Stephen Speicher

Rob Tracinski on "What Went Right?"

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In any case, it is not clear-cut to me that Thales "was the first person in human history to attempt to explain the universe in rational, naturalistic terms."

If that is all you're saying then we do not disagree, at least in principle. It's hard to have certainty when it comes to the Presocratics ...

I think I have argued for more than what you take our agreement to be. But, admittedly, some of those arguments are on shaky ground, so I will not belabor the point. What is more firmly planted, however, is my objection to Mayhew's claim that "Thales predicted an eclipse," which Mayhew uses to boister his view of Thales. This claim appears to be historically inaccurate, factually untrue.

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I think it interesting and instructive to read a section of Miss Rand's comments about Thales in The Journals of Ayn Rand, p. 698. (Bold added.)

What, apparently, has never been challenged and what I took as a self-evident challenge (which it isn't) is Thales' approach to philosophy, namely: the idea that philosophy has to discover the nature of the universe in cosmological terms. If Thales thought that everything is water, and the other pre-Socratics fought over whether it's water and earth and fire, etc., then the empiricists were right in declaring that they would go by the evidence of observation, not by "rational" deduction—only then, of course, the whole issue and all its terms are [thoroughly confused]. The crux of the error here is in the word "nature." I took Thales' attempt to mean only the first attempt at, or groping toward, a unified view of knowledge and reality, i.e., an epistemological, not a metaphysical, attempt to establish the fact that things have natures.

Now I think that he meant, and all subsequent philosophers took it to mean, a metaphysical attempt to establish the literal nature of reality and to prove by philosophical means that everything is literally and physically made of water or that water is a kind of universal "stuff." If so, then philosophy is worse than a useless science, because it usurps the domain of physics and proposes to solve the problems of physics by some nonscientific, and therefore mystical, means.

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I, too, found Dr. Mayhew's "rebuttal" of Dr. Tracinski's position both interesting and enjoyable. This is particularly so because in my view, rather than rebutting that position, in an odd and I suspect unintended way, it actually reinforces it.

That's a very interesting, and provocative statement. I have only glanced at, not read through Mayhew's piece. Could you just highlight the essential way in which you think that Mayhew's rebuttal reinforces Tracinski's thesis?

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I haven't read "What Went Right" but I'm just a little curious about Dr. Mayhew's comments about Tracinski's motivation. In the opening of his essay, Dr. Mayhew states "Further, these flaws seem to stem not simply from his ignorance of the subject matter, but from a desire to have his alternative to the Objectivist philosophy of history seem to fit the facts." A few paragraphs later, he states "What Tracinski wants us to conclude is that the greatness that is classical Greece had little to do with philosophy..."

Does Tracinski state that these are his desires and wants in the article? If not, is there evidence in the articles that these are Tracinski's goals?

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I haven't read "What Went Right" but I'm just a little curious about Dr. Mayhew's comments about Tracinski's motivation.

Might I suggest you read Tracinski's piece and judge for yourself? The only portion that Dr. Mayhew is addressing is Part V and it is available here.

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Might I suggest you read Tracinski's piece and judge for yourself? The only portion that Dr. Mayhew is addressing is Part V and it is available here.

Maybe someday, but right now I just don't have the time to devote to it.

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I haven't read "What Went Right" but I'm just a little curious about Dr. Mayhew's comments about Tracinski's motivation. In the opening of his essay, Dr. Mayhew states "Further, these flaws seem to stem not simply from his ignorance of the subject matter, but from a desire to have his alternative to the Objectivist philosophy of history seem to fit the facts."

Mayhew characterizes Tracinski as not merely mistaken, but motivated by an emotional state that leads him to purposefully distort the evidence. How does Mayhew know that? Can he read Tracinski's mind?

Divining and attributing evil or irrational motivations to one's opponent is inappropriate, especially as a preface to a rebutting argument. It is the fallacy of Poisoning the Well.

