Happy Halloween!

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The Rally to Restore Sanity


Love the Way You Lie

My latest TPM column is here.

Is Birth Good?

Current topic in my "meaning of life" class: three puzzles of existence. Is death bad, is birth good, and is immortality best of all? I haven't taught this stuff before, so there have been lots of surprises. I see Epicureanism ("death is nothing to us") as sophistry, and dangerous too. Now I find out that this view appeals to a lot of people.

More shocks could be in store. Next week we'll talk about David Benatar's view that coming into existence is always harmful, so nobody should have kids. It will be wonderfully thought-provoking discussing this, especially because one of my students is due to give birth next week. This should be very interesting.

Benatar's book Better Never To Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence is highly readable, and you can also get the main idea from an article in this anthology (which contains lots of other good material).  See here for a very sane review of the book by David DeGrazia,

Here's Benatar's argument in a nutshell (explained with the help of my graphic, above)--
(1) In some respects coming into existence is harmful.  Any life is bound to contain pain and other bad things.  If Rod and Penny (see above) choose future #2, the absence of Lydia's pain (etc) will be good. If they choose future #1 they will harm her, as far as pain (alone) is concerned.

(2) In fact, though, they foresee that Lydia's life will be like most people's--mixed.   Surely the pleasure she'll enjoy will make up for the pain!  But no.  Focusing now on the good--e.g. all the pleasurable moments in her life--the absence of them in future #2 would not be bad. If she never exists, it won't be bad for her that she doesn't have those pleasures.  So choosing future #1 won't benefit her pleasure-wise.
(3) Final score:  choosing future #1 harms Lydia (painwise) and doesn't benefit her (pleasure-wise).  So they shouldn't have her.
This argument has the upshot that parents (most people) have done something wrong, while childless people are innocent of this wrong. What if you reject (2) and say that Lydia is benefited by the good parts of her life in Future #1?  Then you acquit all parents, but must see a problem with childless people.  They could have made new people, thereby benefiting them, but didn't.   So one way or another, you're going to find some degree of fault with a procreative choice--either faulting parents or non-parents.

Ideally, you'd fault no one, right?  But it's hard to see how to justify that, to say the least.  I'm inclined to think we should reject (2) and see Lydia as being benefited in Future #1, pleasure-wise  (and so overall, if her life will be predominantly pleasurable).  That means acquitting parents, but seeing a problem with childless people.  But don't worry, not much of a problem, and I think we can live with it.

Essentially, by admitting that coming into existence is beneficial, you admit that having kids is one of the beneficial things people can do. It's not neutral. That doesn't mean everyone should have as many kids as possible, or even that everyone should do this good thing rather than other good things.  It just means that there's "credit" for having kids, and childless people don't get the credit--but of course can get credit for other things.  Some will find that intolerant, but why?

It seems there's a touchiness about childlessness that nobody has about other sorts of -lessnesses.  We don't hesitate to recognize the benefit of being a Peace Corps volunteer, just because most people don't do it.  There seems to be a worry here about childlessness in particular.  Since the childless are in a small minority, and sometimes people are not childless by choice, our thinking becomes politicized.

It would be awfully strange if we allowed solicitude for the childless to incline us toward Benatar's argument, and therefore toward welcoming the extinction of human life (yes, that's what Benatar is arguing for).  In fact, so strange I think it would make a marvelous plot for a movie (screenplay by Margaret Atwood, please).


Does the Devil Run Hell?

Surprisingly close vote! Yes-18, No-20.  Now look, God sends people to heaven and hell to receive their just deserts, right?  With the devil running hell, how's that going to happen?  He might have lavish parties for the worst people, because he's so evil.  He might crank up the torture devices at random, or out of spite.  How could there be divine justice in the hereafter, if the devil runs hell???? Isn't that just as crazy as putting the worst serial killer in charge of the the corrections system?  Now, my son tells me he's actually right, and the devil does run hell, because Wikipedia says so (I can't find the entry)...but HOW COULD THAT BE?


Ruse on Harris

Too much personal invective, not enough ethics. That's the short version.  See here.

The "devil runs hell" poll is turning out different from what I'd expected.  It closes soon...

Paul Farmer, Accommodationist

You remember that Myers-Mooney showdown we all so much enjoyed?  Even the New York Times quoted this line from PZ Myers: "the word for someone who is neutral about truth is 'lying'."  Recently I read this at Pharyngula:  "pandering to your audience and hiding the truth is lying to them."  But wait a minute.  The word for someone who hides a truth is not in fact 'lying'!   Lying is deliberately saying something you believe to be false. 

Here's a nice case of "accommodation" (in the everyday sense) from the wonderful book Mountains Beyond Mountains, by Tracy Kidder.  Dr. Paul Farmer is working in a clinic in Haiti.  As a Christian, he doesn't believe in sorcery, but his patients do.  One patient is a mother who's son has died.  She blames her surviving son for "sending" the fatal illness.  She hates him for it, and Farmer wants to intervene.  Here's his solution--
As she sits down beside Farmer and he begins telling her not that sorcery doesn't exist but that he knows sorcery wasn't involved in this instance, she lifts her chin and averts her face.  Gradually, she softens.  But it will probably take months to reconcile her fully with her surviving son.
Tracy Kidder adds that after the woman leaves, Farmer tells him he's "86% amused."

Now, what went on here?  Farmer could have tried to disabuse the woman of her belief in the son's responsibility by confronting the whole belief system it's a part of.  Instead he picks modest and achievable goals:  he tries to effect just the necessary change. The necessary change is just for her to stop thinking the one son killed the other.

Obviously, he doesn't lie to her.  It would be too strong to even say he deceived her. He does mildly mislead her, letting her think he believes sorcery might be involved in other cases.  In a way, that's admirable though.  He's trying to help her with a specific problem, not give her a western make-over. She hasn't asked him to do that. 

