What is Philosophy?

Defining philosophy, like defining any complex subject, is challenging. It’s challenging partly because it’s been around so long but also because it has many parts. But plenty of people have attempted to define the discipline and I’m going to take a stab at it in this article.

Philosophy is the study of the fundamental structure of the universe. How’s that for not burying the lead? Actually, defining philosophy, like defining any complex subject, is challenging. It’s challenging partly because it’s been around so long but also because it has many parts. But plenty of people have attempted to define the discipline and I’m going to take a stab at it here.

Some stuff defies definition.  Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart in 1964 couldn’t define pornography to anyone’s satisfaction, “But I know it when I see it.” he said in his opinion in Jacobellis v. Ohio. But in general, any time we use a word to refer to something, the definition of that word not only singles out what the thing is but it also implies what the thing isn’t. A dog isn’t a cat. By calling something a dog, we’re implying it has stuff that cats don’t. That’s partly why we don’t call it a cat.

So in defining philosophy, I’ll describe what I think it is and also what I think it isn’t. If you’re reading ahead, you may get the sense that I’m already in trouble. In order to describe what philosophy isn’t, I must assume that my reader understands all these other things I’m comparing philosophy to. It’s wholly unhelpful to say philosophy isn’t x if you don’t know what x is.

So I’ll admit up front that my assumption is that you, dear reader, don’t have a good working definition of philosophy but that you do have some understanding of what these other things are. If that’s true, then by comparing what you don’t know to what you do know, you’ll know that what you don’t know isn’t what you do know and that will help you come to know what you don’t know. Make sense?

What Philosophy Isn’t

Philosophy is not science. Philosophy is a kind of science in the general sense of that term (as philosopher Bertrand Russell noted in the introduction to his famous A History of Western Philosophy): there are procedures to follow, hypotheses to test, outcomes to work towards, and experiments to run. By saying philosophy is not science, I mean that philosophy doesn’t study the things the hard sciences—chemistry, biology, some disciplines in physics—studies. The methodology might be similar in some respects but the objects of study are different.

Philosophy is not psychology. One of my graduate school professors frequently would ask people what they think philosophy is. One of his favorite answers was, “psychology misspelled.” The more philosophy I study, the more affinity I see between it and psychology. Both are generally focused on the mind and what it does, both worry about how the mind relates to the world around it, both are interested in behavior. But philosophy focuses less on how to live in the world as a thinking thing and spends more energy on what it means to be a mind. Philosophy also studies the mind’s contents--ideas or concepts. Psychology helps humans to understand why things go wrong and how to make them right again (and what that means) while philosophy is concerned with understanding the structure of things like beliefs, a moral behavior, and sense experience.

Philosophy is not linguistics. This one may be a bit controversial since philosophers spend a lot of time with words. Philosophy isn’t really about the structure of language but it is does focus on the content of words. Put differently, philosophers don’t care too much about why there should be number agreement between nouns and verbs in English sentences or why the nouns in Latin-based languages have a gender. But they do care what the definition of “existence” means and the difference between believing “God exists necessarily” and “Necessarily, God exists.”

Philosophy is not theology. Thomas Aquinas famously stated that philosophy is the handmaiden of theology. While I certainly would not want to attempt to cross intellectual swords with someone like Aquinas, I respectfully see things the other way around. The study of questions like, “Is there a god?,”What is good and evil?,”Do humans have a soul?” have all been studied by theologians but those theologians have been doing philosophy. Theology is particularly concerned with the nature of God (assuming God exists—a question philosophy tries to answer) and his relationship to the universe. Philosophy tends not to deal with such questions (though some philosophers play around in this space) and is concerned with whether a being like God is an idea that makes sense given everything else we think we know.

What Philosophy Is

Philosophy is the foundation of all subjects. When my kids were younger, they would yell “jinx!” when one or more of them said the same word at the same time. Often, they would all yell “jinx!” at the same time which would demand the necessary “double-jinx!” Simultaneous “double-jinx!” obviously meant they’d need to race to the “triple-jinx!” “Quadruple-jinx!” is beyond the pale so finally one would squeak out more quickly than the others: “jinx! to infinity!”

A philosopher saying philosophy is the foundation of all other subjects may sound at first like a “jinx! to infinity!” – a small-man's way of saying, “my discipline is the most important!” But saying philosophy is at the root of everything else we study isn’t so much a race to top as it is an observation. Philosophy studies concepts and the relations those concepts have to one other. It studies the meaning of terms, and the structure of the world around us. In this sense, all other disciplines must assume some framework before it can begin (philosophy, of course, does too and philosophers study that!). Whenever you start asking questions about the foundation of what you’re studying, you’ve entered the wide world of philosophy. Thomas Nagel once wrote, “We couldn’t get along in life without taking the ideas of time, number knowledge, language, right and wrong for granted most of the time; but in philosophy we investigate those things themselves.” (Nagel, What Does It All Mean?) That’s the general idea.

