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.