Jon, Ron, and the wages of sin 
Another entry written in Cafe Isolabella, this one riffing on blog entries written by two of my colleagues. They seem related without actually talking about the same thing, so here is a bit of conceptual connect-the-dots.

Jon comments on a study finding that praying for patients seems to have no positive effect on outcomes. As commenters note, the study presumes that the effect of prayer to look for is an effect on the thing prayed about. This views prayer as a kind of divine technology, invoking God to convert the supplicant's faith into worldly outcomes. An alternate view of prayer would direct us to effects on the person praying. Commenters recount being taught the latter view in their Catholic upbringing, and it is the view of some moderate protestant denominations. Studies may observe an effect of this kind, but such an effect does not require a supernatural explanation. It is prayer as divine technology that would be spooky action-at-a-distance.

Ron comments on a study showing that atheists are the most distrusted minority in the US. The religious complaint about atheists is that-- because they don't believe in God-- they cannot comprehend the demands of ethics.

For some, I suppose, this might be a metaphysical conclusion: If there were no God, then nothing would be prohibited. Not everyone sees this as a reason to be religious; cf. Dostoyevsky, Nietzsche, Sartre. And the conclusion seems to presume the bankrupt divine command theory of morality; cf. Plato. I do not want to kvetch about the metaphysical argument, though, because I think that most people see it as a matter of moral psychology rather than metaphysics. The promise of an afterlife is supposed to motivate good behaviour and discourage bad behaviour. The wages of sin are death.

Mill comments that this vision of the afterlife is barbaric, noting the contrast with ancient Greeks who thought that one might want to do what was good even without threats and promises. Even so, it is easy to see how the vision is motivated. It is disheartening that virtue is not uniformly rewarded and vice uniformly punished in this world. An afterlife would remedy this obvious flaw in the actual world.

The divine technology view of prayer is even more barbaric. It forgets that vice often brings profit and virtue none at all, pretending instead that God will reward believers in this world and just in the way that they want to be rewarded. The divine technology view, were it true, would make an afterlife redundant. If the virtuous thought to ask, final judgment could be apportioned in media res.

Sadly, many of my compatriots believe in both. As the T-shirt says: Dear lord, please protect me from your followers.

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She wants to keep her baby 
I managed to do a good bit of writing in Budapest. I wrote this in a cafe just off Batthyany Square. In a bit of synchronicity, Papa don't preach was playing on the radio.

Recently, a state or two has banned abortion so as to give the newer, more conservative Supreme Court a chance to overturn Roe v. Wade. In years past, however, anti-abortion groups advocated restrictions on abortion as a proxy for an outright ban. Among these restrictions are parental notification and consent laws. These require the parents of pregnant, underage girls to be involved in their girls' decisions to get an abortion. A report in the NY Times claims that these laws have not had the intended effect of curtailing abortions. In some cases, clinic workers report parents pressuring reluctant teens to abort their pregnancies.

This got me thinking about the ethical rationale for parental notification or consent laws. Setting the political motivation aside and supposing that an adult woman has the right to choose, I suppose that the reasoning must be something like this: Minors do not have autonomy over their own medical decision-making. Parents make medical decisions for infants and small children, who cannot decide what happens to their own bodies. The presumption that the law should require parental involvement in a teen's abortion presumes that teens, like smaller kids, do not get to decide what happens to their own bodies.

If the situation of a teen is parallel to the situation of a younger child, then parental notification and consent are really not strong enough. The abortion ought to be at the parent's discretion. If parents want their pregnant teen to have an abortion, they can make the decision on her behalf-- even if she wants to keep the baby. Papa can do more than preach.

I asked Bonnie about this, since she is an expert on reproductive ethics. Evidently the question of parental consent does not get as much play as the bigger question of whether abortion is permissible. She suggested that teens have a sort of limited autonomy such that one could not perform an invasive procedure on them without their permission; also, that performing an abortion on someone who did not want one would probably cause tremendous psychological harm.

Consider these in turn:

(1) It is impermissible to force a teen to have an invasive medical procedure.

The idea is that there is asymmetry between having and not having an abortion. A teen can override her parents' decision that she have an abortion, but not their decision that she carry the baby to term. This seems weak to me. Chemical abortion is possible, so abortion need not be invasive. And carrying the baby to term involves a much greater change to the teen's body than aborting early.

(2) Forcing someone to have an abortion would do so much psychological harm that the parents' right is overridden.