Philosophy is a framework. This means that philosophy is an approach to questions rather than a bunch of answers to the questions themselves. Logic, a sub-discipline in philosophy, gives us a way to frame ideas so we talk about things more orderly. For example, if I said, “I’m not voting for that politician.” You could reasonably ask why. Suppose my response was, “I don’t know, I’m just not.” You would know that I probably wouldn’t be voting for the politician but you wouldn’t know much else. You wouldn’t know whether my claim was reasonable or not or if you shouldn’t vote for that politician. If I want to convince you that something is true, I offer reasons to support the thing I want you to believe and you can either accept my reasons or offer some reasons for a different conclusion. This method of “argumentation” is a framework for discussion and has formed the basis of rational discourse since recorded time. This framework is based in philosophy.

Philosophy is practical. This one may surprise you a bit but I’ve found philosophy to be immensely practical. Humans exist in a sea of ideas and concepts. We live and die by them. We discuss them and work on problems involving them. We exchange ideas at work, at home, in relationships, and politics. We are constantly trying to bridge communication gaps and refine ideas and get more precise about them. In short, humans existence is wholly dependent on ideas (jinx! to infinity!). Philosophy, as a discipline that is all-consumed with better understanding ideas, affects every area of life. The better we can get at framing and discussing ideas, the better and more precise our definitions, the clearer we can become about the limits of our knowledge and the importance (or unimportance) of the things we believe, the better we might be at living. That seems pretty practical to me.

Philosophy is truth-conducive. Sorry about the technical term (I need it to maintain my ‘philosophy is’ list). “Truth conducive” simply means that philosophy can help get us nearer to what is true about the world. When I say that to people who aren’t professional philosophers, I typically get a raised eyebrow and a smirk. After all, aren’t philosophers still studying the problems that Plato was dealing with 2500 years ago? Yes and that’s partly why I used the phrase nearer to what is true. Philosophers attempt to study the structure of the world and insofar as we make progress on that task, we learn stuff about how the world works. For example, philosophers study beliefs. We want to know what a belief is, how it works, how it relates to other things in the world and so on. When philosophers chip away at that problem and come up with some good ideas about it, we are actually uncovering facts about the world that we otherwise would not know.

Disciplines in Philosophy

In this section, I describe a handful of sub-disciplines in philosophy to give you an idea of the areas of study professional philosophers focus on.

  • Epistemology – this is the study of the scope, limits, and possibility of knowledge. Epistemologists wrestle with questions like, “what can I know?,” “what is knowledge?,” “what are the limits of what I can know?,” “how do beliefs work?,” and “how are beliefs related to other things in the world?”
  • Metaphysics – metaphysics has taken on a kind of new age meaning in modern society. But metaphysics in philosophy is generally the study of the structure of the world. For example, metaphysicians study the nature of existence. Have you ever wondered what it means for something to exist? Can “square circles” exist? If not, why not? Can you understand what it would mean to exist without a body (is this even possible)? What is a physical object as opposed to other types of objects? Metaphysics tackles these questions.
  • Philosophy of Mind – here we attempt to look at what it means to say something has a mind. Philosophers of mind also wrestle with topics like whether the mind and the body are distinct things or whether other animals like fish or “inanimate” things like computers have minds. You most likely have opinions about these questions and in philosophy of mind, you create a framework for those opinions and are able to test them.
  • Ethics – ethicists study the nature of the good and how humans should live based on how the good is defined. Talk about practical.
  • Philosophy of Religion – philosophers in this discipline attempt to tackle questions like, “does God exist?,” “is there life after death?,” “is any religion true?” and “how can we believe in a good God with so much evil in the world?”
  • Logic – Logicians study arguments and the relationship between ideas.

As you probably notice, each of these disciplines relate to each other and there is a lot of overlap. That’s partly why philosophy can be so time consuming and difficult. But I hope you also get the idea that the payoff for investing time in these subjects can be immense.

For Further Reading

*By purchasing books through the links below, you help support Philosophy News.

Irrational Man a Study in Existential Philosophy
Barrett, W. (1963). Garden City, New York: Anchor Books.
The Denial of Death
Becker, E. (1973). New York: The Free Press.
A History of Philosophy
Frederick Copleston, S. (1993-1994). A History of Philosophy (Vols. I-IX). New York: Image Books.
The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America
Menand, L. (2001). New York: Farrar, Straus, Ciroux.
What Does It All Mean?
Nagel, T. (2004). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
The Theory of Knowledge: Classic and Contemporary Readings
Pojman, L. P. (1993). Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Introducing Philosophy: A Text with Integrated Readings
Solomon, R. C. (2001). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
image Talking Philosophy: A Wordbook
Sparkes, A. W. (1991). London: Routledge.
Without God, Without Creed: The Origins of Unbelief in America
Turner, J. (1985). Baltimore, Maryland: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
A Rulebook for Arguments
Weston, A. (2008). Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company.

Workshop on Religious Toleration

Brian Leiter is leading a workshop during October 2011 in Milan titled, “Why Tolerate Religion?”

