Wikipedia:Reference desk/Archives/Humanities/2010 August 7

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August 7[edit]

Ockham's razor[edit]

Hi, sorry about double dipping but this was the question I was meaning to ask, and I just remembered. I'm told religion (in this context defined as the canonical teachings of the Roman Catholic Church) violates Ockham's razor somehow, but I cant quite pinpoint how. My problem is that I have trouble recognizing the assumptions amde by religion vs the assumptions made by science. WHat are the assumptions made in both cases, and which is less? —Preceding unsigned comment added by (talk) 02:48, 7 August 2010 (UTC)

Your question as stated has a rather extreme scope. It's easier to answer if we focus on smaller facets of Roman Catholicism rather than the entire thing. For example, Ockham's Razor can be applied to any of the miracles. Take Mary and the conception of Jesus - it is accepted fact that Mary got pregnant and had a child, whom she named Jesus. Things diverge when you ask how she got pregnant. Roman Catholicism holds that she was impregnated by the Holy Spirit and that she was a virgin. Ockham's Razor says it's much more likely that she had sex with Joseph than that a supernatural being entered her womb and fertilized an egg. (talk) 07:42, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Except it's known that Mary never had sex. -- (talk) 15:56, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
How is it known? I'm not aware of any contemporary source that say so and, even if they did, how could we know Mary wasn't just lying? Perhaps she had sex with some other man and made up the whole Holy Spirit thing as an excuse for being pregnant. It is well known that people sometimes have affairs and lie about them. --Tango (talk) 17:16, 7 August 2010 (UTC)

It's very easy to answer your question. Let's look at the facts of the Universe: there are animals of various kinds, plants, whatever you want. Let's say the explanation is: "A supernatural being who rules the Universe wanted it that way." So far, so good. But Religion requires that your answer be "A supernatural being, who helped give birth to Himself in the form of a natural man who was at once Him, wanted to die for Humanity's sins and did so on the Cross." See what I mean? It's the difference between saying: "Quantum mechanics is rather tricky" and saying "Quantum mechanics is rather tricky, and was developed by a six-eyed mathematician in the Hyperverse, who was later diagnosed with cancer. Quantum Mechanics is his final work, and he tweaked the laws until his last days in the Hyperverse. His wife Selma and seventeen children weeped tears of blood at his passing. He is revered in the Hyperverse for creating Earth, which a precocious ten-year-old found when looking through our Universe. The ten-year-old would go on to be the Democratic President of the Hypergalactic universe, while remaining a stout devotee of science. She made many other scientific discoveries, but the discovery of Earth, which all inhabitants of the Hyperverse view on a daily basis, much like a reality show, remains her most renowned discovery." So, yes, sure, quantum mechanics is tricky. But the rest of that crap is getting less and less likely. So yeah, sure, some being outside of our Universe could have effected its becoming as it is. But the rest of the Christian dogma is just getting less and less likely. (talk) 09:19, 7 August 2010 (UTC)

