Philosophical Multicore

Sometimes controversial, sometimes fallacious, sometimes thought-provoking, and always fun.

Archive for February, 2010

The Art of Hypertext

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 26, 2010

Much like any other sort of writing, blog writing is an art form. But one crucial part of this art form that is not found in hardly any other medium is the art of hyperlinking and hypertext: knowing exactly which words should be turned into links to other sites. Great bloggers are often identified by the quality of their hypertext.

I know of one blogger in particular who has especially impressive hypertext. She writes about scientific topics, and always provides just the right links in just the right places for you to understand what she’s talking about and to supplement her writings. You see, creating hypertext isn’t just about hyperlinking the right word, although that’s a big part of it. You have to hyperlink a word that is relevant to what the site is about, something that will give you an idea of what you’re clicking on. But there is more to it than that. Hypertext can be used to fill gaps in the reader’s knowledge base, and to provide sources for external material.

Another key trick is finding links that effectively describe what you want to describe. It is usually not too difficult to find a decent site, but to find a truly great source requires a master.

The Art of Hypertext is not simple. It is a very critical component of a blog. In fact, there should be some sort of blogging award for most dexterous usage of hypertext.

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Educational Categorizations

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 23, 2010

In school, we have certain educational categorizations. We have math, science, language arts, social studies; beyond the academic realm we have a wide variety of subjects such as foreign language, music theory, and even typing class. Some of these categorizations make sense. Still, though, why are math, science, language arts, and social studies deemed the “core” subjects, more important than all others?

At first glance, it seems that the purpose of education is to prepare students for the working world. To an extent, this is true. But as an extension of that, the purpose of education is ideally to prepare students for the world. Does it adequately serve its purpose?

It is widely agreed that the public school system in America is flawed. I believe that improvements within each subject could sufficiently improve the education system. I have a whole post regarding science education; I feel that I have the most to say about science, but I have also commented on the other three subjects.

These improvements to the different individual academic subjects are extremely important. At the same time, they are limited by some broad barriers. Subjects may intermix, but only to a limited extent. Ideally, education would form a web reaching across all areas of interest. Music theory and geography would have certain links. This may sound far-fetched, but think of it this way. The way we learn is by comparing our knowledge to something we already know. We make associations. This is why it’s easy to learn vocabulary words if we can identify root words that we already know. Because of our tendency to make these associations, an education branching across all classes and subjects will, if done right, be much more effective than a series of isolated disciplines.

With this considered, are the current divisions between different course subjects really optimal? I suspect not. But when compared to other educational systems, our current courses seems very apt. Look at the medieval Quadrivium as an example: the four main subjects were arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Talk about a narrow education!

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Article(s) of the Day: Sleep

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 21, 2010

I found this article (it’s a download, but only PDF so you don’t have to be afraid of viruses) about adolescent sleep patterns to be fascinating.

There is also this article about how sleeping is contagious.

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Science Education

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 20, 2010

The current state of science education in primary and secondary education is far from ideal. The purpose of science education should not be to teach facts about science, but to teach how to think scientifically.

Nearly every moment I have spent in science class has been spent learning about something that was already discovered. I learned about the different phyla of animals, about the periodic table, about meiosis, about covalent bonds, you name it. But has this fostered in me a better understanding of science? Frankly, no. The best science education I have got has been from reading about science on the internet, from websites and from science blogs like Pharyngula. On the internet I have read about how to examine the veracity of scientific claims. I think that this is one of the most important tenets of a science education. But have we ever gone over this in science class? No.

Another pillar of science education is not what science has discovered, but how it has discovered it. Sure, every year we briefly look at the “scientific method”, but all we really do is memorize five or six steps in what is supposedly the quintessential scientific process. What is really important is that we are able to take some phenomenon and find a legitimate explanation. This phenomenon doesn’t have to be “scientific”: it can be any sort of empirically testable phenomenon, including something that comes up in real life. For example, through science education you should be able to more effectively answer the question, Is my friend telling the truth, or is his story completely made up? That is where science really shines.

But in addition to this, we must remember that there are certain things that it simply helps to know. And some aspects of science are simply fascinating. Maintaining a proper balance will not be easy; still, at the moment the balance is much too far towards the side of facts rather than the side of investigation.

Ideally, how would science be categorized? As it is, we have Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Astronomy, and high school students spend one year on each. (The classification in elementary and middle school is more vague.) These categorizations are convenient, and could probably remain this way while at the same time emphasizing more critical thinking. In Biology, students could study creationism vs. evolution — this is how I developed most of my critical thinking abilities — although that might not end so well given the history of conflict between those subjects. I know of no other obvious tests of critical thinking for other subjects, but I’m sure they exist. A clever science teacher could think of plenty of things to do.

Implementing an environment to foster critical thinking may be difficult. I know that at least for me, no one could have made me learn it. But they could have made the tools more readily available. Through the internet, I was able to find plenty of tools; but I had to look for them. It would have been easier, and I would have started sooner, had those tools been presented in the science classroom.

