Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Notes on a prolegomena to any future theory of microaggression

During the 2008 campaign, Senator Joseph Biden, seeking the Democratic nomination for president characterized his rival Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean…”

Articulate, bright, and clean are doubtless very worthy things to be. Nonetheless this was deemed by some as offensive to Obama.

Biden’s remarks are an example of what has come to be called ‘microaggression.’

Microaggressions are acts whose common factor is the production of a particular kind of offense in an observer. The observer must be a member of a ‘marginalized’ group, which in an American context includes certain racial minorities, gays, women, and the disabled.

The offense which the observer takes is produced by (i) the act’s apparent appeal to stereotypes regarding a marginalized group and (ii) the suggestion that the observer, as a member of the group, fits (or, in the case in question, fails to fit) the stereotype.

So Biden’s remark traded on a stereotype of African-Americans and seemed to praise Obama by contrast.

In Microaggressions in Everyday Life, Columbia psychology professor Derald Wing Sue gives the following examples.[i]

· Clutching one’s purse/crossing the street when a Black man approaches.

· “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”

Can there be a Theory of Microaggression? To the extent there can be such a theory, we already have it.

One thing becomes evident from this list: Except for producing a particular kind of offense, purported examples of microaggression have nothing else in common. Some are speech acts; some are not. Some presuppose an audience; some are actions the agents would prefer remain unobserved.

That is, ‘microaggression’ does not demarcate a kind. There is no theory of gifts, after all, since entities of almost any category can be gifts.

For a subset of microaggressions a theoretical treatment has long been available: Grice’s theory of conversational implicature.

Compare Biden’s remark to Grice’s example of an Englishman saying (smugly) of a fellow citizen, “He is an Englishman; he is, therefore, brave.”[ii] Grice insists that that the utterer has not explicitly said that it follows from being an Englishman that you are brave. Rather the utterer has implicated it. Indeed, the conclusion does not logically follow, yet Grice insists that the utterance in a given case is not false.

Implicature depends precisely on the sort of cooperative, common understandings that stereotypes represent.

Stereotyping is an unavoidable social heuristic – and furthermore in some cases a useful and helpful one. In many social situations a stereotype is the only information available. In the right lane in front of me is an elderly lady in a Lincoln Town Car; in the other lane is a twenty-something young man in a muscle car with flames painted on the hood. Whom should I pull up behind? When the light turns green Granny might lay rubber through the intersection; The Dude might drive off sedately, keeping five miles under the speed limit. But that’s not the way to bet.

If something of moral importance hung on the choice, you would be irresponsible to ignore the stereotype.

Someone who secures her purse, who acts in a self-protective manner in the face even of an improbable threat, is just acting sensibly.

We cannot be required to pretend that we are unaware of stereotypes. Indeed, if we were to become unaware, the stereotypes would still persist, driven below the conscious level; but a critique of microaggression would become unstateable.

The more diverse society the more socially important stereotypes will become. Consider Sue’s example: “I believe that the most qualified person should get the job.”

According to Sue, this example presupposes the ‘Myth of Meritocracy,’ suggesting that “people of color are given unfair benefits because of their race.” But believing (i) that the most qualified person should get the job and (ii) that people of color occasionally receive preference in hiring is neither inconsistent, nor unreasonable, nor even illiberal. A liberal could accept both of these propositions as a general principle. What does seem unreasonable, though, is to avail oneself of preferential hiring and then take offense at the presumption that one has in fact done precisely that.

A further conceptual point. Whether an act is offensive depends on facts about the agent, the observer, and the context. An act can be offensive even though the agent did not intend it so. Just as conversational implicatures are ‘cancellable,’ so are offenses. “I didn’t mean to offend” can be uttered truthfully and sincerely. But the observer has something to say about whether it was offensive, and can accept that disavowal.

But whether an act is an aggression depends on facts about the agent’s intentions. The observer can take to it to be an aggression and just be wrong. He has very little to say about it. Therefore, most microaggressions, whether or not they are offenses, are not really aggressions.

Besides the conceptual resources of Grice’s theory we also have the moral resources to give a critique of many of the acts factitiously bundled under the concept of ‘microaggression.’ To characterize an act as offensive is to give a moral reason to refrain from doing it. But the moral ban on offending others can be overridden by more urgent moral obligations, including duties of self-preservation.

