Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Hitchens on Free Speech

Earlier this month last year, Christopher Hitchens gave a speech defending free speech in general, and specifically attacking a Canadian attempt to criminalize hate speech. Ed Brayton provided the MP3, which I downloaded and forgot about, only today managing to get this wonderful gem onto an iPod to listen to. This is one of those speeches that deserves to be transcribed and reprinted everywhere. The opening line is too good to give away, but I will say that he does a great riff on the idiocy of equating religious groups with racial ones (I recently found an example of this being passed on by Biblical scholar Jim West. I was going to write a rebuttal, but Hitchens is more than sufficient on this point.) Also, those who prefer video to MP3 can find that here.

EDIT: I don't know how I became convinced this material was only from last month. I'm pretty sure I only downloaded it last month. ???

What's the deal with Alvin Plantinga? (with some thoughts on Craig)

This is a post I've been meaning to write for awhile. The final push in writing it came from Tim Leisz, who I debated last year when he commented on a recent post.

In the past few months I've come to think that there's something very wrong with the philosophical work of Alvin Plantinga--not "shocking, how could he do that!" very wrong, but "this isn't right, even if I can't put my finger on it" very wrong. It really first came up when I was in the process of revising, for Internet Infidels, my comments on chapter 1 of William Lane Craig's Reasonable Faith. (If anyone wonders why I dislike Craig, read those comments first, along with Robert M. Price's comments on the same material). I was going to include a mention of Craig's use of Plantinga. At first glance I thought Plantinga would reject Craig's views. Then I became less sure what Plantinga was trying to say. Now I doubt that Plantinga knows what his position is. The passage that really got me thinking was in his book Warranted Christian Belief, at the end of the chapter on Biblical scholarship. Plantinga imagines a situation in which we have apparently conclusive evidence that Christianity was a hoax (in the form of letters among the original disciples, etc.) and then asks if Christians would have to give up their beliefs in that situation. He response is to the effect that he doesn't know and isn't terribly interested in the question. I can't give an exact quote, because I left my copy of WCB back in my hometown, but similar material can be found here:
A series of letters could be discovered, letters circulated among Peter, James, John and Paul, in which the necessity for the hoax and the means of its perpetration are carefully and seriously discussed; these letters might direct workers to archeological sites in which still more material of the same sort is discovered...

There is no need to borrow trouble, however; perhaps we can cross these bridges if we come to them.
That's just from a lecture-notes forerunner to the relevant WBC chapter, but WBC isn't really much more substantial.

This is weird. Most people would have no trouble saying that if there were conclusive evidence that Joseph Smith or L. Ron Hubbard was a fraud, then people would best give up Mormonism and Scientology, respectively. It isn't just that Plantinga is willing to endorse a counter-intuitive thesis, it's that he entertains it without bothering to provide the slightest reason why, contrary to appearances, it might be true. He isn't interested in investigating the question. Yet the question hits fairly near the heart of everything he's written on the rationality of Christianity.

On the one hand, Plantinga seems obsessed with the question of whether his religion can be rationally believed, on the other hand, he seems surprisingly lazy and lacking in curiosity when he talks about the subject. He'll do what it takes to fend off the charge of irrationality in the short term, and appears to not care much beyond that. So many of his papers on the problem of evil boil down to "who cares if there's evidence against my views?" One of the places this came up is in the e-book Internet Infidels is putting together. Paul Draper's reply deserves to be quoted in full (note here that Draper considers himself an agnostic, and thinks there are good arguments for and against the existence of God):
Plantinga makes it clear that he wants to draw this further conclusion when he says that, "To produce 'a serious argument from evil against theism . . .,' Draper would first have to show that theism is false." I will close by showing that Plantinga's inference here is incorrect: . . . The reason it does not follow is that there are very many people who, like me, don't believe they already know that God exists (or that God doesn't exist), and for that reason believe that it is appropriate and important to engage, not in apologetics, but in genuine inquiry designed to determine, to the best of their ability, whether or not God exists. Included here are agnostics as well as theists and atheists who have doubts about God's existence or nonexistence. These skeptical souls have no choice but to do their best to objectively assess the available evidence. Thus, for them, the fact that E is strong evidence favoring naturalism over theism, which my argument demonstrates, is of great significance.
There's more I could say, but I don't have all the appropriate resources in front of me, so I'll rest there for the time being.

Moving back to Craig, all this stuff coming from Plantinga, a supposedly respectable philosopher, lends a certain amount of support to Craig's approach to philosophy/apologetics, even if Plantinga himself has no idea whether he wants to endorse Craig's view. This is a bad thing. Craig urges Christians to hold onto their beliefs no matter the evidence to the contrary, but at the same time to try to come up with rational-sounding arguments to use to win converts, keep sheep in the fold, and convince themselves that dissenters are as deserving of damnation as the Bible says they are. This is an abandonment of what's best in philosophy: the honest search for truth. Part of me, Tim, wonders whether you really would side with Craig on this point. If you do, though, I stand by what I said: it would be an unmitigated disaster if people like you became a force in academic philosophy. It was nice having coffee with you, but friendship only gets you so far. And even if you don't stand with Craig here, I still find the extent of his influence on you worrisome.

Finally, the Craig-Avalos debate. The audio is available here, the key thing is to listen to the first few minutes of Craig's first speech. The very first thing Craig says when he's done being chummy is to call Avalos "unprofessional," for the following reason: Avalos criticized another scholar, because said scholar had claimed some Biblical manuscripts were complete, when they were in fact missing parts. Craig claimed that the official scholarly definition of "complete" doesn't require all the pieces to be present. Even if so, the original claim was still misleading, which is why I previously said "misleading at best." Also notice that Craig says "the goal of academic debate is to get at the truth." On its face, Craig lied right there about his intentions, unless by "get at the truth" he means "try to convince people the evidence is on your side, even if the evidence clearly shows you're wrong."

Craig's sleaze and his broader disregard for intellectual honesty goes hand in hand. He doesn't care about having legitimate points, just about sounding convincing. He works this way even when he's contemplating smear campaigns against real scholars. He is a dangerous, despicable charlatan, and it disturbs me that he seems to be getting the influence he wants in contemporary philosophy.

Humanist Symposium 14

Little late on this, but the 14th edition of the Humanist Symposium is up.

Happy belated birthday, Tom

When I saw this post over at Ed Brayton's place, I told myself I would definitely do a "happy birthday Tom Paine" post before the day was out. Then the day ran out, and I hadn't done it, so I'm doing it today. Coincidentally, yesterday I read a good chuck of Sandman vol. VI (Neil Gaiman), which has a very good French Revolution sequence in which Paine appears briefly. Made for a nice way to accidentally celebrate Paine's birthday.

Monday, January 28, 2008

The big Obama-Clinton post

I've had previous thoughts on the controversy over Obama's church and other bits on the campaign. Now I want to do a big post on the fighting going on between Obama and Clinton.

Bottom line: I don't buy the line that Obama is a wonderful guy and the Clinton attacks on him are the height of depravity. Both have, no doubt, done less-than-reputable things of the sort that all politicians do, but the Clintons' stuff isn't nearly as bad as it's made out to be.

Take, for example, Bill's "fairy tale" remark. This is supposed to be obviously disreputable? Political campaigns, and the media coverage that surrounds them, a chock full of fairy tales. You don't have to be a genius to think a tale being spun by your opponents is a fairy tale, but it at least shows you're smarter than the people who are shocked at the very idea that any such thing is going on.

Or, consider this fuller list of supposed Clinton "lies" which I found linked, unfortuantely, by the normally first-rate Richard Chapell. One of them is demonstrably not a lie. Obama really did vote "present" on anti-abortion bills. The Clinton campaign is free to claim this was a bad thing, even if Obama supporters have defenses of what he did. I'm inclined to side with the Clintons. The official explanation for Obama's votes was "present" votes would be harder to use against a candidate on re-election. That is a cowardly strategy. Even if Obama wasn't at risk and was merely trying to set an example for politicians at a bigger risk of being removed from office, he is still guilty of encouraging cowardice. Understand this is a pettier form of the sort of cowardice that prevents the major Democratic presidential candidates from endorsing marriage rights for gays and lesbians--non candidates like Al Gore have no problem here, nor do candidates who don't havea real chance. Yes, I'm indicting Hillary here too, and it would be nice if she'd clean up her act on that point, but it doesn't make her campaign's criticism of Obama on another point a lie.

Other instances on this list are trivial slip-ups: Obama saying the Republicans had all the ideas (with a generally positive tone) vs. Obama saying the Republicans had all the good ideas. More precision in the criticism would have been nice, but this was hardly a major lie.

