Monthly Archives: April 2009

Redesigning this Blog

Okay guys, this blog needs a redesign. Unfortunately, it means we’re going to have to go offline for probably 48 hours. I’m not exactly sure when that’ll happen, but assuming I don’t break anything we will be back!

Probably you’ll still be able to access individual posts if you go straight to their permalink; if you do, and they look odd, you know why!

We’ll probably disappear later today.

Microbiology, viruses and their threats

Just because I know we’re all worried about Oink, Oink, Sneeze (TM), I’ve published an extract from a conversation I had with virologist Professor Dorothy Crawford, which appeared in What Scientists Think. It’s not philosophy, so I published it on my web site rather than here.

Microbiology, Viruses and their Threats

Oh yes, also, see if you can figure out what Mary does.

Death and the Art of Living

Death and the Art of Living

 As one gets older, it is harder to ignore the inevitable approach of death. The young, if they are lucky, live as though there were no tomorrow. The days seem to stretch out before them in an endless line. Of course, no one is too young to die. Accidents, wars, famine and disease carry off many individuals before they feel the approach of old age and decrepitude. Still, to an older person, it appears that the young live as though life will never end. They often seem to be wasting their time, idling through their days without a care for the future. Older people are partly envious of the young, but they also recognize that, for them, there is no time to waste.

 The phenomenology of aging and death is the unfolding of time in a person’s life. When we are very young, tomorrow is what matters, or perhaps the day after that. One cannot wait for one’s birthday, for graduation into the wide world, for love and romance, making a living, having a family, and attaining respect as an adult in an adult’s world. Thoughts of the end rarely intrude, unless, perhaps, some religious teaching reminds one of it. Indeed, it is in religion that death takes a starring role, reminding the faithful of their common lot, and perhaps of a world beyond this one in which death shall be no more. Still, for a young person, even a reminder of death, like a skull, is more likely to be a paperweight or a scary curiosity than a catalyst for serious thoughts about death.

 So as time unfolds, the trail of the past gets longer and longer, while the future gets shorter and shorter.  In the blink of an eye, the time comes to look back on one’s life and ask what it all meant. For philosophers, and those who are philosophically minded, this question cannot be avoided by embracing a dogmatic creed that tells us in advance the meaning of human life. Thinking about death and the art of living will help us with the question of what life means after it has been lived.

 Every person has a choice to make in the manner in which he or she lives toward death, though no choice in living toward that end. One choice is to ignore death as long as possible, pretending that life will go on and on. Another choice is to see only the black dog of death, robbing us of all the transitory pleasures of life and the joys of the day. Choosing this, the prospect of death robs life of its very meaning. But while one worries about death, life slips by unlived.

 There is living, and then there is living well. The art of living is about living well, steering a course somewhere between ignoring death and obsessing about it. The fact is that though we will most probably experience dying, we will never experience death itself. Whatever death is or is not, we always approach but never reach it. This fact must be faced if we are to acquire the art of living well. All we will ever know is life, and with this realization comes the awareness that the present moment is all we presently have. The past is gone and the future never arrives except as a later present. So the art of living takes death on board, but does not allow the thought of it to sour the moment. 

 At the same time, awareness of death as the horizon of life ought not to be forgotten, since this thought gives relish to life. In fact, it may be that the prospect of living endlessly on and on is more effective in robbing life of meaning and joy than the thought of personal extinction. The art of living involves seeing death as an impetus to life, to living each moment in its fullness. This is why, I believe, Spinoza said that there is nothing the wise person thinks of so little as death. He is not telling us to live in ignorance of death, but rather to see that it is our lives we must cherish and celebrate, for that is all we will ever have. 

Philosophy Fun

You might want to check out Brian Leiter today.  After you follow the links on swine flu (an elementary school near me closed today–how nervous should I be?), you might want to read the discussion that’s brewing up about a seriously idiotic editorial in the New York Times which says academia should undergo an extreme make-over. Plus there have been some fun polls lately (with high-quality Kant-bashing in the comments), not to mention a recent post about the newly designed Philosopher’s Magazine website last week.  I used to think the blog was all news about professional comings and goings, but I’ve become a fan.

