God and the 12 Percent

Eric Weiner reflects on the state of religion as the Christmas holiday approaches. In a New York Times article, he observes that there is are a number of people who prefer not to affiliate with any formal religious system but who find that abandoning God altogether isn’t attractive.

Eric Weiner reflects on the state of religion as the Christmas holiday approaches. In a New York Times article, he observes that there is are a number of people who prefer not to affiliate with any formal religious system but who find that abandoning God altogether isn’t attractive. He calls this group “the Nones.” These are people who fall somewhere between “True Believers” on one side and “Angry Atheists” on the other and who seek to know more about faith.

And this group is growing, says Weiner. “We are the Nones, the roughly 12 percent of people who say they have no religious affiliation at all….Apparently, a growing number of Americans are running from organized religion, but by no means running from God. On average 93 percent of those surveyed say they believe in God or a higher power; this holds true for most Nones — just 7 percent of whom describe themselves as atheists, according to a survey by Trinity College.”

This is a trend I’ve written a bit about and I think the numbers will continue to shift. While I don’t agree that we need yet another religious guru that will help us out of the morass, I do appreciate Weiner’s call for conversation. There seems to be a strong desire to have meaningful discussions about faith and “break the spell” as Daniel Dennett puts it. I think that’s a great idea.

On Philosophy and Bullshit

In a short article for the Wessex Scene, Jack Maden attempts to unpack the reasons why many find philosophy irrelevant. He sees its value but says that it’s probably only possible to garner this awareness if you spend time philosophizing.

imageI have Harry Frankfurt’s entertaining tome On Bullshit on my coffee table in my study. I crack it open anytime I get frustrated by the worst of the public discourse we’re subject to each day. As we enter the heat of the political season in the United States this next year, I’m sure I’ll wear the book out. It rarely occurs to me that the philosophy that is the subject of the book may be thought by many to be itself bullshit. But that’s certainly true.

I’ve written on this topic and I know philosophers wrestle with this constantly with students, humanities departments, and the general public. In a conversation I had with Peter Boghossian recently, he opined that philosophy tends to be disconnected from reality and so much of it is, well, bullshit. I haven’t found anything of the sort to be true and have found philosophy to be an intellectual redeemer of sorts. Plato’s allegory of the cave, if it rings true for anyone, certainly was a cacophony of bells for me. But the “reality” of the situation is that philosophy does run afoul for many people that dabble in it (which is why philosophers spend time telling everyone how important philosophy is).

In a short article for the Wessex Scene, Jack Maden attempts to unpack the reasons why. He appears to see the value of philosophy but says that it’s probably only possible to garner this awareness if you spend time philosophizing. He observes that culturally, the west has gotten too busy to really do philosophy well. Sure, the subject is inaccessible. But so are lots of subjects until you spend some time with them.

Perhaps the problem lies in the accessibility of the subject. Indeed, if one were to read of Berkeley’s conclusions – that minds and their ideas are the only things in existence – without having first read his preceding arguments, one may perhaps be a little more justified in throwing the term ‘bullshit’ around….To find intrigue in philosophy, as the great thinkers above found it, one must only look inward. Indeed, the only introductory handbook necessary to us is available in all places and at all times: the mind.

I think his guidance in his article is good. When we start wondering about the world and ask questions about our most basic assumptions, philosophy lights up. It becomes relevant because we find that we can’t begin to tackle those questions until we philosophize.

Plantinga and the Debate Between Science and Religion

imageThis podcast is a recording that was made in August of 2007 at Rainier Beach Presbyterian Church in Seattle Washington. The speaker is Dr. Alvin Plantinga and the title of the talk is “Religion and Science: Why does the Debate Continue?” Dr. Plantinga taught at Calvin College in Grand Rapids Michigan and spent most of his long career at Notre Dame University. His most important work has been the Warrant series culminating with Warranted Christian Belief in which he argues that a person can be fully justified in believing in God’s existence even if that belief is not grounded on evidence as it’s typically understood. This 2007 lecture is of particular interest because this month Dr. Plantinga has released a new book taking on the claim that religion and science are incompatible. His book, Where the Conflict Really Lies, is sure to generate a lot of discussion and be the subject of much debate. Philosophy News will be publishing an interview with Dr. Plantinga on his new book and this lecture is an early version of some of the ideas he included in the book. We hope you enjoy it.