Andrew Sullivan, among the countless posts venting his Clinton-hate, had one of the more baffling pieces of spin I've seen in my life:
In the war of words, both men were hurt, but a majority sided with Obama:
In the exit polls, we asked voters in this primary if the candidates were attacking each other unfairly. Fifty-six percent of those voting so far think Obama attacked Clinton unfairly, and while that is a high number, more people thought Clinton unfairly attacked Obama -- 70%.
If a majority thinks Obama's attacks were unfair, then a majority wasn't siding with him. The two satistics allow for a majority of general disgust, or what is perhaps more likely, a nice split between Clinton-supporters, Obama-supporters, and the generally disgusted. Hillary did worse by 14 points, but this is surprisingly low given the treatment she's gotten from the media.

I find the whole thing rather distressing. Even the normally cynical Michael Reynolds declares he's putting away his cynicism for Obama's sake.

That said, I've found plenty of more encouraging stuff. John Derbyshire calls Obama's material "vaporous flapdoodle." Vastleft (at one time my co-blogger at God is for Suckers!) has had good stuff here. As has John Cole. And Jason Rosenhouse. I recommend them all.

I want to be clear that I have seen a couple people given decent attempts at arguing Obama is actually strong for policy reasons. On the whole, though, his campaign strikes me as a troubling representation of style over substance, and the current spin on his confrontations with Clinton is no exception.

Who was Kurt Gödel?: and other musings on metaphysics

I just started up taking Madison's Phil 560 course, a metaphysics course. I've done a fair amount of thinking about metaphysical issues as they come up in other philosophy classes: intro, history of modern philosophy, philosophy of religion, philosophy of mind. I've decided I need to jot them down quickly before they get blotted out by the things I'm learning in the new class. All such posts will have the words "musings on metaphysics" in their title.

In this post, I'm going to be talking about issues involving things being the same across possible worlds, possible worlds being a confusing bit of philosophical jargon for total descriptions of the way the world might hypothetically be. I previously blogged this issue in connection with water. Now I'll look at another example that gets kicked around a lot in the philosophical literature, Kurt Gödel (don't ask me why Gödel gets this treatment all the time as opposed to say, Hilbert.)

It was suggested by Bertrand Russell that names are ultimately shorthand for descriptions. So "Kurt Gödel" might be short for "the author of the Incompleteness Theorem." This theory of meaning is thought by some to be refuted by the following consideration: what if Gödel had actually stolen his theorem from his roommate Smith?

The difficulty with this supposed refutation is it does not use the sort of description that comes most naturally when thinking of a figure such as Gödel. Ask me what I know about Gödel, and it will include things like the fact that he went by the name Gödel all his life, that he published the Incompleteness Theorem, that he got credit for the Incompleteness Theorem, that he interacted with the academic community in his capacity as the author of the Incompleteness Theorem, that he was from Germany or Austria or some similar country where people have umlauts in their surnames, that he emigrated to America and believed he had found a logical loophole in the constitution.

The description theory seems to survive the Smith hypothetical case if you understand some of these things as being more central to the meaning of the name "Kurt Gödel" than the mere fact that he authored the incompleteness theorem. Of course, it's unclear which and how many of these you need for Gödel to be Gödel. I suspect you could do some pretty funny things to your linguistic intuitions if mixed and matched these things in hypothetical scenarios. Things will get particularly funny when you try to come up with the reasons for the incongruities in the story (Example: early in his career, Gödel's driver made a bet with him that he could deliver a lecture for him. After that point, for most of Gödel's career, his driver acted as his public face.)

Another hypothetical case, which might screw with some theory or another: the man with think of as Kurt Gödel had a twin brother. At their birth, the man we think of as Kurt Gödel was named Karl, and his brother named Kurt. At an age of one month, they were accidentally switched. I hope that in such a case we would not have to say that almost everything we believe about Kurt Gödel is false.

Things get hairier when we use someone who's quite well known for two unrelated things. A good example would be Noam Chomsky, who's known both for his left-wing politics and his major contributions to psychology and linguistics. Go ahead, try to invent scenarios under which these Chomskys aren't the same person.

Other cases to play with: varying degrees of prenatal genetic variation, varying degrees of changes in time of birth, people who happen to have the same name (Ptolemy the general and Ptolemy the astronomer, for example).

Sorry that this post became less coherent as it went on. Anyway, I suspect these headaches result from expecting more definiteness in language than we have a right to expect, though I don't have all the details worked out.

Thought of the Time Being

The other day, I saw a cluster of houses flying through the air. And I thought, "Well, there goes the neighborhood."

Friday, January 25, 2008

Latest Philosophy Now

Philosophy Now, a popular philosophy magazine published in Great Britain, is an all around great publication. The fact that they have such things in Britain and not the U.S. has been cited as a sign of the relative health of the British intellectual climate as compared with the U.S. Anyway, there are at least two reasons to pick up the latest issue in particular:

(1) An angry letter from yours truly, complaining about a negative review of Richard Dawkins' The God Delusion. It's one of two such letters, the other by Molleen Matsumura of "Sweet Reason" fame.

(2) A book review dealing with pop culture, humor, and philosophy. It references the website for a book called Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar, which is running a caption contest for a cartoon with exactly that situation. My submission:
Platypus: "I may be proof that the material realm is horribly defective compared to the realm of pure forms, but you’re still a fascist."

Whose double standards?

Farrakhan(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Last week, Andrew Sullivan complained about someone demanding "that Obama leave his own church because his preacher has all sorts of crazy views that relate to politics" (particularly Jeremiah Wright's praise of racist crackpot Louis Farrakhan.) Sullivan treats this as obviously nuts for reasons that aren't quite clear. The words "double standard" appear in the title, but he never argues that there actually is a double standard here. It actually seems that Sullivan is the one applying a double standard: most people would have no qualms about insisting that a candidate break any former associations with a secular organization that had "all sorts of crazy views that relate to politics." One standard for religious organizations, another for secular ones.

Now, to be fair to Sullivan, I should note that Sullivan is a gay man, a prominent supporter of gay rights in fact, indeed one of the earliest advocates of gay marriage, who is also a member of the world's largest anti-gay organization, the Catholic Church. I sort of understand the idea that once you're Catholic, you don't get out, it's like the mob in that respect, so maybe we can't be too hard on Catholics in these matters. However, Obama is a Protestant, and Protestants aren't known for hanging around churches whose leaders hold views the parishioners find repugnant. Therefore, it's perfectly legitimate to wonder about Obama's religious affiliations.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Appeals to authority

This is a sort of follow-up to Is there expertise in philosopy? The Barefoot Bum linked to something I had written on the subject, as well as linking Stephen Law and adding his own commentary.

I don't have a lot to say about this, but I do have disconnected points:

1) When it comes to listening to experts on an empirical subject, what you're doing is broadly similar to trusting the testimony of someone on a more straightforward manner (what did you do last weekend? etc.) It's not obviously problematic.

2) You have to look at the biases of the people involved. Law brings up Biblical scholarship, a case where almost everyone goes into the field a believer and for religious reasons, an obvious case of this.

3) There is a distinction between "philosophers believe this, therefore it's true" and "philosophers believe this, therefore it's reasonable." I've heard the things along the lines of the former from William Lane Craig, but never from an actual philosopher. The latter is what you're likely to hear from an actual philosopher. I tend to disagree, but it's still a distinct claim.

Get it while you can!

Jim Lippard has a nice roundup of recent internet activity on Scientology. Includes Tom Cruise stuff fuller than what I had previously, and a discussion of an new attack on Scientology. Some of the videos may go down soon, so watch now.

Quote of the Time Being

I am aware that many object to the severity of my language; but is there not cause for severity? I will be as harsh as truth, and as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or to speak, or write, with moderation. No! no! Tell a man whose house is on fire to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hands of the ravisher; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; -- but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest -- I will not equivocate -- I will not excuse -- I will not retreat a single inch -- AND I WILL BE HEARD. The apathy of the people is enough to make every statue leap from its pedestal, and to hasten the resurrection of the dead.
-William Lloyd Carrison. An oldie but a goodie.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

News coverage of philosophy

A week ago there was a discussion at the Leiter reports about what kind of philosophy gets news coverage. The initial thought was that things are biased towards sciencey stuff, though the comments on how different things are in Europe, particularly this one, were nice reading as well.

My thoughts: first, science is a lot easier to cover than philosophy. We collect data that's never been collected before, sometimes a result is overturned, but all in all we make progress in a pretty straightforward way. Philosophy is a lot slower moving, with more argumentative back and forth. On the other hand, I think good philosophy is going to be interesting to most people. Philosophy shows up all the time in newspapers, but its usually on the op-ed pages and written by people who have no idea what they're talking about.