Brian Leiter is leading a workshop during October 2011 in Milan titled, “Why Tolerate Religion?” Topic titles include, “Religious Pluralism and Toleration,” “Religion in the Age of Naturalism,” and “How Should We Respect Conscience?”

Flyer here.

The Gettier Problem: A Study—Part 9

In the previous article in this series, we started looking at the object of belief as a means of unpacking the belief component of JTB. In this essay, I explore this idea further and describe how the distinction relates to the Gettier Problem.

In the previous article in this series, we started looking at the object of belief as a means of unpacking the belief component of JTB. I made a distinction between propositions and states of affairs primarily under the framework of John Schellenberg. I presented the idea that the object of belief is broader than the idea of a proposition typically construed and that the distinction between propositions and states of affairs is less precise than we typically may think of them. In this essay, I explore this idea further and describe how the distinction relates to the Gettier Problem.

Propositions and their relationship to states of affairs

Similar to Shope and Schellenberg, Roderick Chisholm prefers an epistemology that places states of affairs at the center. Still, Chisholm is not as ready to minimize the ontological role propositions play in belief and, instead, chooses to place propositions as a subclass of states of affairs. This allows him to talk about belief in terms of propositions while still maintaining the identity relation with states of affairs. Chisholm developed his epistemology and theory of intentionality primarily in his 1979 Person and Object and his 1981 The First Person with the latter book providing a richer development of (and, in important ways, superseding) the former. My exegesis will focus on The First Person and reference Person and Object when doing so will be necessary to fill out his ideas.

In Person and Object Chisholm provided a general ontology in which he established states of affairs as the basic doxastic element on which he based his epistemology. His view in that book is that believing is primarily propositional. A belief de re is a species of belief de dicto such that the believer accepts a proposition that implies that an object possesses a property. If a proposition implies that something has a property and is true, then necessarily something is said to possess that property. On this view, individuals have a uniquely identifying property. If there is a proposition that consists of a conjunction of your uniquely identifying properties along with another property, then I can be said to believe (de dicto) that you possess that property[1].

This theory works when applied to beliefs about other persons but appears to break down when applied to beliefs about oneself. It requires that an individual accept propositions that include some self-identifying property. But what would this property be? It could be an individual essence or haecceity but then it should be possible to isolate specific features of this property that distinguish it from other properties. But the only distinguishing property seems to be being identical with me which does not seem to be any property at all. His solution is radical. He concludes that the best approach to this difficulty is to deny that there are such things as first-person propositions. While there are first-person sentences, there are no such things as first-person propositions because no sense can be given[2] to self-identifying properties that are not empty. Further, this conclusion is based on a more general theory that the normal function of sentences containing demonstrative terms or names is not to express propositions.[3]

States of Affairs and Propositions

Before we unpack the implications of this solution, I want to survey Chisholm’s general ontology of states of affairs and propositions and then discuss the epistemology he presents in The First Person. Many of the specifics of his ontology are established in Person and Object but the ideas provide a foundation for the work he does in the later volume.

Chisholm holds that states of affairs are occurrent or non-occurrent rather than true or false; they either obtain or do not obtain. States of affairs do not stand in an identity relation with events or objects in the world per se. States of affairs are distinct abstract objects. In Person and Object, Chisholm offers the following by way of definition.

C1 - p is a state of affairs = Df It is possible that there is someone who accepts p[4].

He expands this definition in The First Person by addition two qualifications:

C2 - p is a state of affairs = Df p is necessarily such that (i) it is possible that there is someone who conceives it, (ii) whoever conceives it conceives something which is possible such that it obtains and (ii) it is not a property or a relation. [5]

Specifically, a state of affairs is anything that is not a property or a relation and that can possibly be conceived by someone. To say that a state of affairs exists does not mean that it in fact obtains or occurs[6]. This is important as he implies that states of affairs exist apart from anyone knowing them and that states of affairs that are not "concrete events" or do not obtain also exist. This idea is very similar to Schellenberg’s notion of propositional content though Schellenberg doesn’t seem as willing to allow for these types of abstract objects in his ontology. Since belief is our primary concern, I think we can set aside the difference in metaphysics between Schellenberg and Chisholm as long as they both function the same in doxastic contexts. Even so, Chisholm’s epistemology is tightly related to his metaphysics so a broader understanding of the latter will be important for adequately understanding the former.

