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March 26, 2012: Week in Review

calendar_smThank you to all our readers who helped us break the 1000 “Likes” mark for the first time ever on one of our posts (in fact, as of this writing, the post has over 4000 likes!). If you haven’t seen it yet, check out the “PSA” warning parents to protect their kids from philosophy before it’s too late.

Stephen Law reposted this gem on why getting a philosophy degree may be a better choice than getting a degree in business. At the very least, if one is going to get a degree in business, she should double major and study philosophy too. If you’re not sure why, consider this piece on the value of philosophy. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

Brian Leiter posted this article about the FBI questioning a philosophy prof over his syllabus. While I’m not clear how terrorists work, it seems fairly obvious that if the professor was going to do something violent, he probably wouldn’t have put the intention in his syllabus (though he says he does encourage his students to break “unjust” laws).

More in the “confirmation bias” category: a young girl captures a flying object on her video camera and thinks it might be a UFO. It actually was a UFO – until the local authorities identified it. Thanks to skeptics.com for the pointer.

Philosophy Now has a interesting survey of recent philosophical work being done on the implications of delaying death – they consider the prospect and impact of humans living 200-300 years. They point out both the benefits and the unintended consequences. I read a book a while ago called The Next Fifty Years in which the contributors consider possible advances humans will make by 2050 long life being one of those.  One important consideration is whether death becomes more of a psychological factor (and problem) when one lives a long life because one has much more at stake. Loss at 80 of a person who has had an important impact on the world is difficult. Loss at 280 would seem to be exponentially so.

I just started reading Robert McKim’s new book, On Religious Diversity which appears to be an expansion of a core argument of his excellent Religious Ambiguity and Religious Diversity. The latter book was very instrumental in helping me form some of my core ideas about religious belief and I’m expecting this new book to continue to refine that thinking.

The Howard-Snyders and Ryan Wasserman just released a new edition of their excellent logic text, The Power of Logic. This is a fine text that I’ve used in logic courses before. Very helpful aids throughout the book, solid use of color coding to help students find relevant material for reference, and extremely thorough. The text can be used for introductory or advanced courses.

Favorite quote of the week: “In individuals, insanity is rare; but in groups, parties, nations and epochs, it is the rule.” Frederick Nietzche

If You Don’t Talk To Your Kids About Philosophy, Who Will?

 

** Update 3/27/2012: While I hadn’t seen the original design that ultimately inspired this poster when I created it (my inspiration came from a derivative that was, no doubt, 2-3 times removed), I have since been made aware of the source of the design for this poster and I want to give credit to that source. This design appears to have originated from Team Detroit, a design firm in Michigan. This site talks about the design and who created it. Really great stuff.

March 19 2012: Week in Review

calendar_smMichael Shermer reports global atheism at about 2% of the population.

A possible explanation for such low numbers for atheism may be grounded in human nature itself. Christian Smith, sociology professor at Notre Dame, wrote an article for First Things titled, “Man the Religious Animal” in which he argues that the religious impulse is natural for humans which puts the prospects for secularism at a distinct disadvantage socially (thanks to Greg Taft for the pointer). Smith’s thesis could be viewed as relatively uncontroversial when we consider the fact that many non-theists would agree and are studying the matter (Dennett, Barrett, Boyer, Becker). Does the fact of this impulse lend any weight to arguments that God exists? Michael Murray and Jeffrey Schloss recently tackled this question at the Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion. Philosophy News will publishing an interview with Drs. Murray and Schloss on this question.

Peter Boghossian released a trailer for a talk he gave at Portland State University in November of 2011. He claims that faith-based beliefs are delusional and that faith is a process that is unreliable when it comes to getting one closer to the truth.

On the problem of understanding slippery slopes (thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer)

Latest Republican debate focused on semantic meaning. (Grabbed this gem from Brian Leiter’s blog.) “For perhaps the first time in this year’s primary debates, Romney found himself allied with Paul, arguing that the semantic deference component of Obama’s theory was unnecessary.  ”How experts use words such as ‘arthritis’ or ‘elm’ will naturally influence how the rest of us use those terms,” he claimed.”

