Monthly Archives: March 2010

Authenticity & Originality

It has been said that “there is nothing new under the sun” and that “good poets borrow, great poets steal.”As such, it makes perfect sense that David Shields would “write” Reality Hunger. This book was created by taking what others (ranging from Elvis to Yeats) wrote or said and combining it into a single work. While he did not want the work to properly cite the original sources, the publisher’s lawyers decided otherwise (for obvious reasons).

Since I am a professor, I tend to see this sort of thing as plagiarism rather than a creative work (although I have seen some creative attempts at plagiarism). However, some folks do not see it this way.

One recent example is provided by Helene Hegemann. Her book, Axolotl Roadkill, allegedly contains plagiarized text. In her defense, she asserted that “there’s no such thing as originality anyway, just authenticity.” This remark nicely mixes “there is nothing new under the sun” with Tolstoy’s view that sincerity is of critical importance in art. However, Tolstoy did have the view that originality was important, as did many other great writers including Edgar Allan Poe.

While Hegemann’s remark can be dismissed as an artist’s hyperbole (or an attempt to justify plagiarism) she does raise an interesting point about art.

On one hand, it can be argued that there is no originality. After all, artists recycle old ideas that themselves are ultimately just imitations of life. True, it might be said, artists can put together old content in new ways (such as Avatar) and achieve great success. But, this sort of originality cannot be considered true (or authentic originality).

In regards to authenticity, perhaps that is what matters-to speak in a genuine voice and, presumably, with the sincerity that Tolstoy praised.

On the other hand, originality does seem to be possible in various degrees. After all, it is easy enough to distinguish between outright copying and works that provide some new element. Having graded papers for years, I have a rather clear insight into that sort of distinction. Also, if there is no originality, there would seem to be little reason to buy or experience “new” works, because there would be no such things. We would be wiser to save our money and avail ourselves of the art already in the public domain.

As far as authenticity goes, that presumably means that the work presents what the artist really thinks or feels. Presumably people can feel and think the same things, so the work of another could, for example, be an authentic expression of what Hegemann thought or felt. However, this hardly seems to be the grounds for claiming authorship. After all, suppose a student of mine turned in a paper she copied from the internet claiming that it authentically expressed her views on Descartes’ skeptical arguments in the First Meditation. Even if this claim were true, she would hardly be entitled to claim the work on her own. After all, if I see someone doing a job and say “gosh, I would work just like that” I am hardly entitled to a cut of his paycheck.

Interestingly enough, I have had students try that approach-they have said that the text they copied expressed their view and hence they regarded it as acceptable to copy it without citing the source. Obviously, I did not buy that reasoning. After all, if I caught a student copying off another student’s test, I would not accept “well, those are the answers I would have put anyway” as a legitimate excuse. The same would seem to apply in art as well.

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Talking Philosophy Statistics

Not sure how interested people are in this sort of thing, but I figure my fellow bloggers might be, so here are some visitor statistics for this blog.

In the last year, Talking Philosophy has attracted:

206,861 unique visitors

who have made

738,638 visits

accessing

2,325,279 pages.

The trend is upwards. So, for example, in the first three months of 2009, TP attracted 43,454 unique visitors, who made 151,230 visits. In the same three months this year, TP has (so far) attracted 55,841 unique visitors, who have made 198,025 visits.

So thanks to all my fellow bloggers and (especially) to our readers.

Rhetorical Overkill

Adolf Hitler portrait, bust, 3/4 facing right.

Image via Wikipedia

As part of my critical thinking class, I teach a section on rhetoric. While my main concern is with teaching students how to defend against it, I also discuss how to use it. One of the points I make is that a risk with certain forms of rhetoric is what I call rhetorical overkill. This is  commonly done with hyperbole which is, by definition, an extravagant overstatement.

One obvious risk with hyperbole is that if it is too over the top, then it can be ineffective or even counterproductive. If a person is trying to use positive hyperbole, then going too far can create the impression that the person is claiming the absurd or even mocking the subject in question. For example, think of the over the top infomercials where the product is claimed to do  everything but cure cancer.  If the person is trying to use negative hyperbole, then going too far can undercut the attack by making it seem ridiculous. For example, calling a person a Nazi because he favors laws requiring people to use seat belts would seem rather absurd.