Philosophy journalism is never going to have the straightforward new study/new technology stories of science journalism. Its often hard to tell right when an article comes out whether it will be important, ultimately. On the other hand, news has to be new. So I'd recommend a focus on conferences, books, and up-and-coming people. For example, Richard Feldman has an anthology coming out on disagreement. If I were a journalist right now, I'd be rushing to whip up a sort of book-review plus for it, involving reading the book but also interviewing the people involved, asking them what implications they think this has for disagreements in politics, religion etc. Feldman, at least, has no problem talking about those things, as he contributed a quite good essay on disagreement to an anthology titled Philosophers Without Gods. Unfortunately, this kind of reporting takes effort, and honestly it isn't even that common within science journalism.

Are you angry now?

Yet another story of Evangelicals screwing with our military, via Hemant. They are working vigorously to corrupt every aspect of life in the U.S., but the military is the most dangerous one, the one that we need to fight against at every opportunity.

Some political scriblings

I've seen a couple of links to the piece on the Obama-Clinton fight. Neither come out looking good, and my tendency to be somewhat leery of both of them is reinforced. Over at John Cole's place, Michael D. also notes that Obama's "Wal-Mart" attack is kinda silly. The problem with this sort of negative campaigning is not that politicians should be above criticism, but that it's conducted without much regard for truth or reason. If I were running for political office, I would be going around saying "In recent years, it has become depressingly common for politicians to use personal attacks as a disingenuous tool for rising a few points in the polls. I promise you that when I go negative, I will mean it." Then, I'd insist on having every negative bit my campaign people dug up carefully double checked by them and triple checked personally by myself. When and only when I knew I had something legit, I'd be vicious.

In cheerier news, Richard Chapelle has a case for Obama that successfully manages to make his campaign look like it has something going for it beyond raw charisma. (Which is good, because after all you can't give a rousing speech to reality to get it to change its ways.)

Blogspotting: Secular Philosophy

Via The Leiter Reports, there's a new blog out called Secular Philosophy, featuring Daniel Dennett and Colin McGinn. McGinn and Dennett will make for an interesting dynamic, as McGinn is one of those dreaded "mysterians" Dennett is always complaining about. Also, re: Leiter's comment on the number of theistic philosophers: I recently had a prof tell me he was shocked by the number of theists showing up in grad schools these days. What I really worry about is the Campus Crusade produced William Lane Craig fans. I know there are at least a few currently finding their way into grad schools, but I don't know how much of the wave of theists my prof to me about is a product of Crusade. Certainly if Craig wannabes became a major force in philosophy it would be an unmitigated disaster, given the complete disregard for professional ethics that approach involves.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Counterfactual causation

In the last philosophers' carnival, there was a post with a criticism of counterfactual accounts of causation. This is an idea I toyed with before I even knew its formal name. I'm surprised by how bad some of the alleged counter-examples to this theory are. The linked post suggests a counter example in the breaking of a window by a rock, followed by another rock which would have broken it if the first hadn't. The author goes into some detail analyzing this case, but the problem can be stated briefly. There's still a clear counterfactual relationship: if the first rock hand't been thrown, the window wouldn't have broken as soon, even though it would have broken. (If this seems like a trivial point, consider the case where a rock goes through a window broken years ago by something else).

I'm surprised another case didn't come up, that of over-determination, where the two rocks hit simultaneously. This is tricker: you have to say that the counterfactual relationship corresponding to over-determination is one where if either cause had been present, the effect would have happened, but if neither had, the effect wouldn't have happened. This is a natural enough addition to the theory, though, as over-determination looks like the kind of thing that will take a little explaining on any theory.

As long as I'm on the subject of problematic objections to the counterfactual theory, consider this quote from the Stanford Encyclopedia's entry:
To see how the two parts combine consider the famous example of Nixon and the Nuclear Holocaust. An early objection to Lewis's account of counterfactuals (K. Fine (1975)) was that, counterintuitively, it makes this counterfactual false:

(4) If Nixon had pressed the button, there would have been a nuclear war.

The argument is that a world in which Nixon pressed the button, but some minute violation of the laws then prevented a nuclear war, is much more like the actual world than one in which Nixon pressed the button and a nuclear war took place. Lewis replies (1979) that this does not accord with his account of the similarity relation. On this account, a button-pressing world that diverges from the actual world by virtue of a miracle is more like the actual world than a button-pressing world that converges with the actual world by virtue of a miracle. For in view of the asymmetry of overdetermination, the divergence miracle that allows Nixon to press the button need only be a small, local miracle, but the convergence miracle required to wipe out the traces of Nixon's pressing the button must be a very big, diverse miracle. Of course, if the asymmetry of overdetermination went in the opposite temporal direction, the very same standards of similarity would dictate the opposite verdict.
This article is focused on David Lewis, and seems to think criticizing his account of counterfactuals creates a problem for his counterfactual theory of causation. The analysis of counterfactuals could be wrong and the analysis of causation in terms of counterfactuals right. Could anyone seriously deny the truth of the counterfactual "If Nixon had given the order to launch nuclear weapons, there would have been a nuclear war?" (Or at least that this is plausibly true--someone could have decided he was crazy and refused to follow the order.) That counterfactual is true and connected to Nixon's former causal powers, and we can know that even if we aren't exactly sure how to understand counterfactuals.

None of this, however, means the counterfactual theory of causation is true. But when I example various examples of causation, I think that while causation may be more than counterfactual relationship, it is not less than counterfactual relationship. I'd be interested to hear of other supposed counter-examples, but I suspect any such examples would on close examination bear out my point.

William Lane Craig slinging sleaze at Hector Avalos

Some background: a few years ago, Evangelical apologist William Lane Caig debated biblical scholar Hector Avalos. Craig went first, and opened with a bizarre stunt: he pointed to a previous debate where Avalos complained about claims made by his opponent (Rubel Shelly) which as far as I could tell (just from listening to Craig, before hearing Avalos' response) were misleading at best. Somehow, this was supposed to show a lack of character on Avalos' part. Craig claimed his personal attack was made solely in order to raise the level of his debate with Avalos. Avalos shrugged off this maneuver at the time, but more recently responded to Craig on this point, along with others that came up in their debate. Craig responded, accusing Avalos of unprofessional ad hominem attacks which Craig said ought to damage Avalos' reputation. Craig also claimed that, with one exception, "his remarks hardly merit comment."

The first problem is that the rationale is bogus: some errors really are so egregious that they call into question a persons competence or integrity, and there's nothing wrong with saying so in public debate. What's truly disgusting about Craig's response however, is the hypocrisy, since Craig was the first one to resort to personal attacks in his dealings with Avalos.

Someday, I will probably cease to be surprised by Craig's utter disregard for anything resembling professional ethics (which is why I refuse to call him a philosopher or a scholar, in spite of his doctorates). For the moment, though, he continues to astound me.

Monday, January 21, 2008

And now for something completely different...

7:35 en la mañana. It's good.

Is there expertise in philosophy?

Sandy of Certain Doubts asks whether there is expertise in philosophy. It has one of the best comment threads I can remember having seen. Reading those comments is more important than anything I have to say, but I will add these two cents: analytic philosophy has come to define itself in terms of interminable argument, which means that the experts you want to defer to aren't going to agree.

Thought of the Time Being

Beware of sign.

IDers screw with consciousness

It's hard to keep up with the endless supply of nonsense coming from the ID folks, especially at Uncommon Descent, William Dembski's blog. I had a vague idea awhile ago that I'd try to keep an eye out for semi-substantive bits and respond to them. Alas, in reality I have much more interesting things to do. However, I recently encountered one thing that pisses me off enough to provoke a response. Jason Rosenhouse has nice general comments, and I'd leave it at that, if not for some stuff that steps on one of the issues in philosophy I'm really passionate about:
5. No account of human evolution will show a long slow emergence from unconsciousness to semi-consciousness to consciousness, let alone that consciousness is merely the random firing of neurons in the brain. However consciousness got started, it appeared rather suddenly and it permanently separates humans from our genetic kin, however you want to do the gene numbers and however much time researchers spend coaxing monkeys to stop relieving themselves on the keyboard and type something meaningful.

Positive prediction: We will focus on what consciousness can do, especially in treatment of mental disorders. Yes, a drugged up zombie is better than a suicide, but only because the zombie isn't technically dead. Why stop there?...

7. No useful theory of consciousness will demonstrate that consciousness is merely the outcome of the random firing of neurons in the brain. All useful theories will accept that the mind and the brain exist in a relationship. Research will focus on delineating the relationship more clearly. That will greatly benefit medical research, especially research on difficult mental disorders such as phobias, depression, etc.

