The Same Differences Argument

My mission over the winter break is to finish a paper I'm writing on using the great apes in medical experiments.  The paper will appear in a forthcoming book about debates in bioethics, and I've agreed to argue the "no" side.  That's certainly my intuition, but what's the best way to make the case?  The "no" view has to deal with pressure from both sides.  Research advocates will want to know how we can allow more people to die from AIDS, cancer, and other diseases, if we can prevent these deaths by doing research on chimpanzees.   Animal advocates will want to know why the great apes should be singled out for protection.  Isn't exempting the most human of animals a bit like freeing the whitest of slaves?  So...interesting project, lots to chew on!

One of the arguments I'm going to make is that the case for protection should not rely on what you might call the "Same Differences Argument."  This argument proceeds from the observation that the same differences that separate humans and animals also separate one human from another.  For example, there are just about the same differences between normal humans and chimpanzees as there are between normal humans and impaired elderly people.  If the differences among humans don't stop them from having the same basic rights, then how can the same differences between humans and chimpanzees make for a difference in basic rights?  (This is usually called the argument from marginal cases, but I hate that "marginal cases" talk, and the "same differences argument" is actually a little broader.  It doesn't have to focus on humans and animals "at the margins," though I'll be doing so here.)

I talk about the same differences argument in Animalkind and I've discussed it before here, but I keep on thinking about it.  It's certainly worth a lot of thought.  On the face of it, our attitudes are inconsistent.  We think intra-human differences are immaterial; they're no bar to equality.  But then we think intra-species differences are a big deal, and a complete bar to equality.  Not only does this seem inconsistent, but it seems like the inconsistency must be due to anti-animal prejudice, or "speciesism."

In fact, I think the SDA is a sleight of hand.  The same sort of argument could be used to show things that are ludicrous, which shows there's got to be something wrong with it.  Take, for example, the right to vote.  Both normal adults and impaired elderly people have the right to vote, despite the differences between them.  Elderly Bob might have no idea what the election is about, but still has the right to enter the voting booth.  He may fill in the circles at random, but that's his right.   So the differences between normal adults and impaired elderly people don't stop them from having the same right to vote.  The same differences distinguish normal adults from Chuck the Chimp.  He too has no idea what the election is about, and might fill in the circles at random.  Surely we will have gone wrong somewhere if we conclude that Chuck has the right to vote. It's not inconsistent, and not speciesist, to say he doesn't.

But why isn't it inconsistent or speciesist? Here's how I think this works.  Rights are "multiply realizable."  In other words, a right doesn't always have exactly the same basis.  The primary basis for the right to vote is a certain set of interests and abilities that are possessed by normal adults.  They have a stake in the running of the country, and they have the ability to rationally reflect on who would be the best leaders, which would be the best policies, etc.  But that's not the only basis, and Elderly Bob doesn't have his right to vote on that basis. He has his right to vote on the basis that there would be all sorts of negative repercussions if intelligence tests were administered to people as they age.  This is because of the way younger people would anticipate the testing, and because of the unreliability of the tests, and the way the system might be abused, etc.  So Elderly Bob's right is based on a a very complicated "big" set of facts, not on the abilities that reside in his own head.

Now, what about Chuck the Chimp?  He doesn't have a right to vote on the narrow basis that normal adults do, because he lacks the relevant abilities.  But he also doesn't have a right to vote on the basis that Elderly Bob does. In short, it takes looking "under the hood" at the multiple bases for rights to see why it makes perfectly good sense for individuals as similar as Chuck the Chimp and Elderly Bob to have different rights.  There's nothing speciesist or inconsistent about saying they differ in their rights.

Now, going back to the original argument, which is supposed to establish only the very most basic rights for animals (like a right to life), the same sort of analysis may apply.  The very most basic rights of normal adults have a basis in certain abilities--fairly sophisticated ones like being aware of yourself and having a notion of your own "good."  But there may be a secondary basis for the same rights that accounts for another group having it--say, babies. There can be a tertiary basis that accounts for yet another group having the right--e.g., the elderly impaired.  There can be a whatever-ary basis that accounts for yet another group having the right.   If all of that is correct, then between-human differences in abilities may not generate differences of rights, because the alternative bases are present in various humans; while between-species differences in abilities do generate differences, because both the relevant abilities and the alternative bases are absent.

That is a perfectly coherent possibility, and if it's true, we'd be able to assert that animals have no rights without being guilty of inconsistency or speciesism.  Obviously, the devil is in the details. You can pretty quickly see the primary and the secondary basis of the right to vote, and how Elderly Bob is enfranchised, but not Chuck the Chimp.  There's nothing speciesist or inconsistent going on there.  But is the primary basis for the right to life really that sophisticated?  And what about the secondary or tertiary (etc.) bases that generate the most basic rights in Elderly Bob and babies (etc.) but not in Chuck the chimp?  What are they?

I think they are "big" facts about the whole human community, and how human earlier selves care about their later selves, and about how humans think about and care about friends and family,  and about how humans imagine themselves in the each others' shoes, etc.  Granted, that's sketchy, but what I find very clear is that rights don't emanate from individual abilities, and just individual abilities.  For the "same differences argument" to go through, they would have to. So the argument is no good. 

Bottom line: I'm not going to make a rights argument why the great apes should be protected.  Stay tuned (in coming weeks) for more on the argument I'm actually making.

12/31 (12:05 pm) -- I made a few changes for clarity soon after posting this.


The Poll... and a Visit to Gnufunland

After pondering for a while... I think I've got to agree with the majority, who say believers get more pleasure out of Handel's Messiah. There were some convincing arguments in the "Christmas Poll" thread, but I would add The Argument from This Land is Your Land.   Surely part of the enjoyment comes from having the thoughts about America the song inspires. Ditto, the Messiah.  Can't exult?  Then there's got to be at least a tad less enjoyment.


