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The GRE

December 31, 2008 5 comments

The GRE is a test that anyone who has aspirations to Graduate School must suffer taking. It’s odd that the test is required as the questions that you have to answer have almost nothing to do with any program that you would be applying. Originally I thought that the general subject test would be useful to gauge the strength of my vocabulary but as I am applying to a Philosophy program the words they were asking me to define (in one of three types of questions) really have nothing to do with the subject itself.

Like the SAT the GRE doesn’t examine what you learned but rather what you know. A child with a word-a-day calendar could do just as well on the GRE as an aspiring PhD candidate with a Master’s Degree. How ETS has managed to put such a stranglehold on higher education would be an interesting subject for a book, I’m thinking SiCKO meets The Octopus.

I scored a 1230, which is pretty good. This isn’t the griping of someone who did poorly on the test. This is the griping of someone who resents having to take the test. I possess a Master’s Degree which already establishes that I can attend Graduate school, I have two and a half years (not counting summer classes) teaching undergraduate students making decisions that affect whether or not they can get degrees. Take all that away and the test still has no reflection on my ability to earn a doctorate.

One of my co-workers said that only math and science majors should have to take it given the quantitative section on the exam. I disagree, if those students don’t know the formulae required for the geometry, algebra, and arithmetic questions then they wouldn’t have Bachelor’s degrees in math or science, plus they can use at least a four function calculator. Again I’m not complaining about my performance I scored a 610 on the math.

The only part of the exam that seemed worth it to me were the writing sections. One was to establish a position on a subject and the other was to judge an argument. These actually seemed poignant and relevant, but if I were unable to do that I probably wouldn’t have bachelor’s (much less a high school degree).

I walked out of the test exhausted, unsure of how good my score was, and thinking that the whole ordeal was a 200 dollar waste of time (140 for the test, about 50 for the book). Today I’m no longer exhuasted or unsure, I’m still pissed off about the price for what really amounts to nothing.

I suppose there is very little I can do about the test being a requirement so I guess I should just offer a bit of advice: why not take it right out of highschool when all those SAT words are still fresh in your memory. They aren’t any different.

I would have liked to see a logic section, or something that at least would test the reasoning ability of a prospective graduate student, but that would make things relevant.

Back to my extended review next post.

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10 Books…Part VII

December 22, 2008 Leave a comment

We return to Marx deciding that we should actually see how Wiker evaluates the Communist Manifesto rather than just an overly broad attack on Communism. Remember if you are going to attack a book, you should attack the book itself and the ideas in the book. Sure, historical events allegedly spawned from those ideas are important but the focus itself should be on the ideas. Let’s see how/if Wiker does this.

The obvious question in this chapter is whether or not Wiker has read Das Kapital or just the Manifesto. Like Machiavelli, the longer work is the more important, thorough, and academic book but is also the lesser read. Also like Machiavelli, those people that own the shorter work, very few of them have read it and of those very few are aware that other works exist.

Luckily for us Wiker at least acknowledges the existence of Capital (as his translation has it). So we are all good here, he even labels it “an excruciatingly detailed historical economic analyses.” All of which is true so we can’t fault him because he at least looked up the book on wikipedia.

What Wiker criticizes is that Marx developed a theory and then looked for proof of that theory throughout history. This led to Marx’s viewpoint being warped because he saw his viewpoint as being existent throughout the history of civilization. Well, duh.

That’s what academics do, in any field. You develop a hypothesis (in this case that the struggle of history is a struggle between the classes), then you look for proof of that hypothesis and develop a theory. Of course, your view is going to be skewed towards your theory, it is afterall your theory. This would be like Wiker, looking for proof of immorality in non-Christian civilizations and then finding it. In anything that isn’t an objective discipline these things are bound to happen (re: Marxist interpretations of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves).

But what of the actual ideas of Marxism? Wiker gives us to criticisms: that Marx was inherently idealistic and materialistic. Both are true, but to view these as criticisms you have to establish the groundwork of pragmatism and some sort of spiritual/idealistic (it gets confusing but there are two kinds of idealism: one is a clinging of ideas which is bad according to Wiker while the other is belief in a world beyond the material) world.

