Tuesday, July 21, 2015

The Iran deal and Democratic foreign policy

The Obama administration's deal with Iran looks excellent. Iran gets relief from international economic sanctions in exchange for sharply limiting its ability to make a nuclear weapon. It has to give up most of its uranium-enriching centrifuges, including the newer and better ones. It's forbidden from enriching uranium to weapons-grade levels, and has to give up 97% of the enriched uranium it has now.

After these concessions, the fastest Iran could make a nuclear warhead if it went all-out will grow from three months to a year. And that's if Iran did so and everything worked out, both of which are significant assumptions. Nuclear nonproliferation expert Aaron Stein says, "The intention of this agreement is to take the weapons option off the table for the next 25 years, and the agreement does that." Nancy Pelosi has pledged Democratic support for the deal in the House, and it looks certain to pass.

Republicans aren't happy. Scott Walker (whom I see as the most likely Republican nominee, just ahead of Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio) pledges to "terminate the bad deal with Iran on the very first day in office, put in place crippling sanctions and convince our allies to do the same", and muses about ordering airstrikes on his first day in office. The National Review is putting up photos of Neville Chamberlain and decrying appeasement, as if Iran were the country in these negotiations that had carried out the most recent invasion in the region. Fortunately, restarting international sanctions against Iran is going to be really hard for a future president -- Walker isn't going to have an easy time getting China and Russia to sign on. But the noises he and the other Republicans are making, in line with John McCain singing "Bomb Bomb Iran" as a parody of "Barbara Ann" eight years ago, tell you a lot about how they can be expected to approach similar foreign policy issues in the future.

This is one of my favorite aspects of Democratic foreign policy, and foreign policy as practiced by sensible people everywhere: a recognition that international agreements can help us avoid negative-sum conflicts and promote positive-sum cooperation. Meanwhile, it's no surprise that a Republican party known for its negative attitudes towards ethnic minorities would approach foreigners of other races with suspicion and hostility that often leads to massive wars. Agreements like this are the path to a more peaceful world, and anyone who wants peace has reason to hope Democrats win elections.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Wolf Parade, "Yulia" + "Tell Detroit that I thank them"

This is Wolf Parade's "Yulia", sung by a Soviet cosmonaut to his beloved on Earth as he's lost in space on a failed mission. Dan Boeckner writes haunting love songs set around the former USSR, and here are the last lines of this one:
So when they turn the cameras on you
Baby please don't speak of me
Point up to the dark above you
As they edit me from history
I'm 20 million miles from a comfortable home
And space is very cold
There's nothing out here nothing out here nothing out
nothing out here nothing out here there's nothing out here
nothing nothing out here nothing out here nothing nothing out
While I'm on a former USSR kick -- somebody wrote this in a discussion of World War II tank battles, and it's beautiful:
While swimming on a beach in the river flowing through Krasnodar, in southern Russia, another American student and I struck up a conversation with an old, scarred man. He was surprised to find that not only were we foreigners, but Americans. He asked where we were from and I replied, “Have you ever heard of Detroit?” His eyes welled up and he started to cry, then he grabbed me in a strong embrace and said, “In the Great Patriotic War, Detroit gave me a tank with which I killed many German fascists. Tell Detroit that I thank them.”

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

"Zarathustra's Metaethics" accepted by the Canadian Journal of Philosophy

Twenty years ago I found my Dad's old copy of Thus Spoke Zarathustra, and it made me a philosopher. It introduced me to the philosophical question I care about most: does a naturalistic picture of the world include moral value? The book can make young readers less inhibited about wholeheartedly pursuing what they love, and it did that to me too. I stopped aiming to become a scientist and switched to philosophy, despite standard concerns about my future job prospects.

I'm delighted to announce that "Zarathustra's Metaethics" will soon appear in the Canadian Journal of Philosophy. The first half of the paper argues that while Nietzsche is an error theorist about morality, he tells us to pursue a nonmoral and subjective kind of value that our passions confer on their objects. This subjectivism is most beautifully expressed by his title character Zarathustra when telling us how to speak of what we value:

"This is my good; this I love; it pleases me wholly; thus alone do I want the good. I do not want it as divine law; I do not want it as human statute and need: it shall not be a signpost for me to overearths and paradises. It is an earthly virtue that I love: there is little prudence in it, and least of all the reason of all men. But this bird built its nest within me, therefore I love and caress it; now it dwells with me, sitting on its golden eggs."

The second half of the paper derives Nietzsche's conception of virtue from subjectivism. I start with Thomas Hurka's account of how value relates to virtue: desiring the good and being averse to the bad are virtuous, while desiring the bad and being averse to the good are vicious. If we see desire (D) and goodness (G) as positively valenced, and aversion (A) and badness (B) as negatively valenced, a multiplicative relationship emerges -- two negatives (aversion and badness) multiply into a positive (virtue), while one positive and one negative multiply into a negative (vice). Considering these attitudes for each object and summing over all objects gives us the following formula for someone's net virtue (their positive virtue minus their vice):

Σ (D x G + A x B) - (D x B + A x G)

Nietzsche's subjectivism entails that all things are good insofar as they're desired, and bad insofar as we're averse to them. So we can substitute the G's for D's, and the B's for A's. This gives us:

Σ D2 + A2 - 2DA

So virtue is having strong and focused passions, making the first two terms big; and not having both desire and aversion to the same thing as self-denying ascetics do, which would make the last term a big negative. Section 2.1 goes through this slowly, so please look there if you're interested. It's an unusual view of virtue, but the rest of part 2 shows how it fits the unusual things Zarathustra says, and gives us a picture of the Overman as the person with supremely strong and unified passions.