Defending Ms. California

During a beauty pagent self proclaimed “gossip queen” Perez Hilton asked Ms. California (Carrie Prejean) what she thought about same-sex marriage. She gave a rather mild and fairly common answer in which she endorsed freedom of choice and also expressed her view that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Since this is the same view publicly held by Obama and the Clintons, you would think that her remarks would have been quickly forgotten. However, this was not the case.

Instead of present a mature rebuttal of her position, Hilton responded with a rather hateful video blog, repeatedly using obscene words.  This has led to various other people attacking  her on this issue. Fortunately, some sensible folks have come to her defense, such as CNN’s Roland S. Martin. Since I am a sensible person, I will be defending her as well.

Before getting to my argument, let it be known that I support same sex marriage. I’ve argued elsewhere for this, but the gist of my case is that marriage is essentially a legal and economic contract. As such, adults should be able to enter into such a contract regardless of gender. In any case, my position on same sex marriage is not relevant to the issue at hand.

Naturally, some might wonder how I can be for same-sex marriage and also come to the defense of Ms. California. In reply, I am not defending her position-I think that her view is mistaken. However, I believe that she has liberty of both thought and expression (if an argument is wanting, I recommend John Stuart Mill‘s excellent essay on liberty).

While it might be claimed that Hilton is merely exercising his own right of expression, it is also reasonable to see his attacks as an attempt to infringe on the rights of others. If Hilton had presented an argument against her view or merely expressed his own position on the issue, then he would have been exercising his rights. However, his response was to attack her personally rather than to argue against her view.

On one hand, his reply could be seen as a tasteless, hateful, irrational, sexist and immature rant. On this interpretation, he can be criticized for his poor manners and apparent sexism. On the other hand, the venom of his reply could be seen as an attempt at coercion and an attack on her right to hold and express views that are different from his own. On this view, the message he can be seen as sending is that people can say what they like, provided that they agree with him.

Naturally, it might be replied that Hilton has the right to attack Ms. Prejean, even if his intent is to coerce her and others into accepting his view. After all, one might argue, argumentation and persuasion are simply part of the process of debate and discussion. Further, we certainly do not have the right to be free of criticism.

In reply, it is important to distinguish between criticism (even hateful criticism) and attempts to silence those with different views. Clearly, attempting to simply silence those with different views would be a violation of their moral right to the liberty of expression. If that is Hilton’s objective, then he is in the wrong because he has no more right to silence her than she has to silence him. If he is trying to refute her position, then he has not succeeded-he has merely made it only more clear what sort of person he is (or wishes the public to believe he is).

Someone might object to my position by asserting that Ms. Prejean’s view is wrong and hence she should be subject to such attacks. A person might use an analogy and note that if Ms. Prejean had said that she was opposed to people of different ethnic groups marrying each other, then no one would be defending her.

This objection does have some merit. After all, the liberty of expression is not an absolute right. For example, a person does not have the right to slander others or to yell “fire” in a crowded theater when there is no fire. Also, there has been much talk about limiting hate speech. What these all have in common is that a person’s right of expression is limited if his expression would cause harm to others. So, someone could argue that Ms. Prejean should be silenced because her expression of that opinion is harmful to the cause of same sex marriage. Naturally, this rests on the assumption that same sex marriage is morally acceptable and that her speaking against it would be harmful enough to warrant taking such action against her.

In reply, both of these assumptions can be challenged. While I agree that same sex marriage is morally acceptable, this issue can, obviously enough, still be debated in good conscience. As such, merely being against same sex marriage does not seem to be adequate grounds for attacking someone. Also, in the case of Ms. Prejean, her reply seems unlikely to create much harm. In contrast, Hilton’s hateful attack on her might prove far more harmful by serving to bring internet dialogue even lower than it already is (assuming that is even possible).

