9/29/10

Women's Intuitions

Here's an interesting paper about why women are under-represented in philosophy.  Wesley Buckwalter and Stephen Stich propose that part (but only part) of the explanation is that women's philosophical intuitions differ from men's.  When students are presented with philosophical thought experiments (Thomson's famous violinist, Jackson's case of Mary, Foot's trolley cases, Gettier cases, etc.), their study reveals that men and women don't have the same reactions.  The authors think women's intuitions may make them feel "different" and thus less inclined to join the profession.

There's a problem though...  In several of their cases it's women, not men, who have "the right intuitions"-- the ones that "most people have," as philosophers like to say.  How does that square with the exclusion hypothesis?  The authors speculate that philosophy is more often taught by men, who are likely to have the intuitions seen more often in men, so female students are likely to find themselves at odds with their professors.  The resulting sense of alienation will outweigh whatever validation comes from one's intuitions meshing with a well-known author's. 

I'm not so sure about that.  One of the thought experiments is Frank Jackson's case of Mary, the color-blind neuroscientist.  She learns all the physical facts about the color red.  Will she thereby be in a position to know what it is like to see red?   The data shows that females are more skeptical than males.  Are we really to believe that male philosophy professors are typical males, instead of having Jackson's intuitions--that Mary cannot know what it is like?  That would surprise me a great deal.   Still, in the majority of the cases Buckwalter and Stich look at, it's men who have "the right intuitions"--the ones that match the author's.  That's got to be off-putting for women.  What to do?  Read the paper for their answer....

The paper got me thinking about other aspects of philosophy that may be off-putting for women (research needed--I'm just speculating).  For example, there are the thought experiments themselves. A lot of them are really weird.  Both male and female students can be impatient with these things, and it could be that women feel especially that way.  The good news is that the thought experiments are easily transposed into the key of real.

Take, for example, Thomson's case of the famous violinist.  You are kidnapped by the Society of Music Lovers and hooked up to him, and have to lie next to him for 9 months giving him life support.  Granted, he has a right to life; does that mean you have to stay there and keep him alive?  The analogy is supposed to help us think about what would follow if a fetus were a person with a right to life.  We are supposed to conclude: not much.  Women would still have a right to choose abortion.

The violinist story is a lot of fun, but it's not impossible to replace it with a real life story. I don't have the perfect story to suggest, but there's an interesting variation on the violinist theme in Joe Simpson's book Touching the Void.   Joe is mountain climbing in the Andes with a friend.  The two are connected to each other by a rope, and Joe falls into a deep crevasse.   Joe is (of course) a person with a right to life. Does that mean that the friend who is connected to him must stay there trying to save his life?  The friend thought otherwise--he cut the cord.  Was that permissible or impermissible?  For some students, that would be a more engaging question than the one about the violinist. 

Another potentially aversive aspect of philosophy classes is the way the most opinionated people are rewarded.  If you are "still thinking" and not ready to declare a preference for one view over the others, let alone to defend it tooth and nail, you will get very few pats on the head.  The expectation that one will quickly have firm views might be more off-putting to women than to men.  And it could be a bigger problem than aggressive combat--a feature of philosophy often said to be particularly bothersome to women.  It's fun to fight (isn't it?) when you're 100% sure what you think. Not fun at all when you're still thinking, still trying to understand.  In philosophy culture as it is, one must have a view now, not tomorrow, not next week.

[Update: Why would women especially resent the "must have an opinion" culture of philosophy?   I can think of lots of possible explanations, but I don't think it's because they're simply slower then men.  Heavens!]

So--there are lots of potential factors that could be studied, and if they really do affect men and women differently, some are fairly easily changed.

Singer on Fish

Eye-opening article here on the vast number of fish killed every year, and our indifference to their pain...by Peter Singer. On my "fish" reading list: Victoria Braithwaite's book Do Fish Feel Pain? (the answer is yes) and a new and important book about the fate of fish in the wild--going, going, some day gone--by Paul Greenberg.

9/28/10

The Ethics of Ethicists

From Eric Schwitzgebel and Joshua Rust, more very puzzling survey results showing that ethicists aren't more ethical than non-ethicist philosophers and other professors.

Obama's Faith

At one of his backyard meet-ups today, President Obama was asked why he's a Christian (this is from the New York Times)--
“I’m a Christian by choice,” the president said. “My family, frankly, they weren’t folks who went to church every week. My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew but she didn’t raise me in the church, so I came to my Christian faith later in life and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead. Being my brothers and sisters’ keeper, treating others as they would treat me, and I think also understanding that Jesus Christ dying for my sins spoke to the humility we all have to have as human beings, that we’re sinful and we’re flawed and we make mistakes and we achieve salvation through the grace of God.”

Mr. Obama went on: “But what we can do, as flawed as we are, is still see God in other people, and do our best to help them find their own grace. That’s what I strive to do, that’s what I pray to do every day.’’ Yet he said that as president, he also “deeply believes that part of the bedrock strength of this country is that it embraces people of many faiths and of no faith.’’
Based on this, no doubt everyone will now admit he's a Christian, not a Muslim or an atheist.  Non-believers will be happy to know that this country "embraces people of many faiths and no faith."  In short, everyone will be satisfied, and we will never talk about Obama's religion again.

Ha!

"Brave New Animal" Links

Thanks, Texas State-ers, for a great discussion yesterday. Here are the links I promised you--

(1) Eating Animals

Humane Society Videos  
   (see "Beef Recall")
Lots of links (at my class blog)
    reading suggestions too--see right column

(2) Altering ourselves

Meet the vegetarians
Schwitzgebel--do ethicists eat less meat?  More here.  Also this, on Bloggingheads.  The graph I showed, based on his preliminary data (click to enlarge)--


(3)  Altering treatment

(4)  Altering animals

Livestock biotech summit (starts today!)
Goat silk
Burpless cattle
Pain-free livestock (Adam Shriver's article)
The nature of pain (Donald Price)
Milk without killing?    Article in NYT is here.
Lab meat

9/26/10

Knock Out Meat



From the archives, because I'll be talking about these issues at Texas State tomorow--

No, not great-tasting meat, but meat that’s had the pain knocked out of it. This is what’s being proposed by Adam Shriver here. The proposal is also covered in a New Scientist article which includes comments from Peter Singer (tepidly supportive) and Marc Bekoff (against). Dom Wilkinson gave me the pointers and writes about the idea here.

How are you going to knock pain out of livestock? Not with surgery or drugs, but by genetically engineering them to lack certain brain structures. You don’t want to go too far. If pain is completely obliterated, then animals are likely to injure themselves. Apparently that's what makes people lose bits of their bodies when they have leprosy. Nerve damage stops them from feeling pain, and so they have lots of accidents and amputations.

So how do you get rid of pain sensations but retain pain behavior? Shriver thinks there’s a way to do it. Pain seems to involve two components. Nociceptor neurons are stimulated at the site of bodily insult, and signals run up to the thalamus, and from there to the somatosensory cortex. That’s the basis for “sensory pain.” But that’s not the end of it. Signals also go to an area of the brain involved in higher cognitive processes, the anterior cingulate cortex. It’s because of processing there that we mind being in pain. That’s the basis for suffering, or “affective pain.”

