Monthly Archives: December 2009

Dawkins’ Mindless Delusions

This is a guest post by Andy Walsh.

It is tempting sometimes to think of Richard Dawkins as a sort of Max Bialystock of the popular science world, with his God Delusion being a sort of literary equivalent of The Producers. I sometimes imagine him, pre-publication, preparing to launch his rant, both irreligious and anti-religious in form, cloaked in the assumption that nobody would take it seriously. Were he ever to have displayed a sense of humour I would be tempted to make this thesis the central argument of this blog. More in keeping with his reverence for the scientific view, and of his own place in the shaping of that view, might be the thought that he offers his views as a sort of Secular Encyclical, albeit one designed to endorse the pre-existing opinions of his readership rather than to offer the consolations of more difficult truths.

Dawkins operates a sort of positivism with respect to theology: not only does he take its claims to be false he also suggests that it is meaningless to think of it as being an academic discipline at all. It is not clear how, even given the former view, one might arrive at the latter one. Is it sufficient that the beliefs suggested by theology are false? If so does it follow that Newtonian physics is meaningless as an academic discipline?

But it’s still Christmas as I write this and so in the spirit of the season (the celebration of which might or might not be meaningless) let us give Dawkins all he wants: let us agree that to meet the central, ahem, “arguments” of God Delusion it will not do to fall back into the idiom of theology. But we don’t need to. An objection to the Dawkins, possibly a fatal one, can be developed using thoughts suggested by that most scientifically sympathetic and materialist-inclined philosopher Donald Davidson (no theologian he!).

Dawkins assimilates all explanation to the scientific. The existence of consciousness is, for him a mere epiphenomenon: a causal product of the elaboration of the evolutionary story. But the existence of consciousness carries with it an alternative, though not competing, form of explanation, the personal explanation. Davidson, who affirms that all mental events are identical with physical events (and who locates the proper sphere of philosophical inquiry in the third-personal, rather than the subjective) nevertheless argues that the mental is anomalous with respect to the physical, and he does this precisely because of the strict (nomological) status of the laws of physics. On this view, a view which owes nothing to theology and everything to the “desert landscapes” of a scientific philosophy, the forms of explanation which make reference to human beliefs and desires etc will never be displaced by science, however developed that science eventually becomes.

Consider the following statement: “Christopher decided to buy a copy of Richard’s book as he wanted some light reading for the evening. He therefore decided to catch the bus to town as he believed that it would be quicker than the train at this time of day”. The statement cites Christopher’s intention to buy the book and to take the bus based on his desire to read the book and his belief that the bus would be quicker than the train. The form of explanation is personal (or folk psychological as some philosophers have called it) and its character is shaped by its reference to Christopher’s mental states. Now it may well be the case (and for Davidson it is the case) that the sequence of mental events described by the explanation are identical with physical events (synaptic firings etc) in Christopher’s brain. But it would, according to him, be a mistake to suggest that from this it follows that the mental and the physical are related in any law like way: not if by “law” we mean something with the character of a physical law. If we agree with this line of thought we might conclude that scientific explanation leaves untouched the phenomena of consciousness, agency and the forms of explanation they supply.

It is of course possible to deny that Davidson’s arguments prevent the development of a materialist conception of the mental. Eliminative materialists look at arguments such as this and conclude that if the existence of consciousness generates a barrier to the completion of the neuroscientific project then it’s best to conclude that consciousness does not exist (I kid you not –there are some philosophers of mind who endorse this view although in the case of one of them (Rorty) it might well be that his motive is mischief….assuming there are such things as motives of course). Such a maneuver might be an overreaction but at least it is a reaction: Dawkins seems to be unaware even of the debate.

It is not the case, as Dawkins seems to assume, that theists in formulating the “God hypothesis” are guilty of a thought too far. Rather, the fact of agency and the forms of explanation it furnishes, is immanent in the world, to at least the extent of science. You don’t need to do any “theology” to realise this; just a little philosophy.

