Classroom Advocacy

My university (Rutgers) is fairly actively encouraging students to register to vote. And I’ve occasionally done a bit to help, hosting students who do a spiel on voter registration and personally encouraging students to vote.

Now I think this is all a good thing. Voting is a good thing, and a healthy democracy requires a decent turnout of voters, so doing our little bit to help democracy is being on the side of the good. It’s not exactly related to the courses we’re teaching, but spending 45 seconds before class is officially scheduled to start encouraging voter registration, or putting voter registration ads on course management software as Rutgers has done, seems far from an abuse of official positions.

Still, voting isn’t the only good thing in the world. It seems to me that voting in the upcoming election for Obama/Biden over McCain/Palin is pretty close to a moral requirement. (For those who are eligible to so vote. I of course won’t be voting for Obama, because that would be illegal, and undemocratic.) But it seems it would be seriously wrong for either Rutgers, or for me, to use our positions of authority to promote voting for Obama. And I think this isn’t a particularly controversial position.

But it’s a little hard to say just exactly why it’s OK for Rutgers (and me) to do what we’re doing, and not do what we’re not doing. (Mike and Ross in the comments to the previous post were pushing just this question, which led to me trying to think about it a little.) Below the fold I have a few thoughts on this question.
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The American Election

Donate!As you may be aware, there is an election coming up in the U.S. shortly. And I’ve tinkered with the blog a little bit.

On the non-partisan side, I’ve posted a link above to a U.S. vote registration site. I imagine most readers of this site who are eligible to vote in the U.S. are registered. But many of you probably teach students who are eligible and are not registered. And voter registration closes in a couple of weeks in most states. At Rutgers there is a large push on by the university to register as many students as possible. And I think it would be very good to encourage students to register to vote. While I think it would be irresponsible to use one’s position in a class to promote one particular candidate, I think promoting vote registration is a perfectly good thing to do, even in an official capacity.

But this blog isn’t a classroom, so I don’t have to be non-partisan. And I think that it’s pretty overdetermined who the better candidate is this election.

The last 8 years in America have been considerably worse than the previous 8. The country has been involved in unnecessary wars, wages have stagnated, the markets have been in a mess, and the legal foundations of the country, from the separation of powers to the prohibition on torture, have been undermined. There’s no reason to think that things will get better under McCain, and some reasons (his cavalier attitude towards getting involved in wars in Iran and Georgia, his Hooveresque insistence that the economy is fundamentally sound) that things will get worse.

Barack Obama’s plans, on the other hand, are, in my opinion, the most promising set of policies and priorities we’ve ever seen from a major American Presidential candidate. On the environment, on healthcare and (dear to my heart) on immigration, he’s pushed for sensible positions that, until recently, most Democrats would have been too scared to touch. So there’s a pretty stark difference between the candidates.

In any election campaign there’s a lot you can do. Due to the odd nature of the American electoral system, for many people there is no close campaign within 100, or even 500, miles. So it’s often hard to work on the ground. But you can donate money! There’s an interesting collective action problem here of course. But I think if everyone who wants Obama to win, especially everyone who has a decent income and can spare a few dollars, donates what they can spare, there’s a much better chance we’ll have a much better America in the next few years.

Note that while only citizens can vote in U.S. elections, permanent residents are allowed to donate money to the campaign. Indeed it’s one of the few ways that (non-naturalised) immigrants can be involved in the politics of the country they live in. So I’d certainly encourage all green card holders out there to help out.

I’ve posted a small donation link on the sidebar, and donations through TAR will be counted up there. Happy donating everyone, and even if you don’t want to donate, encouraging as many students as possible to register to vote will be helping democracy grow one student at a time!

Relative Truth

I’ve been spending most of the last few weeks getting ready for term and fretting over elections, so blogging has been somewhat lighter than expected. There’s some possibility I’ll start using this blog as an outlet for fretting about the election over the next 7 weeks, so posting might get a little more frequent but less philosophical.

Anyway, today I just wanted to put in a brief plug for Manuel García-Carpintero and Max Kölbel’s edited collection Relative Truth. The OUP site says this is “The hottest topic in philosophy”, which sounds like slight hyperbole to me. But it is an important topic, and this is an excellent collection. The papers are largely from the Barcelona workshop on relative truth, which I thought was a great success. And anyone who is interested in the subject should pick up this collection.

What is a Constellation?

(This post is a collection of some ideas I had in a conversation with Dan Korman about six months ago, at the APA Pacific in Pasadena.)

Are there such things as constellations?  I’ll presume that there are such things, which then of course raises the question of what they are.  The natural thought is that a constellation is a collection of stars, which means that it’s a bunch of balls of hydrogen and such, each glowing from the heat of its fusion, scattered across large expanses of space.