Shriver suggests livestock could be genetically engineered so as to retain sensory pain but lose affective pain. That way, they’d still engage in normal behaviors like pain guarding—avoiding using a sore foot. But they wouldn’t suffer during the usual battery of factory farm procedures—branding, castration, dehorning, debeaking, slaughter, etc.

The argument has this empirical starting point, and then employs a set of ethical premises. I’m going to save ethics for later, because I have worries about Shriver’s picture of pain psychology.

1. Where’s the pain?

Shriver seems to think that the hurting of pain, the unpleasantness, is all in the affective phase. If you can get rid of that, you can get rid of all that’s bad about pain. That’s what he deduces from first person reports of people who have had cingulotomies:

"To claim that the sensory dimension of pain is part of suffering, or that the affective dimension of pain is not constitutive of suffering, is to deny the first person reports of the patients themselves."

But then when you look at these first person reports, they don’t tell as clean a story as that. At least, that’s what I gather from reading Temple Grandin’s account of these reports in the wonderful book Animals in Translation (chapter 5, pp. 184-7). Grandin says that these patients do have reduced pain, as evidenced by the fact that they no longer ask for morphine. But she says they still do ask for aspirin. Whatever they’re still feeling, they find it undesirable. Also, they respond more, not less, to being poked with a pin. As she interprets it, “The frontal lobes censor and control outbursts of any kind, including screams of pain. Since these patients had lost their mental brakes, they screamed at a mild poke.” (p. 187)

This latter might have great relevance to animals. One of Grandin’s main claims about animal suffering is that animals are especially plagued by fear. If they found themselves reacting wildly to the various indignities of animal husbandry, it seems that would be likely to cause an exaggerated fear response, both in themselves and in others. Fear, she says, is located in the more primitive parts of the brain. It’s not very cerebral, so not likely to be affected by tinkering with areas of the cortex.

Shriver relies on various animal studies to make the argument that sensory pain can be retained, while affective pain is eliminated. For example, in one study rats were “noxiously stimulated on hypersensitive paws” while in a dark chamber, and thereby developed a preference to be in a lighter chamber. Other rats were subjected to the same treatment after first having their anterior cingulate cortex ablated. These rats still avoided the stimulation, but didn’t develop the preference for a lighter chamber.

Shriver apparently thinks this shows, or at least strongly suggests, that suffering is all affective, and located in the anterior cingulate; the sensory pain that makes the rats avoid the stimulation doesn’t hurt. But there are other ways of reading the evidence. The rats could just be feeling less pain. Or the cingulotomy could have interfered with memory. (How do these rats perform on other memory tasks?)

It’s awfully important to disentangle these possibilities. Debeaking, dehorning, castrating, and killing are all acutely painful. We empathize (or should) in virtue of what the animal feels there and then. Once dead, of course there’s no opportunity for long-term after effects. The other procedures can have after effects, but that’s not primarily what makes them so bad. So if the less cerebral animals just have less pain-memory, and less trouble recovering from acute pain, that wouldn’t substantially lessen our concern for the pain of these procedures.

I suspect the attempt to reduce affective pain would not reduce sensory pain to nil, but why not still do it? Less pain is certainly better. Well, there’s the worry that the new-fangled animals may display new and erratic pain behaviors that trigger a fear response both in themselves in others.

But suppose you can experimentally study that possibility and exclude it—just for the sake of argument. Then you’d better think through other possible behavioral consequences. Animals in Translation is full of stories about the way livestock and dog breeders try to select one trait and wind up unintentionally with others. You breed dalmations to be white, and it turns out they’re extra nervous. You breed collies to have long snouts, and it turns out their brains are crowded, and they’re dumb. So if you alter the normal brain structure of livestock to dampen pain, you’re bound to get other results.

Shriver actually mentions some. Apparently animals with ablated anterior cingulates don’t bond with their young. So while a normal cow is traumatized when her calf is taken away so she can return to being a milk producer, the genetically engineered less cerebrate cow might be indifferent.

Knock out animals might suffer less, but might all around be more zombie-like. They are closer to being what Ruth Harrison calls “meat machines.” Is that progress, or just another step in an already terrible direction?

2. Ethics

Click here for part 2.

Apostasy Now

So now come two more insiders railing against the new atheists--Caspar Melville, editor of New Humanist and John Shook, who works at the Center for Inquiry.  Last week it was someone else, the week before someone else...it goes on and on.  Just in case there's a midterm on this stuff anytime soon, I thought it might be helpful to review.  What are all the charges against the new atheists?  Here goes--

(1)  Bad tone--sometimes being too militant, strident, disrespectful, insulting to religious people as well as to internal critics; name-calling, bullying, etc. etc.

(2)  Jaundiced view of religion--focusing only on worst cases, not appreciating the psychology and sociology of religion.

(3)  Alienating people--not so much saying religion and science are incompatible (see below) but saying it at the wrong time, in the wrong place, to the wrong people.

(4)  Incompatibilism--saying religion and science are incompatible, when they're obviously compatible (or why would Francis Collins be the genome whiz?).

(5)  Poor sense of proportion--harping on religion too much; overlooking more important problems like poverty, racism, climate change (the end of the world is nigh, but not because of religion).

(6)  Naughty Scientism--thinking science is the only way of knowing, rejecting Shakespeare.

(7)  Woeful ignorance of theology--presuming to settle the question of God's existence without understanding theistic arguments well enough.  Not spending enough time buried in the books of Swinburne, Plantinga, Van Inwagen, et al. 

(8)  Undermining humanity--promoting a dehumanizing picture of life, undermining wonder, optimism, etc, not believing in spooky mental stuff, which can be wonderfully uplifting.

(9)  Naive progressivism--believing life is forever getting better and better, not having the proper sense of doom and gloom; siding with (gasp) the enlightenment.

(10)  Being atheists--it's simply a bad thing, period.

You might be wondering if I deliberately put these charges in a certain order. Indeed I did.  From the annotations, you can probably tell which charges have some merit, in my eyes. The drop off starts after (3), and we gradually descend into the depths of nonsense. 

10 is a nice number, but if I missed something important, do let me know.

9/24/10

About that Meat Dress....

Nina Powers writes about Lady Gaga's meat dress and the 20th anniversary edition of Carol Adams's book The Sexual Politics of Meat.  Women (and sometimes men) are sexually objectified.  Animals that become food are objectified too, in some sense.  Is it helpful or illuminating to look for commonalities?  Adams says yes and Powers agrees.  The commenters go wild.  All very interesting. H/T (as they say):  AT

Never Let Me Go

The movie version of Kazuo Ishuguro's novel is coming out today. I ought to be really excited about it, because Never Let Me Go is one of my favorite novels of all time--but that's just the problem.  There is no need whatever for the movie. I fear by seeing it my memory of the book will be disturbed, and forever more I'll remember Kathy-the-actress, instead of Kathy the character, etc. etc.   Will I see the movie anyway?  Yeah...probably. 

Here's an essay I wrote about the novel at Normblog a couple of years ago.  SPOILER ALERT!!!

**

I'm a huge fan of the author Kazuo Ishiguro. Two of my favourite novels are his books Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. Both are about people who go along with being treated 'merely as a means', as the German philosopher Immanuel Kant would say.

Never Let Me Go is about an underclass of clones living in present-day England. Though they are 'copies' of people in the main population, they are nevertheless perfectly normal human beings. After growing up in special boarding schools, they begin to report to hospitals periodically to serve as organ donors. They gradually weaken and after some number of donations, they 'complete' - they have that last fatal operation.