Another risk is that hyperbole can create an effect somewhat like crying “wolf”. In that tale, the boy cried “wolf” so often that no one believed him when the wolf actually came. In the case of rhetorical overkill, the problem is that it can create what might be dubbed “hyperbolic fatigue.” If matters are routinely blown out of proportion, this will tend to numb people to such terms. On a related note, if politicians and pundits routinely cry “Hitler” or “apocalypse” over lesser matters what words will they have left when the situation truly warrants such terms?

In some ways, this  is like swearing. While I am not a prude, I prefer to keep my swear words in reserve for situations that actually merit them. I’ve noticed that many people tend to use swear words in everyday conversations and I found this a bit confusing at first. After all, I have “hierarchy of escalation” when it comes to words, and swear words are at the top.  But, for many folks today, swear words are just part of everyday conversation (even in the classroom). So, when someone swears at me now, I pause to see if they are just talking normally or if they are actually trying to start trouble.

While I rarely swear, I do resent the fact that swear words have become so diluted and hence less useful to make a point quickly and directly. The same applies to extreme language-if we do not reserve it for extreme circumstances, then we diminish our language by robbing extreme words of their corresponding significance.

So, what the f@ck do you think?

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Abortion Puzzle

Okay so here’s a moral dilemma that I’m puzzled about. Assume for the sake of argument that two people have different ideas about what it is that gives human life value and secures the right to life.

Person A – The various attributes that make a human being a person are the source of life’s value and the right to life: for example, self-awareness, intelligence, creativity and the ability to communicate.

Person B – It’s the potential to become a person that’s key: so the attributes of personhood make human lives worth living, therefore, if a human being has the potential to develop these attributes, then this is enough to secure the right to life, etc.

Okay, so far so good. No need to worry about whether you agree with either of those positions, that’s not the point here.

Now Judith Jarvis Thomson has this thing where she talks about the fact that it is possible to think that a woman has the right to have an abortion, but nevertheless in certain circumstances she’d be somehow morally culpable if she had an abortion (perhaps, for example, if she would only have to wait five more minutes before giving birth, wouldn’t remember the event afterwards, the baby would go on to be adopted, and live a happy life, etc).

She illustrates this point with a variation on this story:

Bill and Ben are brothers. Bill, but not Ben, has been given a large number of chocolates, which he is happily in the process of consuming. Ben asks Bill whether he can have a single chocolate. In this situation, we probably wouldn’t want to say that Ben has the right to one of Bill’s chocolates, but we probably would want to say that Bill ought to give Ben a chocolate – we would judge him badly if he did not give one to his brother.

So let’s just assume that Thomson is right about this difference between rights and  oughts.

Now suppose Person A and Person B are discussing whether a Woman X is morally culpable if she has an abortion – say, for example, she’s going to give birth tomorrow, or whatever. (Okay I should say I don’t care at all about whether the woman is actually culpable.)

The puzzle is this:

It seems to me that it’s at least coherent for Person B to make the argument that Woman X should not have the abortion. He can argue that there is moral value attached to potentially being a person. If the woman has an abortion that’s morally wrong (even if it’s within her rights), because if she waits 24 hours there will be a baby, and the potential won’t have been destroyed.

But, and this is the key thing, can Person A make the same argument? He’s committed to the view that what is important is personhood. The problem is this: if he makes the argument that the woman should not have the abortion because of the fact that there will shortly be a birth, isn’t he de facto demonstrating that there is moral value attached to potentially being a person, which of course he has rejected as being morally relevant.

So that’s the puzzle. Can Person A make the same argument without betraying that potential is morally significant? (It’s possible that the answer here is that both things are morally relevant. But if true, that’s a bit… annoying.)

Edit: I was daft making this specifically about birth (it has to be birth for my purposes for boring reasons to do with the computer program I’m putting together). But it’s the dilemma I’m interested in (because it comes into play in the computer program despite the fact that it’s about birth – long story!). See my post 6.25pm.

The Beauty of Inconvenience

Here’s an article by Steve Almond (The Trouble with Easy Listening) which says something interesting about our changing experiences in a technology-driven world.  He describes an act from a nearly bygone era:  searching through stacks of albums to find what one wants to hear, setting up the record, and then listening to it — deliberately sitting there, absorbed, listening.  Using iTunes is wonderfully convenient, but as he puts it:

I really miss the fact that listening to music used to be a concerted sonic and emotional event, rather than the backing track to some flashing screen.  It was more inconvenient, to be sure.  But for me, this inconvenience was part of the whole point.

turntableA certain sort of inconvenience really does enhance our expereince of the world.  I say ‘certain sort’ because not every inconvenience will do it.  An hour struggling up a hill can enhance one’s experience of the view.  Spending an hour inconvenienced by traffic while driving up the same hill doesn’t make the view any better.  It’s not just physical exhilaration either:  no endorphins are bothered by searching for a record.  But there is something ‘earned’ about it.  The struggle through the means somehow makes the end feel deserved.  But this can’t quite be right.  You don’t deserve to listen to a record because you had some trouble finding it, do you?

