8/31/09

Missing Polar Bears

We were watching an ABC news special about earth's future, and one of the kids in the room bemoaned the fact that at some point we may no longer be able to see polar bears. We'll miss them! But wait--we weren't going to see them anyway. How many people visit the fringe of the arctic, where they live? In the future, we'll still have all the images and videos that we do now. What we'll no longer get to have is a certain thought--that there are polar bears living up there in the arctic. Curiously, that will change the look of pictures like the one above. They'll no longer represent (roughly) polar bears in our world, but a past we can't retrieve. Oddly, what you think while viewing a picture affects the way the picture looks.

Is it unfair?

Surprisingly enough, hours and hours of debate can be generated by raising the following seemingly innocuous question. (I've recently experienced this first hand.) In a school with multiple sections of one course, is it fair for teachers to have different policies? If one teacher has a 30-point penalty for late papers, is it unfair if another teacher has a 50-point penalty? Amazingly enough, this can be the seed for a long, heated, and pretty interesting conversation!

8/29/09

"God in the Quad"

Being neither a "new atheist" nor a believer, I sometimes feel at a loss for intellectual allies. But no more. After giving the new atheists a drubbing, and then giving anti-new-atheists like Terry Eagleton even more of a drubbing, James Wood writes this in the current issue of The New Yorker (Aug. 31):
What is needed is neither the overweening rationalist atheism of a Dawkins nor the rarefied religious belief of an Eagleton but a theologically engaged atheism that resembles disappointed belief. Such atheism, only a semitone from faith, would be, like musical dissonance, the more acute for its proximity. It could give a brother's account of belief, rather than treat it as some unwanted impoverished relative. it would be unafraid to credit the immense allure of religious tradition, but at the same time it would be ready to argue that the abstract God of the philosophers and the theologians is no more probable than the idolatrous God of the fundamentalists, makes no better sense of the fallen world, and is certainly no more likable or worthy of our worshipful respect--alas.
That character of "disappointed belief" and proximity exactly describes my attitude (some of the time!), and why I can't quite join the raucous band of non-believers. I verbalized that as best I could in a review of the book Philosophers without Gods (Louise Antony, ed.) in Free Inquiry, but Wood says it much better.

There are lots of other goodies in the article, including a very apt discussion of Mark Johnston's book Saving God, discussed here in several installments.

8/27/09

Prize Announced

Cash prize for best philosophy blog entry written since August 23 2008, with Daniel Dennett as judge. Details here.

Point of Inquiry



If you're looking for podcasts, this is a treasure trove. (Do you have other podcasts to recommend?) More on this interview with psychologist Bruce Hood tomorrow.

-----

UPDATE: I was going to follow up with a post called "My Son the Counterexample," but then I asked my son if he wouldn't mind being used as a counterexample. Well, it turned out he did mind. Fancy that! It was only going to involve a few acutely embarrassing episodes from his childhood...Touchy, touchy! In any event, the interview's fascinating, and I'm going to have to have a look at Bruce Hood's book Supersense.

8/25/09

The Sloth Problem

No, not that kind of sloth. The sloths that live in Central and South America. They're a bit of a problem for a view I develop in my forthcoming book. What I argue is is that there's a difference in life value between members of different species, based on what they can do. A chimpanzee's life has more value than a chicken's life. And that's because a chimpanzee has much richer capacities.

The ethical significance I give to capacities resonates with our experience. If you start out knowing nothing about crows, and read books about them by Bernd Heinrich, you'll find your respect increasing. You'll change your mind, gradually, about what you'd be willing to do to crows.

So, sloths. While higher capacities typically increase our esteem and respect, what's really cool about sloths is what they can't do. Listen to David Attenborough reciting their incapacities--they're nearly blind and deaf, and move very slowly. Yet this is adaptive. By doing so little, they're able to survive without very much food.

If sloths are particularly estimable, that's a puzzle for my view. I can see various things to say...but alas, the book is done. In the second edition, I will talk about sloths!


Tis the Season?


There was this column about the ontological argument at the NYT yesterday (with the above illustration), and a mammoth column about religion and science on Sunday. Robert Wright says (A) religious folk should accept that there's no need whatever for God-talk within science. But (B) atheists should recognize that it's perfectly coherent to supplement a scientific view of the cosmos with religious ideas. He doesn't say we must, scientifically or logically, but just that believers may. It's not antithetical to science and reason. Basically, Wright is taking a lot of land away from religion, while asking atheists for a cease fire, in return. Next job for him: middle east negotiator.

8/24/09

What the Animal Rights Movement Can Teach the New Atheists (repost)

REPOST: I'm reposting this because there were some interesting new comments today just about the blue section.

************

I'll cut to the chase. What it can teach the new atheists is that it's good to debate strategy. It's not selling out "the movement" for some non-believers to question the tactics of others. Yes, I'm returning to the topic discussed (ad nauseum?) here, and here.

An interesting thing about the animal rights movement is that it is factionalized. There are very intense disagreements about how to proceed. Here's a little tour of factions.

The most radical faction is Abolitionist. These folks want a complete end to using animals for our purposes; they think animals ought to be reclassified as "persons" under the law. As far as strategy goes, they are for working toward these ultimate goals, and nothing else. They object to more moderate efforts to reform the meat industry, for example. They think these reforms just reassure people and remove the incentive to completely stop the exploitation of animals. (Follow the link, if you're interested--I think this is an intriguing website.)

