Sep 302011

Gay is OK!I’m heartened enough by Jonathan Brack’s response to my Philosophy for Theologians review to put out this rather lengthy open question to them or any readers who might fall into a comparable category:

I find it’s easy to be cordial about metaphysical differences and have a live-and-let-live approach (or even something more productive/interactive) to matters of faith in this respect. Though there are enough terribly stupid proponents of both theism and atheism out there to elicit a general hostility from the other side, with some exposure to the right disputants, the whole discourse can become much more friendly.

The one unmovable force, though, is the wholesale moral condemnation of the unbeliever read by many into scripture. As long as you think I deserve everlasting torment for willfully refusing to believe, well, that’s anathema to friendliness.

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Sep 292011

Passing on this video posted today on

In considering the cosmological argument on the God episode, we made no attempt to say how or if modern cosmology affects the challenge we discussed in comparing the mental satisfaction of “the universe was caused by God, who is special and doesn’t need a cause in turn” vs. “the origin of the universe is a brute fact.”

Watch on YouTube.

30 minutes in or so is where he gets to why the universe could have come from nothing on the assumption that the universe is not curved, and in the 10 minutes after that he explains why we think that it is in fact not curved. Starting at 45 minutes he addresses some of the physics-related challenges by creationists that the universe must be designed, including discussion of the anthropic principle that we (and Mackie) dismissed on episode in the context of physics.

Whether or not you think Krauss’s account does anything to resolve the dilemma we were considering on the episode, it’s good to have the latest physical theories in mind when considering these questions.

I find it amusing that both the scientist here and the theologians declare that their side properly acknowledges the mystery at the heart of things and accuses the other side of being arrogant our epistemic status: the theologian because he thinks he’s been given all the answers by scripture and the scientist because he thinks that real knowledge is attainable by humans without divine intervention.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Sep 282011

Philosophy for Theologians logoIn a recent post I recommended the “Philosophy for Theologians” podcast for more information about Hume on miracles.

I’ve now listened to their first several episodes and can give a more comprehensive (both in the sense of covering more of there work and in the sense that I better understand their point) evaluation.

First, this is a good case to counter anyone who equates being Christian with being philosophically sloppy or positively stupid. What attracts me to this mainly is that the guys (there are a few regulars plus guests who are studying some particular figure and want to present him) give nice, in-depth presentations of (short) philosophical texts. The majority of many of the discussions is not about their Christianity (in their case, it’s “reformed,” meaning Protestant descended from Calvinism), and in fact it takes some work and digging into the episodes to figure out what their religious views are.

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Sep 272011

Here’s the recorded episode.

In Ep. 41, we discussed David Hume’s ethics both providing a challenge for any naturalist (meaning one compatible with a modern scientific world-view) ethics–you can’t deduce “ought” from “is”–and as providing an approach to moral psychology. In this discussion, we grappled with selections from Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Both Hume and Smith thought that we understand morality by reflecting on our own reactions to events and comparing these with other people’s. For Hume, we naturally approve of qualities like beneficence and utility (and not just as a gut reaction, but in our reflective moments), and ethics is a public enterprise by which we compare these sentiments with those expressed by others and come up with a code, where some elements, like this appreciation of niceness, are just “natural” and obvious, and some, like justice and property, are social inventions designed to serve our needs: our self-love and our caring for our families and friends.

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Sep 272011

In an attempt to provide some of the criticism to Carol Gilligan’s claims about female moral development, I found this exchange from the Atlantic online between Gilligan and “former philosophy professor” Christina Hoff Sommers, who had written an article called “The War Against Boys” in 2000, which blamed Gilligan for establishing a false picture of “America’s teenage girls as silenced, tortured, and otherwise personally diminished” in the school system. Re. In a Different Voice, she refers to “108 studies of sex differences in solving moral problems… [that lead to the conclusion] that ‘sex differences in moral reasoning in late adolescence and youth are rare.’” She also says there that Gilligan gave a later, equally unfounded analysis of boys, with a “darker, coercive side” that if taken seriously by educators would “cause them much misery.”