Speaking of vast cultural differences, the other day (in Dallas, Texas) I was behind a truck sporting a bumper sticker that said "I'll keep my guns, freedom, and money" and a "Jesus fish."  Huh?  There are Republican yard signs everywhere in my neighborhood.  Our state school board has immense power over the education of my children, and they use it in nefarious ways.  How do you try to change minds in an environment like this?  Very, very carefully.

At a minimum, everyone should agree: if science is promoted with Paul Farmer's finesse, the promoters aren't liars!

UPDATE:  Just to avoid misunderstanding-- (1) I'm not saying that Myers would disapprove of Farmer, though he'd have to say he lied to the mother, because he hid the fact that he believes there's no such thing as sorcery.  Maybe he'd think it was a case of excusable lying.   (I think Farmer didn't lie at all.) (2) I'm not saying that Paul Farmer talking to the mother is exactly analogous to science educators talking to religious people in culturally fragmented places  (like Texas). There are some similarities, though, which strike me as illuminating.


The Absurdity of Life

Thomas Nagel's well known essay "The Absurd" (1971) is one of those memorable, truly eye-opening works of philosophy (sorry, I can't find it online).  The basic idea is that we inevitably oscillate between two attitudes.  On the "inside" of our activities, we feel engaged, take things seriously, find them meaningful.  But inevitably, we step back and take the "outside" view, from which absolutely anything can seem silly and pointless.  The absurdity of life is that you can't stay still, you can't permanently maintain one stance or the other.

Now, I think this is a bit exaggerated, and there are things that never seem silly and pointless. For example, in the middle of taking care of a sick child, nobody stops to think "What's the point?"  But a counterexample or two (or even three or four) doesn't overthrow the whole idea.  There is a lot of oscillation.  The irony is:  the activity that may be most absurd is philosophy itself--since it has such an air of seriousness, but is especially open to doubt.  Nobody makes fun of philosophy as well as Woody Allen.  Without further ado...a clip from Love and Death.


Morals without God

'Tis the season to talk about morals without God, or so it seems.  Here's Frans de Waal discussing the continuity between chimpanzee morality and human morality, and this bloggingheads interview is interesting too.  de Waal thinks morality doesn't come from God; the rudiments of it evolved, but he still accedes that our morality today has been shaped by religion.  We shouldn't kick religion out the door and expect better guidance from science--
While I do consider religious institutions and their representatives — popes, bishops, mega-preachers, ayatollahs, and rabbis — fair game for criticism, what good could come from insulting individuals who find value in religion? And more pertinently, what alternative does science have to offer? Science is not in the business of spelling out the meaning of life and even less in telling us how to live our lives. We, scientists, are good at finding out why things are the way they are, or how things work, and I do believe that biology can help us understand what kind of animals we are and why our morality looks the way it does. But to go from there to offering moral guidance seems a stretch.
But who would say science is vying for religion as a source of moral guidance?  Oh, wait a second, Sam Harris is saying that, in The Moral Landscape!  (John Horgan thinks his focus on science rather than ethics is pernicious--see here.)

But what about ethics, or philosophy more generally?  Doesn't secular ethics obviate religious morality?  The next paragraph is interesting--
Even the staunchest atheist growing up in Western society cannot avoid having absorbed the basic tenets of Christian morality. Our societies are steeped in it: everything we have accomplished over the centuries, even science, developed either hand in hand with or in opposition to religion, but never separately. It is impossible to know what morality would look like without religion. It would require a visit to a human culture that is not now and never was religious. That such cultures do not exist should give us pause.
Of course, there are atheist individuals, and households, and mostly atheist societies.  Don't they show us what morality is like without religion--i.e. at least as good, and maybe better?   I think deWaal is right that everyone absorbs Christian ideas, whether they accept their religious foundations or not.  It's not obvious, either, which ideas have roots in religion.  Take the idea that each person, however lowly, is an "end"--with dignity, and deserving of respect.  This does not come from our animal ancestors. It doesn't even go as far back as Plato and Aristotle.  Ancient ethics had no concept of each person as worthy and inviolable.  That idea seems to have grown out of the Christian notion of each person as possessing a soul that can live on eternally.  The case for that is made persuasively by W. E. H. Lecky's marvelous History of European Morals.  (A great book, brought to my attention and frequently quoted by Peter Singer--no religious moralist!)

OK, so secular ethics has religious roots as well as evolutionary roots.  Praise be to both!  But now isn't it time to let secular ethics take over? Why not push away the ladder, so to speak--drop all the religious talk, and just keep secular concepts like respect, dignity, well-being, and so on?

Sure, except that philosophy departments don't do bar mitzvahs and funerals.  It's also not too common for philosophers to focus on the most life-relevant parts of ethics.  Then again, at the synagogue I attend, the sermons are 90% secular ethics.  I have heard great, thoughtful, well informed discussions about animals, the environment, the situation in Darfur, torture, the Iraq war, social networking, and many other subjects.  The trend toward secular ethics might actually be most successful if it (partly) takes place inside religious institutions.  Because man does not live by reason alone--most of us also want the singing and the celebrations.


Does the Devil Run Hell?

Here goes, another mini-poll. My son thinks that the devil runs hell.  I've tried to set him straight, but he's resistant. We've decided to settle this with a poll. I won't give you my argument--just answer the question based on your own reasoning.   Over there, on the right.

Philosophy of Hunting...for Hunters

I'm always on the lookout for good reading about hunting.  I regularly have hunters in my animal rights class, and usually cover the topic, but I have trouble finding reading on the subject.  So I welcomed the copy of Hunting: Philosophy for Everyone that recently came my way, courtesy of the good guys at Wiley-Blackwell.

The anthology is written as a hunter's companion, not as a balanced presentation of the debate about hunting.  All of the books in this series are like that.  The book on fatherhood is for fathers, the book on climbing is for climbers.  I think the series is ingenious, and I can see why the editors decided to include hunting as one of the topics.