A little less radical is the PETA faction, led by Ingrid Newkirk. In ultimate goals, they differ little from the abolitionists, but they are more pragmatic. They're right behind anything that makes life even incrementally better for animals. They're very well known because they're theatrical and confrontational. They make a scene. But they're also fun, and lots of celebrities want to help them publicize animal abuse. They can claim credit for many, many victories in the last 20 years.

Less radical still is the Humane Society approach. They agree with PETA and the abolitionists on the majority of goals. Wayne Pacelle, the CEO of the Humane Society, is a vegan himself. The Humane Society takes a complete different approach to strategy than PETA does. No outrageousness, no celebrities, no confrontation. They carefully preserve an image of mainstream compassion, but extend that beyond its traditional boundaries. Like PETA, they deserve credit for many victories.

Quite a lot less radical is an organization like the SPCA. They do share some of the goals of the other organizations. They are opposed to factory farming, just like all of the above. But most of their work focuses on high caste animals--by which I mean our pets.

A few months ago, Ingrid Newkirk visited my Animal Rights class. Of the many, many things that impressed me about her, one thing that especially impressed me is that she wanted the class to see the movie I Am an Animal before she visited, so the students would know something about her and PETA. The movie portrays her sympathetically, and yet it includes significant footage of other animal rights leaders criticizing her and PETA. There's criticism from Wayne Pacelle and even from PETA cofounder Alex Pacheco, as well as leaders of other animal rights organizations. There's lots of footage of PETA being outrageous (and footage of outrages against animals).

In the movie and in front of my class, Ingrid didn't say the other animal rights leaders didn't have enough evidence to challenge her. She didn't complain about how "animal people" are a maligned minority and should stick up for each other. She never insulted her critics or called them names. She had the courage of her convictions and simply responded to the criticisms. She believes in PETA's strategies and can give a very cogent defense of them.

Warring unbelievers should take note!

Must the doctor tell?

Randy Cohen takes up this question, in "The Ethicist" this week:

I am an anesthesiologist. Patients undergoing cardiac surgery routinely receive the intravenous blood thinner heparin, derived from pigs. Alternatives exist but are not F.D.A.-approved for this use and are probably less safe. Recently we had a devoutly Jewish patient. Should we have asked him whether a pig-derived product was acceptable or simply used what we knew to be most appropriate medically? Likewise, should we ask vegetarians about animal-based medical products? NAME WITHHELD, SACRAMENTO

His answer starts:

When in doubt, ask. The doctrine of informed consent is meant to put patients in control of their own care. It is the role of the doctor to provide the patient with the information needed to exercise that control. While you needn’t discuss heparin’s manufacture with all patients — most simply won’t care — you would do well to alert devout Jews or Muslims or vegetarians, who might have concerns about such things. more here
But it seems to me: the information is out there. Why is it the doctor's responsibility to provide it?

Half a Vegan (repost)

I've been thinking for some time that I really can't justify the animal products in my vegetarian diet--the milk, eggs, cheese, etc. It's very unfortunate to reach that conclusion, but irresistible. In fairyland, milk and cheese come from happy cows that laze around in the sunshine, while bulls do a little light labor nearby. Eggs come from barnyard chickens who consort with cockle-doodle-doo roosters. But I'm afraid it isn't so. Even if you buy organic eggs and dairy products (as I try to do) there's quite a bit of suffering and death behind these products. For evidence you can read Peter Singer and Jim Mason--The Ethics of What We Eat.

And so what is a cappucino and pancake loving person to do? Why not just eat more vegan meals? Become half a vegan? There was a great article about becoming a sometimes vegetarian (or vegan) in The New York Times back in June. The author pointed out that a certain number of fractional-vegetarians benefit animals and the envirionment just as much as one whole vegetarian. He also suggests making explicit pacts with others to keep yourself going, and doing so using online "commitment" websites like stickK.com.

I admit, there's a certain sort of moral theory on which this suggestion is pretty strange. If killing animals were strongly analogous to killing people, you'd have to be repelled by fractional-vegetarians and vegans. They're something like cannibals who cut back by 50%. We want people to go all the way when it comes to using other humans for food.

But from my ethical vantage point, being half a vegetarian or half a vegan is a good idea. And thus I'm paying more attention to vegan cookery. Without further ado, I offer you (dear reader) a vegan recipe.
SALAD SOUP
In olive oil, sautee a chopped up zuchinni with a large crushed garlic clove. Add about a cup of tomato sauce, 16 oz. of drained black beans, and 16 oz. of drained hominy, plus water. Add some coriander, cumin, oregano, salt, and pepper, to taste. Let all that heat for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, chop up avocados, tomatoes, lettuce, red peppers, red onion, and cilantro and arrange on big plate. Pour soup in bowls and let folks add salad to taste. Plus red pepper flakes, for extra excitement. (Crave cheese? For a vegetarian version, add shredded smoked cheese to the "salad" plate. Or to keep it vegan, try smoked soy cheese...if you can stand the idea.)
Elsewhere in food land. I appreciated Mark Bittman's list of 101 salads in the NYT recently. I love the way he organized them into vegan, vegetarian, meaty, etc. categories. The idea that you should be a vegetarian/vegan more often is an idea whose time has come.