Listen:

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Excerpt:

“The first question is, “Is there really a debate?” and I think the answer to that question is, “Yes, there is really a debate.” But if you Christians feel sort of beleaguered by science, if you think science is somehow going contrary to Christian belief, because these certain parts of it do, several scientists, quite a few scientists think that religion is a real danger to science. Still others think that as science advances, religion retreats. So there is this kind of opposition—at least a perceived opposition—between science and religion and my question is, “Why is that? Why does this debate continue?” I think there are several reasons . . . six of them anyway.”

Other Resources:

In the lecture, Plantinga refers to a handout. You can download the handout here.

Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion, and Naturalism

Philosophy News Updates

Philosophy News has undergone some design changes that we hope you'll love.

I’m pleased to announce that we’ve made a couple of updates to Philosophy News. But before I get to those, I want to take a brief historical journey of the site to give a nod to the past that has helped inform our present.

Philosophy News through the years

Philosophy News was formed in the late 90s by a man named Richard Jones. Richard had a bold vision for Philosophy News back in the day when the internet was just starting to enter the mainstream and become an integral part of our lives. His goal was to create a list of current news and information for philosophers and anyone interested in topics related to philosophy (notably religion and psychology). His site was rich and included a listserv, a discussion board, a news feed, new publications, a jobs list, calls for papers, and a section called “WHiP” – What’s Happening in Philosophy. This feature was broken down by topical sections and he solicited articles by various writers. Richard also worked with an email provider and offered free “philosophynews.net” email addresses for anyone interested.

pns_origHe called the site “Philosophy News Service” and it sported a logo that included the name of the site and an image of a stack of rolled up newspapers. Richard did a lot of work to broaden the reach of the site and by the turn of the new millennium, had hundreds of users and readers. I found Philosophy News using a search engine and discovered that Richard was looking for writers for his WHiP feature. Philosophy of religion was an topic area that needed a writer and having just graduated from grad school, I was interested in plugging in. I wrote roughly ten articles for WHiP and learned a lot from Richard about writing for a site like Philosophy News.

Philosophy News Service continue to grow during the year 2000 (yes, it miraculously survived Y2K) and even got a slight redesign towards the end of that year. The logo no longer included image“Service” in the name (though the official name of the site included it) and the image of the newspapers disappeared. The logo transformed into a simpler blank and white format with the word “news” in red and italicized. It also included the full URL in the logo. I preferred the old design but I was pleased the site was getting some attention and updates.

Right after the redesign, I started to hear less and less from Richard. He wasn’t returning email or publishing new articles or news items. I and other WHiP writers became concerned and we tried our best to contact him. I was able to dig up a phone number through a then nascent search engine and gave him a call. I got his voicemail and left a message but he never replied. I kept an eye on Philosophy News Service but by February of 2001 I discovered to my dismay that the domain name was for sale by a company called DomainSource.com.

The site remained inoperative for roughly 3 years though I would occasionally check to see if anyone had started the service back up. In 2004 I started seriously thinking about title_mainPhilosophy News again and in July of that year, I decided to buy the domain name. For $1500, it was mine and I began to rebuild the site. I had little resources to work with so I found and old computer and put some free blogging software on it, created a new look and began posting news and some articles. I wanted to go with a more natural look for the logo and the site so I chose a light green color to accent the page and created a simple logo with no image for the site. The font I chose had an organic “stick-like” look to it and I went with clean lines and an uncluttered layout.

I was a bit shocked to discover that instantly I had traffic. Apparently, Richard had done such a good job getting the original service in front of people that even after all those months, many partner sites still had links to philosophynews.com and people had been attempting to reach the site during the period that it was down. The old hardware and rough-and-ready way I had built out the software proved too much for the technology and the site suffered from frequent downtime and layout problems. But I continued to work on the site, adding news and articles.

In March of 2005, with the help of my design-savvy brother Bill, I redesigned the site once more. We worked on a more professional logo and came up with a three-color box design PNS_Logo_150x79that contain the three letters PNS along with the URL under the boxes and no image. The design was simple, scaled well and allowed me to start to build the brand. I had a banner printed (for conferences I had planned on attending) and even created mugs with the PNS logo on them. The site was on a new server and I had upgraded the software. The site was more stable but still suffered outages and layout problems.

I had long known that my current setup wouldn’t allow Philosophy News to grow so I decided to move the site to a better hosting provider in 2007 and this addressed most of the stability issues though the site continued to have problems with layout and staying on top of software upgrades was challenging. By 2008, I had decided to stop using custom software and move the site to WordPress. The logo was all but gone and Philosophy News became a generic blog on WordPress. This entirely took care of the stability and layout problems and allowed me to focus on the content and to figure out what I wanted Philosophy News to be. I and another writer, Richard Pimentel (Rick had been writing articles for Philosophy News for some time) focused on content and worked to build a stronger reputation for the site.

