Aug 312011

My mind was blown today by the fantabulous 1973 short “What Is Nothing?” featuring some stoned grade schoolers wondering about the different types of non-existence. It features Rifftrax commentary to make it tolerable, and can be experienced if you have a buck to spare: More info on the video, including sample clip. Because caterpillars matter to caterpillars, man!

If you are too cheap for that, I see William Lane Craig has an audio clip where he reads a listener’s question about the nothing and then proceeds to not answer it until about 2:40: there is no nothing, because it’s all God. Craig distinguishes (as we do on our episode #43 between two versions of the cosmological argument: a chain of chronological causes and a chain of explanatory causes, but doesn’t seem to make a coherent point about why the former type of argument doesn’t make any sense. Despite a good pile of name dropping (and finding a bit from the Odyssey as hysterical!), I’m not sure I find the dialogue on this bit of podcast much more enlightening than the stoned kids’ quiet contemplation.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Aug 302011

This article at I thought presented an amusing alleged implication of the structure of our brains:

We have multiple streams of visual information input, and a proof of this is in the phenomenon of blind sight, whereby whatever the normal pathway is that makes it all the way to the speech center and/or consciousness (however that arises) has been damaged, yet the brain-damaged individual can still answer questions accurately about what he saw: he just thinks he’s guessing. One interpretation of this phenomena is that such a stream goes “straight to the subconscious,” though I don’t think the model that describes (of separate streams, one of which accounts for ordinary consciousness and the other of which enables blind sight recognition, running in parallel, the former of which has now been cut) captures the complexity that neurophysiologists are already aware of.

You’re welcome to research that and learn the names of all the brain areas involved: my amusement here is at the strange claim in the article that having information go “right to the subconscious” somehow makes it impossible to appreciate or enjoy works of art that are not “deep,” i.e. if they aren’t deep, they don’t go to the subconscious, and the guy the article describes has had much of his ordinary consciousness wiped away, so apparently the only kind of art he’s “capable of producing” is that which is deep, i.e. which serves up an insightful characterization of the human condition. So were we to shed our conscious selves and leave only our reptilian natures, we’d have much more Nabokov and less Entertainment Tonight. Hmmmmm.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Aug 232011

Sam Harris got a lot of grief on our Churchland episode. Whatever the difficulties that Churchland (and allegedly Hume) may have with the is/ought distinction, Harris provides a much easier target for this kind of criticism.

Here’s Harris specifically responding (starting around 1:40) to the is/ought distinction: “a firewall between facts and values in our discourse:”

Watch on YouTube.

He doesn’t explain what’s wrong with the distinction, but just says that it’s had terrible effects: encouraging superstition and making science into something inhuman and amoral.

Around 4:30, he gives something like Churchland’s response (and incidentally, she shows up at 5:15 as an audience member, and he refers to her near 8:40): we are social beings, i.e. it is a fact that most of us want to help others. At 5:50, he describes something like the pluralism Churchland advocated, using an analogy of food: there’s not just one palatable type of food, but there’s an objective distinction between food and poison. Does a social practice make for happier, flourishing individuals? No? Then it’s bad.

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Aug 222011

In a recent Philosopher’s Stone essay, Paul Boghossian corrects Stanley Fish on the subject of moral relativism: there is no morally relativistic ground between nihilism and the embrace of moral absolutes — one must choose. Saying “x is wrong” is a normative statement, while saying “x is wrong relative to moral code y” is a descriptive statement without normative force; believing the second statement doesn’t require believing the first. (Note that the attempt to naturalize morality — as in the projects of Harris and possibly Churchland — run into problems for precisely this reason; there seems to be no alchemy that turns descriptive statements (including scientific observations) into normative ones).

Fish’s response? It amounts (after a bizarre conflation of skepticism and relativism) to something like the following syllogism:

  • Paul Boghossian corrected me on a philosophical matter, and I have no rebuttal.
  • But: Nothing concerning which I have been corrected can actually matter.
  • Therefore: Philosophy doesn’t matter.

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Aug 182011

We’ve had some nice “indirect donations” of late, meaning people who do their Amazon shopping using one of our banner ads (like the ones on the lower right of our home page here or at the top of our links page) to enter the Amazon site, which gives us a cut regardless of what you end up purchasing. So, I wanted to thank such folks with a collective Personal Philosophy.

The Personal Philosophy of the Anonymous Internet Shopper*

When I go to a regular store, who knows what could happen? I could be highway robbed! The selection could be limited! The store could be not participating in the special offer that I came in to take advantage of! I could be hung up in a cage swinging over a vast abyss!

But in online shopping, the consumer has the power. With a mere click, I can just move over to another site and leave that LOSER site behind. Or I can click and leave a negative online review so NO ONE EVER SHOPS THERE AGAIN. Best of all, I can have porn windows open on my computer WHILE I SHOP and NO ONE WILL KNOW!

When I shop online, I can instantly compare prices among different vendors and spread my largesse where it will be most appreciated. With just a few clicks, I can find out the CEOs of the various vendors and look at their homes on Google Mapquest to see if I would want to live there. By using an East European proxy, I can hire someone to look through their trash or even kidnap their daughters if it would help me get a better deal.

