*Adventures in prison bureaucracy, chapter…I’ve lost track

* Refers back to an entry I promised to say more about Monday night.

Getting in and out of the prison at all and the yard in particular is often a challenge and a hassle but has been streamlined lately. First, the lobby guard who somehow managed to have the metal detector go off when we passed through no matter how thoughtful our metal-less prep has retired. The volunteers from Hamilton’s hearts sank when we saw him behind the desk on our approach. Second, the second tier guards who made it a point to put me into the yard and in serious harm’s way before the van had arrived seem to have been reassigned. I’d long ago figured out that I could simply refuse to leave the building or the pre yard cage until the van was there, still, feels much better not to be urged to exit dangerously prematurely.

Over the last several years my meeting evenings have coincided with, on one night a week a pair of Mennonites, and on another a pair of Jehovah’s Witnesses. Both sects have interesting views about the relationship between religion and the state, and politics, and share a related view about the complete unimportance of all things worldly. But the Mennonites were as a rule taciturn with everyone they came in contact with at the prison, it seemed, whereas the Jehovah’s Witnesses are (or were) jovial and chatty and liked to give me a hard time about politics and even the study of philosophy — all in fun. They’re in the proselytizing game after all. But they took that mission too far; they’ve recently been barred from the school/religion program for having contacted inmates directly by US mail, something we all well know from orientation is verboten. The good thing for me is that I no longer have to wait for them to arrive before heading in or out of the school via van. But I am sorry for the men they met with regularly who counted on those gatherings.

Speaking of being kept out, I learned recently that they (the system?) had lost my fingerprint records. So I had my fingerprints redone early this morning with a crew of new(ish) people at a different factility.  I found it pretty unnerving to be in prison — not my prison, that is — to my surprise. But the fear was offset in a conversation with another instructor waiting to get processed who in passing mentioned that she had learned last week from the boys that… Wait, the boys? We are instructed to refer to the men in our groups as “offenders” (at the moment; it used to be “inmates”) and not to use their first names, or, for that matter, the title “Mr.” Most of us either use their first names, or Mr.; I don’t think any of the six or seven other instructors I know well has ever stuck to the solo last name practice. I draw the line at nicknames, which seriously, in prison you’d mostly really rather not know (early example that moved me to the policy: “Maldito”). But “the boys” was a new one for me. I confess that I found it charming. Why “confess”? Because it certainly borders on the sentimental. And I do my best not to sentimentalize this work. Among other things it’s insulting to the men.


Hume was right

Topic tonight: final chapter on informal fallacies, in this case, under the heading of adequacy (vs. acceptability or relevance), concluding with the usual line up of causal fallacies (post hoc ergo propter hoc, confusing cause and effect, and common cause). Everyone had a good example from their own experience of at least one of the fallacies, only some of which would be printable here. To tee up the discussion we had also read some famous passages from Hume on causation (or better, on the problem of positing necessary connexions between alleged causes and effects) from An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. New man in the group who’d not gotten a copy of the text (and never will, at this point. I will instead send him photocopies of what’s left to cover via the librarian who may or may not actually get the material into his hands*), sat quietly for the first 40 minutes or so. We’d been talking about the nefarious exploitation of Humean reasoning by the tobacco industry’s spokesmen before Congress in the 60’s, and contrasted it more modest scientific reluctance to conclude that correlation is causation.  What a wallop when he did speak: “Hume was right…at least about the mind’s need to project a cause between A and B just based on A and B often coming together. And I can’t tell you how many ways the wrong projection of causes has messed with both the general public’s understanding of HIV, and among people at high risk for contracting HIV. The rampant misunderstanding about who is at risk and why has led people to reject good scientific authority about how to educate for prevention. We need to be so much more careful in the conclusions we draw and how we talk about what we do and don’t know.” Lucky stars! — he just finished a 10 day course on HIV peer education, with a focus on epidemiology.

He filled in some interesting (if depressing) detail about what groups have seen the greatest rise of infection from 2010-2015 (the most recent full data set), at the same time throwing into sharp relief my own low expectations for what these men as a rule might or do know. And it’s not as if that doesn’t happen at just about every single meeting: that’s how entrenched the assumptions are, at least in my ancient brain.

I am also never not taken aback by the loud speaker’s “Go back!” announcement at precisely 8:30, and reminded of the luxury I often exploit in my college classes by stealing a minute or two (okay, or five) over time to let whoever is talking finish making the point. In this case the men must do so literally on their way out the door. Parting question tonight: how do you square the charge of over simplified cause with the demands of Occam’s Razor?

Such a great question to start out with next week!

* Will have more to say about this in my next post.

