Sunday, August 16, 2009

Does Idaho Exist? Why Everyone Should Study Philosophy

This blog is called "What Do I know?" because I think this is one of the fundamental questions that people should be constantly asking themselves. And occasionally I address the topic head on. This is one of those times.

I'm not a trained philosopher, but I found that I had to teach philosophy to my graduate students because the vast majority had never seriously considered the basic questions that still keep philosophers busy:
  • What is real?
  • What is true?
  • What is good?
(As you'll quickly see in the examples below, the three questions are often intertwined.)

If we look at what the citizens of the United States are debating, we see that all the really contentious fights are related to these questions. Let's look at three examples:

What is real? Debate over marriage.

Opponents of gay marriage say things like (this is from biblestudies.suite101) :
God declared them to be "one flesh" (Genesis 2) and established the pattern of marriage to be a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to his wife (Genesis 2).
From this model, it can be inferred that:
  • Marriage was instituted by God;
  • Marriage involved one man and one woman;
  • The marital union is intended to bring children into the world, and;
  • Children are raised to enter into their own marriage unions -- and repeat the cycle.
One of the key questions in the field of ontology (What is real?) is whether social reality exists external to humans or whether it is socially constructed. Don't give up here. Force yourself to keep reading. This is understandable. And critical.

Let's assume here, for this discussion, that the so called 'natural' world of rocks and trees and water does exist independently of human beings. If we fall head first into a rock from a ways up, there will be damage. We can't legislate or will that away. What we're talking about here is NOT that physical world, but the social world - the world of human meaning. (There are philosophers who will take on the physical world too, but that's for another day.)

So, a mountain exists independent of whether humans are there or not. The socially constructed part is its name. Should it be called Mt. McKinley after an Ohio born US President or should it be called by the traditional Athabaskan name, Denali? That's where the social construction comes in. Is a hill an obstacle to be bulldozed for more rational roads or is it a sacred mountain? Is the Mona Lisa just a piece of canvas with paint on it or a great work of art?

Is marriage then a 'natural phenomenon' that exists independent of human construction or is it something that humans have created? We certainly have evidence that it is socially constructed (from the Washington Post):
Vermont Legislature Legalizes Same-Sex Marriage
By Keith B. Richburg Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, April 7, 2009; 2:23 PM

NEW YORK, April 7 -- Vermont on Tuesday became the fourth state to recognize gay marriage, and the D.C. Council voted to recognize same-sex unions performed in other states. The two actions give same-sex marriage proponents new momentum, following a similar victory last week in Iowa's Supreme Court.
This is a clear example of social construction. The body of people designated by law to represent the people of Vermont has decided that two men or two women can, in the State of Vermont, be legally married.

The opponents of gay marriage might say, "Exactly, this is socially constructed, it isn't 'natural' law." Clearly, no matter how creative they are, two men cannot have a child together. I would accept, in terms of 'what is real' that to have a child, you need a man and a woman. (I'm excluding all sorts of fertility interventions here.)

But I doubt that the people who claim that marriage is between a man and a woman only, would accept then, that any man and woman living together and having sex, even a child, are "married."

This is because marriage is more than simply a man and woman living together. It is a recognition, by the community in which they live, that they are married. It is, in fact, a socially constructed situation. In some cultures, simply living together and having a child might be recognized as a marriage. In others, a marriage may include one man and more than one woman. It is all socially constructed.

What is true? Where was Obama born and death panels.

Garry Trudeau's Doonesbury yesterday illustrates the problem of determining what is true.

(Double click to enlarge)

Is there any way that people who claim that Obama wasn't born in the US could be convinced that he was? What sort of proof would they have to have? If the birth certificate were sent to all 50 states in a glass case, they would just claim it was a fake.

Epistemology is the area of philosophy that examines how we determine what is true.
  • Western natural science demands an exacting set of experiments that can be repeated by independent scientists. (Social scientists have different requirements.)
  • Our legal system requires that a jury listen to the opposing sides and come to a determination whether the defendant violated the law.
  • Some Christians use the bible as their source of truth, though different Christians interpret the bible differently which causes even more problems.
If everyone studied epistemology - what is true? (a very simplified characterization to be sure) - in school, at least we would all be able to recognize that underlying the 'debate' over Obama's birthplace, is a disagreement over how we prove what is true.

We see the same issue in this current silliness covered by Yahoo on the facts over death panels:

FACT CHECK: No 'death panel' in health care bill. Palin stands by 'death panel' claim on health bill
By MATTHEW DALY, Associated Press Writer Matthew Daly, Associated Press Writer – Thu Aug 13, 5:56 pm ET

WASHINGTON – Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin refused to retreat from her debunked claim that a proposed health care overhaul would create "death panels," as the growing furor over end-of-life consultations forced a key group of senators to abandon the idea in their bill. . .

In a Facebook posting titled "Concerning Death Panels," Palin argued Wednesday night that the elderly and ailing would be coerced into accepting minimal end-of-life care to reduce health care costs based on the Democratic bill in the House.

