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November 26, 2005


We have all the rituals we need, counters AC Grayling My son sent me this link. He writes: Interesting article on what humanism is and is not. Grayling is wrong about Buddhism though. Buddhism posits Karma, which I would call a supernatural process though I admit this is debatable. Some forms of Buddhism include reincarnation over multiple lifetimes, I would say that is a supernatural posit. It is possible to read Buddhism in a supernatural free way though. But Graylings blanket conclusion that Buddhism does not posit the supernatural and therefore is not a religion is mistaken.� A rose might indeed smell as sweet by any other name, but names matter nevertheless, and it especially matters that the terms �humanism� and �religion� should have clear definitions so that temptations to describe the former as a species of the latter can be avoided. Some succumb to such temptation because they would like humanism to be a movement with a credo that would sustain communities of like-minded folk, making it a substitute version of church membership. But humanism is not such a thing, and religion is a quite different thing. Humanism is a general outlook based on two allied premises, which allow considerable latitude to what follows from them. The premises are, first, that there are no supernatural entities or agencies in the universe, and second, that ethics must be based on facts about human nature and circumstances. [snip] But it is a failure of imagination not to see that when people go to art galleries or concerts, enjoy gardening and country walks, or have dinner with friends, they are expressing themselves aesthetically and socially in the same (and arguably better) way as people who come together in church congregations. [snip] Religious folk try to turn the tables on people of a humanistic outlook by charging them with �faith� in science and reason. Faith, they seem to have forgotten, is what you have despite facts and reason. The point of the Doubting Thomas story, remember, is that it is more blessed to believe without evidence than with it, as Kierkegaard likewise later insisted with his �leap of faith� doctrine. No such leaps are required to �believe in� science or reason. Science is always open to challenge and refutation, faith is not; reason must be rigorously tested by its own lights, faith rejoices in unreason. Once again, a humanistic outlook is as far from sharing the characteristics of religion as it can be. By definition, in short, humanism is not religion, any more than religion is or can be a form of humanism....

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November 19, 2005


Worth a listen they provide both streaming and mp3 download. BBC - Radio 4 In Our Time - Pragmatism: "'A pragmatist ... turns away from abstraction and insufficiency, from verbal solutions, from bad a priori reasons, from fixed principles, closed systems, and pretended absolutes and origins. He turns towards concreteness and adequacy, towards facts, towards action and towards power'. A quote from William James' 1907 treatise Pragmatism: A New Name for Some Old Ways of Thinking. William James, along with John Dewey and Charles Sanders Peirce, was the founder of an American philosophical movement which flowered during the last thirty years of the nineteenth century and the first twenty years of the twentieth century. It purported that knowledge is only meaningful when coupled with action. Nothing is true or false - it either works or it doesn't. It was a philosophy which was deeply embedded in the reality of life, concerned firstly with the individual's direct experience of the world he inhabited. In essence, practical application was all. "...

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September 24, 2005


"You may decry some of these scruples and protest that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my philosophy. I am concerned, rather, that there should not be more things dreamt of in my philosophy than there are in heaven or earth."—N. Goodman...

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August 28, 2005


An irreverent look at the problem of evil. The question is if God is all-loving, all-knowing, all powerful then how do you explain all the horrible things in the world? The list is long disease, hunger, starvation, painful fucking deaths, to name just a few. Is this God just a bit retarded? The suffering goes on and he does nothing. Is it because he can't, then he's not all-powerful, is it because he doesn't want to, then he is not all loving, is it because he doesn't see the problems, then he's not all knowing. So how is it the believer reconciles the problem? The standard answer is that if God eliminated the hardships we wouldn't have the freedom to grow. But surely a tweak here and there could be made without jeopardizing the freedom thing. The atheist would say God could have designed us to feel less pain, or made us more empathetic so we weren't such nasty bastards, or made the process of learning a bit easier to help us avoid some of the common pitfalls. Natural disasters could be made less disastrous. No category 2,3,4, or 5 hurricanes would be a good start, I'm sure Louisiana wouldn't mind. And it is really not all that difficult to suggest other reasonable changes that would not steal our precious freedom and yet improve our situation. But if you're a believer it is a more difficult question because after all if you believe in God you believe him to be infinitely wise and who the hell are we to even pose the question. It may seem irrational but from a divine point of view it may just prove we simply don't know enough to see the wisdom of the plan. So now we've reached the crux of the problem. To believe God knows what the hell he is doing requires dismissing the role of rationality. Listen up this is the important part, you can't have it both ways. You can't defend your beliefs using reason when it's convenient and then not accept that a reasoned argument against belief has equal force. This is where the problem of evil leaves a believer. The best attempts at an explanation are just versions of it will be better for us in the long run. But that explanation defies reason becuase reason tells us that God could do better. If atheists can be accused of believing they know more than God, then believers are guilty of claiming to know better than reason, which to my mind is the more serious charge....

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July 31, 2005

What is Enlightenment ?