Andy studied under the Berkleyan philosopher, Howard Robinson, at the University of Liverpool, and has a doctorate in contemporary philosophy of mind/language.

Philosophy in the Short

Ernest Hemingway

Image via Wikipedia

Ernest Hemingway claimed that his best story was only six words long: “For sale: baby shoes, never worn.” Twitter challenges the Twits to tweet profoundly in 146 characters or less. Naturally, this raises the obvious question: can philosophy be done in such tiny packages? After all, we philosophers are known for being rather long winded (or long fingered…if that is how one would change this to a key board metaphor). To make this challenge more interesting, let us see if philosophers can do more with less. As such, I introduce the Philosophy in Three words or 73 Characters (or less) Challenge. Spelling, as always, does not count. Winners will receive the 3 seconds of fame it takes to read and puzzle over their phits (philosophy bits).

Happy Holidays to all.

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Right to Know?

Tiger Woods
Image via Wikipedia

The recent media frenzy over the Tiger Woods‘ affair(s) raises numerous issues of philosophical concern. The one that I will focus on is the matter of the extent of our right to know about what goes on in the lives of others.

One way to approach the question of the extent of this right is to borrow from the approach taken by John Stuart Mill in regards to liberty. Simplifying things, Mill took the view others have the right to interfere with the liberty of others in order to prevent harm. Beyond this, people lack the right to interfere with the liberty of others.

It can be argued by analogy that the same sort of principle can be applied to what people have a right to know about others. To be specific, a person has the right to know something about another person if not knowing this would be harmful to the person. For example, a person has a right to know if the babysitter she is considering hiring is a pedophile or not. Of course, working out an adequate account of harm would require considerable work and goes far beyond the scope of this blog.

In the Tiger Woods’ case it is obvious that this sort of principle would not provide the public with a right to know what is going on in his life. This is because what he did or did not do does not harm the public, although people obviously find it of great interest.  It would, of course, provide his wife and the other people involved with such a right.

This principle does, however, give people a right to know quite a bit about what occurs in the lives of elected officials. This is because their deeds and misdeeds do have the potential to cause harm to the public. Of course, even politicians do still have some areas of privacy in which the public has no right to know-namely those aspects which cannot harm the public. Obviously, mapping out these zones would be a matter of considerable work and would no doubt vary from person to person.

While the principle of harm does seem to be a reasonable basis for such a right, it might seem to be rather limited. After all, intuitively it would seem that people have a right to know things even when these things are not a matter of harm.

Another possible foundation for such a right is that people can give such a right to others. For example, when someone intentionally and knowingly provides another person with access to information then they have provided that person with the right to know. For example, if someone posts pictures of her drunken adventures on Facebook and has allowed her friends to view her photos, then she has granted them the right to know about said drunken adventures. As another example, a person can provide others with such a right because of their profession or the relationship they establish with that person.For example, if someone hires a lawyer, then that person gains a right to know about facts relevant to this professional relationship. As another example, when people enter into a relationship, then specific sorts of relationships provide a right to know. As a specific example, when two people are dating then they would seem to have a right to know certain things about each other that go beyond those that might be a cause of harm.

In the case of Tiger Woods his being a golf professional clearly does not grant people the right to know about his private life. However, Tiger Woods went beyond being a gold professional and became a professional endorser of products ranging from razor blades to cars. In one commercial, the public was even invited in to see him reading a bedtime story to his child. As such, he was clearly establishing a relationship with the public that went beyond being a just a guy who swings a club.

In such a role he crafted a reputation and image in the course of establishing a relationship with the public. The idea was, of course, that the public should trust his endorsements because he presented himself as the sort of person who could be trusted. After all, such endorsements presume the establishment of trust. While getting such endorsements depended on him being a great golfer, they also depended on him having a good reputation and a certain sort of image. As such, the image presented is a critical part of the relationship as well.