What seems more important in this realm is to develop a reasonable standard for non-offensiveness in social dealings. The ancient definition of a gentleman as ‘one who never unintentionally gives offense’ implicates (among other things) that no one can be a gentleman all the time.

So what level of sensitivity to what might offend others is required for ordinary social dealings? Individuals differ in their awareness of the potential for offense. (They don’t call him ‘Clueless Joe’ for nothing.) Demanding a level that the averagely-sensitive but good-hearted cannot sustain will render ordinary social interactions more difficult and conflictful than necessary.

A certain amount of amused tolerance seems preferable on all sides.

Tom Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[i] Sue, Microaggression in Everyday Life (Wiley 2010).
[ii] Grice, “Logic and Conversation”

Sunday, July 12, 2015

I liked white better

“I liked white better.”

The thought flashed across my mind the moment I saw the White House lit up in colors to celebrate the recent Supreme Court ruling about same-sex marriage.

The thought need not reflect any particular position about the wisdom of that ruling.

Or about the wisdom of the executive branch displaying the iconography of one side of a still-far-from-over social debate.

Or even about the aesthetic preferences for exterior home lighting.

But in my case, I know exactly what it reflected.

The thought simply occurred to me, quite apart from my choosing to call it up, because I had recently read the exact same words in Tolkien, in Gandalf’s retelling of his fateful meeting with Saruman.
“So you have come, Gandalf,” he said to me gravely; but in his eyes there seemed to be a white light, as if a cold laughter was in his heart.

“Yes, I have come,” I said. “I have come for your aid, Saruman the White.” And that title seemed to anger him.

“Have you indeed, Gandalf the Grey!” he scoffed. “For aid? It has seldom been heard of that Gandalf the Grey sought for aid, one so cunning and so wise, wandering about the lands, and concerning himself in every business, whether it belongs to him or not.”

‘I looked at him and wondered. “But if I am not deceived,” said I, “things are now moving which will require the union of all our strength.”

“That may be so,” he said, “but the thought is late in coming to you. How long, I wonder, have you concealed from me, the head of the Council, a matter of greatest import? What brings you now from your lurking-place in the Shire?”

“The Nine have come forth again,” I answered. “They have crossed the River. So Radagast said to me.”

“Radagast the Brown!” laughed Saruman, and he no longer concealed his scorn. “Radagast the Bird-tamer! Radagast the Simple! Radagast the Fool! Yet he had just the wit to play the part that I set him. For you have come, and that was all the purpose of my message. And here you will stay, Gandalf the Grey, and rest from journeys. For I am Saruman the Wise, Saruman Ring-maker, Saruman of Many Colours!”
‘I looked then and saw that his robes, which had seemed white, were not so, but were woven of all colours, and if he moved they shimmered and changed hue so that the eye was bewildered.

“I liked white better,” I said.

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

“In which case it is no longer white,” said I. “And he that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom.”
By this point some of my readers may be starting to lose patience.

They are either asking “Why is he giving so much context?” or else “How dare he compare the White House and the white robes of Saruman?”

“After all, it’s not like our leader repeatedly lied for the sake of increasing his power—like Saruman.

“And it’s not like our world has nine black-clothed people whose power is all but impossible to overcome—like Ringwraiths.”

“And it’s not like, in our world, the leader joined the side of the Nine.”

OK, I could go on, but if you have now lost all patience, good!—that’s exactly how Saruman felt with Gandalf at this point.
“You need not speak to me as to one of the fools that you take for friends,” said he. “I have not brought you hither to be instructed by you, but to give you a choice.”
That choice, as Saruman explained, was between joining him in the service of Sauron, or joining him to try and get the One Ring for himself, or becoming his prisoner. Gandalf choose imprisonment.

Let me here recognize something that may reassure some of you.

It really is the case that, despite their starting with the same English letters, the battle over Marriage Equality is quite unlike the battle over Middle Earth.

For example, those in favor of it are not necessarily in Sauron’s service. Nor, it should be said, are those who are against it.

And yet.

And yet I recently read that one of my favorite actors, Ian McKellen—who plays Gandalf, of all people!—boasts about regularly ripping pages out of hotel bibles whose contents are not to his liking.

This response to those with whom one disagrees is not what I used to expect from typical liberals. (At least he doesn’t do it, or boast about it, with the Koran.)

When McKellen was asked what he would like to ask Tolkien, he said this:

“Would he be the sort of Catholic who wouldn't understand why someone like me would be openly gay and think myself God's creature as he was?”