Impugning the opposition's character and motivation rather than considering the possibility of ignorance or honest error, was also a technique employed -- and in spades -- by several supporters of Peikoff's position during the recent debate on the election and religion.

Whether it is Mayhew poisoning the well and mindreading, or defenders of Peikoff moralizing, psychologizing, or epistemologizing, this is no way for an Objectivist to argue. It betrays what Ayn Rand stood for.

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Mayhew characterizes Tracinski as not merely mistaken, but motivated by an emotional state that leads him to purposefully distort the evidence. How does Mayhew know that? Can he read Tracinski's mind?

Divining and attributing evil or irrational motivations to one's opponent is inappropriate, especially as a preface to a rebutting argument. It is the fallacy of Poisoning the Well.

That was my initial reaction to the first paragraph. It seemed like an ad hominem attack. However, again not having read Tracinski's articles, is there sufficient evidence in the essays to indicate that he is not only clearly mistaken but emotionally driven? If there is such evidence, then perhaps Mayhew can simply be informing the reader of his opinion (of something that would be clear to anyone who had read Tracinski's essays) without necessarily using such statements against Tracinski's arguments. I do agree that this was a poor way for Mayhew to begin his evaluation of an essay.

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Divining and attributing evil or irrational motivations to one's opponent is inappropriate, especially as a preface to a rebutting argument.

I agree with that. I've come to strongly disagree with some of Rob's perspective, but I don't believe that there are any evil motivations involved on his part. Even if there *were* such motivations, counter-arguments should focus on the argument, not on the speaker of them.

To take ideas seriously and to think firsthand will often (invariably?) lead one to express controversial views (which may or may not be true, but which may be worthy of lengthy discussion and argumentation). To condemn for the fact of simple disagreement is to reject the very people who are thinking the most.

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However, again not having read Tracinski's articles [...]

Initially I hadn't read them either, thinking that they were quite long. However, they're not, so I suggest that anybody interested in this thread actually go and read them here. He has 5 of 6 parts completed.

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That was my initial reaction to the first paragraph. It seemed like an ad hominem attack. However, again not having read Tracinski's articles, is there sufficient evidence in the essays to indicate that he is not only clearly mistaken but emotionally driven? If there is such evidence, then perhaps Mayhew can simply be informing the reader of his opinion (of something that would be clear to anyone who had read Tracinski's essays) without necessarily using such statements against Tracinski's arguments. I do agree that this was a poor way for Mayhew to begin his evaluation of an essay.

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In the last four paragraphs of Tracinski's Part V he reiterates how crucially important Ayn Rand's ideas are to civilization. In the whole of Part V I find nothing explicit or implicit which leads me to think that Tracinski has evil or emotionally-driven motives.

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Divining and attributing evil or irrational motivations to one's opponent is inappropriate, especially as a preface to a rebutting argument.

I agree with that. I've come to strongly disagree with some of Rob's perspective, but I don't believe that there are any evil motivations involved on his part. Even if there *were* such motivations, counter-arguments should focus on the argument, not on the speaker of them.

To take ideas seriously and to think firsthand will often (invariably?) lead one to express controversial views (which may or may not be true, but which may be worthy of lengthy discussion and argumentation). To condemn for the fact of simple disagreement is to reject the very people who are thinking the most.

I too strongly disagree with some of Tracinski's perspective (and I am still in the process of thinking), but he offers rational arguments and I have no reason to think his motivation to be anything less than seeking the truth.

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Would someone please give me the specific theory of history according to Objectivism, as given by Miss Rand?

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Would someone please give me the specific theory of history according to Objectivism, as given by Miss Rand?

Here's what I found on the CDROM. None of these are a "Philosophy of History," but in snippets from her Journals and elsewhere you can see some of her thinking on the subject.

