Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Which Book is This?

Can you name the philosophy book in the photo below? We’ll send a Philosophy News coffee mug to the first person* who can name both the exact title of the book and the author. We’ll only accept answers that are posted to the Philosophy News comments area for this post (correct responses posted to Twitter or Facebook, while welcome, won’t be included in the evaluation).


Hint: if you’re too rational, you might not get this one.

And the mug goes to: Derek Newby!

*We’ll send the mug to the first person that posts a correct answer according to the order calculated by our comments provider (Disqus). In order to receive the mug, we’ll need to correspond with you via email and you’ll have to be willing to send us your valid postal address (US addresses only please – sorry).

Which Book is This?

Can you name the philosophy book in the photo below? We’ll send a Philosophy News coffee mug to the first person* who can name both the exact title of the book and the author. We’ll only accept answers that are posted to the Philosophy News comments area for this post (correct responses posted to Twitter or Facebook, while welcome, won’t be included in the evaluation).


This is an easy one. I’ll post more difficult photos in the future.

And the mug goes to: Physikoi 

*We’ll send the mug to the first person that posts a correct answer according to the order calculated by our comments provider (Disqus). In order to receive the mug, we’ll need to correspond with you via email and you’ll have to be willing to send us your valid postal address (US addresses only please – sorry).

Week in Review: June 11, 2012

calendar_smI just finished a grueling quarter teaching two classes and taking on a new and very demanding role at the tech company I work for so I’ve had to set these updates aside for a couple of months. I’m happy to pick these up again. These first few items are a few weeks old but still relevant.

Given the current state of the humanities, it seems philosophers are understanding the importance of reminding the general public of the relevance of philosophy. Here’s another article, “What Can I Do with a Philosophy Degree” that adds to the corpus of “apologetic” (the defensive rather than the remorseful kind) articles being written. The author cites data that seeks to show that a philosophy degree has significant practical benefits. As someone who works both as a professor of philosophy and at a large tech firm, I can affirm the author’s claims. Studying philosophy makes one a better thinker and that skill applies to everything. See also my “The Value of Philosophy” for a personal testimony of this benefit.

Back to someone who doesn’t see philosophy as valuable, here’s more on Krauss’ dismissal of philosophy: Thanks to Bob Seidensticker for the pointer.

Alan Litchfield interviews Guy Harrison on his book, 50 Popular Beliefs That People Think Are True.

Spirits walk among us – in lingerie.

Speaking of walking – wow.

A nice hierarchy of disagreements. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

imageAnd on the subject of disagreements, I was in a brief email thread with some friends about the nature of “tolerance.” A friend send around a picture of a pickup truck with a sign in the back window denigrating a particular political position. Here’s what I wrote:

I’ll poke the tiger here a bit. I’m sure we’d all generally agree that the sign on the back of this truck qualifies as intolerant on even a broad definition of that term. As good Seattle liberals, we’d probably also agree that intolerance of this or any kind is, on the whole, a bad thing which partly means that it is an attitude we don’t want to foster. So here’s my question: what is a tolerant attitude and how do we adopt a tolerant attitude towards this guy? [Yes, I assumed it was a guy.] As much as you all might have a negative, even visceral response to the photo [friend] posted, if we want to avoid becoming just like the guy, we probably should adopt a tolerant attitude towards his worldview. But what does that mean?

Perhaps it means something like the idea attributed to Voltaire: I disagree with what he has to say, but would defend to the death his right to say it. This would mean we’re tolerant of his right to say what he says but not of the content of his speech act. The odd thing is that on such a definition, the guy that owns the truck could be just as tolerant (and given where he probably lives [near an Air Force base], might actually be in the line of work where he may be called to put his life on the line to defend rights like the ones prized by Voltaire). So while that’s a good definition of tolerance, it brings us back to the issue [friend] alluded to: we may not be able to actually have a civil conversation about the ideas themselves (try being critical of Obama for any reason among a group of hardened Seattleites and you’ll know what I mean). Tolerance of rights doesn’t really help us with civil discourse and that’s seems to be just as big of a problem.

And I’m not going to accept the response that you’re tolerant of everything but intolerance. While that has surface appeal, I haven’t found a way to defend because when you dig down, it ends up not meaning a whole lot.

