Archive for the ‘School’ Category

Self Inflicted Wound

February 12, 2018 Leave a comment

“The reason I believe in free will is because I believe in an all knowing god who knows every decision we are going to make…”

The assignment was a short, one page opinion essay on the student’s thought as to whether or not we have free will. Very easy, very quick…and most of them screwed it up. Instead of talking about free will they talked about decisions they made or didn’t make. This student wasn’t one of those that screwed up, the essay actually addressed the problem. It would be completely unfair of me to expect an answer to the question of free will, people still write their dissertations on the topic and entire subdivisions of academic disciplines are devoted to it. I just wanted their opinion as briefly as appropriate for an introduction to Philosophy course.

I focus on this student’s essay though not because of this specific answer but because of the general type of answer that it is: a self-refuting argument. Or as I call it, taking inspiration from the podcast God Awful Movies, the “jingly keys argument.” Without delving to far into the problem, the student has essentially stated that there is free will but then the reasoning seems to refute the idea of an indeterminate universe. The difference is that while the student is proclaiming a divinely ordered free will universe, there is also the counter claim that everything is already known. So setting aside the omniscience issue with choice, we’re to accept that while my decision to wear a sweater or not is mine, that choice was already made in the future…and more importantly, already known by a being possessing of perfect knowledge. Therefore, my decision had to be one way and could never have been another. This brings us full circle back to the issue we set aside a few sentences ago: was my choice really free?

This has been addressed by the Philosophical pantheon. Augustine said that there was a difference between knowing that something is going to happen and having made that thing happen–thus he can preserve both his religious beliefs and his belief in free will. It takes some mental work and some cognitive dissonance to hold both beliefs, but there we have it. What I wonder is why even come up with this argument in the first place?

It reminds me of the Epicurean paradox concerning the existence of evil and an all-powerful, all-good, all-knowing god. Epicurus never said it, the Epicureans did not believe in a god that cared and had little awareness or interest themselves in the burgeoning Christian cult when the school was adopted by the Roman intelligentsia. They had no rivals which postulated such a being so it wouldn’t have made sense to them to offer specific arguments against them. The paradox itself comes from a Christian writer named Lactantius who was using the paradox as a polemic against the Epicurean school to say, “look these idiots believe that an all powerful, all knowing, all good god wouldn’t allow evil in the world so they are a bunch of atheists which is why we shouldn’t follow them.”

Does Lactantius answer his own paradox? No. Why then would he write such a damning thing about his own belief?

In both cases we have authors defending their personal beliefs by developing extremely difficult problems for that belief, but doing so thinking that it buttresses their own argument. Augustine, in his defense, is not making the problem up and then arguing against it, he’s making an argument against an external threat. So while I think his position is weak he’s not shooting himself in the foot with it.

However this does not excuse my student or Lactantius from what they have done. Nor does it scream to the motive of why they came up with it in the first place. The only reasonable explanation that I can offer is that they do not understand what they are saying. This could be for two different reasons: the first is that they are merely parroting what someone else had told them. In the case of Lactantius this might be less probable given the lack of knowledge he was sure to have since while his writings indicate an exposure to the other philosophical schools of Rome (Stoicism is his other target in this same work) they also show a lack of understanding of them (which is something I suspect can be attributed to a great deal of early religious writing in the bible–but that is for a much longer and more researched post), it might very well be that Lactantius developed this argument on his own thinking that the Epicureans didn’t believe in any gods, which he would have been wrong about as they were Deists. With the student it’s more probable that this a repeated argument but I can’t make any conclusions as to the certainty, but since it’s an easily searchable claim–in fact, an essay making the exact claim in much greater detail was the first result with the search terms “free will, Christian, omniscience.”

The second, and I think the more probable explanation is that they think it helps their cause because they haven’t considered the implications of it. Lactantius is looking for a slander against the Epicureans for their naturalism and their denial of an involved god so he throws the ancient slander that the Epicureans were “atheists,” why not it worked on Socrates and Aristotle. However, “atheist” didn’t mean then what it did today it just meant that a person didn’t worship the “right” god the “right” way. The student seems to believe that their god gives free will, but then hasn’t considered that such knowledge leads to a deterministic universe unless they didn’t feel like getting into it, which is a bit problematic for their paper. In either case, the strangest thing is that just a little self-reflection on their own assertions would lead them to understand that they are providing ammunition against the very thing that they are arguing for.