For good or evil, whether such a man is a profound thinker or an ambitious demagogue, an idealistic hero or a corrupt, man-hating destroyer—those who choose to deal with ideas determine the course of human history. Those who formulate men's thinking determine their fate. The makers of trends, the creators of cultures, the actual leaders of mankind are the philosophers.
I have recently written an Introduction to Dr. Peikoffs forthcoming book, The Ominous Parallels. I regard this work as an extremely important intellectual achievement, which deserves—and may well gain—a wide influence, when it is published next year. One day soon, I think, Dr. Peikoff will have a national reputation in the field of the philosophy of history.
Dr. Peikoff answers these questions. He identifies the cause of Nazism—and the ominous parallels between the intellectual history of Germany and of the United States. He demonstrates that there is a science which has been all but obliterated in the modern world. "Yet this science determines the destiny of nations and the course of history .... "he writes. "It is the science which had to be destroyed, if the catastrophes of our time were to become possible. The science is philosophy."
If you want to discover how a country's philosophy determines its history, I urge you to read The Ominous Parallels by Leonard Peikoff [Mentor, 1983]. This brilliant book presents the philosophical similarities between the state of America's culture today and the state of Germany's culture in the Weimar Republic in the years preceding the rise of Nazism.
I am profoundly opposed to the so-called conspiracy theory of history. The conclusions of its advocates are usually unproved, arbitrary and out of context. They raise more questions than they attempt to answer.

As to the John Birch Society, I regard it as a futile organization because it is unphilosophical, anti-intellectual, and is not an advocate of capitalism, but is merely opposed to Communism.

In order to fight any issue, it is necessary to fight for something, not merely against something.

It seems to imply that people do not need to know the motives of villains or heroes, that everybody is terrorized by a mysterious, incomprehensible evil—and, therefore, "conspirators" is the only identification needed for evil, and "anti-conspirators" for the good. This seems to suggest paranoia, or a conspiracy-theory of history, or a kind of John Birch Society influence.
You will discover that they are variants of attacks on certain philosophical essentials—and that the entire, gigantic battle of philosophy (and of human history) revolves around the upholding or the destruction of these essentials. You will learn to recognize at a glance a given theory's stand on these essentials, and to reject the attacks without lengthy consideration—because you will know (and will be able to prove) in what way any given attack, old or new, is made of contradictions and "stolen concepts."

I will list these essentials for your future reference. But do not attempt the shortcut of accepting them on faith (or as semi-grasped approximations and floating abstractions). That would be a fundamental contradiction and it would not work.

The essentials are: in metaphysics, the Law of Identity—in epistemology, the supremacy of reason—in ethics, rational egoism—in politics, individual rights (i.e., capitalism)—in esthetics, metaphysical values.

If you reach the day when these essentials become your absolutes, you will have entered Atlantis—at least, psychologically; which is a precondition of the possibility ever to enter it existentially.

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Here's what I found on the CDROM. None of these are a "Philosophy of History," but in snippets from her Journals and elsewhere you can see some of her thinking on the subject.

Thank you for your efforts, Betsy.

There is a lot of thinking to be done about all of this. It would certainly make things easier if the arguments were confined to the subject at hand. I don't like being made to feel that if I don't agree with a position, I'm lacking in either brains or morals--or both--even before I've had a chance to think about it.

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When Ayn Rand says, "Those who formulate men's thinking determine their fate" is she referring to an ultimate fate? Or is she referring to the fate of each generation? or each culture? or each country? If we say that Aristotle formulated the thinking of the men of his country and culture, two immediate questions come to mind: 1) what was the fate of those men and 2) who formulated Aristotle's thinking? To the latter I would answer, there are some independent thinkers whose thinking is not formulated by others, though it may be influenced by others (as Aristotle was influenced by Plato). There may be independent farmers (like Hesiod), soldiers and poets, too. Regarding this last entry---poets---it looks as if Homer and Hesiod had some influence on their cultures before the coming of philosophy. In fact, Hesiod has been credited as one of the first men to ask questions.