An Answer to the Question: "What is Enlightenment?", by Immanuel Kant Königsberg in Prussia, 30th September, 1784. Enlightenment is man's release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage s man's inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! "Have courage to use your own reason!"- that is the motto of enlightenment. Laziness and cowardice are the reasons why so great a portion of mankind, after nature has long since discharged them from external direction (naturaliter maiorennes), nevertheless remains under lifelong tutelage, and why it is so easy for others to set themselves up as their guardians. It is so easy not to be of age. If I have a book which understands for me, a pastor who has a conscience for me, a physician who decides my diet, and so forth, I need not trouble myself. I need not think, if I can only pay - others will easily undertake the irksome work for me. That the step to competence is held to be very dangerous by the far greater portion of mankind (and by the entire fair sex) - quite apart from its being arduous is seen to by those guardians who have so kindly assumed superintendence over them. After the guardians have first made their domestic cattle dumb and have made sure that these placid creatures will not dare take a single step without the harness of the cart to which they are tethered, the guardians then show them the danger which threatens if they try to go alone. Actually, however, this danger is not so great, for by falling a few times they would finally learn to walk alone. But an example of this failure makes them timid and ordinarily frightens them away from all further trials. (continue reading below the fold)...

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July 10, 2005

Brain Based Values

Patricia Churchland Reviews Michael Gazzaniga book The Ethical Brain Envision this scene: Socrates sits in prison, calmly awaiting execution, passing the time in philosophical discussions with students and friends, taking the occasion to inquire into the fundamentals of ethics: Where do moral laws come from? What is the root of moral motivation? What is the relation between power and morality? What is good? What is just? Ever modest, Socrates confesses ignorance of the answers. The pattern of questioning strongly hints, however, that whatever it is that makes something good or just is rooted in the nature of humans and the society we make, not in the nature of the gods we invent. This does not make moral rules mere conventions, like using a fork or covering one's breasts. There is something about the facts concerning human needs that entails that some laws are better than others. From the time of Socrates to the present, people have sought to give a natural basis for morals�that is, to understand how a moral statement about what ought to be done can rest on hard facts, albeit facts about conditions for civility and peace in social groups. How can ethical claims be more than mere conventions? How can such claims be rooted in facts about human nature but have the logical force of a command? Developments in evolutionary biology have helped to explain the appearance of moral motivation in humans and in other eusocial animals�animals that display behavior involving cooperation, sharing, division of labor, reciprocation and deception. In these species, various forms of punishment (shunning, biting, banishing, scolding) are visited on those who threaten the social norms. Ethological studies help us appreciate that, at a basic level, human social behavior has much in common with that of other species... If you find Gazzaniga's book of interest you'll enjoy Brain Wise by Patricia Churchland it is an excellent introduction to what neuroscience teaches us about common philosophical problems....

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July 4, 2005

Dodgy Reasoning and Stupid Assumptions

The fourth of July is a perfect time to rededicate ourselves to the 'philosophical' attitude our founders exhibited, and to avoid the "dodgy reasoning and stupid assumption-making that the unwashed masses" often use. Julian Baginni put it well in a recent BBC Night Waves program discussing his book The Pig That Wants to Be Eaten: And Ninety Nine Other Thought Experiments I think it's possible to read a hell of a lot of philosophy, it's possible to be a professional philosopher, and not have a philosophical attitude. I think the philophical attitude is this kind of constant questioning, and I think that sometimes people find philosophy, they love it, and they latch onto a few of their favourite philosophers, and they become as entrenched in a particular form of philosophy as any unphilosophical person becomes entrenched in their assumptions; philosophers are actually subject to the delusion in fact because their subject is officially the 'queen of the sciences,' the discipline which questions assumptions more than any other, they kind of feel that they themselves are immune to the kind of dodgy reasoning and stupid assumption-making that the unwashed masses do, and I think that's a terrible risk of doing philosophy Thanks to OB for the transcript Quicktime Audio 1.9MB 7'58 Quicktime Required (free download)...

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June 26, 2005

Links With Your Coffee - Sunday

All of today's links are related to philosophical issues or the study of philosophy. There is no better preparation for life than a grounding in philosophical concepts and methods. The Philosopher's Tookit is an excellent book on the both concepts and methods. I recommend this to anyone with an interest in philosophy. It is a great introduction for someone new to the subject, and is a great reference for those with more experience with philosophical ideas. DHS grad spreads philosophy to teens Bio ethics, death, existentialism, dreams � they weren't regular topics for some D.C. high school students until a Danbury High School graduate introduced them. David Backer, a senior at George Washington University, developed a philosophy seminar that he ran with 10 philosophy majors. They chose topics and led discussions so the high school juniors and seniors could learn to think more broadly about ideas at a deeper level than what is typical in high school course work. Students went to the university weekly for the two-hour seminar. Thinking Straight A Logical Vacation The Basis or Morality...

