Mudita Journal

 Posted by on 31 December 2002 at 4:59 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 312002

Josh Zader has finally gotten himself a blog called Mudita Journal. The unusual name “mudita” is explained as meaning “sympathetic joy” or “happiness at another’s good fortune” — an important concept in Buddhism for which no English word exists. I love the concept for exactly the reason Josh cites, namely that “we are taught to pursue our dreams, but to resent those who achieve them.” However, I must admit to philosophical quibbles with the term “fortune” in the definition, given its intimate connection to chance and luck rather than planning and effort. So a question for Josh: Does mudita primarily refer to success by chance or to success in general?

A Most Unholy President

 Posted by on 20 December 2002 at 10:12 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 202002

Wow. I mean WOW. Why didn’t this racist bastard come up in my American History class in high school? Instead, we studied only a visionary for international peace and harmony.

Blech. (But thanks to Virginia Postrel for the link nonetheless.)

Two Mentions in Sightings

 Posted by on 20 December 2002 at 8:54 am  Uncategorized
Dec 202002

Arthur Silber pointed me to the mention of our blogs in the Sightings of the November/December issue of Navigator. I’m actually mentioned twice, once in connection to Camp Indecon and once in reference to NoodleFood. Cool!

My Semi-Return

 Posted by on 19 December 2002 at 1:41 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 192002

Last night I returned from a few days of vacation in Los Angeles. Paul and I left on early Saturday morning, after a day of my frantically finishing off a paper on moral habits for my Aristotle class and taking an exam in my Philosophy of Mind class. (I’ll be posting the Aristotle paper sometime in the next few days.) Although that Friday (the 13th) was my 28th birthday, I didn’t exactly have a celebratory kind of day, given the end of the semester rush. But I did have a good time visiting friends and family in Los Angeles afterwards.

I’ll be pretty busy with (my side of the) family between Christmas and New Years, but I do hope to get some comments on philosophy of mind blogged in preparation for my proposed Advanced Seminar paper on the subject. (A draft is due on January 23rd.) I need all the help I can get on that paper!

Dec 122002

I recently received the following disturbing news from Will Thomas, Manager of Research and Training at The Objectivist Center:

The Objectivist Center’s student and scholarly programs are in grave danger. Due to the difficult economic situation, TOC’s fundraising has lagged. Current plans call for a refocusing of TOC on cultural commentary and a significant reduction in the amount of money, man-hours, and activities we devote to training new intellectuals. This appears to mean no more scholarly monographs, no significant time devoted to finishing the Logical Structure of Objectivism, no internship positions, no workshops aimed at students or scholars, and the possible cancellation of the Advanced Seminar in Objectivist Studies. It means no significant new initiatives aimed at students and scholars. There is concern at TOC that these kinds of programs are not attractive to a sufficient number of current and potential financial sponsors. Student and scholarly programs can only prosper if they have generous financial support.

In response, I sent a long letter to David Kelley in support of the student and scholarly programs, reprinted below. Given that fundraising difficulties are substantially to blame for these cutbacks, I also enclosed a contribution specially earmarked for student and scholarly programs with my letter. I would strongly urge others who care about these programs to do the same, even if you can only spare a few dollars. The clearest message we can possibly send about the importance of student and scholarly work is through financial support of those programs.

You can even contribute online, just be sure to note that the funds are for the student and scholarly programs in the comments.

This is serious, folks. Please forward this information onto anyone you think should be aware of this issue.

My letter to David Kelley was as follows:

2 December 2002

Dear David,

I recently heard from Will Thomas that TOC’s student and scholarly programs are in serious danger of suspension or elimination due to budget cutbacks. While I understand that fundraising has been particularly difficult lately, this change concerns me greatly as a sponsor, scholar, and student.

Mostly, I worry that sidelining student and scholarly programs will damage TOC’s long-range effectiveness in its mission of cultural change. Right now, TOC has only a small number of writers who understand Objectivism deeply enough to effectively advocate the philosophy to a mainstream audience. Such a small band of overworked writers has little chance of changing the culture by themselves; to be successful in that goal, TOC needs to be supporting the development of professional Objectivist intellectuals. In my opinion, the student and scholarly programs are absolutely essential for this process.

As we both know, graduate degrees are generally an essential part of any writer’s education, as they help establish credibility and generate familiarity with a given field. But universities are not particularly friendly environments for Objectivists. TOC’s student and scholarly programs help students successfully navigate these hostile waters while developing their knowledge of and interest in Objectivism.

