Where do you draw the line?

[N]o sooner do we depart from sense and instinct to follow the light of a superior principle, to reason, meditate, and reflect on the nature of things, but a thousand scruples spring up in our minds concerning those things which before we seemed fully to comprehend. Prejudices and errors of sense do from all parts discover themselves to our view; and, endeavoring to correct these by reason, we are insensibly drawn into uncouth paradoxes, difficulties, and inconsistencies, which multiply and grow upon us as we advance into speculation, till at length, having wandered through many intricate mazes, we find ourselves just where we were, or, which is worse, sit down in a forlorn Skepticism.

– George Berkeley, The Principles of Human Knowledge

In daily life, we assume as certain many things which, on a closer scrutiny, are found to be so full of apparent contradictions that only a great amount of thought enables us to know what it is that we really may believe. In the search for certainty, it is natural to begin with our present experiences, and in some sense, no doubt, knowledge is to be derived from them. But any statement as to what it is that our immediate experiences make us know is very likely to be wrong.

– Bertrand Russell, The Problems of Philosophy

The passages above describe eloquently an idea that has long lingered troublingly in the back of my mind, but remained unarticulated due to principally to my own laziness in fleshing it out. I don’t expect to exorcize all of my demons on the subject here, but at least it will be a start.

I’ve never perceived myself as being the type to fall easily into one camp or another on things. Consequently, I either find myself taking a position of devil’s advocate in order to participate in a conversation, or find myself sinking into a disappointed indecision. If I’m around conservatives, for example, I usually feel myself inexorably being pulled in the opposite direction. When around liberals, the opposite is true.

In either instance, I am left wondering, “how can this or that person be so sure about himself or herself?” Furthermore, I wonder, “how can I be so unsure of myself?” Granted, I may be objecting to attitudes more than to opinions in the aforementioned examples, but the questions still remain unanswered.

It’s not that I lack the ability to construct a logical argument and follow through on the conclusion. But on what basis are such conclusions ultimately derived?

Consider the following question: Is abortion right?

Now consider the following two answers to this question:

– Life begins at conception.
– The taking of a life is wrong.
– Abortion takes a life.
– Therefore, abortion is wrong.

Fine, but what about this:

– A fetus is part of a woman’s body.
– A woman has a right to do with her body as she pleases.
– Therefore, if she wishes to have an abortion, she is justified.

They are both simplified examples to be sure, and while I’m no logician, they suit my purposes here. There appears to be no problem with the arguments themselves; the rub lies in the assumptions. Then we are forced to ask: which assumption is right? That just leads to another argument, founded on other, more basic assumptions.

But if we keep digging, what eventually remains? I wonder how often people stop to ask themselves this question. It seems possible that one could rely on “sense and instinct” clothed in the type of arguments above without ever considering the soundness of their assumptions. For practicality’s sake we must we draw a mental line somewhere if we are to avoid a slippery slope that leads to relativism or worse. We can’t go around denying the existence of tables all day long. But where and when should that line be drawn?

What if the Flatlander has no home to return to?

I was reading this article about the humorous inability of the crazy Minutemen border patrol to even locate the Canadian/Vermont border, much less to patrol it, when I noticed a very curious term in the final sentence.

Even the Minutemen concede that their welcome hasn’t been perfectly warm. During their first patrol weekend, Buck said he found a note with a native Vermonter’s derogatory term for outsiders — indicating that someone thought they were already on the wrong side of a border.

“Flatlander, go home,” Buck said the note read.

Not having ever even been to Vermont, I have never been called a Flatlander (although after showing my vast gulf of ignorance regarding their state, I fully expect to have the epithet hurled at me vehemently should I ever visit. Of course, I turned to Google for an explanation, and here is what I found.

The term flatlander derives from ‘flatland’, which describes a geographical location as land that is predominantly flat. A flatlander would be a person who is from this type of a region.

To a Vermonter, the term flatlander takes on a whole new meaning. In the simplest terms, it means a person from outside the confines of Vermont. Often times, the actual geographical location of an outsider can be mountainous, but this weighs little on Vermont’s opinion. There is a gray area of where the flatlander boundaries exist, but to some die-hards, a flatlander is anyone not born in the state of Vermont. Others only consider the states south of Vermont that are located within New England. Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island fall victim to the term by this definition, but it is unlike Vermonters to leave out New Jersey on their definition of flatlander. And for some, a flatlander is anyone with white plates on their car.

Flatlander is used as a negative slander on non-native Vermonters or visitors. In it’s basic concept, the term implies a person who visits the state or lives here that brings negative qualities from their home to our state. It is a person who is unfamiliar with traditional Vermont ways. Nathan Mansfield, a native Vermonter, defines the term as “Thinking they [a flatlander] can meld their beliefs of what Vermont is into our reality.” Unfortunately for the flatlander, even if they assimilate to Vermont culture and reside here for 50 years, they can never rid themselves of this label.

Tom Barnett interviewed on C-SPAN

C-SPAN’s podcasts are awesome in general. While taking a long walk home today (thanks, transport workers!) I listened to Florida congressman Tom Feeney interviewing The Geopolitical Man himself, Thomas P.M. Barnett. The hour-long talk touches on a number of issues and goes in depth on China and Iran; very interesting stuff.

For those of you who enjoy this, a DivX version of Barnett’s full lecture on “The Pentagon’s New Map” is floating around some BitTorrent sites. Also, check out the NewsHour podcast, which lets you get your dose of Jim Lehrer and talking heads any time of day.

Makiko Tanaka is amusing

I’m binging on rotten.com tonight, and came across the following brief anecdote in their profile of President Bush (scroll to bottom):

17 Jun 2001 – Japanese Foreign Minister Makiko Tanaka returns to German Town High School in Philadelphia, where she studied for two years as a high school student. During a conversation with her former classmates, Tanaka gives her concise assessment of President George W Bush: “He is totally an asshole.”

I offer a cash reward to anyone who can find audio or video of this.