Rick Pimentel talks about the influence of Socrates’ dialectical model in a recent court case before the Supreme Court in the United States.

Did you know you can also reach Philosophy News by way of the short URL:

An Analysis of Sam Harris’s Free Will

Sam Harris says the concept of free will is incoherent. Humans are not free and no sense can be given to the idea that we might be. There are good arguments in philosophical and scientific literature that call into question the ability of humans to make truly free choices. Those arguments generally are rigorous attempts to show that certain necessary conditions for free will can’t obtain or particular sufficient conditions don’t obtain. That is, they unpack a clear definition of what it might mean to be free and then attempt to show that nothing could or actually does fulfill the requirements of the definition. Sam Harris’s new book Free Will takes a somewhat unique, and I think ultimately inconclusive, approach. I will focus mainly on the first part of the book in which Harris lays out his philosophical case. The last part of the book is more about application and I agree with Harris that assuming his philosophical case works, his description of how such a situation would apply to the world seems largely correct.

The Lowdown

In this section, I summarize what I think is going on in the book and provide a quick analysis of it for those who don’t want to wade through more dense material. For those interested in the fuller story, there’s more in the second section.

In this book, Harris argues that the concept of free will makes no sense and so those who believe they act freely and are responsible for those actions are being duped by their biology. When a person make a decision (and then acts on that decision), the thought “I choose a over b” appears in his mind in the same way a pain experience or a desire for chocolate might. The person doesn’t seem to have any control over where the thought comes from—it just appears “out of the darkness.” Further, the person, try as they might, can’t trace where the thought comes from. It’s genesis is a product of a complex nexus of biology and environment about which the person knows very little and does not control. If this accurately describes the situation, how can we say that such a person is free in any sense that would please those who claim the person is responsible for the decisions they make? No coherent answer can be given to this answer so free will must be a false idea.

But many of us appear to have a strong feeling that we are in control of the choices we make. We seem to think that when presented with options, we get to decide the way things turn out. Harris admits that this feeling is strong but when analyzed, it breaks down. Everything a person would need to really make a free choice—access to everything that gives rise to the choice and complete control over those things—doesn’t happen. But even if we did have everything Harris says we would need, we still could not claim to make our choices freely. This is because the choice still is the product of what is going on in our brain, influences from our upbringing, and our environment. Any control we would appear to have would still be the product of those things. Our brain and environment is involved in everything we do. Because of this, no account of freedom really makes sense. This is partly why, I think, he says the concept is incoherent. 

So there’s a problem here. If Harris is right, there is no way to even describe what it actually would be like for an action to be free. But libertarians (people who believe some human actions truly are free) disagree. They argue that this mysterious “appearance” of the thought to choose one thing over another and this feeling that we do perform free acts is the essence of freedom. The thought is mysterious only if one assumes that there must be a story that involves other causes like brain events and environmental influences and the feeling that we are in control is the basis for believing that it is actually us that brings the thought into existence. The two taken together provide support for the idea that some acts are free in the sense that Harris says can’t be possible.

So Harris’s story involves an assumption that everything that happens in the world—including human action—is the product of other events that precede it. Since we don’t have know what those other events are and the cause of the thought involving a choice isn’t something we do—they just seem to appear—we aren’t free. According to libertarians, this assumption is incorrect and our experience of being free along with the fact that we don’t have access to other causes that describe how our thought to choose one thing over another provides a least some reason to think some of what we do is the product of a genuinely free choice. More...

Week of April 23, 2012: Week in Review


On the uselessness of philosophy. Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist, apparently agrees with Steven Hawking, that philosophy is past its prime and is being supplanted by the hard sciences. In an interview for The Atlantic, he claims that physics progresses and philosophy does not. Physics unpacks truth about the universe and philosophy is only interesting to other philosophers. “Philosophy is a field that, unfortunately, reminds me of that old Woody Allen joke, ‘those that can't do, teach, and those that can't teach, teach gym.’” Philosophy, according to Krauss, is only useful when it informs other disciplines which actually do all the heavy lifting, epistemically speaking. That was on Monday.