Critical thinking in critical moments

Right after I’d arrived and we’d exchanged greetings one of the members of the group asked if he could read something before we got started. He explained that he had put pen to paper since at the end of our meetings, when ideally we’d do some wrap up, instead usually whoever is speaking is cut off literally mid sentence by the blaring AV call back. And Boom! everyone jumps up and files out (because they are afraid of the COs). I only remember the first point because what followed segued quite naturally into our regular discussion of the logic text: he thanked me for taking the time and effort to come meet with them, month after month, year after year, which he said they value and learn from. Sigh.

As it happens this week we were talking about fallacies of acceptability — begging the question, inconsistency, equivocation, and false dichotomy — and I was struck once again by this group’s readiness with good examples; a show of creative application of the concepts. I had just finished grading the final exam for a terrific critical thinking course in which students were nevertheless all too quick to repeat examples (or good or bad thinking) I’d used in class in answer to short essay questions calling for original examples. Some of the contrast may be time pressure and test anxiety and possibly even having to write down rather than just say the answer. And some of it may be differences in maturity. But there is something really interesting going on with willingness in this group to take risks, and to question authority, in part by going with their own instincts. Saying that they trust their own philosophical instincts is not quite right though. One man talked about the ritual of the parent telling the two kids that one of them can split the popsicle and the other gets to choose his half as betraying a recognition of the falseness of the dichotomy. Cool! But he introduced the clever example by first reminding us, again, that he had not even graduated from high school, so, for what it’s worth… The group’s expression of genuine appreciation of such an example goes a long way.

Begging the question: the ACLU’s case against capital punishment with the conclusion being a strident claim that it is fundamentally at odds with our most cherished democratic values…and most of the premises likewise relying on comparable value laden language.

Inconsistency: thoughts about the difference between proclamation and behavior, vs. contradiction at the strict linguistic level. J talked about a piece he’d read about how until 45 it was acceptable journalistic practice to quote a lone inanimate thing, “The White House…” In this case, there is no “The White House” that has the authority to speak for the president, indeed, of course, the Comey firing aftermath has been a riot of inconsistency, which again, is a concept we *can* make sense of across speakers who can usually be counted on to speak with one voice. Many more Trumpisms. Low hanging fruit, but really, still in contrast with my class of 18-22 year olds, and also, well, surely irresistible at this moment on this topic.

Equivocation: a great example of an argument conflating the various meanings of “innocent”: actually innocent vs. materially innocent, legally innocent, exonerated because of a procedural error, and so on.

False dichotomy: the old, flawed ACA vs. the AHCA.

Filing out everyone thanked me for coming, and wished me a good week *as usual* (as I’d claimed at the beginning)!

Truth revisited

Last week was our first meeting in over a month, with spring break and my expired gate clearance having kept me away or out. The men wanted to talk one last time about Lynch’s truisms about truth before moving on.

Some novel ideas on this round: one person argued that even in a case in which an agent relentlessly pursues truth for what looks like its own sake, still, that pursuit meets the agent’s need, and one that is far from universal. It was a bit like the question begging move a lot of defenders of egoism make (by which one need not even bother discussing a real live counter example because the reply — known in advance of the objector even opening his mouth, I might add — is that still the act that seems to be for the benefit of someone else is one that made the actor *feel better* than doing something else).  But the egoist makes this self confirming claim about all of human choices. This man’s argument was that first, it’s just true that everyone seeks the truth especially in instances where the truth might even bring sadness or harm to the knower. In fact many go to great lengths to avoid the truth in those instances, as a matter of fact. Second, even though some of us sometimes seek the truth for its own sake, those who do so consistently are an even smaller subset, and they do it in part because they are wired to desire it! And they joked that philosophers are disproportionately represented in this sub sub group, possibly distorting the philosopher Lynch’s view of humanity. True!

Second, one really sharp long man, the person who’d not long ago reported that Berkeley’s Dialogues had continued to influence him, argued that he’s take the (blue?) pill to stay in the ever pleasant Matrix. Not because he’d prefer a life of delusional pleasure over one of painful reality, but because our connection to reality is tenuous anyway: highly mediated by our inescapably distorting perspective, or sensory prison. So it would be a swap more than a choice between two profoundly different alternatives.

This argument came at the end of the meeting, and left us all with much to think about. As usual we ended the discussion provoked, for the better. But not before warm goodbyes and thank yous, and exchanges of good wishes for the coming week.


Google Maps showed me that I could easily detour to my favorite ice cream place en route to prison and still get there in plenty of time. I wrote down the three roads to take but didn’t look at the map, and, as it happens, forgot to take my phone too. You know where this story is going. Or not going. I got very seriously lost by staying on road #2 and awaiting signs for #3, which sadly never came. I got so lost I ended up in a couple of towns I’d never before set foot or tire in. Still, I made it to prison only a little late and was surprised that my usual van companions, two amiable Jehovah’s Witnesses, were nowhere in sight. The driver usually waits for all three of us before heading out into the yard. But tonight they were not there because they’d been turned away, their gate clearances having expired. Though someone from Hamilton had gotten in the previous night with no problem, the lobby guard checked the big binder and discovered that my gate clearance had also expired. This makes no sense at all since all of the Hamilton volunteers are on the same schedule and need to have the clearances renewed at the same time, and for the same length. When I gently pressed the lobby guard on this matter he discovered that two of us had had them renewed, two not. Huh.