Bad Influence

January 15, 2018 1 comment

Atheists are a bad influence, obviously. That’s why in some countries atheist bloggers are hacked to death by machetes, imprisoned and whipped, and in the US 13 states won’t allow them to hold public office. It’s why we’re the least trusted “religious” group in the US. Yet, sometimes the atheist argument lines up perfectly with a non-atheist argument as I was trying to make clear last week at a family function.

My position was that my cousin shouldn’t have to go to religious education classes for the Catholic Sacrament of Confirmation. Now, wait up. I wasn’t making the “I don’t think anyone should have to go to religious education class” argument–even though I think that is a perfectly rational argument to make. I was making a different argument based on personal experience. Long time readers will know that I went through all of the Catholic sacraments (except Holy Orders and Last Rites–of which the second should be obvious), with Confirmation being that last one.

My cousin is in the “Confirmation prep” stage where he’s having to go to these religious education classes in order to prepare for the sacrament. For those ignorant of it, it’s just Baptism II only this time you are supposed to be aware and making a free choice, provided you don’t count familial and social pressure when you call it “free.” You get up, say a bunch of words affirming your belief in Jesus, the Pope, denying Satan, and pledging loyalty to the church. The Bishop blesses the whole thing and then you get cake. I’m being glib but that’s the nuts and bolts of the sacrament.

So, other than the atheist objection, what could possibly be my problem? The classes are pointless for my cousin just as they were pointless for me because we both attend(ed) Catholic school. Catholic school has religious education classes as part of the daily curriculum and its assumed that all the students are Catholics. This latter part, is of course not true, some people just sent their kids to Catholic school because it can be a better education. Nonetheless the religious education courses in the school take care of the instruction on what Catholics believe, how they are supposed to act with regard to their religion and the various historical facts concerning both the religion and the church. This makes the Sunday night course (that’ swhen my class was) absolutely superfluous for someone who is attending such a school.

For me, the classes were enjoyable for one reason: there were women there. I resented having to go to school on a sixth day for stuff that I already knew because I had learned it in the three years of Catholic high school and the nine years of Catholic grade school (I’m a survivor). Whereas the other students in the room, the ones who had attended the one hour post church classes for their lives, and some that hadn’t; could spout off some the Commandments and maybe knew who the current Pope was, were probably getting taught something. Part of the whole deal of Catholic school was to provide the extra religious instruction so forcing people to go to the other classes also seemed like a waste of the other student’s time as well. The teachers of the course just expected us to know the answers to the questions, but we were usually completely zoned out for the reasons mentioned above.

The further redundancy was the mandatory community “volunteer” project where they forced us to “volunteer” doing something in order to claim that we were ready to fulfill the sacrament. My high school mandated the same thing in order to progress a grade. I forget what the hours were but let’s say it was twenty. The Confirmation class also mandated an amount, let’s again say it was twenty.* Alright, cool, two birds one rolling stone? No. They didn’t overlap, or at least it wasn’t assumed by either organization that it would. The more creative of us (never doubt the ingenuity of a lazy person to work a loophole) were able to connive some sort of overlap, but nevertheless the entire point was rendered meaningless by the forcing of it.

You can’t make a person volunteer for something. That’s a contradiction, a point which upon bringing it up got me sent to the disciplinarians office in high school. I was told that it really was volunteering because I wanted to do it, to which I replied, “No, I want to move up a grade, this is a requirement.” He responded that meant I wanted to, and that I should. Which, earning a detention, I said “No, I will do it but I won’t call it volunteering because it’s not of my own choice (I wasn’t reading Kant on my own, they taught us about free will and choice in religion class).” The point is that the extra religion class was redundant in every respect except that it was a few years behind my other Catholic school cohort’s pace.

So upon making this argument at the family function, I was called a “bad influence.” Here’s the thing, all of those arguments before weren’t originally developed by me,  I was told them when I was going through it by family members and friend’s parents who didn’t think they needed to drive me to school on Sunday night to learn something I was getting taught on Monday. Further, certain people at the function agreed with me. However I’m the bad influence because I’m the only one that would take the argument one step further and say it’s not needed at all.