The problem still remains, though, of how you teach people to think critically. I hypothesize that people will learn on their own if presented with the proper tools. The real trick to critical thinking is really just thinking. I remember that after seeing What The Bleep Do We Know, I believed everything in it. But after someone pointed out to me just how ridiculous some of its claims were, I instantly realized that, yes, it didn’t really make sense at all. The problem there was that I was simply trusting what was said without thinking about it at all. If I had considered the claims made even a little, I would have easily seen their absurdity. Then, is it as simple as asking the question, “Is this for real?” In many cases, I think so.

Which brings me to another important pillar of science education: objectivity. Something useful in science as well as in life is the ability to judge a situation dispassionately, and to try to remove one’s own biases. Completely eliminating your own biases is extraordinarily difficult, but it should be the role of science education to help out. One thing that I find helps enormously is to talk to other people about what your biases might be. On my other blog, I have questioned my own assumptions numerous times thanks to the feedback given to me by some very intelligent commentators.

Facts are important. But so is critical thinking. So is objectivity. So is understanding how to go about making a discovery, be it a new field in Quantum Mechanics, or whether or not the Chevy Malibu is a better deal than the Ford Explorer. Science is fascinating, but its true value comes from its ability to expand your mind and heighten your thinking. This is what ought to be reflected by science education.

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Median Utilitarianism

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 17, 2010

Recently I’ve been thinking about different sorts of averages. The mean average is the most common: add up all the values, and divide by how many values there are. But another useful average is the median average: put all the values in a line, and take the one in the middle. This is useful for some types of averages. For example, if you want to find the average person’s income, the mean would not be very accurate since people like Bill Gates would push the average up. But a median average would be more reasonable.

This got me to thinking about Utilitarianism. On one particular axis, the two types of Utilitarianism are what could be called Average Utilitarianism and Total Utilitarianism. They may have more proper names, but I think that those are descriptive enough. The basic idea there is that Total Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering overall, while Average Utilitarianism seeks to maximize happiness and minimize suffering only for the average person. This is when I started thinking about what kind of average we’re talking about here. Mean average is the type that people usually talk about. But using a median average would possibly be more advantageous. For example, it would be the solution to problems such as the Mere Addition Paradox, also known as the Repugnant Conclusion. The basic idea is that, according to Total Utilitarianism, a great massive population filled with people whose lives are barely worth living is more valuable than a small population filled with people whose lives are rich and enjoyable. Median Utilitarianism solves this problem (so does Mean Utilitarianism).

Another problem solved by Median Utilitarianism is the problem of the Utility Monster. The best description I can find on the web is from a blog:

The “utility monster” was one of philosopher Robert Nozick’s objections to utilitarian theory.

Nozick postulated a creature who received 100 units of utility (pleasure, happiness) per unit of resource consumption, in a universe where everybody else received 1 unit of utility per unit of resource consumption. In this type of universe, Nozick argued, utilitarian would require that all of the people who got lesser utility be sacrificed (give up any and all resources) to the utility monster. This moral demand for sacrifice, however, is absurd. Therefore, basic utilitarianism is defeated by means of a reduction to absurdity.

Median Utilitarianism fixes this problem on an intuitive level. By Median Utilitarianism, making more and more people unhappy to support the happiness of one being is not actually a good thing, since it reduces median happiness — but notice that it still increases total and mean happiness.

Median Utilitarianism probably has problems of its own, but it resolves these two objections to Utilitarian moral theory.

Posted in Ethics, Rationality, Utilitarianism | 4 Comments »

Why Cynicism is Self-Defeating

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 10, 2010

Cynicism is defined as the belief that people are motivated purely by self-interest. This outlook is, almost by definition, self-refuting. This is why.

It is widely accepted that cynicism is a somewhat depressing belief. The word “cynicism” itself has come to be synonymous with a bleak outlook on life, so much so that I am actually having difficulty describing what cynicism has come to mean without using the word “cynical”. The reason this is so is obvious enough: it is considered a bad thing if people are motivated by self-interest alone. But why is it considered a bad thing? Well, it’s because we consider altruism to be morally right and selfishness to be morally wrong. In some senses, selfishness is the ultimate moral wrong. So if nearly everyone agrees that selfishness is wrong, then how can cynicism possibly be correct, that is, how can people all be selfish? If everyone was purely and deeply selfish, then our morality would reflect that. But instead it reflects altruism. The very fact that cynicism is considered a bad thing is evidence that it is not the correct outlook on life, and that people are not entirely selfish after all.

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The Five-Paragraph Essay

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 8, 2010

Many high-school and college age students have been required to write a five-paragraph essay. I myself have written dozens. This essay is purportedly the only way to write an essay, but this is obviously not true. So why is this format so often used in schools, and what are its pros and cons?

