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Some Interesting Stuff From Around the Web

In this article for the times, the eminently quotable Stanley Fish discusses the merits of philosophy (as an academic discipline not as the intellectual exercise that most of us engage in each day). I rather like his view of relativism as he focuses on the epistemology of moral claims rather than the ontology. I also tend to agree with his view of academic philosophy though, like all esoteric and specialized disciplines, its value goes far beyond its practicality.

Mario Livio for The Scientific American explains why math works. For non-subscribers, there’s a short, two paragraph introduction here.

Thanks to Don Sudduth for the pointers.

The blog with the funny name (Camels with Hammers) considers whether evolutionary metaphysics is a type of faith. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

An example of some of the interesting approaches one must take to solving the apparent conflict between divine providence and human freedom.

Can you “tweet” prayers to God?

You Think You’re Free? Think Again

UPDATE: I wrote a shorter version of this article for The Huffington Post. That was recently published here.

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I'd wonder whether science is out to systematically destroy religion one idea at a time. Over the last few centuries, when the church has gone head to head with science, the church hasn't done so well. Now we're here at the beginning of the 21st century and of the mysteries that remain, religion continues to be a safe house for only a couple of them. One is the whether humans are free to make choices between good and evil and whether we're responsible for those choices. It's not looking good for religion.

2594-Jenn-250pxAs far as science is concerned, free will is tricky. Most of us seem to think that we, at least some of the time, face genuine choices and are responsible for the decisions we make. I can choose to drive or take the bus. I can help the needy or help myself. I can choose to be with this person or that one. In the West, our entire legal system hinges on whether doing one thing over another is up to us. If it is, we're responsible for our actions and should pay the penalty for making bad choices.

But this is not squaring well with a modern view of the world. Many scientists and philosophers are realizing that if the rest of the world is governed by natural laws and chance and humans are a part of the world, then humans must be governed by natural laws and chance too. Consider this argument by philosopher Galen Strawson. He says that in order to ultimately be responsible for our actions, we would have to be responsible for the way we now are since the things that define us--our beliefs, desires, goals, environment--provide the basis for the decisions we make. But much of the factors that contributed to the way we now are were out of our control. We aren't responsible for our DNA. We didn't choose our parents or where we were born and grew up. We had little influence over the schools we attended or why we may like red wines over white. So, since we're not responsible for much of the way we now are, we can't ultimately be responsible for our actions free (a succinct summary of this argument appeared in an article for the New York Times recently).

William Provine, Professor of Biology at Cornell University, has argued strongly against free will mainly based on Darwinian science. But the idea is motivated by what he sees as negative social outcomes by those who believe in it. He stated in a debate with theist Philip Johnson, “There are no gods, no purposes, and no goal-directed forces of any kind …. There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning in life, and no free will for humans, either. What a horrible idea.”

Philosophers like Daniel Dennett, Patricia Churchland, and Derek Pereboom agree that given what we currently know about man’s place as a wholly physical being in a physical world, free will is not tenable. Pereboom concludes that belief in beings with free will “is not credible given our best physical theories. Consequently, no position which affirms the sort of free will required for strong accountability is left standing."

Many recent, popular movies are touching on the subject bringing the issue front and center to a wider audience. “You don’t have free will David. You have the appearance of free will.” Fixer Terrence “The Hammer” discloses this uncomfortable fact to David Norris in George Nolfi’s recent cinematic adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s short story, The Adjustment Team (films such as Inception, The Book of Eli are other examples that come to mind). The movie nibbles on the question, “Are we able to do otherwise?” In the mouth of an actor, free will’s elegy may carry little weight in the real world. But it is being echoed by many in the philosophical and scientific communities and the implication, if true, for religion, ethics, sociology and psychology are enormous.

