8/31/10

Are We Free? Are Animals Free?

This semester I'm having my students read The Reasons of Love, a lovely and interesting book by Harry Frankfurt. This sends me back into the "stacks" to read his famous paper on free will--"Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" (1971).   Here's a theory that tries to show that human beings have free will, and explain the difference between humans and animals, and explain why it's such a big deal whether or not animals are self-aware.  That's a huge issue in animal psychology, and it's a vexing question why it should be so important whether they are or they aren't.

The idea is this:  both humans and animals have first-order desires.  For example, I desire to eat the scones sitting in my kitchen right now, and my cat desires to eat more kibble.  On top of that first-order desire, I have a second-order desire--a desire about my first order desire.  I desire that the first desire vanish or at least go unfulfilled (because scones are fattening, even without the clotted cream).  If that second-order desire is effective, and I succeed in managing the first-order desire, then (says Frankfurt) I have free will in that instance.  If, despite my second-order desire, my first order desire gets the better of me, and I go and eat the scone, then I didn't have free will.  Here's the theory in a nutshell--

It is in securing the conformity of his will to his second-order volitions, then, that a person exercises freedom of the will.  And it is in the discrepancy between his will and his second-order volitions, or in his awareness that their coincidence is not his own doing but only a happy chance, that a person who does not have this freedom feels its lack.
Frankfurt says free will distinguishes us from animals.  Without self-awareness, they can't have second order desires at all, so they can't have either effective second order desires (like I do, if I control my scone-impulse), or ineffective second order desires (like I would if I ran to the kitchen). 

So--we humans have free will at least some of the time, and animals never, because of this difference between the way our minds work.  Since we're free, on his view, does that mean we aren't determined?  No, not necessarily. Frankfurt is a "compatibilist" because the freedom he's countenancing in humans (at their best), but not in animals, doesn't exclude determinism.  It could be that the whole history of the world, up until a nanosecond ago, made it inevitable that I would have a desire for a scone and an effective second-order desire not to satisfy it.  That would still constitute free will, and would still separate me from my cat, who can't possibly have a second order desire like that.  Calling a will free is contrasting it with the entirely first-order type of will of an animal, not contrasting it with the undetermined type of will of (perhaps) a god.

Now, it's spooky to think I inevitably had the desire for the scone and the desire not to satisfy that desire.  Thinking about it does make me feel just a bit like I'm dangling from the strings of a puppeteer.  But surely it would be very different to be an animal--if animals are that way--and not have desires about your desire at all.  To be the animal would be...well, less free!  And also less responsible.  It does seem as if my having second order desires makes me more to blame, if I scarf the scone, than my cat is if he gets into the catfood bag and has more kibble.  I'm configured so as to be able to manage my first order desires, and my cat isn't.

100% satisfied with this reconciliation of free will and determinism? Probably not, but then nothing you can say on this subject is wholly satisfying.  But never mind. It's not Frankfurt's reconciliation of freedom and determinism that makes me uneasy.  I'm not sure about his psychological claims, both about humans and animals. 

Yes, one way of feeling free is by successfully managing your first order desires.  But another way is by having especially novel and ambitious second order desires.  You read Peter Singer's Animal Liberation, and start wanting to stop wanting to eat meat; or you read his famous article "Famine, Affluence, and Morality," and start wanting to stop wanting new clothes.  The more ambitious your second order desires, the less likely you are to be able to control your first order desires.  But does diminishment of control really, necessarily, make for less freedom?   Not really.  Just one part of being free is taming your first order desires; another part is being able to think for yourself, instead of conforming to what you've always thought, or your friends and family think.  There is freedom in sheer reflectiveness about how to live your life, even if you're not effective at implementing your new and revised life plan.

As for animals-- Is it really true that animals can't have second order desires? I'm not convinced the mirror self-recognition test effectively tests for all important kinds of self-awareness.  When a dog wants to rush across the road after a squirrel, wags his tail wildly, wrinkles his brow, whimpers, and jumps around, but stays put in obedience to his human, is it possible that he's focusing on the squirrel and his human, but also on his own agitated desire?  Is it a sure thing that he has no second order desires? 

So what's the score?  The sort of freedom Frankfurt is talking about strikes me as both real and important.  But there's another kind--reflectively adopting some new set of second order desires.   It doesn't seem 100% clear that animals never have any second order desires, but they certainly don't seem to reflectively break from the past to form new ones.

8/29/10

Three Quarks Daily Philosophy Prize

Cash prizes for philosophy blogging!  Submit nominations here by August 31.  With all due humility (because it doesn't say anything terribly exciting) I submitted this--"Other People's Icons." It looks like they could use a lot more nominations.

8/26/10

My Comment Policy

It's short and sweet--be relevant, be reasonable, be respectful.  For a little elaboration see the tab at the top right.