The eerie thing is that there's no overt coercion involved. There are no thugs dragging these people to hospitals. Kathy, the main character, gets special privileges as a 'carer' - she helps others through their medical ordeals - but then she eventually becomes a donor herself. She puts up some resistance at points, but mostly she's compliant.

Kathy isn't zombie-like, but she does have a tendency to be a little too obsessed with surfaces and details. Why doesn't she get her mind off minutiae and focus on the big picture? Why doesn't she hide or run away? There's no simple answer, but the key thing seems to be the clones' perception that they have a role to play. That role is not to their liking, but they're resigned to it.

I take it the novel is set in the present day, not in the far future, because Ishiguro wants to say something about us, not make up things about strange futuristic people. We are capable of these things, whether as exploiters or as exploited.

There doesn't seem to be a specific real-world question Ishiguro wants us to think about, but the book put me in mind of questions like this: why do the women of Saudi Arabia accept not being able to vote, drive, move about on their own, and show their faces in public? For considerable illumination, think Kathy!

But surely we wouldn't deliberately grow an underclass of clones to use as our organ donors. We would never exploit other people to that degree. Or would we?

We are told the cloning project began in the 1950s. Kathy seeks out a former teacher who explains it to her: 'How can you ask a world that has come to regard cancer as curable, how can you ask such a world to put away that cure, to go back to the dark days?' Once the project had begun to save lives, it couldn’t be stopped. '... [Y]ou were kept in the shadows, and people did their best not to think about you. And if they did, they tried to convince themselves you weren't really like us. That you were less than human, so it didn't matter.'

Unrealistic? The story brings to my mind many types of exploitation we're unable to go back on - like relying on extremely cheap labour in third-world countries so we can afford a luxurious life-style.

The novel makes me think about animal experimentation as well, though I don't think that was Ishiguro's intention. What intrigues him is compliance - letting yourself be treated as a means. (That's the theme of The Remains of the Day as well.) Animals aren't compliant - they aren't cognizant enough for that. But with or without their compliance, we do treat lab animals as a means only. We perform surgeries on them. And they actually do endure procedure after procedure until they 'complete'.

Well, but that's different! (Kant certainly thought so.) Or is it? We may not be in a position to know. We've been using animals as a means to our better health for hundreds of years. We do 'keep them in the shadows', and of course we think they don't much matter. It may not be within our powers to wake up and see the practice clearly.

The best we can probably do is wake up half-way and see that many experiments are unnecessary or done in a cruel manner. Within medicine and science, there are now reformers who want to 'reduce, replace, and refine' (the so-called '3 Rs'). Hardly anyone seriously contemplates bringing the whole practice to an end.

The reformers seem laudable, but I'm not sure. They have counterparts in Ishiguro's novel, a group of progressives who want the clones to be raised in better schools and orphanages. Sadly, eerily, these more enlightened people can imagine reform but can't imagine wholesale change. Too much has been gained by thinking of the clones as a subordinate class with merely instrumental value.

On animal experimentation and many other issues, I wonder how different we really are from the benighted society of Ishiguro's novel. There's such a thing as a point of moral no-return, a point where nobody can even see the problem, and even witting victims can't contemplate resistance.

9/23/10

Road Mink

Click on picture to read.
Click on picture to read.

These pictures quickly tell a story, and just as quickly raise ethical questions. More great pictures at the Boston Globe's Big Picture website.

Hard Atheism, Soft Atheism

Let's have some terminology:  as far as I'm concerned, you can't be an atheist at all unless you believe there are no gods (not even one).  It's not enough to not believe in God/gods--or we're going to have to call my cats atheists.  So that's what all atheists have in common:  they see the universe as being deity-free.  They are the opposite of theists, who think the universe includes a deity (or two, or three...).

Beyond this common ground, atheists can disagree with each other, and even disagree about religion.  By religion I don't mean bare bones belief or disbelief, I mean practices, rituals, a whole constellation of attitudes and activities.  Some atheists are anti-religion, some neutral about religion, some even pro-religion. Back in the 20th century, before the "new atheists" came along, I knew both anti-religious and pro-religious atheists.  One friend was forever railing against the silliness of Christianity (anti).  A teacher was both adamantly atheist and sending his Jewish children to religious school (pro). So if you take "new" literally (and make the inception of "new atheism" coincide with Sam Harris's book The End of Faith), then old/new isn't really the distinction we need.  How about, instead, hard vs. soft?

Hard atheists believe that religion is on the whole a bad thing, and wish it would go away, and may even actively work towards its demise.  They think of religion as being like, maybe, crime, or disease, things that are essentially bad even if you can find an occasional good crime (stealing drugs for ailing children) or good disease (Lance Armstrong says cancer is the best thing that ever happened to him).   They tirelessly make their case against religion by talking about pedophile priests, brainwashed children, suicide bombers, sexism, etc.

Soft atheists believe that religion is not on the whole bad, and don't have the same desire for it to disappear.  They think of religion as being like, perhaps, sport.  Sport is premised on some dubious attitudes--competitiveness, the notion that there are winners and losers; bad attitudes like team spirit--bad because that sort of partiality is irrational.  Vast amounts of money and time are poured into sport at school, amateur, and professional levels--money that could be spent on much worthier things like alleviating poverty and disease.  You can see all that accurately, and yet not be on the whole anti-sport, because you see both the bad and the good in sport.  Soft atheists likewise see both bad and good in religion, and don't feel, on the whole, opposed to religion.

So, who are the real atheists?  Hard atheists are the ones most in the public eye, thanks to the high profile of the "new atheists" ... who are mostly hard, most of the time.  So to the public they are the real atheists.  I think hard atheists see themselves that way.  When they are criticized by soft atheists, they regard the latter as traitors, apostates, quislings,"faithiests."  On the other hand, they don't see themselves as traitors (etc) when they criticize soft atheists.  Hard atheists have "the essential position" in their own minds, and soft atheists aren't true believers--or rather, true unbelievers.

But why is hard atheism "the essential position"? Whether God exists is one question, the value of religion is a completely separate question.  How can religion be valuable if so much about it is problematic?  Think sports.

Speaking of carnivores...


Don't (DON'T!) miss this Boston Globe "big picture" series on animals in the news.

9/21/10

The Lion Question

So...lions.  Jeff McMahan reasons at The Stone:  (1)  Our own carnivorism is morally bad.  (2) While we're not directly responsible for animal carnivorism, we still have reason to prevent it--since it causes the same misery that ours does.  (3) Human populations are encroaching on animal habitats, so before long it's going to be up to us which species survive, and which go extinct.  (4) Instead of preserving them all, we could preserve the peaceful herbivores, and let (make?) the rapacious carnivores go extinct. (5) That would be all to the good, unless each species has some inherent value--e.g. lions have enough value to make up for the suffering they inflict on zebras.  (6) The inherent value of a species is not "personal" value, or value to the individual lions.  (7)  In fact, it's no value at all, so clearly not "enough" to make up for the suffering they inflict.  (8)  So--off with their heads.

There are two ways to approach this argument.  One is to confront it head on--dissect the premises, figure out where there might be problems.  The other is to charge McMahan with "bad attitudes"--this is hyperrational, overly managerial, scary stuff.  The right attitude is ... what? We ought to be humble in the face of nature's goodness, and leave things alone--not entirely, but at least on a very basic level.  We ought to value lions, and let them keep on eating zebras, even if we can't perfectly explain why that's for the best.