8/23/09

The Woman Issue (and internet nonsense)


What a great special issue of the New York Times Magazine today. The centerpiece is an article about global women's rights issues by Nicholas Kristof and and Sheryl WuDunn. I enjoyed this passage:
Bill Gates recalls once being invited to speak in Saudi Arabia and finding himself facing a segregated audience. Four-fifths of the listeners were men, on the left. The remaining one-fifth were women, all covered in black cloaks and veils, on the right. A partition separated the two groups. Toward the end, in the question-and-answer session, a member of the audience noted that Saudi Arabia aimed to be one of the Top 10 countries in the world in technology by 2010 and asked if that was realistic. “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country,” Gates said, “you’re not going to get too close to the Top 10.” The small group on the right erupted in wild cheering.
I love the fact that the women "got it" and cheered.

The article inspires me to want to read a new book by these authors, and also look into the ways to give they suggest. But it also reminds me of a bizarre internet conversation I had a while back. At a certain very popular philosophy blog, Nicholas Kristof had come under attack for being concerned about animal rights (imagine that!). A commenter offered a general assessment of Kristof (and how could I forget this phrase): that he's a man with a "deeply, deeply trivial mind."

Wondering how the commenter could see himself as being in a position to judge this tireless defender of human rights so harshly, I looked him up and discovered ... what, that he is some moral saint, way beyond the likes of Kristof? No, I found out he was the author of a book about philosophy and video games. I'm still shaking my head.

It seems that blogs are full of this kind of thing--bluster and blather. Alright, it's of little importance (compared to the travesties described in the article), but it's been on my mind lately.

The Kristof/WuDunn article is great, and so are the other articles on women's rights in the magazine.

8/21/09

Is nature nice?


I'm thinking about it because of some very nasty nature scenes in the really very interesting movie King Kong (2005). And also because we encountered some surprisingly unnice nature in Hawaii last month--if only briefly, on the "wet" side of the big island. Contending with a heel full of sea urchin quills, the constant noxious smell of African tulip trees in the rain, and the grating sound of coqui frogs, I was ready to retire into a book...and (what's the matter with me?) I was reading a novel about a leper colony. Nature was not seeming so nice.

I was amazed to read recently that nature hasn't always been found glorious and appealing. Roderick Nash, in Wilderness and the American Mind, says that untamed nature has often been thought of as dark and fearsome. "Wild" doesn't have to connote anything positive. The idea of nature as the ultimate cathedral is a cultural invention. As a nature lover (98% of the time), that claim surprises me, but surely it must be true. Maybe it's because we live in a world with vastly too much "city" that so many of us long for "country."

8/20/09

Strategic Self-Restraint

Here's what I keep wondering (a propos of all the discussion of the book Unscientific America, which continues at many blogs): what is it that people find so disturbing? I'm going to venture a diagnosis. Ultimately, it's the book's call for self-restraint. Mooney and Kirshenbaum's message to atheists is: please think about the consequences of being antagonistic. The mystery is that saying this unleashes such fury.

It doesn't seem to me that it is a bad thing at all to advise sensitivity to consequences. Take an example completely outside the realm of religion. Recently, Peter Singer has been writing and talking about rationing publicly funded health care: a few weeks ago in The New York Times, and now on CNN. His arguments are very reasonable, but folks are becoming hysterical right now about "death panels" and "socialism." In that setting, "rationing" is a dirty word. If Singer wants to help Obama achieve healthcare reform in the US (and he does) it would be perfectly reasonable to ask him to think about whether it's wise to speak out like this. I am pretty confident that Singer, and people who like Singer, would take no offense at this sort of strategic question being raised. (I don't know the answer--it's just the raising of the question that I'm defending.)

And so why is the same sort of discussion, when it comes to speaking about science and religion in the public square, so profoundly offensive to this book's very riled up atheist critics? I have a hypothesis: I think some of "the new atheists" feel like gay activists did in the 1960s and 70s. They feel like a vulnerable minority that's just now starting to be heard. Thus, it galls them no end to be told they need to tone it down and think about things that matter more--like science literacy, addressing the problems of climate change, etc.

I don't have anywhere near as strong a sense of atheists as muzzled and vulnerable. There are definitely issues about the status of non-believers and their right to be heard, but they don't loom as large in my mind as they do for this book's furious critics. The problems about the future--like climate change--loom much larger. If it's generally reasonable to think strategically about what we say in the public square, I can't see any reason to make an exception when the topic is science and religion.

This is not to side with Mooney and Kirshenbaum on any specific claims they make about who should or shouldn't speak out, when, and where, but just to say their views don't put them beyond the pale. Not even remotely. It takes a rather exaggerated notion of the plight of non-believers to find their call for self-restraint offensive.

8/19/09

ThoughtCast


I hadn't seen anything recently by Jim Holt--the philosophy journalist whose byline always says he's working on a book about "the puzzle of existence"--so I Googled him and found him being interviewed at this cool website. Will have a closer look later...when I'm done with the puzzle of painting. Why paint your kid's room a different color? What's the point of color? What is it worth to change it? How much longer can I avoid getting back to work by asking these idle questions?

The Philosophical Parent: Rousseau's Emile

I'm awfully jealous of Julie Powell, the woman who catapulted herself to fame and fortune by cooking every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, blogging about it, and writing a book about it. Her life is now celebrated in the wonderful movie Julie and Julia and she seems to have a lucrative writing career. I keep thinking: what can I do?

So here's what I've come up with. In keeping with my current writing project about parenting, maybe I could read Rousseau's Emile, and perform experiments on my own children to test out his theories. I'm not quite sure what that would entail. There is this slightly alarming passage in the first few pages:
From the outset raise a wall round your child's soul; another may sketch the plan, you alone should carry it into execution.
That wall sounds a little scary... and should I really trust Monsieur Rousseau to "sketch the plan"? But then there is this nugget of wisdom:
There are rare occasions when a son may be excused for lack of respect for his father, but if a child could be so unnatural as to fail in respect for the mother who bore him and nursed him at her breast, who for so many years devoted herself to his care, such a monstrous wretch should be smothered at once as unworthy to live.
Well, to say the very least.