By entering into such a relationship based on trust Woods thus gave the public a right to know about what lies behind that carefully crafted image. After all, he was using his image and reputation to sell products and the public would thus have a right to know whether the image and reputation were legitimate or not.

As such, when he allegedly engaged in behavior that seems to directly contradict that crafted image, then the public had a right to know whether the claims against him are true or not.

This does not just apply to Tiger Woods but also to celebrities who build comparable relationships with the public. If they expect to be able to present a crafted image to the public in order to sell products (or ideas) then they have to expect that the public gains a right to peer behind the mask so as to see what is really back there.

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Macrocosm – Microcosm

Since Plato, and even before, it struck the imagination of humans that there exists a useful analogy between the macrocosm and the microcosm. The macrocosm is “The Great Universe.” It is an ordered cosmos, with perceived regularities and great periods of movement. The ancients saw the stars wheel through the heavens at night, the coming and going of the seasons, the great circle of time. On that great scale all is beautiful and moves in perfect harmony.

The Greeks made a distinction between the Heavens and the world below the moon, or the Sublunary Realm. Beyond the moon all is well. Plato’s Demiurgos, for example, who brought order to original chaos, tried his best to eliminate disorder. He does very well beyond the Moon. Unfortunately for us, the Demiurgos does not have fine grained control of the forces of matter and nature. There is no power that can tame a certain ‘recalcitrance’ in matter. This is why the creatures living on the earth occasionally suffer the shocks of earthquakes, famine, great epidemics, and war. Humans, themselves, are definitely ‘sub-lunary’ creatures, and remain chaotic despite trying, at times, to imitate the great model of the Heavens above them, or the Divine Mind or Power which people believed to lie behind it.

Later in history, but before the existence of modern mathematical science, the macrocosm – microcosm distinction took a large load of moral symbolism. There arose a doctrine of ‘correspondences’ between the macro and the microcosm. The slogan was “As above, so below.” The microcosm of the little world of humans recapitulates or mirrors the greater world of the macrocosm.

A remnant of this way of thinking lingers in the imagery of Shakespeare. King Lear experiences a mighty storm on a blasted heath that mirrors the chaos of his soul. In another play, Caesar ignores the dire omens that preceded his murder. When comets fly, or a bird falls from the sky, they are signs of a correspondence between the great and little worlds. We call this ‘magical thinking’ today, but that does not make it go away. Magical thinking still flourishes in the world, and nothing can stop a person from thinking magically. We used to look at the entrails of sheep to prognosticate the future. Now we try to ‘read’ the stock market, or estimate the invisible risks of investments.

The distinction between the macrocosm and the microcosm has also served an ideological purpose. It helped to establish hierarchical power structures in the world. The Chinese perfected this idea with their distinctions between Heaven and Earth, Emperor and Subject, Father – Son, and so on. The Emperor rules by the Will of the Macrocosm (Heaven), and the Earth prospers when it follows the will of heaven. In the West, too, the distinction had much the same purpose; namely, to bolster the Divine Right of Kings and the idea that everyone has a place a natural hierarchy.

Modern societies build change into the order of things. There is no microcosm or macrocosm because we live in an undivided universe. There is no ‘above,’ no ‘below,’ but only universal forces working out the details of their manifestations in space and time. This may be correct from a scientific point of view, which Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere.” However, the distinction may still have a use in helping us to explore the problems of ‘perspectival’ thinking, which is the view from somewhere.

Today, the distinction between the macrocosm and microcosm can highlight for us the gap that exists between the world at it is revealed to an individual’s immediate perceptual and cultural registry, and the greater world that always escapes it. How is this, and why is it important?

