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Philosophy Students Balk at Department Closures

Due to financial difficulties, Middlesex University has decided to close the philosophy department. Students of that department are pushing back.

However, the Middlesex decision has not been justified to students. A meeting to brief the students about the closure was postponed, says the university, because of pressing coursework deadlines. Perhaps trying to justify the decision to 60 students well versed in the art of logic was too daunting for the university authorities.

Full article

new_news_image **Update (5/17/2010): See this interesting article by Inside Higher Ed on the subject. Apparently, the news of the closure set off a firestorm of opposition across the pond.

Hell, Fire, and (Global) Warming

I came across this op-ed piece in the New York Times today by Al Gore on global warming. While there’s little of obvious philosophical value in this article, as one who grew up in a very conservative Christian church, I’ve been struck by the similarities between the language Gore uses to articulate his cause and that used by leaders in my conservative upbringing. What struck me most about his article (and Gore’s whole campaign on this topic) is how brilliantly it functions as an alternative to the Christian narrative for those in the West.

  • It has a “transcendent,” largely ineffable object towards which we must direct our energy: the planet and “the life of future generations”,
  • It’s largely unproved and un-provable (this is an important epistemic feature in my opinion),
  • It has skeptics to give the faithful wagons to circle: “climate deniers”,image-burning-planet
  • It provides a path to redemption (“From the standpoint of governance, what is at stake is our ability to use the rule of law as an instrument of human redemption.”),
  • It provides a strong locus of guilt as a motivator: “We would no longer have to worry that our grandchildren would one day look back on us as a criminal generation that had selfishly and blithely ignored clear warnings that their fate was in our hands.”,
  • It has a religious text, a church, and an apologist defending the apparent mistakes of both: “the reality of the danger we are courting has not been changed by the discovery of at least two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.”,
  • It has missionaries and priests: “Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate”, and
  • It employs a tacit use of fear to incite action; the threat of a future “hell” if you will: “[a failure to fight global warming will result in] the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, civil unrest, chaos and the collapse of governance in many developing countries, large-scale crop failures and the spread of deadly diseases.”

With the narrative of Christian theism largely displaced among the educated and affluent in the West, this narrative has stepped in filling the gap and is does so with aplomb. Based on the behavior of educated professionals I work with and the attention given to this issue by those in the popular media, Gore’s apologetic has many devoted disciples. They faithfully are shedding their worldly possessions in an effort to reduce their carbon footprint, they attempt to live modestly (apparently so they don’t take up more than their fair share), they are religious about recycling which appears to be their version of being good stewards of the planet, and they look askance and incredulous towards anyone who does not share the faith.

I suppose the important take-away is that Ernest Becker was right. Human beings need religion or a worthwhile surrogate. It’s life or death to us.

Sam Harris on Science and Morality

Metaphysical gadfly Sam Harris has stirred the pot once again by raising the issue of whether a general theory of ethics can be based solely on a scientific foundation. In an article for the Huffington Post, Harris responds to feedback he has received on a recent talk he gave at the TED conference in which he discusses his new book on the relationship between science and morality. In this article defending his speech, Harris does two things. First, he affirms that moral statements have truth value. (Ironically, in this respect, he ends up giving aid to many of the religious conservatives by which he made his name excoriating.) Second, he argues that all moral statements can be grounded in a robust science of the mind. In this respect, he reaffirms his commitment to naturalism and to defend the tenets of the new atheism.

He spends most of his article responding to an essay by Sean Carroll in which Carroll responds to Harris’s TED speech. While Harris and Carroll agree on the definition of science and even what a “science of morality” might look like, Harris takes issue with Carroll’s claim that a science of morality is possible (even in principle). Harris’s primary quibble with Carroll is with what he takes to be Carroll’s moral and epistemic skepticism regarding moral truth which is rooted in a largely inaccessible and varied inner-subjective experience.  