While on WordPress, the site began to grow in readership though modestly. I realized that while WordPress was stable, it would not allow me to do the types of things I wanted to do to continue to build the site. So we moved again. This time we found a very strong hosting partner and solid, stable software that would allow us to make customizations yet build on a solid platform. Each move had costs associated with it and it was starting to show in terms of our user base and feature set so I wanted this final move to be well thought out and give us some stability for many years to come.

_pns_logoOur design was undergoing a transition as well. I needed to retain the three-box color logo and that continued to show up here and there. pns_logoBut I knew we needed a new look. The first design took the three-colors from the box design and replaced the shapes with “swooshes” that was intended to pick up the somewhat abstract nature of philosophy but still provide a strong, recognizable image that our readers could associate with Philosophy News. This design proved to be too abstract and appeared to some to be too “homegrown” it appearance. So we quickly replaced that design with our “armillary” logo. The armillary was supposed to portray the universality of philosophy in a simple, clean design. This has been our design for the past 6 months.

The armillary also proved problematic because it doesn’t scale well. The thin lines that make it up become pixelated when shrunk and so we had to continue to use the three-box logo for smaller icons (for example, the icons that appear in the title bar of your web browser). This inconsistency and the somewhat dated look of the logo prompted the need for more a more professional design resource. Again, I turned to my brother Bill for help. We’ve come up with something great.

A new look and name

imageWith this latest redesign, we have a new, contemporary and professional look that I’m very excited about. First, we decided to drop the word “service” from the name of the site. We realized that the word really did not add anything to the essence of what Philosophy News provides and added complexity unnecessarily. Our new logo reflects this simplicity with a clean, san serif font and a simplified color palate. Our primary color—the light forest green—is picked up in the name and serves both as a division marker and a design element. We’re also adding a graphic to our logo.

The image, which we’re calling the “burst,” signifies the foundational nature of philosophy. All the individual elements begin at a focal point towards the bottom-right and grow imagepns_logo_180x60outward portraying the meta-discipline that philosophy is. Philosophy examines ideas and provides a foundation that allows us to think about anything and everything. The image picks up the colors of the site with one element of the burst signifying the essential goal of Philosophy News to provide current news and articles on contemporary philosophical topics. You’ll also see the burst along with the letters “PN” as a more condensed version of the full logo.

You’ll see the new imagery and logo in all areas of the site as well as on our Twitter page, in Facebook and Google+, and our Podcast feed. Don’t forget too that you can pin Philosophy News to your Windows 7 taskbar if you’re using Internet Explorer 9. This will give you quick access to Philosophy News features and provide one-click access to the site. Soon, we’ll be including a notification button when new posts or comments have been added.

Interview with Peter Boghossian

In this podcast, we talk to professor Peter Boghossian about his view of the role of the educator and why he thinks faith claims should be given no countenance in the classroom. We also discuss his work with prisoners and how he thinks the Socratic method should be used as a philosophical tool.

Peter Boghossian

In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed professor Boghossian of Portland State University (Oregon) sketches his position that professors should have a primary goal of changing students beliefs if those beliefs are false and seek to replace those beliefs with true ones. He asks, “Should professors attempt to change students’ beliefs by consistently challenging false beliefs with facts?” On the surface, an affirmative answer to this question seems obvious. What professor would want his students to walk out of his or her class with clearly false information when he or she has the power to set the record straight. “I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence.” He subsequently gave a talk on the PSU campus arguing that faith is a cognitive sickness and should be given no countenance in the classroom.

In this podcast, we talk to professor Boghossian about the thesis of his article, the substance of his lecture and the reaction to it, and his work with prisoners and how critical thinking skills can be used in that difficult environment.

Listen:

Download: Interview with Peter Boghossian (26 Mb)

Subscribe to Philosophy News podcasts 

Excerpt:

“I think one of the things we’ve seen happen, and Dennett talks about this in Breaking the Spell, and then he talks about this again in his little article, "Preachers who are not believers,” that people of faith and people who use faith as a process to know the world think that the fact that they use this process to know the world, this is actually a moral issue for them. They think that this way of thinking—I’m hesitant to use the word ‘reasoning’—this way of thinking about the world makes them better people. It imbues upon them a certain characteristic, a quality. A moral quality. Using this way of thinking is a value. And that somehow that value makes them a good person or a better person or more just or a more humble or noble person…. So many people fall for this idea that if somebody says that they are a person of faith, then somehow that means they must be a good person, or a decent person, or a kind person. When in fact that’s not true. It’s just a process of reasoning that will lead one away from the truth.”

