Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Zumba Theologica Part 1: Aquinas Gets Down with Natural Law

Notes and Thoughts on Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica

Favourite Quote of the Reading: "Consequentially it is evident that the proper effect of a law is to lead its subjects to their proper virtue; and since virtue is that which makes its subject good, it follows that the proper effect of law is to make those, to whom it is given, good, either absolutely or in some particular respect.  For if the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on a true good, which is the common good regulated according to divine justice, it follows that the effect of law is to make men good absolutely.  If, however, the intention of the lawgiver is fixed on that which is not good absolutely, but useful or pleasurable to himself, or in opposition to divine justice, then law does not make men good absolutely, but in a relative way, namely, in relation to that particular government".


Aristotle's writings had just been rediscovered in the 13th Century when Aquinas wrote.  A major problem the Catholic Church had was to reconcile Aristotle's philosophy with Catholic doctrine.  A significant amount of Aquinas' work was devoted to this task.  The important Aristotelian themes that emerge in Aquinas' legal philosophy are that every creature has its own natural purpose or end and that actualizing this purpose is what good is.  As applied to law this concept entails that we cannot understand a political or legal system without first thinking about the good of humans, as well as the purpose of law itself.  In other words, the 'goodness' of a legal or political system can be measured in terms of how well it helps to actualize the good of humans (see Moore's Naturalistic Fallacy).  Interestingly, it wasn't until 1879 (feelin' fine) that the Catholic Church declared Aquinas' writings to be its official doctrine. 

Quick Definition:  Natural law is a system of law that is deduced from human nature.  The idea is that you analyze human nature and figure out what universal moral principles are necessary for flourishing, then you build your laws in accordance with what best achieves that aim.  Central to the notion of natural law is the assertion that morality is universal (and eternal) and we can somehow access it.

On The Essence of Law

Whether Law Is Always Directed to the Common Good
 Yes.  The End.  Well, that's the conclusion anyway.  Let check aus the argument:

(1)  Law belongs to the class of things that are principles of human action.  Ok, that seems pretty straight forward. 
(2)  Reason is also a principle of human action.  Nothing too crazy here.
(3)  There is also a principle that governs reason; that principle is that actions should be directed toward the objective of human life--happiness and beatitude (blissful happiness...yay!).  I'm not going to go to much into it here but it's important to note that the notion of happiness for Aristotle has very little to do with an emotional state or hedonistic pleasure.  It has to do with self-actualization, sometimes called "flourishing".  It is a continuous process for which attainment can only be judged after someone has already died, because only then can we fully assess whether someone actualized their potential.  
(C)  Therefore, law should mainly be about creating an order in society such that beatitude is preserved and produced.   The idea here is that law should be about creating a society that is conducive to allowing a society to flourish.  I guess a legal system that stifled people ability to actualize themselves wouldn't be 'good'.  But I think it's still an open question as to whether enabling flourishing should be the prime role of a legal system...

Here's the grand conclusion:  since the governing principle of law is the common good, any law that runs counter to the common good is not law.  Say wut?  A law isn't a law?  Yup.  If a law does not produce human flourishing then it is actually not a law.  

Whether Any Individual Acting through Reason Is Competent to Make Laws

Nope.  But why not?  Because if an individual makes a law, it doesn't have the force of compulsion.  "A private person cannot lead another to virtue efficaciously; for he can only advise, and if his advice be not taken, it has no coercive power, such as the law should have..."  Well, that kind of makes sense. I can't imagine many people being compelled to do things just because random individuals decide they want to make a law...

That's not to say people can't make rules within their limited domains.  Obviously, a man can make rules governing the conduct of his wife and children (trolling!) but these do not have the force of laws.  So, what's the difference between rules and laws?  Well, rules are applicable in a limited domain, such as a household, or a community.  Laws, however, have to do with the flourishing of an entire state.  So, rules have limited scope in terms of the size of the group to which they apply.  Laws apply to the entire state and must be directed at producing flourishing to count as law.  "Law is nothing more than an ordinance of reason for the common good, promulgated by him who has the care of the community".

Wait a minute.  How does the guy who "has the care of the community" know what the laws are?  and while we're at it, how does everyone come to know what the laws are, especially in illiterate societies?  Sooooooo simple.  "The natural law is promulgated by the very fact the God instilled it into man's mind so as to be know by him naturally".  

See?  That wasn't so hard.  But wait, why do we need someone to tell us what the law is if "God instilled it into man's mind"?  Or did he just forget to instil it into some people's minds (evidence favours this)?  Oh! God! You little rascal! But that's not what he says, in a later section he continues that "the light of natural reason, whereby we discern what is good and what is evil, which is the function of the natural law, is nothing else than an imprint on us of the divine light".  (*angelic singing*)

Then, he goes on to contract himself (again) because he says that those who are not present when a law is promulgated are bound to obey the law in so far as it is made known to them by others.  But, again, why do we need others to tell us the law if God instilled it in each and every one of his children?  (at the moment of conception, I'm sure!)  

Of course the God argument is silly but we might argue the same sort of thing from a secular point of view, that we are hardwired a certain way that allows us, upon reflection, to know what morality is and what moral actions would consist in.  We'll get into that more later...but right now, my main man Aquinas is gonna drop some knowledge about different kinds of law...

On the Various Kinds of Law

Human Law (vs. Divine Law)

"A law is a dictate of practical reason".  Technical term alert!!! What's practical reason?  It's the kind of reason we use when we decide how to act; usually to choose between alternative courses of action.  Here's where it gets interesting (finally! I know, right?).  The explanation of human law goes a little somethin' like this:  The principles of natural law (i.e. morality) are known and common to us but are indemonstrable.  Human reason isn't perfect so we don't have perfect access to divine I'm not sure if he's referring to the idea that our knowledge of morality comes from intuitions and so (maybe) can't be put into words.  

Or maybe (more likely) he's saying something like, value principles are difficult to put into enough clauses that will cover every possible legal situation past, present, and future.  Our reason allows us access what to do in particular cases (*angelic singing*):  we reason from abstract moral principles to fine-grained particular laws and legal/moral decisions.   But, humans can't know how to perfectly apply moral rules to every possible case.  Nevertheless, the particular laws derived from practical reason are human law--so long as the "flourishing" condition is met. 

Of course, our practical reason isn't perfect and neither is our knowledge (why didn't didn't God give us perfect access to the divine law?  What? We don't have enough challenges already?) so it doesn't overlap entirely with divine law.  Divine law would require perfect knowledge of moral principles and perfect practical reason.

Divine Law: Is It Necessary? 

If we can't access divine law, why is it important?  Aquinas give us 4 reasons: 
(1)  This one's a little weird.  (a)  Since how a man acts to achieve his ultimate goals is directed by laws and (b)  his ultimate goals will only be in proportion to his natural abilities, then (c) there is no need for him to aspire to anything greater than his own goals.  (d)  But since the big man upstairs (Zeus, of course) has even bigger plans that are beyond man's natural ability--that of eternal happiness (touchdown Jeeeeeeeezus!)--man needs law given by Zeus to direct him to his true end.  Basically, if Man is left to set his own goals, he won't set the bar high enough and won't act in such a way that lets him frolic eternally on top of Mount Olympus.  Since our actions are directed by laws, divine laws will get us to act in the way we need.  Whew!