Maybe it feels that way for a reason.  You can make a start on thinking about this with a hand up from Locke.  As he puts it:

Whatsoever then he removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left it in, he hath mixed his Labour with, and joyned to it something that is his own, and thereby makes it his Property.

I don’t believe a word of that when it comes to understanding property, but I do think Locke knows something about human nature.  Sometimes when you are inconvenienced, in particular when you struggle, when you mix your Labour out there with things, you join something of yourself to something in the world.  That’s what makes it feel like it’s yours.  When inconvenience enhances an experience there’s a kind of intermingling, something near a sense of ownership.  Maybe that feeling — the feeling that this music or this view is for me —  is part of the beauty of inconvenience.

Give Away Your Vote – That’s Crazy (Or Is It?)!

This is a guest post by Jason Foster.

Many years ago, I was berated by a friend for my plan to abstain from voting in a general election on the grounds that none of the political parties fielding candidates in my constituency held views similar to mine (perhaps of little surprise, given how little sway anarcho-syndicalism held in Tebbitt’s Essex of the 1980s).

My friend told me that if I did not exercise my vote, I had no right to complain about the actions of the elected government. The converse of which was, presumably, if I did vote for a party which represented none of my political views, I had every right to complain if a government formed by that party acted in a way I objected to, even if it were completely in keeping with its pre-election manifesto, which I had previously read, understood and disagreed with.

Well, Nick East, pick the bones out of this. The ‘give your vote’ campaign wants abstainers to donate their vote to those in other countries who have more of a view on British political life than the many jaded, underwhelmed ballot-casters which make up a good part of the British electorate.

The driving concept is that British citizens vote for British governments, which make decisions that affect many people in other parts of the world, who do not have a vote in Britain’s general elections. Which, considering the Iraqi military adventure debacle or the waste-dumping in West Africa super-injunction farce, seems a fair point to raise.

Egality, the activist group driving the campaign (and, I like to imagine, the bitter enemy of think-tanks Liberty and Fraternity), points out that there are many thousands of people who are entitled to vote in British elections who, for one reason or another, do not cast their vote.

Indeed, it is one of the ironies of the modern democratic system in Britain that the right to influence how we are ruled should be treated with as widespread indifference by the many, that the principle of universal franchise is routinely reduced to the diktat of the relative few who can be arsed to generate an opinion and go to a polling station to express it once every five years.

But here comes the crunch: Egality is urging us to give our unused votes to people in other countries – specifically Ghana, Afghanistan or Bangladesh – to use for their own political agenda.

Technology provides the means: Would-be abstainers sign up via the website, and receive a text message on polling day directing them who to vote for. Predictably, there are Twitter and Facebook elements.

(Actually, why leave it there? With the internet, the possibilities are endless: For example, what is there to prevent a vote-exchange system – the Multi-Coloured Swapshop of Suffrage, if you will – where a voter in, say, Sutton Coldfield swaps their May 2010 vote with a freedom-lover from California for a future Presidential contest, with comments moderated by Noel Edmonds? Or a ballot auction clearing house, (a new Ebay category of franchise, for example) where one can sell one’s vote to the highest bidder? Or indeed a combination of the two models, based along similar lines as the carbon credits offsetting scheme?)

When I first heard about the ‘give your vote’ campaign, on the radio in the kitchen, I cheered aloud for the sheer obtuseness of it. It’s not often you get this kind of high-browed imbecility. But when I came to set down exactly what I found so deplorable about it, I could not put my finger on one single reason. So many tried to muscle in at the same time, none could get through the front door.

Even now, after I’ve had a while to think about it, I cannot settle on one of the many reasons why one should object to the prospect of, for example, a Pashtun nationalist in downtown Kandahar casting a vote in, say, my south London constituency, where one of the most pressing political issues in recent months revolved around what should be done with a piece of graffiti (or is it art?) personally spray-canned by Banksy.