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June 10, 2005

Religion What is it Good For?

ob at Butterfiles and Wheels notes and comments has been on a tear recently here are three on the subject of religion that I think you'll enjoy. First Things In other words, why do we talk about whether or not religion is useful for social cohesion, or provides a sense of meaning, or is necessary for a sense of wonder, before we ask whether or not there's a shred of truth in it? Isn't that slightly back to front? It is, you know. Because if it's just a load of nonsense, then what good is it to say it's good for social cohesion? Lots of things would be good for social cohesion if they were true, but they're not, so what good does that do? Next time social cohesion breaks down in your neighbourhood, tell everyone 'We wouldn't be having this quarrel if Bugs Bunny were here, we'd be too busy asking him how Elmer Fudd is doing.' See if that helps. No. The first question to ask about religion is, surely, whether or not its truth claims are true, whether there is any evidence for them or not, whether they are anything more than a human invention. If the answers are all No - then asking all those questions on the other side of the line is a little dishonest, isn't it? Full Disclosure All right, we've made this separation; we've put the veracity or epistemic question on one side of the line, and the consequentialist question on the other. We've further said that the epistemic question comes first: that is, that for the sake of clarity, it ought to. So then what happens on the other side of the line? How does that discussion go? One way it goes is to say that even if there is no good reason to think religion is true (unless religion is defined so thinly that it bears no resemblance to what most people mean by the word), it still doesn't do to say so, because saying so would (to put it somewhat hyperbolically, as people occasionally do) 'rot the fabric of our civilization.' Or it doesn't do to say so because saying so might rot the fabric of our civilization. Or it doesn't do to say so because what if saying so rotted the fabric of our civilization? Or it doesn't do to say so because it is possible to imagine that saying so could rot the fabric of our civilization. Or some such variation on the theme. Which is a way of saying No, the epistemic question should not come first, the consequentialist one should; or else it's a way of saying the separation is a bad separation, and the two are not and should not be separable: that one should consider the epistemic question and the consequentialist one simultaneously. Not Contempt but Outrage It might be suggested on Hitch's behalf that, whether it meets such needs or not, because religious belief isn't substantively true, all it merits is contempt from atheists and humanists; and its adherents, likewise, only deserve disrespect in one or another mode. But that religion isn't true cannot be a sufficient reason for this; it is quite standard in democratic and pluralist societies to disagree in a tolerant and non-contemptuous way with beliefs and opinions we hold, or even sometimes know, to be false. Yes - up to a point. Or maybe not so much up to a point, as depending on how you define contempt. In fact that's what I disagreed about last time I disagreed - I didn't, and still don't, think that what Polly Toynbee expressed was contempt. What she expressed was something more like outrage, and it was directed primarily at the Vatican, the news media's sycophantic coverage of the Vatican, and Blair's knee-bending to the Vatican. Now, given the Vatican's murderous condom policy, I think that outrage is highly appropriate. and keeping with the theme here is the first half of "This American Life: In Defense of Godlessness" Click on Controller to Play Quicktime Audio Only 6.56 MB 26'56 Here is the link for anyone that hasn't listened to the second half of the program Letting Go of God by Julia Sweeney Quicktime Required (free download)...

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The Problem With Balanced Debates

Bad Moves: Contorting to balance By Julian Baggini "Evan Harris, Lib Dem MP and Honorary Associate of National Secular Society and Dr Jasdev Rai, Director of the Sikh Human Rights Group, discuss whether the play 'Behzti' in Birmingham should continue." The Today Programme, BBC Radio Four, 20th December 2004 I quite often get contacted by researchers for radio or television programmes as a potential contributor to some kind of topical debate. It�s common for nothing to come of the initial discussion, but on more than one occasion the reason for my unsuitability has left me concerned. As one researcher explicitly said, and others have implied, I am not extreme enough in my views. This woke me up to the fact that all too often, �balance� in a debate is interpreted to mean, first, giving both sides of the argument equal opportunity to present their views, and second, to represent both sides at their most trenchant. But does this really present a balanced picture? In one sense, of course it does: there is balance because there are two equal and opposite opinions. But the point of striving for balance is surely to represent the debate fairly. And I�m not sure this approach achieves that goal. For example, Today is BBC Radio Four�s flagship news programme, and it is always presenting �balanced debates�. One example was the discussion between Evan Harris and Jasdev Rai about the decision by the Birmingham Repertory Theatre to cancel performances of the play 'Behzti' because of violent protests by Sikhs, who found scenes of a rape in a temple to be offensive. In many ways they were obvious candidates: Dr Rai stood up for the Sikh protestors (though not for violence) while Harris insisted on the rights of free speech in a secular society. But the problem with this is that the issue is only really clear cut for those who, like the two contributors, stand at the extreme polls of the disagreement. Many others would think that there is a real difficulty here and that there is neither an inalienable right to perform whatever you want nor to demand that something you find offensive be banned....

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April 26, 2005

Against Narrativity

It is very popular in the academy today to understand life, politics, etc. in terms of stories we tell. Postmodern philosopher Lyotard tells us there are no "Grand Narratives," meaning there cannot be one story that dominates all whether it be the Christian story or the Enlightenment story. We are also told that we understand ourselves through stories we tell about ourselves. Galen Strawson, a well-known British philosopher, has decided to criticise this popular view in a very interesting paper. Here is the link. You can read the abstract and, if you wish, download the PDF of the whole article. Here is a passage I particularly liked. I also suspect that those who are drawn to write on the subject of 'narrativity' tend to have strongly diachronic and Narrative outlooks or personalities, and generalize from their own case with that special, fabulously misplaced confidence that people feel when, considering elements of their own experience that are existentially fundamental for them, they take it that they must also be fundamental for everyone else. The footnote to this reads "I think this may be the greatest single source of unhappiness in human intercourse." I think this insight also applies to many religious people. Just because you have a profound personal experience that is extremely meaningful does not mean that experience applies to anybody else....

