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A Little Philosophy:  What is “Is”?

The simplest words are sometimes the hardest to analyze.  Take “is”. As usually used in assigning identity, we think of the word as being equivalent to the equal sign  (=) in mathematics, as in “two and three is five”.  Is makes the first thing and the second thing the same thing.  At least, that is what we think we mean when we use the word is.  Such a strong ontological equivalence makes the two things seem inseparable.  Accepting this equivalence uncritically is almost always a mistake.

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Consider “he is John”.  Is he really?  The sound of the word “John” as it propagates  through the medium of air is not really what he is, is it?  “Ah”, you say, “but in this context the word is is  just an idiomatic way of naming something.”  Right you are!  But the point is, the word is is always just an idiom in every context it is used.

The false equivalence of “is” causes all kinds of social trouble. Consider the statement “Bobby is a boy”.  A recent news story tells of Bobby Montoya, a 7-year-old child who is genetically a boy but who self-identifies as a girl.  To look at the photo, Bobby is a happy and lovely little girl, but she’s got male plumbing.  She likes girl things and she does girl stuff.  Her parents accept her self-identification as a girl and have avoided trying to force her into a male mold. When the parents presented Bobby to the Girl Scouts for membership, the Girl Scouts said “If a child identifies as a girl and the child’s family presents her as a girl, Girl Scouts of Colorado welcomes her as a Girl Scout.”  In response, three Girl Scout leaders in Louisiana resigned and dissolved their Girl Scout troops.  “This goes against what we believe”, said one of them.

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Any challenge to the ontological is-ness of someone’s gender assignment (Bobby is a boy) stirs outright revulsion in many people.  Here is one person’s comment on the news story about Bobby:

This is a heck of a way to bring up a boy, to think he is a girl. They have robbed him of his identity and his sanity. This is nothing short of child abuse. Think of how this poor child is going to be treated by his peers, all because his mother doesn’t have her head screwed on straight. What an outrage. The Girl Scouts of America organization should revoke their charter.

How strange, isn’t it, to feel that sanity itself is threatened if we don’t maintain absolute faith and belief in “Bobby is a boy”?  Gender identification is such an ambiguous thing, but ambiguity is so nauseating to some people that it feels like allowing the universal order to dissolve into complete chaos.

Relax.  The world is not falling apart if Bobby isn’t a boy.  It’s just that reality can be slippery and not very friendly to the demands we make of it. Ambiguity is built into the fabric of the universe. Sometimes a particle isn’t a particle but a wave.  And sometimes a boy isn’t a boy but a girl.

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Where did the word is get all this power?  It starts with Plato’s theory of the Forms.  Plato understood that when you use the word is you are locating a specific thing in a general category.  This piece of furniture (specific object) is a chair (general category of all things that are chairs). Plato called these general categories (things that are chairs, things that are red, things that are beautiful, etc.) the Forms.  For Plato, the Forms were transcendent and eternal categories.  Mere physical chairs and apples are movie stars are things that fall apart, rot and pass away.  But the eternal Forms of chairness and redness and beauty last forever in an otherworldly realm that is much more real than our physical world and the transitory objects it contains.  Thus, when you say what something is, you connect it with its very essence and its transcendent source in a bright and glorious hereafter.  Some scholars say that our modern religions would not have been possible without this transcendental realm of Forms that Plato conceived.

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What Plato failed to account for was the way in which things can partake in a number of different general categories at once.  A milk carton, for example, can also serve as a chair.  It would be an object created and sustained by two eternal Forms; the Form of Milk-carton-ness and the Form of Chairness.  In exactly the same way, Bobby can be a boy and a girl.  Another thing that Plato’s analysis missed is how we citizens of the ordinary physical world can make category assignments that are imperfect.  Even if there really are eternal Forms in the great beyond, how can we be sure that our mundane and feeble minds correctly reflect them? Our forms may not be the eternal Forms.  Bobby might not be a boy at all, and our assignment of him to the category “boy” is just dead wrong by some higher universal standard that we mortals can’t grasp.

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If you think you don’t understand the theory of Forms, you really do.  You were steeped in it from birth.  All Western philosophy originates with Plato, and Plato wields an enormous but often unrecognized influence on the western intellect. Even folks who haven’t studied Plato unknowingly absorb and adopt the Platonic theory of Forms without realizing where it came from.  That is why is has such absolute, ontological connotations.  That is why we insist on knowing and saying what a thing really is, as if God Himself places all things in their proper categories. And that is why some folks experience a nausea of revulsion when the truth of is is threatened.  But once you know where is got it’s power, it begins to lose its power over you, and you are better able to question the categories that so many of us take for granted.