New atheists like Harris, Dennett, and Dawkins eschew postmodern thought mainly on the grounds that all truth is scientific truth and therefore in principle objective. That is, theoretically science can provide any inquirer with exhaustive knowledge about any true fact (practically science is no where near this ideal but that’s merely a factor of the current state of the art). This would seem to include any fact about a person’s psychology at any given moment since psychological facts are reducible to “facts about human neurophysiology.” If there are facts that are in principle out of the reach of an ideal science—if fact and meaning are not coextensive--naturalism as a comprehensive worldview would, at the very least, need to be modified.

Harris’s consequentialism leads him to conclude that not all humans are equally valuable since one life may have a greater ability to produce good than another. It also has epistemic implications about ethical truth. Individual value judgments when reduced to particular brain states just have to turn out to be similar (or identical) at the end of the day even if the people that hold those judgments say they’re different. Person A saying he believes torturing babies for fun is a good gives us no reason whatever to believe that person’s A moral claim corresponds to the truth of the matter. If A’s brain state is similar to B’s who disagrees with A’s stated moral judgment then A and B share the same moral view regardless of what A claims.The moral fact about this act is reduced to the neurophysiology and any claims to the contrary can’t be taken seriously.

Harris likens the situation to epistemic claims about what constitutes a valid explanatory method. Here Harris goes after postmodernists who might question the validity of logic and evidence as the foundation for scientific reasoning. If a postmodernist questions the validity of logic, what possible argument could be given in response? The very question is a non-starter. “The right question is, why should we care what such a person thinks in the first place?” Harris says. Similarly, if a person says she believes that torturing babies for fun is a moral good, what possible moral response could we give? Harris thus moves the analysis of ethical principles from the squishy ground of moral philosophizing to the terra firma of physical states of the brain and seems to claim that the brain state is where the true moral truth value lies. He simply finds it hard to believe that an objective analysis of brains will vary wildly between two humans with normal physiology.

While the desire to move ethics onto firmer and more consistent ground is headed in the right direction, Harris gives up too much in his desire to avoid metaphysics. Type-type identity theories in philosophy of mind are deeply problematic and attempts to articulate a complete epistemology on such theories have foundered. Attempting to move ethics onto such unstable ground may end up proving much the worse for ethics. As Daniel Robinson has said, if you tell your doctor you’re in pain and he disagrees, it’s time to find a new doctor.


Sam Harris seems to be no lover of philosophy: “I am convinced that every appearance of terms like "metaethics," "deontology," "noncognitivism," "anti-realism," "emotivism," and the like, directly increases the amount of boredom in the universe.”

A New Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche


Francis Fukuyama of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies writes an abstract of a new biography of Nietzsche for the New York Times. The biography, written by Julian Young and titled, A Philosophical Biography of Friedrich Nietzsche, avoids overly psychologizing reducing the philosopher to  “fluke in the philosopher’s personal development.” This largely positive review highlights some of the stronger aspects of the biography and focuses mainly on the formative events in Nietzsche’s life including his relationship with Wagner and some of his failures with women.

Whether we acknowledge it or not, we continue to live within the intellectual shadow cast by Nietzsche. Postmodernism, deconstructionism, cultural relativism, the “free spirit” scorning bourgeois morality, even New Age festivals like Burning Man can all ultimately be traced to him.

Nietzsche’s life is important regardless of what one thinks of his philosophy and another view into that life is certainly welcome.


Greek Philosophy and Postmodernism

I have a friend, a postmodernist, who believes that language constitutes thought. As a corollary, he believes that without language we couldn’t think. He told me recently that he first encountered the idea in a class he took on Plato. If all of Western philosophy indeed are footnotes to Plato, then I suppose it would be relatively easy to find just about any modern system in his thought. I got to thinking about my friend’s comment after reading this blog post on CathNews.

