Monday, December 5, 2016

A Groundhog Day argument before Christmas

Last Sunday the advent sermon topic was how God’s foreknowledge might partly
explain how he could reliably speak about the future, which raises the question: Is divine
foreknowledge consistent with human freedom?

Here is what I will call a Groundhog Day Argument For the Compatibility of Divine
Foreknowledge and Creaturely Freedom:

1. By the end of the movie Groundhog Day, it is possible for Bill Murray’s character to foreknow some of the free actions of others, without his foreknowledge in any way compromising the freedom of those actions. 
2. What’s possible for Bill Murray’s character is possible for God.
3. It is possible for God to foreknow some of the free actions of others,
without his foreknowledge in any way compromising the freedom of
those actions.
A longer treatment would argue that the two premises are true and that the most
promising objections to these premises are unsatisfactory. 

This post will focus entirely on supporting the first premise. 

Groundhog Day is a comedy about a TV weatherman, played by actor Bill Murray, who
has to visit a small town to cover their annual morning Groundhog Day festival. He finds
himself unable to leave the town that evening because of a snowstorm. He spends the
night in a local bed and breakfast. He wakes up the next morning only to discover that it
is Groundhog Day again. However, there is a catch: whereas Bill Murray’s character
remembers living through Groundhog Day yesterday, no one else in the town
remembers this. Although it seems to Bill Murray’s character that he lived through a
“first” Groundhog Day yesterday, and is living through a “second” Groundhog Day
today, everyone else in the town perceives the present day to be just the regular old
Groundhog Day, which comes around once—and only once—each year. 

(This is not just an epistemological breakdown of the memory of the other characters.
Rather, the sober but strange metaphysical fact of the matter is that everything in the
town, with the exception of Bill Murray’s character’s memory, is, at the beginning of the
“second” Groundhog Day, precisely as it was at the beginning of the “first” Groundhog
Day. For example, if Bill Murray’s character and another character both had a huge
greasy breakfast omelet on the “first” Groundhog Day, neither of them would have an
increased cholesterol number on the “second” Groundhog Day, but Bill Murray’s
character would remember having eating the breakfast on the “first” Groundhog Day.) 

Bill Murray’s character again tries to leave the town, the snowstorm again prevents him
from leaving, he again spends the night in the bed and breakfast, and, to his dismay, he
wakes up again the next morning only to discover that it is, once again, Groundhog Day.
The rest of the movie chronicles his attempts to escape this predicament, to
communicate it to other characters, and to cope with it in a number of different ways.
The connection between this movie and the first premise is seen in one of the strategies
Bill Murray’s character uses to cope with his predicament of being trapped in a cycle of
re-living the same day over and over again.

He begins to learn what each of the other characters in the movie would do in a certain
situation, and he begins to use what he learns in subsequent live-throughs of the same

For example, on the first “live-through” of Groundhog Day, he is greeted by an old
acquaintance on the street corner, and this old acquaintance tries to sell him some life
insurance. The exact same thing happens on the second live-through. On different live-
throughs, Bill Murray’s character responds differently to the greeting of the life
insurance salesman. The life insurance salesman, in turn, has a different comeback for
each of Bill Murray’s different responses to his greeting. If Bill Murray’s character does
A in response to the salesman’s greeting, the salesman comes back with action B. If Bill
Murray’s character does C in response to the salesman’s greeting, the salesman comes
back with action D. And so on. Bill Murray’s character, however, can remember how
the life insurance salesman comes back to different responses to his original greeting. 

In this way, Bill Murray’s character gains a very detailed knowledge of what different
characters in the movie will do in different situations. 

After a while, he uses this knowledge to take advantage of the other characters: for
example, he knows exactly when and where a certain security guard is going to look
away from a bagful of money, so he can easily slip in and steal the bag undetected. But
by the end of the movie, he has learned to use his newfound knowledge to benefit
others as well: for example, he knows exactly when and where a certain girl is going to
fall from a tree in her neighborhood, so he can catch the girl and save her from injury.
It seems, then, that by a certain point in the movie, Bill Murray’s character has
foreknowledge of some of the actions of others. For example, on what seems to him to
be the 8th live-through of Groundhog Day, Bill Murray’s character foreknows what
another character is going to do at 10:00 that morning. Bill Murray’s character also
foreknows what that other character is going to do at 10:00 in the morning on the next
live-through of Groundhog Day—what will seem to him to be the 9th live-through of
Groundhog Day. And so on. 

The peculiar features of the movie entail that the same types of actions done on the
“first” Groundhog Day will be repeated on “subsequent” Groundhog Days. 

What makes this argument for the compatibility of foreknowledge and freedom
interesting is that it simply collapses the difference that usually exists between
knowledge of the past and knowledge of the future. Bill Murray can foreknow the
future free actions of others because, in a sense, he’s already seen the other characters
perform these actions in the past.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, November 28, 2016

Racism and a presumption of credibility

What I want to try to argue for here is a presumption of credibility for claims of racism.

For the purpose of this post, let’s define a presumption Px as a deliberative advantage in favor of a finding that x is true based on supporting justification for Px, such that, in a dispute involving x, the person trying to show that x is false (x-opponent) bears the burden of proof and, if x-opponent offers no evidence, the person trying to show that x is true (x-proponent) succeeds. A presumption is a deliberative advantage, but not a required conclusion; an initial deliberative advantage may be overcome by sufficient evidence to the contrary.

Presumptions usually are based on some supporting justification. A very common example is the presumption of innocence. This presumption operates in favor of a finding that the x-proponent, a criminal defendant, is innocent and the x-opponent, the prosecutor, bears the burden of proof. The supporting justification is the value in American jurisprudence that it is better for nine guilty men to go free than for one innocent man to be wrongly convicted.

Here my supporting justification for a presumption of credibility for claims of racism is that, because whether one recognizes racism depends crucially on one’s first-personal perspective, the person claiming racism should be deemed credible, absent sufficient evidence to the contrary.

Claims of racism generally present unique challenges for proof. Consider the new movie, directed by Jeff Nichols, based on Loving v. Virginia (1967).[1] The trailer for the movie (here) includes a scene where Virginia state police officers barge into the Lovings bedroom and, when Mildred Loving explains that she’s Richard Loving’s wife, one officer responds, “that’s no good here.” The scene portrays well the racist attitudes that may have been prevalent at that time in certain places.

One thing to clarify here is that Virginia’s law and enforcement of its law in the Loving case is a separate wrong from the officer’s attitude toward the Lovings in the scene mentioned above. The case involved Virginia’s miscegenation law, but my focus here is the officer’s attitude in the movie scene.

If we were examining a charge of racism against the officer, it would be difficult to prove. You often can’t find racism from a professor’s armchair or a judge’s bench. In real life, the scene is not reconstructed for us exactly as it was. Instead, you have the words or actions, the features of the surrounding circumstances, and the accused racist before you in his best Sunday clothes (see Bannon).