Other Resources:

Should We Challenge Student Beliefs?
Inside Higher Ed

Philosophy News write-up on Peter’s article

Select papers by Peter Boghossian:

"Socratic Pedagogy:  Perplexity, Humiliation, Shame and a Broken Egg"
Educational Philosophy and Theory

Critical Thinking and Constructivism: Mambo Dog Fish to the Banana Patch 
Journal of Philosophy of Education

Socratic Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and Offender Programming
Offender Programs Report, Jan/Feb, Volume 13, Number 5

Behaviorism, Constructivism, and Socratic Pedagogy
Educational Philosophy and Theory, December, Volume 38, Issue 6

Socratic Pedagogy, Critical Thinking, and Inmate Education
Journal of Correctional Education, Volume 57, Number 1, March 18

How the Socratic Method Works
Informal Logic: Teaching Supplement, Volume 23, Number 2

Socratic Pedagogy, Race, and Power: From People to Propositions
Education Policy Analysis Archives, January, Volume 10, Number 3

The Socratic Method (Or, Having a Right to Get Stoned)
Teaching Philosophy, December, Volume 25, Number 4

How to Make an Argument
The Clearing House: Educational Research Controversy and Practices, November/December, Volume 76, Number 2

Copyright © 2011 Philosophy News

It all comes down to Philosophy

Click on the first non-italicized link on most Wikipedia entries and continue to click the same link position on subsequent pages and you'll always end up on the Wikipedia philosophy page. You shouldn't be surprised.

In this fun article for The Huffington Post, Amy Lee writes about a 2008 discovery that (apparently—I haven’t tried it) if you start by clicking the first non-italicized link of almost all (94.5%) Wikipedia entries, and click subsequent first-position, non-italicized links, you will end up at the Wikipedia entry on Philosophy. In my article on philosophy (click the philosophy link in the last sentence), I claim that philosophy is at the root of everything we study and here we have solid evidence from the internet that this is true. Lee’s article contains some entertaining links that enable you to explore the phenomenon a bit more.

There’s even a Wikipedia entry on the phenomenon. But of course there is.

Philosophy Professor to Students: You’re Wrong

A Portland State University professor believes that “the primary goal of every academic should be to bring students’ beliefs into lawful alignment with reality.” The problem is that our access to the truth about what is real is, many times, unclear and beyond our reach.

Peter Boghossian believes Creationism is a verifiable fiction. While that’s not necessarily an odd or even uncommon belief, he also believes its his job as a philosophy professor to teach that to his philosophy students. His argument is that philosophy professors have an academic (and perhaps moral) responsibility to teach students what he believes is the truth even if it makes them uncomfortable.  When it comes to creationism, the truth has been established: “Both the process that allows one to arrive at Creationist conclusions, and the conclusions themselves, are completely Double_Persecutiondivorced from reality.” Boghossian uses his stance on Creationism in the classroom as an example to make a broader, and perhaps more controversial, point.

In a recent article for Inside Higher Ed professor Boghossian of Portland State University (Oregon) sketches his position that professors should have a primary goal of changing students beliefs if those beliefs are false and seek to replace those beliefs with true ones. He asks, “Should professors attempt to change students’ beliefs by consistently challenging false beliefs with facts?” On the surface, an affirmative answer to this question seems obvious. What professor would want his students to walk out of his or her class with clearly false information when he or she has the power to set the record straight. “I believe our role as educators should be to teach students not just factual data, but the importance of critically examining beliefs by exposing them to facts, and then revising cherished notions when confronted with reliable but discomforting evidence.”

Some of his colleagues disagree. They argue that the role of a professor is to provide students with data and reasoning skills so they can make the appropriate conclusions on their own. Professor Boghossian counters that this approach is not only misguided but could be dangerous. He offers a couple of analogies to help make his point. Mathematicians don’t teach their students that the plus sign could be used to add two numbers and if a student disagreed, she should send her on her merry way pleased that she drew her own conclusions on the matter.

Similarly if a civil engineering professor taught his students that in general steel is superior to balsa wood as a building material for constructing bridges but that the student should draw his own conclusion about the matter, he would be at the very least negligent and more accurately incompetent. In these disciplines, part of the essential role of the professor is to teach facts and to disabuse students of false ideas. He writes, “The primary goal of every academic should be to bring students’ beliefs into lawful alignment with reality.” I am in agreement with professor Boghossian on this point. Sort of. The problem is that our access to the truth about what is real is, many times, unclear and beyond our reach.