But there will be no "death panels" under the legislation being considered. In fact, the provision in the bill would allow Medicare to pay doctors for voluntary counseling sessions that address end-of-life issues. The conversations between doctor and patient would include living wills, making a close relative or a trusted friend your health care proxy, learning about hospice as an option for the terminally ill, and information about pain medications for people suffering chronic discomfort.

This article is all about 'what is true?' The writer tells us what Palin said, then tells us his version of what is true.

Does Matthew Daly think that Sarah Palin disciples will be convinced by " her debunked claim" or "But there will be no "death panels" under the legislation being considered. In fact,. . ." and "there will be no "death panels" under the legislation..."?
I doubt it.

I'll leave the discussion of 'What is Good?" for another day. These two concepts are more than enough for one post. And this is barely an appetizer for these topics.

Personally, I believe that some people do truly believe that Obama was born in Africa and there is nothing anyone could do to change their minds. Some people also believe that Elvis is still alive. But I suspect that some of the birthers and many who claim that Elvis is alive know the truth, but they just prefer to believe their versions.

But this issue is NOT trivial. In a democracy, if enough people are hoodwinked by purveyors of falsehoods, we are all in trouble.

I realize that some people argue against referencing the Holocaust because it turns people off. But it is a major reference point in my life. I never met any of my grandparents because of the Holocaust. Nazi Germany holds many lessons we shouldn't forget. Making comparisons to a particular aspect of the Holocaust does NOT mean that I am saying that someone is a Nazi who wants to murder everyone.

But if there are useful comparisons, we should use them. The German people after WW I went through a period of great hardship. (Again, this is a something I know from my parents telling me about their childhoods.) The Treaty of Versailles
required Germany to accept sole responsibility for causing the war and, under the terms of articles 231-248 (later known as the War Guilt clauses), to disarm, make substantial territorial concessions and pay reparations to certain countries that had formed the Entente powers.
This was seen as humiliation by many Germans and contributed to their being ripe to the exhortations of a leader who promised to restore Germany's former greatness for 1000 years. I think that the current economic conditions in the US, plus social change that challenges many people's views of the world, cause many Americans to feel, if not humiliated, certainly less than they were individually and less than we were as a nation.

This makes us ripe for demagogues who have no regard for truth. Thus, it is particularly important that we spend time learning about the nature of 'truth' and how to test it. And how to challenge blatant untruths.

An example of one attempt to fight untruths - the claims of Holocaust deniers - resulted in (among many other things) a tract that questions the existence of the the State of Idaho.

People at the Simon Wiesenthal Museum [UPDATE 8/9/13 Alan Lustiger (see comments 8/8/13] developed this fact sheet which 'proved' that the State of Idaho does not exist. They did this to demonstrate the ridiculous logic that Holocaust deniers use. Here's how that discussion starts. (From KUOI)

The "State" Of Idaho: The Case For Open Debate

If you would ask any schoolchild how many states there are in the United States, you will get the same answer: 50. Fifty states in the Union. It is simply an accepted "fact." If you would disagree with this supposed "fact," you would be branded insane or worse.

However, mounting evidence shows that there are in fact only 49 states in the US, and the "state" of Idaho is a baseless myth.

We have been trying to distribute and publish this information for over *two years*, but our scholarship has not been given any respect. We have been censored, vilified, ridiculed and spat upon by the "traditional" geographers and historians, but WE WILL NOT BE SILENCED!

All we ask is that the existence of the state of Idaho be debated, as every other historical and geographic "fact" can be debated. Time after time, our opponents have refused to debate us on the FACTS. This alone should tell you something about the people who support the "existence" of this "43rd state."

Please read the following evidence VERY CAREFULLY, and you will be astonished at the veracity of our cause.

The Population Myth

Do you know anybody from Idaho? Do you know anybody who knows anybody from Idaho? According to the 1990 "census," there are over one million (1,000,000, or 1 x 10^6) people living in Idaho. But if there are so many Idahoers, where are they?

Some people have come forward and claimed that they were born and raised in "Idaho." But every single person who made this claim have been shown to be frauds and charlatans. These "Idahoan wannabes" are invariably inconsistent with each other about the size (in square miles or square kilometers) of "Idaho," about various town and village names, and even about the names of "Idaho's mighty rivers."

The Size Farce

According to traditional geographic sources (created entirely by people who believe in the existence of Idaho, and probably the Tooth Fairy, also) the "State" of Idaho is more than twice the size of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Connecticut and Massachusetts combined. Isn't it strange that a state with such vast land resources has so few people? And even of [sic] you look at a map (created by the Idaho-centric cartographers) the "State" of "Idaho" is dwarfed by its much larger neighbor, Montana.

