Oct 312011

Philosophy for Theologians logoThough we’ve not had a link to an article in The Stone for a while, I encourage you all to keep a look out there, as it’s a steady source of interesting articles.

I can’t resist throwing up a link to this article by Kelly Oliver: “Pet Lovers, Pathologized,” as it hooks into both our moral sense and feminism episodes.

Our inconsistent treatment of animals is one of the key signs that something is wrong with our cultural values. I’ve got a new puppy in the house now, and like any responsible pet owner, I acknowledge a real moral responsibility toward her. It’s very much like having a toddler in the house, and if I really just considered her property or a toy or something, I wouldn’t put up with any of it. But the issue is not just our hypocritical “I love my pets, but they have no moral standing” stance. As Ms. Oliver points out:

The animal rights and animal welfare debates continue to be dominated by discussions of whether and how animals have minds or intentions like we do. This discourse continues to measure animals against human standards in order to judge whether or not they deserve legal rights.

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Oct 292011
David Hume

Discussing parts of David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature (1740) and Adam Smith’s The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759).

Where do we get our moral ideas? Hume and Smith both thought that we get them by reflecting on our own moral judgments and on how we and others (including imaginary, hypothesized others) in turn judge those judgments. Mark, Wes, Seth, and guest Getty Lustila, a phil grad student at Georgia State University, hash through the Scottish stoicism to lay out the differences between these two gents and whether their views constitute an actual moral theory or just a descriptive enterprise.

Read along: We read the sections from the Treatise and from Smith in D.D. Raphael’s collectionBritish Moralists (Vol. 2).

End song: “Honest Judge” by New People from the 2010 album “Impossible Things,” written and sung by Nate Pinney.

Please support the podcast by becoming a PEL Citizen or making a donation.

Oct 272011

One of our listeners (and contributors! Thanks again!) Ernie P. has posted on our Facebook page:

You all (on the podcast) seem to assume that ‘belief in the irrational’ is a strongly correlated with religious belief; I would argue that (depending on how you define it), it is a factor in all human belief, and the only real irrationality is to think our own beliefs fully rational…

Now, I see that Ernie and another blogger Alan Lund have a whole back-and-forth going about the justification for Christianity, so you can check that out if you want; I’m not going to attempt to inject myself into that (and honestly don’t have time to read it all right now).

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Oct 252011

Does morality depend on religion? In Plato’s early and fun (and short!) dialogue Euthyphro, Socrates questions Euthyphro (who’s on his way to go and file murder charges against his own father) about the meaning of “piety.” Is an action (like turning in your dad) pious because it’s the kind of thing that the gods love? In modern terms, are pious actions justified just because of the commands (or, more in the absence of specific commands, the attitudes) of God? Socrates argues that this isn’t the case: conceptually, “good” doesn’t depend on these commands or attitudes of God; it’s rather that God (or “the gods,” taken together re. whatever they might all agree about) desires of us the actions He does because those actions are good.

Mark and Seth are joined by Dylan and by our former U. of Texas classmate Matt Evans, currently an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, to lay out the dialogue and discuss the extent to which it actually bears on this more modern debate about the relation of morality and religion. A divine command theorist argues, contra Plato, that since God is omnipotent, there’s no sense in which morality can be metaphysically prior to his commands (or his disposition, or his nature). On the other side (which is, you should note, also a theist side, Swinburne being a good example), to avoid morality being an arbitrary matter depending on God’s whims (meaning he could have declared child torture to be good), a Platonist would argue that like the laws of logic, fundamental moral truths have to come first in some sense: God only commands right actions because He recognizes them to be right; they don’t magically become right just because he says so.

Is this just a dispute internal to religion? No. If Plato is right, then this means we can legitimately theorize about moral truths independent of reference to God; we don’t even have to assume there is (or isn’t) a God. Theists and atheists are thus able to have a productive ethical discourse based on a common ground, and religious people who claim that atheists aren’t or can’t be moral are stymied good and hard.

Buy the book (this translation by G.M.A. Grube is the one Matt recommended)or read a free translation online.

Seth recommends the Wikipedia entry on the Euthyphro dilemma. Some of the last part of our discussion focused on the place of the dilemma in Judaism. For a good, Swinburne-esque discussion, listen to this Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot interview with David McNaughton.