Have you read Emile? Is it the kind of book that can really be read, cover to cover, without undue suffering? Does it matter which translation one reads?

8/18/09

My Philosophical Kids

My kids consider it a fate worse than death to grow up and be a philosopher, or at least they tell me so (possibly to get my goat). If that fate awaits them, it's going to be their own damn fault. They really do ask some great questions. First one kid brings up this scenario: if someone cuts off their own finger and then wants to have it reattached, does insurance pay for it? Should they have to pay for it? A half an hour later, the other starts asking if I'd recognize them if they turned into a cat. Never fear (I should tell them both): school starts next week and all philosophical thinking will be drummed out of them. (Boy--all those plurals for gender neutrality are ugly, but sometimes you just have to deal with it. My daughter doesn't want it to be known which question was hers.)

8/17/09

Gulp!

The True and the Wonderful

Well, I've changed my mind about the last chapters of Saving God. I find them quite wonderful--in the way I find Plato's forms, Leibniz's monads, Berekeley's Idealism, and the Cartesian soul wonderful. There is something utterly wild about what Johnston is proposing, but what he writes is fascinating and unique. True? Well, let's not go that far.

Things here get complex enough that a blog post isn't going to do justice to the book. So--this is going to be scattershot. In chapter 9 we find that Johnston's positive account of "the highest one" actually has quite a bit to do with problems in the philosophy of mind. My cat is right now sitting by my computer staring at me. The cat is "present to me." In other words, I'm having a very detailed "cat-out-there" experience. Johnston asks a very surprising question. Is my brain "producing" or "sampling" the cat's presence? The assumption in philosophy of mind is that of course my brain is producing it. There's something going on in my head, and between my head and the world, so that the cat is present to me. There's unanimous agreement on the idea that there would be none of this "presence" in a world without brains.

But, Johnson says, for 40 years philosophers have been working away on explaining how the brain produces presence--there are now many theories about the nature of mental content on offer--but all the theories are failures. So maybe it's time for a radical change. He proposes that "presence" is actually out there, independent of brains. When I close my eyes, there is still just the same "presence of cat" there was when I had my eyes open. Note: he's not just saying the cat is still out there. It's the presence (which we normally think of as "mental") that's still out there.

To which I say, "cool!" But I'll come back to that.

So what does this have to do with God? Very roughly, what Johnston proposes is that "the highest one" that monotheistic religion is trying, but failing, to focus on, cannot be the "cosmic intervener" of the bible. (To make a long story short, Johnston thinks Yahweh just isn't all that supreme. See my previous posts....or better yet, read the book). What is supreme is the "outpouring" of being into existing things that "present themselves" in the way I just attempted to explain.

So the highest one is not a "person" like Yahweh is, and not the creator of the world, and not anyone you can supplicate. Yet Johnston says that in a non-literal sense (he draws on Aquinas's doctrine of analogical predication), we can think of the highest one in traditional terms. For example, the highest one is mind-like because it's the outpouring of being into things that present themselves. The presenting, which we usual take to be inside of our own minds, is out there in the reality he's identifying with God.

This is not monotheism, because Johnston isn't asserting the existence of a supernatural being separate from nature. But it's not pantheism either, since he isn't identifing God with nature. It's panentheism--the idea that God is only "realized by" nature. God is what happens through nature....it's the outpouring of being into existing things that present themselves. (The exact formulation Johnston prefers is in my previous post about the book.)

Religion is supposed to help us cope with life, Johnston thinks. He suggests that believing in this panentheistic highest one helps by inducing a sort of gratitude and hopefulness. Gratitude because being is so fulsome--there's such bounty out there! Hopefulness because the presence of things is out there, a part of the world, and won't disappear when I die or even when all of us die.

As I say, I think this is all wonderful and interesting. There's a lot we could say about it. But let's go back to the cat.

Let's grant that mental content has not yet been satisfactorily explained. Thinking about the cat can be explained in many different ways, none of which fully captures the phenomenon. But then, at that point, there are many possible moves. You might, for example, say that the cat's presence to me really is mysterious and explicable, but still say it's my brain that's responsible for the phenomenon of the presence, not the cat. In fact, how could presence really be out there, independent of minds? Yes, the cat's out there, but the cat's presence?

Granted, Johnston is not positing a transcendent, supernatural God. But all that presence he sees as being "out there," and processes like the "outpouring" of existence....are they "natural"? I take it he thinks they are, because they are realized by straightforward chunks of the natural world. But isn't there a limit to what natural things can do? Can cats present themselves? Can cats "receive" the outpouring of existence?

In short, is Johnston's understanding of the natural world an understanding of a natural world?

As I say, wonderful, but true is another matter. I do have to say that despite moments of exasperation, it turns out I enjoyed this book a lot. It's full of completely unexpected ideas and arguments. I think it does fulfill it's promise to be a sort of theology that's way off the radar, for today's critics of religion. Johnston offers a scathing critique of mainstream religion in the book. Despite his jabs at "the undergraduate atheists," non-believers will find much to like. The positive account of God is nothing like they're used to, and will no doubt provide fresh material for derision. But it really is something new (to me anyway) and interesting.

