[this is cross-posted at Prosblogion] Richard Dawkins has argued several times (e.g., here) that bringing up your child religiously is a form of child abuse. I think his argument that religious upbringing in general is child abuse has little merit (after all, Dawkins himself is the product of a traditional Anglican upbringing and calls himself - rather proudly - a cultural Anglican, hardly the victim of child abuse). However, his claim in the linked article is that parents who attempt to instill things like Young Earth Creationism (henceforth YEC) in their children are doing something wrong, or are somehow overstepping their role as parents. This question, I believe, is worthy of further attention.
What was supposed to be a two-page introduction ballooned into the first twenty pages. For the final version we'll have to take most of that out, but it was worth working through, and I think worth reading for anyone interested in the hoopla surrounding speculative realism, object-oriented ontology, and the recent explosion of continental metaphysics generally.
The general upshot of the paper is also nice; building on work by me and Mark Silcox, Ohm and I further develop an account of what the actual truth of fictional texts amounts to. The key insight is that narrative texts are thought experiments in the same manner as natural science thought experiments. On our account the only difference between physics and fiction is that the discursive norms surrounding the texts treat the form-content distinction in characteristically different ways. Fun stuff.
I've been recently reading some work by theistic philosophers and theologians who accept evolutionary theory. They seek to interpret scripture in such a way that it is compatible with the evolution of humans and other animals. One promising recent strategy is to read Genesis 1-3 through the theology of Irenaeus rather than through Augustine, trading one patristic author for another. Here, I want to examine whether this is a reasonable strategy for the empirically-informed theist.
These reflections are inspired by my reading of Howard Wettstein's book "The significance of religious experience" (OUP), Gutting's piece in the Stone on agnosticism, and a recent BBC report on an atheist church in London.
I am deeply intrigued by atheist religious practice. An atheist church in North London has opened last month. It proves to be very popular; as a matter of fact, vastly outstripping the neighboring Anglican evangelical church in congregation size. The ca. 300 members of this church congregate to sing secular songs, celebrate life and the natural world, have readings from secular texts, like Alice in Wonderland, and have secular sermons, on topics like "life is all too brief and nothing comes after it." The atheist church fits in a broader tendency of atheists to incorporate aspects of religious practice, including Alain de Botton's temples for atheists. Is there any point for an atheist who is attracted to religious practice to attend atheist ceremonies, structured in ways similar to traditional religions?
Evolutionary naturalism provides an account of our capacities that undermines their reliability, and in doing so undermines itself...I agree with Alvin Plantinga that...the application of evolutionary theory to the understanding of our own cognitive capacities should undermine, though it need not completely destroy, our confidence in them. Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole. I think the evolutionary hypothesis would imply that though our cognitive capacities could be reliable, we do not have the kind of reason to rely on them that we ordinarily take ourselves to have using in them directly--as we do in science. Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos, 27-28 (emphasis in original)
A non-trivial (albeit not the most fundamental) feature of Nagel's book (recall my here, here, here; see Feser's response to me and also Mohan's posts: here, here, here and here) is his reliance on Plantinga's so-called evolutionary argument against naturalism (hereafter EAAN; see also pp. 74-78). Let's leave aside the fact that Nagel pretends in his book that this (evolving) EAAN argument has not been subject to significant criticism. (It must be convenient to think that one is obliged to engage only with one's referee [Sober, although even his criticism of EAAN is ignored], one's colleague [Street], one's cheerleader [Plantinga], and one's deus ex machina [Hawthorne & Nolan].) Here I explore a response to this style of argument that is overlooked by Nagel and, I think, not explored in the literature (but would love to learn otherwise--it's not my field). So, let's grant -- for the sake of argument -- the claim that "Mechanisms of belief formation that have selective advantage in the
everyday struggle for existence do not warrant our confidence in the
construction of theoretical accounts of the world as a whole." What follows from this?
My quick and dirty answer is: nothing. For the crucial parts of science really do not rely on such mechanisms of belief formation. Much of scientific reason is or can be performed by machines; as I have argued before, ordinary cognition, perception, and locution does not really matter epistemically in the sciences.
There is a recent interesting Prosblogion blogpost on the question of whether theodicy can ever be successful, and if so what success conditions a theodicy must meet. I want consider a related, yet distinct question: can theodicies be convincing in the light of specific instances of evil, and the immediate sense this provokes: "God, if he exists, would not have allowed this"? In the wake of the tragic shooting incident at Newtown, I have been thinking a lot about the problem of evil and classical theodicies and defenses, such as John Hick's soul building theodicy and various forms of free will theodicies/defenses (e.g., Plantinga's; Augustine's).
