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December 2, 2004


What is consciousness? And could robots have it? is a topic of discussion in Philosophy Now magazine. Here is an article from the issue to give you background information on the debate and perhaps spark an interest in the subject. A Ridiculously Brief Overview of Consciousness A five-minute guide to the debate by Rick Lewis. Modern philosophy of mind began with Ren� Descartes (1596-1650) who argued that we each consist of two different entities: a material body subject to all the laws of physics and an immaterial mind, which isn�t. This theory is therefore known as Cartesian Dualism. He said that the mind was connected with the brain via the pineal gland. But exactly how, to take a very simple example, does my wish to scratch my nose result in my arm being raised and my finger making scratching motions? How can something non-physical � the mind � have a causal effect on something physical? Over the next few centuries, various modified versions of Dualism tried to address this problem. According to epiphenomenalism, for instance, the interaction was only one way: the brain affected the mind, but the mind had no effect on the brain. The mind was therefore a passenger carried along in a purely physical machine, with only the illusion of an ability to influence events. Alternatively, according to occasionalism, the interaction was two-way, with God intervening directly on each occasion that it was necessary for the mind to influence the brain or vice versa. All of this dualistic speculation came to a shuddering halt in 1949 with the publication of GilbertRyle�s classic Concept of Mind. Ryle abusively called Descartes� theory the �dogma of the ghost in the machine�, and argued persuasively that Descartes had made a �category mistake� by treating the mind as another �thing� in the same category of things as the brain, rather than as something from another category altogether (a process, perhaps?)...

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September 8, 2004

Genetic Fallacies

Go To Original Bad Moves: Genetic fallacies By Julian Baggini Cow�s milk is meant for baby cows. Which helps explain why this foodstuff is a leading cause of unwanted reactions to foods that can give rise to a variety of health issues such as nasal congestion, sinusitis, eczema and asthma. Dr John Briffa, Observer Food Monthly, August 2004 Don�t get me started on �health food�. Doesn�t anyone smell a rat when they go into a shop dedicated to �natural� remedies only to be confronted by rows and rows of bottles, pills and supplements? Why is it that it seems every infusion in the world is good for you except for the everyday, normal tea we know and love? Why are stimulants such as guarana considered good while caffeine is bad? Why are the cereals we eat all the time, such as wheat, to be avoided while all the others are fantastically healthy? Do you detect a pattern here? The only principle I can see that explains all this is that the purpose of health food shops is to make life as awkward as possible by banning us from consuming all the common foodstuffs that surround us. Virtue means taking the hard path. But I digress, before I�ve even started. The problem with Dr Briffa�s argument about cow�s milk is not that it is an example of this kind of demonising of the everyday staple. (Although it might be that too � funny how goat�s milk is usually considered to be healthy.) No, Briffa�s argumentative aberration (which is what I�m supposed to be focusing on) is that he fails to account for the fact that the origins of something may not tell us what we need to know about its present use or nature. Even if we allow ourselves to talk loosely about what things in nature are �meant� for, it should be obvious that this does not tell the whole story about what they can be used for. By Briffa�s logic, a chicken�s thigh is meant to help it stand up and walk. Does that mean we should be wary about eating it, because it wasn�t meant for eating? What about honey, another favourite of health food shops? That was �meant� for bees not humans. As for eggs, well, they were �meant� to be baby animals, not omelettes....

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July 4, 2004


William Sloane Coffin Jr. is an American, a liberal, and a patriot. I can't think of a better tribute to our country on the Fourth of July than his words in this CNN Interview. Quicktime Video 8.4MB 4'21 Quicktime Required...

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July 2, 2004

Arbitrary or Irrelevant

It is commonly thought that we need religion to ground our morality. Most Americans will say they would not vote for a political candidate solely on the grounds that he is an Atheist. Presumably, the objection is that he will not have the proper moral values. But consider this question asked by Socrates in The Euthyphro. "Is what is holy holy because the gods approve it, or do they approve it because it is holy?" If we take the first answer that what is good is good because God says so, then we have something that is arbitrary. I'll admit it may be wise to obey the whims of an arbitrary God, but suppose he is an evil being. After all, God seems to approve of slaughtering innocents, stoning children, ethnic cleansing and so forth in the Old Testament. Suppose we take the second answer, that God approves of something because it is independently good and he must approve of the good things. Then what God says is irrelevant to what is good. When it comes to morality, God is either arbitrary or irrelevant....

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June 23, 2004

God's Number is Up

Among a heap of books claiming that science proves God's existence emerges The Probability of God (Crown Forum, 2003), by Stephen D. Unwin that computes a probability of 67 percent. People often try to give claims the appearance of scientific credibility by couching them in terms of mathematics. A good bullshit detecting technique is to find out how the person making the claim came up with the numbers that enter into the equation. When done properly Math is internally consistent. However, if you put garbage in, you get garbage out. Michael Shermer takes out the trash in the following article. Scientific American: God's Number Is Up...