On Friday, he “updates” his comments in response to a letter he received by his friend Daniel Dennett. In the Scientific American, Krauss admits that he did not intend to come across as denying that philosophy is completely useless. It’s effective in some areas—like telling us where we ought to start to study the world—but still, as a discipline that gets at truth about the universe, it’s not much good. “When it comes to the real operational issues that govern our understanding of physical reality, ontological definitions of classical philosophers are, in my opinion, sterile.  Moreover, arguments based on authority, be it Aristotle, or Leibniz, are irrelevant.” he writes. He apologizes (for what is unclear) but then has a recommendation: “To those who wish to impose their definition of reality abstractly, independent of emerging empirical knowledge and the changing questions that go with it, and call that either philosophy or theology, I would say this:  Please go on talking to each other, and let the rest of us get on with the goal of learning more about nature.”

And no, this isn’t satire.

Self-replicating, synthetic nucleic acids. For those who agree with Krauss’ philosophy, perhaps this article on self-replicating, synthetic nucleic acids might be more interesting. According to the article, this research, has “implications not only for the fields of biotechnology and drug design, but also for research into the origins of life—on this planet and beyond.” Questions of teleology and  the relation of scientists who created these nucleic acids to the existence of them and what that might mean for biology best not enter your thinking. That is, no doubt, far too philosophical to be helpful.

The prisoner’s dilemma tested. Interesting real-world take on the prisoner’s dilemma. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

See your logical fallacies. Cool interactive site on logical fallacies. They have a nice, downloadable poster as well. Thanks to Pete Harris for the pointer.

You can’t get there from here. My former professor J.P. Moreland was involved in a debate with Michael Shermer recently on the question of whether there is life after death.  After the debate, Moreland posted to his website a response to a claim he didn’t get to respond to in the debate. He argues in this piece that claiming that evolution can be a reasonable explanation for intrinsic values and moral laws runs into a significant logical problem. I attempted to post a reply to this argument on his website but apparently he (or his webmaster) didn’t think it was worth accepting. So I’m posting it here. Here’s what I wrote in response:

“This argument has teeth only if we first assume that ‘moral laws’ exists outside of whatever beliefs and practices have been developed by evolutionary processes and are things that beliefs must correspond to. Objectivity and a moral statement being ‘lawful’ need not entail this. Suppose humans believe the following to be a moral law: it is wrong to treat people as means. On evolution, what might make this a moral law just is the fact that humans believe (consciously or unconsciously) that this practice is conducive to survival (and the belief is a product of evolutionary processes including social and environmental programming). Objectivity does not need to be any broader than the idea that the belief is shared and publicly analyzable and it's can be considered a law only to the extent that it continues to be a practice humans believe to be conducive to survival. Over time, evolution may rewire our brains such that this is no longer considered to be valuable for survival and it would cease to be a moral law. That doesn’t seem to have any impact on the value or force of what we call a moral law today.

To say that on evolution, our moral beliefs and practices wouldn't track truth assumes what it's seems to want to prove: that moral laws are something outside of the human mind that beliefs must correspond to. Given the enormous fluidity of the moral code across generations and cultures, there seems to be little reason to believe that.”

New logic text worth checking out. My good friend and colleague, Dr. Paul Herrick, just released his new logic text with Oxford University Press. I had the privilege of reading the entire text prior to publication and giving feedback and helping shape the text a bit (even got a mention in the acknowledgements). The final product turned out extremely well and is worth the look. Check out Herrick’s Introduction to Logic.


Ethics and politics Dr. Seuss style.

Week of April 16, 2012: Week in Review

calendar_smLike questions? Got answers? You should spend a day at the park.

John Horgan, writer for the Scientific American,  doesn’t like Sam Harris’ view on free will very much. It’s doubtful whether he likes Sam all that much either. 

Blogger Alan Litchfield for The Malcontent’s Gambit recently interviewed Dr. Peter Boghossian for his premier podcast. The title of the piece is “Faith: A Barrier to Rational Thought”. In this interview, Alan surveys the growing body of content surrounding Peter’s recent talks, interviews, and articles asking how he responds to many of the critical claims made against him. This interview is a nice rollup of Peter’s ideas and the response of some of his detractors.

A rabbit bemoans the lowly state of the humanities.