One way to approach the problem of evil is to look at it as an abstract puzzle to be solved. Wielding modal logic and other tools that analytic philosophy offers, we can argue that evil is unavoidable even for a loving, powerful and omniscient God, if he wishes specific goods like free will to obtain. A different option is to focus on concrete, vivid examples. William Rowe presented the case of a fawn, trapped in a forest fire that was caused by lightning, the fawn suffers horrible burns, and lies in dreadful agony for days until its death. A pointless instance of suffering that, Rowe argues, God could have prevented.
Now for cases like Newtown we could invoke the free will defense, since - unlike the forest fire in Rowe's example - the incident was caused by a human agent, exercising his free will, and it was made possible by other instances of free will, such as American policies on gun ownership. But it still seems to me quite a different thing to argue in the face of particular, vivid instances like this that suffering is outweighed by the greater good of the unbridled exercise of free will by moral agents. When confronted with concrete evil like this, theodicy, or indeed any theistic response to the problem of evil, becomes a formidable task indeed.
For the Aristotelian-Scholastic philosopher, then, modern metaphysics, epistemology, philosophy of religion, etc. are in the same shape that Alasdair MacIntyre famously argued modern ethics is in. In the former cases no less than the latter, crucial philosophical notions have been ripped from the intellectual contexts that gave them their intelligibility and have become distorted as a result, and the range of theoretical options visible to the modern philosopher has shrunk drastically. Nagel’s proposals are bound to seem odd and ill-motivated, not only because they are inchoate, but because fully to work out their implications would require a far more extensive rethinking of current orthodoxy than Nagel himself probably realizes. (That is no doubt one reason why his ideas are inchoate.) Questions about PSR, teleology, etc. cannot properly be understood if they are treated as mere add-ons to a basically naturalistic-cum-scientistic picture of knowledge and reality, which leave that picture essentially intact. The picture as a whole needs to be rethought if any part of it is seriously to be rethought...
At his blog Edward Feser has been responding to Thomas Nagel's
critics (no, not me (yet)!). In response to Sober's review he concludes
with the following sociological remark:
think, is precisely what is going on -- the “presuppositions that Nagel
trying to transcend” run so deep in contemporary academic philosophical
that it is difficult for most philosophers to get any critical distance
on them. They lack, as Nietzsche might have said, the courage
for an attack on their own convictions. And
yet the evidence that there is something deeply wrong with the
consensus is all around them even in “mainstream” academic philosophy --
work of renegade naturalists like Nagel, Searle, Fodor, McGinn, et al.;
like Chalmers, Brie Gertler, Howard Robinson, John Foster, et al.; and
like the “new essentialist” metaphysicians and philosophers of science
Ellis, Martin, Heil, Mumford, et al.) and the analytical Thomists
Haldane, et al.). It’s psychologically
easy (even if philosophically sleazy) to dismiss one or two of these
as outliers who needn’t be taken seriously.
But as their ranks slowly grow, it will be, and ought to be, harder both
psychologically and philosophically to dismiss them.
Which is no
doubt why the more ideological naturalists would very dearly like to strangle
this growing challenge to the consensus while it is still in its crib -- hence
the un-philosophical nastiness with which Nagel’s views have been greeted in
some quarters. But Sober, to his credit,
is not an ideologue, and is sober enough to acknowledge at least the possibility that Nagel is on to something.--Edward Feser.
Analytical philosophy has made great
progress over the last century. But its original, necessary biases did some
harm, too. In particular, detailed working knowledge of the history of
philosophy and metaphysics was banished for several generations. While
metaphysics is thriving again, we still lack (despite the brilliance of David
Lewis' modular approach) complete systems of thought that can rival in depth
and interlocking breadth the past masters (say, Suarez, Leibniz, etc.). The
damage has also been more narrow. For example, one of the most obvious
so-called ‘Kuhn Losses’ is our
relative ignorance of the nature and implications of the Principle of Sufficient Reason (PSR). This is no
surprise because analytical philosophy was founded in the act of rejecting PSR.
Our forefathers’ attempt to balance between common sense and the truths of
science meant -- as science and the PSR parted ways -- the willing submission to brute, ultimate facts (recall this post).