Seriously? Not one Catholic I know (or know about, save in someone’s fantasy world) would have any trouble at all understanding the things McKellen mentions, either separately or together.

The idea that being openly gay undercuts being equally God’s creature is a projection, entirely of some people’s own making.

And the suggestion that merely believing that certain sexual choices are wrong commits one to believing the above idea is a lie from the pit of hell.

Which brings us back to our story.

I know we might see our nine, not like Ringwraiths, but like the chosen nine in the Fellowship of the Ring. Perhaps the four conservatives are like hobbits, the two remaining men like humans, and the three women like an elf, a dwarf, and a wizard (though one of the men already thinks he’s the wizard).

OK. Fine. But even those nine were tempted with a lie from the pit of Mordor…

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, July 5, 2015

Two policy truisms

The faithful at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, SC have reacted to the evil attack on their community with a quiet and loving strength and dignity. The remarks by the church’s Senior Bishop, Right Rev. John Richard Bryant, at the funeral service for the nine victims were particularly moving. And the families’ expressions of forgiveness to the shooter, Roof, were simply astonishing.

Contrast their response with what has been much more common in the media (on both sides of the political spectrum). I wish it weren’t so common to use tragedies like this one to advance a political agenda. It’s unseemly and smacks of opportunism. That said, I admit I’m hopeful that propriety won’t stop the developing head of steam to remove the Confederate flag from in front of the South Carolina Statehouse. Whatever else that flag is supposed to represent, it’s also a big, government sponsored middle finger to something like 28% of the state’s population.

A more important objection to folks who use tragedies like this to advance a political agenda is based on a presumption that political responses to relatively rare albeit tragic events will just make things worse. Various factors work together to get the policy through the legislative process despite plausible concerns about unforeseen and unintended bad consequences.

First, in the wake of such an event, natural emotional reactions – sympathy for the victims and fear related to being one – are running high. Second, this fear is all out of proportion to the probability of the event recurring. We’re just not that good at risk analysis. Limited, anecdotal evidence tends to weigh heavily in our evaluations of risk. And modern news reporting makes us think that certain kinds of events happen with a greater regularity than they really do. Third, elected politicians are subject to this same psychological pressure, but also a great deal of political pressure to respond. Would you want to be the one asking questions about the expected costs and benefits of, e.g., the Patriot Act after 9-11 or Caylee’s Law, let alone the one voting against them? Would you if you were contemplating an upcoming reelection campaign? Constituents want their representatives to DO SOMETHING, and a vote against the law is viewed as a vote against freedom or children or whatever. Sometimes bad, not-very-well-thought-out policy is good politics.

So here’s policy truism #1:
 Laws named after crime victims and dead people are usually a bad idea.
Many have used the Emanuel AME tragedy to argue for stricter gun control. I’m agnostic about the effectiveness of gun control generally and, specifically, about whether proposed changes to existing gun control laws would have prevented Roof’s murders. But I’m fairly certain that racial minorities will disproportionately suffer under a stricter gun control regime.

Last year, 48.6% of people convicted under federal firearms legislation were black. The racial disparity in this category of federal offense is greater than any other. Most proposed changes to firearms legislation would crack down further on illegal possession and sale of firearms, which comes with the need for police, agencies and prosecutors to exercise a great deal of discretion in how to go after these activities. Given the extent of violations, they can’t go after everyone. And we probably shouldn’t expect them to enforce new laws in an unbiased way when they already don’t enforce existing laws in an unbiased way.

New firearm offenses also mean new reasons to stop and search people that police tend to suspect of criminal activity or who present easy targets. In the end, there would be more people in prison, and that tends to mean more black men in prison. So the question isn’t whether it's broadly possible to have effective gun control without more and worse civil rights violations. The question is whether that's what we'd actually get.

Here then is policy truism #2:
The fact that a policy, if expertly tailored and benevolently administered, would make things better isn’t a good reason to implement it.

Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, June 29, 2015

The undone

The other day I was home alone working on my house when I stopped to make myself lunch.  I almost never sit down to eat when it's only me; I'll just get back to doing whatever I was doing, wolfing down whatever I have slapped together as quickly as possible. I have a right to eat this way. I see sitting down to eat as a social occasion, which makes sitting down by myself to eat an absurdity. As my friend Scott Merlino once pointed out to me, men do not dine alone, they feed.