Positive prediction: We can have a better grasp of what consciousness does and how it relates us to our environment.
The stupidity of (7) is straightforward. It simply has nothing to do with evolution or Intelligent Design. It has to do with how things work nowadays, and how that question turns out has no obvious bearing on the question of how they got to be this way. O'Leary could argue for relevance, but she doesn't. There's some incidental stupidity as well: nobody, not Dennett, not the Churchlands, think that consciousness is a random firing of neurons. And while I'd agree that the mind and body exist in a relationship, close reading of the post suggests O'Leary would absolutely refuse to accept the most well-established facts about this relationship, such as that sex hormones affect the mind in definite ways and some of these effects are evolutionarily explicable. Sex hormones are rather obviously under the control of genes, yet she wants to claim that there are no genes for behavior. Rubbish. If you want the details on this issue, I cannot recommend Steven Pinker's How the Mind Works strongly enough.

The really annoying part is (5), because it suggests that she isn't using "consciousness" in any sense recognizable to the people who really get excited about it. What really excites people about consciousness is the element of internal, subjective experience: red sensations, pains, and so forth. Though Descartes thought animals were unfeeling automata, few people these days think so; I doubt O'Leary does. Indeed, one of the most famous papers in the recent history of consciousness studies, Thomas Nagel's "What is it like to be a bat?" turns precisely on the fact that most people intuitively feel animals would be conscious. There's little reason to think it would provide a sharp cut off point between us and other animals.

This is a bit of a weird post to type, because in theory I agree with them that Dennett-style physicalism is a failure, but the incompetent handling of this issue by Christian propagandists (not to mention dishonesty) is unacceptable. I'm now very tempted to give myself a boost to my rage against these guys by going out and reading The Spiritual Brain (apparently shoddy even by Evangelical standards), but I'm not doing that until I do more to clear off my list of actually beneficial books a little more.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

"Intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people" and God

Newton(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Andrew Sullivan has up a quote representing a defense of religion that's quite common:
Part of my skepticism with regard to the efforts of my fellow atheists to demonstrate how absurd the opposing position is comes from knowing a fair number of intelligent, reasonable, thoughtful people who believe in God--including one I am married to. Part comes from weaknesses I can perceive in the foundations for my own view of the world. At some point, I think, each of us is using the superb pattern recognition software that evolution has equipped us with to see a coherent pattern in the world around us--and since the problem is a harder one than the software was designed to deal with, it isn't that surprising that we sometimes get different answers.
The idea seems to be that if otherwise great people believe something, it must be reasonable to believe. Once you've spelled it out like that, though, it starts to become easier to see the reasons why this is a dumb idea. People aren't representations of ideal types. They're people. They have good qualities and bad qualities. I've known religious people who've been great in their way. I've met similarly great people who believed in the effectiveness of tarot card reading, or who accepted Marxist dogmas about the nature of society without bothering to study economics or psychology or anything like that. Because they were great in other ways, it doesn't mean that it was good of them to accept those ideas. And Newton, though a great scientist and mathematician, was into alchemy and numerology. Who thought the world would end in 2060.

I'm not sure what else to say here. This is one of those issues where at first glance stating the obvious would seem to be enough. Of course, in reality stating the obvious is rarely enough. So let's speculate on why people think this way. I'm betting on the fact that as many have notee before, religious beliefs aren't even really supposed to be about reality. People don't rly on them the way they do their beliefs about reality, or when they do it's a tragedy. Rather, they're used for things like like establishing group solidarity. When you need to make a tightly knit group that readily hates outsiders, a unified dogma helps, but in a bourgeois society where you have to do business with people significantly different than yourself it helps to be able to adopt an irrational relativism about points of disagreement. To insist that your friends' belief in God is rational isn't to say it's really rational n the sense a philosopher would understand. It means you want a smooth relationship with them that ignores the question of whether anyone's beliefs about non-immediately relevant matters are true.

My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun...

Greta Christina has some great thoughts on love, as well as a brief reminder of why Shakespeare was such a great poet.

More carnivalia

The sixty-first edition of the Philosophy Carnival is up at inconsistent thoughts.

Don't worry about getting it right?

Thom Brooks recently published a new edition of his advice for young academics on getting published. Such a thing is undeniably good to have, but there was one disturbing bit:
I know too many exceptional graduate students over the years who claim something like the following as reasons against submitting papers to journals and conferences: 'Well, I want to make sure that I get it right'. I have always thought this primarily a sign of insecurity. In this day and age, we must publish or perish: failure to publish may make you a liability for your department or threaten your ability to keep a tenure-track post.
A number of people have voiced worries about the quality of philosophy being done by contemporary philosophers (see here for some examples, but not the only examples). In my own forays into reading the literature, I've found some truly awful stuff, and even when you take away the awful there are milder difficulties with finding things worth reading. Sure no one can be absolutely sure of getting it right, but they still should be reasonably confident in what they publish. If they're not, they're just wasting everybody's time. The front and center objections are throwing around accusations of "insecurity" (couldn't that just be standards?) and a pragmatic appeal to the facts of how the profession should operate right now, independent of whether it actually makes any sense or produces good philosophy. It would be interesting to looking at a sophisticated sociological analysis of why the profession works the way it does, but part of the reason has got to be individuals not being willing to do what's right over calculations of professional advancement.


Here's linking to the latest editions of the Carnival of the Godless and Skeptic's Circle. From the Circle, I particularly like the 327th Male's piece on how to be a nice skeptic (with followup reporting nice results). The host of the CotG already narrowed things down to a quite nice pick, but I will briefly comment on Kelly O'Connor's "Atheist Divisiveness and Dogmatism. Altogether good piece, agree with the vast majority of it, but when I read this line:
Instead of harping continually on the use of the word "fuck", why don't we examine the truly offensive words like "should" and "ought"?
I couldn't help but think, "Gee... dunno... should we really do that?"

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Review: On Truth

If you like On Bullshit, you should probably buy On Truth. It's only $12.50, it's gives a sense of completion, and it has one of the more inspired cover designs I've seen in my life: while On Bullshit had a shabby coarse fabric for its cover, On Truth is shiny and golden. In spite of these things, at the end of the day I can't give it more than three stars.

I sympathize with this book through and through, but it's somewhat lacking in reflectiveness. Not entirely, mind you, but just enough to worry me. The problem is summed up in this sentence (p. 5): "I had made an important assumption, which I had offhandedly supposed most of my readers would share: viz., being indifferent to truth is an undesirable or even a reprehensible characteristic, and bullshitting is therefore to be avoided and condemned." The author, Harry Frankfurt, goes on to defend this assumption with the most obvious of arguments: that we need to be able to interact with reality and not be duped by others. Again, I sympathize, but this fails to recognize subtle issues in the psychology of self-deception. For one thing, as people like Steve Pinker point out, it may be simpler to be self-deceived than to be juggling conscious lies. A person can benefit from a certain sort of self-deception as they'd benefit from lies. The question in such a case is not of self-interest but responsibility to others.

More importantly, I think Frankfurt is simply someone who has never been good at self-deception, and therefore has never had to seriously consider the issue. I remember starkly a conversation I had once with a friend, who told me how scared she was of her own ability to deceive herself. I naively asked whether noticing this problem would automatically put an end to it. I mentioned how I once simply noticed that I couldn't take religion seriously anymore, and simply walked away, and was told in return that most people can't do that. "You watched it! You can't unwatch it!" a Futurama quote, became a catchphrase because it seems so obvious and a representation of things we often encounter, but some people seem to have the surprising ability to unthink thoughts. For another example, consider this quote from Georges Rey's contribution to the anthology Philosophers Without Gods:
Paradoxical though it may sound, I can think of a number of areas in my own life where I regularly practice self-deception (though, for it to be effective, I mustn't dwell on the fact for too long).
I couldn't pull this off dwelling on the fact at all. Or even thinking about it momentarily. This divide amongst human beings deserves more attention. It's interesting to carefully watch the way how people fall here influences there thinking on related matters. I think of Daniel Dennett's Breaking the Spell, which worries that the things we learn about religion may harm us, but ultimately advocates studying it because hey, it's important. This is supposed to be a rationally grounded conclusion, but I suspect Dennett just isn't able to take the alternative seriously. Or, there's an appendix to Theodore Drange's Nonbelief & Evil which considers the possibility that we can control our beliefs, which seemed to him important to some of the religious claims he was critiquing. Drange reports himself to be utterly unable to consciously influence his own beliefs, and only grudgingly concedes based on contact with his students that some people have this ability to a limited degree. These are the kinds of biases we need to be more aware of, before we give such straightforward endorsements of truthfulness as are found in On Truth.