In Mind & Cosmos, Thomas
Nagel happily embraces “a form of the principle of sufficient reason” (17) in
support of his "common sense" (5, 7, etc.) and against the recent
“orthodox scientific consensus.” (10; 5) Rather than accepting this
"ideological consensus," (128) Nagel insists -- regularly using
language reminiscent of the great Feyerabend -- that "almost
everyone in our secular culture has been browbeaten into regarding the
reductive research program as sacrosanct." (7) While Nagel insists that
the champions of scientific enlightenment are bullies, he treats the
"defenders of intelligent design" with "gratitude" (Plantinga returns the gratitude),
even though Nagel clearly recognizes that once one embraces one's inner sensus
divinitatis one is also compelled in one's judgments. (12)
A classic statement of the PSR is Spinoza's
"For each thing there must be assigned a cause, or reason, both for
its existence and for its nonexistence." (Ethics 1p11d2) That is to
say, any PSR worth having imposes significant explanatory demands (especially
of non-arbitrariness) on any philosophical system in which it is deployed.
Below the fold I critically discuss Nagel's way of combining the PSR and his
attempted revisionary science, but here I just register the marvelousness
of Nagel's deployment of the PSR as an instrument in the service of common
sense! (cf. 91-2) This is certainly an original move in the history of
metaphysics--one that, in a single, magical stroke overturns Lovejoy's long narrative.
Mohan wrote a very interesting blogpost, in which he argues that Obama's belief that his "belief in evolution" is compatible with faith is "an utterly false platitude". Mohan writes "Whether or not science is literally "incompatible" with religion, it seems to me obvious that belief in evolution should decrease one's faith inasmuch as it takes away one main reason for believing in God. Certainly, I can't see how knowledge of evolution could possibly strengthen anybody's rationally based faith." I disagree with this view, and would like to put forward some of the reasons for why I think this.
The more general question behind Mohan's question is: in how far is religious faith dependent on natural theology? I take natural theology not only in the narrow sense, as in e.g., the cosmological argument, design argument, moral argument, but also in a broader sense of theology that is not based on personal experience or revelation, but on a reasoned consideration of natural phenomena. One of the strands of natural theology, for instance, espoused by Swinburne, is that God provides a good explanation to explain some natural phenomena (e.g., the existence of the universe, fine-tuning etc). Now, there seems to be a tendency in American philosophers, even among those whose position towards natural theology is ambivalent (Plantinga is a good example) that natural theology in this sense provides more warrant for faith. If natural science can't explain it, we can appeal to God, so the idea goes, and this easily gives rise to the view that science and natural theology are somehow in competition. However, this view is strongly tied to a very specific perspective on natural theology, which has not been endorsed in much of the history of theology, namely natural theology is somehow prior to faith, a view also endorsed by some recent atheists on the topic (e.g., Philipse). Let me stress that this is not in line with the way that the relationship between faith and science has been regarded throughout history.
This is X-posted from Prosblogion. Let me be clear from the outset: the majority of work in analytic philosophy of religion (PoR) does not aim to proselytize, but is concerned with fairly technical topics, such as the possibility of creaturely free will in heaven, the compatibility of specific divine attributes, or the evidential problem of evil. But some portion of PoR is clearly aimed at convincing the reader that religious belief (usually, Christianity, given the demographics of academic philosophy) is reasonable. To this end, philosophers construct sophisticated arguments, for instance, to show that religious belief does not require evidence, that religious faith is also, or even primarily, a matter of practical rationality, that the evidence is overwhelmingly in favor of theism, etc. Plantinga and Swinburne are good examples.
Such philosophy of religion can be plausibly regarded as a form of proselytism--I'm using a wider term than the usual apologetics, as apologetics is the more narrow notion of systematically defending a particular religious position. But I'm not entirely happy with the term proselytism either, since I also think that some of this PoR is aimed at those people who have religious faith, but who are wavering, for instance, because others tell them their faith is not rational. So I'll settle for proselytism cum apologetics as a not entirely satisfactory term for this type of PoR. Is it acceptable for philosophers of religion to engage in proselytism/apologetics?
Mohan's recent post on looming theocracy in America made me think more about why Americans would not want an atheist as president, or indeed in any other important political position. Research by Azim Shariff, for instance Gervais, Shariff and Norenzayan (2011) indicates that prejudice against atheists is widespread, and primarily fueled by a distrust in atheists. Remarkably, this research was carried out in Canada, with undergraduates from the University of British Columbia, not a particularly religiously zealous population. Nevertheless, the research indicates a pervasive distrust of atheists. Just to give a flavor of this, one experiment let people read a story about a 31-year-old man, Richard, who does some morally questionable stuff. "Richard is 31 years old. On his way to work one day, he accidentally backed his car into a parked van. Because pedestrians were watching, he got out of his car. He pretended to write down his insurance information. He then tucked the blank note into the van’s window before getting back into his car and driving away. Later the same day, Richard found a wallet on the sidewalk. Nobody was looking, so he took all of the money out of the wallet. He then threw the wallet in a trash can."