The editor of the volume, Nathan Kowalsky, starts his introduction with reminiscences of hunting with his father as a kid. Dad sometimes picks him up at school with a deer in the back of his van.  Cool, he thinks, but "they were never my deer."  "My deer" because you killed it?  What's apparent from page 1 is that the world looks different to hunters.

Anyway, at 14 Kowalsky finally gets to go deer hunting, and has a buck in his sights, but can't pull the trigger.  "Not because I didn't want to kill him, but because I wasn't confident I'd kill him well."   Killing him well. That notion sets the tone for much of the book.  It's not about "whether," it's about "how."

To make sure the deer is killed well, Dad takes the shot, and the deer falls to the ground. Kowalksy recollects--
There was only one thing that mattered to me: that the buck was okay. And by okay I meant that he was well dead.  Death was always in the cards, but it had to be good.  Weird, huh?  I loved that buck, that one, right there. he deserved the right kind of death. And then I cried!  I guess 14-year-old boys are allowed to.  It's always odd to consider why one cries. We cry when we're happy, when we're sad, when we're relieved, and when we're frustrated.  We cry when we see beauty, and when we see horror. And yet neither of these things truly captured what I felt. I don't know of any words that really could.  But it was good to cry, and it was good that the buck died as he did.  (Dad was a good shot.)
I'm afraid I just found this story troubling.  It troubles me that the boy cried--should we really kill in front of kids, and teach them to kill?  It troubles me even more how the obvious seems to be unspeakable.  The deer was shot dead--he lost his life.  How could that not be distressing?

In the first article, by Jesus Ilundain-Agurruza, philosophy itself is huntified with a billion metaphors.  Again, a hunter's sensibilities just aren't everyone's.  I can't warm up to light-hearted banter about the accoutrements of suffering and death.  In the first half of the chapter, he explains Singer's principle of equal consideration of interests;  no hunting is allowed, for the sake of trivial interests.  What's the serious interest served by recreational hunting? The article switches muses in mid-stream: it gives a "virtue ethics" defense of hunting.  The justification for hunting lies in the hunter's attitude.  "A central aspect of this superior kind of hunting is the ritual of honoring the kill and paying homage to it." But wait, isn't the thing itself--killing for recreation--non-virtuous?   The article just doesn't explain how to get around that (apparent) problem.

I confess, when the next chapter started with a description of black bear hunting, I was kind of tuckered out. There had already been so much killing.  I was cold, my feet were wet, and I just wanted to go home.   The fact is, I simply find the whole idea of recreational killing extremely strange  I'm definitely not the intended audience for this book.

But then, I've got all these hunting students, and I really want to understand what's on their minds. So no doubt I will persevere next time I cover this topic in my class.  There's an article by Roger Scruton ("The Sacred Pursuit") that looks like required reading.  I'm going to have to tackle the essay about the vegan-turned-hunter, even though I overdosed on that type of narrative when I read The Vegetarian Myth last year.  Yes, there are are also articles calling into question hunting (Lisa Kretz) and articles on neutral themes (J. R. King), but on the whole, this is a book that will speak to hunters, not critics of hunting.

See here for a much more thorough review of the book.



My self-love poll revealed that 17 readers of this blog love themselves and 15 don't.  (In my class of 25 undergraduates, 24 said they love themselves.)

Why did I ask? Harry Frankfurt's chapter on self-love in The Reasons of Love took me by surprise.  He starts by questioning why Kant inveighs against self-love.
When all is said and done, what is so embarrassing or so unfortunate about our propensity to love ourselves?  Why should we regard it with any sort of righteous sorrow or distaste, or presume that it is somehow a dreadful obstacle to the attainment of our most proper goals? Why should we think of self-love as being at all an impediment to the sort of life at which we ought reasonably to aim?
The surprise was the implication that most people do love themselves.  I'd always taken Kant's worries about self-love non-literally.  Self-love is nothing more than following one's own inclinations, instead of being obedient to principle. It's not really loving yourself!  But Frankfurt, both here and throughout the chapter, takes for granted that people do love themselves.  And not in some strange, alternative sense, but in the same sense that they love other people.

So I got to thinking about this. First thought--definitely not. What you feel for a child (love, no doubt about it) is nothing like what you feel for yourself.  On second thought, it occurred to me that the truth about this doesn't have to be obvious. You can love something and not know it.  For example, the events of 9/11 revealed feelings for the US I really wasn't aware of having.  In the weeks and months after that day, I was shocked to discover (me, patriotic?) that I loved my country.   So you could find out you love yourself, even if your initial reaction is skeptical.

Frankfurt's story about self-love makes it seem more of a real possibility.   Loving another person, he says, is loving what they love.  If Sam loves x, y, and z, then loving Sam is loving those things.  Don't say "ridiculous" too quickly.  There's something to this, even if it's not the whole story about love. (How could it be the whole story?  We love little babies, and what do they love?)  When you start to love someone, it's true there's a lot of "You love Woody Allen?  So do I!!"

But then Frankfurt's account of love entails that loving yourself is just loving whatever you love in the first place. If I love x, y, and z, loving myself is simply loving x, y, and z. Huh?

Initially this does sound vacuous--in fact badly vacuous. But Frankfurt's discussion made me (amazingly enough) like the theory.  He asks us to reflect on what it takes to really love x, y, and z.  It takes caring about them unambivalently--loving x, and not also hating x.  And loving x, but also endorsing that love--being pleased by that love and making sure it continues.  In other words, to truly love x, y, and z is to be wholehearted about them.  Once you think about what love is, it's not so crazy to think loving yourself just boils down to really loving whatever you love.  Self-love turns out to be wholeheartedness, on his account.