Ockham's Razor is a nice heuristic for many kinds of things, but shouldn't be relied upon as a dogma. Identifying the assumptions and which of them is "largest" is a tricky thing that, in my experience, often verges on the subjective. What looks like a terribly hack to one person looks like a perfectly natural assumption to another. And in any case, it might not actually be true, whatever the least assumption scenario is. The miracles described in the Bible is certainly not meant to be an argument for them being the least assumptions — the entire point of a true miracle is that it is miraculous, a one-off, unusual, impossible event. To try and tackle such a claim by looking for the least assumptions misses the entire point, and gets you really no closer to the truth. I say this as someone who does not believe in miracles in the slightest. --Mr.98 (talk) 14:20, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Let's consider two competing hypotheses for how the universe came to be: 1) It spontaneously came into being in a Big Bang and we don't know what caused the Big Bang. 2) It was created by a god and we don't know where the god came from. The latter includes an additional entity, the god, yet doesn't better explain our observations, so we reject it in favour of the former. That is an application of Occam's razor. It is better to assume something happen spontaneously and just admit we don't understand how it happened than to assume the existence of another entity we can't understand and say that that entity caused it to happen. --Tango (talk) 17:16, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Right, but the spontaneous, natural, for-no-reason creation is kind of a big assumption too. I don't honestly (even as a non-believer) see that as really an unambiguously "simpler" scenario that postulating some kind of active force. I see no reason to assume it is "better" to assume that things happen for no reason than to think they happen for a reason. It certainly does not tell you that one idea is more true than the other — it's at best a crude heuristic. Even in determining between different scientific theories it is often quite wrong (sometimes what appears "simplest" just means you don't understand how the actual complexity works). I personally don't find Ockham's razor to be at all useful in theological discussions, because everybody sees their own assumptions as being the one that posits the fewest logical leaps. --Mr.98 (talk) 18:04, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Wikipedia has an article about Occam's razor. The section Occam's razor#Religion considers the argument that if the concept of God does not help to explain the universe, God is irrelevant and should be cut away. Cuddlyable3 (talk) 18:11, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
But the god hypothesis also has something happening for no reason - the existence of the god. You have a choice of a universe existing for no reason or a universe existing for a reason and a god existing for no reason. Occam's razor says the former should be preferred, assuming they fit observations equally well. --Tango (talk) 18:41, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Fortunately, the great mass of people have never heard of O's R and are therefore unaffected by it, and those who have heard of it are still free to believe what they will about the universe and whether or not it had a maker. O's R has its uses, certainly, but to rely on it to determine one's personal belief in something as fundamental as this topic is to abrogate all responsibility as a human. Humanity didn't need it prior to Ockham coming along, and on this topic they still don't need it. -- Jack of Oz ... speak! ... 20:53, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
What else have we got? We could just not try and choose between the two hypotheses, but most people would rather pick one or the other and Occam's razor is the only tool we have (other than just choosing the option we like most, but that's hardly a convincing argument). --Tango (talk) 22:06, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Relying on Ockham's Razor for this decision is no different from relying on what a religion teaches. But who in their right mind, apart from small children, just takes what either dogma says and accepts it unquestioningly? One might be rabidly anti-religionist but still come to the rational view that the universe could not have just spontaneously created itself out of nothing, and there must have been a guiding force behind it. Or one could be the Pope but still have no truck with literal interpretations of the Bible. -- Jack of Oz ... speak! ... 23:06, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Of course it is different. Occam's razor is a general rule for assessing hypotheses that has, at the very least, good aesthetics. Arguably, it also has empirical evidence supporting it, but it's a little difficult to conclusively find examples where it has been proven right. Religion is arbitrary and has no reasons behind it. --Tango (talk) 02:12, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
You say that as if reason is all that matters in the end. It's very important, but it's not everything. Religions do not claim to have reason underlying their teachings; they operate on faith. For example, the RC Church claims that in transubstantiation, the wafer held by the priest is actually, literally, physically turned into the body of Christ, and the wine is actually, literally, physically turned into his blood. It may not look like it, and scientific tests would strongly deny there's been any change - but millions of Catholics believe it, including many scientists, mathematicians, and others for whom, in all other areas of their life, reason and logic are the sine qua non of everything. They still have room in their lives to believe something that nobody could ever prove, and moreover defies all logic and reason. -- Jack of Oz ... speak! ... 08:48, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
Indeed. That is why I gave up trying to convince religious people to accept science over religion years ago - you cannot use logic to dispel faith, the two are incompatible. Occam's razor is a tool used by scientists, though, not theologians. We're discussing why scientists reject hypotheses involving gods. --Tango (talk) 17:02, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