Now, I’m not trying to air some private family issues (that’s why I’m not using any names), all I’m saying is that the argument makes sense. If there was something, anything, that justified the redundant classes other than “that’s what they say you have to do” I would just have chalked it up to being another hoop that the Catholic Church makes you jump through. However no one was able at the time to give me such a reasoning.


  • I can’t remember what the exact hours were but they were the same amount.

The Nightmare of Scheduling

September 3, 2011 Leave a comment

The initial plan was shot from the beginning, because I commute to school I try and pack in my classes to two days a week. When the course selection for this semester was released late last spring, I knew that I was up to three days a week and thus two hours of driving a day. I shrugged resolving myself to the toil of the long trip back and forth. Furthermore I wasn’t too keen on the classes either.

It seems like this is a pattern in Graduate school. In undergrad the sheer volume of classes means that you are going to at least take a couple of good ones along with the shitty classes. In graduate school the number of courses that actually qualify for you to take is severely shrunken so that your choices are pretty limited. This means that you could end up taking an entire semester’s worth of classes that you don’t want to take. You end up enrolling in them because you can’t just skip a semester, you are there and it’s time to bite the bullet. If only biting the bullet was the hardest part…

Going to graduate school is like planning and executing a wedding. You can try and get everything in order before everything begins but if you don’t plan for one thing going catastrophically wrong, you have a problem. At my wedding, it was the disappearing priest at the ceremony and the vanishing table at the reception. One of these was not my fault. This semester it was the vanishing class and the typo. My initial schedule was tuesday through thursday. It was easy: one three hour class on tuesday, two two hour classes on wed, and another three hour class on thursday.

The earlier class on Wednesday was not something I was looking forward to. It was a Philosophy of Language class involving a debate between two people Frege and Russell, both of whom I have never read in any depth, and one of whom I have never read at all. I knew vaguely of Russell, I have read some of his logic stuff, and am familiar with his work in Philosophy of Science but aside from that nothing really. Frege, I knew the name but that was really about it. Due to some non school related stuff I basically had to take the class. I didn’t however register for it, this will be important soon.

Registration for Grad students is a bit different than it is for undergrads (unless you are in Law or Medicine but it could be the same, I just don’t know). It’s rare that a class gets capped, and usually even if a class is full, as a grad student you can get forced in. It’s one of those rare privileges, like being able to take out books indefinitely from the library. Plus, given the uniqueness of the class and that it would appeal to a specific student I wasn’t worried at all about getting in. Not registering however really screwed me when I found out that the class was cancelled due to illness. If I had been registered then I would have received an email a week ahead of time that would have indicated the class no longer existed. I accept this one as my fault.

The other problem were the two classes on tuesday and thursday. One class was listed as the day being “T” while the other was listed as being “Tu.” I took this to mean that one meant Tuesday and the other Thursday. However, this was not the case, it was a misprint. The “T” should have been “Tu” and since they are exactly the same time I couldn’t very well attend both. I went from four down to two classes in one swoop. In order to keep my loan I need the four. Add to this the completely inane decision by the school to shorten add/drop week for grad students to one week and i was in trouble.

My department realizing that given the number of conflicts between classes, and the cancellation of one; added about five or six cross listed classes called “tutorials.” We could take these for credit but typically they are taken as a pass/fail for no grade. That’s not a problem, but the issue here was that all of them were either in conflict with my already shaky schedule or were on days that I didn’t already have class. I wasn’t going to make the drive five days a week, although if pressed I would have.

What ended up happening was that I am now taking four classes, one of which I had planned on not taking because the subject doesn’t interest me at all. That however is the way it goes. A third class I’m taking because while it seemed interesting didn’t fit the initial schedule and is going to make life a bit hectic once the weather turns and I have to get from Gwen’s school to UB, park, and get to class in an hour. Right now it isn’t really a problem, but snow ruins all.

Fourthly, I’m entering into the Christian Philosophy reading group. I’ll give you a second to ponder why this atheist is joining the group. First off, we’re reading a book called “The Secular Age,” which given my proclivity toward history and toward being secular is pretty up my alley. Having also read Jennifer’s Hecht’s incredibly detailed “Doubt” in which she documented the history of religious skepticism this will serve as a nice counter point to that work, or corollary to it–I haven’t started it yet. Plus, I like theology, I truly do even though I have my atheism it’s interesting reading. And I know a good number of the people in the group, and they aren’t the liars that Roy and I encountered in Toledo (that “christian philosophy group” was all about Bible thumpin’ and Evolution denyin’ than Philosophy).