Oct 212011

Yale Professor Greg Ganssle provides in this Pale Blue Dot episode what is perhaps a more charitable response to the new atheists than we did.

First, he points out something I hadn’t quite considered in this way before: We at PEL complain about how difficult and tedious it is (or would be) to write something fit for a peer reviewed journal. On the one hand, there’s no substitute for a qualified professor to kick your ass and make you revise something 90 times until it’s right. But the sheer amount of second-guessing involved, of making sure you’ve read and incorporated anything anyone ever has written about what you’re trying to express: it makes it nearly impossible to express anything and surely saps the passion out of the endeavor. Ganssle points out that even in the case of the only bona fide philosopher among the group, Dan Dennett, all of these guys are taking the role of “public intellectual,” taking their message directly to the people instead of putting through the academic publishing process (Dennett is a well established philosopher, but does not publish in academic philosophy of religion journals). For some reason this way of phrasing it makes me like them a bit more, maybe because it’s comparable to what we’re trying to do with the podcast.

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Oct 212011

I’ve written before about Eric Reitan, a modern follower of Scheleirmacher, and on this episode of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, Reitan gives I think a great explanation of the disagreement between the new atheists and humanistic, liberal Christians: they may agree on nearly all of the same principles (being against Biblical inerrancy and other implausible and morally pernicious parts of fundamentalist Christianity) but still have a different overall assessment of religion because they’re “playing different language games.” His explanation of religion as an essentially contested concept (a new term to me, though certainly a familiar concept in outline) is alone sufficient to make the episode worth a listen. The concept “religion” is not just a categorization of various things, but it has, like “work of art,” a normative judgment built into it. It’s just that at this point in history, some folks have a positive evaluation built into the concept, and some have a negative evaluation. So Hitchens and a liberal theologian, according to Reitan, can both agree about nearly everything, but while the theologian holds up some historical fruits of religion and say “see, isn’t religion great,” Hitchens will respond that that isn’t really religion; while Hitchens will point out horrible crimes associated with religion and the theologian (like Scheiermacher) will deny that these are part of the essence of religion. So it’s largely an argument over words at that point, though we’d have to be more specific about the particular points of remaining disagreement to determine whether they’re really worth arguing over.

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Oct 202011

Watch on YouTube

I can write nothing on Heideggerian scholar*/(anti)Hollywood director Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life that hasn’t been better written elsewhere. Even so, the film has just come available on DVD and digital download, so I thought I’d recommend it to anyone who has been interested in PEL’s recent religion episodes. (Suggestion: try to watch the HD version of the clip.) If I had to try to connect the film’s theme to recent topics, I’d call attention to Malick’s ruminations on life’s utterly contingent nature, and whether it suggests the presence or absence of God.

While the film isn’t perfect (somebody please explain the ending!), a movie with existential dinosaurs beats a two-hour couch-warming session with another Transformers sequel. Trust me.

*I can’t find a decent link, but Malick translated Heidegger’s The Essence of Reasons for Northwestern University Press before he abandoned graduate study.

-Daniel Horne

Oct 192011

We were left at an impasse on the episode regarding the part of the argument from design referring to the fine-tuning of the universe to support life. Dawkins didn’t give enough detail about this for us really to understand, much less critique it, yet it seemed like a lot of what we were concerned about hinged on this argument. You can read about it on Wikipedia.

Prominent in the Wiki article is one of the lesser known among the new atheists, Victor Stenger. The video below shows him talking about this issue. The fine-tuning discussion starts runs from around minutes 16-38. Before getting into the technical details of what fine-tuning amounts to, he first makes the point that if the universe was designed for life, we should expect to see a lot more life in it (less lifeless space and time without intelligent life). We’d also expect more accessible planets to be conducive to life than just Earth (the point being that most of them sure aren’t, and even if there are any, we couldn’t get to them in a lifetime of travel). Neal Degreasse Tyson makes the same point more energetically here.

Watch on YouTube.

The values that allegedly, if different, would prevent life include the speed of light, Planck’s constant, the ratio of electrons to protons, ratio of electromagnetic force to gravity, expansion rate of the universe, mass density of the universe, and the cosmological constant). I’ll let you watch the video for the details of Stenger’s response, but the upshot is that the most important of these constants are self-regulating, meaning they’d approach that rate regardless of where they started. According to Stenger, everything looks exactly as it would if the universe came from nothing.

