Battlepanda wins this week's award for best analogy.
Battlepanda wins this week's award for best analogy.
Will Wilkinson is one of those libertarian types, so I disagree with him about many things. However, drug policy, and the value of free political speech, are not among our areas of disagreement; he has a great post touching on both topics. Of course I think, and Will would probably agree, that not only should Karen Tandy be fired, but the whole DEA should just be abolished. But start with small steps.
Some feminists have long considered it a problem that English uses the masculine pronoun for persons of indeterminate gender. Various solutions have been proposed to this, and some have been adopted to varying degrees. I often use the "he or she" or "his or her" approach myself, feeling that a few extra syllables never hurt anyone, and being, perhaps uncharacteristically, conservative about introducing entirely new words.
Clearly connected with this issue, there seems to be a convention which has arisen among my fellow philosophers, or at least the younger generation thereof, of making the generic people of our philosophical examples always female. Being the hopeless slave of fashion that I am, I have also tended to follow this trend. Certainly in philosophy I can see where this would be thought to have the sort of desirable effects inclusive language is supposed to produce. Philosophers are mostly science groupies, and almost without exception self-obsessed, so the characters in philosophical examples are disproportionately scientists and philosophers. Certainly it is healthy to remind ourselves that it's perfectly possible for women to be in either of those categories.
Sometimes it feels a little weird. If I am speaking of the typical reductionist realist, and I have occasion to say that she believes X, I feel some resistance, because when thinking of the typical reductionist realist, I'm pretty much thinking of David Armstrong. Probably, though, it's healthy to encounter this resistance; I mean to be writing of what I'm assuming are the many people like Armstrong, and it's useful to stop and make sure that there are indeed a significant number of other philosophers who are on the same page with Armstrong on the issue I'm considering, as otherwise I'm not really speaking of any kind of typical category of philosophers.
In any event, I tend to feel like on this issue I have been nothing more than a follower of emerging trends. As I've said, I think some of the emerging trends are good, but I would welcome closer examination of them. Are there problems with how we've been doing things? Are there ways to do better? Any thoughts are welcome.
I have been talking about intelligent design recently, but I haven't posted specifically on W's comments on the issue, because I guess it's the sort of thing I expect from him and anyway I don't have much to add that hasn't been said. That hasn't actually changed, but I did locate this amusing item that perhaps deserves more publicity (so why am I posting it here? Well, a couple of people read this, I think).
I've long thought that the dream argument for skepticism is the most disturbing. Many skeptical arguments are quite fanciful, and it's easy to dismiss talk of evil demons and brains in vats as just silly. Of course, the silly can sometimes be true, so I'm not sure categorizing those cases as silly helps much, but obviously this line of response is in any event totally unavailable for the dream argument. It's not at all silly or fanciful to suggest I could be dreaming. It happens almost daily.
A seemingly unconnected opinion of mine is that I've long been skeptical that children are worth the trouble. I mean, I can see how raising a child could be immensely rewarding, but there seems to be an extraordinary amount of nuisance involved; it seems like I could find other ways of being fulfilled that would take less effort, and I have a perhaps unfortunate inclination toward laziness.
However, it has now been pointed out that children, at least very young ones, could have a benefit that had never occurred to me. They might provide help with the otherwise seemingly intractable dream argument. Though given the mechanism involved, I wonder if they open one up to the equally devastating hallucination due to lack of sleep argument.
The major power of the sub-saharan region, South Africa, is continuing to treat Zimbabwe with kid gloves, refusing to seriously criticize the government and now apparently stepping in with big money to help out Mugabe and his cronies. On past evidence, virtually all of the money will be stolen by Mugabe's crowd; after all, the main reason Zimbabweans are starving is that Mugabe has actively worked to keep food away from regions of the country where his opponents are especially numerous (the previous white administration can surely be blamed for how poor Zimbabwe was when white rule ended, but who should be blamed for the country's wealth dropping by at least half since then is equally clear; it's the guy at the top). There seems no reason to think he'll change his policy of starving the opposition.
Now, I'm not generally in favor of embargoes and similar tactics for weakening corrupt governments. They have a pretty horrible track record. To take just one example near and dear to American hearts, Castro is still hanging on after almost half a century now. But surely actively giving money to a corrupt and evil regime is not likely to do much good. So I guess my questions are twofold. First, is there something I'm missing, any hint of reason for thinking South Africa is not making a mistake? And second, if they are making a mistake, what better alternatives are available? Is there any effective way to help the starving people there? Invasion almost seems appealing in this case, as the government is quite unpopular and not all that well armed, so it ought to be a lot easier than the Iraq situation has been. Of course, Zimbabwe has no oil, and as far as we know no training camps for international terrorists, so there's probably nobody willing to make that kind of effort in this situation.
The latest carnival of the godless includes a post I made, and that seems to have gotten some responses. I continue to stand by my original position. In essence, of course, my argument was that evolution has served to undermine natural theology. Now, this might seem to be old news, since natural theology pretty much died out in the academic world in the 19th century, but surely the reasoning of the various creationism and intelligent design advocates is very similar to what natural theologians used to do; the only difference is that the modern descendants of the natural theologians have to work much harder at ignoring evidence in order to hold on to their theories.