Given that the Bioethics class is going to be the most difficult and important, we’ll see the drafts on the blog. I guess through the solid week of panic everything turned out ok, all according to the will of Odin. 

Categories: School

On The Short Paper

March 13, 2011 Leave a comment

When I have to explain what graduate school grades are based on, my answer is usually the same as from class to class it doesn’t vary that much. The answer is, one long paper and a presentation. The follow up question is typically similar as well, “how long is that paper?” To which I respond, “about 15-20 pages.” Most people that I am speaking to balk at that answer. Writing that much about one subject is not in a non-graduate student’s normal experience. It seems alot, but in reality writing that much isn’t that difficult when you break the paper down.

An introduction and conclusion for the paper should eat up around 5 pages. So in reality the body of the paper is to be at least a minimum of ten. With enough research making this minimum isn’t that difficult, it’s attrition. You just throw as much as you can into the paper, tie it nicely together, make sure that it is both sensible and on topic (which the latter is probably the hardest aspect for me), then ride that wave into the conclusion. You also must resist the temptation to think that what you are writing is new and profound. Ideally it will be both of these things, but trying to force it can make the paper come off as pretentious and unreadable. For instance in my Aristotle class there is very little that can be written that will be new. People have been writing about Aristotle for longer than they have been writing about Christianity so the wide variety of work on Aristotle covers just about everything that can be thought of.

In “Introduction to Ontology” the assignments are unique. In addition to quizzes, we have two papers due. One, that is due in around a week is the short paper. With a page requirement of 3-5. Initially this seemed like a relief. I can write 3 pages in less than an hour, with research we’re looking at a short afternoon. The difficulty though, is not in making the length it’s in keeping to the length. Whereas 15 pages is attrition, 3 pages is about precision. The former can sustain some segues, it can absorb a slight deviation from the subject, and most importantly you have the space to address counter-arguments to the paper. In a three page paper none of these luxuries are possible.

Typically I will come across writing that is counter to what I am trying to say, throw up a quick paragraph or two illustrating the counter-argument and then follow that up with a response to the counter. In the three pager without the space necessary to do this I run into a problem. Either I can just stick to the topic, ignore the objection hoping that it won’t occur to the grader or I can tersely address it hoping that what I leave out won’t be deemed essential. It’s the choice between having the paper look like it missed something important, or it looking like it incompetently addressed it.

That’s just my anxiety in writing the paper. I’ve met the length, I have the sources, and the topic is thoroughly squashed, but it just feels incomplete. Perhaps it is just because I’m not used to writing something so short that isn’t a presentation or a weekly response paper. All I do know is that the first draft is terrible and needs a serious re-write. I guess that is what Spring Break is for.

Categories: School

The Optional Re-Write

January 16, 2011 Leave a comment

Back in December I had a one on one interview with a professor to discuss my final paper in the class. It wasn’t anything special, he required these in lieu of a presentation in the class. I didn’t like this requirement because without sounding too boastful I completely rock at giving presentations. Yet, a face-to-face interview is still nice because I’m a much better speaker than I am a writer. As long as the paper was adequate I could better explain the concepts in it orally rather than through the writing itself. I’m not sure what the difference actually is in my head, perhaps it’s the immediacy of the conversation and the opportunity to correct myself on the spot rather than having a written paper which is complete and final.

I walked into the professor’s office, which was completely Spartan by any definition of the word, and after introducing myself again to him he remarked that he didn’t like my paper. I didn’t blink at the comment, because it didn’t matter whether he liked it. Academics are about what you can prove not about what a person likes. If, for instance, a person wrote a paper I hated (which happened more than I would have liked–basically any pro-Marx paper I received) they could get a good grade if their argument was good. I knew the professor wasn’t that into American Pragmatism and my paper concentrated on John Dewey with respect to Martin Heidegger. He could not like it, but it could still be appreciated.

