Thursday, January 25, 2007

About Me

When I first started this blog, lo, these many moons ago, I had the idea that--for a lot of reasons--I would write completely anonymously. That idea didn't pan out: I found that I wanted to criticize other people's (*cough* Andrew Sullivan *cough*) work, and it seemed unfair and unseemly to do so anonymously.

I'm Larry Hamelin. I was born in the 1960s (as of this writing putting me in my 40s), I live in the San Francisco Bay Area with my wife and our cat. I work as a computer programmer and sometimes Chief Technology Officer for a startup software company. I raised two children as a (more or less) single parent; they're now grown and making their own way in the world.

I'm liberal/progressive politically and an atheist. These terms are very broad, so don't infer too much. I have an amateur interest in mathematics and science, especially statistics and quantum mechanics. I read a lot of science fiction. I play Go and poker at a strong amateur level. I don't have a television; Netflix hates me because I watch four or more movies a week. I don't read the newspaper; I get all my news from various blogs and Fark.

I'm pretty much self-taught at everything. I'm of the opinion that all true education is self-education; a formal setting just gives the student a (more-or-less) organized menu.

I had a terrific primary education at Brooklyn Friends School. I had a pretty good secondary education as well. After my junior year of high school, I took the California High School Proficiency test, and enrolled in UC Berkeley. I got bored after a couple of quarters and dropped flunked out to work as a computer programmer. Other than auditing some programming classes at Kansas University when I was in junior high, that's all there is of my "formal" education. At my more hyperbolic, I occasionally describe myself as a "high school dropout".

I became interested in philosophy in 1999/2000 when I stumbled upon the Straight Dope Message Board and then, more significantly, the Internet Infidels Discussion Board. (If you were around the Straight Dope in 1999, or Infidels in 2000 or 2005, email me and we can reminisce.) Although I learned a lot at both places, I ultimately found the discussion board medium too limiting. It's easy to build an audience on a discussion board, but difficult to present sophisticated material, especially controversial material. A blog has the opposite characteristics. I'd rather offer better content and build my audience more slowly. In any event, I'm mostly writing to my wife.

I think that my background in computer programming (and to a lesser extent my lifelong amateur interest in science) brings an interesting perspective to philosophy. You simply cannot bullshit a computer in any way, shape or form. The computer neither knows nor cares what you want or what you mean; it cares only what you say.

While I flatter myself as having skill and talent at thinking logically and rationally, I'm a very poor scholar. I have a great memory for ideas and concepts, but I rarely remember sources. I tend to read anything--computer programming, philosophy, politics, science--less to thoroughly understand what the other person has to say in any deep way, but to mine material for ideas and concepts I can use in my own life and work. So if you're looking any sort of comprehensive or authoritative explanation of what Kant or Hume (or Knuth or Booch) really meant, you'll have to look elsewhere.

One reason I enjoy philosophy is that, much like a computer program, any philosophical work (unlike scholarly "philosophology"[1]) has to stand on its own. Either the logic works, or it doesn't. A good argument is a good argument (and a bad argument is a bad argument) regardless of its provenance.

Another characteristic I bring from my background in programming is a ruthless pragmatism[2]. I'm interested in Getting Things Done, rather than finding some ideal of perfection or certainty. While I think truth is important and valuable, I'm not so much interested in Truth-with-a-capital-T. I'm more interested in thinking logically and precisely about some concept to help myself understand and make use of it; I'm less interested in exploring whether some particular way of thinking is Exactly The Right Way.[3] I think I have some real talent at finding the baby in even the dirtiest bathwater.

So... that's me. I hope you like what I have to say. If you don't, so it goes; my wife still likes my work.

[1] "Philosophology" is a term coined by Robert M. Pirsig in Lila, an Inquiry into Values to distinguish writing philosophy from writing about philosophy. I think the distinction between philosophy and philosophology is substantive and useful. Unlike Pirsig, I have no contempt or dissatisfaction at all with philosophology or even academic philosophy. I'm swayed to some extent by Matthew P. Kundert's 2004 essay, Philosophologology: An Inquiry into the Study of the Love of Wisdom, but unlike Kundert, I think that the distinction between philosophy and philosophology is still useful even though the categories overlap to some extent, and even though I disagree with the value judgment Pirsig originally attaches to the distinction. Maybe I'll write more on this topic.

[2] Every writer must, at some level, be in love with his or her own voice; I'm definitely no exception. As hard as I try to resist, sometimes I do bloviate; it's an occupational hazard.

[3] Just as I don't want to disparage philosophology, I don't want to disparage those who approach philosophy in a different way than I do; I could hardly assert that my way of thinking about philosophy is Exactly The Right Way.


  1. You're too cute.

  2. Hey, at least your wife reads what you write. Mine, not so much.

    If you're ever in San Jose, I'll buy you a beer. You're a great writer and an excellent, lucid thinker. I enjoy what you've had to say so far.

  3. James,

    Thanks. I may well take you up on the offer. The same goes to you if you ever make it to Pacifica.

  4. Gary Robinson1/25/07, 9:16 PM

    Thanks for telling your readers about yourself. For what it's worth, I'm a programmer and CTO too.

    I thought Sullivan's response today was interesting, particularly the proposition that there are different types of truths, such historical truths and mathematical truths, which are considered legitimate although arrived at in different ways from the scientific method. So why not just consider the religious approach to be just another one of those ways?

    Well, er.... if different people use that technique to determining truths and thereby arrive at many contradictory truths, and each individual ends up believing that his contradictory truth is the right one, then there is something very unreliable about that technique compared to the process of mathematical proof or historical research. This seems pretty obvious, but somehow Sullivan seems to not quite see it.

    There's something strange to me about the concept of "belief" that Sullivan seems to embrace. Sometimes it appears that he thinks that other people's very different beliefs are all just as legitimate as his own. He "respects" them, he says. The fact that they contradict his doesn't bother him. He doesn't seem to feel a need to recognize that many differing, contradictory beliefs, held by many equally intelligent, well-meaning people, implies that at least most of them, including his own, must be factually inaccurate.

    But Sullivan is not an idiot. He can't be incapable of seeing that logic. It makes me think that what he calls "belief" may be something different from what I would call "belief." The best way I can imagine it right now is that his belief isn't a statement of fact, it's rather a psychological orientation, a way of viewing the world. As a way of viewing the world, other people may have other ways that are just as legitimate.

    But he seems to be unclear as to which his belief really is -- an assertion about facts or an orientation. He seems to intuitively know that it's only an orientation, which enables him to say he respect other religions. But if he fully recognized that about himself, the feeling of truthiness that powers his religious practice and gives it a seeming weight and meaning would disappear; and then what would value would the practice have? So he dares not go there. It seems as if, at some unconscious level, a decision is simply made not to think about that.

  5. Gary,

    I agree completely; I make many of the same points in today's essay, Rational Discourse.

    It's my position that ideological fundamentalists exploit precisely Sullivan's sort of epistemic lacuna to cause much of the political and ideological turmoil in today's world.

    It's not that atheists and rationalists necessarily want people to give up their religion (although that would definitely not be a bad outcome), but we definitely do insist that people give up the idea that their religion is true in any way, shape or form.


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