Even if the scene was reconstructed for you exactly as it was, from a detached third-personal perspective, unless you yourself have experienced similar attitudes, you may not see racism. We may see the identical scene, but our perspectives are shaped by our prior observations and experiences. It is as if we see the world through our own theoretical lens, shaped by our past, which picks up certain features and ignores others.

But, for the person experiencing racism, the attitude expressed and the wrong left in its wake is as real as real can be. It's not about the exact words spoken or any particular feature of the circumstance. If we examined the words or actions, they could be interpreted as innocent. If we examined the features of the circumstance, they may seem morally insignificant. If we saw the person again in a different setting, he may appear to be the farthest thing from what we would expect from a racist. From the first-person perspective of the target of racism, the attitude conveys to its target: you don't belong here or there is something deeply wrong with you. From those with other perspectives: you’re just making the whole thing up.

If this is accurate and racist attitudes are seen differently from first-personal and third-personal perspectives, then this seems to be a good reason to presume the credibility of a first-personal claim of racism.

Again, a presumption of credibility is not proof of credibility or proof of racism. A presumption is usually defeasible. It simply places the burden of proof on the other party to prove otherwise.

Three objections come to mind. I’ll take them in the order from easiest to the most difficult, leaving the third for further discussion in the comments.

First, what about false claims? A presumption is not proof and can be overridden with evidence to the contrary, including evidence that the claim was false.

Next, what about innocent “racists”? People are accused of racism all the time and they’re merely good people who were brought up to view the world a certain way; they don’t intend any harm. As stated by Shelby and others, I don’t think racism requires specific intent. Racial bias and prejudice may be “subtle, implicit, or even unconscious.”[2] Individual attitudes or behaviors usually are the product of institutional racism and, first and foremost, it is our institutions that require critical examination and reform.

Finally, the nature of racism and the fact that racist attitudes are seen differently from first-personal and third personal perspectives, for some, may not seem like sufficient justification for a presumption. My response for now is this: against the backdrop of our nation’s history of slavery, segregation, internment, and dispossession, the fact that the targets of racism are in a unique position to see the wrongness of racism, which may not be visible to others, again seems a good reason to give them the benefit of the doubt.

Chong Choe-Smith
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

[1] Loving v. Virginia (1967) 388 U.S. 1.
[2] Tommie Shelby, “Race and Social Justice” (2004) 72 Fordham L. Rev. 1697, 1706.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Knowledge, meaning and credit


A very old view about knowledge says that knowing something requires believing the right kind of thing for the right kind of reasons. Most agree that the right kind of thing is a true proposition—a fact. There is less agreement on what constitutes the right kind of reason, but we want to at least rule out lucky guesses. Even if I correctly guess that the number of people on Earth currently thinking about waffles is exactly 863,471, I won’t thereby know that fact. To count as knowledge, then, a belief must satisfy both an objective constraint (it must be true) and a subjective constraint (the subject must have good reasons for the belief), leaving us with something like the following analysis:
(K) S’s belief that P is knowledge just in case 
(i) P is true; and 
(ii) S believes P for good reasons.
There are cases, though, that appear to be counterexamples to (K). The oldest case that I know of comes from Dharmottara:

In the distance, there is a piece of meat that has just begun to cook over a fire, but is not yet smoking. However, a cloud of flies has gathered over the meat. From your vantage point, the cloud of flies looks just like a cloud of smoke, and so you believe that there is a fire.

You believe for good reasons in this case (you see what appears to be smoke, and you know that where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire), and your belief is true (because there is a fire). Nevertheless, many think you do not know that there is a fire (not everyone agrees). It’s hard to say exactly why you don’t know, but one possibility is that your reasons for believing that there is a fire are not related in the right way to fact that there is a fire. Your reasons come from the flies, rather than coming from the fire. Your belief satisfies both constraints, then, but your reasons are not “hooked up” to the truth in the way that they would be if what you saw was smoke coming from the fire.

Interestingly, other concepts with both subjective and objective constraints seem to face the same kind of problem.


On some accounts of meaning—in the sense used in the question ‘what is the meaning of life?’—meaning has a similar structure to knowledge, with both subjective and objective constraints. Let’s call all of the things that you’re working on in your life (your education, career, hobbies, relationships, etc.) ‘projects’. Susan Wolf’s view is roughly that for a project to be meaningful, you must be passionate about it, and it must also have objective value. Passionately putting together jigsaw puzzles, for example, is not a meaningful project, and neither is toiling in desperate boredom to end poverty. This gives us the following analysis of meaningful projects:
(M) S’s project J is meaningful just in case 
(i) S is passionate about J, and
(ii) J has objective value
But we seem to be able to give counterexamples to (M) of the same sort that we saw for (K):
Sherlock is the world’s greatest detective, solving hundreds of cases that restore lost property, reunite families, and ensure that justice is served. However, though Sherlock is passionate about his work, he is indifferent to the people whose lives he improves. He is passionate only because of the intellectual challenge of solving cases.
Sherlock is passionate about his cases, and solving them has objective value, but are they meaningful projects in the relevant sense? It seems to me that they are not, for just the same reason that you do not know there is a fire. Sherlock is not passionate about these projects because they have objective value, but instead because they are intellectually challenging—he would be just as passionate if they had no objective value. So, the way in which his projects satisfy the subjective constraint (i), is not “hooked up” to their satisfaction of the objective constraint, (ii).


Another concept that seems to have both subjective and objective constraints is that of deserving credit. Suppose that my wife is happy. What would it take for me to deserve credit for her happiness? For one thing, her happiness would have to be a result of something that I did—cleaning the kitchen, for instance. For another, her happiness would also have to be an intended outcome of my actions. If I cleaned the kitchen only so that I would have a clean place to cook, I wouldn’t deserve credit for any unintended happiness that she experienced as a result. So, we might think:
(C) S deserves credit for good outcome O just in case
 (i) O is a result of S’s actions; 
(ii) S intended to bring about O
But once again, this analysis seems to miss something important. Suppose that I cleaned the kitchen because I thought that the kitchen being clean would make my wife happy. In fact, though, she is indifferent to whether the kitchen is clean. However, she was very happy to be left alone for the hour that I spent in the kitchen so that she could get some work done. So, my actions resulted in the outcome that I intended (her happiness), satisfying (i) and (ii), but I do not seem to deserve credit for that outcome. It is, in some sense, only an accident that the action I intended to bring her happiness ended up doing so. So, even though my action resulted in the good outcome I intended, my intention is not “hooked up” with the result in the way required for me to deserve credit.

Does this tell us anything interesting? Maybe. It’s possible that the problem for (K), which epistemologists have spent an awful lot of time thinking about, is just an instance of a more general problem. If so, looking at instances in other areas of philosophy might help us solve it.