My gut feeling, to be honest, is the second--I would distrust the urge to give nature a moral makeover.  Maybe this amounts to a religious feeling, really (but without any supernaturalism)-- the world is good, as far as fundamentals go, and predation is fundamental. But let's not leave it at that--all that compex reasoning cries out for close scrutiny.

To begin with, I have doubts about (2). It's true that our carnivorism causes misery, and lion carnivorism causes misery, but we breed our "prey" and zebras exist naturally.  If lions stopped eating zebras, there would still be zebras.   Instead of the weaker ones being eaten, they'd live longer and possibly suffer other problems.  Unless the idea is that animals are going to be citizens of our nations, there isn't going to be free veterinary care or food stamps for ailing herbivores.  If there would be no reduction in suffering from eliminating lions, but only in killing, it's unclear that there would be any net benefit. 

But that's assuming a lot. Maybe there would be a reduction in suffering, if all animals were herbivores.  If so, then we ought to focus on (7)--whether there's a value to there being lions that makes up for the suffering they inflict. No individual lion cares about the ongoing existence of the species, so the value of the species is not a value to the individual members of the species. There's value to us, since we enjoy lions, but that seems potentially canceled out by the suffering they cause. So what's the good of lions?  It seems to me there is impersonal good here--goodness that's not goodness to anyone. It's valuable for there to be lions because of the specific qualities and capacities that come of there being lions. 

Right--that's not crystal clear.  That's why I started with the point about humility.

*****

UPDATE:  Jerry Coyne asks today:
But what on earth does religion have to contribute to an exploration of morality?  I maintain that there is not a single ethical insight contributed by religion that could not be be better contributed by secular morality—and without the taint of the supernatural. 
It depends what you mean by "religion."   In the end, it seems like the right response to McMahan has to appeal to humility, maybe even reverence, some basic sense of nature being good as is, even if we can't exactly say why.  You don't have to believe in the supernatural to have those attitudes, but they are certainly cultivated in places of worship, and they're not attitudes that really have any place in secular, rational, morality (typified by McMahan).  So "not a single ethical insight" is too strong, even if it's true that secular, rational, morality has much more to offer than traditional religion.

9/20/10

The End of Lions

This essay by Jeff McMahan is a must-read. Carnivorism has got to go, across the board--even if means the end of lions, he argues. Species have a strange, elusive ("impersonal"--the word may mislead) sort of value. With habitats shrinking, it will be ours to decide what and who should be preserved, so "the lion question" is not merely theoretical. His answer: better to end the suffering of prey than keep lions around.
Here, then, is where matters stand thus far. It would be good to prevent the vast suffering and countless violent deaths caused by predation. There is therefore one reason to think that it would be instrumentally good if predatory animal species were to become extinct and be replaced by new herbivorous species, provided that this could occur without ecological upheaval involving more harm than would be prevented by the end of predation. The claim that existing animal species are sacred or irreplaceable is subverted by the moral irrelevance of the criteria for individuating animal species. I am therefore inclined to embrace the heretical conclusion that we have reason to desire the extinction of all carnivorous species, and I await the usual fate of heretics when this article is opened to comment.
His essay is so smart we wouldn't want to throw him to the lions, but I disagree. More on this when I have time.

To Sign or not to Sign

Over yonder (like here) people seem baffled about why Julian Baggini didn't choose to sign a letter to the  Guardian protesting the Pope's being allowed an official state visit to the UK last week, but his explanation strikes me as being clear enough.  He makes his case with an analogy involving Pastor Jones, the infamous would-be Koran burner.  Burning a Koran is  is bound to be interpreted by Muslims as an attack on all of them, instead of as a criticism of specific aspects of Islam.  Though in many ways very different, Baggini alleges that protesting the visit was likely to be seen by Catholics as an attack on all Catholics.  He'd rather make common cause with liberal Catholics who are critical of the Pope's many deplorable policies.

Another point he makes is that a sort of piling on would be involved in signing the letter--the pile being not just the signatories but the whole protest movement that had been growing over time (and came to a head this past weekend).  If a few would be good, how could a lot of voices be a problem?  I take it the idea is that the bigger (and angrier) the group of protestors, the bigger the problem if they're perceived as anti-Catholic instead of anti-Pope. 

So--the nature of the argument is clear, but is it cogent? By all means, when you write a letter or participate in a protest, you want to think about how it will be construed, not just what's literally being said.  If you're trying to send a message, you should carefully consider what message will be received, not just what message you officially intend to send.  But here's what I'm less sure about.   I think Baggini is on solid ground about Koran burning--yes, of course Muslims take it as anti-Muslim, not just anti-facets-of-Islam.  I'm not sure though about anti-Pope protests.   I'd like to know the facts here--are they perceived as anti-Pope or more generally anti-Catholic or even anti-religious?

Maybe Dawkins weekend speech can serve as a good test case.  It's classic Dawkins: eloquent outrage, beautifully delivered.  But what is this--a tirade against the Pope, or an attack on Catholics as a group?  If any Catholics from the UK are reading this, I'd especially like to know how you see it.

9/19/10

Grumble, Grumble

I'm starting to get very grumpy about fiction.

First there was Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese. Admittedly, I bought this by mistake.  I had him mixed up with another Indian writer-surgeon, Atul Gawande, author of a recent New Yorker article I had read and enjoyed. Plus, I was looking for a book set in India (one of the places I like to go when I read fiction), and was sorely disappointed to find myself transported instead to Ethiopia.

So those two things did make me irritable.  But shouldn't the book have been at least readable, considering the stunning reviews?  I say--not readable. The author has an annoying tendency to avoid the center--to tell everything but what the reader actually wants to know. Maybe this is supposed to create suspense, or depth, or poetry, but no--it creates reader fatigue.  Sadly (I hate not finishing books) I had to stop after 100 pages.


Then there was Franzen.  Freedom is advertised as "the great American novel" (so says the New York Times book review), a stunning expose of modern life, a wonderful this, and an incredible that.  I will say the first 100 pages are great--excruciatingly funny, very original--but by page 200, I started to think "run on book."  As in, "run on sentence," but the whole book.  And then by 300, I started having the thought that one should never have while reading fiction:  he's making this up!  Yeah, of course, but that's supposed to be the last thing that occurs to you when you're reading a good novel.

The reason Freedom starts feeling made up is that things come out of the blue. Suddenly we've got themes about birds and mountain tops and the Iraq war, after hundreds of pages of Analyzing Screwed Up People. If you want to make a novel feel truly green, you've got to get your green out early on, not half way through.  Otherwise, nobody's going to be fooled. Jonathan Franzen has real feelings for birds and the Iraq war and overpopulation?  Nope, I don't believe it.

As for all the analyzing--I love hearing about screwed up people. That's fine fodder for fiction. But somehow it becomes too much.  Half way through, I found myself wondering why I needed to know quite so much about the nooks and crannies of these particular people's lives.  It was like sitting around for hours and hours gossiping about the not-actually-that-interesting couple down the street.  I'd happily give that some time, but at some point I'd think-- enough is enough.

Admittedly,  there is intermittent entertainment throughout--in fact there's a scene so funny I literally laughed until I cried.  I've read the book feverishly, off and on. But no, it's not the wonder I was expecting.