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June 11, 2004

Rorty Reviews Wolin

Link review Philosophical Convictions by Richard Rorty Philosophers get attention only when they appear to be doing something sinister--corrupting the youth, undermining the foundations of civilization, sneering at all we hold dear. The rest of the time everybody assumes that they are hard at work somewhere down in the sub-basement, keeping those foundations in good repair. Nobody much cares what brand of intellectual duct tape is being used. The public becomes incensed, however, when rogue philosophers come upstairs, buttonhole the tenants and tell them that there really are no foundations--that their industrious colleagues are just providing "bad reasons for what we believe upon instinct" (F.H. Bradley's description of metaphysics). Every anti-foundationalist movement within philosophy produces a spate of books by nonphilosophers denouncing "the treason of the intellectuals" (the title of Julien Benda's 1927 attack on the pernicious influence of thinkers such as Henri Bergson and William James)....

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May 15, 2004

Should an Atheist Respect Religion?

The late Douglas Adams said the following in a speech, "Is there an Artificial God?" at Digital Biota 2, Cambridge U.K. September 1998. Now, the invention of the scientific method is, I'm sure we'll all agree, the most powerful intellectual idea, the most powerful framework for thinking and investigating and understanding and challenging the world around us that there is, and it rests on the premise that any idea is there to be attacked. If it withstands the attack then it lives to fight another day and if it doesn't withstand the attack then down it goes. Religion doesn't seem to work like that. It has certain ideas at the heart of it which we call sacred or holy or whatever. What it means is, "Here is an idea or a notion that you're not allowed to say anything bad about; you're just not. Why not? ' because you're not!" If somebody votes for a party that you don't agree with, you're free to argue about it as much as you like; everybody will have an argument but nobody feels aggrieved by it. If somebody thinks taxes should go up or down you are free to have an argument about it. But on the other hand if somebody says "I mustn't move a light switch on a Saturday," you say, "I respect that." The odd thing is, even as I am saying that I am thinking "Is there an Orthodox Jew here who is going to be offended by the fact that I just said that?" But I wouldn't have thought, "Maybe there's somebody from the left wing or somebody from the right wing or somebody who subscribes to this view or the other in economics," when I was making the other points. I just think, "Fine, we have different opinions." But, the moment I say something that has something to do with somebody's (I'm going to stick my neck out here and say irrational) beliefs, then we all become terribly protective and terribly defensive and say "No, we don't attack that; that's an irrational belief but no, we respect it." Why should it be that it's perfectly legitimate to support the Labour party or the Conservative party, Republicans or Democrats, this model of economics versus that, Macintosh instead of Windows ' but to have an opinion about how the Universe began, about who created the Universe... no, that's holy? What does that mean? Why do we ring-fence that for any other reason other than that we've just got used to doing so? There's no other reason at all, it's just one of those things that crept into being, and once that loop gets going it's very, very powerful. So, we are used to not challenging religious ideas but it's very interesting how much of a furore Richard creates when he does it! Everybody gets absolutely frantic about it because you're not allowed to say these things. Yet when you look at it rationally there is no reason why those ideas shouldn't be as open to debate as any other, except that we have agreed somehow between us that they shouldn't be. I was motivated to post this by a discussion with a friend of mine. We were discussing whether or not a person's religion or lack thereof should be an acceptable factor in choosing who to vote for in an election. The fact of the matter is that it is used all the time, but the question is should it be? We decided that it didn't constitute an unacceptable form of discrimination because religion or lack thereof is a choice and ethnic background and maybe homosexuality are not choices. I maintain, though it is acceptable, it is a lazy man's way that is frought with danger. So should an Atheist respect religon? No. Should a religious person necessarily respect Atheism? No. They should conduct a careful analysis of the claims made and come to a rational conclusion, not one based on an emotional outburst....

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April 5, 2004


There is a place where we are always alone with our own mortality, where we must simply have something greater than ourselves to hold onto — God or history or politics or literature or a belief in the healing power of love, or even righteous anger. Sometimes I think they are all the same. A reason to believe, a way to take the world by the throat and insist that there is more to this life than we have ever imagined. — Dorothy Allison...

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March 16, 2004

Fallacies and Values

You could write an entire book on logical fallacies using examples from the Bush Administration. Case in point: The White House sought on Monday to raise questions about the Massachusetts senator's credibility as Bush's spokesman, Scott McClellan, charged that if Kerry refused to name names "then the only alternative is that he is making it up." Fallacy: False Dilemma Definition: A limited number of options (usually two) is given, while in reality there are more options. A false dilemma is an illegitimate use of the "or" operator. Proof: Identify the options given and show (with an example) that there is an additional option. Example of additional option: Kerry could refuse to name names to avoid revealing a confidence. President Bush said on Tuesday that his Democratic rival John Kerry should back up his comments that foreign leaders want to see the Republican president defeated. The president is asking John Kerry to betray a confidence. Apparently keeping a confidence is not high on the presidents list of values. Link to Story From Dave Letterman March 15th "john kerry says that foreign leaders want him to be president, but that he can't name the foreign leaders. that's all right, president bush can't name them either." thanks skippy...