Most disappointing, having missed my regular last meeting because I was out of town for that part of spring break, but also because we were in the middle of — now more than a month ago — an interesting application of the week’s reading to an ACLU argument about net neutrality. Though the men usually assume correctly exactly what happened, and are usually told by a call down to the school that I’d come but been turned away (at my request to the lobby guard), still, having them wait around in the classroom for a long stretch only to be sent back to their dorms with no good intellectual work behind them: demoralizing to all. Oh, and having driven more than twice as far as usual to get there this eve…

Beauty and Truth

Michael Lynch’s four truisms about truth —

  1. that truth is objective;
  2. that it is good to believe what is true;
  3. that truth is a goal worthy of inquiry;
  4. and that truth can be worth caring about for its own sake, not just because it gets us other things we want.

were on front burner this week. But during the check in I mentioned that I had been paying attention this week to beauty (as part of a two month health/habit reset thing  I’m doing), and that I’d taken a stunning cell phone shot of the darkening sky in the prison parking lot before heading in. I really think some of the men had not thought about their access to that beauty; they vowed to give the sky its due this week. We talked some more about what focusing attention — and even being asked to focus attention — can bring into view, literally and figuratively. They were quite open to the prospect of finding and attending to beauty in the natural magnificent down to the tiny everyday. Thinking about being able to decide shift their attention to focus on beautiful things sounded empowering. Eager to hear what they have to say about their encounters with beauty next time.

When we got to the topic of truth Lynch’s truisms didn’t fare so well, with one man passionately declaring that caring about truth, and trying to seek it was hard work, and a luxury many can’t afford at the end of long days of demoralizing hard work. And many agreed that this is the norm, not the exception.

The final working judgment of the group: beauty can be elevated to a necessity, truth is the luxury.



Does truth matter?

Launched with a discussion of Plato’s Theaetetus, and examples of justified true belief that are not knowledge (with the usual false starts of examples where the truth is not clear (or worse), or the beliefs are not justified — with an interesting detour into the question of whether not being justified is the same thing as being unjustified. We danced back and forth among chunks of material from the book on truth and knowledge. But when it comes to truth it was almost as if I paid the men to array themselves across the spectrum, from a Michael Lynch style defender of a commonsense view, to a skeptic about the notion even being meaningful or useful beyond indicating something like a shrug of approval. A rich full hour of lively and focused discussion. I wonder if the more esoteric nature of the topic this week had anything to do with the careful unpacking of ideas, development of the arguments, and more generally staying on point with each other.

One person made a connection to Berkeley’s Three Dialogues, which we read last year, and he ended by noting that that book had continued to influence his thinking about knowledge and perception in daily life too.

I am grateful for times like these when the confirmation of the intellectual value of what we do there is significant and pointed. Yet even when there are no such testimonials I leave those meetings without exception feeling as if I could not have spent two hours doing anything with much more impact.

On my way home I was pulled over by a cop on a dark side road I had just turned on to from a busy highway. I immediately felt sick at the contrast I’d surely have been feeling if I were a POC, especially a man, who’d surely and rightly have been afraid, with how I felt, which was at most peeved that I’d probably get a ticket for speeding — but mostly just not in the least afraid. He asked me for my license and registration; I handed over my license right away and was pawing through the glove compartment for the registration when he said: never mind, you’re fine. Do you know why I pulled you over? You were going 54 in a 40 mile an hour zone. I am sorry officer. That’s okay, have a nice night, but watch your speed. Talk about privilege. I am not complaining of course, but wish everyone would be just as likely to get such a pass as I did.

Critical questions

Haven’t posted in while because I haven’t been in the group for a while. Not because of the nice long college holiday but because two weeks ago there was a paper work snafu and I was told there was no callout for the men (though I learned this week that there *had* been one on my night even though the day before when another instructor went and spent an hour tangling with the lobby guard there was no callout); and a month ago I was snowed out.

Was worried about the hit to attendance that absence might have, but heartened that there were nine people this week, nine lively talkers no less.

I’ve always liked the ambiguity of “critical” attached to “question” or “thinking.” And our discussion this week bore both meanings out. It was a perfect example of logical/CT skills applied in almost textbook ways to a timely discussion on matters ripe for disagreement. Subject: the protest march in DC tomorrow (to which I’ll travel by bus in the middle of the night tonight).

