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Religion and Polite Conversation

Should topics of religion be avoided in casual conversation? No, says Rick Pimentel in the latest article for Table Talk. Religion is a topic of “ultimate concern” as Paul Tillich argued and such topics should be discussed and debated. Many of us may avoid topics of religion is polite conversation because the topic consists of ideas we may know little about or believe can never be settled. But the focus of religion concerns ideas that many of us care deeply about. What does it all mean? Is there an afterlife? Are we alone in the universe? These concerns are profound and, while we may seek to avoid them, we cannot escape them. Rick writes, Religion’s importance lies in the fact that it deals with ultimate issues; matters that are fundamental to human life such as the existence of God, death, morality, meaning of life and human behavior. These issues are a fundamental concern and understanding them appear to be necessary for flourishing in this life. . . . Religion can be hotly disputed and sometimes this can be discouraging or even repulsive to some but the fact that it is hotly disputed should not excuse us from pursuing an understanding of religion and how it fundamentally affects our lives. Read the full article here.

Helen Brown Talks to Slavoj Žižek for the Telegraph

“Spluttering, lisping and pawing frantically at his face, he can spin you from Heidegger to Hershey bars (by way of Hitchcock and Hizbollah) in synapse-shortcircuiting seconds. He is, by turns, a brilliant and buffoonish critic of global capitalism. Once he winds himself into an intellectual whirlwind you just have to sit back and wait while he sucks up and spits out 21st century culture.” Here

The God Debate: From Bumper Stickers to Smartphone Apps

For years if you drove along just about any freeway for any length of time you’d most likely see a car with a “Jesus fish” (a named coined by the sitcom Seinfeld as far as I know). These stickers are small, fish-shaped emblems that signify that the driver of the vehicle is a Christian. But atheists have struck back. Since the late 90s, “Darwin fish” have become popular. These are modified Jesus fish that sport four small legs. Not to be outdone, manufacturers of Christian paraphernalia  (“holy hardware” as we used to call it as teenagers) came out with Jesus fish with the words “TRUTH” in the body and eating a Darwin fish. And on it goes (incidentally, an author appears to have noticed the same phenomenon and based a book around it). Now, apparently this battle has gone digital. Programmers, students, and publishers are coming out with religious and atheist software for smartphones that keep important “truths” right at one's fingertips. Apparently sound logic and rock-solid argumentation is a key driver for many of these apps: In a dozen new phone applications, whether faith-based or faith-bashing, the prospective debater is given a primer on the basic rules of engagement — how to parry the circular argument, the false dichotomy, the ad hominem attack, the straw man — and then coached on all the likely flashpoints of contention. A Christian publisher apparently concerned with the way believers are addressing the resurging atheism even claims that these types of apps are a way to "deal with" Christians “who seem dogmatic and insecure about their convictions.” From a purely capitalist perspective, if these things are selling, why not. Philosophically, whipping out a smartphone to pull up a retort to an argument doesn’t strike me as dealing with dogmatism. It strikes me more as a guaranteed way to foster it.

Philosophers Help Doctors with Ethical Questions

Medical professionals are calling on philosophers in the UK to help answer questions involving personal autonomy and mental health. Some of these questions are being raised by a supposed conflict between the Medical Health Act and the Mental Capacity Act. According to the Guardian: The Mental Health Act says intervention is required where a mentally-ill individual is a danger to themselves (or to the public). But the Mental Capacity Act (2007) is organised around a very different legal principle: it says that if someone passes a legal test of their capacity to make a decision, then they cannot be treated without their consent – even if they suffer from a major mental disorder. See the full article here.

St. Olaf Focuses on Kierkegaard

From their website: More than 160 scholars, pastors, and those who are simply fans of the 19th-century Danish philosopher flocked to campus for the largest meeting of Kierkegaard scholars in history. The Sixth International Kierkegaard Conference drew attendees from all over the globe to examine "Why Kierkegaard Still Matters" and discuss issues of morality, religion, and philosophy. See the full report here.

The Philosophy of Porn

If the word ‘philosophy’ in the title didn’t get your attention, most likely the word ‘porn’ did. Like a bad accident, porn is one of those things at which we shouldn’t stare but just can’t help it. Analyzing porn philosophical almost strikes me as activity that in and of itself misses the point. But philosophers are delving into the subject not merely as voyeurs (or so they can “read the articles” in Playboy) but apparently as serious research. Tom Morris, for the Huffington Post recently interviewed Jacob Held on his philosophy class on porn which he teaches at The University of Central Arkansas. In the interview he relates many of the challenges he encountered in setting up and then teaching a philosophy class on pornography. The most notable issue was that porn is treated very differently from other cultural taboos like violence. I had to interview all potential students and get them to sign a waiver before they could be admitted to the course. I had several meetings about content, books, and so forth. And the interesting thing is, it was all because of the sexual nature of the content. I've taught on torture and war, but no question was ever raised about student exposure to violence. The course examine the subject from a variety of angles including free speech as well as “civil rights, sexual violence, exploitation, women in media, [and] gender.” For New York Times’ The Stone column, philosopher Nancy Bauer (Tufts) who is completing a book entitled How to Do Things With Pornography, wrote an article on Lady Gaga and what she represents. Actually the article is only tangentially on Lady Gaga and more about the shifting sexual norms of our society and an emerging feminism. Jean-Paul Sartre, taking a cue from Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, proposed in “Being and Nothingness” that what moves human beings to do things that don’t quite square with one another is that we are metaphysical amalgams.  Like everything else in the world, we have a nature:  we’re bodily, we can’t control what happens around us, and we are constantly the objects of other people’s judgments. Apparently, some took issue with the article and saw it as another demonstration of the irrelevancy (or at least trivialization) of philosophy. See Bauer’s response here.