Shopping online gives me, the consumer, the power over life or death. By flinging these tiny birds at my enemy capitalist pigs, their houses collapse, and online it’s easy to do! Online I can rig elections, spread damaging rumors that can unseat sitting governments, and even use coupons! It’s true! I was afraid that all of my coupon clipping would go to waste, but I can still clip coupons with my E-SCISSORS, which I have just purchased for the best possible price of $39.95! And if I don’t like them, I will sell them to hostile foreign governments for E-MONEY. The Internet makes me a WORLD PLAYER!

*This personal philosophy should not in any way be taken to reflect the actual, current views or predilections of this person, though, given that it was crafted JUST for him or her, he or she should really feel obliged to adopt this philosophy out of politeness if not actual gratitude.

Read more Personal Philosophies.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Aug 152011
Russion Youth Prison Scenes from

Click here to visit and see a gallery of youth prison scenes

I couldn’t bring myself to weigh in on the analytic vs. continental issue because I lived it while in school and believe that it is ultimately a destructive distinction fueled by political desires.  And in a weird way, I’m living through something analogous at work right now.  So instead I thought I’d continue my journey through issues of criminal justice because it interests me and I can’t think of anything novel to post about our recent podcasts.

In the first short video below , Professor Elizabeth Cauffman of the University of California talks about how the criminal justice system should treat juvenile offenders, given that research is now showing that the brain, particularly the pre-frontal lobe, continues to develop until the age of 25.  In the second video, Silvia Bunge – also of UC – talks about how during a series of tests of ‘judgment’, juveniles make decisions or act without engaging the deliberative or reasoning part of the brain.

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Aug 142011
Reshaping Reason by John McCumber

The living Hegelian dialectic in hardback!

The disciplinary identity of philosophy is in question. So says John McCumber in “Reshaping Reason”, where he makes a serious argument with evidence of trends pointing toward a sort of Hegelian synthesis in American philosophy to overcome the “Fantasy Island” of analytic thought and the “Subversive Struggle” of continental thought.

“Fantasy Island” and “Subversive Struggle” are McCumber’s well-reasoned nicknames for the two schools. Here are his two primary criticisms of the schools: (1) analytic thought traps itself in present tense language, ignoring the substantive insights of Hegel and Heidegger about the temporal present-past-future structure of thought or the subject; (2) continental thought dooms itself by pretending that it can continue to talk intelligibly while getting rid of the concept of true statements, irrespective of social construction — that’s why so much continental philosophy is bad.

McCumber gives to the analytic tradition that philosophy must cede ground to science on much of its old territory, but insists that there is one job (at least one, but he discusses others) only philosophy is uniquely situated to do, and that is the “situating” of reason and knowledge as such, especially their being situated in time.  It’s a very Hegelian idea: after science, philosophy becomes the practice of understanding — to be sure, with handy dandy new post-Fregean analytic conceptual tools — the historical becoming and meaning of knowledge in the context of the present. This is a job that can actually have relevance for the public (you know, all those weird people outside the walls of academia?).

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Aug 132011
I never said I wasn't crazy on kenn budd blogspot

Nice psycho-graphic from Kenn Budd's blog

Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Ethics at Duke, was recently interview on The Philosopher’s Zone about the moral judgment of psychopaths.  One of the key questions at issue is whether psychopaths understand what is morally wrong, why it is so and just don’t care, or whether they don’t know what is morally wrong.  This ties in with some of our recent posts about moral sentiment in that Sinnott-Armstrong brings in a kind of developmental view of moral understanding to frame the issue with psychopaths.

First it might make sense to clarify what is meant by “psychopathy”.  It’s not just anyone who is antisocial or violent.  In response to Alan Saunders’ mentioning the recent Norway shooter, Sinnott-Armstrong clarifies: (here’s the official checklist on Wikipedia)

First of all it’s not just any antisocial person. There are lots of antisocial people. There are lots of horrible violent people as in Norway who are not psychopaths. It’s a very specific syndrome defined in terms of 20 items that get scored zero, one or two, so the maximum is 40, and you get scored as a psychopath if it’s over 30. The items are things like grandiose self-image, pathological lying, lack of empathy and remorse, parasitic lifestyle and so on, including criminal history. Criminal versatility is a mark. So this person in Norway does one crime, but psychopaths, to get a two on that item, need to do six different violent felonies, then they get scored high on psychopathy. So they do whatever serves their purposes at the moment; they don’t do a single isolated crime.

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Aug 092011

On many episodes we’ve mentioned in passing, or given some author’s criticism of, the classic arguments for the existence of God:

-The ontological argument, whereby some quality of the idea of God itself is supposed to necessitate that such a being exists. The most famous versions are by Descartes and St. Anselm.

-The cosmological argument, which deduces from the fact that everything has a cause (or everything is contingent, or everything moves… there are several variations of this) that there must be a first cause, i.e. God. This argument dates at least back to Aristotle but was given its most famous formulations by Thomas Aquinas.