Do you believe? Here’s a new bigfoot video with indisputable evidence for the creature . . .

We posted a piece on Howard Darmstadter take on Steven Pinker’s moral philosophy for Philosophy Now. The article touches on the question, “What obligations do those with means have to help those without basic necessities?”

Rick Pimentel looked at epistemological challenges surrounding conspiracy theories. Who was behind the murder of JFK?

Philosophy News welcomes the Existential Psychoanalytic Institute of Seattle as an advertising partner. Check out their 2-year certification program in existential psychoanalysis and phenomenology.

The Moral Monster in All of Us

Young_woman_beggingRecently, I was returning to my car after doing some work at a retail shop in one of the more affluent neighborhoods outside of Seattle. A woman approached me in the garage, tears in her eyes and a small, unkempt boy in her arms. She explained that she was from the east side of the state and, stupidly, left her car in Seattle unlocked. Her purse and keys were stolen and she was trying to get home. She told me that after some research, she figured she needed $120 for the trip on the bus for her and her boy. She said if just 5 people gave her $20 she could make it home. She had desperation in her voice and was pleading.

Even in the moment, I believed little of it. In fact I had heard of scams like this many times and her facts were inconsistent, contradictory, and seem contrived. Typically, I do one of two things in these situations. I either will lie to the person and tell them I have no cash and can’t help, or, if circumstances allow, I buy them the food or tickets they’re asking for so I can help with the immediate need (if its real) and I know where the money is going. In this case I did neither. My immediate thought was that if this woman, with an infant in her arms, is desperate enough to approach strange men—regardless of what her real situation is, I should try to help. I reached in my pocket and gave her twenty dollars. She was extremely grateful and asked me to pray for her.

The next day, I read in the local news that a woman, consistent with the age of the woman that approached me, was found in the early morning passed out drunk having struck a parked car. Her infant son was in the back seat. The boy was about the age of the boy the woman was carrying as far as I could tell. I have no idea whether this was the same woman but it very well could have been given what I knew. I haven’t been able to stop thinking whether I was the indirect cause of harm here, and, had circumstances gone even more wrong, the potential death of this small boy. My desire to help someone in need may have enabled an even greater evil.

So what is one to do here? Honestly I don’t know. I’m haunted by problems like these because I do think I have a responsibility to help those in need when I can. I don’t always know who the needy around me really are and how best I can help them.

On Being a Bad Person

I have to admit, I’ve wrestled with Peter Singer’s ethical model for years. I have strong intuitions (driven, perhaps, by selfish desires) that he goes wrong in the fundamentals and his small errors in the basics produce large errors in the outcome. Yet his essential premise seems attractive: reduce as much pain and suffering in the lives of others as you’re able. In general, I have a hard time reading Singer’s work because his material strikes me very much like the religious fundamentalism I’ve long since abandoned from my childhood: do things my way or you’re an evil person. The best theories when delivered logically, it seems to me, should be attractive and resonate at a fundamental level. Singer’s never have. If I have to be guilted into doing the right thing, something seems to have gone wrong in getting me there. 

An interesting article on Philosophy Now titled, “Peter Singer Says You Are a Bad Person” caught my attention. The author, Howard Darmstadter, summarizes what he views as Singer’s primary thesis and then attempts to explain why Singer’s ethical theory really doesn’t work. Singer’s thesis according to Darmstadter is this:

Singer’s basic argument is simple, relying on two main principles. Somewhat paraphrased, these principles are, first, maximize pleasure and minimize suffering; and second, all pleasure or suffering counts equally.

Applied, Darmstadter claims the theory, according to Singer, entails that, “you are morally deficient if you eat meat, or if you fail to give a good bit of your income – 5% if you earn more than $100,000, and at least 10% of income over $150,000 – to help the world’s most destitute. It’s actually worse than that. If you take Singer’s arguments seriously, you should be giving nearly everything you have to charity.”