Indeed, I find myself in the bizarre position of wondering whether the ‘give your vote’ campaign is a perfectly reasonable idea, and it is merely my knee-jerk, mid-life reaction to it that prevents me from understanding this.

So here’s the deal. I will freely give my vote to the party of choice of the person who gives me the most salient argument as to why the ‘give your vote’ campaign is such an abhorrent betrayal of the principles of democracy, (or, if you’re feeling very persuasive and optimistic, why it is a good idea).

Understanding Mystery

One long strand of philosophical reflection attempts to empty the universe of mystery. Many philosophers have aimed to dispel superstitions, magical thoughts, irrational beliefs and uncanny appearances. Loving truth and knowledge, they have tried to understand the universe and themselves without calling for supernatural help. On this approach, philosophy ends with the disappearance of mystery. An omniscient intelligence would find nothing mysterious, but would have no need of philosophy, either.

Still, philosophy has never totally effaced the idea of mystery, and we can ask about its nature and try to explain why we have it. A mystery is something we do not understand, something that puzzles our senses, imagination or understanding. Some mysteries are solved. Some await a solution. Others remain unsolved for purely contingent reasons. Still others remain mysteries because we lack the intellectual ability to solve them, or because trying to think of a ‘solution’ is already wrong-headed.

To begin, let us distinguish natural from supernatural mysteries. Natural mysteries are things we do not understand, but which, if we finally dispel them, we will understand by thought, observation and experience without appeal to supernatural intelligence or agency. Natural mysteries can be little or big. A little mystery is the random disappearance of my socks, or why it rained living fish in the desert. Big natural mysteries are puzzles like the nature of gravity, dark matter, the Big Bang, the ultimate composition of the universe, and so on.

Believing that natural mysteries have natural explanations, we have sought for these explanations and have been very successful in dispelling some of them. For example, the role of the heart was a mystery for a long time, and there were many ideas about its function. However, when Harvey proved that the heart is a pump for pushing blood through the body, he solved the mystery. This does not mean that we will always be successful in dispelling natural mysteries, but our efforts to understand are not pointless. Magic tricks, too, are mysterious to those who do not know how the magician does them.

Supernatural mysteries also come in small and large sizes. Small ones include sightings of ghosts, the operations of poltergeists, communication with dead loved ones, astral projection, near-death experiences, and so on. We do not know how to take any of this, but even if we believe in the afterlife and immaterial spirits, such things are still mysterious to us.

We find the big supernatural mysteries in religion. In Christianity, for example, it is a mystery how God created the universe from nothing, or become a man; or how, in the Catholic tradition, bread and wine turn into the blood and body of Christ in the sacrament of communion. These are the ‘sacred mysteries’ of the church, and they will remain mysteries forever because God is beyond our comprehension.

Besides these, I would add another sort of mystery, one that is neither natural nor supernatural, but metaphysical. We might call it the ‘mystery of being’, to borrow a phrase from Heidegger. Even if we answer all our scientific questions about the universe and no longer find anything mysterious in it, that there is a universe at all is still a mystery. Each of us confronts this mystery in one way or another. One way is to deny that there are any mysteries that we cannot solve, at least in principle. Another is to embrace and elaborate mysteries through rites, dress and dietary codes, sacrifices, liturgies, particular beliefs about mysteries, and so on.

The first approach has a major flaw. Trying to dispel all mystery is a forgetful response to our being in the world and the amazing universe we inhabit. It closes our horizons and is too rigid. The second approach is liable to fall prey to irrationality, credulity, and, ultimately, superstition. In the extreme, this path leads to the quest for arcane knowledge and the assertion of the wildest superstitions as profound mysteries. However, experiencing the metaphysical mystery of being in a world at all, if only for a short time, keeps open the wide horizon of existence, and gives us a sense of living in an immeasurable vastness. It is hard to put into words. Aristotle says that philosophy begins in wonder, and I suggest that it ends in wonder, too. Keeping a sense of metaphysical mystery alive is one way to preserve this sense of wonder in a philosophically comprehensible way.

Hollywood & War

Inglourious Basterds

Image via Wikipedia

Caryn James presents an interesting assessment of war movies in “Hollywood Goes to War (Again).” Her overall thesis seems to be that in order to resonate, a war movie must be relevant to today.