-The teleological argument, or argument from design, which says that since nature looks designed (i.e. uniformity, complicated structures that achieve impressive results), there must be a designer, i.e. God. This was given its most famous formulation in William Paley’s metaphor about finding a watch on the beach: of course, we’d assume that had a designer.

We’d planned an episode on these arguments from the very beginning of the podcast, but merely reading the source materials linked above would take us about 10 minutes. Well, we found (recommended in both theist and atheist sources) a book that does a pretty exhaustive job analyzing these major arguments: J.L. Mackie’sThe Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God

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Aug 082011

red vs. blueRoman Altshuler has written two articles on the Ends of Thought blog about the analytic/continental divide that may provoke your interest:

Why is so much Continental Philosophy so Bad?

Why bother talking to analytic philosophers?

I found this via Philosophy Carnival on Noah Greenstein’s blog.

From the latter article, relevant to our Heidegger discussion:

…Continental philosophers have to completely translate someone like Heidegger into analytic-speak and then relate the translation to clear, current problems in the analytic literature. That’s a lot of work! And for what? To get people who refuse to read Heidegger—obstinately, it seems—to accept that yes, maybe Heidegger had one good idea somewhere? At least, that’s what it can look like, and in light of this it isn’t surprising that so many continental philosophers want to retreat into an echo chamber of textual exegesis. Why bother to explain something, one might ask, to people who seem to have no interest in what you’re explaining, and who certainly won’t meet you halfway, but expect you to come to them?

…Ugliest of all, perhaps, a blurb from J.J.C. Smart on the back of the Edwards book claims that Edwards “explains clearly why those of us who are repelled by Heidegger’s style of philosophizing are right not to read him.” With garbage like this in the air, a Heidegger scholar might be excused for thinking that these here analytic fellows just aren’t worth talking to.

Fun stuff!

-Mark Linsenmayer

Aug 042011

When we started this blog, I opined that pretty much anything we watched, listened to, or read could be the subject of an off-the-cuff philosophical rant, and while I did this a few times without much exertion, I’ve since let movie after book after album after TV show fly by without so much as a comment. Have I lost my ability to see philosophy in anything? Do I have too much respect for you the readers to subject you to my frivolity. Certainly not.

And so I force myself, late at night, less than an hour after turning 40 years old, to spin out a pseudo-philosophical paragraph each on a few things I’ve enjoyed recently:

Big Love1. Big Love: Is polygamy inherently exploitative? The message of the show seems to be that while certainly it can be, it’s an open question whether it needs to be. At least some of the characters involved seem for the most part psychologically healthy, and have a rationale for what they do. It’s depicted (presumably based on research) as a matter of real religious conviction; is it meant to thus be a reductio ad absurdum against religion itself? Certainly there are some scenes (featuring a self proclaimed prophet on a polygamist compound) that strongly convey how duping religion can be, but at the same time, nearly all of the characters depicted are religious in some way; it’s just a matter of disagreement between faiths. Pretty engaging overall; nice, subtle comedy, and thought provoking without being heavy handed about it.

Game of Thrones2. Game of Thrones. We had free HBO for a weekend, so I splurged on this, and have reread the first two books in the series (I’d read the first three several years back), which I enjoyed immensely. It’s set in something like Hobbes’s state of nature, where life is cheap, unless you’re of noble birth, in which case offenses upon you are met with hundreds riding to your aid to be slaughtered, and then you probably get killed or at least maimed anyway. A lot has been written on the sexual politics, but more interesting is the moral ambiguity: even characters set up as horrible in the first book become protagonists (the narrator rotates each chapter between half a dozen people, which change somewhat for each book) as time goes on: everyone has their rationales and is trying to make their way through a horrific situation. I don’t feel like I can rate the TV show, as I see it only as an illustration of what I already know and like in the books,

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Aug 032011

In searching on YouTube for “ethics” and “Neurology,” I came across a number of results on “neuro ethics,” which seems primarily concerned not with the neural basis for ethical reasoning, but with ethical issues involved in performing neurological research.

Here’s Dr. Eric Racine giving a lecture called “Ethics and the Public Understanding of Neuroscience: Perspectives from the Media” in June at a conference.

Watch on YouTube.

It’s 5:30 minutes in before Racine describes what neuroethics is: an interdisciplinary effort to improve patient outcomes through, e.g. neural imaging. Far from fretting about the degree to which mental function relies upon biology (although at 14 minutes in, he derides media oversimplification of the mind-brain relation), this effort is eminently practical: what does science tell us, and how do practitioners end up using this given the information being fed to them? Racine’s concern here is not only what technology is available but on how it is marketed, and consequently how technology might be misused given misconceptions in the media: “The media could act as a source of ethical challenges and harms, but also as a source of ethical duties and benefits.”

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Aug 022011

This September, PBS will re-broadcast an interesting episode of NOVA ScienceNOW, which touches on some points raised in PEL’s interview with Patricia Churchland. The episode demonstrates a procedure called Transcranial Magnetic Stimulation (TMS), which can influence a person’s moral judgments as they are being made, simply by messing with the neural activity located within the brain’s Right TemporoParietal Junction (RTPJ):

If you find the clip interesting, you can find the published research here.

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