The Incivility Debate

An odd thing about the atheosphere:  nothing gets the sparks flying like one segment of it accusing another of incivility.  The latest round:  here's an essay at 3 Quarks Daily by Quinn O'Neill.  The part about incivility comes toward the end:
Personal and vitriolic attacks on religious individuals are also inconsistent with religious freedom.  If we value religious freedom, respect for people’s right to hold irrational beliefs is in order (so long as the beliefs don’t infringe on the rights of others).  Respecting freedom of religion means accepting the fact that not everyone will freely choose our worldview.  If we encourage people to think for themselves, we must accept that others will come to different conclusions. 
Speaking of incivility, here's Russell Blackford being rather uncivil. It's not a matter of calling O'Neill names (she's not one of the "Colgate Twins," for example).  It's just that he treats her like she's far beneath him.  In the end, he accuses her of being "horribly confused," charges her with "ignorance," "tying herself up in knots," and "writing nonsense," and claims "her post lacks intellectual merit." Anyone going by tone alone would think "the professor has spoken!" and conclude O'Neill was a very confused young lady indeed.  Incivility can distort and distract--that's one of the problems with it.

What's O'Neill supposedly so confused about?  Blackford thinks O'Neill is making utterly elementary mistakes about freedom of religion--she must think the first amendment ensures us the right to practice a religion without ever being criticized!  Good heavens, how could she not know that it merely protects citizens from state imposition of religion?

How indeed? I'll bet she does know that, and her point was a trifle more subtle.  She was alleging a connection between meaningfully exercising religious freedoms and living in a a climate of mutual respect.  And she's surely right about this connection. 

Let's look at a microcosm--a classroom.  I teach a class on the good life in which religion is a frequently topic.  Students by all means have the right to openly avow theism or atheism, but they're sometimes uncomfortable doing so.  Atheist students have told me they worry about being seen negatively by religious students, and vice versa.  Do all of these students have a right to speak out?  Yes, technically they do. But it's just a right "in principle" if the atmosphere of the classroom makes it extremely uncomfortable for students to exercise it.  If I permitted "personal and vitriolic attacks," the attackers would more meaningfully have a right to speak in my class than the people driven into silence.

So yes, meaningfully having rights and freedoms does mean receiving certain forms of respect.  As the referee, I have to make sure students interact with a sense that they are on a par with each other.  I can't set things up so that there's a "smart side" and a "dumb side."   For people to meaningfully have the right to participate, some level of mutual respect has to be the starting point. I have to make it clear that each person is entitled to their own world view, or something along those lines.

Likewise in society as a whole.  If it becomes too uncomfortable to express a view, you have a right to express it only technically.  To really have a right in a meaningful way, it has to be reasonably comfortable to exercise the right.  In fact, that problem is particularly sharp for atheists in the US.  Technically of course they have a right to speak out, but they often can't, for fear of being vilified. Most visibly, Muslims have that problem right now--sure they have a right to free exercise of their religion (technically!), but the whole issue about the Islamic Center near Ground Zero seems to have brought all the islamophobes out of the woodwork.  It's become harder to be a Muslim, even if legally speaking, no rights have been taken away from them.

So yes, having a meaningful right to express a belief or practice a religion does turn on receiving respect.  Conversely, disrespect can be used as a tool...and sometimes that's as it should be. Some ideas really are so odious that they ought to be driven underground.  The hope is that they'll shrivel up and die for lack of air. We can't have a mutually respectful conversation about whether gay people should be rounded up and killed.  We want people to have the right to express that preference, but only in a narrow, technical sense. 

So O'Neill is not wrong at all when she talks about a connection between rights (meaningfully having them, not having them in the narrow legal sense) and mutually respectful, civil interaction.  There is that connection.   The substantive question here is whether it makes sense for atheists to use disrespect in the way I just explained.  Should they try to drive religion underground to shrivel up and die through mockery and disrespect? Blackford makes this very simple--'What's the point of having freedom of speech if you don't exercise it?" he asks.  Answer: it's so you can, when it's a good idea to do so.

Who would want to eliminate all the great religion mockers from the canon--people like Mark Twain, Tolstoy, Voltaire?  Let there be mockery. On the other hand, there has to be hesitation.  For one, what's good for the goose is good for the gander.  If the skeptics get to try to mock the other side into the shadows, they can't complain when disrespect runs in the other direction.  Setting that aside, the conscientious skeptic should consider the full breadth of what religion includes and how it affects the way people live.  O'Neill makes a good point that skeptics have to take a different stance toward religion if their primary goal is to maximize wellbeing. In spite of all the evils than can be traced to religion, the positive psychologists (e.g. Seligman, Haidt, Graham) tell us that religion has benefits for wellbeing--religious people are happier, and even the skeptics around religious people are happier.  This is not a trivial phenomenon, not easy to explain, and not just a matter of people hanging onto "delusions" under duress (O'Neill weakens her case by using that word).  There's a lot in the empirical study of religion that ought to slow down the evidence-based, morally-inspired skeptic. 

But in any event--is there a connection between having rights in a meaningful sense, and receiving respect?  Of course there is.