Grant for the sake of argument that human beings are perceiving, feeling, thinking and acting animals who exist in a perceptually limited field. This limited field is the microcosm. Not only is it bounded by the contours of an animal body, and immediate contact with a particular environment, but also by time itself. This animal body has a beginning, middle, and end in time. Therefore, a person’s animal life is spent in a microcosm. Our bodies provide both the opportunity and necessity of living in this perceptually limited world. There are as many microcosms as there are people on this planet. However, we are also aware of the macrocosm through learning, science and communication. The macrocosm is the universe as it transcends individuals’ particular experiences. The different sciences open up fit subjects for study and speculation. The excitement over the new Hadron collider is part of this, as is the amazing elaboration of the human genome. Philosophy, too, can put our necessarily microcosmic lives in a macro-cosmic perspective, giving us a longer and wider view of the universe, one that transcends the short lives and perceptual limitations of individuals.

Considering the macrocosm can thus act as a corrective to our basic myopia. People tend to take whatever is around them as reality, but thoughts of the macrocosm make us realize that our microcosmic reality is transcended on all sides by nature and differences between the histories and cultures of peoples and nations.

For example, living in a comfortable spot by the beach in Southern California, there is no war going on in the vicinity, no famine, and no great social unrest. There is hardship in East Los Angeles, poverty in Santa Ana, homelessness and untreated mental illness on Skid Row, but down by the beach, one would be forgiven for thinking that the world is a beautiful place, full of beautiful people out exercising. Everyone appears so laid back you would think that life is just a pleasant dream. Of course, there are problems, but the police force is beefy, and the streets fairly safe. If a person just lives in the microcosm of a beach town and sees nothing else, hears nothing else, and speaks nothing else, then the microcosm is all there is for that individual.

Thinking about the macrocosm and microcosm is important because it reminds us that how it is where we live is not how it is where someone else lives, even if the other person lives in the same town. Knowledge of the macrocosm draws us out of our little lives to stand in a wider world, feeling awe before the grandeur of nature, the sweep of human history, the growth of science, and the potential to integrate the great and the little into a life that appreciates both and can move from one to the other as the occasion demands.

For Your Own Good

How should you think about the happiness of other people?  Some Ancient Greeks think that there is a right way to live — perhaps in accord with nature or in contemplation of truth.  Recent philosophers, maybe since Mill, hold the view that what other people get up to, so long as they do no harm to others, is their own business — they might add, their own ‘goddamn’ business.  There are free spirits in the world, and not everyone thinks that the ordinary trappings of a so-called happy life are much fun.  Some go further with the thought that happiness is entirely subjective — different strokes for different folks — and if a person says that he or she is happy, that’s all there is to it.  There are no deeper facts than the individual’s judgement.


Consider a homeless man who lives under a roundabout in London in a hovel he’s built out of bits of wood and cardboard.  They say he eats pigeons and cats, grilled on an overturned shopping cart.  He refuses all offers of help — sometimes with threats, actual stick-waving pursuit, and extremely creative profanity.  It’s possible that he has something called ‘Diogenes Syndrome’ (yes, named after the cynic who allegedly slept in a barrel), which Google will tell you is characterised by extreme self-neglect, living in squalor, lack of shame, apathy, and on and on.  A man who might have it too died earlier this year, trapped in his house within filthy tunnels made out of his own rubbish.

Do we really want to say that if he wishes to live that way, it’s his business?  For all we know he’s happy enough.  Really?  Can a life partly spent worming around in rotting rubbish be happy?  Thoughts like these can lead to the conclusion that people can be wrong when they judge themselves to be happy or decide how they want to live — maybe there’s a fact of the matter, and it’s not a subjective thing at all.  If they can be wrong about this, isn’t there room to think that we ought to do something about their lives whether they like it or not?  Shouldn’t something be done, in that creepy phrase, for their own good?

Maybe you think the man in the tunnels ought to have been rescued from himself somehow.  Maybe you think the man under the roundabout is nuts and ought to be put into some sort of care.  His life could certainly be improved, couldn’t it?  There’s got to be a life better than that one for him.  I imagine he’d hate it, and he’d hate you for trying to keep him from whatever it is he does out there all day and night.  Would he be right or would you?