Last books I thoroughly enjoyed:  Solar, by Ian McEwen, and Unaccustomed Earth, by Jumpha Lahiri.  Have you read anything fantastic lately?

9/18/10

What the Pope Said

So now we have various people claiming the Pope was misunderstood. Let's have a closer look:
The name of Holyroodhouse, Your Majesty’s official residence in Scotland, recalls the “Holy Cross” and points to the deep Christian roots that are still present in every layer of British life. The monarchs of England and Scotland have been Christians from very early times and include outstanding saints like Edward the Confessor and Margaret of Scotland. As you know, many of them consciously exercised their sovereign duty in the light of the Gospel, and in this way shaped the nation for good at the deepest level. As a result, the Christian message has been an integral part of the language, thought and culture of the peoples of these islands for more than a thousand years. Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike. 

We find many examples of this force for good throughout Britain’s long history. Even in comparatively recent times, due to figures like William Wilberforce and David Livingstone, Britain intervened directly to stop the international slave trade. Inspired by faith, women like Florence Nightingale served the poor and the sick and set new standards in healthcare that were subsequently copied everywhere. John Henry Newman, whose beatification I will celebrate shortly, was one of many British Christians of his age whose goodness, eloquence and action were a credit to their countrymen and women. These, and many people like them, were inspired by a deep faith born and nurtured in these islands. 
If he'd said "Chrisitanity has sometimes been a force for good," no reasonable person would quarrel.  He goes too far, though, making it seem as if Christianity has been the wellspring of other forces for good:   "Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith..."  He seems to say:  religion is the sole or main source of all morality.  That interpretation is confirmed by the rest of the speech.  Why were the Nazis so evil?  They were lacking that thing which is the source of all morality:  religion. 
Even in our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews, who were thought unfit to live. I also recall the regime’s attitude to Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love, opposed the Nazis and paid for that opposition with their lives. As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny.”
The Nazis--the "atheist extremists"--excluded God, so "denied our common humanity to many, especially the Jews."  Who stood up to them? He points to "Christian pastors and religious who spoke the truth in love..."  Message: The source of all morality was missing in Nazis, but present in the pastors and also--we are supposed to see--present in the British in the 1940s.
Sixty-five years ago, Britain played an essential role in forging the post-war international consensus which favoured the establishment of the United Nations and ushered in a hitherto unknown period of peace and prosperity in Europe. 
 [etc etc...more good deeds and potential for further good deeds in the future]
But now Britain is in danger from "aggressive forms of secularism"--
Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate. Let it not obscure the Christian foundation that underpins its freedoms; and may that patrimony, which has always served the nation well, constantly inform the example your Government and people set before the two billion members of the Commonwealth and the great family of English-speaking nations throughout the world.

Religion, after all, is the source of morality, he's already implied.  So it's to be expected he would think "aggressive forms of secularism" are a great danger.  No religion, so no morality, so no standing up to Nazis.

The problem is that the Pope is a living question mark over the alleged morality-religion nexus.  The pedophile priests who were shielded by the church--including the pope himself--were religious men, believers.  What could be more morally debased that using a helpless child for sexual gratification?  The Catholic church did not in fact stand up to the Nazis--not the Vatican, and not Catholics in other countries.  Catholic France was only too happy to deport Jews to the death camps.  And Hitler seems to have been a believer himself (follow the links there), not an "atheist extremist."

For some people, faith really is a source for the good.  That ought to be acknowledged--it would be stingy and untruthful to deny it.  It does not follow that when that source ebbs away, other sources will not take its place.  It can be true that faith helped the British stand up to Germany, but also true that today's more secular Britian would still stand up to another Germany.  To say otherwise really is a terrible insult.

9/16/10

Let's Blame the Holocaust on the Atheists

Simon Rippon explains why this is such offensive rubbish at Practical Ethics News. Here's an excerpt:
The Pope arrived in Britain today, held out his “hand of friendship” and called on all the British people to remember:
Your forefathers’ respect for truth and justice, for mercy and charity come to you from a faith that remains a mighty force for good in your kingdom, to the great benefit of Christians and non-Christians alike.
So far, so respectable [snip]
My problem is with what the Pope then went on to say:
In our own lifetime, we can recall how Britain and her leaders stood against a Nazi tyranny that wished to eradicate God from society and denied our common humanity to many … As we reflect on the sobering lessons of the atheist extremism of the twentieth century, let us never forget how the exclusion of God, religion and virtue from public life leads ultimately to a truncated vision of man and of society and thus to a “reductive vision of the person and his destiny” ...
Today, the United Kingdom strives to be a modern and multicultural society. In this challenging enterprise, may it always maintain its respect for those traditional values and cultural expressions that more aggressive forms of secularism no longer value or even tolerate.
The implicit argument here is very bad, but not only that: it is deeply offensive to atheists. [snip]
The Pope’s smear campaign starts out disastrously by rewriting history in an attempt to link Nazism with atheism. Though the Nazis did not like organized religion interfering in their political machinations, they generally thought of atheism as intertwined with Marxism, and thus opposed it vociferously. (The real regime that “wished to eradicate God from society”, the Soviet Union, lost over 20 million people fighting the Nazis.) Adolf Hitler was a Catholic who expressed his Christian faith and used it to justify his actions in numerous speeches and writings, Christianity was part of the Nazi party platform, and having banned the major atheist organization in 1933, Hitler declared: “We have .. undertaken the fight against the atheistic movement, and that not merely with a few theoretical declarations: we have stamped it out.”

So not only is the Pope wrong to suggest that the Nazis’ crimes stemmed from their atheism, he is wrong to suggest that the Nazis in general were atheists in the first place. They may not have been “Christians” in every sense of the term. But many of them certainly believed in God. [snip]
Does it occur to the Pope that many of the Jews killed in the Holocaust were highly assimilated secularists, and that many of their descendants today are atheists and agnostics?  Clearly he needs to fire his public relations team. And then somebody needs to fire him.

Religious "Truth"

Moving beyond tone...what did Rev. Simpson say to elicit "derisive laughter" from Jerry Coyne?  Here it is, in full--
I believe my faith, and wear my pastor hat comfortably. But I also wear my university professor hat quite easily too, and, far from letting people stay naive, spend enormous amounts of time and energy trying to teach people how to look at religion with methodological sophistication, i.e. to look at it from behind the curtain. Just because it’s a story doesn’t mean it isn’t true, and by true I don’t mean scientifically true, but true within the framework of the community’s understanding of truth, which is a kind of truth that is thousands of years older than scientific truth.
I'm against derisively laughing at someone who comes to your blog and contributes calmly and carefully, but that doesn't mean I'm for this paragraph.  I'm against it, just without the derisive laughter!

"Just because it's a story doesn't mean it isn't true." This reminds me of David Ariel's book "What Do Jews Believe?" In explaining what Jews believe, he continually talks about "the sacred myths of the Jewish people," like the myth of God creating the world, Moses receiving the law from God, the Exodus, and so on.
No matter how literally or metaphorically we choose to interpret them, these sacred myths form the framework for the Jew's ongoing search of personal meaning in his or her own life, the life of the Jewish community, and society as a whole.
I get that.  In fact, I practice that. Last week I went to Temple for Rosh Hashanah.  I enjoyed hearing the myth of the binding of Isaac. It's an interesting thing to talk about once a year, not because it's a lesson for us all (yikes), but because it's so deeply perplexing and thought provoking.  I like the feeling of being connected back in time to previous generations who have thought about that myth as well.  I like being part of the group--both in the present sense and across time.  The music  and liturgy and rituals (all repeated across time) all create a satisfying sense of continuity. It is nice to have days that are extremely different from other days--more contemplative, more focused on "what matters." 