I checked in on the "gnus" yesterday and found the question du jour was whether "gnu atheism" is helping (more here today). I attempted to have an opinion, but then I got confused by the terminology. Is the question about open atheism in general--with all its diverse representatives?  Or is the question about the particular brand of atheism espoused by people who refer to themselves as "new atheists," like Dawkins, Hitchens, Harris, and Dennett? Or is the question about the even smaller subset of "new atheists" who call themselves "gnu atheists"?

I'll give credit to the entire category--open atheism--for helping atheists come out of the shadows.  I have too much anecdotal evidence of that to ignore it. As for the effects of smaller subsets (the News and the Gnus), and effects besides greater openness...who gnows?


Hope your holiday is proceeding merrily.


If Science and Religion Conflict....

So here's a fun topic to discuss over Christmas dinner.  Does the first amendment prohibit the teaching of science, assuming science and religion are in conflict?  Michael Ruse has been getting the royal treatment in the atheosphere (as in, "off with his head") for making this argument--
Suppose we agree to the conflict thesis throughout, and that if you accept modern science then religion—pretty much all religion, certainly pretty much all religion that Americans want to accept—is false. Is it then constitutional to teach science?

The first amendment of the U.S. Constitution separates science and religion. (Don’t get into arguments about wording. That is how it has been interpreted.) You cannot legally teach religion in state schools, at least not in biology and other science classes. That was the issue in Arkansas and Dover. (I am not talking about current affairs or like courses.) But now ask yourself. If “God exists” is a religious claim (and it surely is), why then is “God does not exist” not a religious claim? And if Creationism implies God exists and cannot therefore be taught, why then should science which implies God does not exist be taught?

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t want science removed from schools. I want an answer to my question, one which comes up because of the dictates of the Constitution.
My diagnosis: no need for decapitation, but this isn't convincing.  Here's Ruse's argument, step by step...

(1)  Assume science is incompatible with religion in the sense that they make inconsistent claims about the same domain (e.g. "God made humans"/"Unguided evolution made humans").

(2)  Then science implies that God does not exist.

(3)  "God exists" is a religion claim, and so is "God does not exist."  Neither can be taught in public schools, under the first amendment.

(4)  Creationism implies that God exists and therefore can't be taught in public schools.

(5)  Science implies that God doesn't exist in the same way that creationism implies that God exists.

(6)  Science can't be taught in public schools.

Moral of the story (according to Ruse)--think twice before assuming that religion and science are incompatible, because it leads to a very unwelcome conclusion.  (Of course, this isn't proof of compatibility.  It's just supposed to be a nudge in that direction.)

Ruse is asking science-religion "incompatibilists" to worry about conservative religious folk who might try to drive science out of schools, if (1) is assumed. But I don't think these folks are going to reason from (1) to (6)...at least, not if they're consistent.  This sort of reasoning would lead them places they don't want to go. To wit...

Just as some secularists believe in science-religion incompatibility, many conservative religious folk believe in values-irreligion incompatibility.  So similar reasoning would force them them to think all the values have to be drained out of public education.  There goes teachers being able to talk about virtues like honesty and integrity, the value of literature and art, and good or bad historical events or people.

Reasoning from things like (1) to things like (6) gets you in hot water, pretty fast.  But never fear, nobody really should reason from (1) to (6), even if (1) is true. That's because (5) is false.  "God exists" is a proposition right there in the body of Creationism.  By contrast, "God does not exist" is not a proposition in the body of any science.  To get to it from science, you need to add philosophical premises, and you have to deliberately direct attention away from normal science topics and to clearly religious topics.

Teaching X, where X may indirectly and covertly (and only via philosophical premises) lead to a religious claim, (whether "God exists" or "God doesn't exist")  is surely not prohibited under the first amendment.  Secularists and religious people have reason to agree to that--the first because they care so much about science education, and may think science implies "God doesn't exist.  The second because they care so much about values education, and may think values imply "God exists."

Bottom line...Science-religion incompatibility may be false, but it doesn't have to be false to ensure that public schools keep covering what they ought to cover.


Christmas Poll

Recently I read Paul Bloom's book How Pleasure WorksThe book offers ample evidence that pleasure is not just a question of nerve endings, but of background beliefs. What you believe can alter how something feels, tastes, sounds. For example, believing that you're hearing a million dollar Stradivarius played by a top violinist will make most people enjoy the music more.  So this occurs to me (and occurred to me many times before I read Bloom).  Take music like Handel's Messiah.  Is it more enjoyable for believers, considering that they really do exult in the Messiah's birth, and non-believers don't?  Or do believers and non-believers enjoy it equally?  Take the poll, top right.

Evidence of Relativism?

I'm inclined to think most people believe there are truths about morality.  Students may mouth moral relativism, but if I flipped a coin to assign them grades, they'd say that was really wrong, not just wrong by some personal or cultural standard.  Grades should be awarded for work, not randomly. 

But Joshua Knobe & Co have been studying the question experimentally, and they claim to have found evidence that the folk really do incline toward relativism.

Here’s how one of their studies worked.  Subjects were told about a moral disagreement between X and Y about this incident: Dylan buys an expensive new knife and tests its sharpness by randomly stabbing a passerby on the street.   X thought that was impermissible, and Y thought it was permissible. The subjects were asked to agree (7) or disagree (1) (or somewhere in between) with the statement "at least one [X or Y]  had to be wrong." 

When the subjects were told X and Y were both classmates, the average score was 5--so they leaned toward the view that at least one had to be wrong. Next they were told X and Y were a classmate and a “Mamilon”—a member of a warlike Amazonian tribe.   Subjects were told the classmate thought Dylan’s action was impermissible and the Mamilon thought Dylan’s action was permissible.  Now the average score dropped down to 4. They were more reluctant to think at least one had to be wrong.  When Y was made even more exotic--an alien, the average score dropped down even further, to 3.