Anyway, at some point during this period the UPS truck showed up with a delivery and I went out to sign for it. Later, back at work, I suddenly remembered something: I had not finished my lunch. I thought briefly about where I had been when the truck had pulled up, and returned to find one last bite of the sandwich sitting on my miter saw. I blew off the saw dust, popped it in my mouth, and got on with my day.

Later still, back at work again my mind drifted to this question: Why did I recall with such clarity that I had not finished my sandwich?  Why did I recall it at all?  It came like a message from God. God can not be bothered to remind me where I put my coffee cup, or the measurement I had made just before the phone rang. What's so important about the last bite of my sandwich?

Here is the answer that occurred to me: I had accepted making and eating my lunch as a project, a task to be completed. Whenever we do this, the mind opens up an account, a mental line of credit, which will not be closed until it has been paid off. During the period in which the task is incomplete, there will be a nagging feeling of something owed, something left undone.

Toward the end of Philosophy 180 this spring my students and I were thinking a lot about the role of emotion in rational cognition. It's a great topic, not the least because the more you think about it the more you realize how little we understand what an emotion even is. In thinking about the sandwich question it occurred to me that the nagging feeling of the undone as well as the satisfying feeling of accomplishing a task could be emotions evolved specifically to facilitate task-oriented behavior.

I like to think about how my dog sees the world. I think it is right to describe him as engaging in goal directed behavior, like running off strangers or begging for a biscuit. He can't assign himself a task, though. If we are interrupted from playing fetch by the UPS man, the goal simply becomes to run him off the place. When the truck drives away, he will lie down feeling satisfied. But he will not hear a voice saying: You did not finish your fetch.

Imagine if our ability to recollect whether we have finished a task were no better than our recollection of other information, like the name of the person you just met or DeMorgan's rules or the capital of Delaware. Did you finish yesterday's homework? Hmmm... I can't remember. Dude....what?

Clearly this ability to set ourselves tasks, long and short term, and bring them to fruition is something very distinctive about human beings and we rightly count it as a virtue to be cultivated and admired in individuals. Indeed those who fail to develop this ability to a high degree will simply fail to thrive in this world. But this ability seems to come at a price, a dark and dangerous liability.

You are probably familiar with the idea of sunk costs. A sunk cost is just something you have spent, that can not be recovered. It can be money, time, effort, or anything else of value. In the context of a self-appointed task, it is extremely difficult to recognize sunk costs. Scores of intelligent, highly capable people have done incalculable harm through an inability to recognize them.  Everyone has said this to herself at one point or another: I have worked so hard, have come so far, invested so much, I simply can not quit now.  This is the voice of the undone.

Why is it so difficult to ignore sunk costs? Why can't we just do what is rational, which is to consider our present condition without reference to the path that got us here, and decide the best course of action from this point forward? Part of the answer is that it is very difficult for us to be objective in such circumstances. Are we changing course now because the cause is lost, or do we simply lack the courage of our convictions?  It is often not easy to know.  When we accuse ourselves or others of letting sunk costs influence our reasoning, we often do so only on the basis of another arch bias, hindsight.

But the answer I like best is provided by the Meaning Maintenance Model of human motivation, which posits that humans are essentially meaning makers, and that our decisions and actions are best understood as attempts to create and preserve meaning in our lives.  What 'meaning' actually means in this context is not at all settled, but we can at least say that it is always relative to a representational framework, one of the most common being a narrative or story.

When we say that pursuing lost causes and justifying sunk costs is irrational, we do so with respect to another framework, namely the framework of probability and expected utility. But if humans really have a fundamental need for their lives to make a kind of narrative sense, then this is too simple. From this perspective, the undone is an abomination, a story that simply

G. Randolph Mayes
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Building self aware machines

The public mood toward the prospect of artificial intelligence is dark. Increasingly, people fear the results of creating an intelligence whose abilities will far exceed our own, and who pursues goals that are not compatible with our own. I think resistance is a mistake (and futile) and I think we should be actively striving toward the construction of artificial intelligence.

When we ask “Can a machine be conscious?,” we often miss several important distinctions. With regard to the AI project, we need to distinguish at least between qualitative/phenomenal states, exterior self-modeling, interior self-modeling, information processing, attention, sentience, executive top-down control, self-awareness, and so on. Once we make a number of these distinctions, it becomes clear that we have already created systems with some of these capacities.  Others are not far off, and still others present the biggest challenges to the project. Here I will focus just on two, following Drew McDermott: interior and exterior self-modeling.