James presents her view in the context of criticizing HBO’s The Pacific, the follow up toBand of Brothers. James contends that this series lacks cultural resonance, which is presumably a serious flaw. In contrast, a movie like Inglourious Basterds is really about today’s wars rather than WWII (actually, the movie is science fiction-it is set in a parallel reality).

In making her case, James contends that an historical movie  “always reflect two eras: the ones in which they are set and the ones in which they are made.” To support this, she uses the example of Gone With the Wind and the recently mentioned Basterds. As she sees it, Gone With the Wind is about the Civil War, yet thoroughly grounded in 1930’s values, stereotypes and political context.

In the case of war films made today, James contends that they must take into account the changes in the view of warfare caused by Iraq and Afghanistan. In the case of  Basterds, James takes the film to be properly set within the contemporary views of war. As James notes, Rachel Maddow takes the movie to show  “the modern strategic history of Al Qaeda.”  The Pacific, as she sees it, fails to take into account such changes and, instead, simply sticks within the time in which it is set.

Naturally, since Band of Brothers was a great success (that is, resonated), James has to explain this. After all, this series was set firmly in WWII. James contends that the movie resonated because the series arrived prior to the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, because the United States was still in a “greatest generation” mood and Americans were inclined to pull together in a unity comparable to that of WWII.

The Pacific, she contends, fails to do this. For example, she notes that the movie shows war as matter of controlling territory which contrasts with how she sees contemporary war (winning hearts and minds).

Of course, there might be another reason why historical movies seem to be about contemporary matters. As Oscar Wilde put it, vanity leads people to think that art is about our time, rather than being about itself. It is natural for movies to act as mirrors so that people see in them a reflection of their time, values and so on. However, as Wilde argued, this could be seeing in them something that is simply not there.

As far as why historical war movies need to take into account contemporary matters, the answer is rather straightforward: James contends that movies that do not will fail. She presents Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers as an example of a failure. As an example of a success, she presents Eastwood’s  Letters From Iwo Jima.

Her explanation for the movie’s success is that the characters “echo with the suicide bombers who have become so common, yet remain so alien.” Roughly put, Letterswas a success because it is really about now and not about then.

This explanation is certainly appealing. After all, as Hume notes in his discussion of the paradox of taste, people have a preference for their own time and country in regards to art. So, people will tend to like movies that are “about” them. Also, relating to a different time and place can be difficult. Relating to what is based on our current situation is much easier and thus a film that does this is more likely to appeal to a broader audience.

This is an interesting explanation, but not the only one. After all, Letters’ success might have little or nothing to do with its alleged relevance to today’s wars. For example, it might simply have better acting,  a better plot, and have whatever else it is that makes one movie better than others. Letters seems to be a thoroughly WWII film. After all, the suicides in the movie are not anachronistic devices used to make the film resonate with now. Japanese soldiers really did commit suicide.

Of course, it could be argued that the film resonates because it just so happens that the situation is similar to that of today (that is, WWII is like the current wars in certain ways). But, it can also be argued that the film resonates because it addresses themes that are universal. As Hume argues, a fad might take hold for a while and appeal across a limited time or space, but truly good art would overcome such limitations and have an appeal beyond its locality and time.

In my own case, Letters resonates because it addresses matters that go beyond the particular wars of then and now. For example, the young Marine’s letter is not about WWII or today. Rather, it captures something universal across all wars. So, it is about all wars, in a way.

As such, my view is that while a movie might be appealing because it is relevant to the specifics of our time, for it to have true and lasting appeal, it must be relevant in a general way. That is, it must touch on what is universal in human experience.

This is obviously possible. There are movies (and other works of art) that are clearly not about our time in particular that still resonate. To use an obvious example, the works of Shakespeare resonate across time even though they are not grounded in post 9/11 assumptions.

As Hume argued, works might enjoy a temporary or local appeal by being about here and now. However, a work that is too locked into its time will, of course, be left behind as time moves on. This is not to say that such works do not have an appeal or value. However, such works will suffer a diminishing status as they become increasingly irrelevant. They will fail the test of time and this is a mark against them. Wilde, of course, was even more harsh. He regarded modernity of subject matter to be the way to create bad art.

There is, of course, a certain artistry in making an historical movie set in a past war that is really about today’s wars. After all, a movie set in the Iraq War is not a metaphor of the war, it is simply about the war. A WWII movie that is grounded in contemporary views of war can have such a metaphorical role.