The format itself involves writing an essay that is five paragraphs long. More specifically, there is an introduction and a conclusion; the last sentence in the introduction is the thesis statement, which is the driving point of the whole essay. A good thesis divides the topic into three categories, one for each paragraph.

One major advantage to this type of essay is that it is very structured. This makes it easy to grade, and helps many students to organize their thoughts when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to come up with an essay that had any sort of logical flow. In addition, this format barely inhibits the quality of the essay (depending on the topic); it is possible to write a great essay and still follow this format.

What are the most significant difficulties with this format? Well, most obviously, sometimes you simply cannot say what you need to say in five paragraphs alone. Sometimes you just need more space. Another difficulty with this format is that it is for some purposes too rigid. A flexible format can encourage a type of thinking that is not restricted to an introduction, three main ideas, and a conclusion. An adept essay writer would often feel restricted by the five-paragraph format. At the same time, though, an adept essay writer would be able to be completely expressive in any decent format. And the five-paragraph format is, if not anything else, decent.

I can certainly understand why the five-paragraph format is frequently used, but it is not always the right solution. Students should be encouraged to diversify their writing styles. As I went over in a previous post, essayist Paul Graham denounces the five-paragraph essay as “really a list of n things for n = 3 . . . [where students are] not allowed to include the numbers, and they’re expected to spackle over the gaps with gratuitous transitions (“Furthermore…”) and cap the thing at either end with introductory and concluding paragraphs so it will look superficially like a real essay.” I don’t loathe it quite as much as Graham seems to, but it is certainly not the be-all end-all of essay formats.

By the way, it was a complete accident that I wrote this post in almost-five-paragraph essay format. Honest. You’ll notice a lack of a thesis statement, though, because those are hard to do in blog posts (and also kind of useless, since with blog essays I usually make it up as I go along).

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Can minors ethically participate in consensual sex?

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 6, 2010

The question proposed herein is, Can adults ethically have consensual sex with minors, or is it always wrong? I will be analyzing this position from a rational perspective.

First, when is sex immoral? It is immoral when one party is being unwillingly harmed, as in the case of rape. This can also apply in cases in which one party does not understand the possible risks or outcomes. And this is the exact reason why most people are opposed to adults having sex with minors. However, the age at which people become rational enough to understand the consequences of their decisions is lower than most people think. Some middle schoolers are much more rational than adults. It is clear enough that there is no legitimate reason why these people can’t participate in consensual sex with adults. Wait, what’s that you say? It’s illegal? Well, what kind of argument is that?!

I am certainly opposed to adult humans having sex with irrational beings. This includes babies, sheep, etc. as such beings cannot make the decision to participate. The same applies to relatively young children, who do not really understand what’s going on. But once you are old enough to understand what you’re doing and the consequences of your actions, you’re fair game. For some this happens at 13, for some it happens at 16, for others it happens at 20. But for most people this point is before 18, so it is irrational to completely ban sex with minors.

In fact, while we’re at it, we should lower the voting age to 16. I generally agree that the age at which you become a legal adult should be 18; I know a good deal of 17- and 18-year olds, and they seem just about ready to tackle adulthood. 16 year olds, though, are smart enough to be able to vote rationally. I personally probably could have started voting at around age 14, in the second half of 8th grade. I don’t know so much about other people; I could go on about why the voting age should be this or that, but that’s not really the point right now. Since I seem to have run out of things to say, I’m just going to wrap up.

In conclusion, the exact age of 18 is not a real barrier. Instead, the barrier is an understand of the consequences of one’s own actions, which people each get at different times — and frequently before the age of 18.

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The Many Varieties of Paper

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 4, 2010

You might be thinking that this is a joke. And it a way, it is. But at the same time, think of how many types of paper we have. In particular, think about all the varieties of paper we use exclusively for wiping our bodies. We have paper towels for when our hands are wet, paper napkins for when our hands have food on them, facial tissues for our noses, and toilet paper for . . . well, you know. These are some rather interesting distinctions. I personally find that the right type of paper towel can serve any of these four purposes. Well, maybe except for one.

Kind of makes you wonder where the differences come from.

Posted in Off-Topic | 1 Comment »

Article of the Day: In Praise of the Devil

Posted by Michael Dickens on February 3, 2010

This is a lovely article about why Lucifer is an admirable character. No, it is not the lunatic ravings of an ego-maniacal madman. In truth, it’s a very interesting article. The author proposes that Lucifer is not an immoral character; on the contrary:

Lucifer is the embodiment of reason, of intelligence, of critical thought. He stands against the dogma of God and all other dogmas. He stands for the exploration of new ideas and new perspectives in the pursuit of truth.

Lucifer was a rational fellow who was willing to question God’s word. This is something to be admired, but it is understandable how God would, well, demonize such activity.

They call Lucifer the Prince of Lies. A lie is defined by the Christian as anything which contradicts the Word of God – as told to us by the Bible and God’s representatives on Earth. If we accept this definition of a lie then we should praise lies. A “lie” is then a questioning of blind dogma.

Praise Lucifer!

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