Monthly Archives: May 2008

Neural Buddhists

If you don’t read David Brooks in the New York Times, then you don’t periodically waste half the day mulling over how annoying he is. His latest annoying column contains this odd sentence: “In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate.”

Hmm. The faithful evidently won that argument one day when I wasn’t looking.

Alright, so what’s the hard debate? It’s the debate between those who believe in the personal god of the bible, and the new “neural Buddhists”– psychologists and brain scientists like Andrew Newberg, Daniel J. Siegel, Michael S. Gazzaniga, Jonathan Haidt, Antonio Damasio and Marc D. Hauser.

The way Brooks reads these people, “the momentum has shifted away from hard-core materialism.” The neural Buddhists are claiming things like this–

(1) The self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. (2) Underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. (3) People are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. (4) God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

Jonathan Haidt and Marc Hauser do say things like (2) and Haidt has done research suggesting (3). I don’t doubt there are people on the list who say something like (1). But (4)? As far as I know, nobody on the list says any such thing. Haidt, for example, is an avowed atheist. Studying religious experience is one thing, but saying it’s of God, or of “the unknowable total of all there is” is something else.

What’s most misleading about the editorial is the suggestion that these scientists are heading away from “hard core materialism,” because the complex things they do say about the mind are certainly in tension with the idea that the mind is the brain. But there is no renaissance of belief in a soul.

Of course, the $64,000 question is how such things go on in the brain. Philosophers of mind have lots of suggestions, but for the vast majority these days, no other possibility can be taken seriously.

Brooks reminds me of a little kid who’s bargaining for dessert. Well, if we can’t have chocolate cake, can we at least have apple pie? If we can’t have the biblical God, can’t we have a nice spooky soul that nobody can really understand? I’m afraid we just can’t, because it really is grossly incoherent to suppose that there are mysterious intruders on the workings of the physical world.

You’d have 101 imponderables to contend with if you did think each person had his own special spiritual part working behind the scenes. When does it come on board? Do animal brains need that spiritual part to function as well? How does the spiritual part latch on, and interact with the brain?

Recent psychology and brain science is discovering that very, very interesting things go on in the brain or because of the brain. It’s just wishful thinking (wishful for people who find the material world “not enough”) to suppose what’s being discovered is that there’s a shadowy spirit lurking in (behind?) the brain.

Good news for graduates is just bad reporting

This is an interesting news story published in the new issue of tpm. It was written by our production editor, Matthew Humphrys.

Philosophy Graduates can do just about anything they want when it comes to employment, or so claimed the Guardian in November. But when TPM did some investigating of our own, a different picture began to emerge.
In the article, dated 20 November, the Guardian said that graduates with degrees in philosophy had never been in such demand in the workplace. It claimed that figures from the Higher Education Statistics Agency showed that graduates in philosophy were having better employment opportunities than ever before, resulting in a significant percentage increase in philosophy grads finding employment.
The article claimed that, “The number of all graduates in full-time and part-time work six months after graduation has risen by 9% between 2002-03 and 2005-06; for philosophy graduates it has gone up by 13%.” Philosophy graduates were no longer quite so derided as “unemployable layabouts” and were being prized by employers. Having drafted in Simon Blackburn to comment on how he can certainly see a change in the way that the public views philosophers, the newspaper went on to say, “It is particularly significant that the percentage finding full-time work six months after graduation has risen, since the number of philosophy graduates has more than doubled between 2001 and 2006.”
Other news sources and blogs repeated the claim, among them employment for students, the University of Hertfordshire, the University of Columbia (Canada), The Nigerian Student and Kenodoxia.
The only problem is that the central claims made are false. TPM spoke to Simon Kemp, the Press Secretary of the Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA), and requested the same figures that The Guardian had received. Kemp explained to TPM that the figures show an increase in “the number rather than proportion of philosophy graduates who reported being in paid work in the two years in question. Since there were more graduates, and more respondents to the destinations survey, this is not really evidence of any increase in the rate or employment of philosophy graduates.”
Of the philosophy graduates who replied to the survey in 2002/3, 62.4% were employed 6 months after graduation. For 2005/6 this had risen to 63.1%.
It is true that there is an increase in the number of graduates studying philosophy, and this is indeed about 13%. However, the percentage going into employment remains virtually unchanged, and at 63.1%, lags more than 10% behind the 73.7% average for all graduates in 2005/6.
There is also an increase in the total number of graduates UK-wide for the same periods of 10.6%.
The drop in the unemployment rate for philosophy graduates should be considered alongside the percentage increase of students who chose to go into further study, and so do not enter the “assumed to be unemployed” category. In 2002/3, of the 1,300 full time study philosophy graduates who responded to the survey, about 8% were classed as being in further study. Of the 1,470 full time study respondents in 2005/6, this had risen to 22%.
In correspondence with the Guardian a week before the article was published, the press officer had explained to the researcher for the article that, “As you can see, there is no appreciable change in the percentage of Philosophy leavers in employment.”
TPM contacted the reporter who wrote the article in the Guardian, and she insisted that she had used the figures given to her by HESSA and HECSA.