Knobe & Co. read this as showing that subjects assess a disagreement between X and Y relative to the standards X and Y bring to the table, instead of by some absolute, objective standard.  When X and Y are culturally similar, there's one standard, so one of them has to be wrong if they disagree.  When X and Y are culturally dissimilar, there can be two standards, so they can both be right if they disagree.  This is a bit like how if two people are in Texas and disagree about the time, one must be wrong, but if two people are in Texas and Iceland and disagree about the time, then they can both be right.

To which I say: hmm.  There's another way to read the shift from 5 to 4 to 3.  It might just show that the subjects feel a duty to be "nice" about exotic people.  They judge what their classmate says, and suspend judgment about the exotic Mamilon.  And he sure is exotic.  Not only is he a member of a primitive, war-like tribe, but the very bizarreness of his judgment about Dylan attests to his exoticism. The alien is even more exotic. That immediately gets us in our non-bullying, high sensitivity, “I better be tolerant” mood. 

That sort of tolerance is explicitly taught in schools.  I distinctly remember the first time I encountered words like "ethnocentrism" and "cultural chauvinism" in 9th grade.   Even more vividly, I remember a big lecture about tolerance on the first day of a college anthropology class.  These days I think children receive massive amounts of tolerance education starting in elementary school.  The more exotic a view is, the more we're supposed to be nice and not judge people who have it.  The studies done by Knobe & Co. don't seem to tease apart relativism about moral truth and a tolerance reaction that increases as the difference between X and Y gets greater.

Just as we are encouraged to be non-judgmental if people think and behave differently, we are also encouraged not to think about exotic victims.  If people are getting stabbed as people try out their knives, so....what?  So I think it would help if the incident weren't quite so bizarre.  That would quiet down our inner anthropologist.  Plus, it would help to increase subjects' concern for victims.  So here goes--an alternative incident and pair of judges.

The incident is that you (dear subject) are studying abroad in Strangeland. You work very hard all semester, and at the end of the semester Professor Strange flips a coin. Heads, A, tails, C.  When you complain about your C, you discover that in that culture, they believe everything happens for a reason.  So the coin wouldn't have come up heads if you hadn't deserved a C.  It saves time, too.

That's the incident. Now here's the disagreement.  A student from that culture says that way of grading is permissible; on the other hand, your classmate back home says it's impermissible.  Suppose subjects are asked about this Stranger vs. classmate disagreement.  Must at least one be wrong? My prediction: no slide from 5 to 4 to 3.  It's going to be all 5 (or 6 or 7).

I could be wrong, of course (ain't armchair X-Phi fun, and easy too!), but I don't think I have to be convinced by these studies, as done so far. They awaken our inner anthropologist too much and do too little to direct attention to victims.


On further thought, my example needs more work. As it stands, the Strangers just have a strange belief about the facts. They think everything happens for a reason, so they think coin flips reveal which grade students deserve. I should have set it up so the Strangers have a strange moral belief about grading. Maybe they see grading as "degrading" (for the Professor). So they admire the coin-flipping procedure for its dignity. Details needed...but the point remains the same.

Read, Heard, Saw

Everybody's making top 10 lists, so I will too.  Here goes--what I read, heard, and saw in 2010 and really, really liked.

(1)  Ian McEwen, Solar.  A brilliant Nobel-prize winning womanizer and glutton gets involved in a project that's supposed to solve the problem of global warming.  Beautifully written, hilarious, and thought-provoking.  Must we become virtuous for global warming to be dealt with?

(2)  Margaret Atwood, After the Flood.  In the not too far future, environmentalism-cum-religion are set against rampant technology, genetic engineering, and all sorts of toxicity.  The end of the world is very, very nigh.  Unpredictable, complex, lush, poetic, challenging.  Oryx and Crake, the first part of the trilogy, is great too.  Can't wait for book III.

(3)  Jumpha Lahiri, Unaccustomed Earth. Short stories about Indian immigrants in college towns. Her writing never calls attention to itself, but quickly evokes a world, a state of mind, a scene.  Your are gripped by the third sentence. So good I read her other two books this year as well--The Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake.

(4)  Keith Richards, Life.  I don't know why Keith told me all his secrets, but he did, and I really enjoyed it.  Subject of my next TPM column.

(5)  Steig Larsson, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.  Crime thrillers aren't usually my thing, but this is unique, atmospheric, and pleasingly strange.  The Julian Assange story will seem like a sequel, to anyone who's read Larsson's three bestsellers.

(6)  Arcade Fire, Suburbia.  Big rock sound, with complexity like a symphony.  Subtle lyrics, interesting emotional range, a cool Neil Young-ish voice.  So good...

(7)  Eminem, Recovery, and other albums.  Rap is constantly blaring in my house. Don't know if this is Stockholm syndrome, but I've become a fan.  For skeptics:  try this or this or this.

(8)  "The Social Network"  Fascinating movie, interesting question:  can you cut a few moral corners, but still be (basically) a good guy?  The movie made me think the answer is yes.  Perfect movie for discussing Susan Wolf's well-known article "Moral Saints."

(9)  "The Hereafter"  Being able to communicate with the dead sure makes life complicated.  This movie would be irksome if it were really trying to make the case, but it isn't.  It's a "what if?" character study. Engrossing and entertaining.

(10)  "Inception" It took seeing it twice to make me a fan. Maybe that's because I hate being confused. The second time I realized it really wasn't just another virtual reality movie. It's about being powerfully drawn into unreality, not about how we can('t) tell the real from the unreal. 

What did you read, hear, see in 2010?


Health Care for 9/11 First Responders

One of the great mysteries of the universe--how can Republicans in the Senate say no to funding medical care for 9/11 first responders?  Second great mystery:  why are they getting away with it?  Where's the outrage?  

