Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Newsflash: Morality is Magnetic!

I’ve written before about the sloppy philosophy that sometimes permeates scientific studies and leads to wild-sounding (and patently false) conclusions. In some respects, it’s laughable when this happens, but the problem is, it can be dangerous. Too often, these hasty and unwarranted conclusions gain acceptance, and people forget that these “facts” were really just loosely (i.e. poorly) stated to begin with.

Two days ago, NPR reported that scientific research has shown a link between morality and magnets. In the words of NPR’s Jon Hamilton, “scientists can adjust morality with a magnet.” And why does he say this? Because test subjects responded differently to stories involving seemingly immoral behavior when a certain region of their brains was subjected to a magnetic pulse, either during or just before they heard these stories. Having been subjected to the magnetic pulse, subjects were less likely to view a failed attempt at poisoning someone as an instance of morally egregious behavior. This is the data on which the conclusion that morality can be adjusted with magnets is based.

I hope it is already clear what the mistake is. Suppose we took a bunch of test subjects, stimulated their brains with a magnetic pulse, and discovered that their judgments of something like distance were affected. Suppose a normal person who is not subjected to the magnetic pulse can reliably gauge that a tree is located 10-15 feet from the window out of which that person is looking. When subjected to the magnetic pulse, imagine that test subjects consistently judge that the tree is located much further away—40 feet, say. Would it be correct to say that the distance between the tree and the window is affected by the magnets? That is, does the presence of the magnetic pulse cause the tree to be 40 feet away, rather than 10-15 feet away?

For all it’s worth, it is apparently the reporter who is phrasing the conclusions of the aforementioned scientific study in such a negligible way. Nothing suggests that the scientists themselves claim morality is (rather than moral judgments are) affected by magnets. But these kinds of error do happen among scientists themselves, as is very evident to those of us who study free will (see this book for a refutation of such uncareful but widely embraced scientific reasoning). Science is only as good as the philosophy that underwrites it. People forget that.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

A Little Thinking Big from a Big Thinker

Not that long ago, I posted a link to a news story regarding the highly impressive grant that was awarded to a philosophy professor at my school. This professor (whose name I omit only because I don’t want people Googling him to end up on my blog) is easily the most distinguished professor in my program and, as far as my area of specialization is concerned, in the world. He fairly regularly travels the globe, speaking not only with other philosophers but with the scientific community, etc. He was recently interviewed for the website Big Think. I’ve included the full-length interview below. While it’s a bit long, those who view it will get a better sense of the sort of thing I do. With that being said, I’m hoping that at least my mom and dad will feel inclined to watch it.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Taxes are Fun!

I’ve just spent what feels like all day doing our taxes. I’m fairly certain this is the first time in my life that I’ve completed my taxes prior to April, so I’m feeling very proud of myself. I’m also feeling quite jubilant because, as excited as I was last year, this year is only better. Over $2,000 better, in fact. Which is awesome. In fact, it’s almost ridiculous. Our refund this year is going to be approximately 55% of what I grossed in 2009. I’m thrilled. It’s a good year for this to be happening. For whatever reason, I didn’t get quite as much school-based financial assistance as I did last year. A lofty tax refund—and really, it’s absurd to call it a refund when we’re being compensated almost tenfold what we contributed—will be good, especially with some of the expenses we’re anticipating this year. Some of you know what I’m talking about. Wink, wink.

Despite the fact that it took a hefty chunk of time to complete, filing our taxes went much more quickly and smoothly than ever before, thanks to electronic filing with H&R Block. Given our situation, our taking advantage of electronic filing was completely free. I went with H&R Block because it’s a name I’m familiar with, but I’m not trying to promote them in particular. It’s just nice to have an online program doing all the math for you, asking you relatively simple and straightforward questions and making it as effortless as possible. Filing electronically also makes it possible that we’ll receive our refund within a couple of weeks. Pretty nifty. If you’re eligible for free online filing, and I’m sure at least some of you are, you might as well try it.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Summer Funding (Redux)