Personally, I don’t feel comfortable enough with the physics either before or after this lecture either to actually see that there’s a problem and to see that Stenger has solved this for us. I don’t have a sense of the scientific consensus, and Stenger says that some of what he’s saying is still a matter of debate among physicists. In conclusion, I sympathize with Dawkins’s seeming inability to thoroughly describe this problem or what’s wrong with it.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 182011

As we were well aware at the time, our discussion of Dan Dennett in the episode was lame. He didn’t fit with the other authors, we’d nearly run out of steam by the time we got to him, and the other guys were certainly not interested enough in him to warrant a follow-up recording or anything of that sort. So, it was mostly me giving a half-assed recap (which I edited down considerably, as the monologue was getting tiring), and frankly, he deserves better than that. So, for those of you that are interested, here he is giving an in depth account of the very same section of the book we discussed:

Watch on YouTube.

Note that Dennett’s speech starts around 11 minutes in (though the story about his illness that Dawkins tells in the introduction is interesting, I thought: the point being the Nietzschean secular one that being grateful to God shouldn’t lead one to ignore all the actual people and institutions that there are to be grateful to).

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Oct 172011

We’ve completed a new Podcast Topics page that lays out our progress and prospects in the various philosophic streams: how are we doing on ethics? (great!), in metaphysics (spotty), in philosophy of science (uh… what?), etc.

If you’re newish to PEL and/or haven’t had the stomach to go back and listen to every episode chronologically, this page will help you key in on other episodes related to the one you just listened to and enjoyed. If you just tuned in for the new atheists, for instance, you’re missing a key part of the discussion: our Schleiermacher episode. And who can keep track of all those pesky social contract episodes?

I’ll doubtless be revising this continually; let me know if it’s helpful.

Check out the page

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 162011

Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot logoI’ve continued barreling double speed through episodes of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot (I’ve got a new puppy who needs like 8 long walks a day.) and continue to be impressed with how consistently good Luke’s guests are. Unlike many interview shows or lecture series where topics may be disconnected, I’m seeing a steady progression through the various interviews further into various positions and figures in the philosophy of religion. Luke’s done the world a great service getting these talks together, and at such an alarming rate (around 100 episodes since the beginning of 2009, sometimes recording more than one per day)!

To follow up on my post yesterday about Sam Harris on faith, I wanted to post this interview with Andrei Buckareff, who distinguishes between belief (holding a proposition to be true) and acceptance (holding a proposition for some practical purpose). He says faith can and should be the latter of these. As I often insist, you can’t make yourself believe something; faith can’t be actually deciding to believe something when you just plain don’t; that would involve blatant self-deception. However, Buckareff points out that you can certainly willfully accept a proposition to be true for the purposes of action, and action (he thinks) is largely the point of Christianity.

I find this solution much too easy. He uses the analogy of taking a role in a play, which is clearly pretending: on the least pretext (say, if I as an actor felt physically threatened), I’d break character and abandon the “beliefs” I was holding as that character. If the problem with faith (according to Kenny, who we discussed near the end of our new atheists episode) is that the faithful base their actions too firmly (killing or dying for their faith) on these propositions that they have insufficient evidence for, then Buckareff’s solution utterly fails to engage that. Either we have to interpret his analogy such that we’d drop our faith when it became inconvenient (which might be OK with Kenny but doesn’t seem to capture what faith is about) or we get the perverse picture of people doing extreme things on the basis of a admittedly heuristic strategy (which is exactly what Kenny is complaining about). What do you think?

Toward the end of the discussion Buckareff responds sympathetically to my complaint about the Christian hell, and he spends a lot of his time here talking about making religion and metaphysical naturalism (typically considered the presupposition of natural science) compatible and what this has to do with pantheism and panentheism: this serves as a great follow-up to our Spinoza discussion on God.

Oct 152011

A “University Lecturer living in South Korea” calling himself Skepoet responded here to our episode. He gives a nice quote from Julian Baggini and makes some salient points about our discussion.

One of his comments was that we didn’t seem to find an argument in Harris to critique. Here’s the argument as I remember it that we were focusing on:

If you suspend your critical faculties and “have faith,” then you open yourself up to believing all sorts of horrific stuff, such as, most importantly to the rest of society, commands to violence.