The article says "In science, Occam’s razor is used as a heuristic (rule of thumb) to guide scientists in the development of theoretical models rather than as an arbiter between published models." This makes a great deal of sense. Attempting to use Occam's razor as an arbiter between philosophical models cuts out everything but the extreme form of metaphysical nihilism, which argues that nothing exists. To most people, this is unhelpful in the extreme, and they do not consider Occam's razor to rule out philosophical positions. Paul (Stansifer) 21:51, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Science replaced philosophy centuries ago. This isn't a discussion about history. --Tango (talk) 22:06, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
"Science replaced philosophy centuries ago" - that gets an award for the Most Ridiculous Statement of the Month. -- Jack of Oz ... speak! ... 23:08, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
Science is based on philosophy. It wouldn't have a leg to stand on without it. Wrad (talk) 01:57, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
Science is based on philosophy in a historical sense. Philosophy basically evolved into science through the incorporation of empiricism and mathematics. Philosophy (together with religion) was how people tried to explain the world around them. We've discovered that science provides us with better explanations, though, so we've stopped using philosophy. There are still a few philosophers around, but they don't actually do anything that has an impact outside of philosophy departments in universities. --Tango (talk) 02:05, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
That is profoundly untrue. Recent philosophers such as Michel Foucault and others have had and continue to have a profound effect on everyday life. Philosophies such as those published by Judith Butler are very influential in debates concerning gay marriage. Wrad (talk) 02:27, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
Could you provide some references for those claims? I've followed the debates over gay marriage quite closely and have never heard of Judith Butler. --Tango (talk) 02:39, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
That's not too surprising, since philosophy often affects us in ways that are difficult to see unless you have read the philosophy the effect is coming from. Just type in "judith butler and the gay marriage debate" or "michel foucault's influence" into google for some basics. One profound way philosophers influence law, for instance, is this: philosophers say what they say, law students at Harvard listen, law students become prominent lawyers, judges, and politicians and apply these philosophies in their work. (see [1]) Of course, the news isn't going to tell you this, because most people would just get bored, but that doesn't mean the influence isn't there. Judith Butler argues for a looser categorization of sex and gender, which is taking hold, and Foucault has had a huge influence on law, postcolonialism, feminism, and just about any other "ism" you can think of. It's difficult to see many "isms" we have today even existing without him. Of course, the best thing you could do, if you're curious, would be to read some recent philosophical works and their prefaces. That would give you a very clear idea of the influence current philosophers still have. Wrad (talk) 03:16, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
(ec with you adding to your comment - the link added is a step in the right direction, although I'd rather see some examples of the influence itself rather than watch a video of people talking about it.) Reading philosophical works won't tell me what influence they have had since the influence obviously comes after they are written. I'd rather not plough through the search results of your rather imprecise search terms. Please present a specific reference that shows the works of one of these philosophers having significant influence. For example, can you find the works of Judith Butler cited (and cited in some significant way, not just because she worded something in a particularly eloquent way that the person citing it thought of themselves by couldn't word as well) in some relevant court cases or debate in legislatures? --Tango (talk) 03:27, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
I'm at a public computer and really don't have time to go into that kind of depth. I think you have enough to find some answers if you really want to. Wrad (talk) 03:29, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
In any case, here's another tidbit in the right direction [2] Wrad (talk) 03:31, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
That seems to be a book about what Foucault has said should happen in law rather than what does happen. I'd like references of the kinds I mentioned: court cases or debates in legislatures. Anything else is, at best, indirect influence. Of course, that is still influence, but I'd like to see direct influence if there is any. --Tango (talk) 03:47, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
You made the claim, the burden is on your to find the references to back it up. --Tango (talk) 03:47, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
I'm sorry, but the problem is not a lack of evidence, but your hard-headedness and lack of curiosity. I've provided you with several references, and you have decided they are simply too much for you to look through carefully. I see no evidence on your end for the claim that "Science replaced philosophy centuries ago" as of yet. If you want some real answers on philosophy to the degree you are demanding, you might want to pay some money and go somewhere other than a volunteer website. Unless I'm getting paid, I personally find no joy in trying to convince closed-minded people who have already made up their minds. Wrad (talk) 05:02, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
I don't think even Foucault would object to the idea that science replaced religion and philosophy as the way by which the Western world best understands itself. (He would see this as something of a problem, naturally.) Most academic philosophers have zero impact on anything outside of the academy, at least in the United States. At the moment the only academic philosophy who anybody outside of the university spends any time arguing about is Peter Singer, and even he is only well-known amongst the intelligentsia. Ask any professor who has ever tried to teach Foucault at law school how well he is taken up by most future lawyers. (Hint: not well.) I'm not arguing against reading Foucault, but to say he has had a large influence outside of the academy is probably an overstatement, especially when compared to even relatively minor scientific discoveries/arguments. There is a reason the NY Times has a "Science Times" section rather than one on "Philosophy Times". --Mr.98 (talk) 15:24, 8 August 2010 (UTC)