Carnival of the Liberals

The latest Carnival of the Liberals was posted yesterday. I need to start linking to those things again.

Maximizing atheist reciprocity in the blogosphere

A post by Vjack, which I'm only linking now because I didn't want to do so until I had the time to do as he said: finally registering for Reddit and Stumble, mainly. I'm going to try to be better about this now...

(P. S.: this is a really, really important post. Read it. Do as he says.)

Notebook: Pinker on contraception

Our ancestral environment lacked the institutions that now entice us to nonadaptive choices, such as religious orders, adoption agencies, and pharmaceutical companies, so until very recently there was never a selection pressure to resist the enticements. Had the Pleistocene savanna contained trees bearing birth-control pills, we might have evolved to find them as terrifying as a venomous spider.
Steven Pinker. How the Mind Works. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997.

Stumbled across that quote awhile ago, but was prompted to post it after seeing this discussion at God is for Suckers!

Consciosness at IronChariots

After some months of neglecting the site, I finally found time again to write for the website, a wiki dedicated to countering the arguments of Christian apologists. This time, I've put up a brief article on consciousness. Clicking "IronChariots" on the sidebar will let people check out previous articles I've worked on.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

What's wrong with Ann Coulter?

I pose this question not in the sense of "why does she act so crazy?" but in the sense of "what is wrong with what she does?" When I first encountered her, I took it for granted that the problem was she was making outlandish claims on flimsy rationales. This view, however, does not seem to be universal. Won't go into the details, they've been done to death, but for a more timely example that's pretty much the same thing, see this takedown of Jonah Goldberg's Liberal Fascism. Somehow, some people seem to have gotten the notion that the issue with people like Coulter and Goldberg is just that they're so rude.

An annoying variant on this is when a word happens to name something bad, and thereby becomes imbued with all kinds of negative connotations, and then use the negative connotations as a club with which to beat your opponents. Consider, this mangling of the word "racist" that I linked awhile back. Or, the eruption over the word "fundamentalist" that occurred in the biblioblogosphere, recounted here , here, here, and here. Don't get me wrong, I think there is a serious problem with Biblical inerrancy, namely that the Bible has errors in it. The bludgeoning of Hobbins with words like "idolatry" and "defamation" is weird, though. Especially idolatry: why wouldn't an omnipotent being be able to create a book without any errors in it? Why should that be conceptually difficult for anyone who adheres to a perfect-being theology?

I take this to be a matter of vital importance. As the racism case shows, if you forget your reasons for believing something, pretty soon you'll lose track of what that something was. From casual observation, I would guess that many of the most idiotic ideas out there were once good ones that degenerated as they got mindlessly repeated. The only way to avoid that is focusing on reasons rather than epithets and taboos.

The thin black line

Across the liberal/skeptical blogosphere, a video has been circulating of a confrontation between a Canadian journalist and a Canadian bureaucrat, over the publication of the Mohamed cartoons that caused such a fuss way back when. I didn't follow suit at first because I don't like to think of myself as a bandwagoner (and playing off-suit is always to your advantage when playing hearts). However, after seeing Adam Lee post on the subject, I finally decided I had to get in the game:

Spielberg couldn't have orchestrated a better scene. The bureaucrat comes off as a pathetic, passive tool of an absurd policy, while the journalist has a carefully-planned salvo, which includes the point that he can make nuanced statements to other journalists, but the only thing he has to say to the government is that it's his right to do what he did. Apparently, he had to insist on taping and publicized the tape against government wishes.

This is, in a way, an issue I have a special connection to because anti-free speech laws in supposedly liberal countries is one of the very first issues I wrote about in this blog. Reading about this gave me a worried thought: where would I go if this country went even farther down the tubes freedom-wise? One of the leading presidential candidates is currently a guy who thinks, as a matter of general principle, that it's important to modify the constitution to have it in line with the Bible. Yet the United States may yet be the best place to be a vocal atheist, as we don't have the sort of oppressive laws found in Great Britain and Canada. This isn't by any stretch of the imagination because there's less of an impulse to clamp down on disfavored views here, just look at all the right-wingers who equate opposition to Bush with treason, or the Evangelicals who think any criticism of their beliefs is persecution. What protects me is one line of text in the constitution--a thin black line, if you will--which has commanded an amazing degree of obedience from our leaders, but could ultimately be ignored by a sufficiently unscrupulous government. Be on your guard.

How ideas spread

Via Pete Mandik, a Science News article summarizing a paper that suggests that "a critical mass of easily influenced individuals" is more important to the spread of ideas than superficially influential individuals. It's an interesting thought, though it's worth emphasizing that it's a purely theoretical paper. If I find the time (which I won't) I'll read the pre-print in hopes of getting a better idea of how well they did getting their theoretical ideas to match reality.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


Ed Brayton has a nice demolition of vapid political advertising. Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan offers a bizarre contrast:
People want The Sermon, not Obama's well-turned thoughts on foreign or economic policy. What the crowds crave from this scrupulous agnostic is his proven capacity to deliver the ecstatic consolation of old-time religion—a vision of America that transcends differences of race, class, and party, and restores harmony to a land riven under the oppressive rule of a government alien to its founding principles.
This is honestly one barrier to getting excited about Obama. I took a jab at one line from his Iowa victory speech Sunday, but really it wasn't just the one line. And Obama does empty well. That worries me.

Teaching evolution

This syncs with my experience as a former public school student.

Atheism in the news

I had kinda known this for awhile, but I just stumbled across an article about Richard Dawkins doing a big tour in the US. He'll be coming to Madison and I'm more or less on the welcoming committee. I'll be reporting on how it goes here, and after reading that article I realize I should probably try to aggregate the coverage from other cities.

Also, TNR has a nice interview with atheist author Ian McEwan, who had an essay in Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Thought of the Time Being

I know what it's like to be you. To be hurt, to feel lost, to be left out in the dark, to be kicked when you're down, etc., etc., etc. I dealt with it. I suggest you do the same.

Avalos on Holding and Craig

Over at Debunking Christianity, John W. Loftus has posted a couple of letters from Dr. Hector Avalos commenting on criticisms of himself by J. P. Holding and William Lane Craig. The criticisms are mostly spot-on, though it's unfortunate Avalos didn't come out swinging in quite this way when he actually debated Craig. Listening to the audio, it was obvious to me just listening to Craig that his personal attacks on Avalos were baseless and hypocritical (both because of Craig's utter lack of intellectual integrity and the fact that he was cloaking them in an appeal to high standards), but Avalos didn't really go after Craig the way he does here.

Ebon Muse reviews Portable Atheist

Ebon Muse has posted a review of Christopher Hitchens' The Portable Atheist. It's a nice review, though overall I have a more positive view of the book--less bothered by the omissions, fine with Hobbes, I really think it's a must-read. I was annoyed, though, by Hitchens' choice of a Sagan excerpt. Sagan had so much to say on the power of reason, but Hitchens' zeros in on the sexual element of the witch hunts. That was unfortunate.

Religious believers--too stupid to be protected by law?

Benny Hinn(Cross posted at God is for Suckers!)

This is not a thesis I am inclined to advocate, but I wonder if many people--even and especially people who claim themselves to be believers--intuitively accept it on some level. What got me thinking about this was that yesterday, Ed Brayton had a post advocating that a ban on fortune telling be lifted. Interesting stuff, but then the day before that Ed was not so confident when he examined the question of whether preachers of the prosperity gospel--"give me money and God will make you rich"--should be prosecuted. Certainly, people like James Randi have occasionally suggested that spirit mediums should be prosecuted.

This immediately brought to mind David Hume's incisive observation on religious beliefs from his Natural History of Religion: "Hear the verbal protestations of all men: nothing so certain as their religious tenets. Examine their lives: you will scarcely think that they repose the smallest confidence in them." Similar observations have been made by Bertrand Russell and, most recently, Daniel Dennett with his comments about believing in belief. People may claim to belief in the doctrines of a religion, but they would never seriously rely upon them in any practical matter. Do they further think to themselves that anyone foolish enough to do so doesn't deserve legal protection against fraud? It's one way of explaining reluctance to prosecute the likes of Benny Hinn.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Irrationality and the world's greatest blog post(?)

Richard Chappell has a nice post up on one prominent form of irrationality in politics, motivated incomprehension, quasi-dishonest misrepresentations of an opponent's position, in one sense sincere but clearly blameworthy. He also links an Obsidian Wings post on political hatred which he suggests may be the best blog post he's ever read. Both posts are well worth reading.