But I am stuck, at least for the moment, on the referrent for "their" in the above quote from Miss Rand. Should we say that Aristotle did not formulate the thinking of the men of the Dark Ages, but he did do so for the men of the Renaissance, etc.?

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Mayhew characterizes Tracinski as not merely mistaken, but motivated by an emotional state that leads him to purposefully distort the evidence. How does Mayhew know that? Can he read Tracinski's mind?

Divining and attributing evil or irrational motivations to one's opponent is inappropriate, especially as a preface to a rebutting argument. It is the fallacy of Poisoning the Well.

Impugning the opposition's character and motivation rather than considering the possibility of ignorance or honest error, was also a technique employed -- and in spades -- by several supporters of Peikoff's position during the recent debate on the election and religion.

Whether it is Mayhew poisoning the well and mindreading, or defenders of Peikoff moralizing, psychologizing, or epistemologizing, this is no way for an Objectivist to argue. It betrays what Ayn Rand stood for.

Dr. Lewis also chose to comment on Mr Tracinski's motives:

"Thank you, Robert, for this essay<<...>> The central point is clear, and correct: Tracinski is trying to diminish the causal power of philosophy in history, by inaccurately re-constructing Greek history in a way to fit with his own prior conclusion. Why does he do this? Because he wishes to see a brilliant future for us today, despite the profound philosophical corruption that has undercut every area of progress, and weakened our self-esteem and our will to defend ourselves."

Link

The popularity of this less than graceful behavior in present-day culture is alarming enough -- when I see intellectuals engage in it, I find it, well, ominous.

We can assume that, in the Internet Age, any errors made by any prominent Objectivist will be highlighted within hours. There's no need to waste time and energy deciphering motives. Further, the world is watching.

JohnRGT

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When Ayn Rand says, "Those who formulate men's thinking determine their fate" is she referring to an ultimate fate? Or is she referring to the fate of each generation? or each culture? or each country?

We should first note that the quoted words are from a passage cut from the title essay of For The New Intellectual. However, in the published essay, Miss Rand does say:

Just as a man's actions are preceded and determined by some form of idea in his mind, so a society's existential conditions are preceded and determined by the ascendancy of a certain philosophy among those whose job is to deal with ideas. The events of any given period of history are the result of the thinking of the preceding period. The nineteenth century—with its political freedom, science, industry, business, trade, all the necessary conditions of material progress—was the result and the last achievement of the intellectual power released by the Renaissance. The men engaged in those activities were still riding on the remnants of an Aristotelian influence in philosophy, particularly on an Aristotelian epistemology (more implicitly than explicitly).

As I understand this, then, the "preceding period" for the Renaissance was the re-discovery of Aristotle -- Aristotle's philosophy reaching out across more than a millenium -- but the "preceding period" for the nineteenth century was the prior few centuries, the Renaissance. And, at least for this last, it was more an implicit sense of the Aristotlelian philosophy that the nineteenth century manifested.

Ayn Rand goes on to speak of Kant's philosophy, and then says:

If one finds the present state of the world unintelligible and inexplicable, one can begin to understand it by realizing that the dominant intellectual influence today is still Kant's—and that all the leading modern schools of philosophy are derived from a Kantian base.

So the nineteenth century was the "preceding period" of thinking for the twentieth century, specifically the philosophy of Kant.

I take it, then, that the "thinking of the preceding period" affecting any given period of history is not typically on the scale of generations, but rather on a scale of a century, to several centuries, to millenium, depending on specific circumstances.

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I find the discussion about motives a distraction from a discussion of the content of Robert Tracinski's argument and Robert Mayhew's rebuttal. I am not a scholar of ancient philosophy or history and do not feel qualified to comment in an informed manner. As a layman, I will simply say that Mr. Tracinski's Part V piece was provocative and interesting. Dr. Mayhew's critique appeared well-reasoned and based on a deep grasp of Greek thought. Weighing the two arguments, Dr. Mayhew's was convincing to me, especially for the reason emphasized by John Lewis in his comment that Mr. Tracinski did not pay enough attention to the philosophical ideas that were implicit in Greek culture.