Philosophy and access to truth

In this article, I think professor Boghossian paints a far too simplistic picture of both the educational process and the process of knowing in general. Access to truth comes in degrees and isn’t an either/or (either one has it or one doesn’t) enterprise. It seems fairly obvious that there are many academic disciplines that ought to focus on disseminating factual information where professors should work to ensure their students’ beliefs align with those facts. But the nature of these disciplines is such that the facts about the subject matter (or at least large portions of the subject matter) either is widely established or relatively unambiguous. Low-level math and introductory logic may be examples as are certain types of civil engineering, parts of physics, and even some parts of music and literary theory. But not all knowledge domains are like this. There are a many disciplines and sub-disciplines that are fraught with ambiguity, competing theories, insufficient data, difficult problems, and lack of proof that defies drawing certain conclusions.

Is the Mona Lisa beautiful? Is string theory (in any of its many variants) correct? Is the punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution true? There are certainly good arguments that warrant a “yes” vote for each of these questions. But there are equally strong arguments such that a “no” or “I don’t know” vote is just as warranted. What is a professor to do in these situations?

The scenario is exacerbated when it comes to philosophy. Non-professionals tend to have the opinion that philosophy makes little to no progress, isn’t testable or subject to disconfirmation, is esoteric and impractical, and in short, is little more than a bunch of opinions where each philosopher’s view on a topic is no better or worse than any other philosopher. Many of the problems philosophers tackle are very opaque and extremely challenging and that can foster views like the one above. While I don’t believe the caricature is at all accurate, I do think the complexity and ambiguity of philosophical topics should foster a deep epistemic humility and tentativeness when it comes to making certain claims about the truth of a great many topics.

This doesn’t mean that philosophy professors shouldn’t make truth claims. We do and should. But it does mean, I think, that philosophy education should emphasize method, analytical thinking skills, frameworks, and history with the goal of providing students with the tools they need to think about disparate viewpoints and to provide them with the means to think more deeply on their own. There are topics in philosophy that do warrant a clear statement of truth. But in most cases, philosophy professors would do well to introduce or postscript their lessons with, “this is what I and others believe and here’s why but you should look at all sides of this issue and draw conclusions based on a rigorous analysis of the topic.” This isn’t a vice of the discipline but one of its many virtues.

Censure or virtue?

According to OregonLive.com (an online magazine associated with The Oregonian), professor Boghossian will be giving a lecture in which he “will argue that faith-based beliefs are a ‘cognitive sickness’ that have been turned into a moral virtue and that -- like racist beliefs -- they should be given no countenance in the classroom.” There are many taking a similar approach and some of the criticisms they’re leveling are warranted. But on any honest read, the issues in philosophy of religion are complex and to conclude that the views of religious believers have no place in the classroom (I’ll even limit this to the philosophy classroom) seems out of bounds. The issues I encounter in the classroom more often than not are ones having to do with poor method or immaturity and not necessarily content (many times have I received comments similar to the one Boghossian read on his student’s final). Both believing and non-believing students often make assertions that they think should be taken as an argument or argue poorly and take any critical assessment of their argument as an “attack on faith” or “evidence of the disenfranchisement of atheism.” But these are exactly the types of issues philosophy is great at addressing and a discussion of faith (or lack thereof) can be a great catalyst for addressing these methodological problems.

This does raise another interesting question: are there any topics that should be “given no countenance in the classroom”? Again, this is complex though my first inclination is that there isn’t. Topics like racism and abortion and gender issues, while “hot button” topics, can foster a tremendous amount of learning and all are philosophically interesting. I’ll also add that there is a difference between a discussion about racism and a student (or professor) making racist remarks or using racism as a weapon against the classroom and learning environment. This is a much different problem but one that won’t be solved by censure. I hope that’s not what professor Boghossian is suggesting.

**Update (12/8/2011)

There has been some interesting dialogue in the blogosphere on professor Boghossian’s article.

Greg Linster published this article generally agreeing with Peter’s position. That generated a fairly heated response from Wikipedia co-founder Larry Sanger. Greg then wrote a rejoinder to Sanger’s post.

Ballot Box Epistemology

Many voters form beliefs about candidates based not on any substantive arguments but on the rhetorical power of the candidate. While rhetoric has an important role to play in belief formation, rhetoric without a substantial foundation can be disastrous. This is particularly true when electing national leaders.