Irrationality in politics is something I've been thinking a fair bit about recently. In the reading I've been doing on philosophy of religion, there's a surprising reluctance to say that the opposing viewpoints are irrational. In one essay I read (Peter van Inwagen's contribution to the anthology God and the Philosophers), this was accompanied by an attempt to argue, roughly, that to say otherwise was inconsistent, because after all people disagree on political topics all the time without any irrationality. This view seems to me greatly overstated.

Experimental philosophy in the NYT

The article is titled The New New Philosophy, and found via John Capps. Capps' commentary is also worth noting:
Having said that, I thin Appiah also downplays one of its major strengths. In passing, he notes that experimental philosophy can enforce a kind of modesty -- again, the reminder that our intuitions aren't universal.

But that's actually a big deal. This was brought home to me in an Epistemology course last year. We'd read some feminist epistemology and many of the students would reject it immediately as patently absurd. Later we read some experimental philosophy -- making essentially the same point about the contingency of our intuitions, and everyone thought it was completely obvious. So, for better or worse, experimental philosophy can break down resistance to new philosophical ideas.

Thought of the Time Being

In his Iowa victory speech, Obama said we need to "end the political strategy that's been all about division, and instead make it about addition." But isn't this setting our sights to low? Shouldn't we be aiming for multiplication instead?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Event causation vs. agent causation

In my study of philosophy, I've occasionally encountered the distinction between event causation (things happening cause other things to happen) and agent causation (people doing stuff causes things to happen). Sometimes, it is claimed that agent causation is a primitive notion, and event causation is derived from it. I have no idea of the basis for this claim actually used by philosophers. It seems counter-intuitive at first, as we're used to having a straightforward notion of causation involving scientific concepts, with agent causation less clear. However, it occurs to me that scientific knowledge of causation is largely dependent upon scientists doing experiments, which is a form of agent causation.

Since I have nothing more to say on this topic, I'll just say "discuss," which is always a good way to end a blog post.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Notebook: more Argument from Evil

More tidbits on the argument from evil, good lines. The first is from James Wetzel "Can Theodicy Be Avoided? The Claim of Unredeemed Evil." Rel Stud 25:1-13:
Theodicy does not justify evils taken singly, only evil taken abstractly.
Next, David A. Conway "The Philosophical Problem of Evil." Int J Phil Rel. 24:35-66 (1988):
And the skeptics’ claim is not that (A)2 is necessarily true or that it is contingently true; it is that (A)2 is true.
Okay, so if you haven't read much analytic philosophy, you may not understand why that's a zinger.

Also, I've got a little more on Plantinga's treatment of free will, which I criticized as an incidental part of my review of van Inwagen on that subject:
The focus of the discussion, clearly, must be on the compatibilist claim that if an action isn't causally determined with respect to a given person, then it is a matter of mere chance that he performs it... But I find this wholly incredible. God, for example, performs free actions; and surely it is not the case that he is causally constrained to perform the actions he does.
This is from Plantinga's "Self-Profile," written for a 1985 anthology dedicated to himself. It is preceded by an admission that his previous responses to critics of his libertarian position on free will weren't so great. I can't say I'm much more impressed by this response.

It takes a computer genius... do basic math. Here's Bram Cohen, creator of BitTorrent:
Among republicans, Mitt Romney now has the most delegates, with Huckabee in second, and the media is currently speculating that Romney will drop out because he's so far 'behind'.

Seriously, what is wrong with journalists? Are they not able to do basic arithmetic?

Thursday, January 10, 2008

D'Souza and Mariottini: still clueless

MariotinniCross posted at God is for Suckers!)

Oh boy, Claude Mariottini just managed to be impressed by a Dinesh D'Souza article. D'Souza is going after Dawkins for saying he doesn't mind Christian symbolism in the public square. D'Souza's citations of what Dawkins has previously said on the subject are one-sided: he acts as if admitting a few good things are to be found in Christianity is something new for Dawkins, but The God Delusion talks about the beauty of the King James Version and gives a mixed review of Jesus' teachings rather than an entirely negative one. In place of the Nazi analogy, I'd suggest one from Greek mythology: I can appreciate the cultural heritage while realizing that the Greek heroes and gods were often portrayed as behaving monstrously. As a matter of fact, I even admit that the fascists produced at least one fascinating aesthetic achievement: El Valle de los Caidos, which was built under the direction of Francisco Franco. Of course there's an issue of historic distance: I feel a distance from Franco and the ancient Greeks that I don't feel from Hitler or Christianity; living in secularized Britain, Dawkins must feel a bit more distance from orthodox Christianity than I do.

Both D'Souza and Mariottini float silly speculations about the reason for Dawkins' statements, which in general aren't worth addressing, but I do find it interesting that Mariottini is still promoting the same silly misunderstanding of Dawkins' views on disproving God which I pointed out here. For the last time: Dawkins denies he can conclusively disprove the existence of God because of a general philosophical view that it is impossible to conclusively disprove anything, not because the holy spirit is getting through to him. Okay, so I hope that's the last time I have to say that, but it probably won't be.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Thought of the Time Being

You might be a philosophy student if... you're warned that a professor sees his students as things rather than people, and wonder if that's his official position.

Take that, Sullivan!

Andrew Sullivan has posted an analysis of Hilary's win tonight that begins with the phrase "the media piled on too much at the end and there was a voter backlash." A lot of other rationales come after that, but something prompted Sullivan to put that one first, and he was part of that pile on. It's very satisfying to see that. I'm still not really rooting for Hilary, but I also still prefer her to Obama, and find the media's hatred of her bewildering.

P.S.: Sullivan has had the good grace to post a cruder response sent in by one reader.

Disturbing quote of the time being

On the other hand, as Huckabee frequently points out, he’s very good at defending conservative views without sounding angry about it. He’s very conservative on social issues, but he doesn’t sound that conservative when he’s on the campaign trail. For voters who aren’t paying very close attention (and that includes a lot of swing voters) Huckabee is likely to sound like the kind of candidate they’re comfortable with. (emphasis added)
-The American Scene, via Andrew Sullivan

In other news, I was disappointed that McCain didn't beat Romney by a wider margin tonight. I hope McCain can still pull through for us sane people.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008


Apparently, some presidential candidate recently made some very minor show of emotion, and the journalists are all wondering what impact it will have. Answer: it wouldn't have any if asshole journalists weren't intent on blowing it all out of proportion.


After bumming around Florida and my home town for a couple of weeks, I'm back in Madison doing library research for a paper on the Argument from Evil, which I'll be submitting to an undergraduate philosophy conference. I came across a bit that has little relevance to my paper, but is interesting to note, so I've decided to start a notebook category on this blog for such material. In this case, it's an early "God is Dead" quote from one H. Heine, found in an old issue of the International Journal for Philosophy of Religion:
Hear ye not the bells resounding?
Kneel down. They are bringing the
Sacraments to a dying God!
It's cited as coming from a book titled Religion and Philosophy in Germany, which reprinted a translation of an article originally appearing in 1833.

Monday, January 07, 2008

TV producers will give into writers

I just got done watching a new episode of the Daily Show, now watching the Colbert Report. Based on these, I can confidently predict that the TV producers are going to give into the striking writers. The episodes aren't bad, but the carefully scripted jokes are gone, and more importantly, the unscripted jokes are mostly about the strike--and more sympathetic to the strikers. This has got to be a huge embarassment to the TV producers.

In other news, like so many people Andrew Sullivan looks a lot nerdier in real time, especially in contrast to the macho-looking that he occasionally posts online.

Review: An Essay on Free Will, part 2

In the first part of my review of Peter van Inwagen's Essay on Free Will, I argued that his arguments for incompatiblism added up to very little. Following the chapter on arguments for incompatiblism, there's a chapter on the arguments of van Inwagen's opponents, the compatiblists. Like the preceeding chapter, three arguments are examined, though they're not as similar to eachother as the three arguments van Inwagen presents on his side. The first is called the "paradigm case argument," which I had no solid grasp of prior to reading van Inwagen, so I won't try to comment.

The second could be called the "conditional analysis" argument which relies on an analysis (or rather, type of analysis) of the idea of choice which many compatiblists would accept. Van Inwagen seems to doubt that the sort of analysis in question has ever been defended with the sort of arguments that would be needed to make it a premise in an argument for compatiblism. Though again hard to say without being more familiar with the writings of van Inwagen's targets, I wonder whether any of them have actually used their analysis as an argument for compatiblism rather than starting with compatiblism and moving to a more narrow analysis of free will. Still, it's worth saying something about van Inwagen's treatment, as I still think such an analysis could be valuable for making compatiblism plausible. Van Inwagen skirts around the edges of the issue for awhile, raising objections to narrow formulations of the main idea, then sets this project aside in apparent recognition of the fact that it's easy to object to narrow anaylses and that this doesn't prove much. Then he declares he has an argument to disprove any analysis of the kind in question, no matter how subtle: the arguments from the last chapter. I had a hard time being impressed.