The paper was rejected 13 times. Some referee comments improved the paper, but I also learned the hard way that some Nietzsche scholars don't like math. After my harsh review of a famous scholar's Nietzsche book, I also got some rejections with weird ad hominems. But that's just how it goes. Zarathustra told me to overcome stuff.

I've tried to write the paper in language my teenage self could understand. I'm grateful to the book for what it did to me, and now I can make some of its most beautiful ideas more accessible.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Decemberists / Laura Viers, "Yankee Bayonet" + Peter Menzies Symposium

This week's song is "Yankee Bayonet" by the Decemberists and Laura Viers -- a duet about a much-beloved dead person. Unusually for these things, the dead person is singing.

Last week I was in Sydney at the Australasian Association of Philosophy conference. Helen Beebee and Rachael Briggs presented the best plenary address I'd ever heard at a conference, on Peter Menzies' approach to interventionist causal modeling and its connection to the free will debate. I came to the conference not knowing anything about interventionism (Phil Dowe gave a helpful talk that got me started, but it went in another direction). Helen and Rachel took me from nearly zero to getting a handle on the debate over whether interventionist approaches would help solve problems related to free will. I'd been wanting to learn more about Helen Steward's views to see if they opposed to my Humean project, and it was exciting to see a talk begin with views about causation and take me there.

Peter Menzies passed away this year. I never got to meet him, but now I've met some of his work. As I left their talk, I thought to myself -- if I should meet an untimely end, I hope people like Helen and Rachael will do something like that for me.

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Blumson on transitivity and resemblance, with drinks!

I helped my friend and colleague Ben Blumson formulate an example for his conference presentation on transitivity and resemblance. It involved 3 different things each resembling each other in 2 out of 3 ways: beer, gin, and tonic. Beer resembles gin in being alcoholic while tonic isn't, tonic resembles beer in being bubbly while gin isn't, and gin resembles tonic in being clear while beer isn't. I brought examples to help the audience understand the point.

Then I formulated cocktails for the audience during question-and-answer period. Thanks to Luke Russell for taking this picture! He got the beer.

During the talk, there was another example of resemblance involving fruit. Ben tossed one of the unusual fruits (a Buddha's Hand) to Dennis Robinson so he could get a closer look at it. Mark Colyvan commented that it was interesting to attend a session where people were drinking and throwing fruit. If you haven't been to an Australasian Association of Philosophy conference yet, I strongly recommend it!

Friday, July 3, 2015

John Denver, Annie's Song + How John Denver saved America

Happy 4th of July! It's a good day for the story of how John Denver rescued freedom of speech from the forces of censorship. 

In 1985, the Parents' Music Resource Center was getting upset about obscene lyrics in music, and Congress was considering legislative restrictions. Frank Zappa, Dee Snider of Twisted Sister, and John Denver were sent before Congress to testify in defense of artistic freedom. John Denver was least in need of protection from the censors, with his gentle acoustic folk (the song above is a nice example) that appeals to earnest saps like me. But he did the most to prevent any censorship from taking place.

Barry Miles' Zappa tells the story:
Pressured by their wives, the congressmen held an impartial forum to investigate the sorry state of the record industry. Senator Hollings (whose wife was a signatory to the RIAA letter) said, 'If I could do away with all of this music constitutionally, I would'. The Senate hearing on 19 September 1985 was fixed in favor of the PMRC.  The five-hour event was a media circus with 35 television feeds, 50 photographers, plus reporters and members of the public. 
At the Senate hearing, Zappa was by far the most eloquent speaker, though he undermined his credibility by imitating the southern accents of some of the PMRC wives.  Dee Snider from Twisted Sister proved to be much more articulate than the PMRC had expected and was able to contradict much of their testimony, but it was John Denver who did the most damage to the PMRC cause. Clean-cut and all-American, he held fast to the First Amendment, telling the Chairman, "Sir, we cannot have any kind of censorship whatsoever." 
Dee Snider described Denver's testimony: "And here they were, falling all over themselves, complimenting him about the work he'd done for world peace and hunger and all his good efforts, and saying, "But Mr. Denver, don't you think we could have a little bit, maybe some ratings on records? And he says "Absolutely not." He wouldn't budge. He had everything backed up. He was devastating. But to watch the press coverage, you wouldn't even know that John Denver was there for the most part. He was most damaging, they gave him the least press."
The record of John Denver's testimony begins at the end of this page. I like how at the very end he talks about playing in the USSR, subtly reminding everyone of America's contrasting self-image as the home of free speech.