A new, groundbreaking argument proves that philosophy does not exist.

I learned about a new type of cognitive bias this week: Rhyme as reason effect – if something is said in the form of a rhyme, you’ll tend to believe it every time.

An amazing song worth thinking about. Lyrics. Buy from Amazon.

Tips for improving memory. I like this list because it covers biology, psychology, and technique.

Favorite quote of the week: “If we imagine that some candidate criterion of rationality is perfectly accessible, then we are always likely to prefer that criterion; but once we recognize that perfect accessibility is quite generally an unattainable ideal, we can learn to live with an imperfectly accessible criterion. We have nothing else to live with. Provided that one’s evidence is more accessible than the truth-values of the hypotheses under investigation, the former can still serve as a useful guide to the latter. Real life is messy.” Timothy Williamson, Knowledge and Its Limits

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Argument Proves That Philosophy Doesn’t Exist

philosophy_is_hardCopenhagen – Two philosophers based in Denmark have apparently come up with a proof that shows that philosophy doesn’t exist and their discovery is rocking the philosophical community. For centuries, philosophy has been at the core of just about every discipline and has provided a foundation for most of Western thought. From Plato to Kripke, philosophers have been tackling the universe’s toughest problems. But in 2012 Dr. Soren Filosht and another thinker who wants to be known only as “Dagmar” have developed a complex argument that ostensibly shows that philosophy is merely the product of wishful thinking and has no basis in reality.

The two Danes are arguing that disciplines like metaphysics and epistemology are a crutch that the weak-minded have used to better understand the world. And their proof casts serious doubt on whether these things actually exist. “It’s necessarily true that everything is just real and reality consists of properties, relations, sets, and facts and you can study them. No metaphysics required.” claims Dagmar. Epistemology too is a chimera and these thinkers are calling on all philosophers to give it up. “Look, we just know stuff. If you are justified in believing a statement is true, then you know it. People who believe they’re doing ‘epistemology’ just confuse the matter and the sooner they come to believe that, the better off we’ll all be.”

They developed their proof while sampling the wide variety of local plant life in Christiana (a small community inside of Copenhagen). As with most discoveries of this kind, they weren’t looking for it. They were functioning as working philosophers developing a paper that attempted to show that Kripke’s possible worlds have no basis in anything actual. “We were close. Real close.” Dagmar recalls. “Then we got a brainwave, as if we were in some kind of psychotic hallucination.” Not only are possible worlds not actual, they hit upon a the striking fact that philosophy itself isn’t real. “We kind of felt like modern-day Descarteses; we thought philosophy out of existence: cogito ergo non philosophia.” Filosht added, visibly shaken as he spoke. 

Perhaps the most significant outcome of their discovery is the claim that logic has no place in the life of a rational person. “Logic is bullshit,” argues Filosht “and we can prove it. If you attempt to get at reality using the rules of logic, then you will not be getting at reality at all. Most philosophers attempt to get at reality using logic. It should be clear then that they’re not getting at reality at all! It’s so simple, I’m embarrassed that we didn’t see it until now.”

Legal Matters

The Danes have begun working through the legal system in Europe in an attempt to remove all philosophy books from public schools and course curricula. “It’s immoral that we’re teaching ethics to all these impressionable minds. Teachers approach the subject as if ethics means something and that’s just wrong given what we’ve discovered.” got_philosophyPoliticians seem willing partners in this effort. Most of the politicians the philosophers have discussed this with have never heard of philosophy and the notion of thinking about problems was foreign to many. Still, the politicians agreed that if people were using public money to teach an idea that has now been shown to be false, they would throw their hat in the ring to put a stop to it.

Interior minister Hans Mikkelsen is leading the charge on this project. “Haven’t you heard that the state should be separate?” he exclaimed at a news conference. When asked what the state should be separate from, Mikkelson pointed to his head and said, “Exactly.” The minister was appalled when he opened a logic book (his first time) and found the disjunction symbol. “Looks like the Devil’s widows peak if you ask me.” He also added that the conditional symbol is “far too phallic” for his tastes and added, “Hitler must have studied logic.” He admitted that he didn’t really understand Filosht and Dagmar’s proof but now that he’s seen what schoolchildren are being exposed to, it doesn’t matter. “I was like Play Dough, making shadow puppets on the wall of the cave, but my eyes have been opened. It’s the third day and time to resurrect the prisoners.” he said.