Chisholm further develops the ontology of states of affairs in terms of properties and relations. The occurrence of states of affairs is described in terms of the exemplification or lack of exemplification of a specific property or relation. He states,

C3 - For every property or relation G, there is a state of affairs p and there is a state of affairs q which are necessarily such that: p obtains if and only if G is exemplified[7] and q obtains if and only if G is not exemplified

Chisholm acknowledges that this view presupposes “an extreme view of Platonism”[8] but that it can deal with problems like states of affairs that cannot possibly obtain like being both round and square. Further, Chisholm holds that all states of affairs like these as well as those that actually do obtain or exist necessarily[9]. Regardless of whether one accepts Platonism of this sort, it seems true enough that people do believe seemingly impossible things. Chisholm’s position is that the objects of those beliefs are state of affairs that do not obtain and these states of affairs have at their root properties and relations, though states of affairs themselves are not a property or relation (there is no property “something being red”). States of affairs, then, “are of two sorts: those that obtain (occur or take place) and those that do not."[10]

Propositions, like states of affairs, are abstract objects existing in every possible world but have the modal property of being true or false rather than occurrent or non-occurent[11]. Since the two are so similar, aren’t we needlessly multiplying entities beyond what we need? Do we really need to say that among the things that exist eternally in all possible worlds is the state of affairs of Socrates being mortal and also the proposition that Socrates is mortal? He doesn’t believe the latter is ontologically distinct from the former and so defines propositions essentially are states of affairs but with an accidental modal property. A proposition is a state of affairs that either always occurs or never occurs.

p is a proposition = Df p is a state of affairs, and it is impossible that there is a time t and a time t' such that p occurs at t and does not occur at t'

A true proposition is one that occurs and a false proposition is one that does not occur[12]. When a person believes a proposition, he believes a state of affairs is necessarily occurring or not occurring. If I say, I believe the proposition, “Bill Gates is the richest man in the world,” I believe the state of affairs “Bill gates being the richest man in the world” occurs and is necessarily true[13]. To understand how this idea functions in Chisholm’s system, I think it’s best to think of a proposition as an abstract object that functions in doxastic contexts like any other property. States of affairs entail not only other states of affairs but also relations and properties[14]. What does it mean, then, to say that a person believes a state of affairs? What does it mean to say, for example, that a man believes a storm is occurring? Chisholm considers these questions in the form of an objection:

‘(i) Your theory implies that, if a man believes that a storm is occurring, then that state of affairs which is the occurrence of a storm is the object of his belief. But (ii) the sentence “He believes that a storm is occurring” is natural and clearly grammatical, whereas “He believes the occurrence of a storm” is unnatural and not clearly grammatical. Hence (iii) if a man believes that a storm is occurring something other than the occurrence of a storm is the object of his belief.[15]

The response to this objection is that there is no ontological difference between saying the man believes the occurrence of the storm and saying he believes that a storm is occurring. We may easily substitute either phrase with, “He believes in or suspects, or is counting on, or is mindful of, the occurrence of the storm.” [16] Similarly we may speak the same way of desire or emotive states (terms like fears, regrets, hopes) by substituting the event itself for a that clause. The object of the belief is the same in each case: the occurrence of the storm is what the belief is about and that is a state of affairs. Thus, descriptions of the man’s beliefs in terms of propositions really end up being descriptions in terms of states of affairs. Here again we can see similarities to Schellenberg’s account. The object of belief is a way the world possibly could be. It is not a sentence describing the world but a thought that the world actually is a certain way.

We could ask of both Schellenberg and Chisholm, “What is the distinction between thinking of a way the world possibly could be and thinking of a proposition that about the way the world possibly could be?” This is asked as a metaphysical question but we easily could ask it as an epistemological one as well: what is the distinction in terms of what a person believes. In both cases the believer appears to have as the object of his belief a way the world possibly could be. For Schellenberg, the answer is that a proposition (not propositional content) is a description of the world that is considered as an object of thought. As I stated in the previous article in this series, it turns out to look very similar to a linguistic token. Thinking about the proposition that the cat is chasing the mouse is to be thinking (quotationally): “the cat is chasing the mouse.” But the person thinking this just entertains the state of affairs as possible. Belief involves accepting this state of affairs as actual and so the believer does not merely think of the description of the way the world might be but thinks of a representation of the world itself and considers it to be actual.

For Chisholm, when one believes that a proposition is true, one believes that a state of affairs is necessarily occurrent. When one believes a state of affairs, the object of his belief is a world state (a possible way in which the world could be) in which some property or relation is exemplified, e.g. it is foggy outside. For a belief that it is foggy, the mind has as its object the state of affairs in which the property “being foggy” is true of the world outside my window as an event that possibly happens “outside the mind.” Notice that on this view, it is foggy makes no commitment about whether it now is foggy or if it has been foggy in the past or if it will be foggy in the future. It could be the case that it is never is foggy but the believer holds that it could be. But if the believer takes this state of affairs propositionally—“that it is foggy”—she holds that the state of affairs is true or occurrent. If she holds it to be true, then the description is necessarily true because she is committing to the idea that it is foggy now (or at time t). If it is foggy at time t then it is not possible that it is not foggy at time t. Believing propositionally is accepting that a state of affairs actually is occurrent (or non-occurrent) at a time.

For both Schellenberg and Chisholm, the object of the belief is a representation of world, or a possible event in the world, or a state of affairs. That is, the mind is directed to a broad set of properties and relations not to a description that can be expressed in language. While the state of affairs can be described in language, this description is not the object of thought.

