Top News, Articles, and Interviews in Philosophy

Basil Mitchell: 1917-2011

wp9f9cb77e_05I just learned from The Prosblogion that Basil Mitchell passed away this summer. I first encountered Mitchell in the mid-90s (that’s 1990s for you youngsters out there) as a contributor to Antony Flew’s excellent New Essays in Philosophical Theology. Flew’s book was deeply important to my intellectual development and I recall Mitchell as a respondent to Flew’s highly influential “Theology and Falsification.”

The write up at The Prosblogion is worth the read.

CFP: Formal Epistemology Festival

Call for Papers
Fourth Formal Epistemology Festival
Konstanz, June 4-6, 2012

Organized by Rachael Briggs (Sydney), Kenny Easwaran (USC), Franz Huber (Konstanz), Jonathan Weisberg (Toronto).
Speakers include Jeff Barrett (UCI/Konstanz), Joe Halpern (Cornell/Konstanz), and the organizers.

Despite its name, the Fourth Formal Epistemology Festival will not be exclusively formal or epistemological. These mismatches between sign and signified will be compensated for on the third front, festiveness.

Please submit full papers prepared for blind-review to: by November 30, 2011. Notification of acceptance: December 31, 2011.

Speakers have a total of 90mins to present their papers (including Q&A) and will be reimbursed for travel and lodging expenses.

Reposted from Certain Doubts

The Ad Hominem

A description of what is and is not an instance of the ad hominem argument. Apparently this has been around for a while and has been discussed at length. I’m not sure all the examples the author cites as ad hominems are ad hominems (for example, B’s reply, “Yet another ad hominem argument. Ignore this one, folks.” isn’t really attacking A but is attempting to divert the attention from the actual argument A is making and so might be more of a straw man argument (or perhaps an ignoratio elenchi)). But in general, the author’s point is a good one. An ad hominem ignores the actual argument being made and attempts to undermine the conclusion of the argument by attacking the person.

Thanks to Andrew Smith for the pointer.

CsFP on Experimental Philosophy and Epistemology

These two news items come from Certain Doubts.

Oxford University Press has started up the new series Oxford Studies in Experimental Philosophy. Each volume will consist of a series of new papers in the field of experimental philosophy.

The Call for Abstracts for the first volume is now available. If you are interested in contributing, all you need to do is send in a brief (less than 1,000 word) abstract by Dec. 15. Papers can present new experimental findings or examine the philosophical implications of existing studies. Criticisms of experimental philosophy are always welcome.

The last few years have seen a surge of interesting experimental studies in epistemology, including studies about contextualism and interest-relativity, about differences between demographic groups, about whether knowledge entails belief, and about the impact of moral judgments on knowledge ascriptions. (Links to these papers are available here.) It would be wonderful to see further work on some of these topics in this new volume!

The 2nd annual Edinburgh Graduate Epistemology conference is being held on June 8th-9th 2012. The keynote speakers will be John Greco and Crispin Wright. There is also a call for papers. For more details, see the website here.

Workshop and Conference on Teaching Philosophy

The American Association of Philosophy Teachers

St. Edward’s University, Austin, Texas
July 25 – July 29, 2012

Proposals for interactive workshops and panels related to teaching and learning philosophy at any educational level are welcome.  We especially encourage workshops and panels on the following topics:

  • innovative and successful teaching strategies
  • professional issues connected to teaching
  • how work in other disciplines can improve the teaching of philosophy
  • engaging students outside the classroom
  • innovative uses of instructional technologies
  • the challenge of teaching in new settings
  • methods to improve student learning


Send Submissions, via email, to Russell Marcus:  Submissions should be received by Monday, January 9, 2012.

Each submission must contain, as attachments, both a proposal and a cover sheet in Word (.doc or .docx), PDF (.pdf), or WordPerfect (.wpd) format.  Please label attachments with your name (e.g., Doe-Proposal.doc and Doe-Cover.doc).

The Proposal should include:

  • the session title
  • a one-to-three page description of what the presentation will cover, what participants will do during the session, and what the session seeks to achieve
  • a list of references, especially to relevant pedagogical literature
  • descriptions of any useful handouts to be provided
  • a list of equipment needed
  • To facilitate blind review, no identifying information should appear in the Proposal.

The Cover Sheet should include:

  • the session title
  • a 100-200 word abstract for use in the printed conference program
  • each presenter’s name, institutional affiliation (if any), and contact information
  • the length of the presentation (60 or 90 minutes)
  • the format of the presentation (workshop, panel, discussion, or demonstration)

Visit for additional information about AAPT or the workshop-conference.

