My Bookshelf

Just finished... The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore, by Benjamin Hale.  Ape makes journey from animality to humanity.  So funny, so incredibly good. This novel has many of the things I particularly like in fiction.  A distinctive, compelling voice (cf. Holden Caufield).  Suspension of disbelief (cf. Kazuo Ishuguro, Never Let Me Go).   Lots of philosophical content, without any didactic tone  (cf. Joshua Ferris -  Then We Came to the End).  Animal characters that actually work, which is rare (cf. Paul Auster, Timbuktu).  I'm writing my next TPM column about the book, so a complete review is in the works.

Just started... How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell.  Can you tell a book by its cover?  Apparently not, because I think this book has a remarkably awful cover, yet the first couple of chapters are a delight.  By the end I expect to know how to live.

Next up... Motherhood: The Birth of Wisdom ed. by Sheila Lintott. This is from Wiley-Blackwell's Philosophy for Everyone series. The chapter titles really grab me--"How many Experts Does it Take to Raise a Child?  Mothering and the Quest for Certainty."  Indeed. I've often wondered whether mothers (and fathers) should trust their instincts, and what they should think when the experts say 10 different things.  "Pro-Choice Philosopher Has Baby: Reflections on Fetal Life."  Hey, me too! Following fetal development up close and personal does make you think.  "A Face Only a Mother Could Love?  On Maternal Assessments of Infant Beauty" Ha!  Everyone else does seem biased.  Me on the other hand...I happen to have the world's best looking kids.  "Natural Childbirth is for the Birds."  Hope the essay says exactly that, because (frankly) that's my view.  Full report coming when I'm done.


Should We Care Whether Others Believe in God?

Here's Ronald Lindsay, president of the Center for Inquiry, arguing that the organization shouldn't include the spread of atheism as one of its goals. The presumption (he seems to say) is that we shouldn't work to eradicate other people's false beliefs. 
Why should we care whether others believe in a god or other supernatural beings? Because these beliefs are false? Yes, they are false, but most people, including humanists, have a large number of false beliefs. Mistaken beliefs do not typically trigger passionate, prolonged efforts to persuade the person holding the erroneous belief that s/he is incorrect. Think of all the false beliefs each of us has about history, physics, biology, and whether our hair is thinning.
To make "passionate, prolonged efforts to persuade" we'd have to think holding the false belief is harmful.
So if we are concerned about false beliefs that the religious have about the supernatural, presumably it must be because of the significant harmful consequences that follow from holding such mistaken beliefs.
The harm ought to be either very serious, or other-regarding:
With respect to self-regarding harmful behavior, I do not see this as sufficient justification for intervention, except perhaps in the case of imminent serious harm, for example, a person who is about to commit suicide because s/he believes it is the only way to meet God. Sure, religion produces false hopes and wastes a person’s time, but so do other mistaken beliefs. If the only harmful consequences from religious belief were those affecting the believer, it would constitute unjustified paternalism to devote significant time and effort to persuade the religious to give up their beliefs. Atheists are not in the business of saving souls.
Even when religious beliefs cause harm to others, he's reluctant to interfere with the beliefs themselves--
It is not so much religious belief in and of itself that is of concern to us, but the mindset of all too many of the religious that their doctrines should be reflected in the laws and regulations that govern us all, and, furthermore that they need not provide any justification for their support for a particular public policy other than “God says so.” If we are to have a truly democratic society, we need most of the people to break free of this mindset.
For some, that may mean they must first stop believing in the supernatural, because their religion so pervades their thinking and their life that they cannot conceive of reasoning about ethics and policy matters in secular terms until they stop believing in spirits. Of course, these are precisely the religious individuals who are the most difficult to reason with, so the odds of persuading them that their religious beliefs are unfounded are low—but the probability is not zero.
So--a little bit of "passionate, prolonged persuading" can be justified, but where it's justified, it's least likely to be successful.


The whole question of how much we should care about others' false beliefs is perplexing and tricky.  The kind of caring that's normal and allowed is not dramatically different from the kind that's paternalistic and unjustified.

Normal and allowed. Caring what other people believe is part and parcel of simply speaking.  Every time you open up your mouth and utter a (declarative) sentence, your underlying goal is to alter the mind of the person you're talking to.  That's what speech is for--it's the way we get into the heads of other people and try to make their beliefs more like our own. Listening is letting other people into your head, and letting them make a difference to what you believe.

Everyday conversation and debate inevitably involves "passionate and prolonged" attempts to get other people to believe what we believe.  I recently spent hours trying to get someone to stop thinking plants have feelings.  The whole interaction couldn't have made sense if I hadn't cared what she thought.  And surely it did make sense--conversation and debate are good things.  

I could go even further without going awry.  I could write a book about how plants don't have feelings, attempting to stamp out this ever more popular delusion.  (The Plants-Have-Feelings Delusion, anyone?)  I wouldn't need an elaborate defense for writing such a book.