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April 18, 2005

Do Arguments Count?

I'm not sure what the solution is to the problem of the vacuous sloganeering that passes for political debate both in our country and the U.K. The dangers are many. Wars waged on false evidence, economic policies that benefit only the few, are the most obvious, the list is long. Julian Baggini in his latest Bad Moves column describes the problem perfectly, what he doesn't offer is a solution. Do good arguments count? The answer would seem to be, not much. Bad Moves: Mood music By Julian Baggini �Are you thinking what we�re thinking? UK Conservative Party election manifesto slogan 2005 Elections are a sobering time for people who like to think that arguments count, and that opinions can be shifted by reasoned arguments about the various positions held. For as the present general election in the United Kingdom is once again demonstrating, sound arguments have little to do with the success or failure of campaigns. What seems to matter most of all is the overall impression given by the various candidates. This is why all the main parties are quite justifiably very concerned with image. We might prefer it if the election campaign were a vigorous intellectual debate, but any party that showed a high-minded disregard for its image would almost certainly lose ground against an opposition with more effective image management. When a political party is making its case by, in effect, not really making a case at all but creating an impression, it can be hard to pinpoint errors of reasoning. Indeed, a really good campaign will only use slogans and arguments that are irrefutable. The Conservatives know this well. Consider some of their slogans: �What�s wrong with a little discipline in schools?� Why, nothing of course. �It�s not racist to impose limits on immigration.� Of course it isn�t. �Why can�t politicians be more accountable?� Good question! If you like picking holes in arguments, there is some material to get your teeth into. �Put more police on the streets and they�ll catch more criminals. It�s not rocket science, is it?� Actually, it�s far from obvious that this is the way to bring down crime. The problem is that wandering bobbies are unlikely to bump into criminals on the job. One recent study suggested that it would take eight years for the average officer on the beat to get within 100 yards of a burglary in process. But opportunities to pick holes like these are few and far between because the election is being fought using slogans that are on the whole correct. Where the sleight of hand occurs is that when these words and slogans are selected and put together in the right way, an overall impression is created which is distinct from that of the individual elements themselves. Each utterance, each slogan, is a single note which only helps create the �mood music� if it is played in the right place at the right time....

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April 16, 2005

William James on Science

When one turns to the magnificent edifice of the physical sciences, and sees how it was reared; what thousands of interested moral lives of men lie buried in its mere foundations; what patience and postponement, what choking down of preference, what submission to the icy laws of outer fact are wrought into its very stones and mortar; how absolutely impersonal it stands in its vast augustness—then how besotted and contemptible seems every sentimentalist who comes blowing his smoke-wreaths, and pretending to decide things from out of his private dream—William James, "The Will to Believe"...

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April 12, 2005


When OB at Notes and Comments read this article by David Aaronovitch she took issue with one of his arguments and in true philosophical fashion, shreded it. I don't know if David has picked himself up off the floor, but if David knows what is good for him he'll stay down. David's argument is really quite feeble, and one that I've seen recently in one form or another, namely that since the Africans haven't obeyed all of Rome's edicts how can one argue that they have magically obeyed this one (the prohibition on the use of condoms) and so it follows, at least for David, that the Pope and Catholic Church can't be held responsible. Here is a taste of OB's response: Wait. One, Aaronovitch doesn't know (or if he does he certainly doesn't say) how many people in Africa do 'magically' obey the church on condoms. Two, is it likely that the number of people obeying the church on condoms is actually zero? None at all? Surely not. If not, doesn't that dismissal seem a little quick? A tad hasty? It does to me. Three, the stakes are high - a horrible lingering early death that often leaves destitute orphans, some of whom go into prostitution for want of alternatives and soon die of AIDS themselves, leaving even more destitute siblings - so again the dismissal seems too quick. Four, what about the rest of the world? Especially the rest of the Third World? The Vatican's murderous condom-ban was certainly not confined to Africa; it was global. Five, as is well known, there is already difficulty in getting men to use condoms, because men don't like wearing them; the more subordinated women are, the harder it is for them to insist that men wear condoms; this is especially true for prostitutes - some of whom are the very young daughters of AIDS victims and other destitute people; therefore any religious edict that could give an apparent moral or religious gloss to men's reluctance to wear them will be warmly welcomed and used by many men who will cheerfully ignore other religious edicts; such religious edicts are therefore extremely, lethally harmful to women. And six, even if not one person on the planet heeded the Vatican's ban, it would still be wicked and disgusting of the pope to have tried it. Bottomlessly disgusting. Mindless, superstitious, pointless, stupid, and savagely cruel. The putative 'reason' for the church's ridiculous insistence on banning contraception is so wildly out of proportion to its disastrous possible effects - a horrible slow degrading miserable death at an early age - that it's surely beyond defense. And that's the relevant point when talking about the pope, isn't it? The fact that he tried to ban condoms, not whether or not he succeeded? He wanted to succeed, and that's an incredibly bad, savage thing to have wanted to do. He was a bad man. Yes no doubt he meant well by his own lights - but he was desperately wrong about the lights, wasn't he. Now go read the rest of the article update: Arianna Huffington has something to say on the subject....