Brandon Carey
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, November 6, 2016

How are you voting?

This week we asked Philosophy faculty members how they are voting in the election on November 8th. Here's how they responded.

(Editor's note: These responses are limited to 250 words. They were published in the order received. Read through to the end if you are interested in how orthodox or heterodox we are for an academic philosophy department.)

Kyle Swan

I am purely a one-issue voter this election cycle. I will vote ‘yes’ on Proposition 64, which proposes to legalize the recreational use of marijuana for people 21 years or older.

The passage of Prop 64 would mean that people will no longer have their lives ruined by the state because the state is worried that using marijuana ruins people’s lives. Because of the way our criminal justice system functions, a disproportionate number of these people are minorities. Passage would mean that people will no longer be subject to stops and searches because a police officer smells (or pretends to smell) marijuana. They will no longer be subject to potentially crippling fines, or losing their jobs, because of a marijuana conviction.

Also, the proposed changes include provisions for people with convictions to be released from state and county prisons and clear their records of felony convictions. So the California provisions are more sane and humane than the four states (plus D.C.) that have already legalized recreational marijuana use.

Were it not for this issue, I would not have bothered to register and vote (it's my first time). I’m glad that Trump will not win the presidency and that Clinton will have no perceived mandate. Perhaps this fact will temper her troubling hawkishness. I will vote for Gary Johnson hoping that he will achieve the 5% threshold necessary for his party to receive presidential election campaign funding next time around.

Randy Mayes

I would vote to abolish the initiative process. It exists so that citizens can bypass a gridlocked legislature to bring about needed social change. It has done that on occasion, but it also promotes rent-seeking behavior on the part of special interests and contributes to gridlock by relieving our legislators of their responsibility to work together.

So I typically vote No on ballot initiatives whether I agree with their aims or not. This year I surprised myself by voting Yes on two of them: Proposition 62 to repeal the death penalty and Proposition 64 to legalize marijuana. My objections to the process are just not strong enough to pass on either of these opportunities to right grievous wrongs.

The Trump candidacy is the most nauseating political spectacle I have ever witnessed. I am not a party member and want to see conservative, progressive and libertarian views represented by able candidates. Clinton is a flawed candidate, but she is a sensible and experienced politician who can be trusted with our nuclear arsenal. Trump appears to be mentally unstable and has neither an intelligible set of views nor any relevant experience or interest in democratic processes. More importantly, he embodies the rejection of everything philosophers value. He is an instinctive liar who is utterly unaccountable for his actions and views. If Trump wins it will not only be a national disgrace but a national emergency, and he does have a real chance of doing so. I voted for Clinton.

Mathias Warnes

I was a supporter of Bernie Sander’s campaign, and so was disappointed at his loss, but I was impressed by the graciousness of his endorsement of Clinton, and proud of his campaign’s achievements in helping to create a more progressive DNC platform.

While supporting Sanders, my car was vandalized due to a bumper sticker, and my mailbox was damaged. On another occasion I was trailed menacingly. The driver slowed then sped up, honking and shouting, as if threatening to drive me off the road, before dangerously overtaking. His vehicle had Trump and NRA bumper stickers. So, in this election cycle, I experienced scare tactics designed to suppress my political self-expression no less than 3 times. While, I have little to add to the sea of reasoned and appalled voices as to why a Trump presidency would be catastrophic, these experiences speak volumes on the direction that Trump’s America is heading.

I will be voting for Clinton, and she has grown on me a lot. Our first woman president would be an incredible accomplishment, on any analysis, and her legacy may be worth admiring if she follows her DNC approved platform, and democrats retake the house.

Regarding Prop 64, I will be voting No. There are compelling social justice reasons to vote in support of legalization, but Prop. 64 will create an exponentially more precarious economic reality for small growers. It is a highly contentious bill in Placer and Nevada County, where I live.

Saray Ayala-López

If legally you were an alien, living in this country for years, working and paying taxes, but couldn’t vote because well, you are an alien, how would you not-vote?
This is how I’m not voting: with concerns both about Donald Trump’s winning and not winning.

I’m observing with horror how the public discourse in this country has been swelling with awfulness. Conversations, like sports games, have scoreboards that track what is said, presupposed, and implicated. But unlike sports games, conversations accommodate almost anything (so David Lewis argued). Whatever you say, presuppose or implicate, becomes part of the conversational score - unless someone blocks it. Importantly, the score sets the norms of what is acceptable, in words and in behavior: in a conversation that has accommodated racist, xenophobic and sexist content, racism, sexism, and xenophobia are permissible (so Mary Kate McGowan argued). When someone introduces bigoted speech in a conversation, the conversation is corrupted in a way difficult to restore. As McGowan puts it, restoring a conversational score thus corrupted is as difficult as unringing a bell.

The things Trump has introduced in the public discourse are setting norms of what is acceptable in this country, and it’s going to be hard to unring this bell.

Just today Jennifer Saul warns that the scary things happening in the UK since Brexit could follow in the US (e.g. academics asked to present passports to give a talk). She urges US voters to act and repudiate racism and xenophobia.

I’m more pessimistic: the harm has already been done

Phillip Baron

In this election, I am most excited about the opportunity to vote for Proposition 62 to abolish the death penalty in California. Capital punishment is cruel in its conception, cruel in its application, and relies for support on a barbaric and unreasonable idea of governmental authority.

Like every other aspect of our deeply flawed criminal justice system, the death penalty has been marred by significant racial bias throughout its history. The US death penalty is also rife with gender discrimination.

It is not effective as a deterrent. Homicide rates in California have been on a steady decline since their peak in 1993. Similarly, while California has the largest death row in the nation (currently more than 740 people), it has one of the lowest rates of execution. Since 1993, California has executed only 12 people.

Finally, the logic of retaliation appeals to our baser instincts and not to what is best in us. While any friend or family member of a victim of murder may be emotionally driven to want retribution for the loss of their loved one, for a government to carry out that retribution is to participate in its own premeditated murder.

For these reasons, I am hopeful that the electorate of the state of California will take this opportunity to abolish the death penalty. To paraphrase Albert Camus, in a better world we would be neither victims nor executioners. 

Patrick Smith

Measure Q in San Francisco would make tent encampments on sidewalks illegal. The primary supporters of Measure Q are members of the thriving tech community. The measure has been cast in a benevolent light (“we’re doing this for the safety of the tent dwellers”), but this looks like a red herring. The real motivation seems to be the unsightliness of tent encampments in neighborhoods quickly being transformed by gentrification . This represents, I think, a combination of privilege and entitlement, NIMBYism, and a myopic knee-jerk reaction.