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God Debate, Texas Style

In defiance of the authorities, who have prohibited non-Saturday blogging, I'm sneaking in a quick post here.  Over yonder in Fort Worth, you can hop on a "(Millions of Americans are) Good without God" bus and get trailed by an "I still love you.  -God" bus.  LOL.   What non-DFW folk may not know:  those kinds of messages (the one from God, that is) are on lots of billboards in Texas and (I think) further east.

Is this a great country or what?


Sarah Palin's Killing Spree

If you haven't been watching Sarah Palin's Alaska, you're missing something!  It's fascinating on a lot of levels. Turns out Sarah is quite likeable and appealing, up close and personal.  It's amusing the way her kids talk back to her just  a bit.  Bristol makes fun of her prom hair, the youngest daughter disses her hunting prowess.  I like her get up and go, and I mean it.  I kinda do strongly suspecting gallavanting all over Alaska isn't standard procedure for this tireless family, but look--she's gutsy. Must give her credit.

Part of the show's fascination is that it makes you think (constantly)--This is a prelude to a presidential run?  This woman (whatever her personal qualities) sees herself as suited to the job?  It's mind-boggling.  For which reason I do not apologize for the fact that we have Sarah Palin magnets on our refrigerator (brought to you by The Unemployed Philosophers Guild, no less).

We all enjoy dressing up Sarah and giving her suitable accessories. I keep saying: if she just stops the business about becoming president, we will take it down and say nothing but nice things about her...but this is our way of coping for the time being.

Now about all the killing on the show.  It really is relentless.  She blows away a "young cow" (her Dad's description) in one show, bashes halibut to death in another. There's shooting practice every other minute.  Which raises a very interesting question.  Surely (surely!) everything on this show is meant to enhance Sarah Palin's prospects as a presidential candidate.  But what about all the killing?  You'd think that would hurt her image, but apparently someone's making the calculation that it helps. Why?

 Maureen Dowd was contemplating the same question this week, and writes (in a column called "Pass the Caribou Stew"):
The poor caribou in the Arctic Circle, a cousin to Santa’s reindeer, had to die so Palin could show off her toughness to voters and try to boost ratings on her show that have slipped since its premiere. (Next Sunday, she’s dragging up nine Gosselins to go shooting and camping.)

Sarah’s view of America is primitive. You’re either a pointy-headed graduate of Harvard Law School or you’re eviscerating animals for fun, which she presents as somehow more authentic.
In movies with animals, they often have a line in the credits assuring that no animals were harmed. In “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” they should have a line at the end assuring that “almost every living creature involved in this show was harmed.”

The caribou that waited too pliantly in the cross hairs is doomed to become stew for Palin and an allegory for politics. The elegant animal standing above the fray, dithering rather than charging at his foes or outmaneuvering them, is Obambi. Even with a rifle aimed at him, he’s trying to be the most reasonable mammal in the scene, mammalian bipartisan, and rise above what he sees as empty distinctions between the species so that we can all unite at a higher level of being.
Great stuff, but I'm not 100% satisfied. It's one thing to be tough--like Sarah was when she was climbing in Denali National Park on the first show.  But killing is just a bit troubling, even to people who don't officially disapprove.  How then, does it get to be a political plus that Sarah's doing so much killing up there in Alaska?

I think I get it, thanks to reading Jonathan Haidt a lot in the last few weeks, and seeing a TED speech of his from 2008. You can watch from 4:30 to 10:30 and get the main idea--

Haidt's account of the "moral minds" of liberals and conservatives explains both why liberals are likely to find the killing spree morally unappealing, and conservatives are likely to find it morally attractive. A liberal like me will tend to react negatively because I live (for the most part) in a 2-dimensional moral space, defined by concepts of harm/care and fairness/reciprocity.  Sarah's harming animals, not caring about them; and it doesn't seem fair to sneak up on an unsuspecting "young cow" and blow her away.

Conservatives live (more, anyway) in a 5-dimensional moral space, defined by those already mentioned, but also by authority/respect, ingroup/loyalty, and purity/pollution.  I suspect killing animals is morally attractive to them because of the authority/respect dimension.  Sarah's killing spree confirms her belief in the hierarchy that places humans over animals.  This also explains the bizarre (to a liberal like me) coupling of guns and God, in the conservative mind-set.  What, huh?  No mystery after all.  It's all about two hierarchies.  Humans over animals (that's the guns part), and God over humans.

Now wait, wait, wait.  There's something to what Maureen Dowd says about Sarah shooting Obambi.  If you're big on hierarchical thinking, shouldn't you show a lot of respect for the president?  So why the conservative disrespect for Obama?  Look away, if you're a conservative who's easily offended.  But I think one factor here is racism.  Remember, the conservative lives in a moral space partly defined by purity/pollution. I think they're none too happy about a (gasp!) black man in the White House, and sad to say, that's what their anti-immigrant fervor is all about too.

And the point is?  Haidt is, as somebody used to say, a uniter, not a divider. He's not actually trying to make liberals and conservatives see each other as foreign, but just the opposite.  On his view, we are all  born stocked with all five "dimensions" of moral thought, but our environments emphasize some dimensions, and de-emphasize others. I see this in my own household, and the way it compares to other people's.  My husband and I have a hard time caring about the authority/respect thing.  When the kids are disrespectful, we don't like it, but we have a hard time working up a big authoritative fit about it.  We know other parents who (believe it or not) even expect their kids to respond to parental commands by saying "yes, ma'am" and "yes sir."

So underneath it all (the idea is) we are all really the same. Plus, Haidt is asking liberals to stop seeing conservative attitudes as anti-moral--blowing away animals, refusing to respect Obama, and keeping out immigrants all do strike me that way.  Rather, we are to see conservatives as seeing morality in more colors than we two-color liberals do. Sarah's killing spree fits into a certain sort of morality that I don't favor, and others do.  And seeing it that way helps us see her less as an alien, and more as a fellow human being.

