Log in


One of my ongoing projects is to read major works in the history of thought, especially works I suspect I disagree with; this is why, for example, I've read Keynes and Hume's major books. Kant, though, was a bit daunting! I've struggled with the standard Kemp Smith translation a couple of times and found it hard to get anything out of it. But I happened to glance at the German philosophy shelves on my last visit to the SDSU library and found a much more recent translation of the Critique of Pure Reason by Werner Pluhar. I'm maybe halfway through it, and it's significantly more readable—which is not to say easy. I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to struggle with dense academic philosophy.

I'm not going to try to explain what Kant thinks. But I will note several things that seem to have influenced his thought, so that having more exposure to them is helpful in getting a little of what he's saying: medieval scholastic thought, Newtonian physics, and Hume's radical skepticism all seem to have gotten into the pot.

I was interested to see a couple of things that might have influenced later writers. On one hand, his "categories" are four sets of abstract concepts, grouped in threes, that he claims we inherently know to be valid. Each of this contains one affirmative concept, one negative concept, and one concept that somehow unites them—which had me saying, "Oh, so that's where Hegel got the dialectic!" On the other, he has a progression of three stages of the unity of perception and self-awareness: first, the unity of a single topic or theme; second, the plurality of things that are related to that topic; third, the bringing of all those things back together as a single unified concept, which Kant calls "perfection." This is strikingly like Stephen Daedalus's aesthetic principles of "wholeness, harmony, and radiance" in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, which James Joyce apparently took from Thomas Aquinas—and that might be where Kant got them too.

It's also striking that on Kant's second or third pass through the categories, he relates them to ideas from physics, like those of intensive and extensive magnitudes.

I'm also struck by one weird idea: Kant discusses the immortality of the soul, which apparently he wants to preserve against scientific and skeptical arguments. But his premise for this is that the soul is a simple entity, without parts, which therefore cannot be disassembled; and he concludes from this that it's the inherent nature of the soul to be indestructible. Seemingly he thinks of this as a defense of Christian faith. But how can the belief in an inherently indestructible soul be consistent with the belief in an omnipotent God? It would seem that such a God, on one hand, could create souls, and on the other hand, could just as well destroy them, and that if the soul is everlasting, its immortality must be a free gift from that God, and not an inherent necessity. Kant doesn't accept ex nihilo nihil fit ("nothing is made from nothing") as a statement about the material world, but he seems perfectly willing to transpose it into the spiritual world—and he doesn't seem to see any clash between that and belief in a creator, even though he makes the existence of a creator essential to his moral system.

But perhaps the later parts of the book will make this clearer.

comparing and contrasting

This has been a big spring for superhero ensemble films, with Dawn of Justice, Civil War, and next weekend Apocalypse. We've seen the first two—Dawn of Justice in the hope that DC would have figured out how to do an actual superhero film; Civil War in fear that this might be the point where Marvel fell short. Neither the hope nor the fear was fulfilled.

Most basically, in terms of pacing, we both felt, through much of Dawn of Justice, that it was just going on forever. The big exciting combat scenes didn't excite us; they dragged. And the rest of the film didn't consistently capture our attention, either. Civil War kept us much more focused on the screen.

A big part of this, I think, is that DC was thinking that what makes a superhero film work is the physical violence of the fight scenes and the special effects. Really, for me at least, that doesn't sell a fight scene. I need to have a sense of what the experience of combat means to the combatants, and even more, of why they're in the fight in the first place. Dawn of Justice had only two and a half superheroes, but I never felt they made Wonder Woman's motives clear at all, and I didn't get much sense of how Superman's and Batman's were different; their opposition to each other didn't seem clearly motivated. Civil War had a dozen, split into two opposed factions, and for each of them I had a clear sense of what they were doing there and why they were on that side.

Part of this is that Marvel has been taking the trouble to establish both the characterization of their heroes, and the moral qualities they embody, which to my mind is the essential thing that a superhero needs to make sense. DC hasn't brought that out, and in fact it rather seems that Zack Snyder, at least, doesn't believe that superheroes embody any moral qualities—which wasn't really true even for Watchmen, and is a totally bad fit to both Superman and Batman, in different ways.