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Where Did Santa Claus Come From?

It was the last Christmas that my daughter believed Santa Claus was a physical person at the north pole.  We were trimming the tree when she asked me, “How did Santa get started?”  I’m not a creative person, but the question opened the way for my imagination to make a rare appearance.  I found that the germ of a story was already in my mind, and so I told it to her, filling out the details as I went.

My wife has made me write it down and post it here.  Why not?  It’s Christmastime and politics will get along fine without us for a few days.

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It happened over a thousand years ago in a town high in the German Alps.  One dark winter evening, old Herr Klaus sat by the fire in the inn.  You would often find Klaus there when the icy chills came.  Klaus had been the town’s master carpenter for nigh on 50 years and he was now grown old and stiff in the joints.  And while he could still repair a cart wheel or build a table at need, he did these things less and less as time went on.  Most often he made toys for his own pleasure and that of the townspeople’s children, or else he sat with a mug of beer here by the fire in the inn.

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Klaus had dozed, but now he woke with a jump at the sound of excited voices.  A stranger had joined the company; a hunter wrapped in snow-matted fur seeking warmth and refuge from the winter blast. A haunted man he seemed, with a foreign accent and terror in his voice.  “The demons of the north, I tell you!” he said.  “They’re up on the pass all right, howling and rumbling. I have only just escaped with my life.”

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That morning, the hunter had left a little village up over the high pass 10 leagues to the north.  He had not gone far when the sky became laden and dark, and a deadly north wind began, and he knew that a horrible snowstorm was almost upon him.  But he dared not turn back to the little village, for its men were mostly off  fighting wars, and so the villagers had no store of winter supplies.  Nor would any supplies be coming this winter to the village, he knew, for the storm that was coming would surely block the pass for the season.  The poor village folks seemed bound to starve or freeze.  It was no good going back there to share their grim fate.  So all day the hunter had slogged and stumbled and forced his way over the pass through the wind and deepening snow, reaching the warmth of the inn with the last light of day and at the very end of his strength.

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When old Klaus heard all of this, he rose from his chair by the fire in the inn and told the assembled townsmen that they would have to rescue the poor villagers if they could.  But even though Klaus was  the jolliest and most generous man anyone knew, and even though he spoke with passion and authority, none of them would agree to go out into the storm to save the villagers from freezing and starving –  not when the demons of the north were howling on the high passes.  And so Klaus told them he would make the dangerous trip alone, and nobody could dissuade him.

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No cart could force a road through such a snow, but Klaus knew about an old heavy sleigh in the stable that just might make it.  Back in those days, only the very rich had horses, and the people in Klaus’ town had donkeys and reindeer.  So to the old sleigh Klaus hitched eight reindeer, and he filled the sleigh’s lamps with oil and lit them.  And while none of the townsmen would go with Klaus, they all brought coal, fuel oil, bread, cheeses and sausages, and they helped load the sleigh with these provisions.  On top of the load Klaus packed toys he had made to give to the village children. With a wave to the townspeople he drove away north on the road  to the high pass, and his lights quickly disappeared from view.

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I don’t know what the journey through that horrible storm was like, because old Klaus never told anyone about it.  The uphill leg of the trip must have been very hard for the reindeer, stout as they were, because the sleigh was so heavily loaded.  And old Klaus must have grown colder and colder the further he drove from his chair by the fire in the inn.  How the demons of the north must have howled!  The snow would have been most deep on the northern, downhill side of the pass.  They say that the storm left drifts many feet deep.  The sleigh’s good wide runners, the steep downhill grade and the heavy load explain, perhaps, how Klaus was able to force a road through the drifts, all the way to the village below.

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The villagers heard Klaus’ sleigh bells and came out of their dark, cold houses to find him.  His hands were frozen to the reigns and his beard was caked with ice.  But no breath of steam could be seen from his mouth because old Klaus was dead.  They unloaded the supplies from the sleigh, thanked poor old Klaus, lit their lamps and their stoves with the fuel Klaus had brought and ate their first good meal in days.  They had to leave old Klaus as he sat in the sleigh, for they could do nothing for him until the spring thaw.