Good--it's better to understand one another, not demonize other people as utterly anti-moral.  But surely we shouldn't stop there.  Next, we should broach the question of truth.  Is all that authority/respect and purity/pollution stuff really just rubbish?   Should Sarah really be doing all that killing?  Should she (or people like her) really have political power?  Hell no. But it's a fine thing to understand her way of thinking better.



It turns out I've been leaving all comments (on old posts) in moderation for a month or two without knowing it.  So if you left a comment and it never appeared, that's why.  Very sorry. I just discovered the problem today and found some good comments in there (along with all the weird spam...which is why I moderate comments on older posts).

Saturday I plan on writing a post about "Sarah Palin's Alaska."  Oh come on, don't tell me you aren't watching!  The big puzzle:  why is it a political asset to do all that killing on camera?  We'll try to figure it out....


"The Atheist Agenda"

Yesterday I attempted to do some shopping while listening to Point of Inquiry on my ipod--the result being that I lost my shopping cart in Target several times, the episodes were so interesting.  I listened to two shows--one a debate between Chris Mooney, Hemant Mehta ("The Friendly Atheist") and David Silverman (president of American Atheists) and the other an interview Robert Price did with John Shook, author of the new book The God Debates.  Right, that's a lot of time in Target.

One of the bones of contention between Mooney and David Silverman was whether today's vocal atheists "want to convert people."  Or perhaps "deconvert people," as John Shook likes to say.   Silverman insisted nobody was going door to door.   Yet Mooney pointed to Silverman's excitement over statistics showing that "none" was the fastest growing religion in the US.  At the very least, energetic atheists do want to see religion vanish from the world, however the change comes about.  Mooney said he didn't especially want that, since some people are better off with religion than they'd be without it.

I think it's too often assumed that atheism is not just a belief--that there is no god--but some set of desires.  Atheism automatically comes with an agenda.  That's what John Shook seems to be assuming in this passage from his blog--"Primatologist and ethnologist [sic] Frans de Waal has recently stated his opposition to atheism’s agenda, unable to imagine a world with no religion."    Atheism's agenda.   Surely there's no such thing.  Atheism is a belief, not a desire or set of desires.

But wait, if you believe something, how could you not want everyone else to believe it too?  Actually, pretty easily.  When I think about free will, I (often) reach the conclusion that there isn't any.  But no, I don't want everyone else to believe that too.  Life probably goes much better if people keep believing in free will.  A different sort of example:  I believe that Tolstoy is the greatest novelist ever.  But I have no particular desire for everyone to believe that.  In fact, the world's probably a better place for the fact that people have different beliefs about what's good literature. Sometimes you want others to share your beliefs, sometimes you don't care, sometimes you do. Having beliefs is one thing, having preferences about who shares them is another.

I think some of the negative charge of the word "atheism" stems from the connotation of an agenda. That's why many atheists don't use the word, or use it, but say "I'm an atheist, but..." (to Richard Dawkins' chagrin).  What they're trying to emphasize is that atheism, for them, is a matter of belief, not of desire.  It's a needed clarification, the more that people like Silverman and Shook take it for granted that there's such a thing as "atheism's agenda."


Elevation and Disgust

So...I'm wrapping up teaching Jonathan Haidt's book The Happiness Hypothesis.  By a fun coincidence, my class read the chapter about religion (Chapter 9) on a day when I headed for some religion myself.  Last night we went to the annual Hanukah celebration at my temple.

Haidt has an interesting theory about the emotions involved in religion.  Religion fosters experience along a dimension he calls "divinity."  If I understand him right, his view is that the "divine" and the "disgusting" are opposite ends of a single continuum.  In fact, religion deals with both ends--its job is to keep the disgusting at bay, and cultivate the experience of divinity.

Anybody, religious or not, can experience divinity.  It involves having a sense of elevation--possible within religious settings, and also outside of them. In fact, one study of elevation focused on subjects (lactating women, actually) watching people express gratitude on the Oprah show.  The study showed that the emotion of elevation correlates strongly with surging oxytocin.  It's not really surprising that elevation has a hormonal basis, since it has lots of physical manifestations--goose bumps, spine tingling pleasure, tears of joy.

At the service, I was on the look out for feelings of elevation.  Do I have them, despite being a total skeptic? I do indeed.  Starting about 10 years ago, when my kids were going to the temple's pre-school, I started attending kiddie services with them.  I was practically  dragged kicking and screaming, so I wasn't looking for elevation.  I was actually looking to guard them against indoctrination.  Surprise, surprise.  I loved these services.  I think Haidt captures what I felt and still feel: elevation.  What are the the triggers? I think it's the sheer feeling of being part of a group, but also perceived virtues in the group--like perseverance, reverence, and humility. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum (says Haidt) there's disgust.  Conservative religions imagine there's a lot to be disgusted by--menstruating women, mixing meat and milk, homosexuality, etc. Liberal religion is "all elevation, no disgust." Or rather, just ordinary disgust.  I was amused to find out what my students find disgusting (top secret!), but one example of mine is being seated right next to the bathroom in a restaurant. Let's do keep eating separate from excreting.

What I'm trying to figure out is why we ought to think the very same psychological system outputs both feelings of disgust and feelings of elevation.  Why see it that way?  What sort of evidence would show it was one system, not two?  Is it really?


On the Human

Late breaking! Here's an interesting website. I look forward to reading/discussing in future posts.

Also, The Great Debate is now online. "A lively panel discussion between Sam Harris, Patricia Smith Churchland, Peter Singer, Lawrence Krauss, Simon Blackburn, Steven Pinker, and Roger Bingham. If human morality is an evolutionary adaptation and if neuroscientists can identify specific brain circuitry governing moral judgment, can scientists determine what is, in fact, right and wrong?"