Another enlightening ambiguity here was the first question a new person to the group raised: “What is the point of the march?”, so often asked rhetorically to suggest that something lacks one. And indeed the non rhetorical answer is not obvious at all. Different people proposed every one of the following preliminary answers:

1. It’s like a child questioning the authority of a parent’s rules. You lost, get over it. (IOW: yes, pointless.)

2. It’s likewise undemocratic to protest a lawfully elected official. Has a point, but a problematic one.

3. “It’s a silly waste of time unless it genuinely threatens the system. You are not allowed to take backpacks? (I’d mentioned this unusual fact) – then everyone should take a backpack, and you should try to get thrown in jail for doing so. Fill the jails, BRING DOWN THE SYSTEM by overwhelming it.” His model of a successful protest: the Wobblies’ strikes, boycotts, and violence against the AFL. He needed to fill in a lot of the historical blanks here, of course. He also argued that  the civil rights movement’s successes owe as much to the actual violence (and threat of likewise) of riots like those in Watts, as to its non violent actions and principles.

4. Meta level analysis immediately after #3:  What counts as a protest’s success anyway? #4’s analogy to support the point that maybe the defender of #3 was setting the bar for success unreasonably highly: in an argument with a fellow inmate about Obama’s record on prison relief and reform (work on sentence reduction) the final word of his opponent was: “I’m still in prison! Obama’s record is shit.” — an absurdly high measure. But what about the too low bar, asked proponent of #3? Isn’t there a danger in counting merely  feeling like you’ve done something  as politically effective (by the big numbers, etc.)? Surely there have to be some actual effects beyond the protesters’ beliefs that they did something?

This question was then refocused helpfully on: What are the goals of the protest? Progress towards some goals at least can be measured! Bring down the presidency? Too high! Feel solidarity? Too low! How about feeling empowered leading to actions to take power, to take politicla action? To hold your representatives responsible (and the like)? (My suggestions.) What do they do to try to exercize power? Big range of answers, but the first thing would be to SHOW UP.

Two people pressed some other analogies: Black Lives Matter, and Occupy Wall Street, the latter of which some think did itself in because it really did not have recognizable goals.

We ran out of time at this point, but I was able to remind them of my favorite “pillar of critical thinking” the appeal to analogy to persuade someone on the other wise, though in this case the primary analogies themselves came under some fire about whether they showed non prejudicially what their agents wanted them to!

A model of mature, thoughtful, tough debate that certainly left all of us with more to think about about goals, models, and measures.




They know me well

Was a bit delayed getting in to the school building because the van escort was delayed. Upon arrival: “When you weren’t here at 6:30 we figured you were on your way to Canada.”

Proceeded to have a good discussion of the role and limits and hopes for critical thinking in the era of Trump’s winning campaign.


Election 2016: The View From a Prison

One of the many head exploding things about the 2016 election was (has been?) the utter indifference or even resistance to reason in the public’s evaluation of the candidates. Trump’s total loss in the debates on substance didn’t much affect his constituents’ views of him.

How might you expect a group of 12 felony offenders to line up on these candidates (reminder: they can’t vote)? Well, my sense from this meeting was that they are *more* skeptical about both of the candidates than the voting public, and that what matters to them as much as anything is the belief in a candidate’s authenticity. I almost said “integrity,” but that is not right — they don’t think either has that, but they believe that Trump is at least authentic. THAT claim took some interesting work to unpack. What does “What you see is what you get” (as some people have said in Trump’s defense) mean when what you see is one contradiction after another? Isn’t such a person showing you that he is dangerous? And what about HRC’s actual record in office? They went meta on me, and argued that one can be an authentic contradictor — that these judgments are about the *person* and not what (s)he says. They can appreciate and identify with even with Trump’s basic disregard for logic…as long as he really is like that, as seems to be the case. Trump’s “It’s only words” to HRC’s usually pretty good arguments taps into this very sentiment. This is in part because HRC’s record in office didn’t seem to have any effect on them or their lives, so a sense of the person is all they have to go on. I defended her rather stiff private public persona as a response many a high profile woman has had to arm herself with to survive public life, to which they responded that I was not like that. I accepted the compliment, but pointed out that my public persona was about as low stakes as it gets.

One very smart guy I don’t know very well yet had as good an explanation as any I’ve heard for the divided sentiment on the two. He pumped his ripped self up, swinging his arms and pumping up his chest while spewing threatening trash talk. Then he said “And then there’s the quiet one in the dorms. Which one is more dangerous?” And a murmur swept through the room: “It’s always the quiet one.”

As much as I’d love to end on that dramatic, poetic note, I can’t resist spelling out just a few things: How is HRC (painted as) the quiet one? She is not quiet! But she speaks in the feminine register. And maybe she is so logical that she ends up sounding to some more like a Mr. Spock than a real person. And of course the level of comfort with that sort of persona is gendered.