In the next essay, I’ll explore Chisholm’s discussion of belief de re and de dicto as a means of further disambiguating how propositions and states of affairs function in belief contexts.


[1] Roderick Chisholm, Person and Object: A Metaphysical Study (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1979), 14

[2] Alvin Plantinga thinks that self-identifying properties do make sense and so do not need to be treated differently than other properties. See Plantinga, The Boethian Compromise, 2003

[3] While we cannot explore this idea in full, I state it here because this conclusion is what drives Chisholm’s entire thesis in The First Person and is essential to understanding his epistemology in this volume.

[4] Roderick Chisholm, Person and Object: A Metaphysical Study (La Salle, Illinois: Open Court Publishing Company, 1979), 117

[5] Roderick Chisholm, First Person: Essay on Reference and Intentionality (Studies in Philosophy), (Minneapolis, Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1981 by The Royal Institute of Philosophy), 9

[6] Person and Object, 119

[7] The exemplification relation, while important, is too involved to address here. For our purposes, it may be sufficient to say that a property or relation is exemplified when it is had by at least one thing; that is, when it occurs in reality.

[8] Ibid., 119

[9] It does seem odd to say that there are properties like square-roundness that cannot possibly obtain because then what does it mean to say “there are” properties like this? More to the current problem, what would it mean to say that a person is disposed to act as if there are things that are both round and square? Yet it seems correct to say that people can behave as if impossible things obtain so Chisholm’s position has at least prima facie plausibility. One perennial example concerns the existence of God. If a being like God does not exist (the properties of a divine being cannot possibly obtain), it is certainly the case that many people are disposed to act as if they in fact do obtain. So the state of affairs is accepted by these people yet they are impossible.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 122

[12] Ibid., 123

[13] Adding the temporal index is important here and helps make sense of the modal property. Really, what I’m saying is that Bill Gates is the richest man in the world at t. If that state of affairs obtains at t then it is not possible that the state of affairs does not obtain at t. There is debate whether statements about the future have truth value. On this theory, they would not. For “Bill Gates will be the richest man in the world” neither obtains nor does not obtain and thus could not be necessary or impossible. But these are complexities we can set aside for the present.

[14] Ibid., 124

[15] Ibid., 123

[16] Ibid.

Analytic Theology Project Activities

As part of the Analytic Theology Project funded by the Templeton Foundation, the Munich School of Philosophy is organizing various philosophy of religion events and activities.

Master Class: "Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom"
February 16 - 19, 2012

Summer School: "Minds - Human and Divine"
July 26 - August 4, 2012

International Conference: Minds - Human and Divine
August 6 - 9, 2012

PostDoc Fellowship

Reposted from Prosblogion

What is Guilt?

What is guilt? There is no shortage of things to feel guilty about these days and this has produced everything from victims to neurotics. There are solutions but do any of them work?

Guilt and the Human Condition

As someone who was raised in a culture that capitalized on guilt as a motivator for action, I’ve spent a good deal of my adult life dealing with guilt’s effects. I’ve had to be very intentional about breaking out of the entrenched guilt-ridden psychology that was drilled into me as a child. But at the same time I’m trying to understand what guilt is, how it functions and what, if any, role it should play in a healthy psychology.

While I don’t believe religion was the source of the paralytic guilt I was dealing with, I came to realize that was used as a type of catalyst for it. I nibbled around the edges of the problem for years and finally had a breakthrough when, on the advice of more than a few friends, I picked up Earnest Becker’s 1973 masterpiece The Denial of Death.

His thesis (which builds on the work of Freud and Otto Rank) is that as mortal but conscious mammals, we are aware of the horrific reality that we will someday cease to exist. All of our personal investments, memories, friendships, aspirations, and goals perish along with us. That truth is so immensely difficult, so all-consuming, that it dominates our psychology and is at the root of just about all of that we do. Most of our activities are designed to keep us from focusing on the fact that we will die someday.  Russell Shorto in Descartes’ Bones sums up the idea nicely:

“Death is the event in life. It is our chief organizing principle. It's why we rush and why we dawdle. Why we butter-up our bosses and fawn over our children. Why we like both fast cars and fading flowers. Why we write poetry. Why sex thrills us. It's why we wonder why we are here.”

And its why we feel guilty. But what is guilt? Where does it come from? According to Becker, guilt is partially fed by the knowledge of all the life we know we’re not going to be able to live and by the fear that death my visit us on a schedule that doesn’t coincide with ours. If I came to realize that today was my last day to live, I’d wonder: did I waste the day (or worse, my life)? Could I have done the day “better”? Did I give enough, love enough, be productive enough, invest in my legacy enough? Becker writes:

“To lie to oneself about one’s own potential development is another cause of guilt. It is one of the most insidious daily inner gnawings a person can experience. Guilt, remember, is the bind that man experiences when he is humbled and stopped in ways that he does not understand, when he is overshadowed in his energies by the world. But the misfortune of man is that he can experience this guilt in two ways: as bafflement from without and from within—by being stopped in relation to his own potential development. Guilt results from unused life, from ‘the unlived in us.’”