However, there is a concern about such alterations. After all, historical films are supposed to be historical and altering the past to please the present can be regarded as somewhat questionable. To use a specific example, if the Pacific were to be altered to so that it followed the assumptions held about wars today, then it would no longer be a true WWII movie, but a movie about today set in WWII. While it is tempting to revise history (and historical films) so they match the views of today, this does violence to the past and violates an important purpose of history: to show us what was. At the very least, I can appeal to a selfish motive-do we want our time revised away in the movies of our descendent’s? Presumably we do not and, as such, should be wary of doing this to our ancestors.

That said, it can also be argued that such alterations can be acceptable. After all, historical movies are not history and their primary purpose is not to show what was, but to achieve certain aesthetic goals. As such, making historical movies grounded in contemporary assumptions is just fine.

This does seem reasonable. However, it also seems reasonable to accept that movies that stick with history can also achieve those aesthetic goals. Unless, of course, audiences have such a poverty of feeling and intellect that they cannot get beyond their own time and place.

James finishes with an obvious concern: what about movies about contemporary wars? James claims that the Hurt Locker, which has been wildly successful, is actually a defective film. James’ criticism is that the film’s flaw is that it “appropriates old-fashioned Greatest Generation hero worship while blithely ignoring the urgent question of whether the war should be fought at all.” She seems to regard the film’s critical and general success as an amazing trick on the part of Bigelow.

Naturally, James is assuming that the film must address this question. While this is a good question, it seems to be an error on James part to assume that a film about the Iraq war must address the question she thinks is important. After all, a war film need not address a major political (and moral)question of the day in order to be a good film. In the case of the Hurt Locker, its quality and the success which it has earned seem to be the most effective arguments against James’ criticism.

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Is It Just Because He’s Fat?

Probably a lot of you have tried out the interactive activity that I put together on the Trolley problem.

If not, then it’s here.

Anyway, I mentioned the existence of the activity on one of the philosophy mailing lists, and one of the responses that came back suggested that by including a fat man I was effectively perpetuating a bigotry.

I have to say that I find this experiment offensive, and always have. There is absolutely no reason in the logic of the experiment that the person sacrificed should be a "fat man" or …"a (very) fat man." There is a clear subtext that killing a fat man is somehow different from killing a man.

I am glad to see that some versions of the experiment have recently removed this piece of bigotry — I just recently saw one in which simply "a person" was suggested to be sacrificed. But the perpetuation of this gruesome story in its obviously bigoted anti-fat form is regrettable. The fact that Prof Foot may have invented it in that form is hardly an excuse.

This issue was then picked up at some feminist philosophers blog, and I joined in briefly, but the conversation there was too daft for my taste, so I left.

So to get some things clear here.

1. There is no clear sub-text that killing a fat man is somehow different from killing a man;

2. Professor Foot didn’t come up with the fat man scenario, it was Judith Jarvis Thomson;

3. It can’t just be “a person” because that immediately opens up the possibility of self-sacrifice, which completely messes with the thought experiment (you’ll have to be familiar with the Trolley Problem for that to make sense).

Anyway, I now have some interesting data that I thought I’d share. Around 4700 people have completed the activity to date. The results are showing that about 75% of people who avow utilitarianism will throw the fat man off the bridge; compared to only 20% of those who disavow utilitarianism (many of whom will also go on to make other decisions suggesting that they do actually make broadly utilitarian calculations).

This is actually quite encouraging. It suggests that in fact the size of the man is only of marginal significance – if it is of significance at all – in the decisions people make about his fate.

There is another wider issue here, which I’m not sure I want to get into, but which is worth mentioning. Why is it a prejudice to think that there might be moral problems with being fat (I ask this as somebody who has been fat, and no doubt will be fat again)? For example, I can think of straightforward utilitarian reasons to think that you might be doing something wrong if you eat enough food for six people… (okay, I’m being a little provocative, but even so…).

In Defence of Religious Belief

I was lying in bed last night when I heard a strange hissing and growling outside my bedroom door. I got to imagining that maybe I was about to be attacked by a monster (it turned out to be the fridge), which resulted in the following train of thought: hallucinations –> delusions –> psychotherapy –> the Brent Norton character in Stephen King’s novella “The Mist” –> a justification for religious belief that’s sort of a combination of Pascal’s Wager and the argument from religious experience. It goes like this:

You’ve been experiencing what you take to be hallucinations. You’re being followed around by a monster with big teeth. You’ve seen a psychiatrist who tells you that you’re suffering from a mental illness. You believe her. You know that monsters with big teeth don’t exist in the real world (notwithstanding crocodiles). You’re a logical sort of person. If you weren’t too classy, you’d even consider becoming a New Atheist. But the experiences remain absolutely real to you. They have a veridical quality.