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Not all of the spirit beings out that terrible night were evil.  There were  good spirits of light, too, and Klaus’ journey had caught their attention.  Perhaps they were the old pagan gods of the Germanic people.  Or maybe they were angels of the new religion that the Christian priests had brought to the people.  Whoever they were, they appeared and gathered around  Klaus’ sleigh, radiating a light that astonished the villagers who watched from their doorways.  The tallest and brightest of the spirits laid his hand on old Klaus’  head and spoke to him, saying, “Awake, Saint Klaus, and receive this boon for thy love and courage! From this night onward, thou art immortal like us, and once every year thou shalt  take again thy heroic journey to bring joy and hope to people everywhere.”

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At that moment, Santa Claus opened his eyes and looked on the beings who had woken him.  A kind and happy smile broke out on his face and “Ho ho ho!”, he laughed. He shook the reigns and the sleigh took to the skies for the very first time.

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In Newt’s Words

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To the surprise and delight of President Obama,  Democrats and progressives, the Newt Gingrich campaign has risen from the ashes and propelled him to frontrunner status in the  race for the GOP presidential nomination.   Whether he can win is an open question, but Newt’s habit of making jaw-dropping statements make him the general election candidate of the Democrats’ dreams.

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Let ‘s take a trip down memory lane and allow Newt Gingrich speak for himself.  Here is just a small sampling of the low-hanging fruit ripe for the picking by Democratic ad men:

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Newt Gingrich on whether the US should help overthrow Gaddafi:

Exercise a no-fly zone this evening, communicate to the Libyan military that Gaddafi was gone and that the sooner they switch sides, the more likely they were to survive, provided help to the rebels to replace him. I mean, the idea that we’re confused about a man who has been an anti-American dictator since 1969 just tells you how inept this administration is.

Newt Gingrich, two weeks later,  on whether the US should have helped overthrow Gaddafi:

I would not have intervened. I think there were a lot of other ways to affect Qaddafi. I think there are a lot of other allies in the region we could have worked with. I would not have used American and European forces.

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Newt Gingrich on himself:

I have enormous personal ambition. I want to shift the entire planet. And I’m doing it. I am now a famous person. I represent real power.

Gingrich – Primary mission, Advocate of civilization, Definer of civilization, Teacher of the rules of civilization, Leader of the civilizing forces.

My enemies will write histories that dismiss me and prove I was unimportant.

People like me are what stand between us and Auschwitz. I see evil all around me every day.

It doesn’t matter what I do. People need to hear what I have to say. There’s no one else who can say what I can say. It doesn’t matter what I live.

I think you can write a psychological profile of me that says I found a way to immerse my insecurities in a cause large enough to justify whatever I wanted it to.

I will not rest until I have transformed the landscape of American politics.

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Newt Gingrich on Gays:

It is madness to pretend that families are anything other than heterosexual couples.

There is a gay and secular fascism in this country that wants to impose its will on the rest of us. [It is] prepared to use violence, to use harassment. I think it is prepared to use the government if it can get control of it.

Newt Gingrich on his first wife:

She isn’t young enough or pretty enough to be the President’s wife.

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Newt Gingrich on campaign finance reform:

The problem isn’t too little money in political campaigns, but not enough.

The idea that a congressman would be tainted by accepting money from private industry or private sources is essentially a socialist argument.

Newt Gingrich on women in the military:

If combat means living in a ditch, females have biological problems staying in a ditch for 30 days because they get infections…. Males are biologically driven to go out and hunt giraffes.

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Newt said what?

I think one of the great problems we have in the Republican party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty.

Give the park police more ammo.  (responding to a  reporter who asked what to do about the homeless a few days after the police shot a homeless man in front of the White House)

We need a military four times the size of our present defense system.

I would instruct the national security officials in a Gingrich administration to ignore the recent decisions of the Supreme Court on national security matters.

The secular-socialist machine represents as great a threat to America as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union once did.

We have to frankly break the back of the secular-socialist machine, elect people committed to representing the American people, and then methodically rip the system apart.

There is no attack on American culture more destructive and more historically dishonest than the relentless effort to drive God out of America’s public square.

I love the environment, but I’m cheap on the environment.

By the time [my granddaughters] are my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American.

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Newt Gingrich on Democrats and the political left:

The left-wing Democrats will represent the party of total hedonism, total exhibitionism, total bizarreness, total weirdness, and the total right to cripple innocent people in the name of letting hooligans loose.

Woody Allen had non-incest with his non-daughter because they were a non-family. It fits the Democratic Party platform perfectly.

It’s almost as though [the ACLU] were into destruction for its own sake and weakening and undermining America for its own sake.

The America in which we grew up is vastly different from the America the secular-socialist left wants to create. And that’s why saving America is the fundamental challenge of our time.

What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together his actions?

Up to 25% of the White House, when they first came in, had used drugs within the past 4 or 5 years.