8/24/10

Brave New Animal

I'm writing a talk that I'll be giving later in the month--"Brave New Animal: Advancing Ethics through Technology." I'll be talking about various new technologies that could (but do they?) reduce the ethical price tag of meat (metaphor borrowed from Michael Pollan).  I have in mind four innovations that are either with us now or on the horizon--
  1. Meat without killing:  vat meat, as discussed here.  Also may help feed over-populated word, as this article suggests.
  2. Genetically engineering cattle that have kangaroo digestive systems, to reduce carbon emissions produced by their belching--see here.
  3. Genetically engineering pain-free livestock--as discussed by Adam Shriver here.
  4. Producing all-female dairies using semen-sorting--see here.
I'm looking for other examples of ethical advances--allegedly, anyway--that involve altering animals themselves (or their patterns of behavior--as in 4).  Got any for me?

8/23/10

School's In

As of today, my kids are back in school--which means I get to concentrate again.  I'm back to teaching as well, and have lots of writing and some traveling to do in the next few months.  Blogging is going to be much lighter, with a real post once or twice a week, and little items (comment-free) in between.

For your delectation, here's an interesting column at the Templeton Big Questions website.  The author makes a nice distinction between atheism and anti-theism, and draws a thought-provoking parallel between gods and souls, and then between gods and souls and seemingly more robust mental phenomena--e.g. experienced tastes, colors, etc. (Hmm....)  This is supposed to help us see that we don't have to be anti- when it comes to God, even if we are skeptics.  We can sort of go along with entities we don't take in all ontological seriousness.  In fact, I do think that's what goes on in many religious institutions. Only some are gung-ho about the ontology.  Others are "iffy" about it, or don't give it much thought.  Still others are naysayers, but like all the trimmings--the soup kitchen, the singing, whatever.  The whole thing couldn't continue without the first class, serious believers, but not everyone is or has to be one. 

8/20/10

Breastfeeding Laws

Should breastfeeding be required by law? I think Rebecca Roache is right to find the idea inadvisable, but not crazy.   You cannot induce pre-term labor (after 24 weeks), putting your offspring at risk, in order to reclaim your body.  The law forces you to give the fetus continued access to your womb; why not also to your mammary glands, after birth?  As Roache says, "it would be difficult to find a simple and clear answer to this question."  She winds up with these sensible reflections--
There are many parenting practices that are desirable but not absolutely necessary, and parenting would likely be a joyless business if they were all legally enforced.  Helping children with their homework, persuading them to participate in sports, encouraging them to keep and care for pets, and facilitating relationships between children and their grandparents are all, plausibly, good but not essential for children.  Yet it is far from obvious that they ought to be legally enforced.  Such legal intervention may bring benefits for children, but these must be weighed against the harms arising from the restriction on parents’ freedom to raise their families as they wish and the familial disruptions likely to occur when parents are punished for non-compliance.  Even without legislation, however, parents can be persuaded to adopt these desirable practices, via public health campaigns, the media, cultural changes, and so on.  In such cases—and perhaps also in the case of breastfeeding—the law is not the best tool for safeguarding children’s well-being.
The "perhaps" in the last sentence hints at a lingering doubt.  Biologically, breastfeeding is continuous with pregnancy and has clear and certain health benefits.  If you have to complete a pregnancy by law, is it so far-fetched to say you have to complete pregnancy and its biological last chapter--lactation?  As a matter of pure ethics, it doesn't seem outrageous.  But then, there's nothing really "pure" about ethics.  "Get your hands off my body," women are going to think, reaching back into the language of the pro-choice movement.  Mandatory lactation calls to mind mandatory impregnation, and Margaret Atwood's book The Handmaid's Tale.  A law that triggered that sort of anger and offense simply couldn't do anybody any good.  I suspect that if we had lactation laws in the US, women would actually rebel by breastfeeding less.

So: there should be no legal requirement to breastfeed. It's just an ethical matter:  breastfeeding has important health benefits.  Just as women should put their kids in car seats and buckle their seatbelts and give them check-ups and vaccinations, they should give them the best start in life by breastfeeding them. Right?   In fact, "mothers should breastfeed" seems to trigger that "get your hands off my body" reaction in some women, even if the "should" is simply ethical, and not legal.  That's very puzzling, but a topic for another day.

8/19/10

Surviving Death (5)

I'm close to the finish line of Surviving Death, and won't try to summarize or systematically wrap up--it's all too complicated for that.  But maybe you'd like to know the punchline.  It's that even without supernaturalism, we can reasonably believe that death is not as bad for the good.  Basically, for two reasons:

(1) The good know that other people's cares and feelings are objectively as important as their own. So they know that when they're gone, what remains will really matter and still (often) be very good.   They can content themselves with the thought that life will go on, and undiminished. In contrast, the bad think their own pleasures are all that count, and those pleasures are undoubtedly extinguished by bodily death.  So death for them is especially appalling.

(2)  More strikingly, Johnston argues that the good can reasonably think they won't really be wholly absent from the world, after their bodies expire.  They will survive "in the onward rush of humanity."  All of the book's explorations of personal identity are preparation for chapter 5, which offers "a new refutation of death."

It's not fair to criticize without first explaining, and time/space doesn't allow.  So take these comments with a grain of salt, and read the book if you want to really understand Johnston's theory. But here goes--

Johnston bends over backward to eschew any kind of supernaturalism in this book--there are to be no supernatural deities or souls in this "rational reconstruction"of religious beliefs about goodness and death.  My feeling is that he trades in supernaturalism for a different sort of superstition.