In this post, author John Kelly attempts to draw analogies between contemporary postmodern thought and ancient sophism and skepticism. While his article takes on a decidedly religious tone, he does make some interesting general claims about the impact to metaphysics of adopting a postmodern stance . Postmodernist epistemology (if there is such a thing – my friend assures me there isn’t) seems at least to nibble along the edges of skepticism if not consuming rather generous portions in it’s more melancholy incarnations. Adopting a thought/language identity thesis would seem to at least involve some kind of a denial of the traditional mind/world distinction since a thought of a dog is not a thought of a dog-out-there but is just “dog” in the head. The “ofness” or “aboutness”—the intentional state—seems to have disappeared.

Linguist Steven Pinker discusses problems with the language-is-thought view (what he calls “linguistic determinism”) in his excellent book The Stuff of Thought. After describing the view and many of the challenges it faces, he states the thesis of his book in terms that are in direct contrast to linguistic determinism: “language is a window into human nature, exposing deep and universal features of our thoughts and feelings; the thoughts and feelings cannot be equated with the words themselves.” (Kindle location, 3,012-38, emphasis mine) He then gives four reasons why language is a part of our mental framework but that the latter isn’t identical with the former.

First, we had to learn language in the first place. It seems difficult to describe a pre-linguistic scenario (one he believes had to be the case for humans) which then gave rise to language since in this pre-linguistic scenario, no one would ever have had a thought! Second, thoughts are stored in memory much more abstractly than bits of language. This is no trivial point. Take the word “God” for example. That simple word typically labels something much more complex and much more rich in the mind of the person that conceptualizes God. Third, limits of language don’t appear to limit thought. When the latter outgrows the former, we change the language to suit the expansion of thought. More importantly, it does appear that the latter outgrows the former and not vice versa. Finally, he says “the effect of language on thought must be limited [because] language itself is so badly suited as a medium of reasoning.” (Ibid.) Words, he says, don’t appear to contain the relevant information that is necessary for making logical inferences. The word “window” does not in any way imply “hole in the wall” simply by looking at the structure of the words. Abstract concepts “link” the two together.

This analysis of language is somewhat of tangential point to the conclusions Kelly is interested in drawing. But it isimportant in this respect: there seems to be a good degree of difficulty in talking about a “postmodern metaphysic” and this is brought into relief when one looks at how postmodernists understand language. As Kelly notes, postmodernism’s “denial of language’s ability to grasp what is real . . . refuses language status beyond expressing flux, asserting there is no fixed, universally shared meaning to words.” This, in my opinion, is a point of departure and should be deeply understood by anyone participating in “the conversation.”

That’s Common Sense!


That’s Common Sense!

by Rick Pimentel

There are so many issues that people discuss with one another that have philosophical significance. Whether it is at the dinner table or at a restaurant or at a café or in the living room or on the phone, we all discuss issues that pertain to fundamental aspects of life that are directly or indirectly addressed by philosophy. These conversations touch upon, sometimes unintentionally, ideas that significantly impact our lives. For this reason, Philosophy New is launching a new feature area called the “Table Talk Series.” This series will examine “everyday ideas” and consider how philosophy can inform those discussion making philosophy more practical to our lives.

How many of us have participated in a conversation in which someone has stated in response to something that sounds profound, “That’s common sense!” A statement used as often and as convincingly as this seems to be important. Many of us use it and believe it. Defining common sense can be difficult because there exists a simple, popular meaning and a more complex, philosophical meaning. According to Dr. Jonathan Dolhenty, the late co-radical_academy_logo founder of the Center for Applied Philosophy, common sense is the “the conglomeration of generally held opinions and beliefs, more or less well founded, more or less mixed up with error and prejudice, which make up the voice of the community -- what everybody knows.” Many would read this and say, “That’s common sense!” Despite the fact that some would not use all these words, it is safe to assume that many would agree with this popular and simple definition. However, does it fully describe common sense? This is where philosophy steps in. The same Dr. Dolhenty offered a philosophical definition for common sense when he stated the following:

Common sense refers to the spontaneous activity of the intellect, the way in which it operates of its own native vigor before it has been given any special training. It implies man's native capacity to know the most fundamental aspects of reality, in particular, the existence of things (including our own existence), the first principles of being (identity, noncontradiction, and excluded middle), and secondary principles which flow immediately from the self-evident principles (causality, sufficient reason, etc.).