So:  sacred myths, check.  In the next paragraph, Ariel seems to be serious about the word "myth".  A myth is just a myth.
Sacred myths are articulations of our most deeply held beliefs that are not subject to verification for truth or falsehood. While the truth of these myths is valid and sacred for those who hold them, it does not necessarily follow that other people's myths are false or wrong.
But notice how "truth" is starting to creep in, in the second sentence.  He's not satisfied to say that these myths play some central and serious role in the life of Jews (sure, yes), he wants to say Jews believe they're true.  (Would I derisively laugh at this point, if I were discussing this behind closed doors? Only my significant others know for sure.)   Not just plain true, but true "for those who hold them."  This, I think, is a very misleading way of using the word "true."  In fact, Ariel thinks these myths are so far from being really true that the myths of different religions can all be true at once. For example, it's both true that Jesus is not the son of God (since Jews believe that) and true that Jesus is the son of God (since Christians believe that).  We are definitely not really talking about truth here, in the normal robust sense.

Now you could say: no problem. He's up front about that. There's no real confusion.  But in fact there is confusion.
What, then, do Jews believe about God?  We must start with the premise that God is the transcendent reality which exists beyond the limits of our knowledge....The God we worship is the invisible creator of all life....God created the world but He Himself stands above and beyond all living things.
He's talking about what Jews believe, but to believe X is to believe that X is true--really true.  Ariel has already said that these myths are not true in the robust sense that would exclude other contradictory things from being true. So how can he now tell me that, as a Jew, I must believe them?  Going back to Rev. Simpson's paragraph:  just because it's a story does mean it isn't true. And it makes no sense to confess belief in propositions you don't regard as true. 

Is there any harm done by this sloppiness about "truth"?  All these stories do play a very central role in the lives of Jews--not necessarily as "lessons" in any straightforward sense, but as puzzles, traditions, focal points for discussion, etc.  And who cares about a little sloppiness?

One reason to care: When children are being inculcated with religion, even the most liberal-minded teachers throw out all the talk about "sacred myths" and "stories."  These things are presented to children as truths they are supposed to believe, in just the same way they're supposed to believe that Abraham Lincoln was the 16th president.  (I am an eye-witness to this fact.)   So the confusion has repercussions.

Another reason: There are so many occasions when it's important what's really true (is climate change real?) and so many times when we should struggle seriously about what to believe (is genetically engineering a good idea?).  We shouldn't lose our grip on the meaning of words like "true" and "believes."

9/15/10

Ecumenical Atheism

Jerry Coyne isn't mincing words today. A science-friendly minister commented at his blog--at length, respectfully, calmly, intelligently--and said things Coyne considered completely wrong.  Today Coyne writes (in a post to his readers) "The proper response to this kind of argument is derisive laughter."  He goes on to talk about a rabbi who wrote a column at HuffPo. After quoting his first point, he says, "If you can swallow this kind of stuff with laughter instead of nausea, have a look at the rabbi’s three other explanations."

This is the sort of thing people associate with "new atheism," and that's why there's a lot of talk in the blogsphere about "tone."  Here's what occurs to me as a good guideline: atheists should speak about religion with the same tone we want to see when Christians talk about/to Muslims, or Muslims about/to Jews, or Jews about/to Hindus, etc etc.  If a Muslim comes to a Christian blog and talks at length, respectfully, calmly, intelligently, do we want the Christian to respond as Coyne did?  Or turn it around.  Should Muslims speak that way about Christians? That model occurs to me because of all the ugly talk about Muslim these days -- Brian Leiter has choice examples here

What we want between members of different religious groups is, in a word, "tolerance."  Tolerance isn't relativism. It isn't the idea that each person has their own truth. It also isn't anti-realism.  You can be tolerant and think that one religion is true, and the rest false. Now, there are limits. I can laugh at the Westboro Baptist Church and Pastor Jones, the almost-Koran-burner, but that's because I'd be laughing at people who are grossly disrespectful.  These people waive their right to certain (but not all) forms of respect.  Obviously, the minister at Coyne's blog is no Pastor Jones.

Can tolerance really be expected from atheists? You might think No. After all, Christians and Muslims (for example) have things in common. They "believe in belief," as Dennett puts it. They're pro-religion.  They're often said to worship the same God (does that concept even make sense, if there isn't a god?).  So you might think there's more of a basis for mutual respect there. But surely not really. It's a huge, huge thing to disagree about the divinity of Jesus.  It's got to shock Christian sensibilities that Jews and Muslims "just say no."  It's got to shock Muslim sensibilities for the Koran not to be seen as the word of God, by Christians and Jews.  There's plenty of room for sharp disagreement between members of different religions, as history painfully proves.  So surely it's not true that atheists disagree with all religious people just too much for mutual respect to be a possibility.

So here's my suggestion to atheists: speak to the religious as you would have Christians speak to Jews, Jews to Muslims, etc.  Making it sound more Kantian than Golden Rule-ish:  conduct yourself in a way you could universalize.  In other words:  follow the policy, where tone is concerned, that you'd want everyone else to follow.  How 'bout it?

9/14/10

Have a Book with that Cupcake

Apparently vegan cupcakes can be really, really good.  The New York Times features recipes from Chloe Coscarelli, who contributes to VegNews magazine. Speaking of which, the current issue has a nice review of my book--as well as Second Nature by Jonathan Balcombe and Being with Animals by Barbara King--and they don't even call me a donkey!

first ...
further down...

9/13/10

In Which I am Compared to a Donkey

So, another review of Animalkind has come over the transom, this one from Martin Cohen. I like the first nine words a lot...
Jean Kazez has written a great little book here
and not so much the next seven:
but it is full of bad arguments. (To borrow a phrase from Walter 'Waldo Gazza' Runciman.)
The review briefly gets nicer--
It starts promisingly enough. Kazez has a superb, easy style, and is in full command of the material, at least in terms of the facts. She sweeps up the existing literature on animal exploitation, from UN reports to Peter Singer's polemic against meat-eating, such as Animal Liberation .... Suffice to say she has clearly read a lot on the topic - and she is a natural communicator (just as Singer, in his rather acerbic way, is).
And then gets more weird.
Kazez ... plods obediently, like a donkey perhaps one might say, through as many possible positions on animal rights as she can think of before coming up with a limp kind of utilitarianism.
I actually think I cover the possible positions rather sparingly. A limp kind of utilitarianism? Really, not a utilitarian position at all.

So what are these bad arguments I've supposedly made? Cohen writes--
Above all, we return to the question, is it okay if I eat meat? Yes, if it is important to you and you don't care about the consequences on the world's rainforests/or about climate change. Actually that's one of the book's 'bad arguments'. Kazez says that meat-eating involves deforestation, which it does, and that deforestation causes 'climate change' which it also must, at least locally. But climate is much more complicated than that. In much of the temperate zones, meat can be pastured without any such concerns, and indeed chopping forests there is said to have a cooling effect on the regions. And in the tropics when rainforest is being cleared, much of it is cleared for soya beans - the diet of choice of course for vegetarian authors.
What?  Here's what I write on p. 134--
In the best case scenario, environmentally speaking, animals are pastured on natural grazing land from start to finish and then locally killed. That's the situation in New Zealand, where lamb is locally grown and slaughtered. There's little or no environmental cost to eating meat, over eating plant food, because local arable land is scarce. To replace meat with vegetables would mean flying in supplies from Australia or further away.