Philosophers Enraged

Filosht and Dagmar have not convinced everyone that their proof is sound. English thinker Dr. Bernard Quinn questions their motivation claiming that philosophy has been under attack for centuries. “Socrates was given the Hemlock for corrupting the youth with his teachings. Do these two think Socrates drank that Hemlock for nothing?” When asked about their proof, Quinn admitted that he believes there’s a simple logical problem somewhere but he has yet to find it. “Arguments like these are tricky and subtle. But given enough time, someone will find the error in their reasoning.”

American philosopher John “Supabad” Johnson also demurs. He recently wrote a paper titled “Denmark’s Dagmar is Dumb(ing Down Society)” noting that he added the parenthetical to avoid an ad hominem. The paper attempts to show how Dagmar’s supporting argument, which is designed to demonstrate the non-existence of the peer review process, lacks adequate support from the philosophical community. Johnson’s core argument centers around the claim that Dagmar’s thesis appears to be made up and that the lack of any footnotes or a bibliography should create a skeptical response in her readers (though Johnson admits his argument is only probabilistic). Johnson’s paper is currently in peer review and he expects it to be available sometime towards the end of 2014.

Other philosophers are taking a more practical approach. Sim Shipping of the University of Washington heads the XPhi program there and is nonplussed by the work coming out of Denmark. “I’m just going to keep philosophizing. I don’t see how it hurts anyone.” Shipping argues that philosophizing is a personal matter and that arguments against its existence are beside the point. “It’s a first-person subjective experience and most likely properly basic. I don’t need an argument that it exists.” he added.

Next Steps

Filosht and Dagmar will continue to tell their story and work to change people’s thinking on the matter but have already looked beyond this issue to their next project. When asked what that would be, Dagmar replied,  “We’re thinking long and hard about that.”

Copyright © Philosophy News

If you liked this article, you may also like, “Waking Up Now Found Linked to Death

April 2, 2012: Week in Review


The Huffington Post published an interesting piece by Dr. Robert Klitzman, a medical doctor. The article, with the provocative title, “Am I My Genes? The Question of Fate, Free Will and Genetics” considers the implications of human genetic analysis on our views disease and death. If we know in advance what diseases we’re likely to get or pass to our kids, how will that change the way we think about life and reproduction? He writes, “In a few years, most, if not all of us will have our full genomes mapped, whether we like it or not. We will learn what mutations we each have, and what diseases we may get. . . . the fact that these tests provide information about one's future - even if just partially --prompts searches to understand what exactly this predictiveness means, and how to interpret it and incorporate it into one's life.”

We posted our latest podcast: an interview with Drs. Jeffrey Schloss and Michael Murray. In this podcast, Murray and Schloss discuss whether evolutionary theory (which they take to be largely a correct view of biological development), undermines religious belief. They talk about recent work that attempt to construct evolutionary explanations of religious belief and practice and talk about why they don’t believe such explanations have a negative effect on either truth or value of religious belief.

A nice infographic of common informal fallacies. The image breaks fallacies down into six, color-coded categories and includes an image for each fallacy, the name of the fallacy, its description, and an example. Very nicely done. (There’s a link at the bottom where the authors attempt to apply the fallacies they define to an argument against same-sex marriage by Cardinal O’Brien. While many of the Cardinal’s claims are more rhetorical in nature than they are propositional, the authors violate another logical principle in applying the fallacies to his claims: the principle of charity. This principle states that a person’s claim should be taken in the best possible light and then analyzed for truth value. I don’t think the authors do this. In many cases, they assume the worst possible interpretation of a given claim and then call it a fallacy. This is a good example of using fallacies as a rhetorical rejoinder instead of attempting to determine whether the best possible reading can yield a good argument. Frankly, the same kind of analysis can be done for many arguments for same-sex marriage (see this “argument” for example) if the claims in those arguments are taken in the worst possible light.)