Finally, van Inwagen gets to what he calls the Mind argument, because it frequently appeared in the journal of that name. This is basically the argument I mentioned in the first part of this review: if our actions aren't determined, what are they? Random? Arbitrary? Van Inwagen gnaws away at the edges of this approach to attacking incompatiblism, but in the end conceeds that that his position requires him to deny that:
If an agent's act was caused but not determined by his prior inner state, and if nothing besides that inner state was causally relevant to the agent's act, then that agent had no choice about whether that inner state was followed by that act.
Van Inwagen admits that it is puzzling how this could be false. In doing so, he very nearly conceeds that his opponents have a good argument on their side, though he doesn't want to use those words. His amounts to insisting that his arguments are better, that their premises are more clearly true. Again, not impressed, given the flaws I noted with his arguments in the previous chapter.

The last two chapters are mainly dedicated to going on about how without free will, there's no moral responsibility and we cannot consistently deliberate about our actions. Both are rather poorly done. He seems never to notice the obvious point that a determinist will think deliberation about our actions part of the deterministic process by which are arguments are caused. This part of the book was thoroughly disappointing to me, because I suspect there's something to these arguments. What van Inwagen needed to do, however, was identify some specific feature of decision making and moral responsiblity that is problematic for determinism, rather than baldly asserting his position.

There's a final bit I found amusing: at the end, van Inwagen goes after people whom he accuses of "scientism," whose position he tries to scornfully dismiss at first, but he ends up admitting they have an argument of sorts, based on rejecting as implausible two claims:
We have properties that do not supervene upon the properties of the atoms that we consist of.

Free will involves quantum-mechanical indeterminism.
Without either of these ideas, it's hard to see where there's any room for incompatiblist free will. Van Inwagen further admits that he doesn't see how either of them could be right. Thus, he's again conceeded his opponents have a good argument on their side, and insists his arguments are better. And at that point in the argument:
Here, I think, those philosophers whom I describe as victims of scientism and I have reached a bedrock. We have nothing more to say to each other; or, at any rate, though we may call each other names we have no more arguments.
This seems to be an acknowledgement that name-calling is unproductive, yet there is no recognition of the fact that van Inwagen is using "scientism" as a term of derision.

Now we come to the question of "how bad is this book?" Broadly speaking, the kinds of flaws described here can render a book on philosophy utterly worthless. A prime example of this, I think, would be Plantinga's better-known work on the problem of evil. He was supposed to be refuting people who rejected the free-will defense precisely because the libertarian concept of free will on which it rested didn't make sense. However, this position is largely ignored, in favor of the flight of philosophical fancy that is Plantinga's doctrine of "transworld depravity." Keith Parsons puts the matter well in his book God and the Burden of Proof:
To be fair, Plantinga admits that he fails to take compatiblism very seriously. Such honesty is admirable, but it does not excuse the cavalier treatment of a position espoused by Locke, Leibniz, Hume, Mill, and other thinkers of similar rank. Of course, even thinkers of the font rank can be wrong, but their considered opinions usually merit more than a brusque dismisal.
For this reason, I'm inclined to think that Plantinga's main writings on the problem of evil are almost entirely worthless philosophically.

However, a philosophical book can fail mightily to make its case and still be a good book. A paradigm case of this, from my point of view anyway, would be Daniel Dennett's Consciousness Explained. I disagree entirely with his views, but he lays them out clearly, with a wide ranging grasp of both philosophical and scientific issues, raises real pitfalls for the views of his opponents, and ultimately left me feeling that he had made the best case that could be made for his position. I'm inclined to think An Essay on Free Will is more like Dennett's work on consciousness than Plantinga's work on evil. In spite of problems with van Inwagen's approach, I learned some things from him and was left with a feeling that he had given the project his best and had considerable innate skill. I'm still disappointed with him in a way that I'm not with Dennett though, mainly because my gut instincts make me more sympathetic to van Inwagen.

Final Verdict: Three Stars

Quote of the Time Being

To combat boredom, one effective strategy is to think up amusing things to say to your captors when you're detained as an enemy combatant and subjected to enhanced interrogation techniques.

The state of analytic philosophy

Brian Leiter has up some quotes from a magazine article on how the state of philosophy in 2007 compares to that in 1997. The first two quote are the ones I find most interesting. I've heard elsewhere that philosophers today hold themselves to very high standards when it comes to understanding scientific issues that they talk about. However, Simon Blackburn thinks we're seeing a return of scholastic metaphysics. Jerry Fodor takes a view more optimistic on science issues, but I'm not inclined to give it much weight, given that Fodor has been a pretty bad offender when it comes to not understanding the scientific issues you write about.

PC 60

The 60th edition of the Philosopher's Carnival is up at Dialectic. It contains a nice eulogy for Kurt Vonnegut, as well as a critique by Thom Brooks of some awful advice on publishing (which links to Brooks' own advice!)

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Dembski lies about Amazon reviews

dembski bullshit(Cross posted at The God is for Suckers!)

Recently, William Dembski and his cohorts over at Uncommon Descent got some grief from Ed Brayton and PZ for running about with claims of "manipulation" of reviews on the page for one of Dembski's books. Ed & PZ's comments are all well and good, but they missed something important: Dembski claimed none of the Amazon reviewers had read this book. First, in a message (e-mail?) to Denyse O'Leary, which she quoted without bothering to check if it was true, Dembski said: "The Design of Life has 13 five-star reviews and 4 one-star reviews. None of the one-star reviews give evidence of the reviewer having read the book." Then, in a post of his own he claimed "Not only are they posting negative reviews that give no indication that the reviewers have read the book but they are also voting up their negative reviews so that these are the first to be seen by potential buyers." This is noteworthy, mainly because it's a lie. Take, for example, one of the first and currently highest-rated of the negative reviews of the book, posted by Peter Irons:
First, I have read this book, so I feel qualified to say that it is basically propaganda for "intelligent design," published by a Christian outfit, the Foundation for Thought and Ethics, of which William Dembski is the editorial chief, and without any of the peer-reviewing that most publishers require. So this is basically a vanity publication. And it contains no original scientific research, but merely a rehash of prior books by the authors.
Worse, in Dembski's post, he quotes one of these evil, haven't-read-the-book reviews as saying, "I just finished reading this book." Who are you going to trust: Dembski, or your lying eyes? I'm amazed by the willingness of religious propagandists to deny the most easily verified facts.


New editions of the Carnival of the Godless and the Humanist Symposium are up. Choice picks from each include I Am Legend and a Greta Christina post on raising kids, respectively.

Quote of the Time Being

I've always found the "failed Job" Atheist a really lame stereotype. So, you were aware of the Holocaust but still believed in God, but when your spouse died, that was what convinced you there was no God? Doofus.
-Ipecac, commenting at Pharyngula

BTW, this is in the context of criticizing how an atheist was portrayed in a recent movie. In my own comment, I defend the portrayal.

Friday, January 04, 2008

BSC 25

The twenty fifth Biblical Studies Carnival is up at Targuman. Includes a very nice roundup of recent discussions of fundamentalism. The analysis of anti-Bart Ehrman apologetics is spot-on:
What I did see in that chapter disappointed me greatly because I’ve been a big fan of both Bock’s and Wallace’s writing for some time. They basically erected straw man and left themselves enough wiggle room to deny charges of fallacious argumentation by saying, ‘well, this isn’t really what Ehrman said, but one gets the impression that this is what Ehrman meant’ (my paraphrase of course) — one of my biggest pet peeves was their faulting Ehrman, not for what he DID say, but for what he DIDN’T say (p. 51) as if Ehrman was obligated to include everything that they saw as relevant.
I'll have more to say about some of the linked articles later--watch out, I actually have a post *defending* some of what the fundamentalists say in this debate.