 (2)  Because people can reason incorrectly and come to different judgments on moral decisions and contradictory human laws, for people to know exactly what they should do, there needs to be law given by Zeus (Aquinas uses the generic "God", but I'm quite sure he meant Zeus).  Ok, so where do we get this famous divine law?  He doesn't say here, but I'm gonna wager he's talking about The Iliad and The Odyssey, two obviously inspired texts whose events are factually corroborated by selective readings of history.   

(3)  Step three.  Judge what's in me!  It's not entirely clear what he's talking about here but I'll let you decide.  He says that since people can only judge exterior acts and not "interior movements that are hidden" a divine law is required.  So, is he talking about interior acts of others?  Or is he talking about Orwellian thought crime?  It seems like he's referring to the latter in the passage: 

"...for the perfection of virtue it is necessary for man to conduct himself rightly in both kinds of acts.  Consequentially, human law could not sufficiently curb and direct interior acts, and it was necessary for this purpose that a divine law should supervene" (my italics).

(4)  Step four.  It can punish you more!  Divine law in necessary because "human law cannot punish or forbid all evil deeds".  True dat.  The next line actually warns against the dangers of legislating against thought crime (unless you're Zeus).  "...since it would do away with many good things, and would hinder the advance of the common good, which is necessary for human living."  

This post is getting way too long...I'm going to stop here and make a (shorter) part two.


ps. feel free to tell me about typos and glaring errors...

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Citizens Can Be Lawfully Detained: Oxymoron?

Hamdi vs. Rumsfeld:  Is The Detention of US Enemy Combatants Lawful?


In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, Yaser Hamdi an American citizen was captured by the Northern Alliance, then turned over to the US military in Afghanistan.  The US government declared him an enemy combatant and detained him without access to legal council or the opportunity to challenge his indefinite detention.  Hamdi's fah-jah filed a writ of habeas corpus and argued that Hamdi was an aid worker who had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and was being illegally detained.

Lets do a quick break down of the terms and key issues before looking at the Supreme Court's ruling on the matter.

Habeas Corpus

First of all, what's habeas corpus?  Habeas corpus laws protect people from arbitrary detention.  The idea is that if you get arrested for something, you have the legal right to hear the charges against you, to contest the factual grounds for the charges against you, and that an impartial judge evaluate the charges against you in light of everything.  In other words, you cannot be detained without being presented particular charges and having those charges being grounds for detention--as determined by an impartial judge.   Habeas corpus laws protect citizens from being thrown in prison on a whim.   Under habeas corpus, if you are not charged with a specific crime for which an impartial judge determines there are reasonable grounds, you must be released.

What are the Issues?

So, what happened in the Hamdi case (short version) and what issues does it bring up?  Hamdi's fah-jah's initial petition to a lower court in Virginia was rejected on arguments from the Bush administration.  The Bush administration argued that since Hamdi was caught in arms in a combat zone against the US, he could be detained as an enemy combatant.   If he is an enemy combatant then his legal rights are no longer those of a US citizen, protected by US law, but of an enemy combatant which are governed by the Geneva Convention.  Under the Geneva Convention, enemy combatants only need to be released from detention after the cessation of hostilities.

Another argument from the lower court was that habeas corpus, in this case, would interfere with the broad powers of the executive achieved through the Authorization for Use Military Force Act (AUMF), enacted by Congress right after 9/11.  In short it says the President may "use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks" or "harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the US by such nations, organizations or persons."  The US government alleged that Hamdi had had contact with the Taliban and at the time of capture surrendered his weapon (evidence of being a combatant).   In addition, interrogations of Hamdi further revealed that he met "the criteria for enemy combatant".

So the main issue in this case is how to determine the legal rights of a citizen that is allegedly an enemy combatant.  Does the fact that they are an alleged enemy combatant put them under the domain of the Geneva Convention and strip them of their citizen rights to habeas corpus?  What is the legal way to treat an citizen who is an (alleged) enemy combatant in wartime?

Court's Ruling (Short Version)

 "[...] due process demands that a citizen held in the US as an enemy combatant be given a meaningful opportunity to contest the factual basis for that detention before a neutral decisionmaker."   If we look at how the judges arrived at their decision, we see some scary and interesting things.

Justice O'Connor
Scary quote:  "There is no bar to this Nation's holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant"!!!

O'Connor questions the concept of "enemy combatant" and the evidentiary threshold that must be met to place someone in that category.  O'Connor (along with 3 other judges) agree that the AUMF authorized the President to detain Hamdi, and "there is no bar to this Nation's holding one of its own citizens as an enemy combatant".  Wut?  habeas corpus can be ignored?  How?  Doesn't the rule of  US law require that citizens always have habeas corpus?  So, now the government can pick and choose when it applies?  Sounds a bit like arbitrary detention... As a side note, habeas corpus can only be suspended by an act of Congress, which it had not done...

The problem for these judges is not with detention of citizens without due process but with indefinite detention detention without due process.  The "War on Terror" is unconventional and could conceivably go on for generations in one capacity or another, rending it difficult to identify a clear criterion for when the "war" will officially be over.  Since the the law is that enemy combatants can be detained so long as there are ongoing hostilities, it might be problematic to detain for potentially very long times without due process--especially a citizen.

Another issue involves the constitutional rights of a citizen to dispute his status as an enemy combatant.  So, perhaps one might make the argument that an enemy combatant can be detained without due process, but why shouldn't a citizen have the right to dispute their status?  In the post 9-11 histeria, how do we know that the US military properly and impartially assessed Hamdi's status?

This was the argument put forward by O'Connor and 3 others, that "the circumstances surrounding Hamdi's seizure cannot in any way be characterized as 'undisputed'..."  In other words, taking the government at the word that Hamdi meets the criteria for being an enemy combatant is not consistent with due process.

The other government postion that the court opposed was that no further factual exploration was warranted or appropriate given the "extraordinary constitutional interests at stake".  Here the Government is referring the broad warmaking powers of the President in the second article of the Constitution which "prevents the courts from interfering with this vital area of national security".  In other words, there's a tension between individual's constitutional legal rights and the constitutional powers of the President.

In a country that usually favours individual rights over those of the government, this is one time they got it right.  Interesting that it was a Republican administration that was fighting so hard for government rights trumping those of individuals...don't ya think?  He writes:

...as critical as the Government's interest may be in detaining those who actually pose an immediate threat to the national security of the US during ongoing international conflict, history and common sense teach us that an unchecked system of detention carries the potential to become a means for oppression and abuse of others who do not present that sort of threat...We reaffirm today the fundamental nature of a citizen's right to be free from involuntary confinement by his own government without due process of law, and we weigh the opposing governmental interests against  the curtailment of liberty that such confinement entails.

If I go through all 9 judges this will take too long.  I'll stop here and note that it's interesting that 4 of the 8 judges who ruled against the Government did so not on the grounds that habeas corpus can't be suspended except by an act of Congress, or that a citizen is an enemy combatant, rather habeas corpus rights in such cases are only extended so far as to dispute the factual basis for the plaintif's classification as "enemy combatant".   This points to an inconsistency in the law because the law is quite clear on the conditions under which habeas corpus can be suspended, and (like it or not) being an enemy combatant isn't one of them...