6/30/2010 NDPR-Latest Reviews

Raffaella De Rosa Descartes and the Puzzle of Sensory Representation Reviewed by David Clemenson, University of St. Thomas (Minnesota) John Cottingham, Peter Hacker (eds.) Mind, Method, and Morality: Essays in Honour of Anthony Kenny Reviewed by Robert Pasnau, University of Colorado at Boulder Geert Roskam Plutarch's "Maxime cum principibus philosopho esse disserendum": An Interpretation with Commentary Reviewed by Myrto Hatzimichali, University College London Michael Strevens Depth: An Account of Scientific Explanation Reviewed by Stephan Hartmann, Tilburg University and Jonah N. Schupbach, University of Pittsburgh Stephen Salkever (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Ancient Greek Political Thought Reviewed by Steven Skultety, University of Mississippi-Oxford Nicolas de Warren Husserl and the Promise of Time: Subjectivity in Transcendental Phenomenology Reviewed by Kenneth Knies, Husserl Archives, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven Samuel Gregg, James Stoner (eds.) Profit, Prudence and Virtue: Essays in Ethics, Business and Management Reviewed by John R. Boatright, Loyola University Chicago Neven Leddy, Avi S. Lifschitz (eds.) Epicurus in the Enlightenment Reviewed by Michael W. Hickson, University of Winnipeg Niccolò Guicciardini Isaac Newton on Mathematical Certainty and Method Reviewed by Michael Nauenberg, University of California, Santa Cruz George G. Brenkert, Tom L. Beauchamp (eds.) The Oxford Handbook of Business Ethics Reviewed by Matt Zwolinski, University of San Diego

The ‘Plato’ Code?

An historian and philosopher of science at the University of Manchester, after a five-year study, has apparently uncovered some hidden symbolism in Plato. The essence of the message, according to Gawker, is that Plato believed that the universe was essentially mathematical. But Gawker demurs: But millions of people have "cracked the code" of Plato, already, by reading Plato and thinking about what the words might mean. It isn't that hard, and you don't need some kind of absurd pretend "secret" message to have an opinion about Plato or his ideas. . . . All this does is warp everyone's sense of how to engage with philosophy, or literature, or art, and produce shoddy Dan Brown ripoffs. Indeed.

Review of Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s “What Darwin Got Wrong”

Jerry Fodor is known for flouting convention. In a somewhat backhanded complement, Steven Pinker (through the voice of Daniel Dennett) says this about Fodor in his The Stuff of Thought, : It is to Fodor’s credit that he pursues his claims to their logical consequences, regardless of how unconventional they may be. As fellow philosopher Dan Dennett puts it, “Most philosophers are like old beds: you jump on them and sink deep into qualifications, revisions, addenda. But Fodor is like a trampoline: you jump on him and he springs back, presenting claims twice as trenchant and outrageous. If some of us can see further, it’s from jumping on Jerry.” Based on John Horgan’s review of Fodor’s new book which he co-authored with Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini, critics of Darwinian theory are about to get a significant boost upward. While Horgan appears to be somewhat sympathetic to Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini’s project, he struggles to find much coherence among their arguments. Horgan criticizes the authors for drawing grand, non sequitur conclusions from paltry evidence (ironically, this is something many Darwinians are guilty of, but I digress). For example, apparently the authors draw an analogy between Skinnerian behaviorism and natural selection and then conclude the latter must be false because many psychologists find the former flawed. Horgan also finds issue with the authors’ critique of the common Darwinian use of anthropomorphic language to describe the mechanism of natural selection noting that “Idioms such as selfish genes simply reveal our dependence on metaphor (which was probably bred into us by natural selection).” This latter argument seems to me to have some teeth, however, if no satisfactory, non-metaphorical descriptions can be put in place of the anthropomorphisms. While I haven’t read the book yet, if the authors argue against the use of intentional language by Darwinists because metaphorical descriptions turn out not to stand for any other description, then responding that the use of metaphor is a literary device is itself a non starter. It’s one thing to say that nature doesn’t really select for the most fit, or that this is just metaphorical term to make some concept clearer. But it’s another to say that we can’t come up with any other, non-intentional description for what nature actually does. It does seem that few Darwinists are up to the task and if Fodor and Piattelli-Palmarini are making this claim, that would have some substance. It would be premature to “critique the critic” prior to having read the actual work the critic is critiquing. So I’ve put What Darwin Got Wrong” on my reading list. I’ll revisit Horgan’s review when I’ve finished (and write a few words of my own).

Nussbaum and Huckabee? Really?

Just saying those two names in the same sentence seems inordinately incongruous. But apparently the two are in a bit of a spat. It’s sort of like the old joke about the Pope and Raquel Welch in a boat. Part of what makes the joke funny is that the Pope and Raquel Welch would never get in a boat together. While I can see a politician like Mike Huckabee improperly using Nussbaum’s name to bolster some argument he’s making, it strikes me as odd that Nussbaum would engage at any level with Huckabee. In matters like these, academics generally rely upon their fan base to correct politically-driven misstatements or factual errors. If someone religious leader misquotes Richard Dawkins for example, the blogosphere lights up with corrections and invective. But in this case, Nussbaum corrected Huckabee herself and then went on to ask for an apology. We’ll see how this plays out.

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