Of course existentialists like Kierkegaard saw this well before Freud (as Becker points out) and the ancients faced this problem much more poignantly than we here in the 21st century being so buffeted by technology as we are. Nevertheless, guilt still figures prominently in our psychology (in the psychology of many of us anyway). In a recent article for the Catholic periodical First Things, Wilfred McClay tackles the problem. While McClay’s article is moderately religious in orientation, I think there is enough substance in his analysis to appeal to the general reader. You may not agree with his conclusions but his analysis has some bright spots worth reflecting upon.

Modern Guilt

On McClay’s view, modern, non-religious treatments (he focuses mainly on Freud’s ideas here) neuter the notion of guilt by untethering it from any moral foundation. We feel an overwhelming sense of guilt for a variety of things but really don’t know why. In this sense, he says, guilt is unreal. It seems like a fabrication because without any moral connection, there is nothing to be guilty of. How can we be guilty for anything when we’re accountable for nothing? But there’s a problem here. Moderns have gotten very good at piling on responsibility for just about everything from what we put in our bodies to the well being of the planet. He writes,

There is another factor at work too, one that may be called the infinite extensibility of guilt. This proceeds from a very different set of assumptions, and it is a surprising by-product of modernity’s proudest product: its ever growing capacity to comprehend and control the physical world. In a world in which the web of relationships between causes and effects becomes ever better understood, in which the means of communication and transportation become ever more efficient and effective, and in which individuals become ever more powerful and effective agents, the range of our potential moral responsibility, and therefore of our potential guilt, expands to literally infinite proportions….Colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation—there’s an endless list of items for which you and I can take the rap. The demands on an active conscience are literally as endless as an active imagination’s ability to conjure them.

This is one of the more significant observations McClay makes and I couldn’t agree more. As someone who lives in one of the more progressive areas of the United States, the sheer number of guilt-inducing social responsibilities alone are overwhelming. Recycle more, drive less (and only a hybrid), help the poor, make sure your kids read, exercise, don’t buy a big house, do buy a small car, buy organic, buy local, buy fair trade, help the needy, walk for the cure, work more, work less, neuter and spay, vote democrat, and on and on it goes. As McClay points out, much of these are good ideas in general. But they’re presented as true moral options and choosing wrongly carries deep moral weight and because of that, guilt. Yet without a clear moral foundation on which to place the moral burden, the cognitive dissonance one must conjure up can be maddening—literally. He cites the work of Frenchman Pascal Bruckner who calls the condition “Western masochism.”

The bigger problem, says McClay, is that there is no clear path to alleviating all this growing guilt. We moderns have had to come up with all sorts of creative ways to salve the thousands of psychological cuts that threaten mental breakdown including becoming victims--either by invention or transferrence--in order to establish a basis for excusing our intangible moral failings. The oppressor becomes the responsible one and the victim, as innocent, is released from the burden of guilt.

Forgive Me Father, For I Have Sinned

McClay argues that “secular victimhood” is a product of a perversion of the Christian ethic. Not surprisingly, he finds the orthodox Judeo-Christian moral system to be the only one that’s really satisfactory. What is more surprising is that Becker, who was by no means a theist, tended to agree. The reason theism works is because God’s forgiveness can allow us to bypass all the labor and burden of having to overcome the basis for our guilt (which, theists argue, we could never do anyway) and “relieve the debt” in one fell swoop, for now and for eternity.

What McClay doesn’t really address but Becker, in inexplicit terms does, is that the psychological benefit of theism accrues to the theistic moral system and is not necessarily dependent on its being true. In other words, one’s guilt is relieved by believing that God has forgiven sins and this “works” as a psychological heuristic even if there actually is no God. (I’m reminded here of Peter DeVries observation that, “It is the final proof of God's omnipotence that he need not exist in order to save us.”) I don’t see any particular difference, at least in this life, between believing that God has forgiven sins and His actually forgiving sins. Of course for the belief to have any potency, if one truly believes that God forgives sins, then one believes God forgives sins. But the reverse is not true. It doesn’t seem to be necessary that there is a sin-forgiving God in order for the belief that there is to be efficacious.

But this demonstrates that ideas are powerful things and if theism as an idea is powerful enough to help us manage guilt, maybe there are other ideas that are just as powerful and even more effective. McClay (and to an extent Becker) doesn’t see any real contenders in the near future.  It might seem incredibly narrow to think there is one cure for guilt because the causes of guilty feelings are as diverse as the people that have them. But McClay and Becker find that theism is as close to a consistent cure as one can find. (For my own part, I found that a healthy application of theism coupled with other psychological devices were more than sufficient not only to heap on the guilt but to heap it on to the point of psychological paralysis. Sure God forgives but he holds the faithful to a high standard and success or failure in this life anyway is dependent on how good you can manage to be. But this is for another time.)