Red_Checkmark_In_Vote_CheckboxFor the citizens of the United States,the presidential campaign is upon us again; another season of passionate debates, name-calling, and political table talk. How many times have you heard the following statements regarding presidential candidates, “he/she is a good speaker” or “that candidate gives excellent speeches”?  Good communication skills are certainly an important trait for a president but it seems that for some voters, rhetorical skill is one of the most significant skills a president must have. Others may argue that rhetorical ability is overrated and prefer other traits such as determination and transparency. Still others desire determination and transparency in their president but still value strong rhetorical ability. In this installment of Table Talk, we will examine the role of rhetoric in the epistemology of the voter, specifically how rhetoric contributes to the voter’s knowledge which is then utilized in the voter’s decision making.

Rhetoric is the art of argumentation and persuasion. It is a tool used by a speaker in public debates with the objective of persuading an audience to consider or accept a position or a set of positions. Rhetoric has an epistemology (a knowledge component) because rhetoric involves the exchange of ideas between the speaker and the listener with the goal of foster belief in the latter by the creative use of words by the former. Political debates and speeches specifically involve a candidate’s attempt to get the listener to believe what the speaker is claiming to be true with the goal that the person hearing the claims will choose him or her for office. These exchanges are crucial to presidential elections and make up the most salient and often overlooked philosophical aspects of the election process.

Voters make numerous decisions during the campaign season. Various issues are presented to voters: the economy and taxation, education, foreign affairs, immigration, gay marriage, abortion rights, health care, and monetary reform, among many others. Based on their beliefs regarding these issues and others, voters then decide which candidate’s platform best represents their views on these issues. Subsequently, decisions about which candidates earn the vote are made based on these beliefs. Throughout this epistemic process, voters form beliefs and subsequently make decisions about candidates through a variety of media. For example, voters learn about a candidate’s positions by reading the newspaper and talking to friends. But one of the most influential medium is, arguably, what they hear from the candidates themselves. This is why debates, forums, town hall meetings, pep rallies, and visits to commercial establishments are widely used by candidates to persuade voters.

Aristotle is arguably the most famous classical philosopher to address the subject of rhetoric. In his book, Rhetoric, Aristotle defined the idea as theRhetorical_skills ability to see what is possibly persuasive in every given case. This does not mean that the rhetorician will persuade every time but it does mean that he or she possesses the expertise to attempt to persuade each time they have the opportunity. Aristotle believed that persuasion can occur in three possible ways: through the character of the speaker, through the emotional state of the hearer, or through the argument itself (sometimes referred to by the Greek terms, ethos, pathos, and logos respectively). The first way pertains to the credibility of the speaker. If the hearer trusts the speaker, there is a greater chance that the hearer will be convinced by the arguments advanced by him or her. The second way pertains to the disposition of the hearer. If the hearer is sad or anxious, their emotional state will distract them from the speaker’s attempt to persuade. The third way pertains to the logical content of the speaker’s arguments. Aristotle addresses the epistemic aspect of rhetoric when he states, “But since rhetoric exists to affect the giving of decisions-the hearers decide between one political speaker and another….” Rhetoric aids in the voter’s thought process which is translated into decisions at the polls. The speaker presents arguments and the hearer must decide whether these arguments are rationally and/or emotionally persuasive to incite the hearer to vote for that speaker.

Despite its importance, Aristotle believed that rhetoric has its drawbacks and these drawbacks can be seen in modern politics. After all, how many candidates state their platform persuasively, promise to institute their platform once in office, and yet do not fulfill their campaign promises once in office? Candidates also exaggerate the benefits of their platform and the deficiencies of their opponents’ platform in order to win votes. This method of campaigning has been common in modern-day presidential campaigns but it was also a rhetorical device used by the Sophists--contemporaries of Aristotle. Aristotle and Plato strongly argued that the Sophists were deceivers and their deceits were products of rhetoric.

Candidates can be strong rhetoricians but lack other important presidential attributes such as governing experience, clear purpose, consistency, collaboration, and the like. Some voters prioritize a candidate’s speaking abilities over all other attributes. Whether this is a deficit or not on the part of voters is not the point. The point is that rhetoric plays a vital role in the belief-forming and decision-making process of the voter. Voters need to take time and think about this epistemic process. After all, epistemology is vital to our lives. As Paul Pardi correctly stated in his article, What is Knowledge?, “But of all the things to spend time on, it seems thinking about how we come to know things should be at the top of the list given the central role it plays in just about everything we do.” Hopefully, voters can apply this statement when they go to the polls in 2012.