Karma’s heart of Stone

Sharon Stone has ruffled a few feathers for suggesting the Chinese earthquakes are karma for the country’s policy in Tibet. I wonder what the Deeply Spiritual People of Tibet (this is the only way one can refer to them) make of this unwelcome intervention on their behalf?
This reminded me of something I wrote for the Independent nine years ago after another celebrity got into trouble after invoking Karma. the England football manager had to resign after suggesting that disability was punishment for sins in a previous life. Here it is, in its original form:

The fact that Glenn Hoddle, the mild-mannered, clean-living “born-again Christian”, ended up being sacked for insulting the disabled may appear at first sight to be somewhat ironic. However, the irony is merely superficial. What is surprising is that we do not take offence at religious beliefs more often.
Hoddle is reputed to have said that the disabled have been born with their disabilities to compensate for the bad things they have done in a previous life. This is the ugly side of the doctrine of reincarnation and karma, so often thought of as a comforting, harmonious view of life and nature. But there are similarly unpleasant consequences for anyone who believes that life has a purpose. Whatever your religious persuasion, if you believe that that the universe is governed by benign forces, at some point you have to explain why there is so much suffering, misfortune and misery in the world. This is known to theologians and philosophers as ‘the problem of evil’.
You can attempt to explain away some of life’s travails by saying that they are the result of the abuse of our free will. But many of the ills of the world are simply not man-made. Nature as well as thalidomide sometimes produces disability, for example.
So we return to the question: why suffering? One solution is that suffering serves the greater long-term good. Hoddle has opted for this explanation. His particular version is that our suffering is the pay-back for the suffering we inflicted on others in past lives. Why this should be considered more offensive than other forms, however, is quite baffling. For the most popular alternative essentially claims that God has deliberately created the world in such a way as to allow suffering, because it is better for us that way in the long run. We don’t even deserve to suffer, except in so far as we share in the original sin of Eden. This is not seen as a wicked and offensive view to hold. But, like Hoddle, it essentially says to the disabled, “you have been born with your difficulties for your own good and for the good of others.”
And there’s the rub. The fact of the matter is, that in order to believe life has a good purpose, at some stage you’ve got to swallow something pretty distasteful. Either the unfortunate deserve their misery or our universe is ruled by a God who believes it is good for people to suffer, sometimes unimaginable horrors, so that they and others who respond to their suffering can become better people. Can it really be a comfort to believe that our creator thinks the existence of cancer, starvation and countless other horrors, unequally distributed with no regard to desert, is an acceptable price to pay for our spiritual development?
So what’s the alternative? It is to accept that there is no guiding force, that bad things just happen. If you’re born disabled, its not your fault and it’s not for your own good: it’s just bad luck. Nature deals the cards without thought or care. There’s no point in blaming the dealer. All we can do is make the best of the hands we’ve been dealt.
Therein lies a genuine irony. Traditionally, it is the view that life has no purpose which is seen as the bitter pill to swallow. But, as Glenn Hoddle found out to his cost, squaring the view that there is a point to it after all with the ills of the world turns out to be the most offensive, sourest brews of all.

Introducing Jeff

Regular readers will know that there’s a running joke about the criteria for being a blogger at Talking Philosophy (and it is a joke). The strange fact is that everyone who blogs here – Jean, James, Jeremy and myself- are all Dr Js. Well, funnily enough the latest addition is – you guessed it – another Dr J. Jeff Mason has written for tpm over the years and has had a monthly column in the soon to be terminated cafe section of our website. Jeff used to lecture in philosophy at Middlesex University before going back to his Californian roots, where he hits the beach whenever the surf’s up and continues to write and teach philosophy. He’ll be blogging here hopefully about once a week.
We do intend to add more bloggers in the future and I’m sure it’s only a matter of time before one is not a Dr J.

The Conservative Soul

This week the British parliament debated a bill that (among other things) sanctions the creation of animal-human hybrid embryos for stem-cell research. Recipe: take one animal egg, scoop out nucleus, insert human DNA, wait 14 days, then “dissassemble.” The idea is to use the stem cells that thereby develop for medical research, not to let the embryos grow into babies. (Long Olivia Judson editorial here.)