Gilligan responds point by point, pointing out the literature where her methodology is described in detail, defending the assumptions motivating her study (i.e. that women were excluded from studies like Kohlberg’s) as uncontroversial, and criticizing Sommers’s take on her conclusions as much oversimplified. Sommers responds to that, trying to show that the evidence is missing to support Gilligan’s claims, Gilligan responds that Sommers has ignored the major findings of her study and points out some specific details (e.g. gender gaps in tests), some third party education folks jump in to defend (and one to concur on the attack against) Gilligan, Sommers replies to try to undercut these third parties, and the thing goes on long enough that you will likely not want to read it, and as with most political battles, neither side convinces the other and the readers will go with the view they already favored before reading. Oy.

I’ve not read/seen quite enough of Christina Hoff Sommers to dismiss her as a conservative hack, but some keywords jump out at me in this video that make me suspect this: e.g. feminism fails because it doesn’t have the conceptual apparatus to right communism and terrorism (sharia law!) (see 4 minutes in).

If you readers have reliable sources to share that can shed some light on this disagreement, or critical appraisals of Gilligan that don’t reek of pure politics, please post them.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Sep 262011

Ron NashNo one (I think) came forward with citations against Hume’s stance on miracles in response to my post, so I did a bit of listening to available options on iTunes about this issue to see if it would do the job:

First, episode 15 of this “Christian Apologetics” course by the late Ronald H. Nash (pictured) of the Reformed Theological Seminary.

His account of Hume starts 22 minutes in, and he gets the problem right: Hume is not saying that miracles are metaphysically impossible, but only that epistemically, we have no justification for believing them. Nash gives Hume’s account of causality, which explains why he can’t be arguing against their metaphysical impossibility: for Hume, causality is a matter of experienced patterns, not metaphysical possibility. We only read patterns into experienced regularities; it’s always possible that something totally unexpected could happen.

Beyond this, however, Nash is totally unconvincing. His response (at 41 min in) to Hume is that statistically improbable things happen on occasion. He gives an example of a tornado that, despite the odds, hit the same place twice.

This is a totally inadequate response to Hume’s claim. Hume would have no problem with probabilistic laws, and statistically improbable things are LIKELY to happen occasionally: if you have a bell curve of probability, the outliers are on the curve too. The tornado hitting in the same place twice would on no reasonable account be deemed a miracle, and is nothing like, say, the parting of the red sea, or a burning bush, or water into wine, or guy coming back from the dead, or the sun halting in the sky, or any of that.

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Sep 242011

GrendelEntirely relevant to our feminism episode is this film directed/adapted by John K. from “The Office” from the novel by David Foster Wallace, which I’ve not read.

Is it amusing to see numerous comic actors give monologues that display keenly that self-consciousness–philosophical reflection–does not guarantee virtue? Yes. Does it (in its cinematic form) amount to a coherent thesis on how feminism has affected men (that this is the purpose of the interviews is not revealed until the last minute of the film, so my asking this is a spoiler, but I can’t see how knowing this would matter much to a viewer)? No, not that I can glean.

We’ve got a guy who takes advantage of his amputee status to manipulate women into sleeping with him. Another taking advantage of a woman’s grief to sleep with her even as he sympathizes with her. A man who serially reveals to women that he has intimacy issues that he should have revealed earlier, implying that because he’s revealing these issues, the cycle must be breaking (it’s not). We have repeated thoughts and hopes by men that a woman can save them from the horribleness that is them. And ultimately all this sexism and dysfunction becomes related to tales of sexual assault: a person can treat another person as an object, a thing, in a variety of ways.

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Sep 232011

I guess I’ve gotten bored of most of the various 99 cent offerings on my iPhone, because my main waiting-in-line activity there of late has been opening the Obama postings in my Facebook app news stream and reading the crazy ass comments people see fit to address ostensibly directly to the leader of the free world (though of course no one thinks that O. actually reads them or even has much if anything to do with crafting the posts themselves).

Because of Facebook’s crappy default privacy settings, you can even follow the links back from the more eye-catching comments to see what kind of person would bother to post such a quip… see that maybe that person does like the same music that you do, or that he or she posts misspelled exhortations to prey [sic] for your soul every 15 minutes or so all day long. …And don’t think this is just a post against Obama-bashing; many of the sterling examples of intelligence are clearly sympathetic towards him, or savaging him from the left, or just plain weird and off-topic. To all such folks, I dedicate this heartfelt Personal Philosophy. I can only hope it will inspire some of its targets to come raise the crazy level on the comments for this blog!