Both films actually have the idea of a hero vs. hero conflict, one that sets right against right. Civil War seems to take this seriously, with scenes of different characters actually arguing, and with a crucial scene near the beginning where a fairly minor character actually voices Steve Rogers's essentialy moral premise for him. I don't feel that Dawn of Justice ever got into that kind of focus.

Both films have a behind-the-scenes villain who relies on cunning plans; but I find it hard to make any sense of Lex Luthor's cunning plan. Really, he comes across increasingly as a Joker-like nihilist. The hidden villain in Civil War actually seems fairly human and disturbingly sane.

The natural scale of superhero films often seems to be apocalyptic. Dawn of Justice both looks back to an apocalyptic situation in Man of Steel (in fact, its best scene reprises that situation, from the viewpoint of Bruce Wayne, who's more persuasively heroic there than he is in the bat-suit) and builds up to a new one. Civil War doesn't have an apocalyptic conflict; it seems more to be about looking back to the apocalypses of previous MCU films and asking how to deal with them. In a way, it's a pause between the apocalypses of the last Avengers film and the next one. Its big fight does property damage on the scale of a terrorist incident, but not of a battle, and really the only people at risk seem to be the superheroes themselves.

One of the things that made me want to see Dawn of Justice was the Wonder Woman scenes in the previews, and her appearances actually were mostly good, though much too brief; I didn't really feel as if her appearance made the crucial difference that it ought to have. The newly introduced characters who guest starred in Civil War seemed to be more present, and in fact a big part of the story was one of them gaining new moral insight. Wonder Woman seems to change her mind in an important way in Dawn of Justice, but I don't have a sense of how she came to do so, or what evidence she relied on.

In a way the comparison isn't quite fair, because Dawn of Justice properly corresponds not to Civil War, but to The Avengers, where the MCU superhero team came into being. But The Avengers also seemed to have a stronger sense of why its heroes were at odds.

I really wanted to like Dawn of Justice, and to see Marvel get some competition in producing not merely successful superhero films, but successful cumulative series of superhero films. But I just couldn't find much to like in it. The MCU isn't perfect, but it's doing some important things right that DC doesn't even seem to have thought of trying. More's the pity.

choices, ii

Looking at federal and state offices that don't have any Libertarians running:

U.S. representative: Susan Davis has been in Congress for a long time. As a Democrat, she was one of the votes that put through the Affordable Care Act. So I'm not voting for her, ever again.

Nicholas Walpert is a Democrat also, and I can't find much information on his positions, which is too counts against him. Jim Ash is a Republican, who presents himself as a "citizen legislator" and wants to reform the operation of Congress, which rather reminds me of Mencken's line about sending virgins into brothels. James Veltmeyer, the other Republican, has more substantive issue statements, including opposition to the Affordable Care Act and making medical care more a private matter between doctors and patients, and lightening the tax and regulatory burden on small businesses. I think Veltmeyer is the best of the lot.

State senator: Toni Atkins, the incumbent, is a Democrat, which is a point against her. There are three Republicans: J. Bribiesca, who has some moderately good positions (lower taxes, decreased regulation, pension reform) but not as many specifics as I would like; Richard Fago, who doesn't seem to have any information about himself online; and John Renison, who seems to be a classic "Chamber of Commerce Republican," though he does make a point of Second Amendment rights. No strong preference here; the only one I'd flatly rule out is Fago.

State assembly: Todd Gloria, who's currently on the city council, is running as a Democrat against Kevin Melton, a Republican. It's an interesting juxtaposition, in that Gloria is gay and multiracial and Melton is black. Melton doesn't actually seem to have any positions; he's running on being a good citizen who loves San Diego. I don't see much to gain from voting for him.


The sample ballots for the California primary are starting to come out. There's no way I would consider voting for a Democratic presidential nominee, and the Republican field has narrowed down to Trump, who actually looks worse than Clinton. (And here a year ago I thought the worst likely outcome on the Republican side was Bush, giving us two dynastic candidates.)

I was leaning toward the Libertarians anyway; now I'm definitely going to be asking for the Libertarian ballot.