The problem was that the reason he didn’t like it was exactly for the reason that I feared the most: I had made a mistake. Heidegger has these concepts of ready-to-hand and present-at-hand. Because he’s German he likes to hyphen, don’t ask me why but I’ll bet it has something to do with the German language which I don’t speak. In basic definitions present-at-hand is the theory of an object. If you need to pound something you think of the idea of an object for which to pound and that object is a hammer. Present-at-hand is the idea of a hammer and its possible function. In this respect as well, it is any object that could possibly be used to pound things. The second, the ready-to-hand, is the object as you are using it. We tend not to think of the objects that we use while we are using them. To do so would severely impede our abilities to perform actions. My typing is me using the keyboard without thinking of the keyboard or the location of my fingers. If I did so, my typing would completely slow down reverting possibly to the hunt and peck method of writing. Even now, in writing these sentences I am having trouble not thinking of my fingers while typing. More to the point is walking. One of the most difficult problems in robotics is getting a robot to do everyday tasks that we perform without thinking of them. Walking was the first hurdle, which is why that 1950s looking Toyota robot (from the late 90s early 00s) moved so slow, it needed to compute weight balances and such just to take a couple of steps.

That makes sense right? The problem I had was that I had messed up the definition of the ready-to-hand. I had written the paper as though the object being used was still considered an object. To do this would fall into the consciousness trap that I had just previously mentioned. Since the whole paper was built around this it essentially collapsed under this fault. Not good, what saved the paper (and my subsequent grade) was the section on John Dewey after the mistake which was independent of the mistake–until I put the two together–and my explanation of some of the concepts in the paper.

I re-read the paper and huffed. I tried to turn the paper in early so I could get some pointers on it as Heidegger is notoriously difficult to read, comprehend, and enjoy (although people like the Nazi for some reason). Yet the professor stated that he didn’t do pre-reads of drafts. A policy that I am unfamiliar with and disagree with, but that’s his policy so I just have to deal with it. A reviewed draft would have saved my grade, but I stress that I should NOT have made the mistake in the first place. So today, sans conclusion, i have just re-written the paper making the changes necessary.

Here’s the thing: it probably won’t be accepted for a change of grade. If the professor in question won’t even look at them early the odds that a grade change for a better paper are pretty slim. None of this really matters to me though. My other class grades are sufficient to bolster what I received in the class. Why am I doing this? Because I feel terrible for having turned in a bad paper.

Statistics rule society. People need things that can be measured, because as Calvin said (the comic character not the theologian) when the numbers go up you are having more fun. We know things are effective when the numbers increase or decrease depending on what the numbers are attached to. Thus an effective student has good objectively defined grades. This doesn’t take into consideration whether or not that student can teach, speak, or perform only that the student is technically proficient. This goes for any subject. Good accounting and the focus on the numbers are what got us into the banking collapse. The numbers went up so the business was doing well and this focus is inherently dangerous because it removes any focus on the individual or on ethical considerations.

I want to turn in the revised paper because I want to show that I can write without making a mistake. Nothing in the paper was that groundbreaking but the mistake burns in the back of my head. Even if I had gotten a good grade in the class overall, I would still have rewritten this paper because I care about more than just my grade. Education is supposed to be about more than just grades and numbers, we are supposed to be learning something and I cannot without hypocrisy let the paper slide and still hold that opinion. In all the requirements of passing classes in graduate school should go way up and everything should just be a pass/fail. We would probably turn out better doctoral (Ph.Ds and Mds) and Master’s students that way.


December 10, 2010 Leave a comment

This is exactly the worst time that I should be doing this. However, I think that I need to kick start my brain into writing mode and although some people may not believe that these blog entries serve any purpose it’s all just practice for the paper writing. I currently sit in Starbucks on the library table that takes up a good deal of space in the small building. I am surrounded by source material to the left of me are both of the text books that I used when I was teaching Medical Ethics. To the left of me are two magazines (The Atlantic and Skeptic Quarterly) opened to articles on Autism. Beneath those are the PDF articles that are useful to my paper. This table could easily fit three people on one side and I have annexed the entire side with my stuff.

Yet, with all of this material around me, not to mention that I have two power points, another PDF, and my already started paper open on my laptop, I cannot get writing. The trouble is that immensity of the paper that i have to write and my love of the subject. For the most part I didn’t really like teaching bioethics. Mostly because I stuck with the cliche topics and after five semesters they became kind of rote. However I never tackled the subject of pseudoscience and the danger of legitimizing it before. It was one of those traps that I fall into, I don’t like talking about the subjects that I really like because it can infuriate me when someone disagrees.