The human-animal divide has already been breached, of course. Already transgenic mice are commonly used in medical research, and mice have been bred with brains that are 1% human. (Article about hybrids here.) A pig heart has been transplanted into a human being. Maybe what’s causing all the distress over the hybrid embryos is the fear that some day they will be used reproductively, and who knows, some lab error some day may result in a creature that doesn’t just have a clear-cut pig component, but a more blurry intermingling of human and non-human features. (Eek!)

Conservatives are using religious language to respond to some of these developments, or vague talk of human dignity, but I get the feeling what’s really going on in the conservative soul is the desire to have everything in its place. Humans and other animals are different natural kinds, and shouldn’t be confused.

This sense of a natural order is all bound up with God in the bible, but it’s not difficult to separate the two. Humans and animals were separately created. Take God out of it, and the idea is simply that humans are different from animals, and have a different role in life. “Male and female” he created them—says the first account of the creation of woman (Genesis chapter 1), though things are messier in the second account, which has Adam make woman out of his own rib (Genesis chapter 2). The godless version: male and female are importantly different “kinds.”

The animals are further separated into the clean and the unclean. Some, God tells Moses, you can sacrifice and eat, some you can’t. Again, the basic thought is that there’s a natural order that’s also a moral order. Every time you sit down to dinner, you have to adhere to that order.

The problem is, people in the modern world keep messing things up. There’s a running story in the US media about a transgendered man (former woman) who’s pregnant. A story in the New York Times magazine a few weeks ago had male couples pose in domestic tableaus reminiscent of 1950s housekeeping magazines. Though the story was entirely gay-friendly, the pictures deliberately provoked the sense of things being mixed up, and laughably so.

Now I will make a confession. Yes, I have a conservative soul. The problem is, I have a liberal soul as well, and a few other souls too. I can’t say I like the idea of a pregnant man. It’s just not…(what can I say?)…natural. But wait, this is a person who made a choice to become a man, and may very well be thriving as a man, and then made a second choice to have a baby. Who the hell am I to want laws to get in the way, or even so much as to disapprove? (Can I honestly say the baby doesn’t have a good chance of a good life?)

And why shouldn’t the divide between human animals and other animals get blurred, if thereby people can fulfill their own choices to…stay alive, reproduce, avoid debilitating diseases (leaving aside, for the moment, the risk of harm to animals)?

And so I am pulled in more than one direction.


Hey, the soul talk’s all metaphorical. Don’t get worked up about it.

You might have noticed I’ve been blogging a lot this week. That’s because I finally finished and sent out my book proposal. It’s either blog or just sit around waiting for a rejection letter. Sniff.

Credit where credit is due. Julian had a good editorial on the embryo bill this week.

Disaster Open Thread

I keep thinking I ought to talk about the disasters in China and Myanmar, but I try to keep my posts philosophy-related here. Should  I make a connection with the problem of evil? The general issue of duties to far away people? Our tendency to respond more to small-scale tragedies than to large-scale tragedies? Bah! I won’t force a philosophy link, but make your own if you want. Or skip philosophy. It seems odd not to pause from business as usual here and take note of these massive tragedies. Thank you to AW for suggesting it and sending me this editorial by Timothy Garton Ash about the idea of airlifting aid into Myanmar without the government’s permission. Yes, the generals are allowing a bit of aid in from Asian countries, but it seems to be a pitiful trickle. Any and all discussion welcome.

Philosopher days

On June 27 there will be a Spinoza Day at the Westerkerk in Amsterdam. There will be talks and an exhibition. This made me wonder, what philosophers would make good days? And what would we do on them?
The obvious one would be a Socrates Day, in which people would descend on shopping Malls (markets are so last millennium) and show people they don’t know what they think they know. But there must be some better ideas than this?
(If you’re going to be in Amsterdam on the 27th, let me know! The day is part of the Amsterdam World City of Books programme (UNESCO). All participants will received the book Libertas Philosophandi. Spinoza als gids voor een vrije wereld, so bruech up your Dutch. Reservation at euro 20 obligatory.)

Mild vs. Wild

Domesticated and wild animals often come to mind as rivals. Wolves attack cattle in Wyoming, lions attack goats in Africa, coyotes attack cats in Texas. Those ferocious beasts!

In fact, in this competition the mild, domesticated animals are winning, by a long shot. Just for an example, consider the fact that there are an estimated 1.25 billion cows in the world and 5,000 tigers left in the wild. About a third of the non-ice surface of the earth is used for livestock production. A UN report explains the devastating impact on the environment. One effect is that wild animals are being crowded out.