A cognitive system has a self-model if it has the capacity to represent, acknowledge, or take account of itself as an object in the world with other objects. Exterior self-modeling requires treating the self solely as a physical, spatial-temporal object among other objects. So you can easily spatially locate yourself in the room, you have a representation of where you are in relation to your mother’s house, or perhaps to the Eiffel Tower. You can also easily locate yourself temporally. You represent Napoleon as an 18th century French Emperor, and you are aware that the segment of time that you occupy is later than the segment of time that he occupied. Children swinging from one bar to another on the playground are employing an exterior self-model, as is a ground squirrel running back to its burrow.

Exterior self-modeling is relatively easy to build into an artificial system compared to many other tasks that face the AI project. Your phone is technologically advanced enough to put itself in a location in space in relationship to other objects with its GPS system. I built a CNC machine in my garage (Computer Numeric Controlled cutting system) that I ”zero” out when I start it up. I designate a location in a three dimensional coordinate system as (0, 0, 0) for the X, Y, and Z axes, then the machine keeps track of where it is in relation to that point as it cuts. When it’s finished, it returns to (0, 0, 0). The system knows where it is in space, at least in the very small segment of space that it is capable of representing (About 36” x 24” x 5”).

Interior self-modeling is the capacity of a system to represent itself as an information processing, epistemic, representational agent. That is, a system has an interior self-model if it represents the state of its own informational, cognitive capacities. Loosely, it is knowing what you know and knowing what you don’t know. It is a system that is able to locate the state of its own information about the world within a range of possible states. When you recognize that watching too much Fox News might be contributing to your being negative about President Obama, you are employing an interior self-model. When you resolve to not make a decision about which car to buy until you’ve done some more research, or when you wait until after the debates to decide which candidate to vote for, you are exercising your interior self-model. You have located yourself as a thinking, believing, judging agent within a range of possible information states. Making decisions requires information. Making good decisions requires being able to assess how much information you have, how good it is, and how much more (or less) you need or how much better you need it to be in order to decide within the tolerances of your margins of error.

So in order to endow an artificial cognitive system with an interior self-model, we must build it to model itself as an information system similar to how we’d build it to model itself in space and time. Hypothetically, a system can have no information, or it can have all of the information. And the information it has can be poor quality, with a high likelihood of being false, or it can be high quality, with a high likelihood of being true. Those two dimensions are like a spatial-temporal framework, and the system must be able to locate its own information state within that range of possibilities. Then the system, if we want it to make good decisions, must be able to recognize the difference between the state it is in and the minimally acceptable information state it should be in. Then, ideally, we’d build it with the tools to close that gap.

Imagine a doctor who is presented with a patient with an unfamiliar set of symptoms. Recognizing that she doesn’t have enough information to diagnose the problem, she does a literature search so that she can responsibly address it. Now imagine an artificial system with reliable decisions heuristics that recognizes the adequacy or inadequacy of its information base, and then does a medical literature review that is far more comprehensive, consistent, and discerning than a human doctor can perform. At the first level, our AI system needs to be able to compile and process information that will produce a decision. But at the second level, our AI system must be able to judge its own fitness for making that decision and rectify the information state short coming if there is one. 

The ability to represent itself as an epistemic agent in this fashion is one of the most important and interesting ways to flesh out the notion of  something being “self-aware.” By carefully analyzing other senses of "machine consciousness" we may come to see that there is no single, deeply mysterious and inherently insoluble problem. Rather, there are many different, fascinating questions that can be framed and answered in computational terms and which will yield to computational methods.

Bostrom, Nick.  Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies, Oxford University Press 2014.

McDermott, Drew. “Artificial Intelligence and Consciousness,” The Cambridge Handbook of Consciousness, 117-150. Zelazo, Moscovitch, and Thompson, eds. 2007.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, June 8, 2015

Fury Road

   Max:  Here, everyone is broken.
   Furiosa: Out here, everything hurts.
                        ~ Mad Max: Fury Road

I couldn't  wait to see this movie. And then I couldn't wait to see it again. The first viewing was cathartic in all the right ways, but it was a sensory assault. In 3-D it was almost abusive. The second time allowed me to attend to the story, the characters, the art and imagery, the dance of bodies in fight and vehicles in chase. Those Pole Cats are terrifyingly beautiful swinging through the air at high speed (all done live). Now I could enjoy the artistry of this post-apocalyptic adventure. Fury Road has everything the genre demands, explosions, fights, minimal dialogue. But, there’s more.