Marx is an idealist because he clings to a Utopian view of the world after the Proletariat revolution. He believed that technological developments would pave the way for the workers to work at whatever they wanted to while at the same time the jobs no one wanted to do would be taken care of by technology. Someone has to mop floors, so why not have the robots do it. Adding to this is the idea that everyone will get along and there will be no one who will steal all the crab legs at the Chinese buffet (in other words reap all the benefits while doing none fo the work).

My own criticism of Marx revolves around a dim view of human nature. That people will not get along in this fashion and that most people are sheep and need someone in charge to tell them what to do. Also, that those technological developments can only be borne from the type of competition that capitalism creates. Wiker doesn’t follow this, he merely rests on the conceptions that Marxism is inherently atheistic. This seems to be it in regards to a general attack on the idealistic notion of Marx, even though it does nothing of the sort.

He moves instead in a different direction. He attacks the foundations of the Communist revolution directed at the Capitalists. What Wiker claims is that Marx is guilty of the fallacy of composition. This occurs when you say, person x belongs to this group and behaves this way therfore all people in this group behave this way. Racists and bigots derive their “proof” of racial superiority from this way of thinking. Marx saw, in the industrial revolution, that Capitalists mistreated their workers. Without the law to restrain them, Children were forced to work under the age of 12, people were paid a mere pittance, and anyone who didn’t like it could leave. Marx saw that this behaviour was fermenting the Communist Revolution. It’s true that not all Capitalists treated their workers as objects, but enough did that it effected the outlook on the whole.

However, by saying that this generalization is false and thus Marx is wrong we have a unique case of irony. Wiker does the same thing with regard to all Communists. Yes, Stalin and Mao were bad people responsible for many deaths in the name of the revolution, but that doesn’t mean that all professed Communists are the same way. I have friends who are communists that aren’t looking for a throne in which to rinse their bloody hands from. Just because someone thinks Socialism is a good idea doesn’t mean they hope Red China invades the United States.

Wiker’s second objection is that Marx is materialistic, Karl views people as a mere means of production no different than the products they are creating. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Marx directly addresses that notion saying that a person would no longer be identified by what they do, which is a symptom of a bourgeousie value, we would all be fellow workers. If Wiker knew that Marx’s ideas come not from Rousseau but instead from Hegel he would understand that the true crime of the capitalist is to rob the person of their individual identity instead giving them with a spot on the assembly line. No one makes cars anymore they install a part.

To finally close this chapter Wiker adds that the experiences of China and Russia show what happens when “the proletariat and intellectuals get in charge they turn out to be more savage than the capitalists they replaced…” The implication is that intellectuals should not be placed in charge. There have been many intellectuals in charge (pick a founding father of this country) and haven’t been blood thirsty tyrants. In fact, intelligent leadership seems to be a desirable trait if Wiker would bother to read one of his favorite Philosophers named Plato and his work called “The Republic.”

10 Books…Part VI

December 20, 2008 Leave a comment

We continue on in my series reviewing the book, “10 Books that Screwed up The World and Five that Didn’t Help.” Parts I-V can be read here (link goes to livejournal [it’s just easier there]). We are finally at the actual 10 worst books, and if you think that it’s been bad so far it actually can get worse. So bad in fact, that we have to tackle the first of the ten in two parts.

The first book is The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx. We have to take this in two parts because of a claim that Wiker makes regarding the theory that Marx espouses and how that theory is eventually applied. When teaching Marx I have come across a typical objection to his ideas. That objection revolves around the application of the Socialist ideas. Students cite Stalin, Mao, Castro, the invasion of Afghanistan and Poland, sometimes even the Russian Revolution as reasons Marxism should be avoided. I have the same retort, that those people or situations are not actually Marxist but a twisting of the words of the man. Sometimes they are merely an excuse for someone like Stalin to fuel his paranoia and anger into committing mass murder.