The Hibernators are a critical warm up for the refutation of death in chapter 5.  They don't believe in any science-resistant entities, but their view of the world is still profoundly irrational (in my view, not Johnston's).  They think new people rise out of their beds after three months of hibernation, despite all of the physical and mental continuities that connect the "old" and the "new." Thinking this way doesn't make it so!  That's what I'm inclined to think about the dispositions of the ultra-good that grant them a kind of survival after death--as Johnston explains in chapter 5 (and this does get tricky--so there's no substitute for reading it).

The (allegedly) death-defying attitude involves attaching exactly the same weight to everyone else's interests as to my own.   The contrast with supernatural Christianity couldn't be more stark.  Today's "Christians on the street" think they can fairly egocentrically enjoy this life and still have more joy to come.  What a deal!  On Johnston's view, that's incoherent.  You only get to survive in the onward rush of humanity if you "decenter" throughout life--make yourself no more than one in 6 (7, 8, 9.....) billion.  I'm a little skeptical that Johnston has contemplated what that would really mean.  The sacrifices would be enormous, and the survival thin (at best).

So...survival?  Not convinced. I do think there's some truth in (1), though, and that it may even be palliative--a comfort to the dying.

8/18/10

TLS Letter

Here's my letter about Jennie Erin Smith's review of Animalkind in The Times Literary Supplement (click on it to make it larger).


More about this inexcusably careless review:  here and here.

8/17/10

Surviving Death (4): Is Survival Real?

There are different ways a person/group could think about personal identity and this is crucial to Mark Johnston's argument in Surviving Death.   Take the Hibernators (see yesterday's post).  They think they don't survive hibernation. The person who falls asleep dies, they think, and a new person wakes up three months later.  By contrast, in Star Trek the crew thinks they do survive teletransportation.  The Hibernators have a much more demanding notion of what it means for a person to be the same over time than the Star Trek crew.  We (Johnston assumes--and I'm really not sure why) have a third notion--we would not want to get into the transporter, because we think it would kill us while generating a copy of us at our destination.

Johnston says the Hibernators, the Teletransporters, and us Human Beings differ in their dispositions.  The Hibernators presumably feel bad about dying when they get ready to hibernate, instead of planning the next stage of their own lives, as we would.  The Star Trek crew isn't concerned about stepping into the Teletransporter, as we might be.  So...which of the tribes is right about personal identity?

Johnston says they're all really right in a fashion--the dispositions make for three forms of personal identity.  Basically, there's no disposition-independent fact of the matter about whether any person survives hibernation or teletransportation.   Should we go along with this? 

A bit of medical anthropology might be useful here.  A child from an exotic community has a bad stomach ache.  The doctors say he must have an operation.  The boy has heard talk in his community about how operations put an end to persons and replace them with new persons, but he never really understood this.  So he wonders what will happen.  When he wakes up, he remembers his question, and feels he got his answer. "I survived!" 

Now imagine he had been well trained in the theory, so he was terrified before the surgery, and willingly participated in a christening when he woke up.  He begins calling himself by his new name and buys into all the strange theories the group has about why he feels so much like the boy who went into surgery,

Since the boy really has no dispositions in the first scenario (he just wonders what will happen) are we really to say he neither survives nor doesn't survive?  In the second scenario, do we really want to say that the boy doesn't survive, because of his dispositions? 

Come on.  The boy survives, and he knows it in the first scenario. In the second, he's been brainwashed into having unnecessary fears.  Though at the edges, personal identity is murky and there are very hard cases, there are also clear cases of survival and non-survival.  Johnston's dispositional view of personal identity doesn't have room for this.

Sadly, I think I'm getting close to jumping off this boat before it reaches it's destination--a story about how I can survive the death of my body, if I just develop a certain set of dispositions.

8/16/10

Surviving Death (3): The Hibernators

Now here's something really fun from Mark Johnston's book Surviving Death: the Hibernators (chapter 4). This is a tribe of humans with an unusual brain chemistry. They stay awake for 9 months out of the year and sleep for the winter months, preparing for "the great awakening" by leaving themselves all sorts of provisions and instructions. They also have an unusual understanding of personal identity.

You see, they believe that the persons who wake up are not the same as the persons who fell asleep. They think sleep is akin to death, and waking up is birth. So in retrospect, the Sally who wakes up thinks of herself as Sally2, an entirely different person from Sally1, who fell asleep. Johnston argues that "there are no independent justifiers that settle the appropriate lineaments of personal identity" (p. 267) so it's impossible to say the Hibernators are mistaken.

Are the Hibernators mistaken? That's the $64,000 question, and I suspect they are, but a preliminary question occurs to me. How could a society sustain this odd view of personal identity--what else would they have to believe? I think we need the help of Hollywood here. So imagine: coming soon, to a theater near you, THE HIBERNATORS (with Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz).