New Moon, Zero Tolerance & Zero Sense

Samantha Tumpach was recently arrested and jailed. She faces the possibility of three years in prison. Did she assault someone? Rob a store? No, her crime was that while she was filming a birthday event she managed to capture a few minutes of New Moon-a crime for which the movie theater folks had zero tolerance.

Being an author, I am against the theft of intellectual property. After all, as I would regard stealing my work as wrong, I must regard the stealing of others’ work as equally wrong.  Also, it is theft and hence most of the moral arguments against stealing apply to this sort of theft as well. As such, people who try to steal movies by copying them in this manner should be subject to punishment.

Being an ethical and rational person, I am against excessive punishment and believe that the purpose of law is to serve the general good. Unthinking obedience to the letter of the law and zero tolerance tends to transform the law from an instrument of the public good to a implement of harm. I am, of course, against that.

To justly punish a person for theft, the thief would seem to be an intentional thief rather than an accidental taker. In this case, Tumpach did not seem to have any intent to steal the film (if she did, then the matter changes considerably) and her “theft” seems to be purely incidental. To use an analogy, it would be like a woman setting her purse down on the counter of a pastry shop and having a pastry stick to it by accident. When she walks out, unaware of the pastry, she is “stealing” the pastry, but it would be unreasonable to call her a thief. Likewise for Tumpach. If her video simply captures the film incidentally and does not show an intent to copy the film, then she should not be considered a thief.

Just punishment also needs to be proportional. After all, punishing a person to a degree that exceeds the wrong she did (and what is needed justly for deterrence) would simply create a new wrong that would need to be rectified. What she did does not seem to have done any meaningful harm to the owners’ of the movie and hence her arrest seems to be an injustice.

Before anyone asks, no I haven’t seen New Moon. I have seen the ads, thus leading me to infer that the werewolves in that film world spend their time in the gym getting buff rather than killing people. No doubt the older werewolves are very disappointed.

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I Need Your Help!

I’m putting together an online activity about fear of death. Part of it will involve two tests of mental agility. These have to be at the same level of difficulty. So I need to pre-test the two tests. That’s where you come in!

If you could follow this link, and do the two tests – it’ll only take a couple of minutes – I’d be very grateful.

There are other tests on the Philosophy Experiments site that you should try out if you haven’t already.

The Monty Hall Problem

What Does Mary Do?

Elementary, My Dear Wason?

If you have any problems with any of the tests, or any comments – particularly if you think any of the questions in the mental agility tests are much more difficult than average – then just let me know here.


Philosophy: something to do if you’re well off?

Here’s a story in the Times Higher about the decline of philosophy in newer universities in the UK (‘Being Philosophical May Be Limited to ‘Leisured’ Classes’).  The worry is that philosophy will only be studied in old universities by a homogeneous set of fairly well off white people who don’t worry much about fees and loans and the need to find work.  I know there are people who read philosophy — there are even a few great philosophers — who don’t have much cash, but I wonder if philosophy has always been more or less the preserve of well off.

I’ve had long arguments about whether or not philosophy is a genuinely human thing or a kind of indulgence, possible only in times of plenty, undertaken mostly by the well-heeled.  It’s certainly hard to grapple with the nature of Being when you’re hungry.  If philosophy really is largely the preserve of such people, I wonder what that tells us about philosophical questions.  Are they our questions, human questions, or are they the preoccupations of a certain sort of wealthy human being?

Maybe we’re so used to going on about how philosophy takes up the fundamental, human questions that we’ve ignored the fact that people outside the seminar room don’t worry about such things much at all.  If you’ve taught intro philosophy you know how hard it is to get the uninitiated to see that some philosophical problems are actually problems in the first place.  Do you have to be well off, sauntering through a life with your material needs safely secured, to think that there are real questions about truth and beauty and goodness?  How should one live?  Isn’t that a question you can only really bother with if you have the means to do something about your life other than struggle through it?