The general response is, yes, if faith is actually a matter of “I can’t think for myself! Think for me!” then this is a legitimate concern, and no doubt that is exactly the experience of faith in some people. However:

1. Per Kant and William James, faith about matters over which no experiential deconfirmation is even theoretically possible isn’t irrational in this way. Granted, most actual religions are not Kant-friendly in this way (so it’s kind of goofy that we spent so much time on this when that’s not the new atheists’ target for the most part).

2. As a practical matter, people just don’t get brainwashed to the point of violence. Other forces in human motivation tend to step in to curtail violence, and when violence does occur, you generally find that the perpetrator had more things wrong with him than just the religious motivation. Religion is neither necessary nor sufficient for violence… which is not to say that they’re unconnected in all circumstances or that more critical thinking wouldn’t be very helpful in preventing the spread of violence. To the extent that religion is against critical thinking, it’s a detriment to any society.

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Oct 142011

Watch on YouTube.

A name that popped up in Episode 43 and Episode 44 was that of Oxford philosophy professor Richard Swinburne. Swinburne has made his reputation positing analytic arguments in favor of Christian theism. As Robert pointed out toward the end of Episode 43, most Christians, even if sympathetic, would probably not find Swinburne’s arguments dispositive toward their belief. Even so, it’s only fair to allow serious scholars like Swinburne to frame their own arguments before rendering judgment. Swinburne’s approach reveals the strawman nature of the arguments deployed by Hitchens, Harris, et al. when they evoke the cartoonish “I believe because the [insert Holy Text] says so” stereotype. (I will cut Richard Dawkins some slack here; he’s actually done a pretty good job of engaging non-silly theists in civil debate.)

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Oct 112011

Discussing selections from Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel C. Dennett.

Should we be religious, or is religion just a bunch of superstitious nonsense that it’s past time for us to outgrow? Does faith lead to ceding to authority and potential violence? Can a reasonable person be religious? We say lots of rude things about these authors, and at times about their targets in this listener-requested episode featuring Mark, Wes, Seth, and Dylan. Read more about the topic.

Buy/read what we did:
-Ch. 1-2 of Harris’s The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason(2004)
-The last three chapters of Hitchens’s God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything

End song: “Goddammit” by by Mark Lint and the Simulacra, recorded partly in 2000 and partly just now.

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

Oct 102011

Austin Texas image from Wikipedia

Dear PEL adherents–

I’d like to put together a philosophy discussion group here in Austin.  Thinking monthly, maybe related to our episode content, maybe not, but definitely face-to-face.  Casual, social with some fun as well as philosophy involved.

Question:  anyone out there either in the area and interested or know someone who is?  It would only take about 5 of us to get it going.  Let me know by responding to this thread and I’ll mirror it on FB as well.  If you are on FB and haven’t joined our group, please do so as I’ll probably be using that to set up events and communicate if this gains any traction.


P.S.  If you aren’t in Austin now but will be coming by for any reason, let me know when and I’ll do my best to meet you and say “hi!”.

Oct 072011

Philosophy for Theologians logoConversations from the Pale Blue Dot presents quite a bit of this ongoing debate in its nearly 100 episodes (and can also set you up with a fairly thorough set of ideas re. contemporary ethics; I’ll post on that after the Hume/Smith ethics episode goes up).

In this interview with Gregory Dawes from the University of Otego in New Zealand, we hear a former minister who converted to atheism precisely because of his historical investigations into the Jesus story. He talks about naturalistic vs. religious explanations and why we might want to pursue the former even in cases where we don’t have enough evidence either way (he mentions Swinburne a couple of times).

In this conversation with Evan Fales from the University of Iowa, you can hear more about Alvin Plantinga as well as another prominent Christian philosopher that we didn’t bring up, William Alston.

As a general note on the podcast for those that haven’t checked this out: this falls into the same category of other podcasts I’ve written about here before like Elucidations and Diet Soap, all of which I like, which are basically interview format: find a guest who has written a paper or book or otherwise has things to say, and pretty much let them say it.