The Malleability of Language

Two co-workers of mine have had a years-long debate over the proper meaning of the phrase, “lion’s share.” One colleague argued that the phrase referred to the entirety of something. “He has the lion’s share of the pie.” means that he got the entire pie. She based her argument on this bit from Aesop:

The Lion went once a- hunting along with the Fox, the Jackal, and the Wolf. They hunted and they hunted till at last they sur­prised a Stag, and soon took its life.

Then came the question how the spoil should be divided.

"Quarter me this Stag," roared the Lion; so the other animals skinned it and cut it into four parts. Then the Lion took his stand in front of the carcass and pronounced judgment:

"The first quarter is for me in my capac­ity as King of Beasts; the second is mine as arbiter; another share comes to me for my part in the chase; and as for the fourth quarter, well, as for that, I should like to see which of you will dare to lay a paw upon it."

"Humph," grumbled the Fox as he walked away with his tail between his legs.

But he spoke in a low growl…

“You may share the labors of the great, but you will not share the spoil.”

Her opponent, referring to dictionaries and the like, argued that while the phrase may have had that meaning in the past, common usage no longer warrants that meaning: “lion’s share” now refers to the largest part or portion. Dictionary.com has the following definition:

the largest part or share, especially a disproportionate portion: The eldest son received the lion's share of the estate.

I contributed to the debate by offering the following:

May I suggest that this argument is being conducted in two dimensions (wrong and right) when it appears there is a third dimension: time. When you add this third dimension, propositions can be both true and false (or wrong and right) depending on the temporal index. E.g. it is raining outside is true on the assumption that the temporal index is “now” (if in fact it is now raining outside). But the proposition, “it is raining outside” may be false if the assumed or stated temporal index is “yesterday” (and yesterday was sunny).

Applied, we might say, “Previously, lion’s share meant the whole kahuna, but today it means the largest portion.”

In order to settle the debate, the two protagonists reached out to word maven Charles Harrington Elster. He wrote back citing the OED and phrases from uses in literature. He concluded that “lion’s share” refers to the largest portion not the entirety. He wrote,

Not even a mention of "all or nearly all" there, and the citations do not support that interpretation. And I can attest that I have never heard or read the phrase used to mean "all, everything," only "the largest or greatest portion." Insisting that it must mean "all" is a pedanticism on the order of insisting that it's "to paint the lily" instead of "gild," or it's "all that glisters is not gold" instead of "glistens," because that's what Shakespeare actually wrote. Some of us know how the Bard wrote it, but good luck saying it the original way.

So, although the largest portion of anything may sometimes be all (as it wound up being for Aesop's lion, who made outright claim to only three quarters), long-established usage has favored the sense of "most or almost all -- especially a disproportionate share (like that original lion's claim)." For me, usage has the lion's share of authority in this case.

This type of flexibility in language seems to support the Kripkean view of causality. Kripke's picture of the causal theory of reference denies that reference occurs when a person states that a name ("Kripke") is identified by a person by way of a description alone ("the person that discovered frame semantics for modal logic") because on this model, it's possible that a different person than Saul Kripke could have discovered frame semantics and that person would be named Kripke.

The causal theory says that reference is established by a direct casual chain that originates in some "baptism" and the name is passed through the chain to each person who references the original object in terms of that causal chain. The baptism establish the object as the recipient of the name and the name is passed through the chain as the referent of that object. (See Searle’s Intentionality, 244)

John Searle counters that the introduction of the name in the baptism is "entirely descriptivist" and that the causal account is an Intentional account and not an externalist one. By this I believe he means that the "referring" is done by an Intentional act of believing the name is causally connected to an object at the end of the chain. "What fixes the reference is an Intentional content which may or may not also have an external causal connection to the object." (235) Further, Searle says that on Kripke's view, "each speaker must intend to refer to the same object as the person from whom he learned the name."

For Searle, the type of causation that the causal theory must be externalist in nature. He does allow for a "descriptivist" causal connection which is Intentional. An intentional causal connection is one where the object satisfies some Intentional state and the name is established through that satisfaction. This is the type of causation involved when an object is baptized to have a specific name (particularly through ostention).

In the case of a phrase like “the lion’s share,” the meaning is established by intention then disseminated by literature or usage. While reference is reasonably stable—its rare that a term or phrase takes on a wholly different meaning from original usage—its also interesting that language is as malleable as it is.

Occupying Main Street

Margin Call, a new movie by writer and director J.C. Chandor is a story about a large investment bank that takes place during the 24 hours preceding the 2008 meltdown. The bankers are both the victims and the administrators of the collapse and the philosophical interest is found just in this space between these two.

