Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Sin in Christian Thought

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[New Entry by Kevin Timpe on April 15, 2021.] While some have sought to give naturalistic accounts of sin (see Ruse 2002), this entry treats sin as a religious concept. Sin plays a central role in many of the world's major religions (see Graham 2007), and this role is arguably its central connotation (see M. Adams 1991). A full treatment of sin as a topic in the philosophy of religion would therefore need to canvass a wide array of religious traditions, such as Judaism and Islam (Watt 2009 and McGinnis 2018). Since Christianity develops out of Judaism, a historical discussion of...

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News source: Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Follow Decision Theory!

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Back in January, I wrote that there's no such thing as "following the science" -- that scientists and medical experts "aren't experts in ethical or rational decision-making. Their expertise merely concerns the descriptive facts, providing the essential inputs to rational decision-making, but not what to do with those inputs."It's worth additionally emphasizing that this question of how to convert information into rational decisions is not something about which academic experts are entirely at sea. On the contrary, there's a well-developed academic subfield of decision theory which tells us how to balance considerations of risk and reward in a rational manner.  The key concept here is expected value, which involves multiplying (the value of) each possible outcome by its probability.  For example, we know that (all else equal) we should not accept a 50% chance of causing 10 extra deaths for the sake of a 1% chance of averting 100 deaths, for the latter's expected value (one death averted) does not outweigh the former's expected cost (5 extra deaths).Now, my central complaint throughout the pandemic has been that policy-makers and institutions like the FDA (and their European equivalents) have evidently not been guided by any sort of cost-benefit analysis or the most basic principles of decision theory.  As Govind Persad put it, withholding vaccines during a pandemic is like withdrawing the service ladder from a subway tunnel for a safety check, while someone is stuck in the tunnel.  The tiny risk of harm from the vaccine is completely dwarfed by the risk posed by remaining vulnerable to COVID-19.  Prioritizing the former risk over the latter thus reveals a shocking kind of innumeracy and normative ignorance on the part of these policy-makers.Trump's flouting of established scientific expertise deplorably caused many unnecessary deaths.  But the same can be said of the broader medical establishment's flouting of. . .

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News source: Philosophy, et cetera

Packing the Court?

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In April, President Biden created a commission to study expanding the Supreme Court. Expanding the court would allow Biden to appoint new judges, presumably to offset the conservative judges with liberal judges. This tactic is commonly known as “court packing” and the best known attempt to do this was by FDR. On the face of it, expanding the court does seem constitutional. Congress does set the size of the court and it did vary from six to ten members until 1869. There are those who argue that it is not constitutional, as one would expect. Also, as one would expect, people tend to shift their position on this issue based on their political allegiances and who holds the White House and Congress. But, as always, my approach is to present a consistent and principled position that does not depend on my political interest now. Politically, I would certainly favor Biden packing the courts. But my principles are not simply a matter of what I favor at the moment. For the sake of the argument to follow, let it be assumed that court packing is constitutional. If it is not, then what follows would be irrelevant. Interestingly, it seems likely that the Supreme Court would need to rule on the constitutionality of expanding the Supreme Court—so if one party holds the majority, they could always block expansion in this manner. But now to the discussion. The most obvious argument against packing the court is based on the need to preserve the norm of not using this tactic. Politics, like any game, depends heavily on the participants agreeing to and abiding by the rules of the game (be they formal or informal). While some players stick to the norms out of respect, others follow them for pragmatic reasons: if they break the norms, then the other players will respond by punishing them or by breaking the norms themselves. Since court packing seems constitutional, what serves to keep people in check are the consequences of breaking the norm of not using this tactic. The obvious defect. . .

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News source: A Philosopher's Blog

The Self as Narrative: Is it good to tell stories about ourselves?

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Is the self divided? Since the time of Freud the notion of a fragmented self has taken deep root in how we think of ourselves. Freud thought we were subject to competing forces, some conscious and some unconscious. It was from the conflict of these forces that the self emerged. Enduring conflicts between different elements of the self could lead to mental breakdown and illness. Many other psychologists and psychotherapists have proposed similar theories, suggesting that we split ourselves into different roles and identities and sometimes struggle to integrate the competing elements into a coherent picture. In his book, The Act of Living, the psychotherapist Frank Tallis argues that achieving integration between the elements of the self is one of the primary therapeutic goals of psychotherapy. Why? Because personal fragmentation is thought to lie at the root of human unhappiness: The idea that fragmentation or division of the self is a major determinant of human unhappiness, anxiety and discomfort appears in the writings of many of the key figures in the history of psychotherapy. Our sense of self accompanies all our perceptions, so when the self begins to crack and splinter everything else begins to crack and splinter too. The world around us (and our place in it) becomes unreliable, uncertain, frightening, and in some instances untenable. We experience ourselves as a unity and threats to cohesion are deeply distressing. (Tallis 2021, 150)  You may have felt this distress yourself. I know I have. There are parts of my identity that I struggle to reconcile with others. There is, for instance, the conflict between the ideals of my working self and parenting self. I often ask myself how can I justify spending time writing articles like this when I could be spending time with my daughter, particularly when she is so young. I don’t know how to reconcile the two sides of myself. How can we resolve the distress into something more psychologically appealing?. . .

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News source: Philosophical Disquisitions

Imagining an Alternative Pandemic Response

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I received my first shot of the Moderna vaccine yesterday -- which naturally got me thinking about how this should've been accessible much, much sooner.  I don't think anyone's particularly happy about the way that our pandemic response played out, but there's probably a fair bit of variation in what people think should've been done differently.  What alternative history of COVID-19 do you wistfully yearn after?  Here's mine (imagining that these lessons were taken on board from the start)...In early Feb 2020, with Covid declared a "global health emergency" by the WHO, American scientists prioritize preparing a low-dose "challenge strain" of the virus in case it is needed for emergency immunity research.By early March, as the seriousness of the pandemic becomes clear, the emergency research protocols are approved by the president, and hundreds of volunteers enlisted (mostly young and healthy, but also some terminal patients and elderly altruists who want to help produce a better world for their great-grandkids).A strict (but temporary) lockdown is implemented for the last two weeks of March, to buy time while the nation waits on the results of the emergency immunity research.  "Immunity passports" grant lockdown exceptions to those who have already recovered from the illness.  Those in possession of immunity passports are highly favoured for "essential work" to minimize transmission risk to others.  There are reports of occasional "pox parties" as some groups pursue immunity via uncontrolled infection, but these are widely condemned as premature and irrational with immunity research results expected any day now...Finally, the early results are revealed, with the tested vaccines proving surprisingly effective.  Deaths in the placebo group spark public outrage that high-risk individuals weren't given access to a life-saving vaccine (while scientists push back against this, writing op-eds to explain to the public the importance of. . .

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News source: Philosophy, et cetera

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