This definition is certainly more complicated but does this definition, in conjunction with the popular definition, tell us anything about common sense? Thankfully, it does. First of all, the word “common” is important. It implies that all people have the capacity to have this sense. Second, the point that common sense is “more or less well founded” is significant because people possess common sense independent of any specialized knowledge or training (though not prior to experience; common sense is decidedly a posteriori). This is arguably the reason why common sense is appealed to by many people; it is not specialized. Lastly, common sense does not apply to specialized knowledge. Put differently, common sense is used to evaluate common scenarios. (That should be common sense.) If it can be possessed independent of any specialized knowledge or training, then it is obvious that common sense does not apply to specialized knowledge. So, if you hear one rocket scientist telling another rocket scientist at the water cooler, “The ambient temperature of the combustion chamber is inversely proportional to the fluid mass of the rocket propellant” and the second rocket scientist laughs and says, “That’s common sense!”, then you can step in and say, “I am sorry but that is not common sense.” (Keep in mind that I do not know if rocket scientists would ever have this conversation or if rocket propellant has fluid mass; it was “fueled” by my imagination). It is not common sense because the knowledge that these two scientists possess is specialized.

Dr. Dolhenty’s philosophical definition for common sense emphasizes the fundamental aspects of reality (e.g. the existence of things, laws of logic and being, and principles of causality and sufficient reason). Although the popular definition is good, it does not exhaustively describe common sense. The popular definition indicates that there exist pieces of knowledge that are obvious (i.e. common sense). But, the philosophical definition points out the exact components of common sense. When asked about common sense, the average person will not define common sense as knowledge of the fundamental aspects of reality as demonstrated by the laws of logic and being. This is not to say that the average person is stupid. It is probably because they may not know how to describe common sense in these words. For instance, if a philosopher describes the law of non-contradiction to the average person by stating, “No statement can be both true and not true in the same sense”, the average person will reply, “That’s common sense.” This person may not know how to put it into words, but they can certainly recognize when something is common sense. Why? Because common sense is knowledge that we all possess of the fundamental laws of logic and being. These are self-evident principles that need no proof. Mortimer Adler famously stated, “They are self-evident because the opposite is unthinkable.” It is here, where common sense finds its home. Although the philosophical aspect of common sense can seem complicated, it is really simple when you take time to examine it. Hopefully you can see that philosophy and table talk go hand in hand.

Is Philosophy Necessary?

In this piece, Craig Rood, a graduate student in philosophy at North Dakota State University opines about the value of philosophy in light of the University’s decision to close the Cardinal Muench Seminary. By closing the seminary, the philosophy department at NDSU will lose two of its professors due to lack of funding. Rood’s article raises some interesting questions about the role philosophy plays in the modern university with implications of questions the role the discipline plays in education in general. When looking to cut costs, administrators tend to gravitate towards the humanities as easy targets. Philosophy programs with their meager enrollments and long programs, tend not to fare well.

But the article also raises larger questions about the value of philosophy and the disciplines it engenders. Most philosophers I come in contact with are in the discipline because they love it and not only believe it’s valuable, but believe it’s essential to a well-equipped intellectual life. Root’s conclusion is that “human beings absolutely need a philosophy in order to live.” While this seems prima facie true, this doesn’t necessarily mean human beings need philosophy as the formal discipline to develop a philosophy of life.

Still, knowing even a little philosophy and spending some times in its core disciplines (particularly logic, epistemology, and ethics) can make all the difference in how one develops intellectually. A strong theme in existentialist thought is the distinction between being on the inside and the outside of an idea, a relationship, or an endeavor. The view from the outside may give one the impression the idea is irrational, confusing, useless, and meaningless. However being on the inside, one sees things very differently. This transition from out to in can only take place by an irrational leap and that leap is a hard boundary—a firewall—for many.