A couple of years ago, I read Michael Lewis’s The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine a story about the roots of the 2008 global financial crash. The book is intriguing, dramatic, and informative and while the subject matter is interesting, I enjoyed the book mainly because it highlighted for me the complexity of big finance (a topic I have little insight into). When I saw an advertisement for Margin Call a new movie written and directed by fledgling director J.C. Chandor, I downloaded it from Amazon without hesitation.  It exceeded my expectations.

It’s cast is impressive: Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Irons, Demi Moore, and Zachary Quinto among other big names all who did a stellar job in their roles. But its the storytelling that wins the day. This movie is a slow-burn thriller and pulls off the juxtaposition with aplomb. There are no guns, car chases, scantily-clad women, muscle-bound men, or over-the-top special effects. It’s not an abstract mind-bender like Synecdoche New York or 2001 - A Space Odyssey. It’s a moderately careful, well-acted film that neither preaches nor condemns. The film shocks us with the horrific by easing into it with the familiar to create a kind of cognitive dissonance that reminded me of techniques used in Saving Private Ryan (and the blowdart scene in Munich). The most intense tragedies occur as slow bleedouts; a sharp blade is carefully inserted into the belly while the prosecutor talks the victim through what he’s doing and how she should respond to the event. 

The story takes place inside a large investment bank during the 24 hours preceding the meltdown. The bankers are both the victims and the administrators of the collapse and the philosophical interest is found just in this space between these two roles. With “Occupy Wall Street” making all the news these days, some may hope for an investment bank that is portrayed as the great Hitler playing chess with the population in the street below. But this is not an ideological film. The bank surely is not an innocent but neither is it fully guilty. The men and women running the bank are portrayed as relatively honest though ambitious businesspeople who are caught up in the game as much as the rest of us. They seem to know the possible outcomes of their actions but use the complexity of the global financial system as both an alibi and a weapon that they can use against each other and the unwitting population at large.

There is conscience in this film. There’s talk of warnings and erstwhile discussions about the possibilities of too much risk. There’s moral ambiguity and even healthy doses of guilt. But the higher one goes in the system, the more the ambiguity creates a moral gap between what’s been done and what’s about to happen. At the very top, the bank president John Tuld (played solidly by Jeremy Irons) is able to both excuse his actions and offer a philosophical explanation for the event. In what I view as the moral statement of the film, after the day is over, Tuld gives a “speech” to his right-hand man Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey) in which he tows a fine line between fatalism and explanation:

“So you think we might have put a few people out of business today. That its all for naught. You've been doing that everyday for almost forty years Sam. And if this is all for naught then so is everything out there. Its just money; its made up. Pieces of paper with pictures on it so we don't have to kill each other just to get something to eat. It's not wrong. And it's certainly no different today than its ever been. 1637, 1797, 1819, 37, 57, 84, 1901, 07, 29, 1937, 1974, 1987—Jesus, didn't that fuck up me up good—92, 97, 2000 and whatever we want to call this. It's all just the same thing over and over; we can't help ourselves. And you and I can't control it, or stop it, or even slow it. Or even ever-so-slightly alter it. We just react. And we make a lot money if we get it right. And we get left by the side of the side of the road if we get it wrong. And there have always been and there always will be the same percentage of winners and losers. Happy foxes and sad sacks. Fat cats and starving dogs in this world. Yeah, there may be more of us today than there's ever been. But the percentages—they stay exactly the same.”

It’s tempting to be morally indignant about such a cavalier statement by a man worth millions. And that would be a justified attitude. But I found the statement realistic too. I’m reminded of Plato’s Republic in which he outlines the problems with politics of his day. They are eerily similar to the problems with politics of our day. Little does change. Tuld observes that the financial collapse is a human problem and one that has plagued and will plague humans as best as we can tell. Wall Street in many ways reflects Main Street because humans populate both. What bothers us most, I think, is Tuld’s fatalism. Because things are this way, they must be this way and we should accept it and figure out a way to survive. As common-sensical as that may be, most of us, even if unconsciously, believe it can only be truly held by a moral monster. The fight is all we have.

Coincidentally, Glengarry Glen Ross arrived in the mail today from Netflix and I watched it for the first time right after Margin Call. (Curiously, it also stars Kevin Spacey.) Glengarry Glen Ross deals with some of the same problems as Margin Call but from the point of view of “the working man.”  After seeing the two movies back to back, I find the words of Ogden Nash appropriate:  “Bankers are just like anybody else, only richer.”