Obama is trying to end America as it has been for the last 400 years.

George Soros wants to spend $75 million defeating George W. Bush because Soros wants to legalize heroin.

Bill Clinton is the enemy of normal Americans.

The NEA and the HEH are simply enclaves of the left using your money to propagandize your children against your values.

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The Doomsday Argument

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Last week in Overalls Nation we considered a logical proof of God’s existence.  Most people seem to sense that there is something wrong with the argument, but they can’t pinpoint the flaw.  This is the kind of problem that the gourmet mind finds most delicious. You think it’s wrong but you don’t know why. While your humble  blogger’s mind does not rise to the gourmet level, he begs leave to explore one more formidable argument with a conclusion that is intuitively perverse yet hard to refute.  For the sake of the Overalls Nation theme we’ll use overalls to develop the argument, and maybe make a political point as well.

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Did you ever lie on the ground in your sleeping bag while the fire burned low, as stars whirled overhead and rare existential questions began to arise in your thoughts?   Perhaps you wondered why you happen to be alive at this point in history and not among the neolithic cavemen of the past or among the starship trekkers  of the far future.  Why now?  If your thoughts were rigidly logical enough, you may have caught glimpse of a startling conclusion:  Humanity is doomed to extinction –  and soon.

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The Doomsday Argument is a statistical formulation, but we don’t have to delve much into the mathematics  to understand it (you can find the formulae in the book*).  A simple thought experiment will be enough to get the point.

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Imagine you are the manager of a department store, and you’ve ordered a shipment of overalls.  The truck drops two boxes on your receiving dock.  In one box are ten pairs of overalls, and each pair has a label attached numbering it sequentially (1,2,3, . . . 10).  In the other box are a thousand pairs of overalls each numbered in the same way (1,2,3, . . . 1000).  The employee who received the shipment opens one of the boxes (you don’t know which,) removes one pair of overalls at random and brings it to your office.  You notice that it is labelled #7.

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Reasoning only from statistical probabilities, which box did this pair of overalls most likely come from?  The answer is, of course, the box of ten.  The odds of randomly pulling #7 from a box of 1000 are 1:1000.  But the odds of pulling #7 from a box of 10 are significantly better at 1:10.  So you reason that it is a hundred times more likely that this pair of overalls came from the box of ten than from the box of a thousand.   By extending this same logic to the potential number of  people who will ever live, you can make an informed guess about whether it’s “doom soon” or “doom later” for the human species.

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Imagine that instead of overalls the two boxes contain two different futures for the human species.  One box is the Doom Soon box.  In it, each individual who ever lived or who will ever live is numbered sequentially, 1 to 100 billion.   At the present time,  about 60 billion people have been born over the course of human history. At the current rate of population growth it won’t take long, say, a century or two, to reach the 100 billion limit proposed by the Doom Soon scenario.

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The other box is the Doom Later box.   In this scenario, humanity survives into the far future, perhaps sending great ships to the stars and spreading human civilization (and overalls, we hope)  through the galaxy.  All the people who will have ever lived are numbered in the Doom Later box, 1 through 100 trillion.

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In the order of human birth, you are number 60 billion. Since the rise of mankind 59,999,999,999 people were born before you, and so 60 billion is your unique number.  This is just like the number attached to the pair of overalls in the previous scenario.  The question is, in which box – in which hypothetical scenario – do you most likely find yourself?  You don’t know which box you’re in, but given your knowledge that you are human number 60 billion, which box do the odds favor, the box containing 100 billion or the box containing 100 trillion?  Probability overwhelmingly skews toward the possible future represented by the Doom Soon box.  For the same statistical reason as in the overalls scenario, Doom Soon is a thousand times more likely than Doom Later, and the better bet is for extinction of the human race, whether by ecological disaster or by the mushroom cloud, as opposed to any bright, star-trekking future.

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This is one of those arguments that must be wrong, but darned if we can see why.  It seems airtight.  And if we end up taking it seriously, how can it inform our life choices or our politics?  If the odds of human beings surviving to see the shining, glorious future we seek is as vanishing small as the Doomsday Argument suggests, then don’t we want to do whatever we can to skew the odds in our favor?  And if we have a political choice between a platform that responds to the science of global warming with ridicule and one that responds with action, which should we prefer?  Will we favor an ever more bloated military-industrial complex, or one that is reigned in? Will we continue to deregulate industry at the expense of conservation, or apply rational controls to manage our dwindling resources?

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* Lestlie, John.  The End of the World:  The Science and Ethics of Human Extinction. Routledge: 1996