The Personal Philosophy of the Dude Who Posts Incoherent yet Hateful Comments on Obama’s Facebook Posts*

There comes a time when one is called to speak up for one’s country, to be a voice in the dark that spills light upon the unwashed masses of confusion that have forgotten what true freedom and true heroism are and don’t know where to turn because they are scared sheep lowing in the darkness because they have yet to awaken from their dreamworld of darkness in which they think everything is OK but it isn’t is but an illusion, because freedom means knowing you have to rise up and wake up and stop lowing and speak up!

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Sep 212011

Miracles!Chapter 1 of the Mackie book covers Hume’s account of miracles, which we discussed in our Hume epistemology episode. One of our blog commenters here mentioned offhand that he thought that argument had been long discredited, which was a surprise to me.

You can review the argument at Wikipedia here. Basically it boils down to “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” We have plenty of experience of people lying, but (and this is an appeal to your own experience) no experience of the laws of nature being evidently contravened for special happenstances. Though miracles may in fact occur, we’re never epistemically justified in believing them. Though Hume nominally leaves room for revelation being a route to bypass normal epistemic procedures, Mackie for one just thinks Hume was doing lip service to this principle to minimize his political trouble.

Mackie thinks that arguing for miracles is especially tricky because you have to both argue that there are laws of nature, and that these can be contravened divinely. It’s not enough that there might be some experienced regularities, but that we’re ignorant of the mechanism behind these and so could run into apparent exceptions to the rules we’ve established. It’s that, yes, these are laws working deterministically within a closed system, yet God can set them aside at will. From p. 26:
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Sep 202011

SwinburneMark Vernon, former priest and current agnostic, had a piece on his website a while back addressing Swinburne’s (pictured, right) argument for the existence of God. Swinburne’s argument is a a variation on the traditional God as the “uncaused cause” argument, with a twist in appealing to the “simplest explanation is the best explanation” rule. But whether we argue forward from the Big Bang/creation or argue back from the world to a singularity/moment of creation, we keep running into this concept of a singularity/God who needs no explanation or cause about which it is extremely difficult to speculate, since by definition it is not subject to the traditional laws of cause and effect. If simple explanations are indeed better explanations, does the existence of God hold up as a more acceptable theory for why we are here? Is probability even relevant in discussing the existence of God?

“The theism hypothesis is that God wills to create something that is good. We are it – inasmuch as we can choose what is good, that is act morally. Alongside the moral universe, the inanimate universe governed by laws of nature is the evidence, as well as being the environment necessary for the existence of creatures with the capacity to do good. And the thesis is simple, though it explains something that is very complicated. It involves postulating one ‘thing’ (God) with two infinite properties (omnipotence and omniscience) and one absence of a property (not subject to the irrational).

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Sep 172011

[Editor's Note: I've evidently had mixed luck in getting our podcasts guests to join in our blogging (Azzurra, Josh, and Sabrina, this means you!), but Robert here is has been eager to join in. You can read much more of him at  -ML]

If you find working your way through the Summa Theologica or completing a course in medieval philosophy a bit daunting, you can skip the hard work and take a three minute crash course in the works of Thomas Aquinas courtesy of YouTube instead.

Watch on YouTube

I can’t for the life of me figure out why the first 20 seconds involves Thomas Edison, but the rest of the clip is a neat summary of Aquinas’ arguments for the existence of God through reason alone. The unmoved mover and the first cause arguments raised here are discussed in some detail in Episode 43.

-Robert Scott

Sep 162011

singing ladyOK, I promised (in this post) to report the results of my immersion in all-female music, so here goes:

With only female singing voices assailing me, what my ear considered normal quickly adjusted, until a high and sweet voice seemed simply optimal to cut through a musical background: why would low-voice growlers like myself even bother? Likewise as a male, I don’t generally perceive other males as “singing to me,” rather I identify with them, and with female singers, the situation was to some extent reversed, which for me is nice, though strange; not a role I’m used to.

Beyond that initial impression, re. the “female personality” expressed through the lyrics/persona: I didn’t get a lot of this, as I was listening widely, not deeply into any one artist, but subsequent to the 3 weeks running out I did make my way more thoroughly through Joni Mitchell and to a lesser extent Alanis Morissette and Kate Bush (which was more of a refresher; I ODed on her back in the day… she was f’ed up and experimental enough to meet my criteria).