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April 8, 2005


This post is taken from the onegoodmove archives, and serves as an excellent introduction for the pragmatic eithics piece that follows. Stephen Covey author of the widely read, "The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Annoying People" has a metaphysics nearly identical to Kant. It describes the nature of the "real world" Covey argues that he knows this real world becuase multiple cultures throughout time have come to the same conclusions he has about that world. Nietzsche attacked the idea of this real world in Twilight of the Idols in the section How the Real World at last Became a Myth Chris has annotated it to address Covey's metaphysics. Pragmatic Ethics A nice essay by Hugh LaFollette on Pragmatic Ethics. It does a good job of explaining how pragmatists such as Dewey, James and Pierce devolop their own ethical systems. It is one I share. This is a pdf file 35 pages. Pragmatism Hillary Putnam, James Conant, Richard Rorty on Chicago Public Radio (real audio) 50min "Relativism is what people call pragmatism who don't like it. Noboday ever calls himself a relativist, nobody defends a veiw called relativisim."—Richard Rorty...

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March 31, 2005

From the Mailbag

Reader J.R. of New York writes, Greetings Norm, It seems that you are in some sort of search for truth like many of us with "less dust in our eyes," and there is a lot of writing about "reason" in your blog, but today the first thing I saw was a Nietzsche quote! Nietzsche, a philosopher who basically opposed rational thought and science, is directly responsible for laying the emotional (I refuse to say "intellectual")ground for the rise of Nazism in Germany, and its eventual philosophical migration to the New World. I certainly hope that one day we can see these intellectual impostures for what they truly are, deranged psycho-babble, and we start catching on to the abuse and misuse of science by postmodernism. I (Chris) would resist this "postmodern" reading of Nietzsche. Far from opposing science, I would argue that Nietzsche is a naturalistic philosopher, meaning he wants his views to be continuous with the methods of the best science of his day. Nietzsche observes how much "useful work to be done" there is in the sciences and adds, "I delight in their [scientists] work" (GM III: 23). He remarks, "the ideal scholar in whom the scientific instinct, after thousands of total semi-failures, for once blossoms and blooms to the end, is certainly of the most precious instruments there are" (BGE: 207). Nietzsche has plenty of praise for science in his work, "The Gay Science." For example, "But it [science] might yet be found to be the great dispenser of pain. And then its counterforce [sic] might be found at the same time: its immense capacity for making new galaxies of joy flare up" (GS: 12). Another example, "It is a profound and fundamental good fortune that scientific discoveries stand up under examination and furnish the basis, again and again, for further discoveries" (GS: 46). If Nietzsche were opposed to science what are we to make of these comments? He does say things that sound like they are anti-scientific, but if you read them closely I think you will see that he is opposing reductionism only, not science tout court. There are plenty of respectable scientists who oppose reductionism. Ernst Mayr, the late great evolutionary biologist, has long argued for the autonomy of Biology from physics and chemistry. Nietzsche is not a philosopher who denies there is truth. What he denies is that there is a transcendent truth. Likewise, Nietzsche doesn't oppose the use of reason, he opposes reason construed in a Kantian way. Brian Leiter does an excellent job in arguing against the postmodern reading Mr. Rodriguez is offering for Nietzsche's work, Nietzsche on Morality. Finally, the Nazi use of Nietzsche's work is a gross misappropriation of his work. If he has any culpability at all in the misuse of his work after he died it would be that his style of writing leaves itself too open to misunderstanding. This might be what Mr. Rodriguez means by making a distinction between the emotion and intellectual ground for Nazism. Nietzsche abhorred nationalism. He was very critical of German culture. He advocated being a "Good European." Most importantly Nietzsche denounced anti-semitism in a number of places. It has been the academic consesus for quite some time now that Nietzsche was not a proto-nazi. This idea of an emotional ground for Nazism is extremely vague and would implicate all kinds of people not generally associated with Nazism....

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March 30, 2005

Good News

My son Chris will be transferring from the University of Oregon's Masters Program to the University of Utah's PhD program in Philosophy beginning this fall 2005....