Homelessness is a complex issue, and my own reaction to homelessness varies. Most days I react with a sense of empathy: “here are human beings living in tents on the street, struggling hourly to have their basic needs met. They deserve better.” On other days, the internal dialogue is a bit more harsh: “why don't these people have the motivation to get themselves out of this plight? I would.” After I think this, though, I realize that my reasoning is mistaken: I am imagining what it would be like for me to be homeless. I am a person in a fairly privileged socioeconomic demographic, with a multitude of financial, psychological, and familial resources that, for the most part, rule out the
possibility of my ending up on the street. So, it is literally unimaginable for me to know what it's like to be homeless. Here's where the empathy kicks in, and why I will be voting against Measure Q.

David Corner

I supported Bernie Sanders in the primary, though Bernie is a Social Democrat and not, as he says, a Democratic Socialist. When Bernie lost, and Hillary did not take a progressive running mate, I considered voting for a third-party candidate. But I cast my vote for Hillary.

Hillary negatives: Her hawkishness, which has caused me to vote against her in the past. On the other hand, her so-called “scandals” are mostly smoke and little fire.

Hillary positives: A wealth of experience as First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State. She’s very smart. And it’s time for a woman president. I just wish it could be Elizabeth Warren.

My opposition to Trump is almost post-partisan. My worries about him are too numerous to mention, but foremost is his disregard for the truth. He makes up his own facts and sticks with them even when proven wrong. He knows little about how our government works, and little about foreign affairs. This would be OK if he were prepared to educate himself, but he isn't. And even *this* might be OK if he listened to his advisors, but he doesn’t; he prefers to ‘listen to his own brain.’ But he overestimates his own genius. He runs on his record as a businessman, but his business record is not good. He’s openly vindictive. He disrespects women. These are catastrophic flaws in a president.

Propositions: Legalize marijuana, abolish the death penalty, but reject a well-intentioned yet flawed gun control initiative.

Tim Houk

I’m voting YES on Prop 62, which will repeal the death penalty in California. I agree with the Phillip Barron’s excellent points above. Retribution does not represent the best in us. And although I would not go as far as to say the government commits murder when carrying out the death penalty, execution is too great a power for the government to possess. 

If you are even uncertain about whether the death penalty is justifiable, then I suggest you err on the side of caution and vote to abolish it. Better to have some who deserve death end up spending life in prison than to have some who do not deserve death end up being executed.

Furthermore, even if one thinks that the death penalty is justifiable in principle, there are numerous problems with the way it is currently implemented (e.g. disproportionately applied to minorities, extremely costly, etc.). And although another proposition (Prop 66) claims it will “speed up the death penalty appeals system while ensuring that no innocent person is ever executed” (CA Voter Info Guide), I cannot see how it could ever make good on that promise. Speeding up the process might make it cheaper, but it will only exacerbate the other problems.

Finally, I’m voting Yes on Prop 64, which will legalize recreational marijuana. As Kyle Swan outlined above, the current system ruins lives and wastes resources that the criminal justice system could put to better use.

Tom Pyne

Mancur Olson described the process by which a stable democracy is over time captured by organized interest groups which extract great benefits for themselves by raising the costs of ordinary transactions (including government!) in a way not immediately noticeable by the unorganized citizenry. The cumulative effects of this over time produce economic decline and a decrease in the power of ordinary citizens to pursue their legitimate interests. The only cure Olson could see was the destruction of those stable coalitions of interest groups by defeat and occupation in war – glum thought. Any travel abroad will reveal that predatory government and rent-seeking officials are the norm in most of the world.

I didn’t think that was true of the United States until recently, but I have come to the realization that we are in a middle stage of what Jonathan Rauch calls ‘demosclerosis’. I am, however, still hopeful: We’re not Nigeria quite yet.

But Clinton and Trump see a dirigiste state as an achievement, not a problem.

I’m a lifelong Democrat. But a party that threatens to put nuns in jail is Jacobin. And the moral collapse of the Republican Party despite some admirable individuals in office leaves me with no home. I don’t know who will win next Tuesday. My goal in voting is to do my part to see that neither Clinton nor Trump can claim a mandate for anything they may wish to do.

Russell DiSilvestro

"I'll believe in anyone or anything," said Nikabrik, "that'll batter these cursed Telmarine barbarians to pieces or drive them out of Narnia. Anyone or anything, Aslan or the White Witch, do you understand?" (Prince Caspian, chapter 6)

Nikabrik was mistaken. The other dwarf, named “Trumpkin” (!), knew that bringing back the Witch would be even worse than the foul Miraz the Usurper they were fighting against.

Readers of this blog know I have written publicly against Trump not once but twice.

Indeed, I wrote against him to every paper on this list just before the Wisconsin primaries (and likely violated both the etiquette and ethics of letters to the editor).

But I plan to vote for him November 8.

This may make me one of the “naïve suckers” who Brian Leiter says think “supporting Trump is instrumentally rational given what they want.”

While many conservatives I regularly follow won’t vote Trump—French, Goldberg, Krauthammer, Will, Medved—the ones who will are just more persuasive to me—e.g. Hanson, Hewitt, Prager.

Prager (for example, here) often makes a point like one I made to Randy Mayes in comments of this blog in May: if helping bad A may defeat worse B, then help bad A.

I sense some of Clinton’s vote uses this point, too. We disagree on who is A and B.

I know my vote in California is mere spittle in the wind.

But I will really kick myself if she becomes president by a narrow win in Wisconsin…

Chong Choe-Smith

In a typical election, I vote according to my conservative leanings (minimal state interference with people as they live out their different conceptions of the good life, minimal state control over the economy and private affairs, and primarily local control over public affairs).

But this is not a typical election. What is most troublesome about Trump is that his words and actions tend to objectify women, people of color, and others who are the most vulnerable among us. Kant usefully distinguished between things (objects) that have a price and can be used and replaced and persons (subjects) who are above all price and have an inner worth. Trump makes a kind of category mistake when he places women and minorities into the category of things. He does this when he speaks of Mexicans or the Chinese as obstacles that stand in his way, rather than as people who have their own interests and concerns. He does this when he generalizes about immigrants calling them “rapists and murderers,” mocks a reporter with a physical disability, ignores the legitimate complaint of Blacks about racial bias in law enforcement, threatens to exclude an entire people group based on their religion, and describes women as fat, ugly, or beautiful pieces of ass.

A person might say Trump objectifies and thereby dehumanizes everyone for his own advantage, not just women and minorities, but this would not undermine my point; it only requires broadening its scope.

And I’d that person may be on to something.


Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Some consolations of philosophy

The 2016 election has been unusually dispiriting. The absence of enthusiasm for both major party presidential candidates is confirmed by the always-reliable lawn sign indicator. There aren’t any.

A bit of metaphysics should help us understand that our political condition is more hopeful than it seems.

If you are a realist about social entities like governments (as I am), then you believe that there exists a ‘preference function’ capable of being realized in and enacted by governments. Since our form of government is democratic, that preference function is derived from the preference functions of the individual citizens. That social preference function has a real, separately identifiable value; it’s not merely a summary of the individual orderings.