The Hibernators are going to have to have many thoughts that we lack, because they are going to notice connections between Sally1 and Sally2 (both played by Diaz), and Don1 and Don2 (both played by Cruise), etc, that are missing between other pairs of people. After all, Sally2 is going to remember the experiences of Sally1, but not other people's experiences. Sally1 is going to know that she has power over Sally2's future that she doesn't have over other people's futures. If Sally1 learns to ride a motorcycle, Sally2 will wake up knowing how to ride a motorcycle. To account for this, they'll inevitably have to have a concept of relatedness that we lack. The Hibernators will think of Sally1 and Sally2 (and all the other Sallies down the line) as (shall we say?) zisters, and Don1 and Don2 (etc) as zothers.  Ziblings are very, very unlike other pairs of different people--like you and me, for example.

The exciting question of the movie is whether the Hibernators will go on like this forever. After much sleuthing around and of course a painstaking reading of the personal identity literature (cinematically exciting, to be sure--and this is where the good looks of our stars will come in handy), will Cameron (perhaps) say "Oh my God, that was me!" about her earlier zisters, and throw the concepts of zisterhood and zotherhood into the flames?

I suspect that the Hibernators' view of personal identity is not sustainable, and that this is (somehow or other) revealing.

8/15/10

8/14/10

Surviving Death (2)

I'm waiting to get more excited about this book--and trying to be patient. The problem is that a lot of it is written "ad hominem"--in the technical sense. In other words, Johnston spends a lot time talking to a reader whose assumptions are not his own, and not mine either. For example, the very long first chapter is addressed to a reader who believes in a supernatural god who resurrects the dead--and the question is whether there's any way to conceive of how this might work.  I could be interested in that question for some number of pages, but not for 125.

Towards the end of the second chapter, things start to get somewhat more interesting. There are still lots and lots of  detours through not-important-for-me terrain but there's starting to be a glimmer of hope that we will come to the book's central question.  As he puts it--"Our purpose here is to see whether there is a naturalistic account of how it is that death does not threaten the importance of goodness." (p. 130)

Earlier on, he argued that death does seem to threaten the importance of goodness.  If good people can expect exactly the same fate as bad people after death, it detracts from the sense that it's really, really important to be good.  I don't think he means to say there's no incentive to be good, it's just not quite so super-important. 

And now a confession.  From time to time I find myself having to go through some sort of adversity in order to do the right thing.  As I persevere under pressure, it never dawns on me to think: no matter what I do (the right thing or the wrong thing), I'll be dead anyway in 50 years.  I never (literally, never) experience my mortality as a threat to the importance of morality.

This isn't good, because I do want to finish the book, but I don't find myself with the distress that Johnston is trying to remedy.  Can anybody help me worry more about how mortality threatens morality?

8/13/10

Dumb Things Watch

Today on Dumb Things Watch we have Ross Douthat's really dumb column from a few days ago.  The dumb argument he makes for keeping gay marriage illegal is that lifelong heterosexual marriage with kids is ideal. Okaaaay....let's suppose it is.  That means various things are sub-ideal. For example,  it's sub-ideal when two people can't stay together for life, because one dies. A new relationship involving the survivor can't possibly measure up to the ideal of lifelong heterosexual marriage, cuz it ain't lifelong.  So... second marriages should be illegal?   But no, that's silly, so there must be something wrong with his argument.

And there is. We simply don't attack or disrespect or challenge the ideal of lifelong heterosexual marriage if we let widows and widowers have second marriages.  Likewise, if lifelong heterosexual marriage is ideal, we don't disrespect that ideal by allowing gay people to marry. Now, some will say I'm granting too much.  Are lifelong heterosexual marriages really ideal?  It's not an outlandish notion, even if I'm not straining at the bit to agree.  The point is: so what?  Even so, it wouldn't even begin to mean gay marriage should be illegal.

Marc Hauser

Surprising news -- Harvard psychologist Marc Hauser is on leave after a panel found evidence of scientific misconduct.  Hauser has always struck me as a very careful and cautious researcher. Two of my references to him in Animalkind focus on his cautiousness.  At one point (p. 63) I discuss how in Wild Minds he (wisely) expresses reservations about using the mirror test as a measure of animal self-awareness.  At another point (p. 73), I discuss Hauser's doubts about inhibition in chimpanzees (p. 73).  I don't rely on the article that's been retracted from Cognition, but do report a separate finding of Hauser's that tamarin monkeys pass the mirror test.  Because of the investigation, doubts about that research are coming to light as well.  So--it's unfortunate I included it, but nothing turned on it, and no harm done.  Hauser is apparently working on a book about being bad called Evilicious.  Great title, interesting topic, no doubt the irony will add to his problems.

8/11/10

Are Philosophers Agnostics?

This passage from Gary Gutting's recent column at The Stone is misleading, so I must comment!
There is no disagreement among philosophers about the more popular arguments to which theists and atheists typically appeal: as formulated, they do not prove (that is, logically derive from uncontroversial premises) what they claim to prove. They are clearly inadequate in the judgment of qualified professionals. Further, there are no more sophisticated formulations that theists or atheists can accept — the way we do scientific claims — on the authority of expert consensus.