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March 28, 2005

The New Brown Shirts

Targeted by Conservatives for Teaching Philosophy House bill aimed to restrain academic scholars with legal threats by Jacqueline Marcus Of what use is a philosopher who doesn�t hurt anybody�s feelings?�Diogenes One may view the history of philosophy as a history of heresy.�Walter Kaufmann In the Florida legislature, House Republicans, on the Choice and Innovation Committee, recently voted to pass a bill that threatens to restrain academic scholars. The law would allow students to sue teachers for beliefs that do not concur with conservative perspectives. If, for example, professors argue that evolution is a scientific fact instead of a theory, and if they don�t devote equal time to creationism, under this bill, initiated by conservative David Horowitz�s campaign, students can sue the professor for being biased. Although the bill has two more committees to pass before it can be considered by the full House, it represents a growing threat against the very foundation of scholarly research. The intended goal of this bill is to portray professors as tyrannical monsters who terrorize Republican-conservative students, rendering them into poor, helpless victims under the authority of those, ah yes, Brutal Liberal Dictators! Indeed, the phrasing of the bill is comical. It turns the essential meaning of �liberal education� upside down: �leftist totalitarianism� by �dictator professors� in university classrooms. How�s this for an Orwellian twist? The bill is titled �The Academic Freedom Bill of Rights,� sponsored by Rep. Dennis Baxley, R-Ocala. In this rather oppressive atmosphere, particularly if one lives in a conservative county, as I do, teaching philosophy is a dangerous occupation. It�s not quite as dangerous as being a liberal journalist, but it has its risks. I�ve written a cover piece for our local paper, New Times, entitled �The Politics of Restraint,� on this subject because I felt it was important for the community to know that if college teachers clarify fact from fiction, if they explain the truth on the invasion of Iraq, that Saddam was not responsible for 9/11, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and therefore he could not have been an imminent threat to the U.S, conservatives howl in agony that the teacher is spreading �anti-Bush indoctrination.� If teachers dare to enlighten Republican students on Bush�s anti-environmental policies that benefit polluting industries at the expense of the public�s health, they�re immediately tagged �Bush-bashers.� I, personally, was targeted by a group of Bush-supporting fundamentalists. As soon as they listed me on their websites, I received a flood of hate e-mails from nutcases across the nation. The author of �Bush Bashing for a College Degree� not only attacked the philosophy course, she proceeded to condemn the entire humanities department and Western traditional philosophers as being �secular evil influences.� Plato, Augustine, Kant, Nietzsche and J.S. Mill are unsuitable for study because they�re EVIL according to Jen Shroder. Shroder wrongly claims that I yelled at my students, �If you like Bush or Limbaugh, LEAVE NOW.� I admit, I like the sound of it, but it�s flatly untrue. This woman has never attended my class. I have, however, mentioned to my students that the Bush administration�s favorable take on Iraq is being played 24/7 on all the corporate media networks and talk radio shows. This explains why conservatives are now going after college teachers. Given the massive media control, it�s the last arena left where students are introduced to a humane and rational approach to serious moral issues, where they�ll be exposed to critical analysis, such as examining how the Iraqis, students their own age, feel about the U.S. invasion, an evaluation which has been deliberately ignored from the American corporate media reports from day one of this invasion. Not surprising, my students had never considered what it would be like to be in Iraqi civilian shoes, to be occupied by foreign invaders. It was the first time anyone asked them to think about Iraqi families from an empathic angle. After we discussed Plato�s theory of Justice, I asked my students if Plato would agree or disagree with Bush�s decision to invade Iraq. Most of them understood the connection between Plato�s assessment of war and the fact that Iraq is the 2nd largest source of oil in the world. Plato argued that �the desire for more things will soon exhaust the resources of the community and before long, we shall have to cut off a slice or our neighbor�s territory�and they will want a slice of ours. At this rate, neighbors will inevitably be at war. Wars have their origin in desires which are the most fruitful source of evils both to individuals and states.� Conservative students have complained to each other: �How can she call herself a philosophy teacher when she doesn�t� allow students to express their opinions?� Students labor under the false presumption that philosophy is about the expression of �their� opinions and that all opinions are equally valid. Never mind that most students haven�t read a single philosophy book in their entire lives. Never mind that they do not hold a single college degree on the subject. Degrees in philosophy are irrelevant to today�s students. Generally, students don�t value reading, which means that they don�t value learning, and if they don�t value learning, they don�t value teachers. There are exceptions, thank goodness, but this downward trend of poor reading and writing skills is getting worse with every year that passes. Nevertheless, college students believe that they have equal status with their professors. And that is how this movement began�with the absurd notion that students� opinions, no matter how stupid or wrong those opinions may be, have as much validity as academic scholarship. To reiterate the charge: Ah yes, poor conservatives are being terrorized and victimized by the Big Bad Liberal Teachers. How so? Considering the lecture on Plato, you�d think that conservatives would be on Plato�s side since Plato is a Moral Absolutist. Plato argued that �Justice does not entail harming others.� Oh, oh, that doesn�t sit well with war-monger conservatives. Regarding categorical imperatives, I equated Plato�s definition of Justice with the Biblical Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill. What�s all the fuss about? Alas, conservative Christians talk big on the Ten Commandments, but do they really accept moral absolutism? Given the brouhaha last election over conservative �moral values,� I brought up the obvious contradiction between the pro-life position against abortion on the one hand, and on the other hand, unquestionable support for an unjustifiable invasion of Iraq that has led to over 100,000 Iraqi civilian deaths, mostly children. Moral Absolutism, I argued, calls for CONSISTENCY. Otherwise, if you allow for exceptions, it�s no longer absolute. Make up your minds. Either you adhere to the moral imperative or you�re a relativist. The Bush-supporting, conservative students were not intimidated; they were raging mad at me for pointing out the contradiction. One student screamed in a fit of rage that �there are NO civilian deaths in Iraq!� In response, I asked, �What planet are you on?� All right, I confess to being a tad bit sarcastic. But come on! No civilian deaths?! What an idiot. So sue me! No wait! I�m kidding. Another student demanded to take over my class. I swear I�m not making this up....