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Thaaaats Not Science: Part 2

Notes and Thoughts on Imre Lakatos' 'Science and Pseudoscience'

My favourite quote:
"But the history of thought shows us that many people were committed to absurd beliefs.  If the strength of beliefs were a hallmark of knowledge, we should have to rank some tales about demons, angels, devils, and of heaven and hell and knowledge.  Scientist, on the other hand, are very skeptical of even their best theories."

Ok, lets get this out of the way right off the bat:  I don't know if Imre Lakatos had an affinity for drinking milk.

The Demarkation Problem Revisited

Moving on to the demarkation problem and Lakatos' proposed solution.  Here's the short version: A theory is scientific if it predicts novel facts and it's pseudo-scientific if its predictions are consistently refuted and it produces no new facts about the world.  To see how he arrives at this position lets first look at his arguments against the competing demarkation theories including Popper's falsificationism and Kuhn's idea that science is marked by incorporating puzzle solving.  Kuhn's demarkation line was drawn between enterprises that embrace unsuccessful predictions as research puzzles to be solved (sciences) and those that resort to hand waving to explain away unsuccessful predictions and do not incorporate the problems as part of their research (pseudoscience).   

Vs. It's Science Because It's Derived from the Facts

The first argument is directed at the popular notion that what makes a theory scientific is that it is derived from the facts.  But what exactly does it mean for a scientific theory to be supported by the facts?  That Newton was doing science is pretty much indisputable, but did Newton derive his theory of motion from the facts?  Newton claimed that he had deduced his theories from the facts of planetary motion which had been observed by Kepler.  Kepler's observations were that the planets' orbits were elliptical but according to Newton's theory, planets would only follow such a path if they didn't disturb each other, which they do.  Doh!  So much for the facts.  So, Newton devised a perturbation theory which holds that no planet moves in an ellipse. 

The idea here is that facts are facts and theories are theories.  Got it?  A theory is an interpretation of facts, a story linking events together, if you will.  There can be many different interpretations of the same set of facts, all of them conforming to the facts, no matter how wacky the the theory.   There is also this idea that no theory takes into account every fact.  It not uncommon to gloss over particular facts and/or outliers (events that don't conform with what we'd expect) which may be problematic for the theory.

Vs. Popper's Falsificationism (see: 'Thaaaat's Not Science: Part 1')

The prollem with falsificationism (for a full list see part 1) is that scientists don't throw away theories the moment a fact contracts it or doesn't conform to a prediction.  Scientist will cling to theories for a long time before they are discarded.  Disconfirming evidence is called an anomaly.  Sometimes it's ignored for statistical reasons, sometimes the theory is modified to capture it.  The point is, rarely is the whole theory thrown out for the sake of mere disconfirming evidence.  

If scientists, like their pseudoscientist counterparts, don't reject theories based on non-conforming evidence, what makes one theory science and another pseudoscience?  

Lakatos' Solution to the Demarkation Problem

Step one.  We can have lots of fun.  And by fun I mean, instead of considering individual hypotheses and theories to be the basic unit of scientific achievement, we should consider the unit to be "a research programme".  Fun right?  Science isn't simply a matter of trial and error, this would be trivial.  A research programme is something that encompasses several interconnected theories and hypotheses.  

Consider Newtonian physics.  It is more that its four laws.  These four laws form the core of the Newtonian program but are "protected from refutation by a vast 'protective belt' of auxiliary hypotheses".  On top of all this, a programme has a problem solving method which includes mathematical and statistical techniques to interpret evidence and anomalies.  If a planet doesn't move according to what the theory predicts, the scientist can check his hypotheses concerning atmospheric refraction, propagation of light in magnetic storms, and hundreds of other things that are all contained within the programme.

Newton's theory of physics, Einstein's relativity theory, quantum mechanics, evolutionary biology, homoeopathy, "The Secret", and alchemy are all research programmes that have a core and protective belt of elaborate problem-solving machinery.  At every stage in their development there is disconfirming evidence, anomalies; there are problems.  But how do we separate the scientific programmes from the pseudoscientific? 

Step 2, I'll explain it to you.  Scientific programmes are all able to predict novel facts, "facts which had been either undreamt of, or have indeed been contradicted by previous rival programmes."  What are some examples of novel facts?  Einsteinian relativity predicted that the path of light will be altered by objects with large mass.  That's why light seems to bend when I flex my biceptors.  I kid! I kid!  Einstein's prediction was verified during a solar eclipse.  If you're curious about the details, click on these pre-googled links:



Another example is Halley's prediction, within the Newtonian programme, that the comet that bares his name (co-incidence or what?!) would return in 72 years.  He died before it did, but his prediction didn't!  Before Halley, er'body thought comets only travelled in straight lines but from within the Newtonian programme he was able to shew that some move in hyperbolas or parabolas, and others in ellipses.

So, what separates pseudo-scientific programmes from the scientific?  The scientific programmes make predict previously unknown facts; they lead to further discovery; discovery that competing theories could not make.  In a word, they are progressive. 

Pseudo-science, on the other hand, is degenerative.  Theories are retrofitted and modified only to accomodate existing facts.  Has homoeopathy predicted any novel facts about the world?  How about the programme of The Law of Stupidity, oops, Attraction?  Nope.  What people who work within these programmes do is reinterpret existing facts in such a way so that they will conform with their pre-existing model.   Nothing novel about the world ever emerges.   

"What really count are dramatic, unexpected, stunning predictions; a few of them are enough to tilt the balance; where theory lags behind facts, we are dealing with miserable degenerating research programmes."

Friday, January 27, 2012

Maybe It's Good that Helping Old Ladies Across The Street Brings About Happiness? But, Is It Good That It's Good?

G. E. Moore's Open Question Argument


In the previous post we took a look at G. E. Moore's naturalistic fallacy which, if you recall, is (short version):  

(1)  Simple ideas/concepts cannot be defined by their properties because then they would be the same as their properties.  Eg.  'Yellow' cannot be defined as 'bright' because 'yellow' and 'bright' are not equivalence. 
(2)  'Good' is a simple concept.
(C)  Therefore, 'good' cannot be defined by its properties.  If one says "'good' is pleasure" or "'good' is virtue" they are committing the naturalistic fallacy.  'Good' is not equivalent to pleasure or virtue.  Some things might share the properties or 'good' and pleasure or 'good and virtue, but it is a mistake to define 'good' as either pleasure or virtue.

We see the naturalistic fallacy every day when people say things are 'good' or 'bad' based on their properties.  Typical examples abound in the alt-med community where you'll often hear that something is 'good' for you because "it's natural".  No.  It's just natural, its goodness has nothing to do with it being natural.  Natural and 'good' are not equivalent.  Try eating some organic, pesticide-free, natural helmlock and tell me how 'good' it is for you.  

You'll also hear from them, "that's artificial, it's baaaaaaaaaaad".  X may be both artificial and bad but its badness is not related to its artificiality.  Lots of manmade things are good for me too, like antibiotics if I have gangreen.  Yay! Science!

You can also hear the naturalistic fallacy from anti-gay groups.  They say, homosexuality is baaaaaaaaaad because it's not natural.  But, after studying the naturalistic fallacy we know that the badness and naturalness of a thing/act are not equivalent.  Even if we discount the factual falsity of this claim, whether something is natural or not has no bearing on whether it's good or bad.  If they want to maintain logical consistency, they shouldn't fly in airplanes or drink coca cola because they're not natural either, therefore baaaaaaaaaaaaad.