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March 10, 2004

Logical Fallacies

Keith Burgess-Jackson says that Andrew "Sullivan's blog would illustrate an entire course on fallacies." a statement I don't doubt. Fallacious reasoning can be found on most blogs. BJ's post begins with "Andrew Sullivan complains about having his views distorted by William Bennett. See here. Sullivan is in no position to complain about this, for he routinely distorts both the motivation for the Federal Marriage Amendment (which he disingenuously calls the "religious right amendment") and arguments against homosexual marriage. " an excellent example of the Tu Quoque Fallacy. What Mr. Sullivan distorts has nothing to do with the question of whether his views were distorted by William Bennett. BJ doesn't address that question. It appears he is using his criticism of Andrew Sullivan to avoid the question of whether Mr. Bennett is guilty of what he is accused of, distorting Mr. Sullivans views. There is no way that Mr. Sullivan's guilt can absolve Mr. Bennett from his. It is ironic that in a post on logical fallacies Mr. Jackson would let one of his own slip in. Is that a reason to dismiss his criticism of Mr. Sullivan, only if we want to engage in the same fallacy Burgess-Jackson commits. But there is certainly nothing wrong in enjoying the irony....

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February 22, 2004

Richard Rorty Interview

From the October/November 2003 issue of Philosophy Now Richard Rorty is perhaps the best-known living philosopher in the Pragmatic tradition, and one of the most talked-about thinkers of the present day. He is a philosophy professor at Stanford University. Giancarlo Marchetti chatted with him about his ideas and his hopes. How did you come to study philosophy? When I was a teenager, I read Plato and Nietzsche, and thought about the issues between them. I think this is a fairly common way in which people come to take an interest in philosophy. And I happened to go to a university where philosophy was very popular. It was taught in all the courses so it was a sort of natural career to go into. Who in particular influenced you during your early studies? Various teachers at the University of Chicago: Leo Strauss, Charles Hartshorne, who was a student of Whitehead, Rudolph Carnap, quite a few different people. Which philosopher do you especially admire and why? I think the one I admire most is William James. He never lost a sense of humor about his own writing. He wrote because he enjoyed it. There's a kind of joyful exuberance to his work that I wish I could imitate. May I ask you how your write? Do you revise frequently/ Oh, probably not as frequently as I should. I usually write a draft and then write a second draft and then polish that draft up in the course of a few weeks or months. Let's turn to philosophy. Could you say what characterizes your own version of pragmatism? I think that what I get out of reading the classical pragmatists is just the idea that there are no privileged descriptions and therefore there is not much point in asking. ":Is our way of taking about things objective or subjective?" I think of pragmatists as the people who did the best job of getting rid of the subject/object distinction....

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February 19, 2004


I'm a pragmatist in the John Dewey, Richard Rorty tradition. Many conflate pragmatism with an undisciplined relativism, a feel good anything goes attitude. They couldn't be more wrong. I found an excellent critique of pragmatism in The Philosopher's Toolkit by Julian Baggini and Peter S. Fosl. I think it will be useful in clearing up the confusion. Pragmatist critique On what basis should we accept or reject certain beliefs? Perhaps the most common answer one might receive to this question would be 'On the basis of whether the belief is true or not, of course.' But how are we best to unpack the meaning of 'true' here? Traditionally, many people have answered that true claims somehow express or mirror the nature of reality, and reality is what it is independent of whatever we think or say about it. The job of philosophy and science, from this point of view, is somehow to produce theories that picture or capture or reflect or represent that independent reality. Pragmatists, however, think that there's something wrong with this way of conceiving truth, philosophy and science. According to the pragmatists, closer scrutiny will convince you that little sense can be made of what it means to 'mirror' or 'represent' or 'grasp' an independent reality. Moreover, in reflecting back on the history of philosophy, one can see that this sort of representationalist position produces more problems than it is worth. A better option, say the pragmatists, is to think of true claims as those that we agree are more effective in helping us get along in the world; and we should give up entirely worrying about whether or not they represent an independent reality. Accordingly, the theories of natural science are true not because they express the nature of independent reality but because they enable us to manipulate objects in experiments and technologies in ways we approve. Moral theories are 'right' when they enable us to get along with one another and to act as we wish to. Aesthetic ideas need to be thought of as nothing more than agreements about what we ought to think of as beautiful (or, anyway, as artwork) and how we ought to arrange, feel and think about the sensible dimensions of our environments. In short, what we ought to adopt as true is what we agree solves problems for us and helps us get along better in the world. We no longer need to concern ourselves with how things look to God, or from some imaginary and unobtainable, ideal point of view. We no longer need to worry about what lies beyond or below our experience and our engagements with the world. A lot of problems, say the pragmatists, can simply be left behind in this way. (Baggini, Fosl, p.191) The Philosopher's Tookit A Compendium of Philosophical Concepts and Methods Julian Baggini Peter S. Fosl...

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