In these popular debates about God’s existence, the winners are neither theists nor atheists, but agnostics — the neglected step-children of religious controversy, who rightly point out that neither side in the debate has made its case. This is the position supported by the consensus of expert philosophical opinion. (my italics)

This conclusion should particularly discomfit popular proponents of atheism, such as Richard Dawkins, whose position is entirely based on demonstrably faulty arguments.
What Gutting isn't letting on is that most philosophers accept or lean toward atheism--a whopping 72.8% according to a recent poll. So if he's right that philosophers don't think the proofs for or against God are sound, he isn't telling the whole story. If that's what the 72.8% think (and it's not completely clear), they don't come to a full stop and declare themselves agnostics. No, they engage in further reasoning (short of proof) so that they end up atheists, or leaning toward atheism. And (of course) they think that further reasoning is good reasoning. And that reasoning may very well be a lot like Dawkins's--which is also short of proof. So Gutting is quite wrong to say that the consensus of philosophical opinion is arrayed against Dawkins. There's no evidence for that.

Update (in response to a comment): here are all the details available at the poll website.


Plagiarism no big deal?

It's just a convention that students aren't supposed to plagiarize.  There's nothing really wrong with it.  I hasten to add, that's not my view--it's the view of NYT columnist Stanley Fish--
Plagiarism is like that; it’s an insider’s obsession.  If you’re a professional journalist, or an academic historian, or a philosopher, or a social scientist or a scientist, the game  you play for a living is underwritten by the assumed value of originality and failure properly to credit the work of others is a big and obvious no-no.  But if you’re a musician or a novelist, the boundary lines are less clear (although there certainly are some) and if you’re a politician it may not occur to you, as it did not at one time to Joe Biden, that you’re doing anything wrong when you appropriate the speech of a revered statesman.
And if you’re a student, plagiarism will seem to be an annoying guild imposition without a persuasive rationale  (who cares?); for students, learning the rules of plagiarism is worse than learning the irregular conjugations of a foreign language. It takes years, and while a knowledge of irregular verbs might conceivably come in handy if you travel, knowledge of what is and is not plagiarism in this or that professional practice is not something that will be of very much use to you unless  you end up becoming a member of the profession yourself.  It follows that students who never quite get the concept right are by and large not committing a crime; they are just failing to become acclimated to the conventions of the little insular world they have, often through no choice of their own, wandered into. It’s no big moral deal; which doesn’t mean, I hasten to add, that plagiarism shouldn’t be punished — if you’re in our house, you’ve got to play by our rules — just that what you’re punishing is a breach of disciplinary decorum, not a breach of the moral universe.
Amazingly enough, this professor and former academic dean does not understand the purpose of student assignments. A book or magazine article or encyclopedia entry is supposed to inform or provide entertainment, so you can imagine different rules regarding originality and attribution, but that's not the point of a student paper.   Students write papers in order to demonstrate what they've learned, what their own skills are, etc.  When students plagiarize, they receive grades that reflect another person's knowledge and skills.  And then their transcripts tell people downstream the wrong thing.  Plagiarizing students wind up with jobs and scholarships and positions in colleges and graduate schools, etc., that aren't merited by their own knowledge and skills.  It's not fair to competitors whose grades do reflect their knowledge and skills.  And it's not fair to the public either, because we don't want the most skilled plagiarists becoming our teachers and doctors and lawyers. We want people with the requisite skills.

Um, isn't all this completely obvious? But to go on in the same vein..."Not fair" is a moral concept. Nothing to do with conjugating irregular verbs.  Not a matter of arbitrary conventions.  QED

While it's obviously a moral problem to plagiarize--a crime, so to speak--what's the appropriate punishment?  Do academics punish too much because within their own world originality has such tremendous importance?  Had Fish raised that question, he would have been on firmer ground, but then I guess he wouldn't have been earning his keep as resident academic contrarian and provocateur at the NYT website.

8/10/10

Surviving Death (1)

I spent all of last week visiting a hospital, and the beginning of last week visiting an intensive care unit.  When I got back home, my reading priorities seemed a bit different.  Mark Johnston's new book Surviving Death had risen to the top of the stack. I'm not going to blog about it systematically, but just make an occasional comment as I read.

This is the basic question of the book is: "Is it possible to ransom any genuinely salvific ideas found in the major religions from their supernaturalist captivity, and what price do we have to pay for the ransom?" (p. 16)

Why do we need "salvific" ideas? What's there to be saved from?  I've always felt I was a terrible candidate for Christian conversion, because I completely lack the sense of being a sinner. I've never felt any need for salvation.

But Johnston isn't talking about anything as simple as sinfulness.  He's looking for a "fix" for

certain large-scale structural defects in human life that no amount of ordinary psychological adjustment and no degree of the resultant natural virtues of prudence, courage, moderation, just dealing, and so on, can adequately address or overcome.  These large-scale structural defects include arbitrary and meaningless suffering, the decay of aging, untimely death, our profound ignorance of our condition, the destructiveness produced by our tendency to demand premium treatment for ourselves, and the vulnerability of everything we cherish to chance and to the massed power of states and other institutions.  A truly religious or redeemed life is one in which these large-scale defects are somehow finally healed or addressed or overcome or rendered irrelevant. (p. 17)
So--he's looking for a "fix" for all that, and it's going to be religious in a very broad sense, but free of supernaturalism.   Stay tuned.