McClay concludes that guilt is an important part of our psychology. It is “surely one of the essentials of our human makeup, the very core of moral responsibility, and a spur to many of the noblest acts in human history. We should not want to hector it or narcotize it into oblivion, for we would not be human at all anymore without it.” But, he says, it does need to be managed and we should do so in ways that cultivate more authentic selves. On that, I couldn’t agree more.

Crowed Sourced Peer-Reviewed Journal

Sympoze is attempting to use crowd sourcing to referee academic publications

Sympoze is attempting to use crowd sourcing to referee academic publications. The accepted papers will be published under an open access model for wider availability. From their website:

Sympoze will also offer…

  • High-quality peer-reviewed scholarship by experts in the field
  • Immediate open-access publication (for pieces that pass the review process)
  • Yearly print volumes for each discipline in traditional book and e-book formats

See their website here for information on how to submit articles and become a referee.

The Gettier Problem: A Study—Part 8

John Schellenberg argues that when one believes something, she is not directing her mind towards a proposition. That is the object of belief is not a proposition.

States of affairs as distinct from propositions

John Schellenberg argues that when one believes something, she is not directing her mind towards a proposition. That is the object of belief is not a proposition. Rather, belief is a disposition[1] to respond to the world as if some state of affairs is true. The mind is “directed to… a possible arrangement of things, not a proposition indicating or representing or reporting that arrangement.”[2] He refers to this as a “phenomenological” approach to belief analysis because the description of the object of belief is done not in terms of propositions but in terms of what the subject experiences. A belief, he claims, is “simply thinking of the world.”[3]

For Schellenberg, belief simpliciter is not propositional. Thoughts, he says, are mental states consisting of a possible state of affairs being represented to an individual. Propositions enter the picture when a person has a thought that some state of affairs is possible. This act is the coming to mind, in one way or another, and however briefly, of a state of affairs. It is the same act as what is generally referred to as "entertaining a proposition." One can entertain a proposition as possibly true without believing that the state of affairs actually obtains. This he calls a "propositional thought."[4] The important distinction here is that one can entertain a proposition without believing the proposition is true. Thinking that your cat is chasing a mouse is to entertain this proposition with no commitment that about its truth conditions. Believing that your cat is chasing a mouse is to have a disposition to act as if it’s true though the object of the belief is the state of affairs: the cat is chasing a mouse.


Some Interesting Stuff From Around the Web

Articles and news that might be of interest to the philosophically minded.

In this article for the times, the eminently quotable Stanley Fish discusses the merits of philosophy (as an academic discipline not as the intellectual exercise that most of us engage in each day). I rather like his view of relativism as he focuses on the epistemology of moral claims rather than the ontology. I also tend to agree with his view of academic philosophy though, like all esoteric and specialized disciplines, its value goes far beyond its practicality.

Mario Livio for The Scientific American explains why math works. For non-subscribers, there’s a short, two paragraph introduction here.

Thanks to Don Sudduth for the pointers.

The blog with the funny name (Camels with Hammers) considers whether evolutionary metaphysics is a type of faith. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

An example of some of the interesting approaches one must take to solving the apparent conflict between divine providence and human freedom.

Can you “tweet” prayers to God?

You Think You’re Free? Think Again

The concept of free will is under attack. Many scientists and philosophers are realizing that if the rest of the world is governed by natural laws and chance and humans are a part of the world, then humans must be governed by natural laws and chance too.

UPDATE: I wrote a shorter version of this article for The Huffington Post. That was recently published here.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd wonder whether science is out to systematically destroy religion one idea at a time. Over the last few centuries, when the church has gone head to head with science, the church hasn't done so well. Now we're here at the beginning of the 21st century and of the mysteries that remain, religion continues to be a safe house for only a couple of them. One is the whether humans are free to make choices between good and evil and whether we're responsible for those choices. It's not looking good for religion.

2594-Jenn-250pxAs far as science is concerned, free will is tricky. Most of us seem to think that we, at least some of the time, face genuine choices and are responsible for the decisions we make. I can choose to drive or take the bus. I can help the needy or help myself. I can choose to be with this person or that one. In the West, our entire legal system hinges on whether doing one thing over another is up to us. If it is, we're responsible for our actions and should pay the penalty for making bad choices.

But this is not squaring well with a modern view of the world. Many scientists and philosophers are realizing that if the rest of the world is governed by natural laws and chance and humans are a part of the world, then humans must be governed by natural laws and chance too. Consider this argument by philosopher Galen Strawson. He says that in order to ultimately be responsible for our actions, we would have to be responsible for the way we now are since the things that define us--our beliefs, desires, goals, environment--provide the basis for the decisions we make. But much of the factors that contributed to the way we now are were out of our control. We aren't responsible for our DNA. We didn't choose our parents or where we were born and grew up. We had little influence over the schools we attended or why we may like red wines over white. So, since we're not responsible for much of the way we now are, we can't ultimately be responsible for our actions free (a succinct summary of this argument appeared in an article for the New York Times recently).