(Ironically, Occam's Razor, the idea of a medieval philosopher named William, is on its own a classic example of the importance and use of philosophy in the world today, even and especially in the world of science.) Wrad (talk) 15:07, 8 August 2010 (UTC)

Medieval philosophy (well, some small part of it) is very important in the world today because it forms the basis of science. I'm saying that modern philosophers are, to use Steve Baker's phrase, a waste of quarks. --Tango (talk) 17:02, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
This is really ironic to hear from someone who doesn't even know who Foucault is. It would be like someone who has no idea who Einstein is claiming that he had no effect on society today. Absurd. Wrad (talk) 00:15, 11 August 2010 (UTC)
Trying to use logic in connection with religious beliefs is about as likely to succeed as trying to lasso a bolt of lightning. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 15:35, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
In studying the life of Saint Athanasius again to improve the article page, I met a book on Arian by Rowan Williams who researched the subject of the position of Arian. Rowan Williams affirms that Arius wanted a faith that was reasonable and not dependant on mystery. The Christian faith is dependant on these things. You cannot reason to the Christian faith, of Nicean Creed. MacOfJesus (talk) 18:14, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
No matter how "reasonable" someone wants religion to be, religions generally require the existence of immortal, supernatural beings, whose actual existence cannot be proven or disproven. That "mystery" just doesn't go away. ←Baseball Bugs What's up, Doc? carrots→ 20:34, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
You can't violate a rule of thumb - what would that mean? If I said "The UPS guy usually comes on tuesdays" is that phrase violated if the UPS guy comes on a wednesday, instead?
Occam's razor is very simple: it tells you not to go out of your way trying to explain something with complex, unlikely arguments when simpler arguments explain it just as well. Thus, if your spouse calls and says s/he didn't come home last night because a herd of zebra escaped from a local zoo and blocked the roadway, Occam's razor will tell you that it's more likely that s/he got to drinking with some friends and lost track of time. Occam's razor won't tell you which actually happened, but the chain of events leading up to a herd of zebra blocking the road is (in most cases) complex and unlikely, whereas losing track of time in a bar explains the absence just as well and is hardly unheard of behavior.
and tango - really? again?? If you want to know what happens when 'science replaces philosophy', pick up the morning paper: global warming, senseless environmental catastrophes, nuclear and biological arsenals... as the running joke on the Onion News Network went: "Today leading scientists announced yet another cure for erectile dysfunction". Philosophy without science is rudderless, but science without philosophy is just plain stupid. but that's a lesson lost on most scientists... --Ludwigs2 07:40, 9 August 2010 (UTC)

Thank you, Ludwigs, for bringing sense into this argument. I can show from the Gospels the relevance and contrast of the opposed positions in inter-play, here. Sometimes this argument was played out with professors of either dicipline. C.G. Jung in his publication "Answer to Job" got an immediate back-lash from Fr. Victor White (Dominican), and letters between the two escalated. Jung respected White and visa versa. MacOfJesus (talk) 10:46, 9 August 2010 (UTC)

Winding up a failed state[edit]

In a post here a few days ago, someone commented that Somalia is still officially a state according to the UN. I was wondering if there's any recent precedent (say in the last 100 years) for "winding up" a failed state, even when at least some of its component parts disagree? At the moment the Somali "government" seems to exist in a vacuum, not really governing anything and with little prospect of changing that. Is the rest of the world likely to decide at some point that this is a charade, and allow a new Somali state or states to be formed de jure? (talk) 17:07, 7 August 2010 (UTC)