Philosophy is like that. From the outside, it seems pedantic and impractical. For those of us that have spent time on the inside however, we have come to learn that it is indispensible .

Epistemic Closure or Closed Epistemology?

I ran across this amusing article this evening. The title caught my attention. Typically when interdisciplinary terms find their way into popular speech acts, they retain some semblance of their original meaning. In this case, the term “epistemic closure” seems to have fathered a bastard child with the same name. As the author, Jaime Weinman, understands the term as it’s being used in the blogosphere, epistemic closure is “being unreceptive to facts that don’t fit into the pre-approved worldview.” Weinman even includes a nice Venn diagram to illustrate the difference between truth, belief, and knowledge. The term as used by epistemologists has nothing to do with being closed minded but with whether the justification of one argument transfers to another by implication.

Weinman capitalizes on the term to excoriate conservatives for their “myth creation” regarding certain political issues. This is unfortunate because epistemic closure as defined by epistemologists could actually inform Weinman’s analysis of the conservative movement. Nevertheless, if there really is a “great epistemic closure debate” occurring in 2010, epistemologists everyone should take up intellectual arms and seek to correct the term’s usage so things don’t get too far out of hand. I suggest the following.

1. If you see the term epistemic closure being used improperly in a blog or article, point the author to Steven Luper’s fine article at the SEP here. In this article, Luper defines epistemic closure as: If, while knowing p, S believes q because S knows that p entails q, then S knows q. Every author using the term should memorize and internalize this definition.

2. Ensure the author reads the debate between Dretske and Hawthorne in Contemporary Debates in Epistemology edited by Steup and Sosa. These essays are a good primer on the epistemic closure discussion and should correct any misuse of the term. Dretske argues that epistemic closure fails but this does not entail skepticism. He defines closure roughly as the idea that if S knows that P is true and knows that P implies Q, then, evidentially speaking, this is enough for S to know that Q is true. He makes a distinction between heavyweight and lightweight implications of a given proposition. Heavyweight implications are those implications that may form the metaphysical (philosophical) basis for certain facts to be true (cookies in the jar implies that there is a material world). Lightweight implications are those implications that are "nearer" to the fact in question (cookies in the jar implies that the jar is not empty). Evidence may transmit to the latter, but not to the former.

A typical believer--one who does not consider heavyweight implications--knows that she hands or sees cookies in a jar. She also knows that she's not a brain in a vat. But this is only true as long as she doesn't seriously consider heavyweight implications. As soon as she does, doubt is introduced and the epistemic context changes. When she considers whether she is a brain in a vat, she does not have enough evidence that she isn't (even if she uses the evidence that she sees cookies in a jar or has the experience of using her hands) and, under this epistemic context she doesn't know she isn't a brain in a vat. If this is true, then on closure, she doesn't know she has hands or that there are cookies in the jar.

Hawthorne demurs. In defending closure, he argues that if I believe that someone knows P and deduces Q from P, to say that he doesn't actually know Q isn't merely conversationally inappropriate. The natural thing to do would be say that he actually does know Q and so to deny that he does needs an explanation. It's not enough to say that he actually does and that the closure principle, like the claim I know I have a hand but imply that I might not by making the very claim, is not simply a matter of practical infelicities. If closure is wrong, there needs to be an explanation why it is so and Dretske cannot merely appeal to the fact that its denial is true but it may seem to have intuitive force only when it is brought to the attention of the believer.

The blogosphere needs to get its arms around this.

3. Ask for a retraction and apology from anyone improperly using the term. Closure is just too important to have it thrown around improperly and bloggers need to be called on the carpet for their infelicities.

Philosophers have worked too long and too hard on problems like epistemic closure to have terms commandeered while retaining none of the substance of the meaning of those terms. I’m only half joking.

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