To Wiker’s credit, even he admits this. He states that nothing in the Manifesto addresses the topics of Gulags, purges, or invasions. I thought I had reached an epoch in the book, but then it goes downhill in a strange way.

Wiker cites what he calls, the three greatest philosophers (Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle) who worried themselves with the effect of ideas on actions. While I don’t remember specifically Aristotle mentioning it, I have no problem here. I’m just wondering where this argument is going. After much exposition regarding this topic he then states that a person should be held responsible for their writings even if those writings are misinterpreted.

Rereading that last sentence I still can’t believe that anyone, especially Wiker (which we’ll see why in a second) could make that claim. There is of course the obvious objection that if I tell a person that X should be fired, and a third person over hears it and uses a flamethrower on X; can I really be considerred at fault? Or if someone reads Shakespeare and decides to kill all the lawyers do we really blame Bill?

That’s the ridiculousness of assigning blame to second party misinterpretation and third party action. The best objection though would be to attack Wiker’s belief using his own assertion. If any belief can be held responsible for it’s effects, even though that belief has been misused, mistreated, or completely twisted than I would ask Wiker exactly how many deaths is the Bible responsible for? Or for that matter, Jesus. If he’s going to assign the 100 million deaths of Communists Russia to Marx, while admitting that Marx never directly recommended or advocated them, then the same must be held to any belief in his world. It’s logical consistency.

Now I wouldn’t or don’t hold a religion responsible for the actions of a minority of it’s followers, nor would I let a student get away with doing so. Wiker apparently must, unless of course he’s espousing a double standard.

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Categories: book reviews, philosophy

New York Politics

December 18, 2008 Leave a comment

We are taking a break from my extended book review to discuss the political situation in New York. It’s pretty messed up and deserves noting.

First off we have the governor, David Patterson, who although has been pretty decent so far is deciding that taxing everything is going to be the best way to make up the budget shortfall for the coming fiscal year. Like all states in the current economy New York is feeling the pinch. Taxes are the usual method in which states make revenue. However, Patterson’s idea is to tax cigarette sales on Indian reservations.

Every so often some state official in New York gets it in his head that this would be a good idea. It would generate revenue, but it’s illegal. Back in 1997 New York tried this causing the citizens of the Seneca Nation to shut down a portion of the thruway in protest. What Patterson and all other state officials fail to realize is that according to federal treaty, the Reservations are sovereign territory who only abide under state law by their leave. To illustrate why this attempt is wrong it would be like New York trying to tax Pennsylvania. Only a change in Federal law can allow this tax, currently it is ILLEGAL.

I used to joke with people in Ohio that New York was the tax state. Driving into New York along the interstate highway system the first thing you are greeted with is a toll. It’s as if the sign should read, “Welcome to New York, the Empire State, now give us some money.”

Another one of the genius plans to generate revenue is to deregulate the liquor controls and allow grocery stores to sell wine. While this would make my wine buying slightly more convenient (as there is a liquor store near both grocers I go to) I fail to see the logic in this move. Since the sale of wine is taxed already, all that is being done is to allow more places to sell wine. Under normal circumstances opening up the controls to allow a greater berth of retailers to sell a product would generate more income with wine it’s different. Wine isn’t an impulse buy. I can’t remember one time in Ohio when I was shopping where I thought to myself, ‘oh wine, I’ll just grab this bottle.’ Wine is usually purchased by people who are making the trip to buy wine. The impulse buyers aren’t going to add any notable money to the tax till.

Thirdly, Governor Patterson has the duty to appoint someone to fill a vacant senate seat left by Hillary Clinton when she takes over as Secretary of State. This amounts to an unelected governor appointing an unelected Senator. Couldn’t we just have a special election in this state?