I was notified today that I have been awarded funding for the summer. Like last year, this means I’ll spend half of my summer being a TA and the other half doing whatever. Technically, I’ll have to enroll for 12 credit hours, which is crazy because (a) there are no graduate level philosophy courses offered in the summer, and (b) they currently only require us to take nine hours during the normal (and hence more manageable) semesters. It’s a bit absurd that they would require us to take more credit hours when nothing is offered and yet the semester is condensed. But that’s okay. I’m sure I’ll be able to work it out so that I’m taking what are best described as “filler hours.” I call them filler hours not because they don’t really apply to anything, but because the actual number of credit hours you take doesn’t mean much. This year, for instance, I’m hoping to spend my summer preparing for a special area exam, which I aim to take early in the fall. (Passing a customized special area exam is a prerequisite to submitting and defending a dissertation prospectus. Successfully defending a dissertation prospectus is a prerequisite to taking dissertation hours, which you can use to fill up your schedule as you work, more or less exclusively, on your dissertation from that point forward.) So, I will be working, and ideally working quite hard, this summer. Nevertheless, figuring out exactly how to fill those 12 credit hours, at least on my official school record, is a technical formality I’ll have to deal with.

The best part of being funded, of course, is the funding. (I wouldn’t want to TA this summer for the sheer fun of it, that’s for sure!) By TA’ing this summer, I’ll receive an additional $2,150. Half of that will go right back to the school in the name of student fees, etc. It’s rather ridiculous. Still, an extra thousand will help. It’ll cover a month of rent and a year or so of Mountain Dew. So that’s something.

Friday, March 19, 2010

My Precious

One of the most devastating losses Melanie and I have incurred during our marriage is that of Melanie’s wedding ring. We’re not entirely sure what happened to it. For a long time, we held out hope that it would somehow turn up, that perhaps Edison had run off with it somewhere and we would eventually run into it. (The ring was lost when Eddie was younger than Peter is now, a time when Eddie was fond of losing things.) We never could find it, and given that we’ve moved to a different state since losing it, I’ve pretty much written off the idea of ever finding it. It’s sad. Sure, it’s easy enough (for me at least) to go through most days without ever thinking about it, but if I dwell on it for very long, it can be somewhat heartbreaking.

I’m very happy to report that as I write this blog post, my own wedding ring is sitting comfortably on my left hand ring finger, just as it should be. Not that many hours ago, I didn’t know if that would be the case. Melanie’s brother William and his family are in town visiting us, and one thing they wanted to do while they are here is see the Gulf of Mexico. So, this morning, we loaded up our respective vehicles and made the two-hour trek to St. George Island. It was the perfect day for it. It was one of the warmest days we’ve had this year, reaching into the upper 70s. It was also a sunny day, and most days lately have been fairly rainy. Once we got to the beach, we had a picnic of sorts and then headed down to play near the water. At one point while playing in the water—well, right next to the water, where the incoming tide could actually splash over my feet—I flicked some wet sand off of my hand. Along with the sand, off came my ring. I felt an immediate sense of panic, knowing that the waves could easily lap up my ring and carry it away. Fortunately, I was able to grab it right before another current danced its pirouette around my feet. A close call.

Flash forward approximately one hour. While playing in the sand with Peter, a safe distance away from the water, I stood up and briskly wiped my hands together, attempting to brush off the dried sand that was now sticking to them. As I did so, my ring once again flew off of my finger. I held abruptly still and looked down around my feet, assuming it would have to be within a matter of inches from my toes. But I couldn’t see it. I looked a bit further from my feet, scanning all around me. Nothing. I couldn’t believe it had disappeared so completely. It couldn’t have gone far, and the sand didn’t seem soft enough to think the ring had buried itself on impact. So where was it? I got down on my hands and knees and very carefully scrutinized the sand. Nothing. I let my fingertips nudge their way ever so gently into the sand and feel around, just in case the ring had magically worked its way underneath what seemed to be a relatively undisturbed surface. Nothing. I looked in nearby shoes, buckets, and bags. Nothing, nothing, nothing. How in the world could it have gotten so lost? It’s not like I had thrown it! It had simply dropped off my hand!