So no, I don't link all meat-eating to deforestation and climate-change.

Another misrepresentation--
Kazez however, does not even aspire to persuade the world to stop eating meat, instead opting for the 'low hanging' fruit by arguing for 'pain reduction', quoting approvingly the efforts of Temple Grandin, author of Animals in Translation, to redesign slaughter houses to reduce the anxiety of the animals being slaughtered there. I'm sure this is a good idea, but then, who exactly opposes it?
"Persuade the world."  That's a tall order, but on pp. 128-131 I do reject Singer's "replacement argument," which says that painlessly killing animals (if you breed replacements) is permissible. On pg. 178 I'm clear that we ought to stop eating meat and other animal products, though admittedly I also say (because it's true) "it's unrealistic to expect every conscientious person to succeed in an immediate and total makeover. For most people, being good is a work in progress, never to be completed."  As to who opposes Temple Grandin's efforts, the answer is: Gary Francione and his followers.

Another error is here--
Another debate which Kazez airs and in my view emerges triumphant, is the issue of whether animals are really just machines driven by automated responses (instinct) or rational 'problem-solving' animals, like wot we're supposed to be. But just as I'm about to be convinced, along comes a lousy argument. Kazez offers the variety of designs of birds' nests, and beaver dams as evidence that animals really are thinking about what they are doing.
No, it's not the "design" of the nest or the dam that's so suggestive, as Cohen imagines.  As I explain (p. 61), what suggests a non-instinctive cognitive process is the way the animals deal with damage to their nests and dams. As I say there, I'm drawing on the very careful and rigorous book Animal Architects, by biologists James and Carol Gould.  I don't think their research can be quickly dismissed.

Yet another mistake--
Many defenders of animal rights, such as Singer, accuse humans of speciesism, that is judging animals prejudicially because they belong to the 'wrong species', but another curious twist in the tale here, is that Kazez thinks the problem is anthropomorphism - respecting animals that are like us more than animals that are very different - like birds.
"If we're biased in placing ourselves on a higher rung than other animals it's a bias we can't avoid", she writes, "but there's a related bias that we can and should void. That's the bias that say there's something special about other animals the more they are genetically and evolutionarily close to us."
There, in a bold sweep, Kazez undoes most of the 'consciousness-raising' efforts of animal welfare groups, on behalf of apes, monkeys and so on, not to mention all our fellow mammals, in favour of a more egalitarian concern for insects, birds, fish and yes, poor old laboratory mice. "The sheer fact that a mouse is a conscious entity, unlike a wind-up, toy mouse, is impressive", she thinks. I like mice too, but to rise their rights up to those of bonobos or chimpanzees seems to be a step backwards.
I'm afraid Cohen just didn't understand the passage. My book is singular in that I reject egalitarian concern.  I have what I call a "sliding scale view" of life value. In the quoted passage I'm merely saying that the sliding scale doesn't mirror genetic or evolutionary proximity. For example, Irene Pepperberg's African gray parrots may occupy the same rung as the great apes on a ladder representing life value. I'm not (remotely) saying that mice have the same moral status as the great apes.

I'm hoping to see a more careful and responsive review of my book one of these days, though I do appreciate Cohen's flattering remarks about my writing style.

The Meat Dress


Lady Gaga at the Video Music Awards last night. No, it's not real meat!  Wait a second, it IS real meat. 

9/11/10

No Korans Burned Today


I got up this morning and the headline in the paper was NO KORANS BURNED TODAY.  Well, close anyway.  Some people think it's terrible, terrible for it to be trickier to set a Koran on fire than a US flag, or a the bible, or Mad Magazine, or Pride and Prejudice.  That puts the Koran on a pedestal, and that ain't fair.

But no, I don't think the Koran is on any pedestal today.  Mr. Crazy Florida Pastor didn't suddenly start revering the book, or even start feeling deferential to Muslim sensibilities.  He just realized that riots and deaths (maybe his own) were on the horizon. It was a simple matter of prudence.  That's the most uncontroversial of reasons to cancel an icon-desecration:  just to avoid death and destruction.

Calling off a book burning out of mandatory reverence would be silly--nobody has to revere other people's icons.  But what about deference to other people's sensibilities? "Hell no, we won't defer!"  Never? Not at all? Not even a little bit?  Say it was the world's oldest copy of Pride and Prejudice that someone planned on setting on fire. Should the weeping of the Austen-lovers really be ignored?

That seems mean-spirited and anti-social. I'd go the Aristotelian route--we ought to defer neither too much, nor too little, but in the right way, at the right time, for the right purpose.

Are Philosophers Ugly?

I very much doubt that philosophers suffer from cranial deformities more often than everyone else, but you'd think so, judging from Steve Pyke's photo album.  Among the few who look normal is David Chalmers, but that's thanks to his face being covered by a great deal of hair.

Feminist Philosophers calls attention to the personal statement under Slavoj Zizek's picture (mild cranial deformity, generous hair coverage)--

The bit about women reminds me of the days when men used to exclaim quite the opposite-- 'I love women!"  I never understood what it meant.  They love all women?  Even the cashier at the 7-11?   "Women are impossible" ...."I love women"... I think this sort of thing is supposed to make us think the speaker is manly and passionate.  Zzzz.

But it's the bit about writing that really struck me. I always thought I might have something in common with Zizek, because his name is just about mine spelled backwards, but I can't relate.  I like to be gripped by a philosophical problem, and would rather be in the middle of writing a book than be done.

9/7/10

Religion, Mystery, Meaning

Tim Crane's essay at The Stone on Sunday starts well enough.   Believing in God is nothing like believing in a scientific theory--there isn't the careful theory construction and amassing of evidence that science involves.  He goes on to say that religious belief is nevertheless belief in facts--Christians believe that Jesus rose from the dead in reality, not in some figurative sense.  (And Jews believe God really chose them, etc. etc.)

Part of Crane's argument that religion isn't science seems to be that religious people don't worry about the gap between what religion leads them to expect and what actually happens.  When there's a gap, the "religions mind" says "it's a mystery."
Taken as hypotheses, religious claims do very badly: they are ad hoc, they are arbitrary, they rarely make predictions and when they do they almost never come true. Yet the striking fact is that it does not worry Christians when this happens. In the gospels Jesus predicts the end of the world and the coming of the kingdom of God. It does not worry believers that Jesus was wrong (even if it causes theologians to reinterpret what is meant by ‘the kingdom of God’). If Jesus was framing something like a scientific hypothesis, then it should worry them. Critics of religion might say that this just shows the manifest irrationality of religion. But what it suggests to me is that that something else is going on, other than hypothesis formation.