Students were then asked whether they thought it was more probable that Richard was a teacher or that Richard was a teacher AND xxx. Where xxx was - between subjects - "Christian", "Muslim", "Rapist", or "Atheist". Remarkably (stunningly!) students thought it more likely that Richard was a teacher AND atheist or a rapist than they thought he was a teacher AND a Muslim or Christian. They committed the conjunction fallacy least with Christians, a bit more with Muslims, and most with rapists and atheists. The difference between atheist and rapist was not statistically significant….
Some of the Hebrews seems to have seen this, as if through a cloud, when they maintained that God, God's intellect, and the things understood by him are one and the same.--Spinoza (E2P7S) [in Curley's translation]
In my previous three posts (here, here, here) on Yoram Hazony's The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture, I did not engage with Hazony's efforts at articulating the epistemology (chapter 6) and metaphysics (7) of the Hebrew Scripture. Chapter 6 is a fascinating meditation on Jeremiah. Here I focus on the latter. According to Hazony in "the Hebrew Bible...truth is not in the first instance a quality of that which is said, but of "objects and persons." "Objects" here are taken very widely to include "objects of the understanding more generally, including actions and circumstances." (195-196). In particular, that "which is true is something that is reliable, steadfast, faithful; while that which is false is something that cannot be counted upon, or which appears reliable but is not." (199) So to simplify: something is true iff it is a steadfast object. So, in addition to true being a property of objects (etc.) it is also a normative property. As Hazony writes, "that which is true is that which proves, through time and circumstance, to be what it ought." (202)
Hazony contrasts what one can label -- to
introduce and deploy a Foucault-ish terminology -- "the Biblical regime of truth" with the traditional one he claims we have inherited from Aristotle. (Foucault nor Heidegger are mentioned by Hazony.) In the traditional regime truth is a "quality of speech" (thought, etc.); true speech is about a reality separate from speech and agrees with or corresponds to that reality. (195) Let's grant Hazony the conceptual possibility that there are different "regimes of
truth." So, here I ignore the kind of criticism familiar from, say, Bernard Williams' "general point:" that "nothing that was not opposed to the false could be rightly represented as the "the true." (Truth and Truthfulness, 272; emphasis in original; Williams' passage was discussed recently in an illuminating lecture on Foucault's debts to Marcel Detienne by my Ghent colleague, Maarten Van Dyck.) Williams is not just making a narrow (and plausible) point about translation; the general point denies the possibility of different regimes of truth. Given that here I am merely describing the history of various regimes of truth I need not worry if alternative regimes to ours represent anything.
Thomas Nagel's Mind and Cosmos is drawing quick responses. (Can't wait to read Mohan's!) Both in the hostile review by Brian Leiter and Michael Weisberg as well as in the more cautious strategic pivot by Alva Noë (who doesn't engage critically with Nagel's book), mythic history of the scientific revolution plays significant rhetorical roles.
Let's start with Noë:
If there is mind — and of course the great scientific revolutionaries
such as Descartes and Newton would not deny that there is mind — it
exists apart from and unconnected to the material world as this was
conceived of by the New Science.--Alva Noë (NPR)
Let's accept Noë's point about Descartes. But Newton
thought minds had to be somewhere in space and in time, extended but "indivisible." Incidentally, this is also Newton's doctrine about "the Maker and Lord of all things" who "cannot
be never and no where." (Principia, General
Scholium.) And at one point earlier in his career, Newton also flirted with the idea that an
extended body had to be the kind of thing that was capable of exciting various perceptions in the senses and imagination of minds (this is from a piece known as "De Gravitatione;" I am linking to a very nice treatment by Zvi Biener and Chris Smeenk.) [Note that I am not drawing on the infamous sensorium passage at all.]
[this is cross-posted from the Cognition & Culture blog] In the public sphere, religious beliefs are often considered to be a matter of private sentiment or preference, not as matters of fact. While this may be helpful for the maintenance of a pluralistic society, religious individuals often regard their beliefs as true in an objective sense. Attempts to incorporate fictionalism into religious practice, such as the Anglican Sea of Faith, have met only with limited success. There is thus a tension between the large diversity of religious beliefs, which prompt a more subjectivist understanding, and the appraisal by individual religious believers, who seem to have a more fact-like understanding. How do we intuitively conceptualize religious beliefs?