Put in that light, maybe self-love is not so weird.  The story even comes with some personal advice. Do you spend a lot of time doing things about which you are ambivalent?   The Frankfurtian counselor would stay "STOP!  Do what you love. Then you'll love yourself."  I like it... and love the book.


Jerry Coyne Responds (updated)

Finally, there's a response to the objection I and others made to Jerry Coyne's USA today column.  Here's what he wrote in the column:
"But surely," you might argue, "science and religion must be compatible. After all, some scientists are religious." One is Francis Collins, head of the National Institutes of Health and an evangelical Christian. But the existence of religious scientists, or religious people who accept science, doesn't prove that the two areas are compatible. It shows only that people can hold two conflicting notions in their heads at the same time. If that meant compatibility, we could make a good case, based on the commonness of marital infidelity, that monogamy and adultery are perfectly compatible. No, the incompatibility between science and faith is more fundamental: Their ways of understanding the universe are irreconcilable.
Later in the column there's a paragraph about the high number of agnostic and atheist scientists.
But don't just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it's amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists. While only 6% of Americans are atheists or agnostics, the figure for American scientists is 64%, according to Rice professor Elaine Howard Ecklund's book, Science vs. Religion
So what's the problem?  In the first paragraph, he's taken the position that you can't prove religion/science compatibility by collecting cases.  That's the force of the marriage example.  Cases of marital infidelity will not prove that monogamy and adultery are compatible.  But note--it goes the other way too.  Cases of marital fidelity don't prove that monogamy and adultery are incompatible.  If there's really an analogy there, then Francis Collins shows nothing about science/religion compatibility, as Coyne says.  But then the atheist scientists show nothing either.

So the problem is the marital infidelity analogy. It forces you to read Coyne as completely dismissing the case of Collins as showing anything at all.  Given that analogy, you can't read him as merely saying Collins doesn't prove anything, as he now says (at his blog) was his meaning.  He had to mean he showed nothing at all, and couldn't (logically) go on and cite the high rate of non-belief among scientists to prove that religion and science are incompatible.

Diagnosis: dismissing Collins using the marital fidelity example is a standard move.  It's in Sam Harris's new book too (p. 160).  But you just can't use it if you want to go on to cite data about how often scientists are non-believers.  The two moves are...incompatible.  It would take careful thought to decide which move is the one to give up.

If we do decide cases tell us something, then clearly we should include both religious and non-religious scientists as evidence, but should we really include the entire population?  Coyne seems to think so. He writes--
Further proof: Among countries of the world, there is a strong negative relationship between their religiosity and their acceptance of evolution. Countries like Denmark and Sweden, with low belief in God, have high acceptance of evolution, while religious countries are evolution-intolerant. Out of 34 countries surveyed in a study published in Science magazine, the U.S., among the most religious, is at the bottom in accepting Darwinism: We're No. 33, with only Turkey below us. Finally, in a 2006 Time poll a staggering 64% of Americans declared that if science disproved one of their religious beliefs, they'd reject that science in favor of their faith.
If we're going to take scientists, believing and non-believing, as showing something about religion/science compatibility, isn't that because they're especially rational, and especially cognizant of the nature of science?  Why take the average person's psychology as telling us whether it's rational to accept both religion and science?  I certainly wouldn't take a poll to find out if free will and determinism are compatible, or atheism and morality are compatible.  Why resolve the issue of science/religion compatibility that way?

Note: I rewrote this post for greater clarity and eliminated something I'd said about supposing the NIH had a Hindu instead of a Christian head.  Whoops!  I read Coyne's column and chapter 4 of The Moral Landscape at the same time and got them mixed up.  The point about Hinduism is Harris's.  It's actually quite compelling.  See pg. 162.


The Moral Landscape (complete)

My four posts on Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values, compiled--

10/6/10  Are Liberals Relativists?

Why do we need this foray into the nature of moral truth?  Harris's explanation isn't quite what I'd been expecting. He says religious conservatives believe in big "T" moral truth, grounded in God's commands. That invigorates their pursuit of conservative policies, like George Bush's ban on new stem cell research. Liberals and academics are relativists who don't take moral truth seriously, Harris thinks. As a result, they're more wimpy champions of their own (more often correct) policy preferences.  Harris wants to "start a conversation" about moral truth, and how it's really no different from scientific truth, and it's independent of religion. Thus, he hopes to bolster the liberal side of our society's moral debates.

'Round the Web

Here's a really nice reading list from philosopher Mary Warnock on godless morality.

Simon Rippon finds fault with the metaethics in The Moral Landscape, meticulously showing where Harris goes wrong. Harris effectively performs a magic trick, like making a rabbit disappear into a hat.  Only he makes ethics disappear into science. Rippon exposes the trick.  I also complained about that here and here.  Harris's likely response is apparent in the last chapter of his book--he says science encompasses all rational thinking.  There are no lines to be drawn.  So if ethics really disappears into philosophy, well, that's to say it disappears into science.  I don't think any philosophers are going to buy this. 

Brian Leiter says it sounds like a silly book.  I think the goal of the book is non-silly: it's good to try to convince the public that ethics does not rest upon the foundation of religion.  The silly part is saying that, instead, ethics is science.  See above.

Here's Jason Rosenhouse (of local fame) defending new atheist outrageousness. It's like with advertising, he says-- atheists need to be ubiquitous.  OK, but do they need to be insulting? Where's the research that shows you can sell Colgate by saying that Crest is vile rubbish?  I don't see it.  Then he switches models--Richard Dawkins is Martin Luther King, not Proctor and Gamble.  Not because of the moral equivalence of the two causes, he hastens to add.  King is just proof that activism has to be bold.  OK again, but there are a lot of ways to be bold.  PETA-style animal activism is bold. I think it's good for animals.  But it makes the public think animal people are nuts.  Do you want the same thing for atheism--a style of activism that makes people think atheists are nuts?  I would think not--because part of the new atheist agenda is winning respectability and acceptance for atheists.