Your Friendly Village Atheist

Are the new atheists militant, strident, obnoxious, evangelical…in a word, bad? All those accusations have become a way for many people to close the book on a view they find unsettling. How convenient to have a way to dismiss the challenge to religion. See–they’re evangelical! They’re just like the people they criticize! So we can ignore them.

I think this is all pretty dubious. I rather like the new atheists. To be quite honest, I hugely enjoyed the four authors who get lumped together under this epithet–especially Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris. But I’m going to praise a different sort of atheist–a friendly atheist. And don’t get too concerned that I’m using a nice word for the type of atheist I have in mind. There are millions of nice words in the English language. If I praise a violin for the way it sings mellifluously, does that mean I’m criticizing drums for being percussive? No, not at all.

I’m going to call you (me, anyone) a friendly atheist if you meet these conditions (I’m in the mood for a little precision):

(1) You’re firm in your belief that the world is deity-free, and possibly you enjoy debate, but you doesn’t particularly want to convert anyone.

(2) Atheism is not a basis for your identity. When you think “I am an X,” perhaps you think “I am a liberal democrat” or “I am an American” or …. whatever. But you don’t think “I am an atheist.” Why not? Because the beliefs and values you consider important are ones that cut across boundaries defined by religious belief.

(3) Outside of a forum for no-holds-barred intellectual debate, like a philosophy class, you want your discussions about religion to have a tone of mutual respect.

Alright, so here’s my thesis (can this possibly be daring?)–it’s good for there to be friendly atheists. What’s good about them is that they “play well with others.” That was one of the abilities we used to get graded on in elementary school, back where I come from, and I think it’s important.

Why play well with others? One reason is self-interest. Atheists are not fully included in public life, in the US. Over 50% would not vote for someone who didn’t believe in God. There are various reasons for the distrust of atheists. Some have nothing to do with whether atheists come across like violins or drums. Nevertheless, I do think the friendly atheist is much more likely to be welcomed as “one of us” and trusted to represent the interests and aspirations of various voting blocs.

It’s also important to be able to interact respectfully with non-believers because it’s so important to make common cause with people who share your desire to…fill in the blank. An interesting feature of Peter Singer’s new book on extreme poverty is that he doesn’t hesitate to appeal to the reader’s religious motivations to give, even though he doesn’t share them. It’s also intriguing that, though he has a column in Free Inquiry, he never seems to use it to clobber religion.

If you’ve read Julian’s articles on the new atheists here and here, and the responses to them at various blogs, you can see I’m casting my vote mostly with Julian. I’m just putting the point a little differently. I’m not attacking the drums (let there be drums!), but praising the violins.  There’s also an issue of proportions.  Drums are loud. They tend to drown out violins. That’s why you have a couple of drums in a symphony, and a lot of violins.  I’m really not sure how the symphony of atheists comes across to the public (an empirical issue–and I have very little evidence) but it’s fair to say that it wouldn’t be good if it sounded like all drums.

Monty Hall Puzzle

This is an online version of the Monty Hall Puzzle that I’ve put together.

I’d be very grateful if people would be willing to give it a test run. It’s finished in the sense that it should work properly, but I haven’t completed all the stuff around it – basically, the Philosophy Experiments site isn’t up and running yet.

It’s a relatively complex piece of programming (it’s using AJAX technology), so it’s possible – quite likely even – that there are glitches. If anybody notices anything, it’d be really useful if you could let me know (especially if it falls over completely!)

There’s one thing worth looking out for. At one point it does stuff all by itself. That’s pretty unusual for a web based thing. Is it too disorienting (i.e., does it need more warning, flagging up, etc)?

The Monty Hall Puzzle itself is pretty cool (especially if you haven’t seen it before).

Thanks guys!