Speaking personally, TOC’s student scholarships and Advanced Seminar helped me survive my B.A. in philosophy with my interest in Objectivism intact. (An internship and the publication of LSO during this time period would have been an amazing blessing to me.) The Effective Communications Workshop helped me overcome my fear of public speaking, thereby enabling me to give nine lectures to TOC Summer Seminars in the past three years, as well as lecture on Objectivist ideas to other groups. Now that I am in graduate school, the Advanced Seminar is of particular importance to my development as an Objectivist intellectual. Only for those three brief days do I have the opportunity to discuss Objectivism at a high level with other knowledgeable scholars, to hear a barrage of criticism and commentary from an Objectivist perspective, and to see the Objectivist methodology in action. As connected as I am in the world of Objectivist scholarship, the Advanced Seminar is a unique opportunity for young and developing scholars such as myself — to the point that I cannot imagine doing without it.

More particularly, the comments I received at the 2002 Advanced Seminar on my paper on false excuses have proved quite helpful as I revise the paper for submission to an applied ethics conference and ethics journals. I am also presently working on my submission for the 2003 Advanced Seminar: a paper outlining an Objectivist theory of mind. Given the difficulty of the subject, the feedback from others scholars at the Advanced Seminar will be critical to the success of the final version of the paper. Frankly, I’m not sure that I would even attempt the project without the hope of discussion at the Advanced Seminar. (I have, by the way, been particularly pleased to see the leaps and bounds in quality of both the papers and the feedback at the Advanced Seminar over the past few years. As a result, to know that it might be suspended just as Will’s work is starting to pay off seems particularly unfortunate.)

As I hope you can see, TOC’s support of me through various student and scholarly programs over the years has been immensely helpful to my development as an Objectivist intellectual. (I suspect that I’d still be programming web sites without this support, in fact.) However, I worry that some supporters of immediate cultural change over and above scholarly programs might see all of it as something of a waste, presuming that I will simply become another obscure academic. But in fact, my primary interest in philosophy is in writing and lecturing on practical and popular philosophy, not academic philosophy. Academic philosophy is nonetheless a necessary part of my training. As you surely know, I am not the only person in the student and scholarly programs with an interest in popular presentations of Objectivist ideas. Consequently, I fear cuts in those programs will damage the long-range success of the mission of cultural change.

Of course, I understand that student and scholarly programs are a costly and risky investment. Students tend to be an impoverished and mercurial lot, such that many apparently promising students over the years have become little more than expensive disappointments. But given the long-range importance of such programs, the solution to this problem, I submit, lies in finding ways to increase the retention rates of students rather than reducing support for them. I would suggest, for example:

1. Projects: I would love to see TOC contact particular scholars about particular projects regarded as worthwhile. (Then again, perhaps this is done, but just not for me. I wonder, as I know very little about your opinion of my work.) For example, you offhandedly mentioned the need for a practical book on the Objectivist ethics to me at the last Advanced Seminar. I’ve thought a great deal about such a project over the past few months, as that’s precisely the sort of philosophical work I most want to do. But right now, my other priorities are taking precedence over such a project, particularly given that I have no idea whether you might be interested my work or not. Being approached by TOC about such a project would make all the difference for me. Based upon various conversations over the years, I know many others feel the same.

2. Personal contact: I have been very grateful over the past few years for Will Thomas’s personal contact and encouragement of my work. However, I think more — not less — is needed, as such encouragement is critical to young scholars facing a generally uncertain, grueling, and impoverished future. For example, I will be eternally grateful for Chris Sciabarra’s encouragement to submit a paper to Feminist Interpretations of Ayn Rand. As an undergraduate at the time, I never would have dared without his confidence in me. The positive impact of personal encouragement cannot be underestimated. Additionally, such personal contact is critical for avoiding the disheartening oversights and omissions that have alienated various scholars over the years.

3. Thank yous: All contributors to student scholarships ought to receive personal thank you notes for their generosity from the recipients of those scholarships, as FIRE and Camp Indecon do. Such thanks would encourage sponsors to donate again in the future by giving them the sense of the real and concrete benefits their donation made possible. Perhaps more importantly, writing such notes would give students a sense of the “debt” they have incurred. I know that I didn’t give a single thought to the source of such scholarships when I was an impoverished student — although I should have!