On My Mind

Just back from a week of traveling, and I'm going to have a coherent set of thoughts about something philosophical?  I don't think so...

Body Scanned.  I got to find out what this was like on the way into the Statue of Liberty this past Sunday. People who feel "molested" and "violated" by this experience have some explaining to do.  The only thing that's strange about it is the puffs of air they shoot at you before taking a "picture."  I bet the number of people genuinely upset is exceeded by the number who get a cheap thrill from the idea of their body contours being seen by some hidden stranger. 

Keith Richards, Junkie-Genius  I'm most of the way through Keith Richards' hefty autobiography, and it's great.  Beatles or Stones?  Stones.  There is tons of "musicology" in the book--you come out understanding what made the Rolling Stones sound like the Rolling Stones.  Cool. The book is also a hugely detailed story of heroin addiction and recovery.  Yawn.  Why do I find that story line so uninteresting?  I'm pondering--more on the book in my next TPM column.

Philosophers Without Gods  So there I am at the Barnes and Noble in Union Square (NYC)...what a fantastic bookstore!  I decide to have a look at the atheism shelf, and there's Philosophers without Gods, now in paperback. I glance at the blurbs on the back, and what do you know--there's a paragraph of my own review in Free Inquiry
Taken as a group, these readable, personal, and provocative essays make it clear  that there are many kinds of non-believers, and even many different elements that make up a single skeptical outlook.  Contrary to the popular image, atheism isn’t all rebellious trumpets and defiant drums.  That part of the orchestra is essential, but here we have all the varieties of unreligious experience, a full symphony of unbelief.
I like (to be honest) rereading this review, because it reminds me of what I really think about "the new atheism."  The trumpets and drums are essential, but the full symphony of unbelief needs other sounds.  Oh right, now I remember...that's what I think!  The review also explains why I am more a violin than a drum--because I am both an outsider and an insider to religion.  As an insider, I see what's good about it (see below).

Not a new atheist, therefore an accommodationist?  (Rubbish!)  PWG is a great antidote to a very popular mistake--the mistake of thinking atheists who aren't new--who don't align with "the four horsemen"--must therefore be "accommodationists."  The whole universe of atheists is thus divided into two groups.   PWG makes it clear there are far more varieties of unbelief.

"Accommodationism" is a pejorative term for a pair of positions taken by Chris Mooney (and co-author Sheril Kirschenbaum) in the 2009 book Unscientific America.   Half of accommodationism is a "compatibilist" position in the philosophy of science that says there's no contradiction between science and at least some of religion.  Half of it is a "pragmatist" position that says if you want to promote science education, you should find allies where you can, ignoring disagreements about religion as much as possible.

Since the summer of 2009, new atheists in the blogosphere have increasingly lumped together all atheists who aren't "new" as accommodationists...as if Mooney's reasons were the only reasons a person could have for being not-new.  But that's not at all true.

Personally, I am agnostic about the compatibility issue--I await enlightenment.  As for strategy, yeah, I agree that that science education promoters should "lowlight" religious disagreements, but I don't stay up nights worrying about science education.  My attitude about new atheism isn't primarily colored by those kinds of issues.  The atheists in PWG are not all preoccupied with science vs. religion either. Those who are not-new are not necessarily adherents of Mooney-style accommodationism.

The good of religion    It goes back to Keith Richards's book. Over and over again, he talks about the "elevation" he feels from making one out of many--one sound in a band with many members.  This is a term also used by Jonathan Haidt, who references Barbara Ehrenreich's book about the lost art of dancing in the streets.   We can't all be Keith Richards, but anyone can become a member of a church--and then the "band" is huge, crossing boundaries of both space and time.

But wait--why do you need a church for that?  Why isn't there sufficient elevation in going to rock concerts or political rallies or baseball games?  It's different, because a church (but not a stadium) is a place in which people deal with the passage of time (marked by holidays) and the major events of life--birth, marriage, illness, death. Contingently, though not of necessity, churches are in the time/birth/death business because they are places run by priests who have contact with the powers that supposedly govern such things.

The new atheist attitude is that the whole edifice of religion should come falling down because there aren't any gods.  But then you'd lose all the good.  As I see it: better for religion to evolve in a rational direction, not vanish entirely.  That view is the main thing that makes me a not-new atheist, and it has nothing to do with "accommodationism" about science and religion.

Jingle Bells  The holiday season is upon us.


Know Thy Elephant

I'm having my students read The Happiness Hypothesis, by Jonathan Haidt--a wonderfully interesting, insightful book (even if very wrong in spots!).  The metaphor that runs through the book is that we are not just the rider on top of an elephant, but the combination of rider and elephant.  The graphic I used in class this week--

Haidt's advice to the person aiming for a better life might be summed up: Know thy elephant.  In short, beware of the unconscious (or semi-conscious), automatic, gut level reactions that determine how your life is going, most of the time.  Don't fall for the illusion that the conscious, reasoning, deliberate part of yourself is your whole self, and your real self.

Some of your elephant is just like everyone else's elephant--like the part that instinctively goes through life trading favors for favors.  Most of the time, it's all well and good to be that way.  I take care of your cat, when you're out of town, you take care of my cat.  Excellent. The trouble is that the instinct to reciprocate can be used by people who want to take advantage of us.  Beware little gifts in those direct mail appeals, and mints that come with the restaurant bill.  Beware of much more serious situations in which favors come with strings attached...

Anyhow... I got to thinking about interactions that don't seem to fit the "tit for tat" mold. There's also the response to favors that says "pay it forward" instead of "pay me."  A student had a nice story like this--he had only a $100 bill in an airport and the waitress wouldn't take  it for a cup of coffee. The guy next to him paid the bill and just said "pay it forward."  He was satisfied to think the favor would be repayed to someone else. 