The front runner for Senate: Caroline Kennedy with Andrew Cuomo in second place. Kennedy, daughter of former president John F. Kennedy, is a Manhatten lawyer, author of two books on Constitutional history, and has worked with Harvard law. She has never held an elected office, nor does she have much experience in politics. It is solely on the basis of who her father and uncle were that this is being debated. At least she has lived in New York more than her predecessor can say.

Of course the same could be said for Andrew Cuomo who shares a last name with a former governor of New York. At least Andrew has some experience in politics being the current state attorney general. We desperately need a special election here.

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Categories: current events, politics

Ten Books…Part V

December 16, 2008 Leave a comment

Our fourth capter, and fifth post is a little difficult for me to criticize as in depth as the previous three. This chapter deals with Discourses on the Origin and Foundation of the Inequality Among Men by Jean-Jacques Rosseau. I must confess that I have not read the book, I understand Rosseau’s point but without being as well versed in the philosopher’s work as the previous three I cannot offer the same trouncing that I have earlier. That being said, it doesn’t mean I will skip this chapter as Wiker faithfully gets somethings wrong.

Rosseau is famous for his idea of the “Noble Savage.” The New World natives were objects of curiosity among the academic Europeans and were given some mythological aspects ranging from the benign (Rosseau’s for example) to the bellicose (cannibalistic barbarians). These weren’t based on any serious study. Anyway Rosseau claimed that the Noble Savage existing in his peaceful state of nature could not exhibit any kind of immorality because the savage knew no morality to break.

Wiker takes this idea to task. He states that this is inconceivable because a person can still steal and murder which of course are immoral, it doesn’t matter whether or not a civilization has granted a moral code to follow. We all have consciences innate to us (even though Wiker apparently rejects the concept of innate ideas) so civilization does not matter. As “proof” of this he again points out one of his objections to Hobbes: that since archaeology and anthropology weren’t even in their infancies it is impossible to make any claims about states of nature ergo Rosseau cannot be correct. Again, he misses the point about hypothetical thought experiments even though Wiker points out that this is a thought experiment.

This sort of counter argument is wrong, so wrong in fact that I wouldn’t accept it from one of my students much less a PhD. We don’t need the correct and fully developed scientific discipline to form a hypothesis, we can use the principles of reason to build a theory and then test them later when the science is developed. If this weren’t the case than I suppose we can throw it the ideas of Democritus and Leucippus who developed atomic theory long before any “atom” was formed. Building theories and hypotheses are how sciences are developed, not the other way around.

What Wiker is saying in regards to morality and the conscience, is that these developments are independent of civilization. For example, we don’t need a society in order to be moral/immoral and no matter what society we live in any and all morality is the same. This would not only be independent of geographical location and political affiliation but also free of any chronological fetters. This is prima facie untrue. Our morals have developed through societal development. Slavery is the perfect example of this, it used to be quite acceptable to own slaves a thousand years ago. Women used to be regarded as no more than chattle, (note the use of the generic pronoun) used as bargaining chips to unite kingdomes, families, and property in marriage. We have since cast off these ideas as being arcane and immoral.

My next problem with the Rosseau chapter is in Wiker’s claim that Rosseau is the father of Communism. He isn’t claiming that Marx should be ignored for his role (we discuss Marx in the next chapter) bu that if it weren’t for Rosseau we wouldn’t have had Marx and Engels. This is claimed because Rosseau was the first to say that the establishment of private property was the first step to the development of society. The first time that a man staked out an area and claimed ownership was detrimental according to Rosseau and if someone had removed the stakes (to deny ownership) it would have been a great boon to society. Wiker adds to this an act of murder, that Rosseau would have preferred those stakes to be driven into the heart of the man who planted them then takes that addition using it to prove that Rosseau advocated violent overthrow.

It’s unclear to me how we arrived at this point, other than Wiker’s imagination. The whole chapter while superficially about Rosseau’s theory is really an attack of Marx’s theory. Wiker’s whole assertion against the state of nature isn’t sufficient to disprove anything wrong since he claims it a myth while ironically referring back to the Genesis account of Eden where the sciences of archaeology and anthropology were even less developed at the time of its writing. The only other attacks on Rosseau are ad hominem regarding is marital status and his lack of child rearing.