The Open Question Argument

Lets take a quick look at Moore's next famous argument, known as the Open Question Argument.  While this argument is related to the first, it is slightly different.  The basic objective of the argument is to shew that any answer to the question "what does 'good' mean" is insufficient.  The answer only leaves us with another question thereby preventing us from closing the original question.  Lets break this shit down.

Check 1.  Check 1.  Test.  Test.  Oh, before I continue I should mention that I am now even cooler than I was a month ago because I bought a bluetooth earpiece for my cell phone.  Now I am very cool and look like an official security guard.  Just thought I'd share...moving on...

Wait!  I need to say one more thing in the preamble about why Moore is even making this argument.  Up until Moore (with the exception of Sidwick) when different philosophers gave differing definitions of 'good', the cause of the disagreement was considered to be just that some philosophers (those with an opposing viewpoint) simply had the wrong definition.  Moore's argument attempts to show that the disagreement doesn't arise out of some definitions being wrong while others are right, but that they are all wrong because no definition is ever possible.  Finally, just because we can't define 'good' doesn't mean the concept has no meaning, he's simple pointing out that we can't define it.

Ok, back to the open question argument.  Here's an example to illustrate the argument.  Lets pick something that most would consider to be 'good'; lets say, (i) helping old ladies across the street is good.    Some annoying person asks, "but what does it mean for something to be good"?  Someone else replies, "(ii) saying something is good means something brings about happiness" (you can substitute anything you like).

So now we have a definition:  something that brings about happiness is good.  Now we can ask another question: "is it good that (i) helping little old ladies across the street brings about happiness?" Perhaps the answer to this particular example is yes, but the answer isn't important to Moore's case.  What's important is that we are asking a separate question which arose out of the prior assertion (ii).

Moore's point here is that any value claim--i.e., x is good because it brings about happiness--doesn't close the issue; it raises further questions: (iii) is it good that doing x brings about happiness? (iv) And is it good to do anything and everything to bring about happiness?  This is a separate issue and might not have the same answer as our first question.  Momentary reflection should give us some examples where bringing about fleeting happiness might not always be the 'good' thing to do.  

Two important observations fall out of this: (1) 'good' and 'happiness' (or whatever we put in its place) aren't really equivalent in meaning.  If they were they'd be interchangeable and the question "is it good that helping little old ladies across the street brings about happiness?" would be as nonsensical as "is it good that helping little old ladies across the street is good?".  Clearly these two sentences are different in meaning.  (2)  We can see that (i), (iii), and (iv) are separate but significant questions.  The general lesson here is that while we may be able to point to specific examples of what 'good' is, anytime I try to define 'good', a new non-trivial value question pops up, leaving us with further value question about what is 'good'.

OK, that argument makes my head spin.  Anyone reading this who has anything to add, correct, or present more clearly...please feel free!  It would be good!  

What's the Definition of 'Yellow'?

G. E. Moore:  The Naturalistic Fallacy


G. E. Moore marks the beginning of contemporary meta-ethics.  Vas is meta-ethics you ask?  It's the branch of philosophy where we study the origin and meaning of ethical concepts.   We try to answer questions like, what does it mean for something to be good? bad? evil? What is a virtue? And what makes some behaviour virtuous and other behaviour not? Another key meta-ethical issue is asking whether morality exists independently of humans, or whether it only applies to humans.  In short meta-ethics can be seen as the enterprise of laying the foundations upon which ethical theories can be built.  Think of it this way, how can we begin to decide what constitutes "good" or "moral" behaviour until we decide what those terms mean.

Ok, enough of that.  Lets look at two of Moore's contributions to meta-ethics, the naturalistic fallacy and the open question argument...

The Naturalistic Fallacy (In Ethics)

Imagine you're talking with your bff.  You've both had a little bit of wine and are feeling good.  You're talking about "life".   We've all had these conversations.  Your friend starts telling you about a difficult moral decision he has to make and ask you, "so, what does it mean for something to be good?"  Feeling somewhat philosophical, you reply, "it's whatever brings happiness".  

Apparently, your friend is feeling even more philosophical because he/she replies (while gazing off into the distance), "yes, but what is happiness?"  You slowly nod your head knowingly, acknowledging the mind boggling profundity of your friend's question.  After searching the depths of your intellect you whisper your reply: "happiness is love.  Happiness...is....loooove, my friend".   

Awww! Shit son!  You just dropped some knowledge!  Boom!  Neurons in your friend's brain explode with the sagaciousness of your answer.   Then your friend realizing the import of the revelation scours the depths of his mind and returns philoso-fire with another question.  His lips tremble with the philoso-weight of his words, "what is....love?"  You are seized by the world-changing significance of this moment.  

You enter a deep philoso-trance.  Emma Bunton's lyrics fade in and out of your conscious awareness "...philosopheee...is a walk on the slippery rocks..."  You lose track of time.  Maybe it's minutes, maybe it's days.  You are like Buddha sitting under the Bohdi tree.  Alas, from the depths of your subconscious an answer begins to emerge.  At first you can barely make it out.  You strain with all your philoso-might.  You reach for it and try to grasp it in your mind but like a slippery rock it slips away again and again.  With one final quantum energy flux you reach deep into the ocean of your self conscious and grasp the elusive Truth.   Like a wild king salmon trying to escape the great american eagle's talons, it writhes and fights, but alas, your talons are too strong.  You rip the Truth from the clutches of your subconscious and thrust it into the daylight of consciousness.  Your whole body trembles as you speak the Truth: "Love...is....life".   You collapse. 

The next day you go to your Intro to Philosophy class to share your revelation with your professor.  Surely, you are well on your way to becoming the next Rousseau, nay, Aristotle!  Your professor walks in the room.  You can hardly contain yourself.  Your hand is up higher than it's ever been.  The professor nods in your direction and says, "I'll take questions after we get through this section on the naturalistic fallacy."  And thus begins the lecture...

Let us recall Locke who said all ideas are either complex or simple.  Complex ideas are made up of simple ideas.  For example, the idea of a car is made up of the constituant ideas of wheels, carburators, chassis, etc...If we wanted to define a car we would mention each of its constituant parts and how they are assembled.  Notice, each of those ideas, themselves complex, can be further broken down until we have only simple ideas like, extension, weight, colour, shape, etc...These ideas cannot be broken down further because they are simple; they cannot be defined with anything but synonyms...or frantic hand-waving movements.  

Consider the colour yellow.  How could you define "yellow" to someone who had never experienced it/didn't already know what it was?  You could never define the concept of "yellow" without appealing to the concept of yellow itself.  Just like you can't define weight or extension (to someone who has never experienced them) without appealing to the very concept you are trying to define.  When it comes to defining simple ideas, they cannot be defined in terms of other concepts or properties.  To make this more tangeable, think about if you could define the colour yellow to a blind person or the sound of a cello to a deaf person. 

Moore considered 'good' to also be a simple idea and that trying to define it was a mistake.  Suppose you encounter a being that has no concept of 'good' and you try to define to it what it means (using words).  The naturalistic fallacy would be your trying to define it by appealing to other concepts, that is, other properties.  Consider some historically popular accounts of what "good" means: Things that are pleasant are good, or doing one's duty, or virtue is good.  