It also continues to seem to me that the fact that God is no longer part of a scientific approach to understanding the world has consequences. When the evidence piled up that phlogiston chemistry failed to adequately account for the phenomena it was intended to address, and that alternative approaches worked better, people did not decide that phlogiston must instead have some special place outside science. Instead, of course, they simply concluded phlogiston did not exist. I continue to maintain that this is the appropriate way to treat the God hypothesis.
Of course, there are differences between God and phlogiston. For one thing, nobody ever tried to draw moral consequences from the existence of phlogiston. However, the theory that God is needed as a foundation for ethics is in much worse shape even than natural theology; it was decisively refuted by Plato, more than two millenia before natural theology really began to run into trouble.
So, if God is not a scientific hypothesis, and not an ethical hypothesis, what remaining standing is there for God theory? Well, as I alluded to in my previous post, people often try to invent a new realm for it, and say that there are matters of faith which are just special. One of my problems with this is that it is normally used as a fallback tactic; people who really think God explains something about the universe, or has something to do with morality, will nonetheless often retreat to the faith line when they run out of arguments. But that it is used in this sleazy way does not automatically entail that there's nothing to this faith line.
Thus, it is time to finally get to our main topic for today. One of the most eloquent critics of faith was William Kingdon Clifford, whose work The Ethics of Belief famously argued that "it is wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to believe anything upon insufficient evidence." Very often, beliefs which are not based upon evidence are dangerous, and if a particular case seems harmless, the status of your evidence of harmlessness surely is itself in need of questioning. Clifford has much that is of interest in his essay, and I highly recommend that anyone who hasn't read it should do so (and anyone who's read only the first part should read the other two; it seems to turn up in anthologies cut down to only the first part in many cases).
Now, there may be problems for Clifford's formulation. What counts as sufficiency in evidence? I do not know how seriously to take that question, as, first, Clifford does give us some help on that topic if we bother to read his full essay, and second, it seems we do make judgments about the sufficiency of evidence all the time, so it must be possible to do so. However, Clifford would likely be far less famous than he is had his essay not generated an incredibly influential reply, The Will to Believe, by William James. James obviously has some sympathy with Clifford's highly scientific worldview, but he thinks there is still room to carve out a little place for faith.
One of the virtues of also reading James on this topic is that the great psychologist and pragmatist is considerably more insightful than most on the topic of belief. It may seem to be a problem for Clifford's thesis that, contrary to what Descartes might have thought, many of our beliefs do not appear to be chosen. I cannot choose to believe that 2+2=5; I cannot choose to believe that there is no monitor in front of me as I'm typing. These beliefs seem to be forced upon me, and while an enterprising skeptic can lead me to be puzzled as to why I'm so confident in them, it is beyond the power of skeptical arguments to make me really doubt such things.
However, while many beliefs are, in this way, forced upon us, James noted that this is not true for all of our beliefs. There is some sense in which some actions can count as voluntary; sometimes people choose to do things. Whether libertarian theories of freedom are true or not (I, of course, think not), there is some kind of phenomenon of choice. It also seems clear that some cases of belief fall into the realm of choice. We can deliberately seek out confirming evidence, avoid possible sources of doubt, be selective in our company so that our beliefs are reinforced, and so forth. The exact psychology is unimportant; it is clear that such things can often produce genuine belief in the long run.
This leads to what I consider to be a very elegant interpretation of Clifford's thesis, one which perhaps avoids the problems of detail of his original thesis. As interpreted by James, the Clifford thesis amounts to saying that we should never choose what to believe. Whenever it ends up being up to us to decide what to believe, we shouldn't do it. Only beliefs forced upon us by the evidence are to be tolerated.
Again, James had an ambivalent attitude toward this thesis, in either its original form or his reformulation. He thought it quite useful in some circumstances, but he thought that religious faith was a special case; that it was all right to make decisions about what religion to follow.
I cannot see any reason for making such an exception for religion. Indeed, given all of the harm that has been done over the centuries in the name of religion, I would have to come down strongly on the side of Mill, who suggested in the second chapter of On Liberty that history should have taught us religious claims need more scrutiny than most others. His examples were the execution of Socrates by an Athenian court confident they were doing the will of the gods, the execution of Jesus with the complicity of factors no doubt equally confident they knew what the divine wanted of them, and finally the persecution of Christians by Marcus Aurelius, again based on confidently held religious beliefs. One could quibble with Mill's cases, but of course it is not difficult to extend the list; I for one will go out on a limb and say that people who think God wants them to fly airliners into office buildings could really stand to have their beliefs come under more, rather than less, examination.
There are also far less extreme cases. It seems to me that theism of the currently prevalent varieties has got to have a distorting effect on moral thinking. The dominant varieties of theism all maintain that there is an omnipotent, all good being. The ways in which such a being could reduce suffering in the world are virtually limitless, and so anyone who would maintain that there's an all-powerful, all-good being must insist that all that suffering is necessary for some reason. I cannot see how making excuses for such large scale evil could fail, in most people, to trickle down to making excuses for smaller scale evil, and so give people less inclination to fight evil in cases where they clearly should be doing so.
Thus, I cannot agree with James that religious faith is a harmless affectation. Indeed, I can find no particular cause to dissent from Clifford's position at all. Faith is, quite simply, immoral.