but their doctrine does tend rather to distinguish this view of life  from that of scorpions in a bottle.

For a glimpse at the value placed upon human life  among a proud, free people  unpolluted by Christian superstitions, click here, and here.
[update 8 May 2012] And now here:
South Korean customs said it had confiscated more than 17,000 “health” capsules smuggled from China that contain human flesh, most likely extracted from aborted fetuses or stillborn babies.

(Note, though:  these are quibbles;  just a turf thang, folks.  Pinker's book overall is broad, sound, and beautifully written.)

(For more along these lines: )

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Rimes de ma mère Marine

Marine Le Pen
pilonne Fillon …
« pantin dans les mains
d’intérêts privés »

-- headline in this morning’s Le Parisien

Friday, March 10, 2017

In Defense of “Pascal’s Wager” (expanded)

I have always particularly disliked Pascal’s Wager.   First, on logical grounds, since, like Anselm’s Ontological Argument, it can just as easily lead to the Great Pumpkin or the Great Penguin, as to God as conceived by Christians (of whatever stripe).  Second, on psycho-religious.   Romeo does not pitch upon Juliet by a process of totting up her good points, and subtracting her bad (suitably weighted  statistically or otherwise), comparing the result with the similar figure for the other wenches in Verona, meanwhile having his accountant double-check for accuracy, and then proceeding (with degree X of Bayesian confidence) to the balcony of the lucky winner.   Nor do such cold considerations yield any sense of the Christian feelings and beliefs about God.

The tart-tongued psychologist-philosopher William James  felt a similar aversion.  In his essay “The Will to Believe” (1896), he writes:

You probably feel that, when religious faith expresses itself thus, in the language of the gaming-table, it is put to its last trumps.  … If we were ourselves in the place of the Deity, we should probably take particular pleasure in cutting off believers of this pattern  from their infinite reward.

"Va-banque on black !"

Nevertheless, I am uncomfortably aware of having embraced something somewhat akin -- a leap of faith across a crevasse of uncertainty, borne on the wings of reason -- in subscribing to the Nicene Creed.

Credo ut intelligam

But just now, perusing the thoughtful and chatty treatise of a (non-religious) philosopher, this:

Very few people today are impressed by Pascal’s wagers.  But decision theorists have long been using the arguments he invented … Pascal’s logic is sound. The trouble is that his starting points  no longer apply for most of us.  They are no longer “live possibilities”.
-- Ian Hacking, An Introduction to Probability and Inductive Logic (2001), p. 123

Bingo!   That crack about the Great Pumpkin  misses the mark, because that portly vegetable only comes into perspective when seen from afar, from some philosopher’s distant star.   For anyone else (with the possible exception of Seneca the younger -- vide “The Pumpkinification of Claudius”), that rotund worthy is not a Live Possibility.

Our purpose here is not to argue for the intellectual respectability of adhering to the Christian faith (or to that of Islam), but to pursue the (psycho)logical point.   For, you,  respected and right-thinking reader, have almost certainly (if you are reading these words) made a similar bargain yourself:  in embracing the Religion of Science.

Not knocking science, nor denying its partly empirical character:  ever since my seventeenth year, my almost every effort has been bent in pursuit of scientific understanding.   But such is not easily to be had, even for those who majored in scientific subjects at top-flight colleges  and never slacked or looked back.   Most of what we accept, at least outside our own field of research, we largely accept on faith.  And indeed, even within that field -- QFT or String Theory, say -- there are doctrines and assumptions you just swallow  and then push forward, not really questioning these, trying to come up with something publishable that hews to the Narrative, at least until you get tenure.   "Allez en avant -- la foi vous viendra." (That celebrated epigram was actually not uttered by a prior or a bishop, but by d'Alembert, anent the mysteries of the calculus.)   To reject science sweepingly is intellectually disasterous;  but embracing it involves certain … wagers.

(For more on the subject, try this:  Veracity and Verifiability.)

Bonus:  For a relatively friendly look at Anselmian ontology, try this.
For a previously-unpublished tractate of the Saint:

[Update May 2017]  Late-breaking developments on the logico-philosophical front:

Saturday, March 4, 2017

The I’s have it (or, ISIS it is)

A couple of years back, when the media was confused about the labels ISIL versus ISIS, I posted a politico-linguistic explanation:


(1)  The expert bodies that had been following the group from the start (State Department, IC) used ISIL, where the “L” stands for “Levant”, which is the closest equivalent to the term in the Arabic name for the group,  al-Shâm, which includes Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine.
(2)  Since that is what he’d been hearing from his briefers, that is what President Obama said.
(3)  Possibly by confusion with the name of the goddess Isis, along with the unfamiliarity of the term Levant among the laity, the popular media took to using ISIS, despite the fact that this term singles out only Syria.   (As a sideshow to this, certain conspiracy-minded lo-info voters tried to read some nefarious significance into President Obama’s continued use of the term ISIL, that he and his discussion-mates had been using all along.)

But now we have a new POTUS -- one who, for most (or actually, still all) of his life, has paid more attention to the pop media, than to academia or the State Department.  And he says “ISIS” -- just like they do on TV.

Accordingly -- and gracefully -- government entities have bowed and followed suit:  where previously their briefing-papers used ISIL, now they use ISIS.
The IC thus arrives, by a circuitous route, at exactly the position advocated by The New Yorker a year ago:  to speak “ISIS” with the vulgar, but to maintain an academical-casuistical mental reservation, to the effect that the final “S” stands not for “Syria”, but for… al-Shâm.
 And thus does language evolve.

Wes Brot ich ess’,  des Lied ich sing’.”

Given recognition at last

[Footnote:  An alternate explanation, that you’ll hear around town,
is that the use of ISIL was nixed because people couldn’t figure out how to pronounce it.  Some IC miscreants were even pronouncing the word to rhyme with pizzle.  (Look it up.)  And this, despite our wise guidance here:



Actually -- there's a bright side to the switchover to “ISIS”:
(1)  That “Levant” business was always a stretch on ISIL’s part.  They never did get a real foothold outside Syria.
(2)  As for any association with the goddess Isis, that’s great:  any depiction of that goddess, ISIL would destroy on principle, so quasi-“naming them” after her  can only annoy them.   (For similar reasons, some people say Da’esh, since ISIL doesn’t like it.)

A propos of nothing at all;  added merely to annoy ISIS