Some are recommending we just face facts and give up the notion. In a recent review of David Eagleman's book Incognito Jeffrey Foss just comes out with it: "Free will is an illusion." His recommendation? "Get over it." According to Foss, Eagleman attempts to show that humans essentially are biological robots fitted with hardwired machinery that explains our behavior much better than some squishy idea like "the soul." While science may provide some wiggle room for those who "wish to live the life of freedom and responsibility . . . the writing is on the wall" he warns. (As an example of a theist who believes modern science provides the wiggle room Foss alludes to, Loyola philosopher Paul Moser argues that quantum physics provides plenty of theoretical room for freedom of the will. He also makes the positive claim that acting unselfishly towards others--something he believes some people clearly do--is only possible if God exists and that, in turn, can provide evidence that he in fact does exist. In my interview with Dr. Moser, he stated, “… in human conscience God bears witness to the divine moral character as represented in the law of God, thereby holding people accountable.”)

This does not bode well for many core religious teachings. After all, if the freedom to choose is dissolved in the acid of natural law (or divine sovereignty--another can of worms 5602-WWU_smaltogether), a lot of what religion teaches has to be dissolved with it. We'd no longer be responsible for evil or good, or be able to choose to live the way God wants us to. We'd also have to give up things like sin and eternal punishment. Really, without free will, religion isn't all that ethically distinctive from agnosticism or atheism. Worse, it may even mean that God is responsible for evil and suffering. If God is in control of everything but we're not free to choose, God must be responsible for child abusers and torturers. Only by creative theological gymnastics (that I suspect most of us don't really buy into anyway) can one escape the logic.

Well, there is another way. We can try to affirm the science but just deny the conclusion--a kind of "power through it" approach. Theist, geneticist, and former director of the Human Genome Project, Francis Collins, states in his book The Language of God that "... the existence of free will and of order in the physical universe are inexorable facts." He believes that even in a world where science would nearly exhaustively explain everything, free will still will be a viable notion. "Scientists will discover an increasing level of molecular detail about the inherited factors that undergird our personalities, but that should not lead us to overestimate their quantitative contribution. Yes, we have all been dealt a particular set of cards, and the cards will eventually be revealed. But how we play the hand is up to us."

This approach focuses more on what experience seems to present us with (or what a sacred text teaches) rather than what we come to learn by analyzing facts about the world. It comes down to how much we trust our intuitions. If science were to demonstrate that we really don't love our kids should we stop caring for them? If scientists somehow proved that we really don't enjoy red wine or fried dough (we just think we do), will we drink water only and eat plain rice at every meal? Many claim that we know we're free and that's enough to keep acting as if we are regardless of what the science and philosophy says.

In an article for The Art of Theory, Yale Law professor Paul Kahn frames a discussion of free will in the context of a theological view of politics. Political discourse, if it is to occur at all, has to be done in the context of alternate possibilities. He is somewhat critical of what he sees as the Kantian view that truth is defined solely in terms of what reason dictates. We may use reason to draw various conclusions about matters legal and moral. But, says Kahn, most of the time reason doesn’t and, a fortiori, shouldn’t dictate our actions.

We may have no answer to a moral argument, but still we may be convinced that the right way to act lies in another direction. We may, for example, decide that, under the circumstances, the particularity of love is more important than the universality of a moral rule. We may even acknowledge that what we are doing is morally wrong, but still believe that it is what we should do….

No principle will tell me whether I should act on care or justice when they point in different directions. That hardly means that I am the passive observer of the diverse causes of my own behavior. I must decide what to do. The possibility of decision in a causal world may be mysterious, but that does not mean that the experience of decision is mysterious. Just the opposite: we are entirely familiar with our own freedom and thus with the process of deciding.

This intuition is strong and arguments like these suggest that they should carry just as much if not more weight than what reason may dictate.

My view is that if we take the evidence coming out of science and philosophy seriously, freedom of the will is hard to maintain. Yet I make plenty of decisions every day and have a strong sense that I'm entirely responsible for them. I can at least say this: if I'm being asked to pick between the science and my intuitions, I choose not to.