4. Education: I was excited to hear of the “Topics” lectures on Objectivism for the upcoming Summer Seminar, as I often worry that too little emphasis is placed upon students deeply learning the philosophical system. After all, one of the common patterns we’ve all seen over the years is people losing interest in Objectivism due to misunderstandings of the philosophy. The publication of LSO, I think, is critical to addressing this problem. In addition, I’d love to see a “program” for students interested in really learning Objectivism that would include critical articles to read, exercises to perform, and so on. I’ve created such a program for myself, but I suspect that too many others do not even see the necessity.

5. Publication. I would love to see more explicit guidance in preparing Advanced Seminar papers for publication in journals. I was surprised to discover great fear and doubt about publication among my fellow graduate students at Boulder. If such hesitancy is widespread, Objectivist graduate students could stand out among their peers by being aggressive about publication. The Advanced Seminar would be an excellent place to stress such a strategy. And perhaps 15 minutes or so of every Advanced Seminar session should be devoted to discussing the broad changes necessary to prepare the paper for publication.

The investment of time, energy, and money into students and scholars is certainly a risky business. But to reduce support for student and scholarly programs is to guarantee failure. Without the support of TOC, promising students and scholars will likely either lose interest in Objectivism or go to the ARI for schooling in the philosophy. Those who manage to bootstrap themselves are unlikely to later align themselves with TOC. Such prospects are disheartening to me.

In the hopes that the proposed cuts in student and scholarly programs may be averted, I am enclosing $[omitted] specially earmarked for those programs. More importantly, I will urge other supporters of TOC to do the same, to voice their support for these programs with earmarked donations. I can only hope that others share my concerns.

I look forward to hearing back from you. Please give me a call at XXX XXX XXXX if you wish to discuss these issues over the phone.


Diana Mertz Hsieh

Update: Due to serious philosophic and moral objections, I am no longer associated with The Objectivist Center in any way, shape, or form. My reasons why can be found on my web page on The Many False Friends of Objectivism.

Moral Habits

 Posted by on 11 December 2002 at 3:50 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 112002

I am presently working on a paper on Aristotle’s theory of moral habits. As many of you know, I have a longstanding interest in this subject, as evidenced in my WashU honors thesis “Between Instinct and Habit” and my 1999 lecture “Moral Habits” to the TOC Summer Seminar. (My views on the process of habituation have, however, shifted significantly over the years.)

In my view, moral habits are integral to our understanding of moral development and decision-making. They show us how to deeply integrate abstract virtues into the messy particulars daily life. They are the best (and perhaps only) answer to the challenge posed by the Prudent Predator, as well as integral to making sense of Rand’s “no value” argument for virtue. As such, moral habits are an excellent companion to the Objectivist ethics. Although I plan to write up such an argument for submission to JARS or elsewhere, my present paper (for my Aristotle class) will concern only the Aristotelian conception of moral habits.

Unfortunately, Aristotle’s theory of moral habits is easy to misunderstand as either mechanistic or emotionalistic. (I myself have made such errors of interpretation in past writings.) But neither of these interpretations makes sense of Aristotle’s account — sketchy though it may be — of the central role of moral habits in cultivating virtue. Instead, as I am arguing in the paper, we ought to follow Nancy Sherman’s lead in understanding the process of habituation as the development of “increasingly fine powers of discernment” in our “perceptual, affective, and deliberative capacities” (Nancy Sherman, “The Habituation of Moral Character” in Aristotle’s Ethics, 232-3).

I’ll be turning in the paper on Friday, so I hope to get it posted on the web site shortly thereafter. I’ll make an announcement here, of course.

The Authority of Scientists

 Posted by on 8 December 2002 at 11:39 am  Uncategorized
Dec 082002

And just when I was feeling hopeful about the rationality of science, Arthur Silber pointed me to this Wired article “The New Convergence.” Here’s a sample from the introduction:

In recent years, Allan Sandage, one of the world’s leading astronomers, has declared that the big bang can be understood only as a “miracle.” Charles Townes, a Nobel-winning physicist and coinventor of the laser, has said that discoveries of physics “seem to reflect intelligence at work in natural law.” Biologist Christian de Duve, also a Nobel winner, points out that science argues neither for nor against the existence of a deity: “There is no sense in which atheism is enforced or established by science.” And biologist Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, insists that “a lot of scientists really don’t know what they are missing by not exploring their spiritual feelings.”

Ever so gingerly, science has been backing away from its case-closed attitude toward the transcendent unknown. Conferences that bring together theologians and physicists are hot, recently taking place at Harvard, the Smithsonian, and other big-deal institutions. The American Association for the Advancement of Science now sponsors a “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion.” Science luminaries who in the ’70s shrugged at faith as gobbledygook — including E. O. Wilson and the late Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan — have endorsed some form of reconciliation between science and religion.