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Sep 152011

Discussing the arguments by Descartes, St. Anselm, Thomas Aquinas, William Paley, Kant, and others, as analyzed in J.L. Mackie’s The Miracle of Theism: Arguments For and Against the Existence of God (1983), chapters 1-3, 5-6, 8, and 11.

Are the ontological, cosmological, and teleological (argument from design) arguments for God’s existence any good? Mackie, a very sharp analytic philosopher well hooked into recent advances in philosophy of science, says no. He’s chiefly responding to his Oxford colleague, Richard Swinburne, who takes a very rationalist approach to God, taking the concept of God to be wholly simple and intelligible and providing a superior scientific explanation for, e.g. the beginning of the universe than the brute fact of an ultimately uncaused physical universe. Read more about the topic.

Buy the book.

Mark, Seth, and Wes are joined by groovy South African theist blogger Robert Scott.

End song: “I Believe,” by Mark Lint (2011). Read about it.

If you enjoy the episode, please donate at least $1:

Sep 152011

Listen to “I Believe.”

This tune owes much in its conception to the old Steve Martin bit “What I Believe,” but I used that rough format to express, back in 2002 when I wrote the bulk of this (calling it “Stalking George Burns”), something about my actual, momentary beliefs (when I’m at worst); or distilling belief down to what appears true only at that moment, i.e. the phenomenological surface of things; or playing with irony.

For the record, here are the lyrics:

Lord, I believe in subtlety and in stating things with strict exactitude and attention to the nuance of how dumb I feel. For instance, don’t say “ouch;” say, “I perceive a tension in my left chest – there. And its proximate cause was when you ripped the hair out, leaving me lopsided and mildly less bushy and spiritually gushy, [and] I’m not sure why you did it though I could list three hundred reasons. Here goes: Number One…”

No! I believe in subtlety. I believe in sounding off at nothing when it really didn’t matter what exactly got me going in the first place. I believe in a few basic truths… None of which I could possibly do justice to now.

Lord, I believe.

Lord, I believe in long hard work… As long as it’s obsessive and completely self-invented and unwelcome. …Like stalking George Burns or writing songs.
I believe in bullshit – if bullshit is funny, which it is!

I believe if you hate enough and vent enough then everyone you meet will just adore you. I believe if I’m loud enough and I’m hoarse enough and I’m foul enough then I will win!

I recall the original version being considerably more wandering and pointless than this, and my wife was not impressed when I played it for her. My band at the time obviously wasn’t going to do the song, so it just sat there until 2010 when this song-a-week (at the time) music blog inspired me to finish it, lay down the guitar/vocal (in one take, on one track, with no click, meaning that the tempo is all over the place) and a bunch of cool background harmonies, and get my old Mark Lint and the Fake drummer Dave Hamilton to record a drum part at his place. …But then that effort slowed down considerably, so that recording sat there until just this month, when I decided to finish it for our existence of God episode. I added a quick bass part, a little acoustic guitar sparkle in the last chorus, and then spent some time with my newfound MIDI abilities to find a decent church organ patch, and here’s the result, which makes me happy.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Sep 132011

Watch on YouTube

A 1999 episode of In Our Time was ostensibly about “feminism,” but in fact addressed a narrower and more pressing issue: Are men “by nature more competitive, ambitious, status-conscious, dedicated, single-minded and persevering than women”? And if so, doesn’t that mean men are biologically better disposed than women to achieve material success? And if that’s true, doesn’t it follow that the comparatively disadvantaged status women hold in modern society results from “natural” psychological differences, rather than “cultural” patriarchy? What would that then mean for feminism’s mission? Should society ensure equal opportunity, or privilege difference? I would have thought such claims would arouse more backlash than it has. But such theories are taken seriously, to some degree, because they are championed by Prof. Helena Cronin, an academic philosopher at the London School of Economics Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science. Lest you think I’ve mischaracterized Cronin’s arguments, you can also read them here:
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Sep 132011

PiagetFor a little more detail on how Gilligan’s account of moral development differs from and responds to those of her predecessors, check out this page from the U. of Illinois Office for Studies in Moral Development and Education.

Given that it’s aimed at educators, the emphasis is on how schools can affect moral development. I found this bit in Piaget spoke to the consideration of socialization in our Rousseau discussion:

The relative powerlessness of young children, coupled with childhood egocentrism feeds into a heteronomous moral orientation [meaning it's tied to blind obedience to authority].