All things are full of gods

Some think that the philosophy of mind only really starts as recently as Ryle in 1948.  Others say that Descartes ushered in the philosophy of mind and modern philosophy at the same time, with the publication of Meditations in 1641.  In an exercise in futile overkill, I’m looking for talk of the mental as far back as possible in the West, and I found myself considering Homeric poems, which some say only began to coalesce between the late 9th and early 8th century BCE.  There’s talk there of ‘soul’ (I don’t have Greek so I can’t really help here) as something risked during battle, something that goes howling off to the underworld at death.  I suspect that the ancient author holds to some version of psychophysical supervenience.

No I don’t.  In a moment of clarity this afternoon, I came to the conclusion that I don’t really know what the hell the Pre-Socratics are talking about.  Does anyone?  Even Aristotle has trouble with them.  Worse, maybe we talk ourselves into believing some comfortable narrative which has little to do with the text that we’ve got.  We say that Thales thinks all is water, that he was the first to attempt non-mythological explanations of natural phenomena.  Some call him the first scientist.  Well, no or at least not so fast.  Of course, nothing he wrote survives.  It’s possible that all we really have is this:  a few intriguing lines from Plato, Aristotle and the musings of even later writers.  He doesn’t say all is water, not exactly, anyway.  It’s quite complicated.  Some of it feels like Chinese whispers.

Leave to one side the question of what Thales really thought.  Take the testimony we have as a good guide.  Can we genuinely throw cognitive ropes from our own conception of consicousness all the way back to Thales?  Can we engage with someone, understand someone who might have thought that magnets have souls and that all things are full of gods?

Misanthrope or racist – Make your choice!

Okay, so this will be fun, or ignored, or not fun.

Two people:

Person X: The Misanthrope

Jerry Terry dislikes people – a lot. He doesn’t really have friends, and treats his acquaintances with barely concealed contempt. He is very much an equal opportunity despiser – he dislikes men, women, straights, gays, blacks, whites and one-legged people all with an equal intensity. He is aware that his misanthropy is a problem, so he keeps himself to himself as much as possible. Nevertheless, he is certainly a negative force in the world, subtracting rather than adding to the sum total of human happiness.

Person Y: The Racist

Oswald likes (most) people – a lot. He has many friends, and treats almost everybody he meets with respect and kindness. However, he’s a racist – he just doesn’t like black people. He is aware that his racism is a problem, so he tries to avoid black people as much as possible. Nevertheless, in his dealings with black people, he is certainly a negative force in the world, subtracting rather than adding to the sum total of human happiness.

Further facts about Terry and Oswald

1. Terry treats black people worse than Oswald even though he’s not a racist (he dislikes them (a lot) not for being black, but for being people);

2. Oswald treats everybody better than Terry treats them;

3. Terry does not discriminate, whereas Oswald does (so, for example, Terry would be upset if a family moved into the empty house next to him because he’d rather it were empty; Oswald would be pleased if a family moved into an empty house next to him – unless they were black, in which case he would be upset, but less upset than Terry, simply because they were black).

4. Yes, I’m aware that you might find the characterisation of Terry and Oswald psychologically implausible. My advice is that you assume there has been some very peculiar conjunction of events in their childhood, plus star sign alignment, plus periodic exposure to death metal, which explains how they’ve ended up this way.

So what is worse, Terry’s misanthrope or Oswald’s racism? Who is morally more suspect and why?

My suspicion is that we tend to think racism is worse than misanthrope – I think this will remain my suspicion, even if it is denied here – so the question is why?

In defense of animal experimentation

Since there has been some discussion on here about animal rights, etc., I thought people might be interested in a conversation I had with Professor Colin Blakemore (formerly head of the Medical Research Council in the UK), where he defends animal experimentation and speciesism. It’s extracted from my book, “What Scientists Think”, and you can find it here.

I’ve also written something on animal rights, humanism and wishful thinking, which no doubt lots of people will find annoying.

Oh yes, while I’m at it, I’ve put together a new version of the Wason Selection Task. If you’re interested in the structure of human reasoning, and you’ve never seen it before, then it’s well worth checking out. (Plus you have the excitement of seeing this version pretty much before anybody else!).