I almost wish I could believe in this god, because it does seem like, if I did, it would make the world feel even more interesting and bounteous than it already does. I must have a look at Rumi and Hopkins, the poets Johnston mentions as fellow travelers in the preface .

Previous posts:

1. Saving God...Saving What?
2. Can you know if you believe in God?
3. Saving God
4. More Saving God
5. Even More Saving God

8/16/09

Just Look It Up

Mark Vernon has done a very nice job of editing the new Chambers Dictionary of Belief and Religions. This is a really good thing to have around when you run into an unfamiliar word from the realm of religion or ethics. The definitions are long enough to be clear, but not so long as to be encyclopedic. Plus, there are many essays on "hot topics" and matters of perennial concern. Oh yeah, and I'm a contributor. I will not soon forget the long, long discussion that ensued back at Talking Philosophy when I solicited input about the word "atheist." If you want to know how it turned out, you'll just have to get the book.

8/15/09

Even More Saving God

Back to Mark Johnston's book Saving God: Religion after Idolatry.

Now that I am deep into it (chapters 5-8), I've been asking myself why I'm reading this book. What was I thinking? Now I remember. In the book description Mark Johnston disparages the "new atheists" for being undergraduate atheists who merely dismantle undergraduate theism. He was promising something more sophisticated...and to make it even more enticing, he promised to "save God" from theists as well. The view on offer is "God without the supernatural." I just had to find out what that was about.

Note to Johnston: it might not be the best idea to present religious ideas starting with a boast that they are sophisticated and superior, because it does invite attack and mockery. It's going to take all the restraint I have not to say "so this is the sophisticated stuff?" I will not do that. I swear I will not.

From what I can tell, there's nothing in this book in the way of proof of the existence of God. I think Johnston is addressing himself to someone with a "religious sensibility" and not trying to induce such a thing in people who don't have it. What he's trying to work out is what God is, not whether God exists, and he wants to do so in a way that doesn't make religion "idolatrous"--the worship of something not worth worshiping; and doesn't make religion incompatible with reason and science. The chapters that lay out these goals are clear and interesting.

Johnston wants to move past polytheism, past henotheism (the view that one of the gods is higher than the others--probably the view of the bible), past a sort of naive monotheism, and even past monotheism itself (the view that God is a substance separate from the natural world). He also wants to protection religion against traditional weapons in the atheist arsenal (the argument from evil, for example), by making use of non-undergraduate theological concepts (Thomas Aquinas's notion of analogical predication, for example. Amusing side note: I wrote a paper about that when I was as an undergraduate).

OK, all very interesting. But pray tell, what is God? What Johnston has to offer here is "panentheism". "All in God and God in all." That's got a nice ring to it, but what does it mean? This is a formulation he repeats many times:
The Highest One = the outpouring of Existence itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the purpose of the self-discosure of Existence itself.
This is glossed using ideas from process theology, Heidegger, and other thinkers. After reading the last two chapters, I will do my level best to explain what he means But my reaction so far is this: at best, panentheism strikes me as an optional (and barely intelligible) layer of poetry that could be added to our more serious and robust views about the world. But I'll wait until I get to the end to reach a final verdict.

*

My previous posts about the book are here:

1. Saving God...Saving What?
2. Can you know if you believe in God?
3. Saving God
4. More Saving God

8/14/09

Are Americans Just Stupid?

I'm awfully sorry, but the answer is Yes. How else to explain the outbreak of crazed concern about death panels and socialism lately? The very people who are so disturbed about government sponsored insurance ought to be supporting it, out of sheer self-interest. Wouldn't they like to have medical care for themselves and their families, should they lose their jobs? As Christians (most of them) shouldn't they be feeling some concern for the 1/6 of Americans who don't have health insurance? And what will be the dumbest thing of all is if the Democratic majority in congress doesn't simply pass health care reform, because they have the votes, and it's the right thing to do.

8/13/09

The Philosophical Parent: Wanting an X Kid


More about choosing children...

Alot of children arrive serendipitously, and they are still a joy, and everyone lives happily ever after. Still, there are lots and lots of reasons to believe in family planning, and I think many people do choose to have children. And how they choose is interesting. Some ways of making the choice are better than others, and in particular better for children (or so it seems).

So, more about the baby urge. Lots of helpful comments yesterday...and I thought about my own desire for children some more. If you look closely at the desire for a baby, you might find that it includes desires for a certain sort of possession ("my child"--a very resonant phrase), desires to be pregnant or to impregnate (not sure about the last), to merge (in a certain way!) with someone, etc.

None of those elements of the baby urge concern the nature of the baby. That strikes me as all to the good. It's hazardous to the baby's future when a parent wants a...girl, a boy, an athlete, a partner for the family business, an extra hand on the farm, a musician, a body-part donor to help out their first child. (There's a movie about that last situation coming out soon.)

If you want a baby just to have a baby and (by the way) it would be nice if the kid were an athletic girl, that would be fine. In that case, you are receptive to whatever comes along, but happen to prefer certain things. But it's very hard to tell the difference between a strong preference (I want an X and only an X) and a mild preference (I don't really care, but it would be nice to have a girl).

You'd think you could just introspect and find out how pivotal a particular preference is, but it doesn't seem as if you can. You're only really going to find out how seriously you wanted...a girl...a body-part donor for your first child...an athlete...if you don't get what you wanted. And then it seems the child is worse off for your having had specific desires.

So, when it comes to the baby-urge, the less specificity the better. It's fine to want a red car. Not fine to want a red-headed child. Which strikes me as surprising.

8/12/09

The Philosophical Parent: Choosing Children


My series continues.