Wiker is only successful here at ignoring his chosen subject in favor of his obvious hate of any socialist theories and his devotion to the institution of marriage which has changed so severely over the ages that in order to be consistent he would have to reject either earlier manifestations as being immoral or the current one.

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State of Nature: 10 Books…Part IV

December 14, 2008 Leave a comment

Continuing to the next chapter in our series we come to The Leviathan and Thomas Hobbes. Since our author has ceased separating criticisms of the books from ad hominem attacks on the authors I guess we have to deal with the chapters like this.

I should note that each chapter begins with an out of context quote from each work. Chapter 3 begins with this: “Every man has a right to every thing.” Launching right an estimation that Hobbes believed that the idea of a conscience is foreign. That we learn morality, justice, and social behaviour. Well for once Wiker is correct. Instead of capitalizing on being right, Wiker decides that he must now be wrong claiming that Hobbes is the father of the idea that we have the right to whatever we want however, “morally degraded, vile, or trivial it may be.” This judgment of course needs a moral code to be valid and since we haven’t established a universal moral theory we can just throw it out as being non-sensical.

In an all too familiar pattern of writing, Wiker again puts the cart before the horse. He correctly tries to get us to imagine that we are in Hobbes’ state of nature. However he goes about it the wrong way. We wouldn’t just wake up and find ourselves free of conscience and morality. That’s not what Hobbes was saying. The state of nature is the original state of man i.e. without government or law. It’s not the disappearance of conscience. It’s the state that Hobbes believed preceded society and government. Instead of waking up without the constraints of morality Wiker should have said “wake up and suddenly there are no laws, no justice, and no official punishment…” This would be more in line with Hobbes thinking.

Thomas Hobbes, by all accounts, was an extremely arrogant individual. He believed that he squared the circle, though offered no proof of it. Hobbes believed that at our core we are selfish seeking to value as good, what benefits us and as bad what harms us. The state of nature is the situation wherein people act how they want to without regard of the consequences.

When I teach Hobbes I use one of two examples: either a desert island with a limited supply of coconuts or a hill with a well on it (with terribly drawn stick figure examples). I use it to show how people behave when a necessary commodity is needed by too many people than it can support. Without fear of punishment and the threat of starvation people will fight for that supply. Wiker apparently doesn’t think that this is the case. He believes that people will sit down and rationally discuss why person A should give the last of his water to person B.

Hobbes writes the state of nature as a theoritical exercise, but he personally saw the effects of a collapse of government. When Cromwell executed the King of England plunging the nation into civil war, Hobbes witnessed first hand what happens. It wasn’t a sit down and talk about it kind of situation. We have seen it as well in the LA riots from the early 90s and more recently after the breaking of the levees in New Orleans. When the law fails there are individuals that seek to take advantage of the situation.

It puzzles me that Wiker doesn’t understand this. He acknowledges that it is a story, but then he points out that Hobbes couldn’t have known the origins of man because archaeology “wasn’t even in its infancy.” I must assume then that calling the State of Nature a “tall tale” is meant to deride the theory altogether.

That “right to every thing” that Wiker finds so abhorrent exists in the state of nature until the formation of the sovereign (government). A fact, and such a pivotal portion of the Leviathan, that to omit it’s discussion from the chapter reveals either incomptence or willful deception on the part of the author. The discussion continues to describe the rights as nothing more than desires. Wiker then ticks off a list of “rights” that he finds in line with Hobbes and counter to his own beliefs, “Mary has a right to marry Susan is merely a way to say Mary has a desire to marry Susan.” It goes downhill from there listing pornography and abortion as the next rights=desires.

Hobbes’ writing is extremely formal and almost in what we would call “legalese.” Luckily for us Wiker has listed what he feels is Hobbes reasoning, both hidden and open. Among these hidden portions of his reasoning is again the false charge of Atheism. Was Hobbes an atheist? Probably not, since the ethical code we can abide by for our day to day living is a little something called the “golden rule.” Religion isn’t really addressed in any negative light in the Leviathan. I, in my lectures, do not talk about Hobbes view on religion or god since it isn’t anything new or groundbreaking.