This is a fractured world, bodily and psychically. We find two competing philosophies, that understanding of reality by which we make sense of our world. There is the dualism of Joe’s warrior-cult, expressed best in the War Boy creed, “I live. I die. I live again.” There’s the witnessing of a warrior’s meritorious death in battle, being taken to the gates of Valhalla (by Joe, himself, for those not “mediocre”), and of being reborn, “shiny and chrome.”

There’s also the non-dualism of Furiosa’s unsentimental realism, her willingness to risk everything to return home, to find redemption in this life for the unstated horrors she has committed, and of the Free Women’s matrilineal earth-centered pragmatism, where the value of living is in being with others, clean water, fertile soil, and where the dead are held close in name and memory. There is no next life. The film doesn’t decide this ultimate question for us, though. Even as Joe’s mythology shatters in the wreckage of flesh and steel, one of the freed women is praying, “to anyone who’s listening.”

Commentators have claimed this is a feminist film, or that it should really be called Furiosa rather than Mad Max. The feminist in me (well, it’s really all of me) agrees. But most of these commentators are selling it short. This is a real feminist movie, and they don't seem to know why.

If all it takes for a film to be feminist these days is for there to be a woman lead who can throw a punch and drive a truck, who isn’t a mere plot device, or isn’t there to fall in love or in bed with the leading man, then, yawn, ok, this is a feminist movie. But that’s not saying much. A genuinely feminist movie is more than not demeaning or minimizing. It is one that takes women seriously – with our strengths and weaknesses, as equals, complex, capable and vulnerable (as we all are), as worth knowing, trusting, and joining. And that's what Fury Road does so brilliantly. Here we see women, portrayed complexly, richly, and honestly. It’s still so rare. It's as refreshing as it is riveting.

Here, everyone has a price, a place, a function, and with it a value. Absent these, you’re rabble fighting for drops of precious water. In this post-apocalyptic hell, where every life-giving resource is either scarce, toxic, or gone, the human body becomes the principal resource: as meat, as breeders, as perpetually pregnant women milked for “mother’s milk," as those caged and tapped as living blood bags, and as those War Boys who are “cannon fodder.” It’s not just the women in this movie who have no bodily autonomy, without means for bodily integrity, who are exploited and abused. Everyone is. Even Joe is trapped by the mythology he creates, as his body literally rots from nuclear contamination and as he fails repeatedly to produce “perfect” sons.

There is a deeply humanist principle on offer in this movie. It’s in all the great stories and in any of the laws worth preserving. It justifies their escape. It’s what they each would die in pursuit of. It’s in our dread they will fail and our weeping for those who don’t make it. This principle reminds us that each and every one of us is valuable to her- and himself, and that we must treat each other accordingly. It tells us that people are not only not food, they are not property. This is a humanist message. It is a message which is carried by the women, and adopted by the men who help them. It’s written on the walls of their captivity, demonstrated by their willingness to share what little they have, to risk themselves for the vulnerable and like-minded, and in their rejection of war. It’s in the satchel of seeds, “heirlooms, the real thing,” which Giddy Mary protects like her life, their lives – our lives – depend on it.

We want their vision of the world to replace the one they flee, we need them to succeed and Joe to fail, because we fucked it up for them… “Who killed the world?” they ask several times. Well, we did, clearly. Whether accidentally, negligently, or intentionally, we killed it. Our misdeeds gave birth to the world where one’s choices are Gas Town, Bullet Farm, or Citadel… or being feral in the wild. We created their hell. We need that humanist message to get through, for those carrying it to be successful, for them not to falter, or die along the way. We fucked up. 

There’s so much this film makes us ask:
Why does Furiosa seek redemption? We know what haunts Max, but have few clues about what haunts her. Likely, it’s bad. She’s the only woman, an Imperator, in Joe’s hyper-masculinized war machine. That achievement would have been costly. 
What was “The Green Place”? How did it last so long, and then disappear? 
Why are there so many War Pups but no girls… anywhere?
… and, so much it asks of us:
What is the moral cost of our sources of milk and meat?

Is it inevitable that we send our young to war?

Why are we not terrified at the loss of our green places?
What value do we place on others – on those who grow and produce our food, teach our children… keep our gas flowing?