Paternalistic and unjustified. So when does caring about other people's false beliefs become problematic?  Perhaps the issue has to do with intentions. If I am just trying to make my own beliefs prevail, I'm on solid ground.  If I'm trying to prevent people from causing harm, I'm also on solid ground.  But when I try to alter beliefs in order to improve the lives of the people who have them, that's when my intentions become potentially problematic.  With some important exceptions, I shouldn't be trying to improve the life of someone who doesn't see her life as needing to be improved. That's disrespectful in some fundamental way.

So the issue is what we care about. It's fine to aim at changing other people's minds, and fine to care about spreading true beliefs.  It's not fine to think you know what's good for  people who have their own ideas about what's good for them.  Persuasion with the aim of making people better off is (often) problematic, but persuasion just to prevail in an intellectual battle is (almost always) fine.  (There's something odd about that!)


One could argue that the Center for Inquiry could work to spread atheism in a non-paternalistic fashion--not to help anyone, but just because it's true.  Wouldn't that be possible?  Surely I could form The Plato Society, and try to spread Plato's ideas, without any paternalistic intentions.  Couldn't CfI do the same sort of thing? Part of the problem is with inevitable associations.  Evangelizing about religion is a familiar thing, and it's almost always paternalistic.  It would be hard for anyone to take it seriously that atheist evangelizing had some completely different basis.


A Few Good Links

In the NYT science section yesterday, John Tierney had a good article about X-Phi and free will.  Shaun Nichols and Joshua Knobe studied what happens when people start to question whether there's free will.   They cheat more and don't work as hard.  Ouch. 

More X-Phi:  this is a very interesting study on whether the intuitions of ethicists are particularly firm and stable, compared to everyone else's.  Bad news:  they aren't.

Scott Atran on The Moral Landscape.  Very long...looks interesting.


Straw Woman

Jerry Coyne in a recent post:
I love it that Ruse, like Jeremy Stangroom and Jean Kazez, characterizes our philosophical naivité and so-called stridency as “immoral.”  Do these philosophers even know what “immorality” is?
I have never linked philosophical naivete with immorality.  Not once. I've never linked stridency with immorality either. 

I did say this and this;  but the issue there was over-the-top personal hostility, character assassination, cyber-bullying.  Should we use the word "immoral" for such things?  Why (on earth) not?


Beauty and Effort

Spring break....and I find myself in central Texas, trying to convince my family members of a certain theory I have about beauty.  Or at least, that I've learned to have, as a result of living in Texas. The theory is that austere landscapes are actually appealing.  No, I didn't say "ugly" or "drab".  They're appealing because the mind has to actively work to make them appealing.  You see--it's easy to see beauty in a perfectly balanced Hawaiian beach scape.  Yeah yeah, white sand, aquamarine water, mountains in the background, lush green trees framing the beach.  Of course that's pretty.  But seeing the beauty in stark, arid, nuthin-much-there Texas--that takes effort.  So it's more satisfying. "Oh come on... " No really, I mean it!

The joy of effort is understood by movie makers who make movies frantically paced and hard to follow.  That's the point--to force the viewer into a pleasingly active state of mind. Ditto: logo makers.  Have you noticed that the "Starbucks" is gone from the Starbucks logo?  Now you and I can experience the pleasure of making just a tiny bit more effort to recognize the logo.

Alright, I won't multiply examples beyond necessity.  I've got a drab landscape to go out and --with a little effort--enjoy.


On Our Minds

Free Will at the Movies

All sorts of little things alter our trajectories through life.  There's an accident blocking the main road, so you get to Starbucks 10 minutes later, so you don't run into your old girlfriend, so you don't get back together, so you don't get to know her famous lawyer dad, so you don't meet his lawyer pals, so ...

So what?  In "The Adjustment Bureau," we are offered a very interesting "what if?"  What if some of those little incidents aren't actually accidental, but deliberate adjustments designed to keep our lives going "according to plan"?   Many people we see (clue: they're wearing hats) are actually the bureau's agents--angels in the biblical, not the winged cherub, sense, who carry out the plans of The Chairman.

It wasn't always that way.  Humans screwed up badly in the first half of the 20th century, so we've been put on a short leash.  There's a Book of Life in every angel's hands, tightly prescribing who does what, who marries whom, etc.  But--and this is the fun part--the plans are implemented mostly without getting into people's heads.  The angels manage to keep us on course mostly by tinkering with seemingly trivial external events.

Of course, there's got to be a romance. Our hero, played by Matt Damon, is not supposed to get together with a delightfully zany woman he meets, by sheer accident, in the men's room.  His book of life allows the chance encounter, but no further interaction.  The problem is, his guardian angel falls down on the job, calling him a little too late, so he doesn't spill his coffee and doesn't miss his bus.  He meets the woman again, which necessitates an intervention by a whole team from the Bureau.  Now it's man against angel... 

OK, go see the movie. It's a lot of fun.  The movie's background  theory about free will is intriguing. The theory is that, absent any adjustments, we are free (the issue of causal determinism never rears its head).  When our lives are forced into conformity with The Chairman's plans, we are not free.  Adjustments compromise free will and accidents don't.