8/9/10

The Philosophically Consistent Scientist

Here's a nice little case study of what passes for debate in the blogosphere.  Massimo Pigliuci does seem to pick a fight with Jerry Coyne in this post, but gets paid back 100-fold with all sorts of personal slurs at Coyne's blog (here and here).  This is basically professional wrestling for the smart set.

But never mind the trappings. The underlying issue is about how well a person needs to know philosophy to decide what entities--like God--a "philosophically consistent scientist" can or can't believe in. The phrase, I take it, refers to someone who embraces both good science and good philosophy.

On the whole, I think the answer is that you need to know a lot. This is obvious when the ontology in question is more abstruse.  Does the philosophically consistent scientist believe in abstract objects? Properties? Irreducible mentality? Causation? Ordinary objects? Tropes? Universals? Numbers?  These are all hard questions of contemporary metaphysics. The more time you spend in philosophy, the better you can tell what counts as "good philosophy" about these questions.

The God question seems as if it's easier, because it's familiar.  Everybody has an opinion about God, whereas few people have an opinion about abstract objects.  Yet I think it's still true that more study means getting a better grip on what's good philosophy, and what isn't.

Is God allowed into an ontology compatible with good science and philosophy?  Figuring it out raises lots of hard questions: Can there be entities that aren't part of the physical universe? Could God be somehow immanent in the physical universe? Does science require us to see the physical universe as a closed system, not disturbable "from outside"?  Could a God who got the universe going, but never intervened again, be worth believing in?

A word about the last question.  A God like that might be seen as having desires and preferences. Though "he" would not affect our world, our world would affect him--causing him pleasure and displeasure, admiration and outrage, etc.  Believing this could motivate us to do some things and avoid others.  Since the causation is "one way," nothing about the picture is inconsistent with the physical universe being closed and law governed.

Is it "good philosophy" to countenance a creator God who cares about us, but doesn't influence the physical universe? Well, I could make objections--i don't have the view in question. However, there are very highly regarded philosophers who do think this way.  In light of that, it seems way too strong to say that any "philosophically consistent scientist" is forced to give up their faith.  Accepting "good science" is much more directive than accepting "good philosophy"--philosophy being an area where the smartest, most capable people constantly disagree about almost everything.

I Said What?

Now that I'm back home, I've had a chance to look for the quote that reviewer Jennie Erin Smith took to express the "ultimate conclusion" of Animalkind, in a recent Times Literary Supplement review
(Q) Other species do great things for us. For one, they teach us lessons and give us food for thought.
Citing Q, she says my view is that "we owe animals because they do us favours." I was mystified, because Q doesn't sound much like me, let alone like the ultimate thesis of my book.

(I'm also mystified by her assertion that I arrive at Q from "cobbled together anecdotes from Marc Bekoff and others."  In fact, the book contains not even one anecdote from Marc Bekoff--not one!  And it does contain many chapters filled with philosophical argumentation. But never mind...let's talk about Q.)

I've now found the passage.  It's on p. 163 of chapter 9.  The topic of the chapter is endangered species--a secondary topic (that's why I postponed it until the next to last chapter).  The passage is in a section about the view that other species are valuable because of what they do for us--a view I call Protagorean (after the Greek philosopher who claimed that man is the measure of all things).  Q is a sentence within indirect quotation. As in: according to the Protagorean view, it's important to preserve endangered species because _______.  There are two pages of explanation, including Q.

Not only is Q in indirect quotation, so not to be attributed to me as my own view, but I explicitly express misgivings about the Protagorean account of why species matter. 
Try as we may to give depth to the Protagorean view of species, it is inevitably a view with limits. By definition it can’t say that tigers matter because tigers matter: they are intrinsically good, and add to the good of the world. This thought gives everyone a reason to care about endangered species, and gives the activist the strongest inspiration. But we do well to pay attention to the Protagorean reasons as well. In our most hard-headed moments, we may find ourselves not quite sure a varied world is really the best world, or just the one we like best. 
Let's think this through slowly and carefully.  Would it make sense for a reviewer to use Q to capture the ultimate conclusion of my book?  Um, no, it wouldn't. Let us count the ways.  (1) Chapter 9 doesn't deal with the main issue of the book--what we owe to individual animals.  (2) Q is within indirect quotation--it states another view, not my own.  (3) I outright distance myself from that view, instead of endorsing it.

And now for the kicker. (4)  The book contains many "summing up" paragraphs, none of which sound remotely like Q.  In fact, here's one three pages before Q--
If we want to do right by individual animals, I’ve argued, it’s important for us to pay close attention to the sort of capacities that mark their kind. These capacities garner admiration and esteem, and ultimately respect. We must see what makes a chimpanzee different from a squirrel, before we can know our respect must be greater for the chimpanzee. We must see the difference between dolphins and tuna to see that there’s a problem with killing tuna by any method, but a special problem with methods that accidentally kill dolphins as bycatch. A decision whether to use mice or dogs in an experiment (if the experiment is to be done at all) can’t be made well unless we grasp the differences between mice and dog.
No, Animalkind doesn't say "we owe animals because they do us favours."  And that's just problem #1. There are numerous other outright errors in her description of my book, all explained in a letter I've sent to TLS.  I'm frankly shocked by the carelessness of this review.