Click here for political analysisCollapse )

Alex + Ada

The Libertarian Futurist Society has just sent out its press release about giving a Special Award to Alex + Ada. This is a three-volume graphic novel about artificial intelligence, set in a near future United States where AI is emerging as a consumer technology—and as a focus of controversy. The series starts out as a slice-of-life comedy about a young man whose wealthy, eccentric, and scandalous grandmother gives him a very expensive humanoid, female-appearing, and fully functional android. As the story progresses, though, it gets serious about the characters' moral choices, showing their society in the grip of a moral panic that leads to mob violence and repressive laws—and showing how they deal with it.

For me personally, the single most interesting nuance of the story takes place just after Alex has decided he wants more than an obedient, programmable companion, and arranged for Ada to be reprogrammed with code that grants her actual self-awareness and self-direction. After they return to his apartment, Ada goes all through it, experiencing different things in it—she even smells Alex's dirty socks–and going through all her memories, which she now experiences as hers. Philosophers talk about qualia (or "sense-data" or "raw feels"), the distinctive internal sensations of color or taste or pleasure or pain, and some of them think that these are what distinguish conscious beings from non-conscious ones. Jonathan Luna and Sarah Vaughn have managed to convey this idea in a graphic novel—and not only to make a case for this philosophical idea, but to tie it to the ethical questions, making qualia the source of personhood and of ethical rights. I'm not sure if I agree with this view, but it's an interesting and sophisticated one, and it's striking to find it in a graphic novel.

a linguistic note

Today I have to take back my latest batch of borrowed books to the San Diego State University library. One of them has the following title on the spine: "Metaphysics and the Origin of the Species." It's by Michael Ghiselin, a biologist I respect and one who has done a full-length study of Darwin's thought, so I was surprised to see him get the title wrong. But when I checked inside the covers, I saw that the title page had ". . . and the Origin of Species."

So it looks as if what happened was that the library staff member glanced at the book's original cover before putting it into a library binding, saw that it was the title of Darwin's book, and then typed the title of Darwin's book from memory, without rechecking. In other words, Darwin's title has fused into a single linguistic unit in their mind, remembered as a whole and not analyzed into parts. And unfortunately what they remembered is wrong.

The phrase "the origin of the species" suggests that we are talking about a particular single species, and moreover one that everyone would immediately think of, at least in this context—which of course is the human species, because most people's association with Darwin is his claims about human evolution. But in fact The Origin of Species says nothing about Homo sapiens; it offers only a brief promissory note in the last chapter, "Light will be thrown on the origin of man and his history." What Darwin is writing about is a general biological thesis, about the origin of species, that is, of groups of organisms that interchange genetic material with each other, of which Homo sapiens is only one, to which Darwin's general theory applies as a minor logical corollary. So the commonly used incorrect title suggests that the speaker or writer has heard of one of Darwin's specific claims but has no understanding of the logical structure of his ideas, nor of the language in which they are expressed.

And I suppose a library staff member isn't obligated to understand biology. But checking the actual wording, and indeed spelling and punctuation, of a book title is a basic professional skill. It's natural for the human mind to make certain kinds of errors, but that tendency is why we have copy editing, proofreading, library cataloging, and other such disciplines—to correct those natural errors.


Just this morning, a curious thought occurred to me: The plot of the upcoming Captain America: Civil War could be read (based only on the trailers, at this point) as an allegory of Catholicism versus Protestantism. On one hand, you have the man who puts his faith in authority and hierarchy and established procedures. On the other hand, you have the man who acts on his own individual conscience, and claims the right to do so, whose motto could be "Here I stand. God help me, I cannot do otherwise."


This morning, on the thirty-first anniversary of our moving in together, chorale and I married. In addition to the two friends who kindly offered to host and a friend of theirs who volunteered her help, thirty-four people attended.

The vows were a version of an early Book of Common Prayer rite, which I edited with input from chorale. I liked them because they emphasized the legal commitment actually to do certain things, rather than merely a sentimental commitment to feel the right way. I'm a bit proud of my edit, so here it is:

Officiant: Dearly beloved friends, we are gathered together to join this man and this woman in matrimony, which is an honorable estate, and therefore is not to be enterprised nor taken in hand unadvisedly, lightly, or wantonly, but reverently, discreetly, advisedly, and soberly, for the mutual society, help, and comfort, that the one ought to have of the other, both in prosperity and in adversity: into the which estate these two persons present come now to be joined. Therefore, if any person can show any just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak, or else hereafter forever hold his peace.