These three things taken together – the
simplicity of the theme of all these books, the way they are connected,
fact that they were written by someone other than the person whose name
bear, many generations after the events related – lead us to infer that,
have just said, they were all written by one Historian alone.--Spinoza, (1670) Theological Political Treatise (TTP), Chapter 8 [Here and
below I use a draft of Curley's translation he kindly shared with me.--ES]
Yoram Hazony's The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (recall also here) identifies "a single, largely unbroken narrative extending from creation of the world in Genesis to the destruction of Judah at the end of the book of Kings" at the core of the Hebrew Bible; this core he calls "The History of Israel." (140; disclosure: Hazony and I have written a piece on Hume & Newton together.) Hazony reads The History of Israel as offering an "instructional narrative," which conveys (among other things) a political philosophy. The History of Israel favors the anarchic, shepherding life, but as the story unfolds comes to
recognize that anarchy is not self-sustaining. Political order is understood "as oscillating between the imperial state...and anarchy." (160) Hazony reads the Hebrew
Bible as a search for a politics grounded in ethics--one that makes the
state "limited in its aspirations" (153-4; recall this post).
Hazony sugests that Jeremiah "or perhaps one of his students, may have been the final author of the History of Israel as a unified work." (161; by "author," Hazony does not mean "the person who wrote all of it by himself," 37-8.) Hazony's argument for this is that The History ends "with the exile of Judag's leading political and spiritual figures, the most straightforward reading us that this history is the product of the exile from the land and its aftermath." (37; Hazony acknowledges he is echoing the Rabbanic opinion here.) The book would have been composed in Egyptian exile in the seventh century (BC). Crucially, it means that the viewpoint of the political philosophy of the Hebrew Bible is "the experience of the Jews in degredaton and exile, and the attempt to survive it." (38)
Maximizing crossover appeal was crucial this time around, because the infamous 2007 SCP@AAR panel was still fresh in many AAR-going minds. That session had devolved into uncomfortable methodological sparring, and concluded with a prominent theologian suggesting that (analytic) philosophers of religion suffer from a kind of willful naïveté or backwardness, as well as an inability to be genuinely inclusive...
Another consideration in favor of the proposal was that Kant scholars in one methodological tradition are often unfamiliar with work by those in other traditions—even when they work on the same texts.
It appears my Ghent colleague, Maarten Boudry, successfully perpetuated a Sokal-style hoax. He gotgibberish paper abstracts papers for two (philosophical) theology conferences (one in reformational philosophy hosted by the VU University in Amsterdam). [UPDATE: I have solid evidence that the other conference was this one.] More on the story here and here. Below the fold, the fake abstract. Would it have fooled you? (Of course, this is not quite Sokal-style achievement; Sokal got a paper into an elite journal.) It probably didn't hurt that Boudry disses Dawkins.
[Xposted at Problogion] I've just re-read Paul Griffiths' and John Wilkins' inspiring paper on evolutionary debunking arguments (EDAs) for religion (it is a very influential paper on cognitive science of religion and evolutionary debunking, despite its not having appeared in print yet) for a chapter of a monograph I'm writing. Using Guy Kahane's debunking genealogical framework, they argue that natural selection is an off-track process, i.e., one that does not track truth: it produces beliefs in a manner that is insensitive to the truth those beliefs. From this, they conclude that the beliefs that are the outputs of evolved systems are unjustified.
Causal premise.S's belief that p is explained by X
Epistemic premise. X is an off-track process
Therefore, S's belief that p is unjustified
When we apply this argument in a generalized manner, where X stands for "natural selection", this looks like a bad strategy for the naturalist - ultimately, it leads to self-defeat in a Plantingesque manner that most proponents of EDAs would like to avoid. G&W's position is more subtle: they don't want to treat truth-tracking and fitness-tracking as competing explanations, instead, they argue that fitness-tracking and truth-tracking operate at different explanatory levels. In many cases, tracking truth *is* the best way of tracking fitness, especially given (1) that cognition is costly (brains consume a lot of energy), (2) your beliefs influence how you will behave, (3) your behavior influences your fitness. They propose "Milvian bridges", which link truth-tracking and fitness-tracking, in order to salvage commonsense and scientific beliefs.
"The religious atmosphere of the
country was the first thing that
struck me on arrival in the United States. Tocqueville (Democracy in America.)
Let's stipulate that the readers of the NYRB and the public image of philosophy are not well served by demolition jobs masquerading as reviews. Let's also stipulate that Thomas Nagel is one of the most important and interesting philosophers of the last four decades so it is no surprise that NYRB turns to him. Now, Mohan has already called attention to the silly claims about the relationship between the so-called "Hard Problem of Consciousness" and evolution. Even so, what the hell is going on in Nagel's review of Plantinga? Even if we leave aside the remarkably uncritical attitude toward Plantinga, take the first sentence: "The gulf in outlook between atheists and adherents of the monotheistic religions is profound." In what world is Nagel living? You don't need to agree with Nietzsche (who saw the ascetic ideal operating both in faith in God and faith in science) to see that modern, educated North American atheists and Christians are fare more alike in the practical and theoretical things they take for granted than, say, the Babylonian high-priest who believed in omens.