Recall that we cannot appeal to other properties to describe a simple idea.  If we examine the structure of the examples, they take the form: "things that are Y are X" (e.g. Things that have property Y are good).  But this does nothing to define X.  It only pushes the problem back one step to, "why is Y-ness good?"  We haven't come any closer to defining 'good'.  We've only given one of its properties (maybe).  We are now stuck with the question, why is virtue good? pleasure good? etc... We cannot define 'good' by its natural properties (hence, naturalistic fallacy).  And besides, virtue/pleasure/duty and 'good' are not one and the same.  

It may very well be that there are some things/actions that are both virtuous and good or pleasurable and good, or maybe virtuous, pleasurable, and good.  But just because things can share properties doesn't mean that the properties they share are one and the same.  We can see this again in the analogy with yellow:  We might say yellow is bright but we wouldn't say that 'bright' is the definition of 'yellow' or 'yellow' the definition of 'bright'.

So, what's the upshot of all this?  Well, Moore thinks we should give up the task of trying to define what 'good' is by appealing to other concepts and properties.  In fact, ethical philosophers should give up trying to define 'good', periode.   'Good' is simple, indefinable, and unanalyzable.  'Good' is good, and there's no way to define it for someone who doesn't already have an idea of what it means.  

"Are there any questions about the naturalistic fallacy?" your professor asks..."Oh! didn't you have your hand up earlier?"  he says looking at you.  

"Um, is this going to be on the test?" 

The Open Question Argument
....I'm tired, it's almost 4...I'll do this part tomorrow
good night

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Why Do People Pray? (Just to Make It Today?)

Random Thoughts On Prayer

I don't know why it popped into my head, but while I was making a snack I had this thought that prayer makes even less sense than I previously thought.  Maybe someone out there can explain things to me.

Lets suppose for a moment that there is indeed a god, and (lucky you) you magically picked the One True god to pray to (more than likely it's a consequence of geography-but I digress).  In most monotheistic religions the god is omniscient.  So, why should a theist pray to their god if their god already knows what they need/want?  Wouldn't the god be like "Dude, shut up! I already know!  Stop nagging me!  Oh, my God, won't you people shut up!  I ALREADY KNOW!!!!"

Is it because their god has some sort of pray-o-meter which determines whether the prayer is granted?  If so what are the units that a prayer-o-meter measures?  How many prayer units do you need before a prayer is granted?  Is the pray-o-meter sensitive to intensity of prayer or volume?  Do prayers have to come from various sources to move the pray-o-meter or can the same person pray for the same thing over and over again?

If someone's god is benevolent, and they're asking for something "good", like saving their mother from cancer, why should they need to ask?  Supposedly the god already knows what's going on, and that having someone's mother die from cancer is not a particularly good thing, why does the god need to be prompted by prayer to do anything?  Does a person really have to demonstrate to the god how badly they want their mother to live?  That would be kind of wack.

Of course not all prayers are about asking for things.  Maybe some people pray to tell their god how great he/she/it is.  But doesn't it already know?  It's true that it's pretty hard to get too many compliments--I love it when people tell me I'm awesome all day long, every day--but don't you think after several millennia it would get old and you'd just want some peace and quiet? 

Not that I understood prayer in the first place, but now that I think about it, it makes even less sense than I thought.  If anyone has any explanations (and "God acts in mysterious ways" is not an explanation) or hypotheses, I'm curious.


Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Thaaat's Not Science!

The Demarkation Problem:  Notes and Discussion of Karl Popper's Falsificationism 


One issue in the philosophy of science is known as the demarkation problem.  That is, where do we draw the line between genuine science and pseudo-science?   What's the difference between astronomy and astrology?  Chemistry and alchemy?  Medicine and homeopathy?  Psychology and Freudian psycho-analysis?  Evolutionary biology and creation "science"?  Why is the study of literature, history, or philosophy not considered a science?  Are the social sciences, science?  All these questions are relevant to the demarkation problem.  

Possible Answers

The obvious answer is that something is science if the person doing/discovering it is wearing a lab coat, works with test tubes, beakers, and Bunsen burners.  But as appealing as this solution is to our intuitions we cannot ignore the fact that alchemists also wear lab coats, use many beakers and test tubes (filled with many colourful liquids, no less!) AND use several Bunsen burners all at the same time--and lets not forget that they measure their contents at the meniscus!  They even use cool spiral shaped glass tubes that connect to other beakers.  Alas, we might need to look elsewhere to solve our demarkation problem.  

One other possible answer is to say that something is science if and only if it true.  This won't work for several reasons: (1)  Every true state statement will be considered scientific.  Consider the statement "All unmarried men are bachelors".  Under our definition of science, by making this statement we are "doing science" and making a scientific statement.  (2) This would make things like Newtonian physics and Darwin's account of evolution not science.  Even though Newtonian physics isn't perfect and was superseded by Einsteinian physics, it's still used in science and when scientists use it, they are still doing science.  Darwin theory of evolution pre-dated the discovery of DNA so while his specific account of evolution was incorrect, it doesn't seem correct to say he wasn't doing science.  Lets try a different criterion.  

How about "science uses the empirical method"?  But so do many pseudo-sciences like astrology.  Also, if we restrict science to areas that use the empirical method we must exclude things like theoretical physics.  Hmmm...

Lets try this: if there is a "preponderance of evidence" for a theory then it's science.  The immediate problem is that early scientific inquiry into a problem won't be considered science until a lot of evidence has accumulated.  Do we want to say that when a scientist (in a lab coat, using beakers and Bunsen burners)  makes a new discovery, they aren't doing science no matter how sound their method?  This doesn't seem right.  The other problem, which occurs very often in pseudo-science, is that theories can be interpreted to accept any data set.  

Here are a few quick examples:  (1) In para-psychology anytime a skeptic tries to observe or replicate the results, the subsequent absence of the effect is explained away by saying the presence of the non-believer annihilates the para-psychological effects.   This only further confirms their (now modified) theory, that para-psychological effects don't work around skeptics.  (2) Consider astrology: predictions are so general that they can be made to retroactively apply to at least one event that happens throughout the day, further confirming the theory; i.e., adding evidence.  (3)  Consider something like the pop-psychological belief that "the universe always conspires to help you".  It is easy to see how proponents can always retrofit events and interpretations to make it true.  Take two opposite situations:  you lose your key and you don't lose your keys.  Under the theory, proponents can always apply retrospective reasons for why one or the other happened (use your imagination).  That is, both A and ~A make the theory true.  But any theory that contains a statement and it's contradiction is inconsistent.  In short--it's nonsense.  But either way, the theory is confirmed. 

To summarize, just because we can find verifications for a theory does not allow us to say we are doing science or that the theory is scientific.  Here's a good illustration of the problem with using verification (or "preponderance of evidence") to gauge whether something is science.


Popper's Falsificationism 

So, what do?  How ought we to distinguish science from pseudo-science?   Listen up peoples cuz my main man Karl Popper's about to drop some knowledge on your ass, then we is going to discuss it.  Karl Popper was one the first contemporary philosophers to rassle with this problem and he came up with a 7 point list to distinguish the science from the pseudo-science.  They can be summed up as follows:  "the criterion of the scientific status of a theory is its falsifiability, or refutability, or testability".    