Naturalism Verses the Scientific Spirit

Tim_WilliamsonIn a provocative article for the New York Times, philosopher Timothy Williamson considers whether naturalism as popularly conceived is at best self-refuting and at worst religious dogma. Williamson is clear that his critique is not the product of a religious position (he’s an atheist) and is not a critique of science. Rather, he’s critical of the idea that what commonly passes for naturalism is so restrictive that it doesn’t provide enough intellectual headroom for things as foundational as mathematics – something upon which science entirely depends. He says, “The dilemma for naturalists is this. If they are too inclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its bite….But if they are too exclusive in what they count as science, naturalism loses its credibility, by imposing a method appropriate to natural science on areas where it is inappropriate.”

As a framework, the standard definition of naturalism and the “enthusiasm” that surrounds it by some of its adherents, creates an intellectual framework which makes it impossible to fully explore the world. Naturalists (like many religious ideologies) describe the way the world is first and tell us what we’re allowed to find in that world. He writes, “I don’t call myself a naturalist because I don’t want to be implicated in equivocal dogma. Dismissing an idea as ‘inconsistent with naturalism’ is little better than dismissing it as ‘inconsistent with Christianity.’” I think he’s right. (As an example of what Williamson’s is criticizing, I came across this rather amusing article in which the author attempts to argue using a symbolic language that philosophy should be subsumed under science because it’s imprecise.)

What Williamson does promote is the scientific spirit. This, he says is a discipline that focuses on “curiosity, honesty, accuracy, precision and rigor” and those are qualities that any discipline can and every discipline should espouse. If we promote the scientific spirit over naturalism or any other ontological dogma, we allow ourselves to explore the world as it “carve it up at the joints” as it were drawing conclusions based on our findings not on what we’ve already assumed must be true.

Well said. For my own take on the value of philosophy, see this article.

Link to Williamson’s NYT piece here.

The Adjustment Bureau and Free Will

“We actually tried Free Will before. After taking you from hunting and gathering to the height of the Roman Empire we stepped back to see how you'd do on your own. You gave us the Dark Ages for five centuries... until finally we decided we should come back in. The Chairman thought maybe we just needed to do a better job of teaching you how to ride a bike before taking the training wheels off again. So we gave you the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Revolution. For six hundred years we taught you to control your impulses with reason, then in 1910 we stepped back. Within fifty years, you'd brought us World War I, the Depression, Fascism, the Holocaust and capped it off by bringing the entire planet to the brink of destruction in the Cuban Missile Crisis. At that point a decision was taken to step back in again before you did something that even we couldn't fix. You don't have free will, David. You have the appearance of free will.”

(Agent Thompson’s response to David Norris when asked “What ever happened to free will?”)

Movies are an excellent vehicle for illustrating philosophy. Whether it is the deontological ethics of The Lord of the Rings or the metaphysics of The Matrix, you can glean philosophical insight from just about any movie. When it comes to the concept of free will, The Adjustment Bureau is among recent big screen film to tackle this subject. This movie, starring Matt Damon and directed by George Nolfi, is based on the 1954 short story Adjustment Team by Philip K. Dick, the science fiction writer and self described “fictionalizing philosopher.” In The Adjustment Bureau, Damon plays David Norris, a charismatic congressman who seems destined for national political stardom. David meets a beautiful ballet dancer named Elise Sellas. However, strange circumstances keep the two from advancing their relationship. Soon, David finds out who is behind these strange circumstances. When David arrives at work one morning, he sees something he shouldn't - a team of agents (adjusters) in suits and fedoras reprogramming the brain of his business partner. They explain that they're part of the Adjustment Bureau, the people who make sure things happen according to The Chairman's plan.

This mysterious team of agents influences and “adjusts” the events in everyone’s daily lives. In addition, they inform David that he is not supposed to be with Elise because it will ruin The Plan for his and Elise’s lives. The main adjuster takes Elise’s phone number from David and warns him that if he tells anyone about the Adjustment Bureau, the adjusters will erase his mind. But David will not give up pursuing Elise and by doing this, David is risking the loss of his promising political career. Throughout the film, circumstances brought about by the Bureau, at the behest of The Chairman, hinder David’s plans. However, Harry, the main adjuster assigned to David, experiences inner conflict with what is happening to David and Elise. Harry, along with David, wrestle with their roles in this world and, the movie thus tackles the issue of free will.