You carry on with your life on the (rationally justified) assumption that these experiences are not real. You pretty much just ignore the monster – think John Forbes Nash after he realises he’s hallucinating – but then things start to change. The monster becomes more aggressive. It pinches the remote control when you’re trying to watch 90210, that kind of thing.

By this point you’re getting a little more worried: okay, it’s a hallucination, but what happens if you’re attacked by it? You know it’s not real, but … just suppose for a minute it is real? There are no monsters, obviously, but they’re not ruled out as a matter of logic, are they now?

And then it happens. It’s late at night. You’re alone in your bathroom, and the monster comes crashing in through the window – at least this is what you experience – and it’s on you. It doesn’t attack, but it’s right in your face, and you can smell rotting flesh on its breath. You close your eyes hoping it’ll just disappear, but you can hear its breathing, sense its malevolence, and in your head there’s this insistent thought:

What if it’s real?

At this point, given how high the stakes are, isn’t it reasonable to believe that the monster is real? Imagine yourself in that situation. What would you say to somebody who told you it was unreasonable or irrational to take evasive action? You wouldn’t be impressed, I suspect. Moreover, it’s not simply that you wouldn’t be impressed at the time – which is not particularly interesting, since you’re in a freaked out state – you wouldn’t be impressed afterwards either, you wouldn’t be impressed on calm reflection (with the claim that you were unreasonable to believe then).

Clearly belief in the monster isn’t epistemically warranted: the perilousness of a situation is not part of that story (though this is not to accept that the belief is entirely without epistemic warrant – the fact that the experience has a verdical quality surely counts for something). But the belief is warranted in a certain kind of rationally defensible way. You’re not making a cognitive mistake if you believe: given how high the stakes are, given the fact that the experience seems to have a veridical quality, it’s reasonable for you to believe it.

I’m aware that there are objections here, of course: for example, that belief wouldn’t be reasonable, but behaving as though one believes would be (that objection is not going to work, by the way), but I don’t think they’re decisive. So the question is what’s this got to do with religious belief?

Well, it is, in a way, analogous. Religious believers (some of them) claim both: (a) that their experience of the divine seems to be veridical; and (b) that belief in the truth of the experience can be a matter of life or death importance  – the stakes can be incredibly high. This second point bears further elucidation: it is not simply the Pascal Wager thing that one has to fear for one’s immortal soul (if that’s what Pascal was on about – I haven’t troubled myself to read him). It’s that right now, in the present, belief in the truth of the experience can be a matter of life or death importance. So think here, for example, about the mother who has lost a child, and yearns to be reunited with her in the afterlife. Or the soldier in the First World War struggling against the temptation to desert in the knowledge that he has to go over the trenches in the morning. Or simply the sceptical believer who in experiencing what seems to be the divine is profoundly unnerved by the idea that if the experience is true then it’s possible he’ll lose everything if he does not accept its truth.

So the argument is that if an experience seems to have a veridical quality, and if belief in its truth is a matter of pressing and utmost personal significance, then it is reasonable to believe in its truth. If this is right, it follows that religious belief is at least sometimes perfectly reasonable.

A few things to note here:

1. Just to avoid the obvious – but incorrect – objection: I am talking about experiences that genuinely seem veridical. I’m not going to be impressed if you tell me that you’ve experienced fairies, and that the truth of the experience of fairies is of the utmost importance in your life, and therefore it’s reasonable for you to believe in fairies – because you haven’t experienced fairies.

2. If your objection is that religious people don’t actually experiences what they take to be the divine in a way that seems to be veridical, then obviously, if that’s true, the argument doesn’t work. But I see no reason to assume it is true.

3. I’m aware that one should always be sceptical about accepting the truth of personal experience: that’s why I wove scepticism into the monster story.

4.  I’m partly just messing around with an argument here – because it’s fun. But if you think this is easy to dismiss, then I think you’re wrong. Or at least, I think you’re wrong if you think that it isn’t possible to rescue a version of this that will give me most of what I want from it. Of course, it’s most likely that it’ll just be ignored completely! 🙂