A central question of democratic theory concerns how that public preference function is to be derived. Two theories prevail. On the first model, ‘Legislative Deliberation’, democracy poses the question, “How does justice require us to distribute the goods which government controls?” The answer: by dialogue among fellow citizens (or their representatives) who are all pursuing the same goal, namely to satisfy the requirements of justice.

On the second model, ‘Pluralist Bargaining’, democracy poses the question, “How do we resolve the competition among us for those goods? The answer: by negotiation in which each party tries to gain as much as possible short of undermining the arrangements. If we all take care of ourselves, justice will take care of itself.

Both theories have problems. The first makes us sound like angels (or Kantian Transcendental Egos). But human beings have particularistic, messy ties that can conflict quite badly with impersonal justice – and so much the worse for impersonal justice. Democracy cannot require us to lay down our humanity. It also suggests that there is One True Answer to the distribution question. But then is there some Platonic ‘Cognitive Elite’ who, by their understanding of that answer, may supplant democratic processes to implement it? (So Progressives reason.)

The second accepts the need for disguising preferences, withholding information, even undermining others. Strategies acceptable for bargaining even among enemies should not be acceptable among fellow citizens.

Some more metaphysics will help here. An externalist regarding the contents of mental states maintains that those contents may not be represented internally. Thus I can be intending to buy milk at the store even though my intention incorporates nothing representing ‘milk’: I have a list in my shirt pocket that has the word ‘milk’ on it. Why store it “in the head”?

Likewise, while it is true that each democratic citizen has a preference ordering, they may not have introspective access to it (because it’s not “in the head”). Indeed, each of us may have false beliefs about what our actual preferences are.

How then to derive the social preference function from the individual functions in a democracy? It seems impossible.

No, it’s not.

When we must come to an agreement about the social preference, but are confronted with others with different preferences, an inevitable process of refining our own preferences takes place. Maybe you don’t want a Medicare drug benefit as much as you thought you did, if it means foregoing military modernization that makes the nation safer. Or vice versa.

This process of discernment ordinarily takes place in legislatures: in our federal system in the House of Representatives. That’s why budget bills originate there.

Therefore, it becomes very, very important who constitutes that body if the process of discernment is to be effective.

And that is on you. The election of members of Congress, to say nothing of state assemblies and school boards, is a genuine and significant social act.

But, you respond, the issues are very complicated; you can’t form an opinion worth having on all those issues and live your life too.

Fair enough. That’s why decision heuristics are important. Don’t work out the details of policy. Work out your heuristic rules for deciding generally what policies you should favor.

Decision heuristics have a bad reputation, since they involve cognitive bias. But they are also indispensable. (Suppose you come to a stoplight on a two-lane street. In one lane is an elderly lady in a Lincoln Towncar; in the other lane is a Dude in a muscle car with flame decals. Who do you get behind? Granny may lay rubber through the intersection when the light turns green. But is that the way to bet? What if some issue of importance rests on your choice?)

One of my own decision heuristics for deciding what view to hold on proposed government programs is this: A program that places some good necessary for ordinary life solely or even predominantly in the hands of government undermines the proper relation between the citizen and the state. We would cease to be citizens and become clients or subjects instead.

Each of us will have different decision heuristics. But if we are going to be clear even on our own preference functions, we need to be confronted with other, different ones.

So take time to figure out the races down the ticket. That’s where the real action is. Metaphysics says so.

Thomas Pyne
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 17, 2016

God is good?

I’m puzzled about the attribution of goodness to God. There are vastly detailed issues in the background, but this rough sketch works to illustrate the point. (I am deliberately conflating acting and failures to act, and leaving some issues concerning duties to rescue in the background for clarity.)

In introductory moral theory discussions, we make four standard distinctions:
1. How should we understand the category of morally wrong actions? These are acts (and sometimes omissions or failures to act) where if you commit them, then you are deserving of moral blame and even punishment. Agents have a moral obligation to refrain from doing these. And people, the would-be victims, have a right to not have these acts committed deliberately against them. Murder, rape, child abuse, etc. fall into the morally wrong category, for example.

2. What acts are morally permissible? these are acts that a moral agent may do or may refrain from doing without violating any duties. Committing them, or not, does not warrant any moral praise or blame. Having toast for breakfast is morally neutral this way, unless perhaps you killed someone for the toast.

3. Which acts are morally obligatory? These are acts that an agent has a moral obligation or duty to perform. If he fails to do them, then he deserves moral blame. Failing to feed your kids, or ignoring a drowning person while there's a life preserver there on the dock that you could toss to him are examples. People have a right to receive these things from you.

4. Which acts are morally supererogatory? These are acts that you do not have a moral obligation to perform. But if you do them, you deserve moral praise. People don't have a right to expect these of you. You violate no moral duty by doing them or refraining. But we hold them in high moral esteem. When someone runs into a burning building to save a child, they are going above and beyond the call of duty. We praise them as heroes, but if he had not done the act, we would not find moral fault.
God, it is alleged, is good. He is morally just, infinitely good, or morally perfect. How can we understand this description in the light of the distinctions above? We typically have the highest moral praise for those individuals who make the greatest personal sacrifices in order to perform morally supererogatory acts. Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and many others are praised widely for their morally supererogatory acts.

God is alleged to be all powerful and all knowing too. So there will be no opportunities for supererogatory action that are unknown to him, or that are beyond his power to perform. Does God perform all of the supererogatory acts that we might expect from an infinitely good, all powerful, and all knowing being? The short answer appears to be no. There are countless supererogatory acts that God could have done that he has not done. There are countless supererogatory acts that God could have performed but he did not, but if a human had done them we would hold them in the highest moral esteem.

Does God perform all of those acts which we ordinarily hold to be morally obligatory for moral agents? Again, the simple answer appears to be no. There have been countless opportunities to perform actions that we would consider to be morally obligatory for moral agents, but the action was not performed by God. Again, God would not be limited by his power or knowledge in these cases.

Has God committed morally wrong actions? If God is the almighty creator of the universe, then there are countless instances where there was an event that God was either directly or indirectly causally responsible for that we would ordinarily identify as morally wrong. Consider the class of actions or omissions that we would identify as morally wrong if a moral agent had been present and had committed them or allowed them to happen. A person drowns by herself near a dock on a lake where a life vest sits on the dock. If a person had been standing next to the life vest and saw her drowning in the lake, but refrained from tossing the life vest to her, we would think of that failure to act as morally abhorrent. There are countless other events like these where it does not appear that God did what we would ordinarily have identified as the morally obligatory act. Therefore, it would appear that God has committed (or by omission allowed to happen) countless morally wrong acts.

So it appears that God has failed to perform countless supererogatory acts that we would otherwise identify as morally praiseworthy. And God has apparently failed to do many of the actions that we would ordinarily consider to be morally obligatory and good. And God has apparently committed (or by omission allowed to happen) countless morally wrong actions or events.