Vas does this mean?  Lets break this shit down in to terms I understand.  I know that testability prolly has something to do with test tubes, but what about those other big words?  Popper is saying that to test whether a theory is scientific you have to test it in such a way that failure is possible.  In a more concrete form you will do something like this:  make a specific "risky" prediction about something your theory entails.  For example, if we want to test a theory of gravity we can say "this theory predicts that object z will fall distance y, in time x".  With this sort of specific testable statement there is a real chance that the theory could fail.   Or is there? Ah! ha!

It seems we have prollem.  Popper's falsificationism is certainly a good first step but there are some difficulties.  How many specific "risky" tests do we have to make before we can accept a theory as scientific?  Consider Newton's law of gravity which has been around since the 17th Century.  Presumably it had been rigorously tested many times with specific testable predictions since it's introduction to the scientific cannon.  When Einsteinian gravity was shown to be a better theory did we say that all pre-Einsteinian scientists had been doing pseudo-science?  Nope.  Here's the prollem.  There are infinitely many tests we can do on a theory, only our imagination is the limit.  Einstein had a greater imagination than all physicists prior to him, so he was able to falsify the Newtonian theory.  Who's to say that one day some hyper-imaginative person comes up with a test that falsifies Einstein's theory?  Or any of our other scientific theories, for that matter?  How many tests make a theory scientific?

Another question is why do we consider Newtonian physics to be science, even now that it has been falsified?  If theories can be falsified, yet still be considered science, on what grounds can we exclude known pseudo-science?  And related to this is why do we say that past scientists who worked off of later disproven models were doing science?  

It seems that the ability for a theory to be falsified is a start to uncovering the demarkation line, but is not nearly enough.

Is it Ever OK to Break the Law?

Notes and Thoughts on H. L. A. Hart's Grudge Informers and the Rule of Law


Within philosophy of law, the traditional main positions are what's know as natural law and legal positivism.  Simply put, natural law is the idea that there is some sort of relationship between the law and morality (usually, law arises out of morality).  Legal positivism, on the other hand, is the idea that the law and morality are separate.  The position one takes in this debate has important consequences when we consider the source of the underlying authority of the law and one's duty to obey the law.

Legal Philosophy In Action!!!

Lets look at an actual case so we can see how the issues in this debate come to life.  This is the case of the "grudge informer": i.e., when a person intentionally informs on another to get them in trouble.  In this particular case the law for which a person is convicted is of questionable moral legitimacy.  The actual case we will look at is from post-WWII Germany.  

During the Nazi regime, there were laws against making disparaging remarks against Hitler.  A woman--lets call her Olga--wanted to get rid of her husband, so she reported her husband to the Nazi authorities when he made statements that were anti-Hitler.  She was under no legal obligation to report him, but she took it upon herself to do so.  Her husband--lets call him Helmut--was arrested and sentenced to die the death (he was instead sent to the front).

In 1949 (post WWII), the wife was prosecuted in a German court for "illegally depriving a person of his freedom" which was a crime under the German Criminal Code of 1871.   The wife argued that her husband's punishment was legal under the Nazi laws, and so she had not acted illegally.  The court of appeals ultimately ruled that even though Helmut had violated a Nazi law, that law "was contrary to the sound conscience and sense of justice of all decent human beings."

Lets take a step back and look at these events within the context of the postivist vs. naturalist debate.  Recall that the positivist holds that a law is a law, regardless of whether you think it's moral, and so you have to follow it (but you can object to it and try to change it through normal legislative procedures).  The naturalist says, if a law is unjust/immoral (pick your language) then it is not a "true" law, and you are not obligated to follow it.

So, Olga was giving a positivist argument.  She was all, um..."the law said if you talk smack about H-dawg then you goin' to jail, foo...and Helmut was talkin' smack.  I di'int do nothin' wrong, that foo Helmut was jibber jabberin', not me."

And Helmut was all, "natural law it da best.  Jus' cuz some asshole makes a crazy law don't mean it's legit, or you gotta follow it.  If that was true, then any crazy person who gets into power can make crazy laws an' we all gotta follow them...that's just wack."

An' I was all...how come Helmut and Olga talkin' like they from the hood, aren't they German?

Lets look at the case through the lens of a legal positivist.  From this point of view Olga did nothing wrong by following whatever laws applied at the time.

The obvious objection is that the law that she followed was immoral/unjust.  But, if we set the precedent that people can make it a matter of conscience to follow or disregard laws based on their ideas of morality how can the law have any force if it becomes a matter of individual discretion? And more problematic, if everyone adopts the naturalistic attitude, how can there be any law at all except everyone's subjective laws?

Even if we say one ought not to follow immoral/unjust laws we have the problem of determining what laws are immoral/unjust.  Anyone who thinks there is consensus within a country about moral issues has never read a newspaper.  Lets lower the bar even further and say that there's a hypothetical society were everyone magically comes to a consensus on all moral issues and subsequently changes all their non-conforming laws to conform with it.  What do we do with everyone who previously acted on laws that are now considered unjust?  Do we retroactively arrest and convict  them?  What about the people who turned people in for breaking the previous unjust laws?  What do we do with them?  There are so many problems it's making my head spin.  What do? What do?

Obviously, you ax a famous legal philosopher.  Let me introduce my main man, H. L. A. Hart.  He says that although we may sympathize with the objective of the German court to punish someone for an immoral act, we need to recognize that it was achieved by declaring that a 1934 law was actually not a law.  This puts into question the legitimacy of all laws because, as I've already mentioned, who's to say that a law we have now might be seen as immoral in the future?  And, we might be stripping away the legitimacy of all law because we are sending the message that people, in some cases, should, nay, must act contrary to the law!

Hart says instead ruling based on the principle that Olga's actions were immoral there were two other choices:  (1) let the woman go unpunished.  (2) punish the woman with the introduction of a retroactive law and "with a full consciousness of what was sacrificed in securing her punishment in this way."
So, lets review the choices and the problems with each one.  If we convict her using the logic of the German court, we undermine the integrity of the law (generally) because there is no way of knowing if a law that we act according to might later be considered a crime and lead to our punishment.  In short, one day it's a law, another day it's a crime.  It's very difficult for a legal system to maintain legitimacy if this occurs frequently.  If we decide we don't want to compromise the integrity of the legal system we can choose not to punish Olga.  But this also sends the wrong message, that there are no consequences to acting like a robot when the law compels us to do immoral things.  It divests the individual from considering matters of responsibility for their actions.

Last we can punish Olga by introducing a retro-active law with a full awareness of everything that's at stake.  The dangers of this route are that we undermine the legitimacy of law and consequentially weaken the compulsion to obey it.  On the happy side (Yay!), if we acknowledge all the mitigating factors in our judgement, we can minimize the damage that he legitimacy the institution of law--it would "at least have the merits of candour."  The idea is that, by acknowledging the difficulties brought about by the other two choices a balance is struck between personal accountability for one's actions and obligation to the law.  This third choice is the lesser of the evils, and such a choice must be made "with the consciousness that they are what they are."

In a nutshell, I think what Hart is proposing is that when we are faced with a difficult situation like Olga's case we need to say, "look, if we choose to convict her on the grounds that what she did was immoral, then we grant too much power to individuals to decide whether they will obey laws or not, and law ceases to have compulsion and be universal.  If we don't punish her, then we are indirectly condoning immoral behavior and removing from individuals all personal responsibility for action.  So, we are left with a third option, which isn't perfect, but strikes some sort of balance.