Darmstadter claims that Singer’s thesis doesn’t work because there are counterexamples that show the principles can’t be (or aren’t ) applied universally—which is what Darmstadter believes Singer is calling for. He also says Singer ignores the role of context.

In real societies, and especially in large-scale modern societies, there are a profusion of competing ethical principles. In speaking of ‘competing principles’, I don’t just mean that different people have different principles (although they do), but that there are many principles, in competition with each other, guiding any single person’s actions. All those principles can’t all be true all the time.

Darmstadter also picks apart Singer’s view on animal suffering mainly calling on the opacity of what it means for a non-human animal to suffer. Course-grained views (all suffering is of exactly the same kind) break down as we move down—or across if you think that term poisons the well—the evolutionary chain.

It’s Partly a Knowledge Problem

In reading Darmstadter’s piece, it became clearer that the reasons why Singer’s universal principles don’t resonate may have to do with an epistemic challenge in treating what we see as ethical problems to be solved. The more distant we are from problems, the more opaque the cause of those problems become and the more opaque the value of our “help” is to us. Certainly there are clear cases of horrific suffering that many of us are able to help with. Claiming “epistemic opacity” sounds like the hollow excuse it is when we consider those clear cases.* But there is something to the opacity issue particularly when we consider whether our help treats only surface symptoms and really fails to deal with core problems like abusive governments, oppressive religious beliefs, tradition, and educational issues. Treating symptoms has value if we’re also working on remedying the causes of those symptoms and treating symptoms only may lead to larger, more insidious problems. The money I gave to the woman in the garage may be an example of just this.

Further, many situations seem simple and effective on the surface like giving 10% of one’s income to help the poor. But even these are fraught with complexities (as Darmstadter notes). Where is the money going? What is the money being used for? Is this the most effective way to help those in need? Admittedly, given my circumstances I’m buffered from direct exposure to extreme suffering and know only about the worst humans have suffered through books and direct and indirect testimony. And while I tend to believe I should be more thankful than guilty for my situation, I also fully realize that my exposure to serious need and extended suffering has been limited. (Recently, the school where I teach attempted to address this problem by hosting Tent City for three weeks. It certainly raised awareness and helped provide some perspective.)

But solutions to the suffering and need that I do see is, many times, epistemically opaque. The surface need may be clear but there seems to be a whole host of ambiguity beneath the surface. I can say this though: in general seems better to me to learn about the genuine needs of those in my direct orbit and I can best do this by plugging into the lives of others. This means that focusing on solving local problems for which I can see genuine solutions and changed lives may reduce the opacity problem and provides me with an opportunity to invest in people on a variety of levels—not just financially. That seems to me to at least be a good starting place.

**Update 3/21/2012: Peter Singer will be speaking on responding to global poverty on April 3rd, 2012. Info here.


* The obvious, and it seems to me fallback, response to the opacity problem is to default to take a “better safe than sorry” approach. If you don’t know if a person is in need, assume the best and help. If you don’t know whether an animal feels pain, assume it does and don’t harm it. But as I tried to illustrate in the opening anecdote, this isn’t always the best policy. Course-grained approaches to complex issues seldom net a positive benefit over the long haul even though it may seem to provide surface benefits in the short term. Long term negative benefits tend to outweigh the short-term positive ones. I was reminded of this recently from an interesting article in Business Insider titled, “Doctors Choose A Different Way To Die Than The Rest Of Us.” Having said this, it’s also fairly clear that many of us help far less than we’re able and perhaps should.

Richard Dawkins to speak at Newport High School

SEATTLE, WA - March 17, 2012 - Dr. R. Elisabeth Cornwell, Sean Faircloth, and world-renowned author, bioethicist, and secularist Richard Dawkins will explore how religion impacts government and society and how the secular community can increase its influence.

R. Elisabeth Cornwell, PhD, is Executive Director of the U.S. branch of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Her contributions include originating and expanding the OUT Campaign, which provides a public forum for freethinkers to proclaim their atheism and to let others know they are not alone.