2011 International Conference on History and Society Development

2011 International Conference on History and Society Development(ICHSD 2011)
25 to 27 November 2011

The ICHSD 2011 papers will be published as proceedings and all the papers will be indexed by Thomson ISI Proceedings. About 10 papers selected from registered ones will be published in IJSSH, ISSN: 2010-3646 free of charge.

The deadline for abstracts/proposals is 5 September 2011.

Web address:
Sponsored by: IEDRC

Political Theologizing sans Theology

In this interesting piece of political philosophy, Yale professor Paul Kahn examines politics and law using the lenses of theology and theological psychology. This isn’t an article on theology per se. Rather, Kahn attempts to examine politics using theology writ large.  I think he does a good job of showing the role postmodern epistemology plays in political and legal discourse. He focuses on the idea that politics (and even law) is essentially social. Political "truth" comes down to an agreement among a particular social group as defined by the political or legal system in question.

In order to be effective in these systems, one must have the power of persuasion: the ability to dialogue and simmer down disparate ideas until there is a general (though not, of course, universal) agreement. If one resorts to preaching or dictating political or legal truth, one has abandoned social discourse and so is not doing politics any longer. He plays heavily on the intuition that most of us have that ideologues and dictators both have abandoned the political process and replaced it with something much less democratic (despite the fact that they can be effective politically).

This theological background continues not just in moral theory, but also in contemporary political theory. When, for example, John Rawls argues that the basic order of a political community must be founded on an imagined contract formed behind a veil of ignorance, he is imagining the overlap of reason and will. Behind the veil, we can rely only on reason, which is the same for everyone.

Thanks to Bill Pardi for the pointer.

Full article here.

Philosophy of Religion Conference at Georgetown University

BGND Phil of Religion Conference, hosted by Georgetown University

Conference begins Thursday evening, 10/6, and runs through Saturday evening, 10/8

*Speakers (with commentators):*
Mark Henninger, SJ (Patrick Toner)
Oliver Crisp (Tom Senor)
Meghan Sullivan (Lorraine Keller)
Terence Cuneo (Karen Stohr)
Christina van Dyke (Thomas Williams)
Trenton Merricks (Todd Buras)
Hud Hudson (Blake Roeber)
Alex Pruss and Trent Dougherty (Stephen Grimm)
Lara Buchak (Mark Lance)

Please let Mark Murphy know if you'll be attending so that he can make sure the room size is appropriate. Email him at

Reposted from The Prosblogion.

So Long Old Time Religion

Almost exactly a year ago, I wrote an article in which I discussed the changing face of religion in the West. I claimed, among other things, that evangelicalism is a dying breed, church attendance is dropping and traditional views of God and the Bible are shifting, and that Christianity will look very different in ten years. In an article published July 26, 2011, the Florida Sun Sentinel summarized recent research done by the Barna Group on shifting trends in religion. The data support the conclusions I made in my article. Here are some of the trends (since 1991).

  • Church attendance fell by 9 percent
  • Belief in the accuracy of the Bible fell by 8 percent
  • Volunteer work at the church fell by 19 percent
  • Those who call themselves “born again” are still growing (up 5 percent)
  • The number of unchurched has grown significantly, up 13 percent

As I stated in my 2010 article (and in this series), the reasons for the shift are varied but I think it comes down to the growing impact science and technology has had on the daily lives of Americans and, at the same time, the shrinking role the church and God have played. I think it is an open question whether these shifts are a good or bad thing. I do believe that something will replace religion—something similar in psychological power. Environmentalism and even Darwinism seem to be viable alternates for many but a new kind of religious sentiment may emerge as well.

Time will certainly tell.

Thanks to Greg Taft for the pointer.

Full article here.

Barna blog post here.