What about traffic etiquette?  You're in a line of traffic and someone needs to get in--they're in a lane that's closing, or coming out of a parking lot.  What do you get in return for being the one to let people in? Two answers came from my class--it's pleasant to get a "thank you" wave.  Second answer: it just feels good to let people in.  So you do something for another driver, and essentially you give yourself the reward--you pat yourself on the back. You are essentially playing "tit for tat" with yourself, with the other driver external to the transaction. (Hmm....)

I don't think Haidt is claiming that all of our kindness to strangers falls into the category of "tit for tat," but it's interesting to consider, case by case, how much of it does.

Happy Thanksgiving!


Does Philosophy Help?

I kind of like to think that studying philosophy can help--e.g. by taking my class on the meaning of life, students can actually think better about life decisions, head in a better direction, etc.  Well, maybe ... at least some of the class has "helping" potential.  The trouble is, alongside my desire to think about real life issues and help, I also have a strong interest in puzzles, paradoxes, and philosophy just of the sake of philosophy.  We have done a lot of that this semester--lately entertaining three puzzles of existence that are just fun, if you have a slightly twisted sense of fun.  What's so bad about being dead?  What's so good about coming into existence?  Would it really be all that great to live forever?  People have to tackle these questions with a large helping of Woody Allen-esque black humor (see "Love and Death").  The problem  is, Real Life can step in and at least temporarily exclude the possibility of that kind of humor.    The life of a college student isn't always quite the carefree thing you'd want it to be. (Enough said...)

For philosophy in a very, very helping key, here's a new book by Mark Vernon.  It comes with a quiz. I haven't seen the book, but the chapter titles are enticing.  Cheerful too.  Not one chapter about death!


Right, there's a joke in there, relating to my poll.  My blog evidently doesn't have a lot of superatheist readers, but it's hard to say for sure. Over a thousand people visited the blog in the last week, but just 27 took the poll.

Does Determinism Rule out Responsibility?

From the department of fun coincidences--my "Meaning of Life" class read "Why Immortality Is not So Bad" by John Martin Fischer on Monday, and then had the pleasure of chatting with him yesterday--he was on campus to give a talk on free will.

Here's an example from Fischer's talk-- a "Frankfurt case," since Harry Frankfurt discussed a case like this in his 1969 paper "Alternative Possibilities and Moral Responsibility."
Because Black dares to hope that the Democrats finally have a good chance of winning the White House, the benevolent but elderly neurosurgeon, Black, has come out of retirement to participate in yet another philosophical example. (After all, what would these thought-experiments be without the venerable eminence gris—or should it be noir?)   He has secretly inserted a chip in Jones’s brain which enables Black to monitor and control Jones’s activities.  Black can exercise this control through a sophisticated computer that he has programmed so that, among other things, it monitors Jones’s voting behavior.  If Jones were to showany inclination to vote for McCain (or, let us say, anyone other than Obama), then the computer, through the chip in Jones’s brain, would intervene to assure that he actually decides to vote for Obama and does so vote.  But if Jones decides on his own to vote for Obama (as Black, the old progressive would prefer), the computer does nothing but continue to monitor—without affecting—the goings-on in Jones’s head.
In fact Jones (shown in white in the picture) shows no inclination to vote for anyone but Obama, Black doesn't intervene, and Jones does vote for Obama. 

What's the point?  Well, it's often assumed that determinism rules out moral responsibility.  Why?  Because if determinism is true, then whatever you do, you couldn't have done otherwise; whatever you choose, you couldn't have chosen otherwise.  On the face of it, it seems as if a person who couldn't have done or chosen otherwise isn't responsible for what he did do or choose.

But perhaps not!  Jones couldn't have done otherwise than voting for Obama.  But is it really obvious that he's not responsible for doing so?  Black never actually intervenes (he's a "counterfactual intervener"). All unfolds exactly as it would have, had Black not inserted the chip.  Fischer makes a cautious assessment:  if Jones is not responsible, it's not because he couldn't have done otherwise.  That then calls into question the standard reasoning that runs "determinism...so couldn't have done otherwise...so no responsibility."

Once you get to thinking about Black and Jones, you just can't stop. Have fun.


Superatheism? (poll)*

In light of discussion at other blogs (which I've glanced at but not read)...

Are you an atheist, a superatheist, or not an atheist? A superatheist (I made up the term 15 seconds ago) is someone who wouldn't be budged from atheism by any type of empirical evidence. Nothing you could observe would move a superatheist in the direction of agnosticism, let alone theism.* (see poll, top right)

Suppose this morning you found out that every token of "Woody Allen" in every book and magazine, worldwide, had turned green. This pattern of events is physically inexplicable (too spread out, too fast, to be physically explained), but coherent, meaning-wise. In other words, it's the sort of thing a Someone might wish for (if they happened to have a thing about Woody Allen).

If that actually happened, it would be reasonable to think a Mind must have willed it, thereby making it so. An immaterial mind that makes things happen through sheer willing is...maybe God.

Of course, I'd have to be on standby to find out more about the Mind behind the greening. Good, bad, obsessed with Woody Allen? What's the deal? Losing confidence in atheism is not the same thing as becoming a full throttle theist.  But a Divine Will would start to seem like a real possibility, given the greening of "Woody Allen".

What else could I think? That the whole thing was just a big accident--like a cloud that looks like a dog--fully explained by physical law, only odd in our eyes because of our power to see squiggly lines as meaningful? I don't think the Super Accident story would be any more reasonable than the Divine Will explanation.

* I edited this post after reading comments (see here).

Fun with Counterfactuals

My mother was thinking about driving down to Washington for the Rally to Restore Sanity last week, and called me with disturbing news.  The car she would have been in got totalled on the way down (no one hurt).  Yikes, gasp, phew, she said (in so many words). Implied counterfactual:  if I had gone, I would have been involved in the accident.