The implication may be that we cannot accept the claim that God is good unless some suitable and sensible way to cash out what that means is forthcoming. We might ask, given how things appear, what is the difference between a world that has an infinitely good God in it and one without? That is, what sense can we make of the claim that God is good? In what regard is he deserving of the attribution? And a related question is, what sorts of behaviors would God have to engage in for us to reasonably attribute moral evilness to him (if it is not the behaviors we have seen)?

In our ordinary, daily affairs, we invoke a set of straight-forward and clear criteria for what sorts of things are wrong, which things are heroic, which things are morally good, and which are morally wrong. But God, it would appear, is either not good, or has goodness that doesn’t manifest in any of the familiar ways.

Matt McCormick
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Extinction or unfair survival of a few?

There seems to be something especially bad about the humankind going extinct. Human extinction appears significantly different from the extinction of any other species, so its badness is not only about the loss of an entire species. And it is qualitatively different from just having most people on Earth die, so its badness goes beyond the loss of a large number of human lives.

The rapid development of technologies that are as powerful as fragile (e.g. nuclear weapons, genetically modified organisms, superintelligent machines, powerful particle accelerators) have made some people (e.g. Nick Bostrom) worry (a lot) about human extinction. According to them, it is not the possibility of a giant extraterrestrial entity impacting the Earth that might be the biggest threat to human existence, but the possibility of our human-made technology going wrong, either due to some intentional misuse, or to our losing control over it (e.g., a too-intelligent but amoral machine taking control of humans; a self-replicating nanobot that eats the biosphere). Human extinction is the top of the so-called existential risks, which are receiving increasing attention. Centers and institutes have recently been founded to study existential risk and the threat to humans that new technologies pose (here, here & here.) According to some extinction-worried philosophers, existential risk, and in particular human extinction, is the worst sort of risk we are exposed to, because it destroys the future. And we should worry about it. More importantly, according to them, preventing this risk should be a global priority.

I would like to share with you some thoughts about human extinction – thoughts that, I confess, are not motivated by worry but by philosophical curiosity. Let’s consider a comment by Derek Parfit (when reading it, you can fix his sexist language substituting “mankind” for “humankind”):

“I believe that if we destroy mankind, as we now can, this outcome will be much worse than most people think. Compare three outcomes:
1. Peace. 
2. A nuclear war that kills 99 per cent of the world’s existing population. 
3. A nuclear war that kills 100 per cent.
2 would be worse than 1, and 3 would be worse than 2. Which is the greater of these two differences?” (1984, 453).

Parfit states that while for many people the greater difference lies between scenarios 1 and 2, he believes the difference between 2 and 3 to be “very much greater”. He argues that scenario 3 is much worse than scenario 2, and not only because more people would die, but because it destroys the potential of the millions of human lives that could live in the future. Assuming we give value to human life, that means loosing a lot of value. And even more so if we attribute value to what humans do (the art they create, the technology they design, the ideas they generate, the relationships they build). Scenario 3 destroys and prevents a lot of value. Extinction-worried philosophers conclude that preventing scenario 3 should be humanity’s priority.

Let’s now add a twist to Parfit’s scenarios. I take Parfit’s scenario 2 to assume that the 1% who survive are a random selection of the population: during the nuclear explosions some people might have accidentally happened to be underground doing speleology, or underwater, and as a lucky consequence survived. Let’s modify this element of randomness:

1. Peace 
2. Something (a nuclear war or any other thing) kills 99% of people, and the 1% that survives is not a random selection of the Earth’s population. The line between the ones who die and those who survive tracks social power: the survivors, thanks to their already privileged position in society, had privileged access to information about when and how the nuclear catastrophe was going to happen, and had the means to secure a protected space (e.g. an underground bunker, a safe shelter in space). 
3. Something kills 100% of humans on Earth.

These scenarios raise at least two big questions: is 3 still much worse than 2?; and should we prioritize preventing it?

Let’s focus on the second question. I hypothesize that (i) the probability of a scenario like 2 (i.e. a few people survive some massive catastrophic event) is at least as high as that of 3, and (ii) the probability of a non-random 2 is higher than a random 2. We can tentatively accept (i) given the lack of evidence to the contrary. In support of (ii) we just need to acknowledge the existence of pervasive social inequality. The evidence of unequal distribution of the negative effects of climate change (here and here) can give us an idea of how this would work

If this is right, then human extinction is as likely as the survival of a selected group of humans along the lines of social power.

Extinction is bad. Now, how bad is a non-random 2? And how much of a priority should its prevention be? Unless we agree with some problematic version of consequentialism, non-random 2 is pretty bad: it involves achieving good ends via morally wrong means. Even if it were the case that killing everyone over fifty years old would guarantee the well-being of everyone else, most would agree that killing these people is morally wrong. “Pumping value” in the outcome is not enough. Similarly, even if non-random 2 produces the happy outcome of the survival of the human species, the means to get there are not right. We could even say that survival at such price would cancel out the value of the outcome.

My suggestion is to add a side note to extinction-worried philosophers’ claims that avoiding human extinction should be a global priority: if the survival of a selected group of humans along unfair lines is as likely to happen as extinction, avoiding the former should be as high a priority, and we should invest at least as much resources in remedying dangerous social inequalities as we do in preventing disappearance of the human species. I personally worry more about the non-random survival, than about extinction.

Saray Ayala-López
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, September 26, 2016

Privileging our future hedonic states


As Parfit famously claims in Reasons and Persons, we would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished than that it is 1 hour long and about to start. If true, this claim means that our judgments about the value of future suffering are very different from our judgments about past suffering. But, surely past and future suffering have equal disvalue for our lives, and we should privilege the total amount of suffering in our judgments. Relying heavily on experimental data, I argue that our privileging of our own future hedonic states is peculiar, and poses a puzzle regarding the rationality of this deeply held way of thinking.


All data reported refer to paper-based surveys of undergraduate students at CSUS and Waikato (New Zealand). References to “we”, “our” etc. below technically apply only to the respondents. Only one scenario is presented per survey. All statistics cited are statistically significantly above 50% (roughly: I can say most people reported X with 95% confidence). Sample sizes range from 60-100.


We normally evaluate goods by privileging the quantity of the good, paying less attention to when the goods are received. Most would rather live a life with a 1-hour painful surgery (90%) than a 5-hour painful surgery (10%). Most think that a 54-year happy life (87%) is better than a 24-year happy life (13%). It’s simple: less suffering and more happiness is better. But note that contradicts our judgments about Parfit’s case, which is paraphrased below.
You must have a perfectly safe and effective surgery. You must be able to feel pain during, but you will be made to forget after. 
You have just woken up. The nurse says you may be the patient who had the operation yesterday (lasted 10 hours), or the patient who is to have the operation later today (lasting 1 hour). It is either true that you did suffer for 10 hours, or true that you shall suffer for 1 hour.