My Philosopher Can Beat Up Your Computer Scientist

In this world of growing technological advancement, can a philosophy degree (any degree in the humanities) have any value? In this interesting article, David Horowitz outlines why a degree in the humanities and specifically philosophy is not only valuable, but is critical for being a good technologist. As someone who has a graduate degree in philosophy and also works at a high-tech company, I can unequivocally say (something very hard for a philosopher to do let me tell you) that his claims are completely accurate.

The fact is, even if you work with computers all day, the business of computers is conducted with people. Not only do you rely on and collaborate with other humans to get the work done, if you want to create computer systems that humans can actually use to enhance their lives, you have to understand what it means to be human and have a solid, and balanced view of how computers and technology fit into the human condition. These are not computer science problems but philosophical ones.

I wanted to better understand what it was about how we were defining intelligence that was leading us astray: What were we failing to understand about the nature of thought in our attempts to build thinking machines?

And, slowly, I realized that the questions I was asking were philosophical questions—about the nature of thought, the structure of language, the grounds of meaning. So if I really hoped to make major progress in AI, the best place to do this wouldn't be another AI lab. If I really wanted to build a better thinker, I should go study philosophy.

It’s not surprising that a prominent technologist has made a similar claim particularly when you consider the company he runs.

Full article here. Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

The Gettier Problem: A Study--Part 7

Reference and Meaning

We’ll start our exploration of belief with a puzzle. In his paper, “A Puzzle About Belief”[1] Saul Kripke contrasts the Millian view of names with the Frege-Russell view and in doing so discovers what seems to be a problem that is not easily solved on either theory. Kripke largely is concerned with how names function in belief contexts. While an analysis of proper names will play a role in a larger theory about belief, it will not be our only concern. Still, I think examining Kripke’s puzzle will raise some important distinctions about belief that will set up the broader discussion. We will return to proper names throughout our analysis of belief as names play a key role in some types of Gettier cases.

According to Kripke, Mill held that proper names are simple: they pick out or refer to the thing that bears it. Names on this theory should not be associated with any properties of their bearers: they do not describe the objects that bear them. On the Frege-Russell theory, names are linguistic containers for definite descriptions. They are associated with bundles of properties possessed by the things that bear them. These properties constitute the sense of the name.

On Mill's view, Mohammad Ali and Cassius Clay refer to the same individual and can be used salva veritate interchangeably (the two proper names pick out a single person and so can be substituted in sentences without changing the truth value of those sentences). On the Frege-Russell view however, referent of names are determined by descriptive properties the speaker identifies with the name. Aristotle, when described as the teacher of Alexander the Great and when described as the philosopher who studied under Plato, has two different senses though they do refer to the same object (p. 240). The way of describing Aristotle--the sense--however, does fix the reference and so the same name cum unique description could be said to refer to different objects. If Plato turned out to be the teacher of Alexander the Great, the name ‘Aristotle’ would refer to Plato since he satisfies the description.

In the first section of the paper, Kripke explores the Millian view he presented in Naming and Necessity that names, but not descriptions, could be substituted salva veritate in modal contexts. He acknowledges that his position could be seen as decidedly non-Millian in belief contexts because in these contexts, it seems that neither names nor descriptions can be substituted and be guaranteed to preserve truth value. While arguments against Mill to tend to (sometimes strongly) favor Frege-Russell, Kripke cautions that the reason one ought to be critical of Mill's position may not be due to the success of Frege-Russell. The reason is that common terms usually have common senses and these common senses could be identical even though the believer doesn't identify the referent of the term. A person could believe that Cicero is bald and Tully is not and, when asked who Cicero and Tully are, respond with, "a famous Roman orator." The description--the sense--is the identical but the believer does not understand that Cicero and Tully are the same famous Roman orator. This argument is meant to show that the failure of interchangeability of codesignative terms in belief contexts is not due to a difference in the senses of the terms based on counter-examples that show otherwise.