We are given the briefest summary of how Hobbes believed we formed government. Yet it is thrown aside for some editorializing on how wrong it is that government is artificial and “at best a necessary evil.” We are not bound by love according to Wiker, but by the law. Is this wrong? I doubt it, I don’t love my neighbors, I don’t know my neighbors. THey don’t know me, they don’t love me. Society isn’t drawn together by mutual love. Even in the Old Testament it wasn’t love that drew the Jews together it was a common heritage and divine fiat.

But that isn’t the deep problem. It’s in the failure of Wiker to understand why every person has a right to every thing. Hobbes never said that every person would kill, rob, and rape in the state of nature. He said that some people would, some are greedy, wrathful, and vainglorious. Since those people exist, the rest of us must be prepared to defend ourselves against them. This is what allows us to use the two virtues of war: force and fraud.

It’s not because we are without conscience or morality. It’s because if we don’t trick or destroy those coming to rob, rape, and kill us they will be successful. Would Wiker believe that we do not have the right to defend ourselves, or would he believe that it is merely a desire?

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On the Charge of Atheism

December 13, 2008 Leave a comment

Putting aside the chapter by chapter read through of the “10 Books…” I feel that three* chapters in I have to make an aside regarding Wiker’s accusation of Atheism against the philosophers’ work. There seems to be a mistake that Wiker is making in regards to this accusation that I, in teaching Philosophy of Religion, can usually work through on the first day of class.

So far we have Wiker claiming that both Niccolo Machiavelli and Rene Descartes are atheistic philosophers whose work is steeped in atheist ideals. The problem with this accusation is that neither Philosopher sought to eliminate the idea of God by proving his non-existance. Both men took for granted the existence of the higher power, with one seeking to prove the existence of God by making his Ontological proof and expanding on the Cosmological proofs first established by St. Thomas Aquinas.

What the two men can be considerred is “areligious” not atheistic. Machiavelli did not concern himself with the nature of God but more so the nature of religion. He didn’t care what the fate of his soul was, in fact he is one of the people that first commented on how he would rather go to hell for the company but heaven for the salvation. An atheist cannot make that assertion.

An atheist, in the thought of Bertrand Russel, is someone who looks at all the religions, all of the discourses and ideas of a higher power and says to himself, “no, I do not and will not believe in this.” A person who has never been exposed to religion, someone who does not concern themselves with god, and/or a person who remains undecided is not an atheist. To be one you have to make a positive denial of the existence of a higher power.

Denying the truth or the practice of a particular religion does not make an atheist, the denial must extend to ALL religious practices. What gets me is how Wiker makes this mistake. Slowly I’m beginning to see that Wiker has an agenda regarding the works. His PhD is in Theological Ethics which explains some of his criticisms, disagreeing with Machiavelli’s assertion that it is more important to appear to be good rather than be good is one thing. Even thinking him to be completely wrong is acceptable, but what is not acceptable is disagreeing with a thinly constructed straw man of Machiavelli’s idea.

What this then becomes is a book that is intellectually dishonest because it doesn’t understand the essential differences between legitimate atheism and a lack of faith. It might be better to claim that both Descartes and Machiavelli were agnostics who subscribed to a religion because of geographical reasons. I doubt that if either man were raised in the Muslim world there books would be that much different.

Deadmoneywalking, pointed out that Machiavelli’s Prince could be taken as a work that espouses atheism. I don’t disagree with that statement, and I responded by saying that my complaint isn’t that Wiker is saying that The Prince is an atheistic work (although I don’t think it is, it doesn’t concern itself with the truth/falsity of religion), he is saying that it is the work of an atheist. It is this kind of religious slant hidden in a supposed work of philosophy that gives atheists, religious, and philosophers a bad name.

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