But no, I said, if you had gone, everything would have been slightly different.  They would have had to drive to your house and pick you up, and other things would have gone differently too, so they would have wound up in slightly different places at slightly different times, and there wouldn't have been an accident at all.  

It so happens I read a philosophy paper by Caspar Hare (start with part 2 on pg. 21) later in the week that involved the same sort of fun with counterfactuals. Here's a puzzle to drive your friends crazy with:  if we had no seatbelt laws in Texas, and the traffic czar suddenly passed such a law, on whose behalf would that be the right thing to do? Accident victims, right?

But it's not so simple.  The law takes effect, and Abby, Bob, and Cathy are in accidents, but wear seatbelts, and avoid trauma.  So the law was passed on their behalf?  Can't be!  Without that law, Abby, Bob, and Cathy would have pulled out of their driveways just a little earlier, so wouldn't have been in any accident at all.

What about Debbie, who avoided being in any accident, because of the time it took her to buckle her seat belt? Well, the law helped her, but surely that's not it's aim --simply to change the timing of accidents.  Changing the timing obviously wouldn't save lives, on the whole.

More fun with counterfactuals.   Imagine a young man starts putting away money for the future, in expectation he will have a family to take care of one day.  Now, what if one day he has kids, and they're all having fun on a cruise in the Carribean, and he tells them to thank him for saving up over the years, so vacations like this would be possible.  Smart Alec says "But if you hadn't saved,  every event would have been timed differently, so some other kid would be having a miserable time vacationing in Waco, Texas, not me.  So don't ask ME for any thanks!"

Smart Alec is right that some other kid would have been in the picture, but wrong that his father did nothing right.  Hare's paper contains a very nice proposal.  The father did something good for his kids "de dicto," not "de re."  He did good with respect to a category (his children, whoever they turned out to be) not for specific things--his eventual kids.

I suspect we think about what to do in "de dicto" terms all the time, and for a lot of reasons.  Sometimes there's no way to think "de re" because of timing matters, but sometimes it's the wrong way to think for other reasons. A lot of ethical thought is about whoever winds up doing this, or going there, or being that.  The idea of an obligation being "de dicto" captures the right sort of generality.

Tonight! Tonight!

Boy this looks fun.  Will there be live video?  I don't see it...but let me know if you do.

Update....found this:

Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat

The subtitle of this book, by psychologist Hal Herzog, is Why It's So Hard to Think Straight about Animals.  That's the main thesis:  our thinking is a mess.  Our attitudes about animals are so inconsistent that we even have "double standards" when it comes to members of one species.  For example, in the introduction we hear about one of Herzog's neighbors in the Smoky Mountains (I love his writing)--

Not even a dog is a dog is a dog--the breed counts.  It gets even crazier in a research laboratory.  The mice in the cages are treated according to government guidelines, while those scurrying around on the floor after hours are caught in traps and disposed of.  Weird.

If we can't even treat all members of one species the same way, obviously we're going to be even less capable of treating members of different species consistently.  We don't just "not care" about all animals equally, some we even hate.  Mice aren't so bad, but rats have those long thick tails....eww.

Even people with a high level of animal concern are shown to be basket cases.  Apparently people who consider themselves vegetarians eat quite a bit of meat and many wind up going back to omnivory altogether.

Chapter after chapter describes inconsistency after inconsistency, making me think (frequently)--what about the committed, passionate, and consistent?  They exist. They really do. I was delighted to find portraits of them in the last chapter, and Herzog seems genuinely impressed.  There are portraits of people who run an animal sanctuary and a wonderful couple of pages about people who are devoted to helping out endangered sea turtles.

Are we really as inconsistent as Herzog says? I think he overdoes it at a few points.  For example, he opens the book with a story about a friend who doesn't eat land animals and birds, but does eat fish.  The first sentence of the book gives his assessment: "The way we think about other species often defies logic."

The friend doesn't treat all animals uniformly, but it doesn't follow she's inconsistent.  If the principle is "don't eat factory farmed food," then consuming fish is consistent with rejecting other kinds of meat.  Yes, there are likely to be ways she deviates from that principle, but that's life.  To make a diet liveable, you have to simplify:  yes to fish (and I won't worry about farmed fish); no to other meat (and I won't make an exception for "humane meat"). 

In the chapter on animal ethics, Herzog has a very clear and accurate picture of the main perspectives, but his fondness for uniformity makes him see just a little too much virtue in hyperegalitarianism. First he couldn't be more negative:
Joan Dunayer lives in a moral universe that should cause even hardcore animal activists to shudder.  Can a reasonable person really believe, as Dunayer apparently does, that one should flip a coin when deciding whether to snatch a puppy or a child from a burning building, or that duck hunters should be imprisoned for life?
But then he does an about face:
The problem for animal liberationists is that Dunayer is right. If you take the charge of speciesism literally, if you refuse to draw any moral lines between species, if you really believe that how we treat creatures should not depend on the size of their brains or the number of their legs, you wind up in a world in which, as Dunayer suggests, termites have the right to eat your house.
I don't think consistency or eschewing speciesism mean seeing no differences between species. It means seeing only those differences that are real and morally relevant, whatever they may be.  Of course, we're in big trouble if we start seeing differences between canine breeds, between floor mice and cage mice, and the like.  But there's nothing that says we have to think there's one uniform system of ethics that applies to every single type of animal there is--from dust mite to dog to chimpanzee to human being.

We can make distinctions without falling into inconsistency, but clearly we humans make way too many distinctions, and many of them are biased and cultural and indefensible..and downright nutty.  This book is a bit depressing (why can't people be smarter and more conscientious?) but also amusing.  Humans sure are strange.


Happy Halloween!

The serious philosophy stuff is below--keep going!

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.