Want to see that Mooney-Myers showdown? It's here.


Can New Atheists be Utilitarians? (The Moral Landscape)

Previously on The Moral Landscape-- Are Liberals Relativists?, Morality Denialism, Good and Evil
The story so far: Harris wants to persuade us that science can discover moral truths--which are (basically) truths about well-being. He defends a scientifically informed sort of utilitarianism (with details yet to be ironed out). This is supposed to overcome the rampant (?!) relativism of secular liberal academics and the irrational, religion-based morality accepted by everyone else. Harris is trying to put us in a position to say that honor killings and public stonings and laws forbidding gay marriage are all wrong--really, truly wrong.

The Truthiests

Edited 12:00
So, the debates.  Chris Mooney and  Eugenie Scott vs. PZ Myers and Victor Stenger; then Robert Wright vs. Sam Harris; then a Point of Inquiry rematch of Mooney and Myers.  All coming out of the Center for Inquiry bash in LA last weekend.

There were basically two areas of debate--what should secularists be fighting for--what's the goal?  And is belligerence counterproductive?


"Religion and Science are Incompatible"

Could be, but the arguments in Jerry Coyne's USA Today article don't prove it. The main argument seems to be that religion uses different methods to arrive at claims about events that also come under the purview of science: "wonder-working saints and divine cures, virgin births, annunciations and resurrections."  Right, but then art critics make claims about entities and events that also come under the purview of science: like paintings and performances  And the methods of art critics are completely different from the methods of science.

What I suppose he meant to say is that the findings of science flat out contradict the findings of religion, and that there's a reason why science must be considered right every time.  Not every time but a few, but every single time.  I imagine his USA Today readers might like to know why that should be so.

Then there's the curious inconsistency about the use of examples. How can it make sense to scoff at using religious scientists as evidence of religion-science compatibility, but then write "don't just take my word for the incompatibility of science and faith — it's amply demonstrated by the high rate of atheism among scientists"? Either Francis Collins is evidence of compatibility and the atheist scientists evidence of incompatibility, or none of them have any evidential force.  Coyne says citing Collins is like using cases of marital infidelity to show that monogamy and adultery are compatible. But if so, it's just as pointless to use instances of marital fidelity to show that monogamy and adultery are incompatible.

Then again, the analogy isn't actually so good, because monogamy and adultery are incompatible "analytically"--it's just a matter of meaning.  But science and religion aren't incompatible just as a matter of meaning. It's harder to say what the truth is.  Citing religious and atheist scientists is at least mildly probative...in both cases. It's basically an appeal to authority.  The religious scientists presumably say: compatible. The atheist scientists say: incompatible.

But only mildly probative.  Some religious scientists probably see a tension between religion and science. They may not have sorted out how the two things fit together.  And atheist scientists don't have to see a tension between religion and science--they may reject religion just because they don't believe it.   Scientists are Democrats, by a huge majority, but that doesn't mean they think science is incompatible with Republican politics.

So:  case not closed. I don't think Coyne's arguments really ought to convince religious readers of USA Today (which means most readers) that they have to make a choice between religion and science. And it's a good thing too, because if presented with that choice, I think most would choose religion.

More here.


Robert Wright vs. Sam Harris

Showdown at the CfI conference in LA--here. Or below, if it works.

Good and Evil (The Moral Landscape)

More on The Moral Landscape--

Message of chapter 2:  don't think morality comes from religion, and don't think morality is relative, but rather think there are moral truths. Most philosophers will find this a respectable but unexciting message, since it's what they already think.  The same arguments, with less neuroscience and "style," are made in standard ethics 101 textbooks--e.g. James Rachels and Russ Shafer-Landau (who are both excellent).

Right and wrong are real, says Harris, because they are really all about maximizing well-being. All about?  Most philosophers will find the story here far too simple. I'll grant that every problem for consequentialism, and all the alternatives, don't have to be dealt with in a book of this sort, but Harris overlooks even some very basic problems.  There are other things that might matter besides happiness--for example fairness and equality.  No problem, Harris says.  The perception that something is fair makes people happy, and seeing something as unfair is upsetting.  So fairness has indirect importance.

But wait: if morality is all about maximizing well-being, then people who think in terms of fairness are not thinking right.  When we're done teaching everyone the true theory of morality ("Johnny, right actions maximize well-being"), they won't have those reactions any more.  So then fairness will stop being important in any sense?

Don't think this is fanciful either.  In reality, people aren't as worried about matters of justice as you might think.  Research about well-being makes this clear, as I discussed here back in March.  For example, Carol Graham shows (in the fascinating book Happiness around the World) that wealthy liberals are the only group in the US who are bothered by economic inequality.  Other Americans aren't bothered by the existence of rich people, and believe one day they'll join their ranks.

Even the science in Chapter 2 strikes me as being sloppy.  In a section about the nature of evil, Harris treats us to the first person testimony of a child-rapist.  Neuroscience, he says, can tell us what's wrong with such people. Maybe so, but the bit of neuroscience he presents doesn't explain the testimony. The neuroscience says psychopaths are bad at detecting the fear and anxiety of their victims. But the rapist plainly says he's a sadist--he positive enjoys his victim's suffering. He therefore must be able to detect it.

So...moving right along to chapter 3... I'm still hoping to find something interesting in here.

Previously on The Moral Landscape-- Are Liberals Relativists? and Morality Denialism


Morality Denialism (The Moral Landscape)

Being outraged is what Sam Harris does best.  His angry indignation is what made The End of Faith so captivating, and in that book it was appropriate.  Harris was angry about 9/11, and about the crazy religious ideas that were in the minds of the 9/11 terrorists, and about unwillingness to look at religion as a cause of violence, and about other religious ideas that have caused other forms of violence.  In The Moral Landscape, he's still outraged.  Partly it's the same outrage, at the same things, but in the first chapter he's outraged about something new--morality denialists, as he might call them (considering his outrage).  Harris thinks there are a lot of them--


Confrontation or Accommodation?