I spent a good 30 minutes or so looking for my ring, but nothing showed up. I checked my pockets. I even checked the creases in my clothes, in case it had miraculously balanced itself on a wrinkle of fabric. Nothing. Being a religious person, I offered several prayers along the way, but nothing turned up. Eventually, Edison was returning from further down the beach, where he had been playing with Melanie and Peter, and he said he needed to go to the bathroom. I reluctantly gave up my search and took him to the restroom, wondering if and for how long I should continue my search when I returned.

And then the miracle occurred. When I came back from the restroom, I was incredibly grateful to learn that William had located my ring. It was about six inches from the exact spot where I had left a shoe to mark the place I was standing when the ring came off. The ring hadn’t gone far. But apparently it had buried itself almost completely. One small corner of it was poking up out of the sand, and William happened to glance it from just the right spot, so that that tiny corner of my ring glistened in the sunlight and caught his attention. The “catching a glimmer of reflected sunlight” technique was a strategy I had tried time and time again during my own search, but to no avail. Perhaps William being a few inches taller than me helped him to catch sight of it at just the right angle. Whatever it was, I was extremely relieved. And I do believe my prayers were answered.

And that is my dramatic tale for today. G’night.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Utah 2010

Melanie and I spent my spring break in Utah, visiting family. Believe it or not, we have no pictures to show for it. That’s probably OK. Utah wasn’t looking so great this time around. When we went to Utah last May, I was smitten by Utah’s beauty. This time around, we went too early in the year for anything to be green. But it wasn’t very snowy, either, so everything just looked blah. It was nice to see the mountains. I’ve always loved the look of snow-capped mountain peaks, and Utah still has those. But driving around, everything else seemed dingy and dilapidated in comparison to what I remember. I think it was just the wrong time of the year to be charmed.

Still, the trip itself was overall great. We spent a lot of time with family, and most of it was pretty low-key, which was nice. We have traditionally overplanned our time in Utah, leaving us feeling hurried and exhausted. This time was quite manageable, though we always had something going on. That’s perfect, in my book. I feel bad about not visiting a couple of friends whom I would have loved to see. I was never quite sure when to work that out, and it just ended up slipping away from me. It’s like I wish I could have spent two weeks in Utah, just to do it all without feeling frazzled, and yet psychologically speaking, it would be hard to be there for two weeks. That’s the tricky part of it all. Were it not for kids, it would work a lot more easily. But seeing Eddie and Peter enjoying their grandparents so extensively is part of what made this trip so great, so what can you do? The predicament seems to be this: you can either do it all, and end up hating a lot of it, or you can not do it all, and love everything you do. We’ve usually done the former. This time we did the latter. It was the right choice.

Food wise, we did well. That’s always something I love about visiting Utah. Not just that I get to revisit some of my favorite eateries, but that I usually get to do so on someone else’s dollar. On our second night in Utah, Melanie had organized a Chinese food dinner party of sorts at her parents’ house, and we went a little overboard on how much food we ordered. It was nice to eat very good Chinese food again. Since moving out of Utah, we haven’t found anything beyond decent Chinese (and Mexican) food. (Other people we’ve met from Utah say the exact same thing, even before we tell them that we feel this way. Evidently, the South does not specialize in Chinese or Mexican cuisine.) Very good is better than decent, so we were quite pleased. We also hit some local faves: CafĂ© Rio, Grinders 13, Blue Iguana, and Litza’s Pizza. Not too shabby, given that we were only in town for a week. I should mention, though, that I have to take back something I said in a previous post. I was wrong to suggest that in Utah, all Mexican food utilizes cheddar cheese. This is not true. Blue Iguana indeed uses some kind of white cheese, and now that I’ve been there again, I realize that this is what they’ve always used. As I visualize food from other Mexican restaurants in Utah, I’m now realizing that many of them did indeed use white cheese. But the important point still remains that, outside of Utah, the white cheese we’ve encountered in Mexican restaurants tastes like Velveeta or American cheese. It isn’t that great, and the difference is extremely noticeable. That is what led me to the hasty presumption that Utah must have used cheddar in everything. I was wrong. But the cheeses aren’t the same, and Utah is the one getting it right. I’ll leave it at that.

Enough for today. Adios for now.