Dr. Peter Boghossian published his March 2012 newsletter. You can download that here. The newsletter includes information about recent publications, speaking dates, and upcoming events. You can subscribe to receive the newsletter at Peter also made the cover of The Portland Mercury this week (and a plug from Richard Dawkins).

More Peter Boghossian: Alan Litchfield for The Malcontent’s Gambit talks about Peter’s work and has some nice things to say about Philosophy News.

Quote of the week: “Here is the crux of the matter, and I come back to the case of the learned theologian… For whose sake is it that proof is sought?  Faith does not need it; aye, it must even regard that proof is its enemy. But when faith begins to feel itself embarrassed and ashamed, like a woman for whom her love is no longer sufficient, but who secretly feels ashamed of her lover and must therefore have it established that there is something remarkable about him – when faith thus begins to lose its passion, when faith begins to cease to be faith, then a proof becomes necessary so as to command respect from the side of unbelief. And as for the rhetorical stupidities that have been perpetuated by clergymen in connection with this matter, through a confusion of the categories – alas, let us not speak of them.” Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript

Cool wind map of the United States. Not philosophical but cool enough that I wanted to share it. (Thanks to Matthew Snider for the pointer.)

Evolution and Religious Belief


michael_murrayDoes evolutionary theory undermine the truth of religious belief? There have been many books published in recent years whose authors have attempted to develop an evolutionary explanation of religious belief. Pascal Boyer in Religion Explained claims, “The explanation for religious beliefs and behaviors is to be found in the way all human minds work.” Boyer’s effort at explaining religious belief is an evolutionary one. Similarly, Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon writes, “Religion is natural as opposed to supernatural, … it is a human phenomenon composed of events, organisms, objects, structures, patterns, and the like that all obey the laws of physics or biology, and hence do not involve miracles.” Dennett’s view, too is that religion is a product of evolution.

Many go further claiming that an evolutionary explanation of religious belief at the very least undermines the truth of the claims of religion (claims such as God exists) and may even undermine the value of religious belief. If evolution explains religious belief, so the argument goes, it is at best an unnecessary by product of evolutionary processes. 

Even if there are viable evolutionary explanations of religious belief, does this mean that the central claims of religion are false and does it mean that religious belief should be discarded? Dr. Michael Murray and Dr. Jeffrey Schloss addressed these and other questions in the second annual Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion held in February 2012 on the campus of Western Washington University in Bellingham. In this podcast, we interview Drs. Schloss and Murray about their talk and about their perspectives on the impact of evolutionary theory on how we ought to think about religious belief and practice. Philosophy News interviewed Dr. Alvin Plantinga in 2011 for this series.

Dr. Schloss answers first.


Michael Murray is a Senior Visiting Scholar at Franklin and Marshall College and Jeffrey Schloss is a T.B. Walker Professor of Biology and Director of the Center for Philosophy, Faith, and the Life Sciences at Westmont College.


murray_schloss“In the [19]70s up through the mid-90s, a lot of attention was focused on a different but not unrelated issue which has to do with the altruistic or moral behavior in humans and other organisms. So that at least seems to be a Darwinian puzzle because if what evolution is all about is to advance your own fitness and well being, then there are sorts of behaviors that look like organisms are trying to assist others at their own expense and that seems counter-intuitive or puzzling given the the theory. So there’s a lot of attention devoted to explaining that. I think that very naturally leads one to look at other kinds of pervasive forms of belief and behavior which also seem to be counter-intuitive on the Darwinian picture and religious belief looks like an example of that. Not because it’s false if in fact you think it is (which many scientists do) but rather because there are significant costs involved with religious belief and behavior…. This has led to a different kind of Darwinian puzzle and I think researchers began to turn their attention to that. That spawned new accounts, many of which have a lot of empirical support, and I think the initial reaction a lot of people have to those accounts is that there’s something troubling for religious belief here. ”


Copyright © 2012 Philosophy News

Photography by Pete Harris of Pete Harris Photographywesternlogo_sm

Special thanks to Dan and Frances Howard-Snyder and the philosophy faculty of Western Washington University for hosting this interview.  


BLPR_final_logo_-_small-1Drs. Murray and Schloss visited Western as a part of the Bellingham Lectures in Philosophy and Religion series which is supported by a grant from the John Templeton Foundation

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