From my reading of their comments, I do not think Dr. Mayhew or Dr. Lewis unfairly disparaged Mr. Tracinski. Rather, they presented reasons to support their position. I am interested in whether Mr. Tracinski's claim that significant cultural advances can occur independent of philosophy is true or not. I am not interested at all in dissecting some allegedly disparaging remarks about motive made by Dr. Mayhew or Dr. Lewis or anyone else, for that matter.

To me, this is a very interesting and important debate. I expect there will be a lot more commentary from both sides. I look forward to spirited discussion of the ideas. (In particular, I would love to see Dr. Mayhew or Dr. Lewis expand their comments!)

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Dr. Mayhew's was convincing to me, especially for the reason emphasized by John Lewis in his comment that Mr. Tracinski did not pay enough attention to the philosophical ideas that were implicit in Greek culture.

My question is, how accurate is this assessment of Tracinski's point. The notion that ideas influence how people act is entirely obvious and uncontroversial to me. So what seems to happening in thisdebate is an equivocation on "philosophy". When Tracinski denied presence of philosophy in early Greek culture, he clearly seems to have been addressing absence of explicit philosophical thought, and a thremendous cultural prosperity despite that. Applying this to modern times, it does not seem that Tracinski discounts philosophy's efficacy, but merely the efficacy of modern philosophical schools (this is where the equivocation happens). He points out that people are still continuing to prosper despite vile philosophers. How can this happen? Only through implicit philosophy, I would assume. I don't see a negation of philosophy as such anywhere in his articles.

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it does not seem that Tracinski discounts philosophy's efficacy, but merely the efficacy of modern philosophical schools (this is where the equivocation happens)

The equivocation is on the other side, I mean. There is no basis for accusing Tracinski of denying the importance of philosophy, if he is merely denying the all-importance of philosophers. The two are entirely diffrent things.

The way I undestand Tracinski's point is: of course ideas are important, but philosophers don't have a monopoly on them. Good people can derive them themelves, inductively and from reality. Furthermore, of course philosophers are important, as explicit identifiers and integrators, but they are not always necessarily some initial cause.

All of this still completely makes sense regarding what Ayn Rand said about Kant -- if we are looking for one man who is most to blame, it is undeniably him.

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We should first note that the quoted words are from a passage cut from the title essay of For The New Intellectual. However, in the published essay, Miss Rand does say:

As I understand this, then, the "preceding period" for the Renaissance was the re-discovery of Aristotle -- Aristotle's philosophy reaching out across more than a millenium -- but the "preceding period" for the nineteenth century was the prior few centuries, the Renaissance. And, at least for this last, it was more an implicit sense of the Aristotlelian philosophy that the nineteenth century manifested.

Ayn Rand goes on to speak of Kant's philosophy, and then says:

So the nineteenth century was the "preceding period" of thinking for the twentieth century, specifically the philosophy of Kant.

I take it, then, that the "thinking of the preceding period" affecting any given period of history is not typically on the scale of generations, but rather on a scale of a century, to several centuries, to millenium, depending on specific circumstances.

Thank you Stephen.

So, since the 19th century was the greatest up to that point, we can conclude that implicitly held ideas can certainly be powerful.

The other concept I have trouble applying is "fate". When can a man or a culture be said to have reached its fate? Without an explicit philosophy Rearden creates Rearden Metal. If he had never discovered Galt's philosophy, and if his internal contradictions eventually caused him to be a grim and disillusioned old man, which period of his life is his "fate"? Would it be different if, soon after creating Rearden Metal he died of a heart attack? Even Galt himself invented his motor without a fully explicit philosophy----or am I wrongly assuming that? And Ayn Rand herself created "We The Living" and "The Fountainhead" before the fully explicit "Atlas Shrugged" Or, speaking of countries, which is England's fate---the Renaissance, the 19th century, or now?