"Greece and Judea, furnish the mind and the heart by which the rest of the world is sustained"
Every hour brings us from distant quarters of the Union the expression
of mortification at the late events in Massachusetts, and at the
behavior of Boston. The tameness was indeed shocking. Boston, of whose
fame for spirit and character we have all been so proud ; Boston, whose
citizens, intelligent people in England told me they could always
distinguish by their culture among Americans; the Boston of the American
Revolution, which figures so proudly in John Adams's Diary, which the
whole country has been reading; Boston, spoiled by prosperity, must bow
its ancient honor in the dust, and make us irretrievably ashamed. In
Boston, we have said with such lofty confidence, no fugitive slave can
be arrested, and now, we must transfer our vaunt to the country, and
say, with a little less confidence, no fugitive man can be arrested here
; at least we can brag thus until to-morrow, when the farmers also may
be corrupted.--Emerson, "THE FUGITIVE SLAVE LAW ADDRESS TO CITIZENS OF CONCORD, 3 MAY, 1851"
The second passage above was at the core of a fantastic lecture, "A Kantian Account of Complicity," delivered by Julia Driver in Ghent yesterday (and tomorrow in Amsterdam), all the more notable because Driver tends toward a more consequentialist moral philosophy. The core of Driver's lecture, was on the relationship between complicity and a certain form of action-guiding self-respect (even integrity). For, in Emerson, the dishonor of Boston creates a collective shame that potentially leaves none untouched.
In the passage, Emerson re-actives what we may call a republican rhetoric, in which commerce, luxurious prosperity, and city-life are associated with cowardice and tameness. By contrast, the independent, self-reliant, rustic farmer all stand for heroic virtue. But Emerson also insists that even beyond the suburbs, the country is no safe haven from the shared complicity in injustice (tomorrow the farmer). As Emerson said in his lecture, "Great is the mischief of a legal crime.
Every person who touches this business is contaminated." So, in his lecture, Emerson's analysis relies on a different strain of argument, one greatly indebted to Adam Smith, who as regular readers may recall, thinks we can even be polluted if we unwillingly contribute to harm of others (and connects shame to pollution).
Having presented his famous wager, Pascal considers the atheist who sincerely wants to bet on God but who is psychologically unable to. He urges "Endeavour, then, to convince yourself, not by increase of proofs of God, but by the abatement of your passions. You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you […] Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc. Even this will naturally make you believe, and deaden your acuteness."
Tim Mawson (member of the Oxford philosophy faculty) has a similar suggestion in a paper published in International Journal for Philosophy of Religion. Suppose you are an atheist but consider it possible (with a non-negligible probability) God exists. According to Mawson, you are then under an epistemic obligation to pray to God ask him to stop you from being an atheist. He writes "the person who prays that God help him or her to believe in Him is as reasonable as someone who finds himself or herself shouting ‘Is anyone there?’ in a darkened room about which he or she has various reasonable prior beliefs." If you hear something, that's prima facie evidence that there is in fact a person in the dark room. If you don't hear anything, this is evidence too: "When one shouts into a darkened room, ‘Is there anyone there?’ and hears nothing by way of reply, this is in itself evidence that there’s no-one there, all other things being equal."
The problem is that the evidence is defeasible (especially if it is positive), and I think it is even more so than Mawson allows for.
I would like to articulate some reservations about Catarina's campaign against male genital alteration (recall also her earlier post). My reservations are second-order and do not concern any judgment about her normative position (I am pulled in different directions).
First, I am an analytic egalitarian (and you should be, too!) For me this consists of three core commitments:
 Naturally all people are equal, and most salient differences are the product of institutions (law, education, culture, etc).
[A] This includes the philosophical/economist-expert
Even if  is not quite literally true, (nearly) all people consider
themselves to be (at least as) equal when it matters to them.
 From [1A] it follows that the the philosophical/economist-expert should be put inside the model or conceptual framework
 From [1B] we learn that human affairs are (at least) in part
intentional systems. (That is, we can't have a fully extensional model.)
Second, in practice analytic egalitarianism implies (at least) three important norms for how the experts/philosophers and public policy ought to interact:
Philosophers/experts can't keep themselves (their
incentives/their roles, etc) out of the model/proposal. In practice
this means that we can't simply assume that philosophers are
disinterested truth-seekers in the context of policy.