Which would you prefer to be true?
Most of us would prefer to hear that our painful surgery is 10 hours long and finished (73%) than that it is 1 hour long and about to start (27%). Removing the “made to forget after” bit doesn’t make much of a difference (84% prefer 10 hours past to 1 hour future suffering).

We see a similar effect with another hedonic state: happy years. Waking up in hospital again, most people report preferring to hear that they have already lived 40 happy years, and would go on to live another 30 happy years (86%) when the other option was that they have lived 70 happy years and have 1 more happy year to go (14%).

So, when asked to make the judgment from the in-the-moment point of view (e.g., the case above and if you were asked about your future and past right now), most of us privilege future hedonic states over total hedonic states (otherwise we would have preferred to hear that our 1-hour painful surgery was later today).

Considering further cases reveals that it is our privileging of future hedonic states in the moment that is peculiar.

When a version of Parfit’s case is presented with the patient being someone you care about (like a relative) rather than yourself, most report preferring to hear that the patient will suffer 1 hour in the future (88%) rather than having already suffered for 10 hours in the past (12%).

Again, we see a similar effect with happy years. Most of us would rather hear that our long lost relative had lived for 70 happy years and had 1 more happy year to go (73%) than that they had lived for 40 happy years and had 30 more happy years to go (27%).

So, when making judgments about the lives of other people we care about, most of us privilege total hedonic states over future hedonic states.

Now consider a version of Parfit’s case in which the two lives differ most prominently in regards to success (as opposed to hedonic states). Most of us would prefer to hear that we had published 5 excellent books in the past and won’t publish any more (82%) than that we had published none in the past and would publish 1 in the future (18%).

So, when making judgments about (at least) one non-hedonic good, most of us privilege the total amount of that good over the future amount of that good.


Let’s sum up the findings to bring the puzzle into stark relief. Most of us privilege our future hedonic states when making in-the-moment judgments about our lives. But, in all of the other cases, we privilege the total amount of the good over the future amount of the good. (The other cases, again, were lives from the whole-life view, other people’s hedonic states from the in-the-moment view, and other goods (for us) from the in-the-moment view.

The contrast that makes this puzzle the most apparent comes from comparing our views on Parfit’s surgery case and the surgery case for someone you care about. Most of us really want our painful surgery to be in the past (84%), even if it was 10 times longer! But, most of us also want our relative’s painful surgery to be in the future (88%), precisely because it is 10 times shorter! These verdicts seem to be contradictory.

Is it possible that the rules of prudential value work differently for us than for others? That would be strange, since from most other people’s point of view, they make judgments in the same way (they would choose for themselves to have the surgery in the past, just like you would for yourself, but not for them!)

So, it seems that one of the judgments reported above must be wrong. Our privileging of our own future hedonic states from the in-the-moment point of view is the odd one out – but is that enough to conclude that it is the mistaken one?

Dan Weijers
School of Social Sciences
University of Waikato

Sunday, September 18, 2016

What is your favorite piece of scripture and why?

This week we asked SacState Philosophy faculty for a favorite scriptural passage and 250 words or less about what makes it meaningful to them. Got some pretty cool stuff.

Kyle Swan: Jawbone of an ass
And when [Samson] came unto Lehi, the Philistines shouted against him: and the Spirit of the Lord came mightily upon him, and the cords that were upon his arms became as flax that was burnt with fire, and his bands loosed from off his hands. 
And he found a new jawbone of an ass, and put forth his hand, and took it, and slew a thousand men therewith. 
And Samson said, With the jawbone of an ass, heaps upon heaps, with the jaw of an ass have I slain a thousand men (Judges 15:14-16).
Samson wasn’t a nice person. The things he did to hold the Philistine influence on the Israelites at bay was important for maintaining Israel’s covenant with God, but he wasn’t doing it for that reason. He was doing it because he was kind of a jerk. After all, you’d have to be a jerk to make a semi-clever pun while killing a thousand people (the Hebrew for “ass” and “heaps” is the same word, so he’s saying “with an ass’s jawbone I make asses of them”).

But I like the reminder that, when I say something useful with less than pure motives, God can use the jawbone of an ass.

Phillip Baron: The snow man, by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

Scripture is text I turn to looking for orientation and challenge.

I read Wallace Stevens’ brief, deceptively simple poem as an imperative to empathize. It presents a challenge to see the world as another sees it and, at the same time, to see the world as it is. The anthropomorphic figure of the snow man plays the double role of the other and, since a snow man is just an inanimate pile of ice, the objective reality. 

Both adopting the perspective of another and adopting a perspective that sees the world as it is are impossible goals. And yet, the possibility of rational conversation and respect for something greater than oneself depend on the extent to which we aim at these impossible tasks. Literature offers us the opportunity to see from another’s perspective. In “The Snow Man,” Stevens beautifully condenses this challenge.

Timothy Houk: Happy are the pacifists
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God… You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist the one who is evil. But if anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if anyone would sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who begs from you, and do not refuse the one who would borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” (Matthew 5:9, 38-44)
This is one of my favorite passages for a few reasons.

First, it addresses a controversial moral issue: what is the proper response to those who seek to harm us? I can’t make up my mind on this issue. I am highly sympathetic to many kinds of pacifism, which (by my lights) this passage seems to promote. We should love and help everyone—even our “enemies.” However, there are circumstances where I can’t seem to maintain my pacifist intuitions. Violence, even in the context of retributive punishment, sometimes seems very fitting—especially when we consider our responsibilities to protect vulnerable people. There must be some way to coherently resolve this thorny issue, but how?

Second, I’m intrigued by moral reformers—especially those in ancient times where many of the accepted practices can seem barbaric to our present sensibilities. This passage is one of the few ancient writings to promote a kind pacifism. And the speaker, Jesus, not only taught it, but practiced it. He did not resist being unjustly sentenced to death. (Note: there are interesting similarities here between Jesus and Socrates.)

Third, like Aristotle, it connects the moral life with the happy/flourishing/good life. The Greek word for “blessed” (makarios) is similar in meaning to Aristotle’s notion of “happiness” (eudaimonia). In fact, there are some passages where Aristotle uses the two words almost interchangeably. Much of modern moral philosophy fails to maintain this important connection between the moral life and the good life.

Kevin Vandergriff: Moral Prophecy

Under a natural reading of Matthew 25: 34-40, this passage tells us that the Great Judgment will be rendered primarily on the basis of how we have treated the hungry, the alienated, and the sick:
Then the King will say to those on His right hand,
        ‘Come you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me’.
        ‘Then the just will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’
       ‘And the King will answer and say to them, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”’ (Matt. 25: 34-40)
The ipsissima vox of Jesus is informing his listeners, among other things, that they will not be judged on the correctness of their systematic theology, or their degree of adherence to cultic requirements, but on how they have treated ‘the least of these’.