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March 17, 2005

What's The Difference?

Respecting Religious Belief from Philosophy Talk via Strange Doctrines ...assuming� that religious beliefs are in some sense less than fully rational,� what follows for how they ought or ought not to be respected and acknowledge in private and public life?... [snip] �As long as there is no attempt to impose religious belief� on me, especially as long as religion is divorced from state power, then it's no skin off my back.� Let people have their� superstitions, let them define their life projects and find their deepest values in any way they want.� Just don't bother me.� [snip] many believers experience through their traditions and theology a felt entitlement to hold the world to the strictures of their religion in one way or another. [snip] Of course, the religiously� committed� would probably� say back to the religiously uncommitted that their positions are exactly equal.� We atheistic worshipers of the canons of secular rationality feel an entitlement to hold the world to our standards of belief.� The means we adopt to bring that about range from the benign to the truly destructive.� �So what's really the difference? [snip] the big difference has to do with what I'll call responsiveness to rational pressure both from the "world" in terms of evidence for and against our beliefs and from other rational beings.� �Religious belief in some way sits outside what I like to call the� contest of reason.� The religious believer experiences certain of her beliefs as beyond the reach of rational arguments and evidence, as unquestionable articles of faith.� � That,� I think, makes them conversation stoppers.� Convictions that make the public conversation impossible to continue do not� belong in the public sphere in the first place.� � Faith may or may not be a good thing for the faithful.� � But when faith is not shared, and represents itself as beyond the reach of reason,� it makes public conversation difficult. [snip] ...To the extent that religion generates in the believer the felt entitlement -- an entitlement not secured or ratiifed by reason --� to hold the world to their religion, religion demands a place in the public square.� But the more totalizing religion becomes and the more unwilling it is, in effect, to share the public square, to view itself as contestable, as one� set of beliefs and practices among others,� all of which must� earn their public places through public reason, argument, and evidence,� religion� is simply not made for the� public square......

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March 11, 2005


One of the most interesting logical fallacies is the counterfactual also known as "Hypothesis Contrary to Fact" After the 2000 election many made the argument that if Ralph Nader hadn't run then Al Gore would have been elected president. This is an example of a counterfactual, and it cannot be proven. Recently we have heard the neo-cons making claims that had we not invaded Iraq the movements for peace in the area would not be taking place. This is also a counterfactual. In both of these examples there are many other causes to consider. it is true that one of the possible causes for Gore's loss was Nader's participation in the race, but that is not proof that he would have been elected sans Nader. Likewise the war in Iraq is one of the possible causes for the democratic stirrings in the Middle East, but neither is it proof that the results wouldn't have been the same or similar had the war not occured. In the Nader case those who voted for Nader may not have voted or voted for another third party candidate. Had Nader not run other candidates may have entered the race. Gore may have campaigned differently if Nader hadn't run, well you get the idea. In the case of the Middle-East, the death of Yasser Arafat may have been a more significant factor to name just one of the many possible causes. Bruce Thompson's Fallacy Page has one of the best explanations of the counterfactual also known as Hypothesis Contrary to Fact. Hypothesis Contrary to Fact Description: From a statement of fact, the argument draws a counterfactual claim (i.e. a claim about what would have been true if the stated fact were not true). The argument falsely assumes that any state of affairs can have only one possible cause. Examples: "I taught you logic. So, if I hadn't taught you logic, you never would have learned logic at all." --paraphrased from Max Schulman's "Love is a Fallacy" "In this country citizens are permitted to own guns. Therefore, if guns were outlawed, citizens would be unable to protect themselves and there would be an uncontrollable crime wave." Discussion: We know that actions have consequences. We are able to speculate about the consequences of our actions because there is a real causal connection between how we act and how things turn out. We avoid certain actions because we are able to understand those causal connections. Wise choices require an awareness of consequences and an ability to reason hypothetically about them. It is perfectly good reasoning to say, "I didn't turn left because, if I had turned left I would have gotten lost."� This means, of course, that we can speculate on how matters might have turned out differently if we had acted differently - for good or ill. A teacher is entitled to say, "You got an F because you didn't turn in your assignments. If you had turned in your assignments you wouldn't have gotten an F." The fallacy of Hypothesis Contrary to Fact follows the same general pattern of reasoning. However, it does so in a context in which the consequences of an action are not actually clear. In a complex situation other factors are likely to intervene. The boundary between clear situations and complex situations is, of course, broad and fuzzy, and the fuzziness of the boundary allows fallacious reasoning to masquerade as good practical speculation. The connection between failing to turn in assignments and failing to pass the class is simple and obvious. It is easy to understand how things would have turned out differently if the assignments had been turned in. The connection between gun ownership and levels of crime in a community is complex and indirect. In that context we can't easily project how things would be different if circumstances were changed. Nevertheless our usual success with speculative reasoning (in simpler contexts) may embolden us into thinking that we can speculate successfully even here. � Classification: A False Cause Fallacy (a retroductive fallacy of soundness with a falsehood in the major premiss)....