I'm trying to think about the decision to get with child. There seem to be two aspects to the decision-making. You have thoughts about "why?" And you have thoughts about "why not?"

It seems like these two categories of thought are very different, though I'd love to get some feedback on this. The "why?" thoughts are barely even thoughts. You just have a desire to be "with child." Women talk about "baby lust." Babies start to look scrumptious. You want your own. You have images in your head--red-headed 5 year old, whatever. A kid that's yours. That's an important element. But it's all very formless.

In other words, the thought about wanting a baby isn't analytical or instrumental. You don't think I want a baby that has these attributes, and will do this and that for me. Baby-desire is much more crude than that.

And then there's the "why not?" phase of deciding whether to have a baby. Now things get analytical. Now there are tangled, vexing issues about whether this baby's life is going to benefit or harm him, and us, and...it can get complicated when there are issues about the child's genes or the circumstances he or she will be born into. To what extent should those "why not?" be given veto power? But first...

What I am wondering about is the "why?" thoughts. Is it true that they are so primitive and formless? I'm not looking for theories about this, but personal experience--yours, your friends', your partner's...whatever.

Atheist Wars

More on science and religion from Mooney and Kirshenbaum, and more flogging from their critics, here and here. Funny, amid all the insults and accusations, I don't see a response to their main question--who's going to buy Richard Dawkins's soon-to-be-released book explaining the evidence for evolution? A lot of people probably (including me), but won't they be NPR-listener types who already accept evolution, instead of people trying to make up their minds? Has Dawkins driven away the people who most need to read his book, by becoming so involved in the "new atheist" war against religion? You can love The God Delusion (I do), but still think that Mooney and Kirshenbaum are asking a good question.

8/11/09

More Saving God

Back to Mark Johnston's book Saving God: Religion after Idolatry. My previous posts about the book are here:
1. Saving God...Saving What?
2. Can you know if you believe in God?
3. Saving God
I find this a very surprising book. The first surprise is that it was written at all. It is not the narrow, excruciatingly careful sort of book you'd expect from a Princeton analytic philosopher. In fact, Johnston says it is not exactly a work of philosophy at all. In the preface he writes, "The work is offered simply as the expression of a certain sensibility. I give expression to it, at whatever risk, only because I hope that it has not entirely passed from the world."

The book is carefully reasoned, yet obviously not an effort to win over a skeptic. In fact, Johnston presupposes a religious reader: "One kind of ideal reader would be an intelligent young person who is religious, but who feels that his or her geuine religious impulses are being strangled by what he or she is being asked to believe, on less than convincing authority, about the nature of reality." (I have to say, "intelligent" is an understatement. Johnston does not coddle his reader.)

His ideal reader's "religious impulses" grew in the soil of scripture: he wants to worship "the highest one" and reject idolatry, as the bible tells him to. But how can Yahweh be the genuine "highest one," considering all his moral depravities?

(It happens that I went to a bat mitzvah last Saturday. The unfortunate 13 year old had to contend with Deuteronomy 13-16 as her Torah portion. How do you find an inspiring lesson in a passage that says Yahweh wants you to kill your friends and relatives if they start worshiping other people's gods? It's very, very tricky...)

Anyhow, the book is a meditation on the true nature of "the highest one". I'll quote from a passage (on pg. 44) that strikes me as encapsulating much of Johnston's thinking
Religion, for its part, is a complex and open-ended collection of cultic practices from which the practioners derive, or hope to derive, "existential strength," that is, a deepened capacitiy to deal with the manifest, large-scale structural defects of human life.
Think, for example: bar/bat mitzvah. Structural defect? Kids change. The ritual helps everyone cope with it.
To say that is not to indulge in noncognitivism about religion, the reductive treatment of religion as a mere practice with a set of associated virtues.
That seems to be the view of popular religion writer Karen Armstrong in her new book The Case for God. I agree with Johnston: it's not plausible that any religion has ever been just a practice, not a set of beliefs (however imprecise or amorphous).
The development of existential strength will involve believing in other things and other people, and may include believing in God; and that will involve associated belief in many distinctive propositions.
And now here's the (surprising) passage I really like:
But it is just unskillful to develop existential strength by believing propositions that encroach on the domain of science, thereby making one's path to salvation hostage to future scientific discoveries. And the Highest one could not ask this of us.
"Just unskillful"! Johnston is going to show that the Highest One is nothing supernatural or the least bit incompatible with science. What we're going to to be told, as the book continues, is what a wholly rational but existentially useful religion would look like.

Another surprise. Panentheism. Never even heard of it. Stay tuned. I'm going to post about the book again soon.

8/10/09

First Movie About Blogging?

I think I might have just seen the first movie about blogging--Julie and Julia. It's two stories in one--the story of Julia Child's rise to stardom, aided by a happy marriage to a supportive, wonderful husband. And the story of Julie Powell's year of cooking all the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and blogging about it, and becoming a star, aided by a happy marriage to a supportive, wonderful husband. Love those supportive husbands!

The blogging part is lots of fun (actually, all of it is lots of fun). The movie nicely evokes some of the fun of blogging--the way it bypasses that annoying business of trying to get things accepted for publication. In approximately 5 minutes, this post is going to be accepted, because I'm going to accept it. So much for gate-keeping editors!

And then there's the thrill of getting your first comment, and the fact that it just doesn't count if it's from your mother. And the narcissism of blogging. And the way blogging makes you focus on strangers who seem both real and not real, and how the 3D people in your life can find that annoying. And the feeling (once you get going) that you must feed the beast...er, the blog. And how, on the other hand, there's a discipline to it, and a real value to it....