William Provine, Professor of Biology at Cornell University, has argued strongly against free will mainly based on Darwinian science. But the idea is motivated by what he sees as negative social outcomes by those who believe in it. He stated in a debate with theist Philip Johnson, “There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind …. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. What a horrible idea.”

Philosophers like Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, and Derek Pereboom agree that given what we currently know about man’s place as a wholly physical being in a physical world, free will is not tenable. Pereboom concludes that belief in beings with free will “is not credible given our best physical theories. Consequently, no position which affirms the sort of free will required for strong accountability is left standing."

Many recent, popular movies are touching on the subject bringing the issue front and center to a wider audience. “You don’t have free will David. You have the appearance of free will.” Fixer Terrence “The Hammer” discloses this uncomfortable fact to David Norris in George Nolfi’s recent cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Team (films such as Inception, The Book of Eli are other examples that come to mind). The movie nibbles on the question, “Are we able to do otherwise?” In the mouth of an actor, free will’s elegy may carry little weight in the real world. But it is being echoed by many in the philosophical and scientific communities and the implication, if true, for religion, ethics, sociology and psychology are enormous.

Some are recommending we just face facts and give up the notion. In a recent review of David Eagleman's book Incognito Jeffrey Foss just comes out with it: "Free will is an illusion." His recommendation? "Get over it." According to Foss, Eagleman attempts to show that humans essentially are biological robots fitted with hardwired machinery that explains our behavior much better than some squishy idea like "the soul." While science may provide some wiggle room for those who "wish to live the life of freedom and responsibility . . . the writing is on the wall" he warns. (As an example of a theist who believes modern science provides the wiggle room Foss alludes to, Loyola philosopher Paul Moser argues that quantum physics provides plenty of theoretical room for freedom of the will. He also makes the positive claim that acting unselfishly towards others--something he believes some people clearly do--is only possible if God exists and that, in turn, can provide evidence that he in fact does exist. In my interview with Dr. Moser, he stated, “… in human conscience God bears witness to the divine moral character as represented in the law of God, thereby holding people accountable.”)

This does not bode well for many core religious teachings. After all, if the freedom to choose is dissolved in the acid of natural law (or divine sovereignty--another can of worms 5602-WWU_smaltogether), a lot of what religion teaches has to be dissolved with it. We'd no longer be responsible for evil or good, or be able to choose to live the way God wants us to. We'd also have to give up things like sin and eternal punishment. Really, without free will, religion isn't all that ethically distinctive from agnosticism or atheism. Worse, it may even mean that God is responsible for evil and suffering. If God is in control of everything but we're not free to choose, God must be responsible for child abusers and torturers. Only by creative theological gymnastics (that I suspect most of us don't really buy into anyway) can one escape the logic.

Well, there is another way. We can try to affirm the science but just deny the conclusion--a kind of "power through it" approach. Theist, geneticist, and former director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, states in his book The Language of God that "... the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts." He believes that even in a world where science would nearly exhaustively explain everything, free will still will be a viable notion. "Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about the inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us."

This approach focuses more on what experience seems to present us with (or what a sacred text teaches) rather than what we come to learn by analyzing facts about the world. It comes down to how much we trust our intuitions. If science were to demonstrate that we really don't love our kids should we stop caring for them? If scientists somehow proved that we really don't enjoy red wine or fried dough (we just think we do), will we drink water only and eat plain rice at every meal? Many claim that we know we're free and that's enough to keep acting as if we are regardless of what the science and philosophy says.

In an article for The Art of Theory, Yale Law professor Paul Kahn frames a discussion of free will in the context of a theological view of politics. Political discourse, if it is to occur at all, has to be done in the context of alternate possibilities. He is somewhat critical of what he sees as the Kantian view that truth is defined solely in terms of what reason dictates. We may use reason to draw various conclusions about matters legal and moral. But, says Kahn, most of the time reason doesn’t and, a fortiori, shouldn’t dictate our actions.

We may have no answer to a moral argument, but still we may be convinced that the right way to act lies in another direction. We may, for example, decide that, under the circumstances, the particularity of love is more important than the universality of a moral rule. We may even acknowledge that what we are doing is morally wrong, but still believe that it is what we should do….

No principle will tell me whether I should act on care or justice when they point in different directions. That hardly means that I am the passive observer of the diverse causes of my own behavior. I must decide what to do. The possibility of decision in a causal world may be mysterious, but that does not mean that the experience of decision is mysterious. Just the opposite: we are entirely familiar with our own freedom and thus with the process of deciding.

This intuition is strong and arguments like these suggest that they should carry just as much if not more weight than what reason may dictate.

My view is that if we take the evidence coming out of science and philosophy seriously, freedom of the will is hard to maintain. Yet I make plenty of decisions every day and have a strong sense that I'm entirely responsible for them. I can at least say this: if I'm being asked to pick between the science and my intuitions, I choose not to.