Think On It

So, is a law always a law?  If not, who gets to decide if a particular law is a law? The individual or a group?  Give up?  The answer is so simple:  It's whatever Vishnu decreed in the Upanishad.  Duh!

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Are We Better Off Without A Constitution?

Welcome back to my philoso-posts er'body.  This semester I, and by extension you, will be learning about the philosophy of law (amongst other things).  Since, the last philosophy of law course I took was in the summer of 1998 I'm basically starting from scratch.  Until I get further into the course my first few entries will basically be my attempts to distill the articles I have to read for class.  Where appropriate I will include my usual witty remarks and keen insight.  jk, lol, omg.  Without further ado...

Rule of Law and the English Constitution (A.V. Dicey)

     According to my main man Dicey, there are 2 characteristics of English (and later, by extension, American, Canadian, and Australian) political institutions that have remained constant: (1) omnipotence/supremacy throughout the whole country of a central gov't, and (2) the rule/supremacy of law. Lets check out the 2nd.

     Included in the English notion of the supremacy of law are 3 distinct concepts.  A.  People cannot be punished or fined unless they can be shown to have breached the law which has been (previously) established in a normal way in the ordinary courts.  This contrasts with other systems of government where law and breach of law can be determined by a person with great power and/or authority.
    So, why does this matter? What's really at stake here?  To illustrate lets look at some extreme examples.  On one end of the continuum we have a legal system (i.e. the English system) which gives its executive very little discretionary authority in applying the law.  The role of judges is to interpret laws and apply them as best they can to particular cases.  On the other end of the continuum is a system that allows great discretionary authority to judges.  In such systems, judges have more latitude to take into consideration non-legal mitigating factors. 
     Benefits of a system like that of the English where judges have little discretionary power is that arbitrariness is reduced and individuals have greater legal security; for, "where there is discretion there is room for arbitrariness...discretionary authority on the part of the government must mean insecurity for legal freedom on the part of its subjects."  If you never knew how a judge would interpret a law it would be difficult, in some cases, to determine beforehand if your action is lawful.

     The second concept in the rule of law is (generally) no one is above the law.  In other words, no matter where you rank on the political, economic, or social hierarchy you are subject to the ordinary law and can be tried in an ordinary court if your actions are suspected of running counter to the law.

     The third concept in the rule of law is that constitutional law is the result of executive decisions about particular cases whereas in most other counties it's the other way around.  Lets slow down and break this down...wika! wika! wika! remix!  So, like, ok, um, you live under English law, and, like you have constitutional rights? right?  But how are your constitutional rights (freedom of speech, assembly, etc...) determined?  Under the English system judges look at individual cases and previous judgements and make decisions that follow the precedents already set.  Interestingly, the UK doesn't have a formal constitution, instead it has several formal documents along with statutes and judicial precedents.  Under most other systems, rights and freedoms flow from the articles of the nation's constitution.  Lets look at this distinction in some more detail and what it means in terms of the law.
     The formal pronouncements of rights and freedoms we might normally find in the formally created constitutions of most countries still exist in the UK but are instead found by abstracting from individual prior judgements.  So, the right to individual liberty in the UK is secured from the precedents set from prior particular cases where judges ruled in favour of individual liberty.  In other most other countries the principle of individual liberty flows from or is secured by a county's constitution.  Under this system, individual decisions that involve cases where individual liberty is contested will be deduced from the principles of the constitution.
     Both systems are capable of obtaining the same result but, Dicey argues, the degree to which these rights and liberties are secured depends on the system out of which they arose.  The problem with the top-down constitutional model is that, while it spells out what the right and freedoms are, it doesn't give enough attention to how these rights and freedoms should be protected and enforced.  The English system, on the other hand, can do both.  Because of the judicial precedents of prior cases, not only do we have the rights and freedoms, but also a record of how previous judges have ruled on these cases, i.e., shown how those right/freedoms should be enforced.
     Another strength of the English system is that rights and freedoms are woven into the laws of the land whereas in a constitutional system, the two exist apart:  the ordinary laws and the constitutional laws exists and two different realms.   If we take the example of freedom of speech we see that in the English system this right is built into the ordinary law so it cannot be changed without changing centuries of judicial precedents.  But in the case of constitutional law, "all" that is required for this freedom to be limited or revoked is a constitutional amendment.  Of course, constitutional amendments aren't easy to achieve, but they are easier to achieve than undoing centuries of individual judicial rulings.
     To sum of this third point, in English law rights and freedoms are the consequence of the ordinary law but in constitutional countries the constitution is the source of rights and freedoms.


Tuesday, January 3, 2012

No Nonsense Fitness Guide

Happy new year, everyone!  Now is the time of year when gyms make all their money from people signing 1 and 2 year  contracts and only showing up for the first 2 or 3 weeks.  Don't become a statistic!  I'm here to help you avoid this fate and to help share some ideas on how to be successful  in the gym in the long-term.  Let's get our swoll on!

Obviously the first thing you want to do is spend a wack o' cash on new gym gear to show everyone how serious you are, as mostly to prove it to yourself.  I kid! I kid! Don't do that.  Next, you want to sit on your couch and focus your energy on thoughts of you getting in shape.  If you do this you can manifest a perfect body simply by willing the universe to conspire to make it so.  I kid! I kid!  Don't do that.

Ok, lets get serious.  Some of the things I'm about to say I've said elsewhere in my blog, but because most of y'all either haven't read or haven't applied my patented perfect positive quantum energy fitness system yet, I will repeat it.

Let's Get It Stahted in Hah!

Gear.  Don't spend any money on new gym gear unless you really don't have any.

Supplements:  Buy 1 month's supply of protein powder and a shaker cup.  It doesn't have to be the top of the line stuff.  I suggest whey protein.  If you have a sensitive stomach (awww, are you sensitive?) you might want to avoid the cheaper whey protein concentrates and go for an isolate and/or micro-filtered.  Do not buy any other supplements regardless of what you hear.  The ones for which there is more than industry hype will be a waste of money for a beginner/amateurs and most supplements are 99.9999% industry hype to begin with (except for Andean Dandelion capsules, that shit will get you ripped in 2 days and cure cancer).  As long as your are following a decent meal plan (which I'll outline) you won't need anything thing else to "boost your immune system" or "promote/support" a healthy fill-in-the-blank.  Big Alt-med is out to get you! Don't be fooled by their conspiracy to sell you shit you don't need and that has no proven efficacy!

Pick a Physical Activity:  Ok, er'body thinks they have to go to the gym to get in shape.  This is obviously not true.  You can pick just about anything that you will enjoy doing 3 times a week as long as it makes you sweat.  Are you moved by dance?  Learn to prance!  Do you want to be Bruce Lee? Learn marital arts like me!  (Editors note: "marital arts" is a typo but it's funny, so I'll leave it.) Do you like Zumba? Play a tuba!  Were you born under Aquarius? Swimming lessons are hilarious!  Are your legs feeling dead?  Try running instead!
Folks, the important thing is that you choose an activity that you will enjoy and look forward to; do not choose something you will dread attending/doing.  For people who haven't grown up with an active lifestyle I suggest something social because being part of a group requires less discipline than an individual activity (I'm not judging...just an observation: that's science!).  To that I should add that it helps to have a training partner, someone who will motivate you to go on days you aren't as motivated and you can do the same for them.