Christina Bellon
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, May 10, 2015

God and rational discourse

Before we can have a reasonable conversation about God, everyone playing has to pass the Defeasibility Test. A defeasible belief is one that is responsive to evidence, where “evidence” is used broadly to include empirical and conceptual considerations. Your belief is defeasible if you are prepared to revise it in the light of new evidence. Ask yourself this: Are there any considerations, arguments, evidence, or reasons, even hypothetically that could possibly lead me to change my mind about God? Is it a possible outcome that in carefully and thoughtfully reflecting on the broadest and most even body of evidence that I can grasp, that I would come to think that my current view about God is mistaken? If your belief isn’t defeasible, then engaging in discourse about God’s existence (or anything else) is, rationally speaking, a fruitless waste of time.

I also take something like fallibilism to be true. That is, it is possible for a person to have a fully justified but false belief. There are cases where someone has fulfilled all of his epistemic duties in gathering and considering evidence and he has drawn a reasonable conclusion from that evidence, but the conclusion still turns out to be wrong. To deny fallibilism is to claim that it is impossible to be fully justified in believing what is false. Given what we know about human cognitive systems, that’s just not plausible.

For lots of people, it turns out that even though they engage in what appears to be rational discourse about the arguments for and against God’s existence, their belief is not defeasible. So a preliminary question to having one of these discussions is: What is the relationship, as you see it, between reasoning about God and your belief in God? That is, is your belief in God more fundamental than your commitment to believe what reason and evidence indicates; or are you prepared, if the evidence, reasoning, and argument demands it, to abandon your view of God as irrational? The question is of obvious importance because you enter into a dialogue concerning the question of God's existence in bad faith if ultimately you don't really care what the evidence is. If the believer places a higher premium on believing than anything else, including being reasonable about counter evidence and arguments, then he’s just engaging in sophistry when he engages in dialogue.

Nicholas Wolterstorff says, in the remarkably titled Reason within the Bounds of Religion,
“The religious beliefs of the Christian scholar ought to function as control beliefs within his devising and weighing of theories. . . . Since his fundamental commitment to following Christ ought to be decisively ultimate in his life, the rest of his life ought to be brought into harmony with it. As control, the belief-content of his authentic commitment ought to function both negatively and positively. Negatively, the Christian scholar ought to reject certain theories on the ground that they conflict or do not comport well with the belief-content of his authentic commitment. Why is it that one must first run an evidential test on Scripture before one is justified in accepting it? Does this not fundamentally subordinate revelation to reason? What then is left of the authority of Scripture?
William Lane Craig insists that nothing could possibly counter indicate the truth of the Gospels because of a self-authenticating witness of the Holy Spirit in his heart that gives him knowledge independent of all questions of evidence.

Believing is somehow “self-authenticating” for them. It “carries its own evidence.” As they see it, it is a mistake to think that believing itself must be held to standards of evidence or rationality. Rather, our standards of evidence and rationality must answer to our belief in God.

Alvin Plantinga has similarly denied that belief in God must be justified in terms of other more basic claims that we allege to know better or with more confidence than we know God. Belief in God is the axiomatic starting point, not the result of reasoning.

The Talbot School of Theology has this doctrinal statement:
"The Bible, consisting of all the books of the Old and New Testaments, is the Word of God, a supernaturally given revelation from God Himself, concerning Himself, His being, nature, character, will and purposes; and concerning man, his nature, need and duty and destiny. The Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are without error or misstatement in their moral and spiritual teaching and record of historical facts. They are without error or defect of any kind."
Consider some questions about these approaches: How is it that the belief can be taken up by one of these believers in a way that 1) subordinates reason and puts the consideration of evidence as secondary, and 2) is intellectually honest and respectable? If reason and evidence are subordinated, then what can keep the belief from first being acquired in a way that is arbitrary, prejudicial, and unprincipled? If someone’s belief is adopted and sustained in this contra-rational fashion, how can anyone take that believer’s belief seriously? How can someone with this sort of belief maintain that what he’s doing has intellectual integrity and that the rest of us ought to take his rationalizations seriously?

This person has said, in effect, “I have adopted this belief without regard for reasons or evidence, and I value being intellectually responsible about the powerful argument you are making less than I value my continued belief in God, so I will continue believing as I started, unaffected.” At this point, of course, there’s really nothing left to be said for the rest of us. If someone is resolved to believe at all costs, then nothing else that any skeptic could say, no matter how thoughtful or persuasive can undermine that stubbornness. At this point, we should be prepared to conclude that someone has simply left the rational thought game and must be considered a lost cause.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State