One of the more bothersome aspects of such claims to harmony between science and theology is the fallacious appeal to the authority of the scientists. Appeals to authority are rightly considered fallacious, but in such theological debates, the scientist isn’t even an authority at all! Scientists are experts in their chosen domains of science, not in analysis of arguments about the existence and nature of supernatural beings and events. So in speaking about God, such scientists are speaking as laypersons, not as experts. Their opinions tell us nothing about the truth of claims about God. (In particular, such scientists seem not to understand that appeals to mysterious supernatural events actually provide no more explanation for the phenomena in question than a confession of ignorance.)

Let me make an analogy to make this issue more clear. Back in 1949, Albert Einstein published Why Socialism?. In that article, Einstein claimed that humankind was facing a crisis of meaning created by “the economic anarchy of capitalist society.” This crisis could be averted “only through [man] devoting himself to society.” As such, Einstein advocated

…the establishment of a socialist economy, accompanied by an educational system which would be oriented toward social goals. In such an economy, the means of production are owned by society itself and are utilized in a planned fashion. A planned economy, which adjusts production to the needs of the community, would distribute the work to be done among all those able to work and would guarantee a livelihood to every man, woman, and child. The education of the individual, in addition to promoting his own innate abilities, would attempt to develop in him a sense of responsibility for his fellow men in place of the glorification of power and success in our present society.

Over the years, I’ve actually heard people advocate socialism based upon the endorsement of Albert Einstein. But the simple fact is that Einstein’s genius in physics does not give him any authority in ethics, politics, or economics. Rationality and insight in science does not guarantee rationality and insight in other areas of life.

The exact same principle works for the alleged authority of scientists in theological matters. They are no more experts on the complex issues surrounding God and the supernatural than Einstein was an expert on social systems. Consequently, we ought not give their opinions more weight than they deserve.

As an addendum, for a lucid explanation of the problems of attempting to integrate God with physics via the strong anthropic principle, read Kenneth Silber’s excellent article Is God in the Details? published in Reason a few years ago.

European Prejudice Chart

 Posted by on 4 December 2002 at 9:14 am  Uncategorized
Dec 042002

In the fascinating tape course “The History of the United States” from The Teaching Company, the lecturer spoke about the poor view of the African “race” that the English had in early colonial America. But then he noted that the English had a poor view of all the other “races,” including the German “race,” the French “race,” and even the Irish “race”! (It was only later in history that whites began to see themselves as a single group separate from the blacks.) After commenting on this tidbit to Paul, he pointed me to this rather funny set of charts on European prejudices. The over-the-top article that accompanies the charts is entitled 18 Ways to Hate Your Neighbour.

Feminists Throwing Mud

 Posted by on 2 December 2002 at 10:00 pm  Uncategorized
Dec 022002

Wow, the victim feminists aren’t playing nice with the individualist feminists at all. Personally, I’ve found far too many victim feminists to be rather nasty toward women who disagree with their pro-lesbian, anti-men, fight-the-patriarchy agenda. I suppose that such dissenters are an affront to the victim feminist movement, as they indicate that women aren’t as oppressed as such feminists think they are.


A while back, I offhandedly remarked that “most scientists believe in God.” For some mysterious reason, I thought I remembered some survey claiming that around 80% of all scientists believed in God.

Adam Reed was kind enough to send me a correction, which I am just now getting around to posting. He wrote:

I know you can do your own Google search, but my top results were:

1. E.J. Larson and L. Witham, Scientists are still keeping the faith, Nature 386 (3 April 1997), 435-436. (The main source for the 40% figure)

2. Larson and Witham (Nature, Vol. 394, No. 6691, 23 July 1998, p. 313) surveyed members of the National Academy of Sciences and found that among these greater scientists only 7% believed in a personal god. Biological scientists had the lowest level of belief in a personal god – 5.5% as compared to 7.5% among physicists and astronomers.

The discrepancy is probably a matter of the quality of scientists in the two surveys. (1) had a sample typical of all people who make a living at science, so that it might include, for example, a quality control technician with an MS in chemistry. (2) measured NAS members; my own experience at MIT, Rockefeller, and Bell Labs comes closer to the latter.

Anyway, I doubt that the 80% figure is based on a sample of anything better than, say, the Creation Science faculty at Bob Jones University.

I am very pleased to stand corrected.

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