Weighing rights against harms is a tricky thing, but I can imagine cases in which the harm would be large enough. Yet there may be other cases in which the teen does not want an abortion but would not be terribly traumatized if she were to have one. I recall the kids from 6th grade who had braces because their parents decided they should have braces; some of them hated having braces, but their parents still had the right to make them get braces. I do not want to press the analogy too hard, but it leads me to think that there are certainly cases in which a teen is pressured to have an abortion that she does not want without mind-breaking psychological strain.

So it seems to me that the ethical considerations which could motivate parental consent laws would justify prima facie parental power to compel abortion. Anti-abortion activists who have used parental consent as a maneuver in the broader battle about abortion would probably disagree, but that only means that the issue's political valence is hypocritical posturing.

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Thursday procrastination 
I get some of my best work done at coffee shops, and today I am at Professor Java's trying to catch up on a thousand things. I was briefly chatting with another patron, and it came out that I teach philosophy. He fondly recalled philosophy classes from back in undergrad. It introduced him to a different way of thinking, he said, which has helped him some in his work as a copywriter. Another patron overheard this conversation and introduced himself. Although he did not credit philosophy with helping in his work as an executive counsellor, he fondly recalled philosophy courses from his undergrad days.*

The first guy wishes he had majored in philosophy. Perhaps he should have taken more philosophy; he probably would have enjoyed himself and perhaps he would have learned something. Yet there is no reason that he should have gotten a major in philosophy as a credential. He seems to have done well by himself, and he has a job that he enjoys.

If I taught nursing or engineering, then I could in good conscience hope that all of my students with the ability to do so would go on to be nurses or engineers. The simple fact is that society does not need as many professional philosophers as it needs professional nurses or engineers. In terms of numbers, graduate programs already overproduce philosophy PhDs.

Philosophy classes only makes sense if they are good for people who will do some philosophy as undergrads and go on to do something else with their lives. Philosophy is not a practical subject that only prepares people to do philosophy. It can entice people to think about things that they would not think about otherwise. It can introduce them to a different way of thinking. It can be fun. It will perhaps pique someone's interest, so that they read some philosophy later-- but probably not.

A BA in philosophy is only useful as a credential for grad school, law school, or in a place where any BA would do-- but a BA in philosophy is not primarily a credential. The real value of majoring in philosophy is that it means having done some philosophy. That is why I think that teaching philosophy is worthwhile.


* Today was a good day. Other strangers feel the need to tell me about the one especially bad philosophy course that they took back in the day. Others just provide stares of blank incomprehension.

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Style and substance 
Common wisdom among educators is that there are different learning styles: Some students are visual learners and learn best by seeing. Others are auditory learners and learn best by hearing. When I was a grad student, the woman leading the TA orientation went so far as to distinguish between tactile and kinesthetic learners.

Discussion over at Bad Science has me wondering whether there is any basis for this common wisdom. It is sometimes the case that-- on a given afternoon-- a given student will understand a passage better if they have it in front of them as I read it aloud. The claim that there are learning styles is stronger than this, however. It is the claim that this visual learner will (almost) always do better looking at the passage.

There are probably studies which show that some people have better comprehension if they read a passage and others have better comprehension if the passage is read aloud to them. OK, but why think that this difference represents a persistent character difference rather than a difference on the afternoon that the subject was in the lab? I suspect that few if any studies track students for extended periods of time.

I have no idea what kind of data could suggest that someone is a tactile learner. It is not as if we can compare a student's comprehension when she reads a passage with their comprehension when she fondles it. (This passage was... hard. The other one was crinkly.)

I confess that I have not looked at the literature to see if the evidence is more convincing than this. It is late at night, this is a blog, and that gives me some license to mouth off.

The distinction between different learning styles usually accompanies a recommendation for teachers to present information in different ways. That is good advice even if students do not have persistent learning styles across time. Presenting things in different ways makes it less likely that there will be a systematic misunderstanding, and more likely that students will understand what it is I'm yammering about.

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It should have been called the 'negatron' 
A propos of Owen Chamberlain's death, the New York Times describes his work in the 50s to experimentally demonstrate the existence of the anti-proton. The story contains this somewhat cryptic passage:
But as a sort of mirror-image of the proton... [the anti-proton] captured the imaginations of physicists, who had already begun envisioning antimatter particles as routine counterparts of their more familiar twins. Scientists began asking things like why the universe ended up being made almost entirely of matter rather than antimatter, a question that has not yet been resolved.

Scientists from the mirror-universe responded: "Oh, but your universe is made up mostly of anti-matter. That is why we never come to visit."

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