(To the couple) I require and charge you that if either of you do know any impediment why ye may not be lawfully joined together in matrimony, that ye confess it.

(To the groom) —, wilt thou have this woman to thy wedded wife, to live together in matrimony? Wilt thou love her, comfort her, honor and keep her, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep thee only to her, so long as you both shall live?

Groom: I will.

Officiant: (To the bride) —, wilt thou have this man to thy wedded husband, to live together in matrimony? Wilt thou love him, comfort him, honor and keep him, in sickness and in health? And forsaking all other, keep thee only to him, so long as you both shall live?

Bride: I will.

Groom takes bride’s hand.

Officiant, followed by groom: I, —, take thee, —, to be my wedded wife, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, till death us depart. And thereto I plight thee my troth.

Couple release hands; bride takes groom’s hand.

Officiant, followed by bride: I, —, take thee, —, to be my wedded husband, to have and to hold from this day forth, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness, and in health, till death us depart. And thereto I give thee my troth.

Couple release hands; groom places ring on bride’s hand.

Officiant, followed by groom: With this ring I thee wed: and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

Bride places ring on groom’s hand.

Officiant, followed by bride: With this ring I thee wed: and with all my worldly goods I thee endow.

Officiant: Forasmuch as — and — have consented in wedlock, and have witnessed the same before this company, and thereto have given and pledged their troth to each other, and have declared the same by giving and receiving of rings, and by joining of hands: I pronounce that they be man and wife together.

Officiant: You may kiss the bride.

Many thanks to our friends who served as officiant, best man, and matron of honor, and to the friends who offered their house and yard, and to everyone who attended, especially the several people who traveled long distances to do so.

seen in the wild

Yesterday I had an errand to run that involved taking the bus. About halfway to my destination a woman got on and apparently sat down without paying; at any rate the driver spoke to her and she said, "Just a minute," and fished in her purse and then went up to the front. She sat down again, and the driver asked her for another quarter.

That's when it got weird: She claimed not to have a quarter, and then she told the driver he should stop watching pornography and called him a misogynist. And she went back and sat down.

So the driver didn't drive on; as is standard practice, he stayed at the stop until the situation was cleared up. And another passenger, also a woman, turned to the first woman and complained about her holding the bus up; if she didn't have a quarter, the second woman said, she should ask people if they had a quarter. The first woman said something about the bus being federally funded, and the second one said that she still had to pay to ride. And eventually the first woman went up, took out a quarter, and paid the rest of the fare. So apparently that whole drama wasn't about her actually not having the fare at all. And I'm really not sure what it was about.

But the exchange didn't stop there: The second woman had been annoyed about having the bus held up for this drama, and the first woman "apologized" to her—but the actual wording was "I'm sorry you're so full of rage," which is quite clearly not an actual apology: It's reframing the situation from "I did something that inconvenienced and offended you" to "You are a person who is inherently angry and your anger is not about me in any way," with a touch of "And I'm better than you because I'm not being angry back at you." Now, I've seen that sort of nonapology quoted in political disputes, and I've seen it once in a roleplaying game I was running ("I'm sorry you weren't strong enough to deal with my pointing an electrolaser at you" was a classic line); but I don't recall running into it out in the natural social environment before.

The accusation of misogyny was strange too: All the driver had done was ask her to pay the full fare, which any driver, male or female, would have to do with any passenger, male or female. So this was a really striking case of a situation being framed as abuser and victim in a purely manipulative way that bore no relation to the facts. And it wasn't without effect: I thought of saying something myself at the outset—I wanted to get to my destination and take care of my own errands!—but I figured that anything I said would also be dismissed as "misogynistic" and not do any good. And I'm not sure whether to think of my own silence as prudence or timidity.


Our older cat, Taiki, has had the habit for some time, when chorale and I sit close together, of pushing himself between us and crying for attention. So from time to time I call him "the thruster between," by analogy to, for example "the burrower beneath" in the Cthulhu mythos. It's long seemed to me that this could plausibly be given a Latin paraphrase.

Checking our Latin dictionary lately, I found that one of the verbs for "thrust" or "push" is trudere, the root, for example, of English "intrude" and "protrude." Adding the preposition as a prefix, I get verb intertrudere and derived agent noun intertruditor. In English it would be "intertruder," but I think I like the sound of the Latin. . . .