In section two, he presents a difficulty. If Kripke is correct in following Mill, "if reference is all there is to naming, what semantic difference can there be between" two names that reference the same thing? Is it possible for a person to believe some proposition is true without believing another proposition with a codesignative name is true? Could one believe that Allen Konigsberg directed Crimes and Misdemeanors and disbelieve that Woody Allen did? In order to address these questions, he introduces three principles:

The disquotational principle: If a normal English speaker, on reflection, sincerely assents to 'p,'[2] then he believes that p. (248-249) That is, if a person assents to a statement, then that person believes that the proposition expressed by that statement is true.

The strengthened disquotational principle: A normal English speaker who is not reticent will be disposed to sincere reflective assent to 'p' if and only if he believes that p. (249). This principle establishes that assent indicates belief and that a lack of assent indicates a lack of belief.

The principle of translation: If a sentence of one language expresses a truth in that language, then any translation of it into any other language also expresses a truth (in that other language).

Given the disquotational principle, he posits that the principle of substitutivity is incorrect. For an English speaker using the language normally can believe 'Cicero was bald' and 'Tully was not bald' without contradiction (given that he may not know that Cicero and Tully are the same person). This problem, when applying the disquotational principle, seems to tacitly support Frege-Russell. But there are problems. If the substitution of codesignative names leads to contradictions in propositional contexts, it's not clear how Frege-Russell solves them (see above -- a believer can apply the same indefinite description in order to fill out the sense of a name and still not know that the two names refer to the same individual). Further, Kripke's 'puzzle' will show that this mystery can be invoked by not using substitution of names at all. It appears in normal context when the general principles of disquotation and translation alone are applied.

In this section Kripke presents his puzzle. A "normal" French speaker, Pierre, comes to assent to the sentence "Londres est jolie" through looking at lovely pictures of the city and what he has heard. Sometime later, he moves to a particularly unattractive part of London not realizing that London and Londres refer to the same city. None of the people in his neighborhood know French so Pierre learns English by the "direct method" of not by translating French terms into English terms. Over time he learns the name of the city he is inhabiting and assents to the sentence "London is not pretty." Of course, while assenting to this sentence, he still assents to the French sentence about London above. What, then, does Pierre believe about the city? It would appear that he believes both even though they are contradictory.

One way to solve the puzzle might be to acknowledge that Frege and Russell were correct. If Pierre learns to identify both London and Londres by certain definite descriptions that are uniquely identifying, he will be forced to conclude that both terms refer to the same city. But this need not follow. For if Pierre comes to learn each of the terms used in the definite descriptions in each language by direct method, he may not realize that the describing terms themselves have the same referent. The description of London in English would be just as isolated doxastically as the description of Londres in French. Kripke argues that such problems can exist even for natural kind terms which would seem to have a prima facie resistance to this problem.

Finally, he argues that the puzzle arises even in situations where the same name is used in the same language. He considers Peter who learns of a man named Paderewski and that he was a famous pianist (and who also was a statesman but this is a fact Peter did not come to learn). He assents to the sentence, "Paderewski had musical talent." Then later, in a different context, he comes to learn of a man named Paderewski who was a Polish Prime Minister. Assuming that this man has the same name as the famous pianist but skeptical of the musical abilities of politicians, Peter assents to the sentence, "Paderewski had no musical talent." Here, Peter believes that the referent of the name "Paderewski" is satisfied by two individuals even though metaphysically they pick out the same man. What does Peter believe?

Kripke's concern is not with the "conventional judgment" that belief contexts are referentially opaque but with whether codesignative proper names are interchangeable salva veritate in belief contexts (like they are in modal contexts). Even if they are “Shakespearian” in this sense, he doesn't believe that this is enough to establish the Frege-Russell theory of reference over Mill’s. Whether Kripke’s puzzle succeeds in demonstrating this is somewhat tangential to my purpose. What Kripke’s paper demonstrates is that there is a difference in the way reference is established in belief contexts and modal or logical contexts and this is the relevant point.