Choosing a Facility/Gym: Depending on your chosen activity you will have a choice of different types of facilites.  The good thing about gyms/community centers now-a-days is that the myriad fitness classes (notice it's just "myriad"--please don't ever use "myriad of" or I will have to hurt you) are often included in the price of your membership.  This is advantageous for several obvious reasons, most of which is that you have a choice of many activities with only one membership fee.  Don't feel like doing spinning class today?  Hit the weights, I say!  Don't feel like doing a boot camp?  Swim in the pool, it's damp!  Don't feel like doing Zumba?  Play the tuba!
The lesson here is that, unless you are an absolute die-hard about one particular fitness activity you should choose a facility that offers options that are included in the membership.

Choosing a Trainer:  For those of you who are either completely new to fitness, want to learn/improve more than what you'll get in a group setting, want to feel comfortable in the weight room I highly recommend investing in a personal trainer.
If you haven't used weights before or haven't used them very much you should spring for at least 3-5 training sessions to get you started then once every 2 weeks or so until you're sure you've got down.  Why?  1.  90% of people in the gym use incorrect technique.  This is not an exaggeration.  I trained for years using incorrect technique.  Weight lifting at its finest is an art and is similar to ballet in that you can spend a lifetime perfecting fundamentals.  If you don't understand what I'm talking about then you are one of the 90% (no shame in it, everyone starts there).  2.  Incorrect technique means injuries--especially if you're over 35).  3.  Incorrect technique means your gym time is inefficient--you are not getting the benefits you came for.
Hiring a personal trainer needn't only be for weight training.  Often a (good) trainer will design a program that incorporates weights, plyometrics, stretching, aerobic exercise, and Zumba to help you meet your personal fitness goals in a way best suited you your dispositions and strengths.
Choosing a trainer isn't easy if you are new to the activity because you have no way of gauging their quality or knowledge.  The personal training industry isn't very regulated so there is an incredibly wide spectrum of quality and expertise.  Some certifications can be done in a weekend, and some require months, or even a university degree.  In the gym, I am very often awestruck by the poor technique or useless exercises I see "professional" trainers teaching.  I don't mean to scare you away from the idea but it is worth doing some research or trying out a few before settling on a trainer.
For those of you in Vancouver who live near the Drive I put my seal of approval on Roy Duquette from Duquette Fitness (working out of Sparticus).  I have trained with him and he is extremely knowledgeable and professional.  (This isn't meant to be a plug for a friend--he is legitimate and well-respected in the industry).
As a rule of thumb, if the person doesn't have the kind of body you'd expect from someone who makes their living in the fitness industry, try someone else.

Some Comments on Weight Training:  1.  Myth: if women do weight training they will get too muscular.  Not true--unless you inject yourself full of steroids and kill yourself in the gym 6 days a week this isn't going to happen.  2.  Myth:  Weights are too heavy.  Use less weight.  3.  Not myth: weight lifting is an excellent complimentary exercise for other fitness activities.  Your fitness plan isn't an either/or proposition.  Weights make an excellent compliment to a different primary activity, or a different activity can compliment a fitness plan that focuses on weight training.   4.  Not myth: There is a growing body of evidence suggesting weight training retards (hehe! he said "retards") aging more than any other activity and it also increases bone mass (hehe! he said "increases bone mass").
What exercises should I do?  Unless you are planning on entering a bodybuilding competition you should incorporate as many compound movements as possible and limit isolation movements.  A compound movement is one that uses more than one muscles group.  Some of the best are: Deadlift, Squat, Military Press, Clean, Clean and Jerk, Bench Press, Bent-over Rows, Dips, Chin/pull ups.  Unless you have been instructed in doing these lifts you should not attempt them (with the exception of the last two) even if you have experience with other lifts .  Doing them incorrectly can result in serious injury but doing them correctly will reap enormous benefits and will maximize your time in the gym.
My advice in choosing a trainer for these lifts would be (best choice) to choose someone who has competed or coached power/olympic lifting.  If you can't find someone who meets these qualifications then a personal trainer with a good reputation will do.
Many of these lifts are either power or olympic lifts and while they look simple are very complex and difficult to do correctly.  To return to the ballet analogy, anyone can teach you how to bend your knees--it looks simple enough--but a correct plie takes years of practice and a good teacher.

Meals/Nutrition:  Ok, this could be a book but instead I'm just going to tell you what I do.  It works, and that's science!  Feel free to substitute other items of comparable nutritional value.
Breakfast:  tea, 1 or 2 pieces of wholegrain toast; 20-30 grams of protein (egg whites/sandwich meat/peanut butter).
Lunch: Large salad/serving of vegetables (enough to fill a family sized salad bowl); 20-30grams of protein (chicken/beef/fish); small bowl of grains/1 piece of wholegrain toast/bread.
Go to Gym
After workout: Protein shake (mixed with water) with a banana/berries.
90min after workout: Large salad/serving of vegetables; 20-30 grams of protein (chicken/beef/fish); 1 piece of wholegrain toast/bread/small bowl of grains.
If you're still hungry later:  protein shake or 20-30 grams of protein (chicken/beef/fish).
Notes:  1.  If you go to the gym in the morning then go after breakfast and your 90min after workout meal will be your lunch, and lunch will be moved to dinner.  2.  Eat things in the order I listed them.  Eat the salad veggies first to fill your stomach (I usually eat them while my protein is cooking) then when you eat your protein you won't overeat.  Finally, when you get to the carbs you'll be full so you may not finish them.  The point is to fill your stomach with vegetables before you eat the higher calorie foods.  3.  If your days are long and you work out a lot you will need to adjust to carb intake to a level low enough to make you lean but not so low where you feel sluggish in your workouts.  Generally, consume your carbs early in the day and as the day progresses, consume fewer.   4.  Drink sufficient water throughout the day.  No need to drown yourself, but make sure you're getting some!  5.  When you go shopping DO NOT BUY JUNK FOOD!  Once it's in your house you will eat it.  It's easier to say no once in the supermarket than it is to say no everytime you walk by the cookie jar!  Eventually the cookie jar wins!  If you want junk food, make yourself wait for your cheat day, and only buy what you will consume on your cheat day!  I like exclamation marks!  Yes, I do!  I ALSO LIKE CAPS-LOCK SOMETIMES!!! 6.  Buy some protein bars--nothing over 300 calories.  Protein bars these days taste just as good as any chocolate bar.  These are good to have around if you a get a craving for junk food.  They taste the same but aren't going to do the damage.  I recommend Cliff Builders and Atkins bars for calorie count and flavour.  But experiment and see what you like. 7.  Eat your calories, don't drink them.  Avoid high-sugar drinks (obviously) and limit fruit juice to 1x a day max, preferably early in the day.

Well, I could spend days writing about this stuff but I just wanted to offer a little overview.  I know for many people it isn't in their nature to exercise regularly so hopefully this will help those of you who fall into this category get (re)started on this path. In the Ayurvedic tradition (argument from ancient wisdom) they say "The body is the outer-most layer of the mind"; so lets hit the gym and make that outer layer SHREDDED! :)

If you have any questions or comments please post them and I'll to my best to respond.  If you want to share some inspirational stories, keep them to yerself! (I kid! I kid!)