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January 24, 2005

A Few Bad Apples

You can't be a Sweet Cucumber in a Vinegar Barrel "When you put that set of horrendous work conditions and external factors together, it creates an evil barrel,"writes the eminent situationist psychologist Philip Zimbardo, known for his famous Stanford Prison Experiment in the early 70s. "You could put virtually anybody in it and you're going to get this kind of evil behavior," he continued. "The Pentagon and the military say that the Abu Ghraib scandal is the result of a few bad apples in an otherwise good barrel. That's the dispositional analysis. The social psychologist in me, and the consensus among many of my colleagues in experimental social psychology, says that's the wrong analysis. It's not the bad apples, it's the bad barrels that corrupt good people. Understanding the abuses at this Iraqi prison starts with an analysis of both the situational and systematic forces operating on those soldiers working the night shift in that 'little shop of horrors.'" YOU CAN'T BE A SWEET CUCUMBER IN A VINEGAR BARREL (PHILIP ZIMBARDO:) For years I've been interested in a fundamental question concerning what I call the psychology of evil: Why is it that good people do evil deeds? I've been interested in that question since I was a little kid. Growing up in the ghetto in the South Bronx, I had lots of friends who I thought were good kids, but for one reason or another they ended up in serious trouble. They went to jail, they took drugs, or they did terrible things to other people. My whole upbringing was focused on trying to understand what could have made them go wrong. When you grow up in a privileged environment you want to take credit for the success you see all around, so you become a dispositionalist. You look for character, genes, or family legacy to explain things, because you want to say your father did good things, you did good things, and your kid will do good things. Curiously, if you grow up poor you tend to emphasize external situational factors when trying to understand unusual behavior. When you look around and you see that your father's not working, and you have friends who are selling drugs or their sisters in prostitution, you don't want to say it's because there's something inside them that makes them do it, because then there's a sense in which it's in your line. Psychologists and social scientists that focus on situations more often than not come from relatively poor, immigrant backgrounds. That's where I came from....

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January 19, 2005

Free Will

Do we have free will. What is its nature. How does the question of free will relate to the death penalty. Crime and Causality: Do Killers Deserve to Die? ...But the most fundamental justification for supposing that killers deserve to die, and that executions are morally permissible, still remains. It is that killers have free will, the capacity to have chosen otherwise in the exact situation in which the murders took place. Such freedom means that choices and actions are, in some basic, metaphysical sense, the human agent�s alone. Whatever the causal antecedents of character, motive, and behavior, we are not simply the working out of such factors. At the moment of choice, we originate something independent of natural causality, something that makes us ultimately responsible and thus deeply deserving of praise or punishment. Susan Smith, whom the prosecution argued killed her two young sons to advance a love affair, was not fully caused to act precisely as she did but instead let her car roll into a South Carolina lake of her own free will, her children strapped inside. Likewise, Gary Lee Sampson, sentenced in 2003 under federal law in Massachusetts to die for multiple murders, chose to kill, and that choice was in some fundamental sense strictly his own doing.2 The difficulty is that this age-old belief about human choice seems less and less plausible the more we learn about ourselves. Recent work in genetics, neuroscience, and behavioral psychology is rapidly fleshing out the causal story of how the brain�the physical seat of consciousness, character, desire, and rationality�is entirely shaped by biological and environmental influences and interactions. Behavior, and decision making in particular, can be understood as functions of the brain-body control system, which needs no nonmaterial, causally uninfluenced supervisor of neural processes�no soul or �ghost in the machine��to deliberate effectively and make choices. Where, then, is the buck-stopping, freely willing agent that could have done otherwise as a situation unfolds? Neuroscience is telling us, as Tom Wolfe so unkindly put it in the title of a 1996 Forbes Magazine essay, that �Sorry, but your soul just died.� The death of the supernatural soul, and along with it contra-causal free will�what philosophers call variously libertarian, Cartesian, or interventionist free will�is a central concern of a number of recent books by philosophers and cognitive scientists. Steven Pinker, in chapter 10 (�The Fear of Determinism�) of The Blank Slate, argues that we should make our peace with determinism, drop the belief in the ghost in the machine, and justify punishment on grounds of deterrence only.3 Derk Pereboom, a philosopher at the University of Vermont, writes in his book, Living Without Free Will, that giving up the belief in free will �would not have disastrous consequences, and indeed it promises significant benefits for human life.�4 In Freedom Evolves, Tufts philosopher Daniel Dennett admonishes us to be content with the sorts of freedom that are compatible with being fully determined creatures,5 and, in perhaps the most forthright dismantling of free will yet written for laypersons, Duke professor Owen Flanagan argues in The Problem of the Soul that the viability of our naturally evolved moral intuitions doesn�t depend on being uncaused choosers.6 The common message of these books and the burgeoning scientific research on human nature is that there is no evidence to show that human agents escape being caused in each and every respect. Regarding the death penalty, this means that those who kill don�t do so because they somehow rise above causal influences. Killers, like ordinary folk, are fully a function of a complex set of biological, familial, and social processes, and were any of us dealt exactly same genetic and environmental hand as, for instance, Susan Smith or Gary Lee Sampson, there�s no reason to suppose we would have acted any differently. Put more positively, had either Smith or Sampson been dealt a different hand, then it�s quite likely they would never have killed....

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