The leading cause of species extinction is habitat destruction. That comes about for various reasons, but one is to make more room for livestock. Growing meat requires much more land than growing plant foods to feed the human population. (Think about it—one pound of plant protein fed to an animal doesn’t yield anywhere near a pound of edible flesh). E. O. Wilson predicts that, unless we make major changes, 25% of existing species will be gone in 50-100 years.

Now, you could look at the victory of domesticated animals with indifference, or even celebrate current trends. After all, there are lots and lots of domesticated animals in the world—on the order of a couple billion. At least a good number of them still graze out of doors, reasonably happily. They happen to have a relationship with humans that assures their proliferation, and turns other animals into losers.

Animal rights advocates are typically individualists, concerned only indirectly and not passionately with species. The loss of variety, the extinction of wild species, is not inherently tragic in their minds. Naturalists like E. O. Wilson have the opposite attitude. In his very readable and informative book The Diversity of Life, Wilson reports an interesting way of studying how insect populations ebb and flow. First you take a census of every creature in an area (e.g. an island, a square-acre of a rainforest), then you bring in exterminators to kill them all, and then you repeat the census a year or so later. What matters to Wilson are species.

Why should we care about the disappearance of wild animals if we’ve got plenty of mild animals?  If each species matters, or overall diversity matters, why does it?


On another note–I learned today that 2.6 billion people in the world do not have toilets, but “do their business by road sides, on train tracks, or wherever they can.” Doesn’t that speak volumes? Good story, here.


Weighty questions

Is being fat morally wrong?  That’s the suggestion being made in a recent report on obesity.  Apparently, obese people consume 18% more calories than average people.  They also use more fuel.  The thought is that their activities drive up food prices and increase greenhouse gas emissions.  The poor of the world starve a bit more because of them.  The planet is getting a bit hotter because of them.  They are, therefore, causing unnecessary human suffering.  If that’s not wrong, what is?

It might be true, but it just seems too quick or anyway shaky.  You can get all sorts of odd conclusions with nearby thoughts.  If someone goes to the gym a lot, probably she burns more calories than average.  Maybe runners qua runners eat more than they otherwise would, and this too contributes to rising food prices and climate change.  If being fat is wrong, is running wrong too?

You can get into this sort of trouble partly because our moral intuitions get hazy when we think about individual rights and wrongs against he backdrop of The Big Picture.  Sage advice to the contrary, it ain’t easy to think globally and act locally, and probably it’s the ‘think globally’ bit that’s tough.  Human values grew up in small towns, and maybe that’s why we’re not bad at spotting little, local wrongs.  The moral status of actions spread out in time and space — like those having to do with our tiny roles in enormous wrongs — are not easy to think through.  The moral status of just those tiny actions, though, is exactly what seems to matter most in this unpleasantly global, vaguely human world.

Is Philosophy Relevant?

From an interview with Jonathan Barnes (a philosopher at the University of Geneva who specializes in ancient philosophy):

No doubt I’m a crusty old cynic. In any case, I don’t believe that professional philosophy has much to offer non-philosophers on non-philosophical matters. Why should it have?

Of course, some philosophers do like to think that aspects of their professional studies have or should have a relevance to Real Life; and some of them do like to address the Common Man. They do it, I hope, for the money – and good luck to them. But far more often than not the results are pretty horrible.

What I think is…well, the picture says it all.  (I’ve written a book about Real Life.)

To be fair, he has nothing very nice to say about anybody–

Well, most philosophers who belong to the so-called analytical tradition are pretty poor philosophers. (Most academics who do anything are pretty poor at doing it; and philosophy, or so it seems to me, is a subject in which it is peculiarly difficult to do decent stuff….)

And as for the continental crowd…

But there’s a big difference between the analyticals and the continentals: what distinguishes the continental tradition is that all its members are pretty hopeless at philosophy. Myself, I’ve read scarcely a hundred continental pages. I can’t see how any rational being could bear to read more…

But aren’t some of these folks at least good writers?

Few living philosophers can write – or at any rate, few English-writing philosophers can write English. One or two of them try, usually with nauseating results. Most don’t even try – and don’t even know they’re not trying. They produce sentences which might have come from the pen of a tax inspector or an accountant.

Phew! He goes on–

When did I last read an article in a philosophy journal and smile at a witticism or relish a well-turned phrase? (Last week, actually – but that was exceptional.) Why do I prefer reading a novel, or a history, or a biography, or the side of the Shredded Wheat packet to reading something in the subject which in principle is closest to my heart?

What’s to be done? Nothing, nothing at all.

Actually, the bit about the Shredded Wheat packet makes me want to forgive him for the whole thing. Does he have a point?