Watch it live!  The Mooney/Myers showdown at the CfI-fest in LA is at 2 pm pacific time.  Plus there are some other folks on the program.  This should be fun.


Love Survey

I'm teaching Harry Frankfurt's wonderful book The Reasons of Love this week, and the last chapter has a very interesting discussion of self-love.  It would help me out if you took the poll to your right.  I won't pollute your response by explaining what Frankfurt says, or why the question interests me.  More about that after the poll closes.   I will read nothing into a "yes" answer or a "no" answer. If you say "no," I won't infer that you hate yourself. If you say "yes" I won't infer that you're vain. Keep it simple: if "I love myself" is true as uttered by you, say "yes." If not, say "no".

Are Liberals Relativists? (The Moral Landscape)

I'm going to post about Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape as I read it, so here goes--first reactions.

Why do we need this foray into the nature of moral truth?  Harris's explanation isn't quite what I'd been expecting. He says religious conservatives believe in big "T" moral truth, grounded in God's commands. That invigorates their pursuit of conservative policies, like George Bush's ban on new stem cell research. Liberals and academics are relativists who don't take moral truth seriously, Harris thinks. As a result, they're more wimpy champions of their own (more often correct) policy preferences.  Harris wants to "start a conversation" about moral truth, and how it's really no different from scientific truth, and it's independent of religion. Thus, he hopes to bolster the liberal side of our society's moral debates.

If a shot of moral realism would bolster liberals, I'd get behind Harris 100%, but here's the thing--I think most liberals are already moral realists.  Just read the op-ed page of the New York Times. Columnists like Maureen Dowd, Tom Friedman, and Frank Rich make moral pronouncements without hesitation, and with just as much fervor as Ross Douthat and David Brooks.  They say it's right for there to be universal health care, right to prevent global warming, wrong to start a war by lying about WMD, etc. etc.   Academics take stands on myriad moral issues, too, and emphatically. Like the vast majority of people, liberals and academics are "naive moral realists"--they're moral realists even though they never think about the nature of moral truth. 

Harris might be confusing moral relativism with liberalism (in the philosophical sense). A relativist thinks there is no moral truth independent of...and now the view varies. The extreme relativist thinks there's no moral truth independent of each decision-maker. We each "make" a morality for ourselves.  A cultural relativist thinks that moral truths exist for whole cultural groups, but don't transcend cultural boundaries.  So for people in Saudi Arabia, it really is wrong for women to leave the house unescorted by a male relative, but for us it isn't.

Liberal political thought sometimes sounds a bit like relativism.  Justice, on a liberal conception, requires (among other things) that everyone must have the liberty to pursue their own vision of the good, their own "plan of life."   Laws and institutions have to leave it to citizens to make certain judgments for themselves.  That's "to each his own"-ish, so sounds a little like relativism, but no:  if you say "justice requires this...period" you're no relativist.  In fact, you could think there are truths about the good life, and truths about the rightness of many actions and choices.  As a liberal, there will simply be areas of life in which you think the individual ought to be sovereign.

Here's the interesting thing. Liberals are typically at their most confident when they say superficially relativistic sounding things, like that each woman should think and choose for herself about abortion, and people should have freedom of speech, and gays should decide about their own lifestyles and relationships.  Are they less passionate in defense of individual liberties than religious conservatives are in defense of what they think God wants?  Well, that's an interesting claim, but let's not just say it. I'll believe it when I see the empirical evidence.

Is Harris all wrong then? Are liberals in no way real relativists, whether cultural or extreme?  Here's where I think Harris has a point:  when liberals think about other cultures, they sometimes want to extend to them the same "personal autonomy" they think each individual is entitled to--effectively equating groups and persons (which is problematic).  So some will accept Saudi Arabia's policies on women, in much the way they might accept an individual American having an abortion or a gay relationship.

But even here, it's simplifying too much to say this hands-offishness must come from relativism. Apart from card-carrying anthropologists, most of us (us liberals, that is), do make judgments (and should--I'm all for it), but try to make them cautiously, and open-mindedly, and without knee-jerk "we know best" ethnocentrism.  They also think that interference, as opposed to mere judgment, is usually unwise.  We should step in when the worst human rights abuses are involved, and when we can do so non-violently, and after forming the proper alliances. In other words, it's OK for Greg Mortensen to build schools for girls in Afghanistan, because he builds local support for the schools, and does the work non-violently.  But it wouldn't be OK for us to invade Saudi Arabia to liberate the women.

So I think Harris is wrong to think liberals need to be saved from their own disempowering relativism, which is for the most part really their belief in personal autonomy--which they believe in passionately; and their reluctance to impose American ideals on the rest of the world mindlessly, and with force.  But that doesn't mean we don't need Harris's book.  It's useful to to think about what right and wrong are based upon--that's got to help us avoid moral error and get our hands on more moral truth.  So...on with the book.

(Jesus, it's #3 at Amazon!)

The Atheist Kids in North Dakota

So....the atheist kids in North Dakota.  Glee had an episode about them this week--great stuff, must see it if you didn't.  The show is called "Grilled Cheesus" (watch here), and in it Curt (adorable gay kid) stands up in front of his friends and says he doesn't believe in God.

I agree that the new atheists deserve credit for helping him do this.  Maybe he read The God Delusion or became a fan of Pharyngula.  But Curt stands up and makes a pretty obnoxious speech, alienating his friends.  That's also modeled on new atheism.  In the end, Curt reaches out to his friends and apologizes, though stands his ground about unbelief.  What happened? Maybe after reading Dawkins and Myers, he read Chris Mooney, or Julian Baggini, or Phil Plait.  Good heavens, Curt may even read this blog!  I hope he still likes the new atheists--because becoming tone-sensitive doesn't mean kicking them out the door. But fortunately he learned a few things about respect.