8/4/10

First Read the Book!

What an amazing misrepresentation of Animalkind I've just read in the Times Literary Supplement.  Jennie Erin Smith accuses me of "piling on" and simplistically attacking animal experimentation, even though (did she notice?!) my chapter on the subject defends animal experimentation!

She sums up my "conclusion" in a sentence that is utterly without foundation--literally, there is no connection to the moral outlook I defend in the book.
Ultimately she arrives at the tired conclusion that we owe animals [sic!] because they do us favours. “Other species do great things for us”, we learn. “For one, they teach us lessons and give us food for thought.”
You simply could not read chapters 5-8 and interpret me that way.  Just not possible.  What I argue is that we owe respect to animals, but less than to humans, because of their capacities.  The respect we owe them has absolutely nothing to do with anything they do for us.  She's mistaken a casual, peripheral remark for the book's substance. [Update 8/9: more on the quote is here.]

If she'd read my book, she would have seen that I'm both an animal advocate and a critic of much current animal advocacy.  The "sliding scale" approach of the book is unusual--it's not at all what you will find in current pro-animal ethics (has she read any?).   All I can think is that Smith grabbed a stack of recent animal books, made up her mind what was in them, based on cover blurbs (yes, I have great blurbs from Bekoff and Singer, but also from Temple Grandin--and that last endorsement tells you something), and then wrote her review.  And then maybe skimmed a bit.  

As the youngsters say:  fail.

8/3/10

The Future

Some people have all the luck.  Checking in over at The Intersection, I see Chris Mooney is off in Lake Tahoe at the "Techonomy" conference, where ultra-smart and prescient people are talking about technology and the future. Meanwhile, I'm in the waiting room of an intensive care unit in Pittsburgh, where my mother (age 80) is recovering from a bicycle accident she had while doing a competitive triathlon.  (You read that right.)  She's banged up and not at all happy, but she's gonna be alright.

So why did I mention the Technomy conference? Because I happen to be thinking about the future too, in this less enjoyable setting. I'm trying to finish a review of two books--The Rational Optimist, by Matt Ridley, and The Uses of Pessimism, by Roger Scruton.  Ridley thinks the whole world is gonna be alright (climate change, pshaw!), while Scruton thinks pessimism is a very, very good thing. The worst thing anybody could do is mastermind some visionary, progressive scheme. He would hate, hate, hate the techonomy conference.

I've been in waiting rooms like this before, and this one is typical.  It's astonishingly cheerful.  But do I get to join in the good cheer? No.  I have to slog through another 100 pages of pessimism from Mr. Scruton.  Chris is "live blogging" the techonomy conference and I believe I may just have to check in now and again.  I'm hoping to hear something bright, sunny, and very visionary.

8/2/10

Is Blogging Good for the Soul?

I've been called away by a family emergency, so blogging will be light to non-existent for a while. For the moment, something from the archives--

Summa Technologiae
Question 8. On the Blogosphere
Article 19. Is Blogging Good for the Soul?
It seems that it is.
1. Blogging gives everyone a chance to write and publish, without having to pass muster with editors and publishers. Self-expression is good for the soul.
2. Blogging brings together people from all over the globe for debate and conversation. Global communication is good for the soul.
3. Blogging stimulates people to spend more time thinking, arguing, learning—all of which is good for the soul.
ON THE CONTRARY:
The Philosopher says, in the Posterior Blogolytics—“Blogging distracts the soul from its higher calling—it destroys the calm that is needed for true contemplation. It is only seemingly sociable, but not actually. It draws human beings away from real friends and family toward connection with virtual people. It fosters clever, barbed speech instead of thoughtfulness or tact.” Leviticus 4.91—“You shall not enter the blogosphere, for it is unclean.”
RESPONSE:
Oh lighten up! Some blogging really is good for the soul. But blogging tends to be addictive. So “some” tends to become “a lot”, and then The Philosopher starts to have a point. It is the danger of excess to which the bible passage refers.
Ad 1. Whether you’ve got a blog or you comment on blogs, it’s great to “think-write-publish,” just like that. But maybe it’s a little too easy. It easily distracts from other endeavors—whether planting vegetables or writing things that get out there in other forms.
Ad 2. Now that’s cool. I love the multiple perspectives you get from conversing with people who live all over the world. And really, how else could that be accomplished except through the internet?
Ad 3. Well, yes, but it’s some of this, some of that. Instead of pursuing your own personal obsession with naked mole rats, as it might be, blogging makes you write/react on different issues all the time.
Do you have doubts about the blogosphere? Are you considering a 12-step program? Or are blogs the best thing since sliced bread?
Yours,
Thomas Aquinas