This time the danger is a bit more real. It’s not just disagreement, it’s a grade. If I can’t prove that medical ontologies should not include false beliefs or at the very least include them but indicate that they are false, then am I just bullshitting this? The worst part is that it’s all here, both the theoritical reasons why (with some minor objections about patients’ rights) and actual evidence about what happens when you let such false beliefs propagate, outbreaks of pertussis in California for example.

I just can’t transition well enough to get past the six page block where I am now. I’ve performed all of the actions that normally stall me in writing: checked three email accounts, briefly skimmed facebook, and now I am writing this. It’s a jump start…hopefully. I’ve even found the articles in the text book that I need I just can’t get into it.

The largest trouble is that I need to get this one done this weekend because a week from Monday I have another paper due. One that I haven’t actually started but I have all of that research done. The writing for that paper, save some new block like this, will just be a grind.

Perhaps, I have something right now, or perhaps I will just end up staring at the blinking cursor for awhile longer. Either way I can feel it in my brain the inkling of an idea, a transition sentence. It really is all I need to get going.

Then again it may just be another game of hearts…

Categories: daily observations, School

One More Day

December 7, 2010 Leave a comment

I like being in school, I just don’t like being in classes. Perhaps I should say that I don’t like being a student in classes, but that would be a lie, I just don’t like having to do the final papers. For the first month or so of my classes those due dates are like abstract art, you kind of understand that they exist but it doesn’t really matter. Until someone rips the painting off the wall and holds it ransom. Which is what these last two weeks feel like.

This is your life as it stands right now: two papers left, two down, and one presentation.

We must remember the maxim of Murphy as well because everything is going wrong. The weather turned, which isn’t a surprise this is Western New York in the corridor of the Great Lakes, but no one else apparently can remember that. Push the plows out and get it done, I have an hour commute. Then the wireless internet decides that it is going to quit at school, I wonder if the professors will take, “I left my ethernet cable at home” for a valid excuse?

Then I mysteriously became ill. I only get sick about once a year and unfortunately it is usually a crippling cold, but sometimes not. This time I know what it is going to be, because a little gremlin that I live with is sick right now and she gave it to me. It’s just not a good time to get sick I have two papers to write.

One paper is difficult because I have all the research but no topic to write about. That’s the Monday morning class, and it’s not due until the 20th of this month…somehow we worked that out. I’ll give one guy in the class credit for the hail mary pass he went for today, “So professor it’s a 12-15 page paper right?”

No, it’s a 15 minimum. That’s fine, I can do that…I already have the research done, two years of papers from grad school previously of which to mine for sources and subjects, two and a half years of lectures and assignments from which to mine from, I just need a topic. Like the Sophist Gorgias give me a topic I can find fifteen pages of words on it, that’s not hard. Making it good is only hard if you have trouble with a topic…that’s my problem right now. It haunts my dreams.

The fifteen minimum is normal, a standard really, but today in the Biomedical class we were thrown a loop. We all made assumptions of the final paper thinking they would be like the standard, but “standard” is a concept like “average.” It means there will be deviation from the norm. Whereas one of my papers had to be a maximum of 10 pages, this one has to be a minimum of 20…with the added bonus of having something publishable. Not that our grade is going to hinge on journal acceptance, but the two professors would like something to be there.

That’s actually the easy part. I know that exposing quackery in medical science/pseudo-science is interesting to people because it causes controversy and people like controversy, but that minimum of 20 makes it hard. I know that the paper I was going to write was going to be in need of fluff at around 10 pages, so i added a case study. Now I need more case studies which will hopefully make it more general as opposed to the specific focus I had in making the anti-vaccination crowd look like idiots.

I like the writing which is why i hate the 20 minimum. Because I like it, I don’t want to fluff it filling the topic with bullshit just to make a minimum. They know I know the stuff, because not only did I trash the medical quakery of the Jenny McCarthy crowd but I also dug into the African Traditional Medical Ontologies which include witchcraft and soothsaying as entries (don’t laugh too hard there is a repeated push to include such things as “faith healing” and “miraculous recovery” which is as preposterous as it is unfalsifiable). Now I need more examples, journalistic examples at least….any skeptics out there want to help me out?