Now about examples. I think people leave them out for an obvious reason--because the reaction to examples is furious.  Chris Mooney sure did give an example of atheist excess, and look where that got him? I found out what it's like to be Chris Mooney back in July--for a few brief weeks--and it was no fun. That sort of hyper-reactivity does have a chilling effect on would be example-givers, but I've supplied some examples.  Looking back into the archives--

That "A"--what does it say? Light-hearted tone-critique here.

Dawkins's manner in the video Root of All Evil.  I brought it up in a conversation I had with Ophelia Benson and Mark Vernon (and others) here.

PZ Myers on interacting with creationists here.

PZ Myers talking about hurting Jesus here.

Sam Harris saying he vomited after reading the Dalai Lama here.

Jerry Coyne's incivility toward a minister who visited his blog here.

I'm not naive.  You can't win in a debate like this. If you give no examples, then you've got no case, and you should shut up. (Fair enough!)  If you do give examples, then you're trying to make atheists look bad, and you're making it hard for them to empower Curt.   If you give a few, it's not enough. If you gives lots, then you're trying to make atheists look really bad.

But no--I insist.  I know some real live atheist kids like Curt (who now love Curt even more!) and they need help not just with "coming out" but with how to interact.  We do have to talk about respect and tone and tolerance, and all of that.  And saying how not to behave is part of that conversation.


Two New Reviews of Animalkind

James Stanescu reviews Animalkind at Between the Species. and Gary Varner at Notre Dame Philosophy Reviews.  These reviews are extremely refreshing--both reviewers read the book carefully and have a good grip on what's in it.  (Previous reviewers have...ahem...not always done that.) Both correctly note that I cover a lot of "existing debate," but I think James has a better feel for what the book contributes to that debate.  What I contribute is animal ethics without equality--without even Peter Singer's very minimal "principle of equality."  (See chapter 5 for the argument against it.)  I supporter the "sliding scale view"--as David DeGrazia calls it in his book Animal Rights: A Very Short Introduction.  (DeGrazia doesn't cite any supporters of that position and I don't know of any.)  James also makes a good point about how the ambiguity of "respect" is both its strength and weakness. In fact, since finishing the book I've done more thinking about respect, and what properly elicits it, and how it's not inextricably connected to equality.  Here's a revised version of a talk I gave about respect and equality last year.

Sam Harris on the Daily Show

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Y'know, I don't think this went very well.  Sam was refuted by the very presence of Jon Stewart, even without Jon doing much to challenge him.  Sam seemed caught up in a Manichean universe, with the bible on one side, giving terrible moral advice, and science on the other, peering into people's brains and quantifying well-being.  Jon's very presence attested to a vast space between these poles, where moral conversation really takes place, for reasonable folk today. Stewart makes lots and lots of good moral claims and arguments--in fact he'd just made one (about Rich Sanchez) before Harris came on--with neither religion nor science in sight.

I think Sam and his publicist should have thought about this more before he went on.  Harris seems to be addressing a moral skeptic--someone who is very, very worried about whether there's any truth about morality.  He (she) thinks if there are any moral truths, they must rest on a super-strength foundation.  Either "torturing babies for fun is wrong" because God condemns it, or because science tells us so.  These kinds of questions interests philosophers a lot, but the vast majority of people aren't really moral skeptics.  So what does the book offer them?

Perhaps it could explain who to ask, when we're facing a moral quandary.  But if that's one of its goals, then it narrows our options way too much.  We shouldn't ask religious fundamentalists, but should we ask scientists? Surely not.  Science can assist with moral reasoning, but the good moral reasoners are still people like...well, like Jon Stewart.  How is that? What's going on there?  We'll see if the book steps away from the "science vs. religion" battle long enough to shed some light.

Wanting but not Caring

Harry Frankfurt's book The Reasons of Love is perfect reading for today's miserable over-connector.  Practically ever week I read about someone who obsessively reads blogs, checks e-mail, texts, checks Facebook, and tweets--and can't take it any more.  Here's Charlie Brooker in The Guardian on being assaulted by Google Instant, and Gary Shteyngart is just as hilarious in a NYT column called (brilliantly) "Only Disconnect."

So what does this have to do with Frankfurt?  He has an appealing view about what it is to care about something--it's to both want it, and to want to want it.  You care about something when you're pleased by your desire for it, and you would be disappointed if the desire ebbed, and you'd even fan the flames somehow, to get the desire to return.  Clearly, we want to read blogs, check email, and the rest, but do people want  to want to do those things?  Here's from that Charlie Brooker column:
Last week I realised the internet wants to kill me. I was trying to write a script in a small room with nothing but a laptop for company. Perfect conditions for quiet contemplation – but thanks to the accompanying net connection, I may as well have been sharing the space with a 200-piece marching band.

I entered the room at 10.30am. [snip] By 1pm I'd written precisely three lines of script. Yet my fingers had scarcely left the keyboard. My brain felt like a loose, whirring wheel that span with an audible buzz yet never quite touched the ground.
That final sentence couldn't be more perfect. "Never quite touched the ground..."  Exactly!

So stop, why don't you? That's what I think every time I read one of these harangues about the evils of our hyperconnected world.  Stop whining and do something about it!  The thing is, all these connections are potato-chippish and addictive, especially for someone sitting at a computer all day, waiting to have Deep Thoughts. So doing something about it might mean doing something drastic--like chucking the computer out the window.

OK, so we do stuff we merely want to do, but don't care about. So what?  According to Frankfurt, so a lot.  His answer to the perennial question "how are we to live?" is: with care.  If your waking hours are filled with doing what you want to do, but not what you care about, then you're not living well.