Here's what's a little ticklish about that:  whether missing the bus is an adjustment or an accident, it looks and feels all the same.  This is a difference that doesn't penetrate the mind/brain.  You'd think that having or lacking free will would be "in here"--inside our heads.  But no, a free Matt Damon is exactly like an unfree Matt Damon.  The difference is "out there," a question of the way his environment works. 

You might be tempted to consider an alternative view:  both adjustments and accidents compromise free will.  Now we don't have to say that Matt Damons who are just alike inside could be free and unfree.  They're all the same--unfree.

Alternatively, you could say that adjustments don't compromise free will and accidents don't compromise free will either. That has some appeal.  Just because an angel makes Matt Damon miss his bus, foreclosing a certain future, doesn't mean he can't still make choices.  He can choose to go to work or go to the movies; to run for the senate or not run for the senate.

In fact, I like the movie's view.  It really does seem like the agent-generated adjustments are special.  The notion that you have free will is essentially the idea that you are the author of your own life--you're running the show, in some important sense.  If your life actually has a second author, operating continually behind the scenes, that does diminish your role.  A whole bunch of accidents would give you a different set of materials to work with, but leave your authorship intact.  At least--usually.  Yes, a really bad series of accidents can narrow your options so much that you are left less free. But on the whole, there is a difference between planned adjustments and unplanned accidents.

I trust there are no angels, there's no Chairman, and there are no Books of Life, but we each have the power to make adjustments for other people.  Parents can have long-term plans for their children, and can alter little events along the way, if they seem to be getting off course.  Too much adjusting does seem freedom-reducing, in a way that life's naturally occurring accidents are not. So there's a bit of a real world moral of the story, for those who want one.


Free Will Plus Angels

Come back Saturday to talk about "The Adjustment Bureau," a fun, interesting movie about free will, angels, predestination, and such.  In the meantime, ponder the Google ngram for "angels" (provided by commenter BH last week).  This blog is definitely in line with the trend.



Singer plus Commentary

The website "On the Human" has an excerpt on killing animals from the new third edition of Peter Singer's book Practical Ethics, with commentary from Jan Narveson, Mark Bernstein, Lori Gruen, R. G. Frey and others.  Good reading.


The Angels Have It

My angel/slug poll was not take by vast numbers of people, but still there's a trend.  The lexical view wins.  All the angels before any of the slugs--but do ( ye gods) create some slugs. They have some value.

The Till-Kill Argument

Yesterday my animal rights class discussed the "Till-Kill Argument"--an argument due to animal scientist Steven Davis (made famous when Michael Pollan appealed to it in this NYT article).  The argument is that if we want to do the least harm to animals, we're better off with a "veg & beef" diet than a vegan diet.  Here's his math:


What Not to Say

Here's a funny phenomenon.  There are times when all parties to a conversation know that P is true, and also know that all the others know, but saying that P is still prohibited.  Everyone can know that someone's a racist, but it can be incendiary to say it. It can be mutually understood that someone's lying, but saying it can be more inflammatory then the fact itself.

Why do I bring this up?  Because I committed one of these speech crimes recently. I said that the very broad public (as in, the proverbial man/woman in the street) cannot grasp the most advanced ideas in  philosophy. You actually need to do some heavy duty reading, or maybe take some philosophy courses, or maybe even go to graduate school, to understand those ideas. As a matter of fact, my colleagues and I sometimes confess to finding the books of other philosophers difficult. We will outright say we can't follow x, y, or z. Of course.  In any discipline, there are many levels of difficulty, and for any given audience, some stuff is attainable, and some not.

Once people are offended, they like to fan up their own offense by pretending what you said is as offensive as possible.  (This is a strange truth about human psychology.)  So my saying some philosophy is too hard for the public square (folks, it's true) got transformed -- mostly at other blogs -- into the assertion that academics should stay in their ivory towers.  Never mind that I couldn't possibly have said that, considering that I've written two philosophy books for a "not just professionals" audience.  It was "Off with her head, immediately!"

Well, if it must be, it must be. I humbly submit to the will of the people.

X-Phi and Moral Relativism

Massimo Pigliucci talks about Joshua Knobe talking about X-phi and moral relativism in The Philosophers' Magazine.


Animal Stuff

For your interest...

Here's a page of "Top 45 Animal Advocacy Blogs."

I'm reading Simon Fairlie's book Meat: A Benign Extravagance....a very, very detailed book about the environmental ethics of meat.  Rhys Southan has a long review.  What I have learned from Fairlie so far:  it's amazing how a cow takes grass, which we can't eat, and turns it into something we can (apart from moral scruples) eat.  Well, it is amazing.

Not sure if I already put a link to Glass Walls here--PETA's latest meat video. I think it's excellent, even if not utterly perfect. But what's perfect?  A student of mine said everyone should see it. She's right--so here it is. Pass it on.