In the film, reality consists of order maintained by the invisible hand of The Chairman and is administered by the Bureau. Any disruptions to this order produces chaos in the world. The destiny of all humans is preordained. However, despite this deterministic program, the main characters are confronted by another reality: their desire to act in the way they wish. David, Elise, and Harry choose to resist the Bureau’s plans and create their own path. The message seems paradoxical, (at least to an incompatibilist): there is free will but the world we live in is largely deterministic. Moreover, the mysterious existence of The Chairman is central to the engine behind the deterministic themes. The Chairman largely is absent to the viewer, a quite intriguing idea because it leaves the viewer wondering who Dick envisions as the Chairman. Is he a deity of some sort? Is he good or evil?

The Chairman has a plan for each person; a good plan if you abide and a consequent inferior plan if you do not abide. The Chairman wants the good plan to be fulfilled or else the adjusters would not be necessary. It is in this relationship between the Adjustment Bureau and the inhabitants of the world that free will and determinism collide. Although the idea that men in suits secretly controlling the destinies of people is implausible, the plot along with its implications is quite interesting because there are clear resemblances to the world we inhabit. It is great entertainment but, more importantly, the philosophical implications are both profound and persistent.

Free will is the apparent capacity at least human beings possess to choose a course of action among alternatives. The most vigorous debates throughout history involving free will have attempted to answer two questions: 1) Do humans have free will? and 2) Are humans morally responsible for what we do and appear to choose? It is question 1 which is most relevant to the film. Even though Agent Thompson claims that there is no free will, The Adjustment Bureau portrays a world that contains some free will, albeit limited, but simultaneously portrays a world in which free will seems impossible*. This paradox is the product of two elements that are suggested throughout the plot of the film: theological determinism and a materialistic view of man.

Although the nature of The Chairman is not clearly revealed to the viewer, you get a sense that The Chairman is a deity and the providence of this deity guides the affairs of man. This type of determinism, held by some religious traditions (most notably the monotheistic religions), states that God ordains everything that happens. Within theological determinism, there are two groups: hard and soft theological determinism. The latter states that humans have free will despite the fact that God ordains all events. Although God ordains and knows what will happen beforehand, man still has the ability to freely choose their courses of action. The former argues that free will is non-existent and God is in complete control of events including human action (the fact that we think we make free choices is just an illusion of some sort). Although each view has rational difficulties, the film opts for a kind of theological determinism in the form of The Chairman and The Bureau secretly conducting their life-altering activities. An unseen boss who runs the world, knows its outcomes, and charges his agents to execute his plans suggests this type of determinism albeit with some deviations. One of those deviations is the unusual role of free will with this type of determinism.

The love story of David and Elise adds the philosophical intrigue. Their intense love for one another leads them to continually fight against the fate that has been ordained for them. This fight culminates in their attempt to find The Chairman to convince him to change the plan for their lives. Their attempt was futile but their perseverance has produced a change in their life plan. Towards the end of the movie, atop a New York City building, Agent Mitchell explains to David and Elise what is written in a paper that he is holding in his hand, “It says that this situation between the two of you is a serious deviation from the plan. So The Chairman rewrote it.” The choices of two human agents, contending with their assigned fates, were able to change the mind of a divine or divine-like figure.

Some may argue that even the apparent free acts the players make are not free acts because the brain determines their actions even when the Bureau is not involved. When certain people did not comply with their preordained life plan, the adjusters simply altered your brain. David accidentally witnessed this process being performed on his friend. This alteration causes you to make the correct decisions and stay on the determined path. This method undermines free will as humans are perceived as merely machines that need to be physically or chemically altered. (This materialistic view of man denies the existence of the soul which is the aspect of man that, many argue, is the locus of free will.)

All of these issues expressed in the film seem to raise more questions than answer them. Ironically, the director of the film, George Nolfi, stated that the "intention of this film is to raise questions.” Yes, this film has raised questions. But one also gets the sense that being able to choose the course of one’s life is something at least the filmmakers--if not Dick himself--values. We ultimately may be fully determined but if so, it is something we should fight against. The biting irony in that last sentence creates the core of the plot of the film. Dick suggests it’s also the core plot of our lives. That’s worth thinking about.

* This isn’t the entire story. Some of the players in the film appear to make free choices. It is the outcome of those choices that is adjusted by the Bureau. If I choose to talk to a person and some powerful being changes the “natural” course of that action, the choice may still be free even if the outcome is adjusted by another person.

Are You Sure?

Dean Nelson, the author of an upcoming book on Polkinghorne (see below) wrote a nice piece for USA Today in which he touches on the subject of certainty and how good science (and religion) can do without it. I think his assertions are on the right track and I look forward to the book.

People of science are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their experiments, and people of faith are motivated to believe certain things as they proceed with their beliefs. Living with doubt leaves one open to additional discovery, both in science and faith.

Article here.

Quantum Leap: How John Polkinghorne Found God in Science and Religion

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