Post-Iowa links

Michael Reynolds predicts the results of the republican primaries:
I have to believe the Republicans will choose winning over losing. I have to believe they'll rally to McCain, starting with Fred I-offer-myself Thompson. Look for Thompson to throw in for McCain.
Sullivan floats some advice for McCain:
For the first step, I would recommend arranging an hour or three on Rush Limbaugh, then do the same on Hannity, Medved, Beck, Hewitt, Ingraham, Bennett, Prager, Levin, O'Reilly, Savage, Michael Reagan, Brian and the Judge, Dr. Laura, etc.
And, via Matthew C. Nisbet, a nice montage of what we can expect if Obama is the Democratic nominee:Gotta love how easy charlatans like the Fox News crew make themsevles to take down.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Review: An Essay on Free Will, part I

Back last year, in one or the other of the two classes I took with Keith Yandell, in connection with some philosopher or another, the topic of free will came up and I asked for recommended reading on the subject. Peter van Inwagen's An Essay on Free Will was the suggestion I got. It's a book that takes the libertarian/incompatiblist view of free will, and I've heard it's been given credit for making that position respectable again among professional philosophers. This winter break, many months after my initial decision to read the book, I finally found time to read it. What follows are my thoughts on it.

First, some background (mostly skippable for philosophers). I first came in contact with the free will problem at the same time I came into contact with all of the other problems in philosophy, sometime in middle school thanks to Thomas V. Morris' Philosophy for Dummies. Morris, though, managed to make the whole dispute seem rather semantic in a way that the other issues he covered didn't, so I resolved to ignore. I only came into contact with a really good exposition of the problem my fall semester in college. The prof had written on the board, "If determinism is true, then there's no free will, but if indeterminism is true, then there's no free will, therefore, there's no free will." The first half of this seems instinctive to many people, though some philosophers, called compatiblists, deny it: they think the existence of free will is perfectly compatible with determinism. The second half is more surprising, but the idea is that if our actions are not determined, they would be random or arbitrary, harly providing us with a significant sort of freedom. The idea that we have free will in a sense that is significant yet incompatible with determinism is, nonetheless, intuitively appealing to many people, and is known as incompatiblism or libertarianism. Ever since that philosophy 101 course, I have been unable to see any way around the argument against libertarianism, though I have continued to feel the position's intuitive appeal from time to time.

One last thing: I haven't said what "determinism" is, I won't try to give an exact exposition, but I think it worth mentioning the Marquis de Laplace's exposition: determinism means that given the laws of nature, and given an exact description of the world at some point in time, a being of sufficiently great intelligence ("Laplace's Demon") could predict the entire rest of the history of the universe. This will be important in a little bit.

Now for van Inwagen's book. The first two chapters gave me the feeling that I was reading something that was a model of clarity, insight, and wit. If it did not conclusively argue its case, I thought, it would least go very far in clarifying the issues. Very early on, for example, van Inwagen denies that the "Principle of Universal Causation" entails determinism, and suggests that in fact three further claims are needed to deduce this:
(1) if an event (or fact, change, state of affairs, or what have you) has a cause, then its cause is always itself an event (of what have you) and never a substance or continuant, such as a man;

(2) if an event (or what have you) A was the cause of an event B, then it follows, given that A happened and given the laws of nature, that A "causally necessitated" B, that B could not have failed to happen;

(3) every chain of causes that has no earliest member is such that, for every time t, some even in that chain happens earlier than t.
At first, I could not see the need for (3). When I finally figured out why (3) was necessary, I was much impressed that van Inwagen noticed it. (I leave this reason as an exercise for the reader.)

The ability to notice these kinds of things is characteristic of much of the book. However, something goes wrong around chapter 3, "Three Arguments for Incompatiblism" (in this case just the thesis that free will is incompatible with determinism, saying nothing at that point about whether free will exists). The three arguments are highly technical but seem, as van Inwagen himself says, to all have the same main idea. This means a lot more effort on the reader's part than was perhaps strictly necessary; I lost track of the train of thought in the second two arguments the first time around, and had to re-read them. This would be understandable if there were some great philosophical payoff from the arguments, but at first glance the entirety of chapter 3 could be summed up by the statement "if determinism is true, our actions are determined," which rather ignores the whole controversy over compatiblism, namely, whether free will is compatible with our actions being determined.

Based on the chapter itself, I could find only two possible purposes for it. First, at one point van Inwagen suggests that philosophers don't actually take the idea of "universal" or "Laplacian" determinism seriously. I thought to myself that I could understand the idea perfectly well, but perhaps van Inwagen's book was important when it was published (1983) because people didn't really understand determinism back then, and the only reason I understand it is because the people who taught me philosophy were forced to understand it by what seemed at first to be van Inwagen's overly-technical arguments. This could not be correct, though, because the Marquis de Laplace lived before van Inwagen, and seemed to have understood Laplacian determinism without van Inwagen's help. If van Inwagen detected confusions in a few specific individuals active at the time of writing, he should have delt with them a little more specifically, rather than launching straight in to over-technical argument.

The other possibility, which I think more or less correct, is suggested at the very end of the chapter when van Inwagen imagines an opponent of his saying, "Your argument simply demonstrates that when you uyse phrases like 'could have done otherwise' or 'has a choice about,' you are giving them some meaning other than the meaning they have in our actual debates about moral responsibility." The meaning of these phrases seems to me the real crux of the debate between van Inwagen and the compatiblists, and he could have dispensed with the particular arguments of chapter 3 in favor of treating that issue more carefully.

As I read on in the book, though, I noticed van Inwagen seemed epsecially fond of his third argument in chapter three, and kept refering back to it and its key premise, which got the convenient lable principle beta. This principle, roughly, is that if someone has no choice about some fact P, and no choice about the fact that P would result in some fact Q, then the person also had no choice about Q. Van Inwagen suggests that this is obviously true and clearly inconsistent with compatiblism, and all the compatiblist can do against it is insist upon the implausible position that compatiblism is more clearly true than beta is.

The compatiblist, though, I think can take a more sublte response: first, explain what is meant by a free choice. Though somewhat crude, "action arising from an inner mental state" will work well enough for demonstration. According to beta, if a person has no choice about their mental states and no choice about psychological laws which will unavoidably lead from those mental states to certain actions, the person has no choice about those actions. But under the understanding of free choice just proposed, the actions were free, because they arose from inner mental states. Though not an ideally refined compatiblist response, I think this is enough to show how a compatiblist could go about undermining beta.

I think this is enough for tonight, I'll do a second installment on a later date. For now, I'm disappointed to say that van Inwagen's main arguments seem to be based on not really engaging seriously with his opponents--but that comment will be refined a little in the second installment.

Quote of the Time Being

When Rod Dreher, Andrew Sullivan, Vox Day, John Derbyshire, and the 9/11 Truthers all agree on a candidate its safe to say that they aren't all seeing the same thing.
-Joe Carter; found, to Sullivan's credit, on Sullivan's own site

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

December reviews in short

Continuing this series...

Did Jesus Exist? by G. A. Wells

Argues that Jesus was not a real historical figure. I disagree with the thesis, but it's relatively well-argued.

Three Stars

Best American Science and Nature Writing 2006 ed. Brian Greene

Some excellent essays in here.

Four Stars

Imperialism the Highest Stage of Capitalism by Vladimir Lenin

Interesting mainly for its historical significance.

Three Stars

The Natural History Reader in Evolution ed. Niles Eldredge

Nice collection of essays on evolution.

Three Stars

Pale Blue Dot by Carl Sagan

First-rate science popularization, combined with a poetic perspective on our role in the universe.

Five Stars

God and the Burden of Proof by Keith M. Parsons

Has maybe a couple points I'd regard as serious mistakes, but on the whole does an impressive job of introducing contemporary philosophy of religion and demolishing the pretensions of its heros in under 200 pages.

Four Stars

God, Freedom, and Evil by Alvin Plantinga

This book enjoys a greatly inflated reputation within professional philosophical circles. Uses technical philosophical ideas to try to prop up the free will response to the problem of evil, but largely ignores the arguments of the philosophers it claims to refute. It its reputation a sign that today's philosophers mistake technical obscurity for quality? Embarrassing.

One Star

How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

A treasure-trove of information on the human mind. Nuanced and philosophically aware to boot.

Five Stars

The Problem of Evi by Peter van Inwagen

Adds little to what van Inwagen has already published on the subject; Daniel Howard-Snyder's anthology is a better purchase.

Two Stars

The Evidential Argument from Evil ed. Daniel Howard-Snyder

Gives a good idea of where current academic debate on the problem of evil is. The essays are not particularly strong, though--the well written passages come as a surprise.

Three Stars

The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

Convincingly-drawn protagonist. No mere Tolkein knock off, unlike many allegedly good fantasy novels.

Four Stars

The Portable Atheist ed. Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens has an excellent eye for good writing, and many of the authors included are must reads. I don't care much for his excerpting of Sagan, though.

Five Stars

Providence and the Problem of Evil by Richard Swinburne

Classic Swinburne: takes a very long time to say very little.

Two Stars