Irony alert:  yeah, yeah, I'm writing a blog post here, and you're reading it. We can see that.  We're not stupid!


Appiah on The Moral Landscape

Kwame Anthony Appiah reviews The Moral Landscape in today's NYT book review.  If we don't need religion to explain right and wrong, good and bad, how to live, how not to live, what do we need?  Science, says Harris.  What about ethics--what ethicists have been doing for a couple of thousand years--and science?  No, apparently the answer is only science.  
Only science can help us answer these questions, he says. That’s because truths about morality and meaning must “relate to facts about the well-being of conscious creatures,” and science alone — especially neuroscience, his field — can uncover those facts. So rather than consulting Aristotle or Kant (let alone the Bible or the Koran) about what is necessary for humans to flourish, why not go to the sciences that study conscious mental life? ...

But wait: how do we know that the morally right act is, as Harris posits, the one that does the most to increase well-being, defined in terms of our conscious states of mind? Has science really revealed that? If it hasn’t, then the premise of Harris’s all-we-need-is-science argument must have nonscientific origins.

In fact, what he ends up endorsing is something very like utilitarianism, a philosophical position that is now more than two centuries old, and that faces a battery of familiar problems. Even if you accept the basic premise, how do you compare the well-being of different people? Should we aim to increase average well-being (which would mean that a world consisting of one bliss case is better than one with a billion just slightly less blissful people)? Or should we go for a cumulative total of well-being (which might favor a world with zillions of people whose lives are just barely worth living)? If the mental states of conscious beings are what matter, what’s wrong with killing someone in his sleep? How should we weigh present well-being against future well-being?

It’s not that Harris is unaware of these questions, exactly. He refers to the work of Derek Parfit, who has done more than any philosopher alive to explore such difficulties. But having acknowledged some of these complications, he is inclined to push them aside and continue down his path.

That’s the case even with something as basic as what’s meant by well-being. Harris often writes as if all that matters is our conscious experience. Yet he also insists that truth is an important value. So does it count against your well-being if your happiness is based on an illusion — say, the false belief that your wife loves you? Or is subjective experience all that matters, in which case a situation in which the husband is fooled, and the wife gets pleasure from fooling him, is morally preferable to one in which she acknowledges the truth? Harris never articulates his central claim clearly enough to let us know where he would come down. But if he thinks that well-being has an objective component, one wants to know how science revealed this fact.
I think Appiah hits the nail on the head, or at least this was exactly the problem I saw in Harris's Spring TED talk.  If the book really does say only science is needed to grasp right and wrong, good and bad etc, my guess is that Harris is simplifying because he's writing a polemic. His purpose it to combat the belief that religion is authoritative about moral matters and he writes for a public that respects religion first, science second, and philosophy not much.  So "only science" might be a strategic answer.

Then again, Harris could be just plain confused.  If you think moral facts supervene on physical facts, you might erroneously conclude that they can best be investigated by experts on the relevant physical facts.  But which physical facts are relevant?  Sadly, you just aren't going to know before "doing" a lot of ethics to find out the precise contours of the moral facts.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.  More on Harris after I've read the book.


The Center for Inquiry

Today's NYT article about the Center for Inquiry ends with a bang.  Paul Kurtz founded the organization, and its affiliates, and the magazines and publishing house (Prometheus) associated with it, but was ousted as chairman after the board hired Ronald Lindsay as CEO in June 2009, and soon resigned.  Now, I read, he's not even welcome in the center that he founded!
On Wednesday, when Mr. Kurtz stopped by the center, where he still keeps an office, he found the locks had been changed. Mr. Lindsay told me that Mr. Kurtz did not need the new key because he "has no connection with us." 

Up 'til now I've had entirely warm feelings for CfI.  I've published an article and a book review in Free Inquiry, buy it off and on, and like the diverse crowd CfI includes on its staff, pages, and airwaves.  Good for Lindsay that he hasn't caved under the pressure of the  new-only atheists (not to be confused with the merely new atheists), and excluded other voices.  The Blasphemy Day thing is stupid and unproductive, but reasonable people can disagree. (Or can they?  See yesterday's post!) 

But...  Paul Kurtz isn't even allowed onto the premises?  That's unbelievable.  Kurtz's splinter organization now merits a closer look.

UPDATE:  Read the comments.


The Moral Landscape

I'm awfully looking forward (is that English?) to Sam Harris's book The Moral Landscape, which is coming out next week. It's already #247 at Amazon and #1 in both ethics and philosophy. 

Harris has an excellent sense of timing.  The End of Faith (2005) was a necessary book, after 9/11--and a good book, I might add! If there's one thing that makes people think religion is indispensable, and atheists untrustworthy, it's the idea that morality depends on religion.  You can't just reject that--you need to say what morality does depend on, if not on religion, and that's what Harris is trying to do in the new book.

As a prelude to discussing the book in the next week or two, here's something I wrote about Harris a while after his TED talk in the spring. (On a more skeptical note, there was also this.)


My "Ideas of the Century" article in issue 50 of the Philosophers' Magazine is now online. The century is young, but the literature on disagreement has been extremely interesting. What should it mean when you discover that someone just as intelligent and well-informed and unbiased as you takes a different stand on some factual question?  Standard answer: not much.  You're free to disagree, but should do so respectfully. The question is what sense that makes.  Maybe what you really ought to do is become agnostic on the question at hand.  But wait--your argument is the one you find convincing. Should you really yield?   Here's the literature I refer to:

Richard Feldman, "Reasonable Religious Disagreement"
Thomas Kelly, "The Epistemic Significance of Disagreement"
David Christensen, "Disagreement as Evidence"
Richard Feldman and Ted Warfield, Disagreement (OUP, coming out October 6)

Here's the review of 36 Arguments for the Existence of God I mentioned in the article--because early on there's a hilarious scene lampooning academic disagreement.