But this seems to give the wrong persistence conditions.  Consider the constellation of <A href=>Orion</a>, which is probably the most easily recognizable and visible constellation in the northern hemisphere (unfortunately, at this time of year in the southern hemisphere it doesn’t rise until about 1 am, and whenever it does appear it’s upside-down).  If <A href=>the middle star in his belt</a> were to suddently cease to exist, it seems that we wouldn’t say that Orion has ceased to exist (as would be the case if Orion were just a set of stars), but rather that Orion’s belt is now missing a buckle.  Similarly, if a new, extremely bright star were to appear in the vicinity of <A href=>Orion’s head</a>, we would say that Orion’s head is now brighter, and not that we’re looking at a new constellation.  So we might suggest that a constellation is not a set of stars, but is rather an object composed of them.

Now, when I say “in the vicinity of”, it doesn’t actually matter how close this new star is to the star that already exists there – the star that currently serves as Orion’s head is about 1000 light years away, while <A href=>Orion’s right shoulder</a> (the less bright one) is only about 240 light years away.  A new bright star could count as an addition to Orion if it was over 1000 light years away (like the head and middle of the belt), or if it was closer to the shoulder, or if it was only 1 or 2 light years away, in which case it would be much closer to the stars in <A href=>the Southern Cross</a> than it would be to most of the other stars in Orion.  The important thing is just what angle you’d have to look at to see it from Earth.

Thus, I suggest that rather than being composed of stars (as in the actual glowing balls of gas), a constellation is composed of beams of light reaching Earth. [UPDATE: see comments for a modification of the “beam of light” view.]  To be part of Orion, it doesn’t matter where the ball of gas is in relation to the other balls of gas (after all, a few of those balls of gas are closer to stars in constellations that can’t even be seen from most of the northern hemisphere than they are to most of the other balls of gas in Orion), but it does matter what angle the beam of light reaches Earth.  As further confirmation of this view, note that if the middle star in Orion’s belt were to explode right this instant and stop shining, we wouldn’t actually say that Orion has lost his belt buckle yet – that wouldn’t happen for another 1300 years.  Although the ball of gas would no longer exist, the beam of light reaching the Earth still would for quite a while.

This suggestion then raises another question – if constellations are composed of beams of light rather than of balls of gas, then are constellations really made of stars?  I think the natural answer here is that the word “star” is actually ambiguous between a glowing ball of gas and a beam of light reaching the Earth, and that constellations are composed of the latter but not the former.  As it turns out, a few “stars” aren’t really beams of light from individual glowing balls of gas at all.  Some of them are <A href=>binary star systems</a> (for instance, <A href=>Sirius</a>, which is the brightest “star” in the sky, and which you can find conveniently by following the line of Orion’s belt down and to the left (reverse the directions in the Southern hemisphere of course).  And the bright middle “star” in Orion’s belt [sword] is actually <A href=>the Orion Nebula</a>, which is a cloud of gas that is giving birth to many stars in the other sense.

Of course, not just any beam of light coming down to Earth counts as a star – some are planets, some faint ones are asteroids or moons of planets, and some are man-made satellites.  (For instance, a few weeks ago I was able to spot the International Space Station using a guide <A href=>here</a> – you’ll need to input your own location and time zone for that to be helpful.)  Presumably, for a beam of light to count as a star in this sense, it must be bright enough to be visible to the naked eye, but also stable enough that it doesn’t noticeably move from year to year, and must come from far enough away that it doesn’t noticeably move as the observer moves from point to point on Earth.  But constellations in the ordinary sense I would say are composed of these sorts of stars, and not of balls of gas in space.

Thus, I think it’s incorrect to say (as we standardly do) that stars are glowing balls of gas in space, and that constellations are made of stars.  This involves an equivocation on the word “star”.  Stars in one sense tend to be created by stars in the other sense, but the examples pointed out above show that one can exist without the other.

(Astronomers do have terms for certain natural collections of balls of gas, like <A href=>star clusters</a>, which are balls of gas of the relevant type that are gravitationally bound to one another.  They also have a<A href=>technical use</a> of the term “constellation” to refer to one of 88 specific regions of the sky and all the stars in them – thus for instance, the astronomical constellation of <A href=>Crux</a> consists not just of the five stars of the Southern Cross seen on <A href=>the Australian flag</a> (for some reason the <A href=>New Zealand flag</a> has only four stars) but actually has <A href=>at least a dozen</a> stars.  However, they use the technical term <A href=>“asterism”</a> for something very much like the ordinary term “constellation”.)

Husserl and Chinese Nationalism

I’ve been in Australia for a while, and therefore have fallen behind in my reading of the New Yorker (I only just last week read the one with the controversial cover).  But I just read <A href=>an article</a> from the July 28 issue about growing nationalistic sentiment among educated Chinese youth, and was struck by the fact that the main person the article was discussing is a student at a university in China writing his dissertation on Husserl.  There’s also some discussion of the influence of Leo Strauss among the relevant group.  It made me wonder what sorts of connections there are between the relevant academic communities in China and the rest of the world.