And it made me think it would be nice if someone "discovered" my blog...and how I might have to read all of Aristotle in a year and blog about it to get a book contract....but how infinitely boring that would be both for me and my readers...and how I wouldn't actually get a book contract....and...

Time to get to work.

8/9/09

How Could She Do That?

I've been driving extra carefully the last week or two, watching out for cars that might be speeding toward me in the wrong direction. If you read US newspapers, you know why. I keep thinking about that mother on Long Island who drove the wrong way down a freeway, finally crashing into another car, and killing herself, her 2 year old, three nieces, and the three people in the other car.

It was a big mystery for a while how this happened, but the toxicology report revealed she took that drive after consuming 10 shots of vodka and smoking marijuana. She was an affluent cable television executive, "a perfect mother" and a "reliable person"; her husband a public safety officer. And she was on her way home from a camping trip. I keep wondering (everyone keeps wondering): how could she do that? It's heartbreaking ...the whole thing. And completely mind-boggling.

I wonder, though, if we are merely left with a mystery. Says a New York Times commentator:
Each possible version of events that has surfaced in the two weeks since strains credulity, and denies the public the comfort of a familiar cautionary tale. That is part of what has made obsessives of so many people following the story: its refusal to reveal, at a minimum, some lesson that would let us walk away feeling safer for having learned it.
Yes, this woman's personal trajectory is a mystery. But there is actually a lesson, and it's extremely simple: don't drink and drive. I've talked to my kids about this story because it just can't be stressed too much as they get closer to driving age. Plus, there's a lesson about addictions...and the need to beware of them, in ourselves, in others. The husband's got some hard-to-believe theories about how this binge was somehow induced by a medical problem, making me thing he had a problem too. It's called "denial."

8/7/09

Seen, Heard, Read


To conclude "science and religion week" here (and I promise no more of this next week)--

Seen. The movie Contact is just great. How often does a movie intelligently explore science vs. faith, and have great scenes of the cosmos, and great acting (why isn't Jodie Foster in any movies these days)? A must see.

I thought I'd left the "science and religion" theme behind last night when I watched Jimmy Carter, Man from Plains, the Jonathan Demme documentary. But I kid you not, the movie begins with a scene of Jimmy Carter preaching in a little church about the compatibility of religion and science. Take away lesson: reasonable people really will disagree about these things. He's nothing if not reasonable (but note, "reasonable" does not mean "right").

Heard. OK, I love Jimmy Carter. So what was all that choking about in the post about Francis Collins yesterday--considering that he probably believes roughly the same things as Carter? Interesting question. Fortunately, he did a Point of Inquiry interview, so it's possible to hear him, and not just read him. Lesson learned: people who argue for things I disagree with are more appealing to me the less they are adamant. Collins is much more adamant than Carter. This is a lesson for us all. I think Dawkins & Co. may give theists hives precisely because he's so adamant.

Read. Jerry Coyne's review of Unscientific America in Science is here. He makes some good points, but pulls a trick that Collins decries in that podcast. Distort what someone says, just so you can demolish them more spectacularly. Take for example this paragraph--
But Unscientific America prescribes just the opposite: science illiteracy would diminish if vocal atheists like Richard Dawkins would just keep quiet about religion, a sanction that the authors don't impose on publicly religious scientists such as Francis Collins. Unfortunately, Mooney and Kirshenbaum provide no evidence that this prescription would work. Do they really think that if Dawkins had not written The God Delusion (2), Americans would wholeheartedly embrace evolution and vaccination and finally recognize the threat of global warming?
Notice how his account of their view shifts from the beginning of the paragraph to the end. Beginning: they think science illiteracy would diminish if vocal atheists piped down. End: the question makes them out to believe Dawkins' book is the main barrier standing in the way of Americans "wholeheartedly embracing" evolution, vaccination, and global warming. Do they really think...all that? Of course not, and Coyne knows they don't, as the beginning of the paragraph makes clear.

So why say it? Why waste everyone's time? Coyne writes this in his review, and then someone reads it, and then people demand a response at Mooney and Kirshenbaum's blog, and then they have to waste their time explaining that Coyne misrepresented them, or get accused of being unresponsive...

Well, it's a big waste of time. It just wasted a half an hour of my time, and now I've wasted 5 minutes of yours. Very sorry. I promise, this is the end of the subject.

Says Who?


Briefly noted: at Jerry Coyne's blog a guest blogger writes "We can thus see that all baby tapirs look much alike, and quite different from adults. " Yes, well all baby humans no doubt look the same to tapirs. This little guy is no doubt very special looking...to his mom.

8/6/09

Hawaiian Sea Turtles

I know you'd like to see my video clip of sea turtles, taken last month at Punaalu'u Black Sand Beach on the Big Island of Hawai'i. This was the high point of the trip, for my daughter and me. (Lava flowing into the sea was the high point for my son and husband. What does that show?)

video

I wasn't at all happy to hear on the radio yesterday that tourists can cause problems for sea turtles trying to nest. I don't know what these ones were up to. Hopefully we weren't causing them any problems.

Sam Harris and Francis Collins

I like Sam Harris, I really do. I read his book The End of Faith and loved it. I'd call it a "necessary" book--it needed to be written at the moment in history when it was written. Its rambunctious style makes for entertaining reading. There are lots of good points in there. Read it, if you haven't.