Sean Faircloth is author of the new book released in 2012, Attack of the Theocrats: How the Religious Right Harms Us All and What to Do About It. Sean served five terms in the Maine legislature and has put that experience to work by spearheading strategies to increase the secular voice within society and government. Faircloth is Director of Strategy and Policy for the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. Faircloth will be available to sign his book.

Richard Dawkins, DPhil, is a world-renowned scientific intellectual, lecturer, author, and founder of the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science. His books, which include The God Delusion and The Blind Watchmaker, draw on his experience as a leading evolutionary biologist, and have been translated into many languages. Dawkins will be available to sign his books, including the recently released, The Magic of Reality: How We Know What's Really True.

When:  Sunday, April 1, 2012, 3:00 PM (doors open at 2:00)

Where:  Newport High School, 4333 Factoria Blvd SE, Bellevue, WA

Cost:  $5.00 at the door, or purchase online at http://nwfreethoughtalliance.org/#/pay-sunday-afternoon/4561262030 (advance ticket purchase will guarantee a seat in case this event sells out)

Admission includes:  Presentations by Cornwell, Faircloth, and Dawkins, Q&A, and Book Signing for Prof. Dawkins and Sean Faircloth

Sponsored by the Northwest Freethought Alliance.

For more information about the Richard Dawkins Foundation for Reason and Science, please visit http://richarddawkinsfoundation.org/.  For more information about the Northwest Freethought Alliance, please visit http://nwfreethoughtalliance.org/

For an interview, please contact Sean Faircloth at (571) 243-9359 (sean.faircloth@richarddawkins.net)

Boghossian: Faith is a Cognitive Sickness

Faith as a Cognitive Sickness from Philosophy News

bannerDr. Peter Boghossian pulls no punches claiming that faith is a cognitive sickness and that those who attempt to get to the truth using faith are delusional. In this trailer for a talk he gave at Portland State University, Dr. Boghossian passionately argues that faith, regardless of the conclusions one draws from it, is a faulty process and cannot reliably get one to the truth. The talk was originally scheduled for a smaller room but then had to be moved due to the overwhelming response. The new space was filled to standing room only and dozens were turned away.

Agree with him or not, Boghossian makes claims you can sink your teeth into. There is no doubt where he stands on this issue giving both supporters and detractors a solid starting point for discussion.

On Knowing God Exists

titleIt’s possible for a religious believer to be rational and completely justified in believing in God’s existence without basing her belief on evidence. That’s the general claim of philosopher Alvin Plantinga. In this podcast and accompanying video, Paul Pardi lays out what he sees as Plantinga’s core argument and briefly examines some objections. This presentation was given to the Capitol Hill Theology Pub to a largely lay audience interested in philosophy and theology. The presentation was designed as a primer to Plantinga’s ideas on religious belief and warrant. In the first 45 minutes Paul gives an overview of some general problems in epistemology and then lays out Plantinga’s argument and some objections to it. He then takes 30 minutes of questions and answers.

Listen:

Download: Presentation: Knowing God Exists (34 Mb)

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Knowing God Exists: The Religious Epistemology of Alvin Plantinga from Philosophy News.


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Ruth Barcan Marcus Passes Away

Brian Leiter reports that Ruth Barcan Marcus passed away on February 19th, 2012. Marcus was a philosopher at Yale and focused on logic, ethics, metaphysics and epistemology. Barcan is the creator of what is called the Barcan formula which states that If everything is necessarily F, then it is necessary that everything is F. Timothy Willamson writes in his tribute,

“In reading her work, one has a strong sense that there is truth and falsity in philosophy, just as in other sciences, however hard it is to tell the difference. Sometimes, in sincerely honouring a genuinely distinguished philosopher, one nevertheless feels that in the end all their distinctive ideas will turn out to lie on the false side of the line. So it is a special pleasure to have been praising Ruth, many of whose main ideas are not just original, and clever, and beautiful, and fascinating, and influential, and way ahead of their time, but actually — I believe — true.”

Original post by Leiter is here.

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