Kripke’s puzzle essentially is this: a believer can appear to assent to two contradictory propositions and believe them without contradiction. This is because the truth conditions of a proposition are not always accessible from the first person point of view. Kripke demonstrates that the truth conditions and relations that may be analyzable in logical, “third-person” analyses may not hold in belief contexts because beliefs are irreducibly phenomenological. As Kripke argues in Naming and Necessity, this is partly because in logical contexts we establish the truth conditions by linguistic fiat: we can describe propositions and their relations to other propositions and the world in whatever way suits our cases as long as those relations don’t violate logical rules. This is only possible if belief as a phenomenological act is distinct from a third-person, linguistic description of the propositions believed. What is contradictory logically and even metaphysically, may not be contradictory doxastically which gives weight to the idea that belief that a proposition is true is constrained in ways that a logical analysis is not. As I’ve already suggested above and we’ll see more clearly later, this distinction is critical in dissecting what is going in many if not all Gettier counterexamples. It’s also key to understanding knowledge.


[1] Kripke, S. A. (1979). A Puzzle About Belief. In A. Margalit (Ed.), Meaning and Use. Dordrecht and Boston: Reidel.

[2] The variable 'p' in each of these principles stands for any appropriate English sentence.

The Gettier Problem: A Study--Part 6

The Object of Belief

What is the nature of a believing act? How is the content of a belief related to a speech act? How do beliefs refer to things in the world? In its most simple formulation, believing is having a mental state that consists of a representation of the world[1]. Many philosophers describe belief in terms of an acceptance that the world is a specific way but I think this way of speaking implies that the believer is somehow actively doing something in the act of believing. While this true in many cases, it’s too restrictive for my purposes. A belief is an apprehension of the world and need not include an affirmation of it (though belief generally does have important implications for behavior—a qualification we’ll examine later).

Beliefs are usually described in terms of propositions where the belief is of the proposition and a proposition is a that clause which can be written or spoken as a fact about the world. I believe that Megan had steak for dinner or you believe that Aidan is playing his guitar. The phrase after the “that” is a description of the world that can be expressed linguistically and this description is the object of belief. That is, the object of belief is, in an important sense, the sentence or some set of properties of the sentence and it is this that of which the proposition consists.[2] This way of understanding belief is the genesis of a whole host of mistakes that have fueled Gettier-style counterexamples to JTB and is going to be the focus of my analysis. Since speaking of belief in this way typically is established (or, in most cases, assumed) at the beginning of an analysis of knowledge, this small mistake sets things off on the wrong path at the beginning and ends up leading to much larger errors that resist correction at the end.

Instead of thinking about beliefs as being about descriptions of the world, I think it’s more correct to say beliefs are representations of the world and propositions are the content of those representations. Beliefs are a mental state consisting of a way the world possibly could be. On this model, propositions are not the object of belief but the content. Propositions make up the content of the belief itself. In order to make this idea clearer, some philosophers like Shope prefer to talk about belief in terms of states of affairs rather than propositions where states of affairs just are possible ways the world could be. These distinctions tend to be subtle and philosophy since the linguistic turn has used the term proposition in a variety of ways that are at best inconsistent. Since propositions are generally held to be at the center of a believing act and since belief is an essential component of knowledge (and thus critical to understanding Gettier cases), we will need to spend some time analyzing belief with the goal of providing some clarity as to the nature and object of the believing act.


[1] This way of speaking assumes a distinction between the mind and the world and is something I won’t argue for here. This assumption is trivial however, because on a non-referential or postmodernist understanding of belief, Gettier cases carry no water to begin with.

[2] See, for example, (Ferre, 1961). Ferre argues that the locus of philosophy as a discipline is the analysis of the meaning of language (p. 6). On Ferre’s definition, belief is completely removed from the picture and language becomes the sole object of analysis. For Ferre, words in a propositional context are the locus of meaning and the philosopher’s job is to unpack this meaning. Sentences, on this view, appear not to be representative but objective.

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