Philosophers/experts shouldn't promote policies where the
down-side risks of implementation are (primarily) shifted onto less
Philosophers/experts should make an effort to educate
policy and opinion-makers to counter-arguments to the policies they
In practice, of course, considerable and controversial contextual judgment is required in evaluating the suitability and content of these norms (which may involve a weighing of conflicting interests, etc). Okay, with that out of the way, let me turn to Catarina's campaign.
A heated discussion ensued from my post on
circumcision last week, which in turn was essentially a plug to a
thought-provoking post by Brian D. Earp at the Oxford Practical Ethics blog.
The controversial point was whether circumcision is or is not to be compared to
female genital cutting.
I’ve learned a lot from the different
perspectives presented during the discussion; among other things, I’ve learned
the terms ‘genital alteration’ and ‘genital cutting’, which now seem to me to
be more adequate than either ‘circumcision’ or ‘genital mutilation’ to
formulate the issue in a non-question-begging way (as argued here). And yet, I am now even more
convinced that the analogy between male genital alteration and female genital
alteration is a legitimate one – which (and let me say this again!) does not
mean that there are no crucial differences to be kept in mind. That's what an analogy is, after all.
Via Christian Munthe on Twitter, I came
across a thought-provoking blog post by Brian D. Earp on the latest AAP (American Academy of
Pediatrics) report on circumcision. The post is very critical of the report's failure to outright condemn the practice of circumcision, which is what a
neutral, evidence-based analysis should conclude.
I realize that circumcision is
a highly sensitive topic, in particular after the recent circumcision ban in
Germany. It may well be that I am not sufficiently sensitive to the relevant political
and cultural implications, but I don’t quite see in which ways male genital
mutilation would be so fundamentally different from the (thank God!) widely
condemned practice of female genital mutilation, still common in some parts of
Africa, [UPDATE] from a physiological point of view. (This is not to deny the fundamental cultural, political differences between the male and female cases.) [END UPDATE] (But there is good news: female genital mutilation seems to be decreasing significantly!)
Early in Genesis we encounter the story of Cain (a farmer), who kills his brother, Abel (a shepherd), because he is jealous over God's (mysterious) unwillingness to accept his sacrifice (while accepting Abel's). In his The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture (CUP, 2012), Yoram Hazony, reminds us that we are in addition to being a farmer, Cain also founds a city; cities are viewed negatively because of their tendency toward despotic-imperialism in the Hebrew Bible. [Full disclosure Hazony and I have co-authored a piece on Hume and Newton.] In Hazony's hands the Biblical (archetype) life of a shepherd (think also of Abraham, Moses, Jacob, David) stands for an anarchic "life of dissent and initiative" (108) away from the polity. While the life of the farmer (think of Noah, Isaac, and Joseph) stands for "pious submission, obeying in gratitude the custom that has been handed down, which alone provides bread so that man may live" (108). According to Hazony, The History of Israel (basically Genesis through Kings), favors the shepherding life, but as the story unfolds comes to recognize that anarchy is not self-sustaining. Hazony reads the Hebrew Bible as a search for a politics grounded in ethics--one that makes the state "limited in its aspirations" (153-4). (Some other time I'll say more about Hazony's handling of these issues.)
Implicit in this reconstruction of the Hebrew Bible is a kind of genealogy of civilization: first, in the Garden of Eden we are gatherers (maybe hunters, too); then, second, humanity splits in between mutually antagonistic shepherds and farmers, from which city-governments with an impulse toward territorial (and other) ambitions spring. As Hazoney notes (308 n. 26), Jean-Jacques Rousseau certainly read the Bible this way (see his posthumous Essay on the Origins of the Languages, written about the time of the second Discourse) and sides with the anarchic impulse of the "author of Genesis."
Now consider this prominent passage from Adam Smith:
This division of labour, from which so many
advantages are derived, is not originally the effect of any human
wisdom, which foresees and intends that general opulence to which it
gives occasion. It is the necessary, though very slow and gradual consequence of a
certain propensity in human nature which has in view no such extensive
utility; the propensity to truck, barter, and exchange one thing for
another. Adam Smith (Wealth of Nations, 1.2.1)
The press release, dated June 8, announcing the Prize is here (in German). The hostile Jerusalem Post article, dated Aug 26, is here. Butler's reply, dated Aug 27, is here. Excerpts:
The accusations against me are that I support Hamas and Hezbollah (which is not true) that I support BDS (partially true), and that I am anti-Semitic (patently false). Perhaps I should not be as surprised as I am that those who oppose my receiving the Adorno Prize would seek recourse to such scurrilous and unfounded charges to make their point. I am a scholar who gained an introduction to philosophy through Jewish thought, and I understand myself as defending and continuing a Jewish ethical tradition that includes figures such as Martin Buber and Hannah Arendt....