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The other concept I have trouble applying is "fate". When can a man or a culture be said to have reached its fate? Without an explicit philosophy Rearden creates Rearden Metal. If he had never discovered Galt's philosophy, and if his internal contradictions eventually caused him to be a grim and disillusioned old man, which period of his life is his "fate"? Would it be different if, soon after creating Rearden Metal he died of a heart attack? Even Galt himself invented his motor without a fully explicit philosophy----or am I wrongly assuming that? And Ayn Rand herself created "We The Living" and "The Fountainhead" before the fully explicit "Atlas Shrugged" Or, speaking of countries, which is England's fate---the Renaissance, the 19th century, or now?

Wait a sec -- 'fate' is an ex post facto concept, a summing up of a man's life and the decisions and actions that led to it. When used as an essentially religious term, it presupposes an inevitable disposition of that man, saved or damned. As adapted to a rational philosophy, it is merely 'what ever happened to...?' So Rearden's fate would have been simply a statement of where and how he died and how he lived his life while he did. You can't talk about "a man's fate" before a Final Judgement, to use the mystical term, whether that is death or a death sentence. After the fact, you can use it till the end of time, which would mean that your fate would have been to spend a great deal of time obsessing about Fate.

As for Galt, I believe he had already studied philosophy with Hugh Akston at Patrick Henry University before he invented his motor. So his philosophy was explicit, not implicit, throughout his adult life. But he had understood these things implicitly before, as implied by the observation that his was "a face that shows no sign of pain or fear or guilt." As the ideal man, he understood and accepted Existence as a given, implicitly; Akston just gave him the context and words for that knowledge.

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[fate] is merely 'what ever happened to...?'

On reviewing the previous statement, by 'merely,' I didn't mean to imply that a person's life is trivial in any way (unless we're talking about a truly trivial person). I merely meant that the concept of 'Fate' is essentially religious, a consequence of the Platonist/Judeo-Christian concept that ones life is the yardstick for God to judge that person as Saved or Damned and, thereby admitted to Heaven or sent to Hell. In the mystical context in which ones life on Earth is trivialized as mere test or preparation for ones far-more-important afterlife, then the concept of Fate is all-important. For a rational man, as Rand said of herself in an interview late in life, when he dies, it is the end of the world... for him. He doesn't care anymore. Others may greatly esteem that man's life, but this was not the point of his existence, unless he was extremely second-handed (whether toward God, the State, or others). As a rational person, your time on life is for you to live, to make of yourself what you want to and are able to, not to obsess on your "Fate."

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From my reading of their comments, I do not think Dr. Mayhew or Dr. Lewis unfairly disparaged Mr. Tracinski.

I take that to mean that you believe the motives attributed to Mr. Tracinski to be either his actual motives or close enough. May I ask how you reached your conclusion?

Rather, they presented reasons to support their position.

May I ask where they offered enough proof to support their conclusions Re Mr. Tracinski's motives?

I am interested in whether Mr. Tracinski's claim that significant cultural advances can occur independent of philosophy is true or not.

But projecting motives Re why someone holds a particular view or made a certain error halts/stalls the discussion.

I am not interested at all in dissecting some allegedly disparaging remarks about motive made by Dr. Mayhew or Dr. Lewis or anyone else, for that matter.

This issue should have its own thread -- given how commonplace it is, it may deserve a book. However, since one side of the debate chose to project motive(s) the error needs to be pointed out.

(For a great "How To", consider the commitment to reason, the grace and benevolence Miss Rand shows in The Passion of Ayn Rand's Critics. (Note how much "more" Miss Rand was up against/was at stake.))

To me, this is a very interesting and important debate. I expect there will be a lot more commentary from both sides. I look forward to spirited discussion of the ideas. (In particular, I would love to see Dr. Mayhew or Dr. Lewis expand their comments!)

I too see this is an important debate. That's one reason why I don't like seeing intellectuals I respect engage in such practices -- especially on the WWW.

JohnRGT

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