In all three of these cases, the hosts do a good job contributing to the discussion, i.e. they’re very interested in the subject matter and do some preparation. Still, the format is limited in that if the guest sucks, the episode sucks. I’ll admit that my first couple of tries in the past with Pale Blue Dot were thwarted by the fact that the episodes often lead off with a “tell me about your spiritual journey” section, and my patience for that is fairly limited (I’ll cave in and listen to some of the grossly popular “This I Believe” podcast at some point, but I generally don’t like that format; the “man on the street” parts of the otherwise pretty consistently good Philosophy Talk podcast are definitely its weakest part) for that kind of thing. I’m also interested in the relation between these podcasts and academia: some of them will only have “academically respectable” university professors on them. Pale Blue Dot is all about the ideas, meaning you have to do additional research on your own to figure out in some cases whether the guest is a crank or not, or you can deny that that question has any meaning apart from what you the listener takes out of what you hear.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 052011

Podcaster Laura graciously commented on our Gilman/Gilligan episode in the first few minutes of her most recent Fully Engaged Feminism podcast.

She thought we were not harsh enough on Gilman for her eugenics views and found our approach to gender, “especially our references to trans individuals,” somewhat frustrating. I don’t actually recall any references at all to trans individuals, but clearly this is a sensitive topic; perhaps she or others can clue us in to which texts or insights we apparently didn’t have sufficiently in mind during the discussion.

She appreciated our discussion of exploitation, which was entirely Azzurra’s insertion into the discussion, as it wasn’t explicitly the subject of the texts we were reading. So, I guess her feminist intuitions are on the mark.

The bulk of the episode is an interview with Internet comic guy Gabby Schulz about a cartoon he did about feminism about Internet blather that generated a lot of Internet blather.

-Mark Linsenmayer

Oct 052011

Mike Licona

Mike Licona

Continuing to chase down threads engendered by the Hume’s argument against miracles thread, I listened to the lengthy episode #2 of Conversations from the Pale Blue Dot, a podcast run by Luke Muehlahuser, proprietor of commonsenseatheism.com. This is an interview with Mike Licona, who describes himself on the podcast as a historian who’s extensively studied the philosophy of history and has made an extremely thorough examination–with an honest attempt to put aside his preconceptions and get at truth–of the historical evidence for Jesus’s resurrection. His titles, however, according to wikipedia, are “Apologetics Coordinator at the North American Mission Board (Southern Baptist Convention) and Research Professor of New Testament at Southern Evangelical Seminary,” and listening to the discussion, I’m struck by the contrast between Licona’s sober and skeptical tone and the stories of the supernatural (along the lines of demons raging in the third world) he seems willing to entertain.

Repeatedly, Licona tells us we need to look at the evidence and use the best hypothesis; he’s very willing to discount numerous Biblical details as being products of legend. The evidence in question for the resurrection seems to boil down to:

Paul of Tarsus “received oral tradition,” only a couple years after Jesus’s death (as he relates in certain letters he wrote reproduced in the Bible) that Jesus was crucified and afterwords appeared bodily multiple times to groups of individuals. Licona is convinced that Paul is passing on this tradition faithfully, and that the tradition itself reflected actual statements of witnesses to these appearances, due to the strong respect for unalterable tradition among the particular Jewish sect that was the source of the tradition and Paul’s distinguishing clearly in his speech between what he’s received and what new ideas he’s putting forward.

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Oct 032011
Rabbi Moses ben Maimon aka Maimonides

Maimonides image on Wikipedia

I think during the Mackie episode I mentioned that proving the existence of God through Reason seemed to me to be a decidely Western and Christian undertaking.  I speculated that it wasn’t an issue for Eastern religions (those that have a concept of God or gods) and declared that it wasn’t one for Judaism.

It  occurs to me that I should stop speaking on behalf of the religion with which I affilate and yet do not practice.  This past Thursday was Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year.  (The Jewish calendar is lunar, so the new year comes at a different time relative to our standard calendar each year.)  Rosh Hashanah kicks off a 10-day period with Yom Kippur – the Day of Atonement – known as the ‘High Holy Days’.  It is the most deeply religious period for Jews for which there is, I think, not a direct correlation in Christianity (I’m not sure about Islam or other non-monotheistic religions).

Jewish tradition teaches that during the High Holy Days God decides who will live and who will die during the coming year. As a result, during Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (and in the days leading up to them) Jews embark upon the serious task of examining their lives and repenting for any wrongs they have committed during the previous year. This process of repentance is called teshuvah.  Jews are encouraged to make amends with anyone they have wronged and to make plans for improving during the coming year. In this way, Rosh HaShanah is all about making peace in the community and striving to be a better person. –About.com

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