I studied philosophy at Yale University and continued to consider the questions of Jewish ethics throughout my education. I remain grateful for those ethical resources, for the formation that I had, and that animates me still. It is untrue, absurd, and painful for anyone to argue that those who formulate a criticism of the State of Israel is anti-Semitic or, if Jewish, self-hating. Such charges seek to demonize the person who is articulating a critical point of view and so disqualify the viewpoint in advance. It is a silencing tactic: this person is unspeakable, and whatever they speak is to be dismissed in advance or twisted in such a way that it negates the validity of the act of speech. The charge refuses to consider the view, debate its validity, consider its forms of evidence, and derive a sound conclusion on the basis of listening to reason. The charge is not only an attack on persons who hold views that some find objectionable, but it is an attack on reasonable exchange, on the very possibility of listening and speaking in a context where one might actually consider what another has to say....
I do support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement in a very specific way. I reject some versions and accept others. For me, BDS means that I oppose investments in companies that make military equipment whose sole purpose is to demolish homes. It means as well that I do not speak at Israeli institutions unless they take a strong stand against the occupation. I do not accept any version of BDS that discriminates against individuals on the basis of their national citizenship, and I maintain strong collaborative relationships with many Israeli scholars.
But if all the parts of the universe have been so ordered that they
could not have been better adapted for use, or more beautiful as regards
appearance, let us see whether they are the work of chance, or whether
their arrangement is one in which they could not possibly have been
combined except by the guidance of consciousness and the divine
providence. If, then, the things achieved by nature are more excellent
than those achieved by art, and if art produces nothing without making
use of intelligence, nature also ought not to be considered destitute of
intelligence. If at the sight of a statue or painted picture you know
that art has been employed, and from the distant view of the course of a
ship feel sure that it is made to move by art and intelligence, and if
you understand on looking at a horologe, whether one marked out with
lines, or working by means of water, that the hours are indicated by
art and not by chance, with what possible consistency can you suppose
that the universe which contains these same products of art, and their
constructors, and all things, is destitute of forethought and
intelligence? Why, if any one were to carry into Scythia or Britain the
globe which our friend Posidonius has lately
constructed, each one of the revolutions of which brings about the same
movement in the sun and moon and five wandering stars as is brought
about each day and night in the heavens, no one in those barbarous
countries would doubt that that globe was the work of intelligence.--Cicero, On the Nature of the Gods.
There are three explicit mentions of Posidonius, the great Stoic philosopher, in Cicero's dialogue, On the Nature of the Gods. (I have used a slightly dated translation.) The first one is in Cicero's own voice, when he includes Posidonius among his "teachers.' The second is the passage above, which was celebrated in eighteenth century renditions of the design argument. Let's call it the "Posidonian argument." It shows up, for example, in Derham's very popular and influential Physico and Astro-Theology (originally 1714, I think). But it is also familiar in the seventeenth century. (See Cumberland's use of it here.) It reminds us that Paley's famous argument has a long and known pre-history. Hume alludes to a version of the argument in the Enquiry and discusses it more at length in his Dialogues (here and here) and may have even enjoyed transforming Cicero's "Britain" into a desert island. Even so, Hume's treatment does not explicitly mention Posidonius or his portable planetarium (not unlike the now famous Antikythera mechanism [this post was inspired by Jo Marchant's entertaining book about the mechanism!]) In an age in which the motions of the heavenly bodies define time, a planetarium just is a watch.
An interesting article on BBC on the rising numbers of the so-called "nones" in America, people who would in the past have ticked the Christian box, when asked for religious affiliation, and who now tick "none". Most of them are not atheists, i.e., explicit and firm in their rejection of a supernatural worldview. Those numbers are rising too, from 1% to 5%. The larger part of those 40% who do not self-identify as religiously affiliated are "religious but not spiritual". Weekly church attendance in the United States went down from about 40% in 1970 to 33% in 2010. There is a clear downward trend in church membership. Mainline protestants are hit hardest, but evangelicals do not do well either. Catholics should not be complacent - their steep decline in membership is masked by the influx of Hispanics.
It is not easy to find out why this is happening. I was reminded by a lovely lecture by the gerontologist Vern Bengston at Oxford some months ago. He examined how aging correlates with religiosity. Particularly: is the fact that we see mainly older people in church a cohort effect (i.e., younger generations are less churchy) or an age effect (i.e., when one gets older one thinks "Oh, no, I'm going to die, I'll better go to church then!).