But Sam, I'm afraid, is slipping. His diatribe against Francis Collins here (and earlier here) is badly reasoned. Now, I get it that he doesn't like to see Francis Collins being appointed director of the National Institutes of Health. I don't really like to see it either, because even though Collins ran the Genome Project and has a great reputation as a scientist and science administrator, he writes books that promote evangelical Christianity. As a non-believing Jew, I find myself choking on that twice (once for being non-believing and once for being Jewish). And then I have to choke again, because as a philosopher I find his views on the relationship between science and religion naive. But all that choking won't do as a reason to object to his appointment. The only valid objection would be that Collins's religious and philosophical ideas are going to prevent him from doing a good job of running the NIH. If you can't show that, then you just have to hope it comes to light that he pays his housekeeper under the table, or accept the appointment with dignity.

It's fair to say that Francis Collins has lots of different stuff going on in his head. So to speak, there's a science box, a religion box, and a philosophy box (where he thinks about the relationship between the religion and science boxes). What Harris demonstrates (at great length, and to my satisfaction) is that there's some very unreasonable stuff in the religion box and in the philosophy box. But where's the argument that the tainted boxes are going to affect the goings on in the science box? That's what he needs to argue, in order to have a principled objection to Collins's appointment. It is not at all self-evident.

The case for this seems to be limited to two sentences, which Sam is evidently proud of, since they occur both in his New York Times editorial and in the longer essay:
It can be difficult to think like a scientist (even, we have begun to see, if one is a scientist). But it would seem that few things make thinking like a scientist more difficult than religion.
But this is exactly what he hasn't substantiated. He has done nothing to show that there's anything wrong with what goes on in Collins's science box. In fact, everything we know about Collins suggests there's nothing at all wrong. Remember: head of the Genome Project. Eminently respectable scientist. Collins is actually obvious evidence against the two sentences. As much as might be going wrong in Collins's philosophy and religion boxes, there's no impact at all on his science box!

Now, I suspect what Sam might say here is that all the boxes count. We really don't want people running the NIH who are not all around good reasoners. That's what I gather from his response to a paragraph he quotes from Unscientific America, the new and controversial book from Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. They assume that the goal of science education is to improve science literacy. But no. Sam says they are confused.
The goal is not to get more Americans to merely accept the truth of evolution (or any other scientific theory); the goal is to get them to value the principles of reasoning and educated discourse that now make a belief in evolution obligatory.
So--science educators and administrators ought to be promoting "right reason," not just science.

But I don't buy that. I think the head of the National Institutes of Health ought to be doing stuff like finding the cure for cancer. I think science educators have to be interested first and foremost in instilling the scientific knowledge that people need to possess, in order to support policies that are in the public interest. It can't be first priority to stomp out faith and make everyone a great critical thinker. There are a lot of problems with that vision, but one is simply that it would take too long. We need the cure for cancer and the response to global warming now--today.

Here's what makes Sam's essay really odd. He's complaining about Barack Obama appointing Francis Collins, for the reason that Collins has that unreasonable stuff going on in his religion and philosophy boxes. But wait. So does Obama! And so do most of the people running our government. Most of them are not writing books laying out their religious and philosophical views, but they have such views. And it's not grounds for keeping them all out of government...is it?

Take Jimmy Carter, for example. As a Baptist pastor, he has religious and philosophical ideas that are bound to seem totally unreasonable to Harris. Yet they're doing no damage. Carter does not sit around in church praying for peace and waiting for God to intervene. He travels around the world doing the work of making peace. And Obama himself professes to have found God as a young man (like Collins), but there's no sign this impairs his performance in office.

So. Sam Harris needs to show how Collins's religious and philosophical ideas interfere with the way he does science. If he can't do that, then he just has to hold his nose and put up with the appointment.

8/5/09

The Philosophical Parent


I'm hereby beginning a series of posts about parenting, starting from the beginning and moving through lots of philosophical issues that come up in the lives of parents. This is to get ideas and examples for something I'm writing.

The beginning means--the decision to make a baby. Here's the puzzle that really bothers me. Say you are in the worst possible circumstances for having a baby. You're 18 and already have 3 kids. You're in prison and you're dallying with the guards...

[For examples like this, the book Random Family by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc is fantastic. Actually, the book is fantastic in all ways.]

...Or maybe you're just a single woman without economic security. Or you're way, way older than the average parent.

So you're in one of those situations and you contemplate having a child. You think to yourself--even if worse comes to worst and the kid's situation is going to be pretty bad, he (she) is almost guaranteed to be glad to be alive.

What does the kid's being glad to be alive tell us? Does it prove there really was no problem with creating that child, as far as the child is concerned?

Your thoughts welcome.

8/4/09

Three Columns


Amazing picture, huh? It looks like there's a human being emerging out of the body of this Japanese macaque. Courtesy of my National Geographic widget, below right.

Very exciting--now I've got three columns. If you have any suggestions for improving the layout, let me know. I can add a recent comments widget on the top left so you can quickly see which threads are active, but a commenter's name does go with it, unfortunately. I find that a bit unnerving at other blogs.

8/3/09

Give it Your Best Shot

From a review of Charles Siebert's The Wauchula Woods Accord: Toward a New Understanding of Animals in yesterday's NYT book review: "Of course, all this philosophizing isn't for everyone. But give it your best shot." Like, fire off a few rounds of deep contemplation, and then have a laugh and turn on the TV? Sigh.

My latest column in The Philosophers' Magazine is online. As you'll see, I'm a Twitter wannabe and a fan of end-of-the-world fiction.