However, through interactions with other children in which the group seeks a to play together in a way all find fair, children find this strict heteronomous adherence to rules sometimes problematic. As children consider these situations, they develop towards an “autonomous” stage of moral reasoning, characterized by the ability to consider rules critically, and selectively apply these rules based on a goal of mutual respect and cooperation. The ability to act from a sense of reciprocity and mutual respect is associated with a shift in the child’s cognitive structure from egocentrism to perspective taking… Thus, Piaget viewed moral development as the result of interpersonal interactions through which individuals work out resolutions which all deem fair…

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Sep 092011

Another option Azzurra put out for us to discuss on the feminism episode was J.S. Mill’s The Subjection of Women.

On reason I didn’t want to have us read that (apart from it being an older text–1896–than I wanted and being written by a man) is that I listened to this “Philosophy Bites” podcast episode featuring British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards, who wrote The Skeptical Feminist: A Philosophical Enquiry.Richards does a great job on the episode in succinctly giving Mill’s point, which is surprisingly prescient of the issue re. human nature we ran into in our discussion: given the historical subjection of women and what that’s done to our culture, we can’t know know the degree to which measured differences in outlook and behavior (such as those cited by Gilligan) are biological or are a matter of social conditioning. His solution is to remove the legal restrictions (“protections” in the eyes of the men of the time) on women and just let them compete. In other words, be gender-blind. This, too, well captures what’s perhaps a majority male response in the West today.

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Sep 072011

We have long promised to more systematically cover these guys who generate so much fun sniping on our blog here, and as of last Sunday, the full as-of-now-regular podcaster lineup (myself, Seth, Wes, and Dylan; we will still have some guests on, though) recorded a discussion of:

-The first two chapters of Sam Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason(2004)
-The last three chapters of Christopher Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

These fellows do not so much answer the question “is there a God?” as the question “should we be religious?”

Harris claims that faith, defined as believing something without evidence, is morally irresponsible: it leaves us open to believing all sorts of destructive things, and there are portions of all the major Western religious texts that, if taken literally and without the need for rational justification, command abominable things. Religious moderates, by extension, are on Harris’s view in the awkward position of not being able to condemn the extremists in the way that would be necessary to quash them: the extremists are, after all, just acting out fully the principles commanded by the faith that the moderates profess to embrace.

Hitchens presents a big book of anecdotes about terrible things done in the name of religion. Like Freud, he thinks the fundamental tenets of the worlds religion are superstitions that adults in the modern age have any business believing and thinks religious leaders to be for the most part a bunch of power-grabbing phonies.

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Sep 062011

We mentioned on the episode Gilligan’s opposition to Freud.

In this clip, Gilligan discusses a methodological difference in analyzing women’s self-reporting (much of the content of In a Different Voice):

Watch on YouTube.

She claims that rather than imposing your theory (in this case that the patient knows more than she is willing or able to say) on the patient, you need to derive your theories from what the patients say. The notion of hearing your aggressor’s voice as your own has echoes of our Hegel discussion of self.

What do you all think? Do any of our readers here with some prior Gilligan reading experience feel that we failed to give an adequate account of her work on the ‘cast?

-Mark Linsenmayer

Sep 052011
Charlotte Perkins Gilman

Discussing Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s utopian novel Herland (1915) and psychologist Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice (1983).

How does human nature, and specifically moral psychology, vary by sex? Charlotte Perkins Gilman claims that when philosophers have described human nature as violent and selfish, they have in mind solely male nature. Females, left to themselves in an isolated society, would be supremely peaceful, rational, and cooperative.

Carol Gilligan says accounts of “normal” moral development have not taken into account observations of women: instead of judging women my male standards and finding them wanting, she hypothesized a trajectory specific to women that acknowledged their emphasis on concrete care as opposed to abstract moral principles.

Featuring the return of Seth and guest podcaster Azzurra Crispino, whom you might recall from our Kant epistemology episode. We wanted this to be an introduction to feminist philosophy, and so talk a bit about exploitation and whether heterosexual sex is inherently oppressive, and other fun topics, but mostly it’s just a discussion of two books. But they’re good ones! Read more about the topic.

Buy Herland

End song: “Mother’s Day” by Mark Linsenmayer (2007). Read about it.