Religious belief tolerates a high degree of mystery and ignorance in its understanding of the world. When the devout pray, and their prayers are not answered, they do not take this as evidence which has to be weighed alongside all the other evidence that prayer is effective. They feel no obligation whatsoever to weigh the evidence. If God does not answer their prayers, well, there must be some explanation of this, even though we may never know it. Why do people suffer if an omnipotent God loves them? Many complex answers have been offered, but in the end they come down to this: it’s a mystery.
Two problems here.  I don't think it's really essential to "the religious mind" to be unbothered by "the religion/reality gap."  Here's Elie Wiesel writing about "the gap" in Night:
Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, that turned my life into one long night seven times sealed.

Never shall I forget that smoke.

Never shall I forget the small faces of the children whose bodies I saw transformed into smoke under a silent sky.

Never shall I forget those flames that consumed my faith forever.

Never shall I forget the nocturnal silence that deprived me for all eternity of the desire to live.

Never shall I forget those moments that murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to ashes.

Never shall I forget those things, even were I condemned to live as long as God Himself.

Never.
"Murdered my God"--that's not "it's a mystery," is it?

I suspect the early Christians were surprised to find the end was not as nigh as Jesus had said--and they struggled with it, some redefining the tenets of the faith and some probably leaving it altogether. Throughout history there have been believers who were troubled or even tormented by the failure of the world to conform to religiously formed expectations. They kept believing or they didn't, but there was no complacent acceptance that "it's a mystery."

The concern for religious expectation to match what really happens makes sense if religion is simply in the business of stating facts; that isn't the mark of science, and only science. You're not "doing science" when you form the belief that your husband is faithful, but you're likely to be sensitive to any gap that might develop between the theory and later evidence. You're not doing science when you sit on a jury, and yet you do try to figure out if the prosecution's theory is correct; or when you read the newspaper you're not doing science, but you do try to evaluate whether the evidence supports the government's claims about the economy, the pretext for war, or whatnot.

Since religious belief is "factual" in nature, it's to be expected that religious people do care about the religion-reality match or lack of match. What's puzzling is that they don't always--yes, there are certainly some believers who fall back comfortably on their own ignorance or God's mysterious ways. I suspect that's because of something else Crane talks about--the meaning-making function of religion. It's not easy to jettison a set of ideas that so powerfully unites people in an all-encompassing view about reality, morality, mortality, life's purpose, etc.

Photo: Giovanni Sacca

9/5/10

Lucy

Here's a novel you might enjoy if you're interested in ethics "across the species divide."  Lucy is half human, half bonobo--the creation of Stone, a primatologist living in Congo who's killed by soldiers as the story begins.  He created her to protect bonobo genes from extinction (interesting idea: it's genes that matter, not the organisms that have them).  Plus, he was hoping to improve the human genome (another interesting idea: humans don't need to become brighter and stronger and closer to immortal, just nicer).

Anyhow, another primatologist saves the girl, takes her back to America, and we find out how humans react to someone who has all the best characteristics of both humans and bonobos, but can't claim to be completely human. We also get to do a lot of thinking about the label--why is "human" an automatic honorific?  Why is "animal," in the sense of "not-human," an automatic dishonorific?  Why can't we take individuals one at a time, just as they are?  (The philosopher James Rachels--sadly deceased--would have loved this novel; the "moral" of the story is precisely his own view on animals and ethics, a view he calls "moral individualism.")

Some readers will quibble about Lucy's mix of human and bonobo traits.  She's the girl who has it all--all the best human traits and all the best bonobo traits.  She looks almost completely human (never fear, she's not hirsute) and isn't  language-challenged or promiscuous, but she does eat her bananas whole.  It's not realistic, but this premise allows Gonzales to explore how we react to species itself, regardless of species-related characteristics.  We would discriminate against a Lucy based on sheer species, he speculates, just like in real life people discriminate based on sheer race, sheer gender, and so on.

This is a genuine novel--a very straightforward, un-"literary" one--not a fictionalized philosophical argument.  You could read it at the beach, but then again, you could have good classroom discussion about the issues it raises. There's the issue about species (should we care about it?) but another nice, thorny question runs through the book, one about creating life.  What if Stone had known just how Lucy's life was going to turn out? Would it have been wrong for him to create her?  Why? Why not?

I'm about 2/3 done, so if you comment, NO SPOILERS PLEASE!

9/2/10

Killing for Fun

So I have a book about hunting in my hands, courtesy of a publisher, and I'm trying to decide whether to blog about it.  It's a philosophical examination of hunting, but it's written for hunters, and largely by hunters.  So there is a great deal of jocularity about the whole business. The presupposition of most of the articles seems to be "we are all hunters here."   There's a lot of good ol' boys and girls clowning around. That's (to put it mildly) off-putting.

I am not an ignoramus about hunting.  I regularly have hunters in my Animal Rights class, and I give them plenty of opportunity to explain hunting and defend it.  My class has heard from several students whose parents own and operate Texas hunting ranches. I've heard blow-by-blow accounts of how canned hunting works.  Another student showed the class a video about Safari hunting in Africa, complete with a scene of hunters blowing a crocodile's head off (and saying "cool!")  We've heard from environmentally responsible duck hunters and people who hunt with bows and arrows in Colorado. One semester we heard from a guy who shoots squirrels with BB guns just for the hell of it.  He also explained how much fun it is to sit on the back of a truck and take shots at armadillos. 

I can concede a lot:  as far as harm to animals goes, a lot of hunting is no worse than factory farming, and in fact much better.  There is also an honesty to hunting that appeals to me.  While most people don't want to think about the killing behind the cellophane, the hunter directly confronts it.  It's also true that all hunting is not alike, and some hunters think carefully about how they hunt.  In the end, though, I just can't get past one critical thing:  hunters kill for fun.

It takes a little care to say how and when killing can be coupled with fun.  Rewind 500 years. You're a native American hunter just trying to provide protein, clothing, and building materials, for yourself and your tribe.  While hunting, may you enjoy yourself?  Of course.  And I can perfectly understand how that might be.  But if you did enjoy yourself, you still wouldn't be killing for fun.  

I suspect today's most conscientious hunters would like nothing more than to be that native American subsistence hunter.  I suspect they play-act themselves into that role, pretending that they're hunting for necessities, not for fun. But how can that really be true, if they obtain meat from the grocery store 99% of the time, and their hunting fills leisure time just like hiking, climbing, and going to art museums do for other people?

The native American hunter was hunting in order to acquire necessities --with fun as an expected byproduct; but the recreational hunter is hunting in order to acquire fun--with necessities as an expected byproduct.  (Let's assume meat is a necessity, just for the sake of argument.)  It's a subtle difference, but a big difference.  Imagine a surgeon who enjoys her work.  She goes to work anticipating having fun in the operating room.  If she cuts people open in order to have fun, that's troubling.  If she cuts people open in order to help them, and only expects to have fun, that's completely different.

Killing for fun seems bizarre and unwholesome, so hunters tend to wax poetic.  Substitute whatever words you like, there's still the same problem.  If hunters are trying to acquire super-profound personal gratification--a sense of oneness with nature, whatever--it still seems obvious one shouldn't kill for personal gratification.

The tricky question is: does it matter?  If the surgeon does cut to have fun, should we worry about her? Censure her? Stop her? Call her behavior wrong, as opposed to just questioning her motives?  The same questions arise about the hunter:  if hunters harm animals less than average meat eaters, should we be less concerned about them, morally? Or is their killing for fun a reason for concern? What kind of concern?  Should we charge them with moral errors, or just be repulsed?

This is the set of questions I'd like to see explored in the hunting book. And explored forthrightly.  We'll...see.