Satellite Evidence

Recently declassified weather satellite information, showing the entire continental United States, shows absolutely *no evidence* that there is any state where "Idaho" is supposedly located. Noted experts in the field of interpreting these pictures unanimously agree that, from outer space, it is impossible to determine the borders of this elusive "state." Yet meteorologists and cartographers routinely overlay these satellite pictures with the outline of states that would seem to indicate Idaho's existence. . .

You can get the rest of this from KUOI. [Update July 30, 2010: It appears the Idaho story is no longer on KUOI's website.  For the time being you can find it here at Fantasymaps.] I couldn't find anything that linked the arguments with Wiesenthal, but I know (do I know anything for sure?) about that, because I was given copies of this by one of the people who developed it many years ago. The intent was to show how ridiculous the logic of Holocaust deniers was.

Perhaps one option for confronting the truth denying fantasizers is to use their words and logic, as in this example, to demonstrate things they believe simply do not in fact exist.

But in the long run, we need to get philosophers to stop spending as much time as they do on needle heads, and get into high schools and show the teachers there and the students the practical uses of philosophy.

[Disclaimer: Although my daughter is studying philosophy, this is not simply an attempt to increase the number of positions for philosophers so she can get a job when she graduates.]


  1. Fascinating. I agree with you about teaching philosophy (and I would add ethics) in high school. Can you imagine the debate about program details? It could be more contentious than sex ed.

    1. Didn't UAF close down the philosophy department a couple of years ago? Somehow I think Tim Kelley, of our legislature, thought it was a fine idea. Who needs to know how to think, right??

  2. French teach philosophy to their young and see what happens? (smile)

  3. Steve, be careful. It is not really appropriate to use term "Germany" when you talk about the happenings of 18th Janmuary 1871. It was the day when William I was crowned as the emperor of Germans. Between 1804 and 1871 there were many German states (Prussia, Bavaria, Elsace-Lorraine, etc...) but these were independent states. There was the Zollverein which was established in the 1830s (I would say 1834 but I am not sure and I don't want to mislead you) which was a toll alliance nothing more. Between 961 and 1804, there was the Holy Roman Empire. At first it was quite strongly unified, but it also included Italian territories so we can't really say it was a German state. Later (German Golden Bull -1356-) the central power started weakening and the title emperor became just a nominal thing and the principalities, dutchies were very antonomiuous).

    This monologue was about the "Germany's former greatness for 1000 years". How could you correct it? Good question, I have thought about it when I wanted to summarise that 1000 years. You might use Germany but it will hurt the eyes/ears of History teachers and people who likes history (f. ex: me) so maybe German territories are better. On History classes we have been warned a lot not to confuse countries. Same territory doesn't mean that they have anything in common. Moreover Ancient and present Egypt have almost nothing to do with each other but they are both called Egypt.

    An other thought of the Peace of Versilles. Germany's punishment was very cruel indeed but they may have fought more if they would have got what we had got. Hungary lost 67-70% (I don't remember the exact number) of its territory, majority of its population, industry, transportation lines, precious metals and minerals. We also had to pay war indemnity. Austria had slightly better peace conditions but they lost a lot as well. Many historians and a few peer politicians thought that this peace treaty was the drive for the Second World War. Between the surrender and the signing of the peace treaty, Romanians occupied Budapest, which was such a great shame to us, that suddenly I can't tell an example of such a humiliation.

    After all, defeated countries were still considered as enemies and denied trading with us. Hungary, for example was about to collapse, when Hitler offered alliance. He could use up the pride of Western countries to gain the favour of small countries in Central-Eastern Europe.

  4. Oh, and good luck to your daughter. She may end up as a next Erasmus Desiderius, Nietchse (I can't spell his name, sorry) or Aristotle. She is lucky because thinking never will be out of fashion hopefully. As time passes a lot questions are being solved but new ones are coming up. Recently I am thinking how to write a Spanish letter (the en with the ~).

  5. Does Idaho exist? Sure it does! I know. I was born in Idaho.

    I suppose you want to see the birth certificate.

  6. Yeah Tim, sure you were. And I'm supposed to believe in some birth certificate you photo shopped? Can you make up birth announcements from the old newspapers too?

    Thanks for the link and kind words.

  7. I'm the person who wrote the Idaho article. It was written to ridicule Holocaust deniers but I have nothing to do with the Wiesenthal Center; I wrote it for Usenet back in 1992 ( ) in reaction to an avalanche of Holocaust denial online.

    1. Alan, it's an honor to have you visit here. The article is brilliant. I was introduced to it when someone from the Wiesenthal Center visited Anchorage sometimes in the 1990's. I'm sure I misremembered his explanation of the origins. I've changed it in the post. At least I had the context (holocaust denial) right. Thanks for writing the piece and for correcting my mistake.


Comments will be reviewed, not for content (except ads), but for style. Comments with personal insults, rambling tirades, and significant repetition will be deleted. Ads disguised as comments, unless closely related to the post and of value to readers (my call) will be deleted. Click here to learn to put links in your comment.