There are two possible ways that the current Somali "state" could cease to be and be replaced by a new, functional state. A new de facto state could form and then be recognised by the international community (and thus become de jure) or the UN could intervene and impose a government on the country, probably under the administration of another nation or nations (like the British Mandate of Palestine, although that was the League of Nations rather than the UN). That other nation or nations would administer the country until they can they were able to create an environment there that allowed for free and fair elections. --Tango (talk) 17:32, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
No, "free and fair elections" is a favourite claim of Western democracies but the UN is not an arbiter of democracy. It could not be so with member countries such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Historically the UN has championed human rights and decolonisation, and it has supported the new states that have arisen as a result of self-determination initiatives. Tango perhaps you are confusing UN functions with of the goals of US interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan. Cuddlyable3 (talk) 17:58, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
UN peacekeeping missions are mandated to bring stability to a country or region. If there is no government in particular country then bringing stability involves creating a government. If a UN peacekeeping force is going to create a government, it will be a democratic one. You seem to be confused about the situation in Afghanistan - that is a UN mission. --Tango (talk) 18:13, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
No it isn't, it's a NATO mission. Anyway, the UN is not any greater than its parts, which naturally have their own agendas. Somalia does have a couple of independent parts, Somaliland and Puntland, which are certainly functioning better than the "official" government that controls a street in Mogadishu. There are probably a few reasons that Somalia is still considered one country; one is that if the world admitted it was a failed state, what would happen to all the other states that have equally ridiculous borders, especially in Africa? What about, say, Nigeria, or Sudan? What about in Europe? Is Puntland any more or less real than Kosovo? Adam Bishop (talk) 18:51, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
NATO provides the troops, but it's a UN mission. Go and read ISAF: "The International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) is a NATO-led security mission in Afghanistan established by the United Nations Security Council" (emphasis mine). --Tango (talk) 20:21, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
An example that comes to mind is the Dominion of Newfoundland, which achieved self-government in 1907, but the effects of the Great Depression together with an inherently corrupt political culture lead to it becoming one of the few states to voluntarily renounce self-government, in 1934, and reverted to direct control from London until it eventually voted to become a province of Canada in 1949. -- Arwel Parry (talk) 19:49, 7 August 2010 (UTC)
  • International law finds it very, very disagreeable for there to exist a piece of land -- or, for that matter, a person -- that is not considered to belong to a nation. The system sort of falls apart if some person or place doesn't fit into a tidy box. Of course, since one of the side effects of this system is that it countenances abominations like Somalia, the legal system has its critics. --M@rēino 02:53, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
Western Sahara seems to be a piece of land that doesn't belong to a nation. Everard Proudfoot (talk) 20:38, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
Have you ever been to the western Sahara?
At any rate, the UN (and other international organizations) are primarily concerned with maintaining stability and consistency, and that leads to some conceptual problems. Somalia was a (relatively) stable state before its collapse, and in the absence of the international pressure it might have broken up into separate states after the collapse (or been annexed in whole or part by neighboring nations, or been taken over de facto by a warlord or an islamic movement) which would have eventually produced a new stability of some sort. But because the international community came to recognize somalia as a state, they have set up expectations that it will remain a state like it was and defend what they have decided is the 'legitimate' government, and so they end up preserving the anarchy in the region because the 'legitimate' government is effectively impotent and no 'illegitimate' governments are allowed to take over. basically it's catch-22: their identification as a state on paper is one of the major factors preventing a true state from establishing itself. --Ludwigs2 21:03, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
Uh, no. I don't understand the question. Everard Proudfoot (talk) 21:33, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
I don't see the relevance of whether or not you have been either... However, Western Sahara doesn't belong to no-one. Rather, who it belongs to is disputed. There is a difference. There are lots of disputed territories around the world, they don't cause existential dilemmas to our concept of statehood. --Tango (talk) 21:55, 8 August 2010 (UTC)
lol, sorry. the question was meant to highlight the fact that there is (currently) absolutely nothing of interest in the western sahara to make it worth fighting over, so no one has bothered to settle the issue of its ownership. If they suddenly discovered (for instance) that there were huge deposits of oil, gold, uranium, or even (given the region) underground water in the western sahara, you would equally suddenly discover a whole lot of nations with decided interest in laying claim to the land, and the area would be annexed (by war and/or treaty) by one or more nations very rapidly. Same thing will happen to the moon if/when mining there becomes a profitable enterprise; till then, though, no one's going to bother. --Ludwigs2 00:00, 9 August 2010 (UTC)
But there actually was a war over Western Sahara - and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic seems to think it is important land. (talk) 05:43, 9 August 2010 (UTC)
If that makes them happy <shrug>... people, the bit about the western sahara was an off-hand comment. I don't care to fuss over the actual legal status of the western sahara, since it's irrelevant to the original question. big picture, please, not the little one. --Ludwigs2 07:15, 9 August 2010 (UTC)

Article on Comparative Geography[edit]

I swear I once saw am article that was a list of Geographic entities listed by size that included relative size of other entities, i.e. France ~size of texas,etc. It was a wikipedia list with sortable fields. Any clues? (talk) 20:25, 7 August 2010 (UTC)

Fourteen different pages are transcluded in List of political and geographic subdivisions by total area (all). Wavelength (talk) 21:27, 7 August 2010 (UTC)