There are two reasons this passage is one of my favorites.

As an aspiring effective altruist, I identify deeply with this passage because it implies that the supererogatory is actually obligatory.

Moreover, as a theist, I find some support for my theistic belief in this very passage. Why? Because it is antecedently more likely on the assumption that theism is true, rather than on the assumption that naturalism or otherism is true (cf Paul Draper), that there would be “moral prophets”—those persons who perceive objective moral truths ahead of their time. Given the religio-historical context of first-century Palestine, along with the inherent biological selfishness of human organisms, Matthew 25:34-30 is some evidence that Jesus was a moral prophet, and by extension, some evidence for theism.

Jonathan Chen: I like having friends  
The Master (Kongzi) says, "To learn and then have occasion to practice what you have learned -- is this not satisfying? To have friends arrive from afar -- is this not a joy? To be patient even when others do not understand -- is this not the mark of a virtuous person?  (Analects 1.1)
One interpretation of this passage by Li Chong is that these three activities refer to the stages of learning: mastering the basics, discussing them with your peers, and finally becoming a teacher to others.

The cultivation of character and moral education are central themes in the Analects, and I think it Kongzi plainly lays it out in this passage. What's less important is obtaining knowledge, while what's more important is exercising it.

To be honest, I just like this passage because I think it's nice to have friends. But to have friends visit from afar? Even better!

David Corner: Thou art that

In the Chandogya Upanishad 6.2.1, Uddalaka speaks to his son Svetaketu:
1. 'In the beginning,' my dear, 'there was that only which is, one only, without a second. Others say, in the beginning there was that only which is not, one only, without a second; and from that which is not, that which is was born.
2. 'But how could it be thus, my dear?' the father continued. 'How could that which is, be born of that which is not? No, my dear, only that which is, was in the beginning, one only, without a second.
Uddalaka seems to be arguing that the universe cannot have come from nothing, and the implication of this is that there has always been something. In this case that something is Brahman, which the Hindu tradition identifies with sat-chit-ananda: Being, consciousness, and pure bliss or unconditional happiness. Later Uddalaka will tell Svetaketu, “Tat tvam asi”- You are That.

The passage is interesting for many reasons. First, this is one of the oldest of the Upanishads, probably written sometime around 600 BCE, and is a religious scripture that contains a philosophical argument. Secondly, because Brahman is understood as Ultimate Reality but is not (under the mainstream interpretation) identified with God, it is atheistic. Also, it seems to counter some modern arguments for the existence of God, such as the Kalaam Argument, which agree that the universe cannot have come from nothing, but which think this implies that there must be a God who created the universe… out of nothing. (One may be forgiven for wondering, if it violates the standards of good explanation to say that the universe came out of nothing, how it helps to say that God created the universe out of nothing.)

But it is the relevance of passage this to the human situation that is most interesting. According to the Chandogya, the Self is, at its most fundamental level, eternal, self-sufficient, and ecstatically happy. The path to overcoming suffering is to realize one’s own true nature.

Thomas Pyne: Divine inefficiency

In Wilton Barnhardt’s 1992 novel Gospel, a search for a fictional lost ‘Gospel of Matthias,’ written by the Thirteenth Apostle (who replaced the traitorous Judas), Barnhardt stops his narrative at times to provide chunks of the gospel itself.

Matthias criticizes Jude, one of the original Twelve, for not spreading Jesus’ Good News like the others. Indeed, Jude even avoids seeing pilgrims who visit him.
“I do not feel good about it now, but I am afraid I was rather unpleasant to Jude and I asked if…he had brought as much as a single soul into the Kingdom-to-come. 
Jude gave me the brotherly kiss of peace. He then said, ‘Is it not possible that the soul Our Lord intended to save was mine?’”

Leibniz was likely wrong in claiming that the universe is God’s solution to an infinitely complex optimization problem:
God has chosen the most perfect world, that is, the one which is at the same time the simplest in hypotheses and richest in phenomena, as might be a line in geometry whose construction is easy and whose properties and effects are extremely remarkable and widespread. (Discourse on Metaphysics, 6)
Reality seems far too extravagantly ‘wasteful’ to be the result of such considerations. Maybe God created the entire 13 billion-year old expanse of galaxies in order to have a relationship of love and covenant with a bunch of jumped-up primates on one small planet.God doesn’t think in general concepts. Unlike us, He doesn’t have to

Saray Ayala-López:  Life in drag

I choose a fragment from The Politics of Reality, by Marilyn Frye, for being both a guide and a revelation. This book guided me into feminist philosophy, and it revealed to me that questions about sex, gender and sexual orientation that I took to be (too) personal are political and you can (and should!) philosophize about them.
It is wonderful that homosexuals and lesbians are mocked and judged for “playing butch-femme roles” and for dressing in “butch-femme drag,” for nobody goes about in full public view as thoroughly decked out in butch and femme drag as respectable heterosexuals when they are dressed up to go out in the evening, or to go to church, or to go to the office. Heterosexual critics of queers’ “role-playing” ought to look at themselves in the mirror on their way out for a night on the town to see who’s in drag - The answer is, everybody is.
Frye writes this as part of her critique of the obsession we have with announcing our sex/gender. I like how she (mockingly) calls attention to something familiar and seemingly uninteresting (heterosexual, cisgender people going out in the evening), and reveals its covert paraphernalia, its unrecognized carnivalesque character.

Saying that everybody is in drag is as liberating as terrifying. Wearing a sex and a gender is a lot of work. Wearing them well is a constant struggle. We probably dedicate more time to those tasks than to anything else in our lives.

Russell DiSilvestro: Do not merely listen 

When this week’s Dance of Reason question first went out, I responded with Matthew 4:1-11, in part because that passage contains an interesting challenge to all of us who seek to answer the DR question itself: be careful what Scripture you quote, and how you quote it, since even a devilish person may quote a scripture quite cleverly.

But while that passage is good for other reasons, I realized it’s not actually one of my favorites. However, it links to favorites in three quick steps.

First, as James 2:19 says, the devil not only talks a clever bit of scripture, he apparently even believes some correct theology—and yet his attitude is all wrong.

Second, as James 1:19-27 says, the difference between hearing correct theology and acting it out is the difference between “worthless” and “pure” religion:

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says…

Those who consider themselves religious and yet do not keep a tight rein on their tongues deceive themselves, and their religion is worthless.

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

Third, Matthew 7:24-27 draws a similar contrast between (merely) hearing and (actually) doing the words of Jesus, which marks a difference between wisdom and its opposite.

Hearing, belief, attitude, action. The last two matter, too. These passages from James and Matthew are favorites of mine.

Mathias Warnes: The Orphic hymn to Physis incense—aromatic herbs 
O Physis, resourceful mother of all,
industrious and rich divinity,
oldest of all, queen…
nocturnal, radiant with constellations,
light-bringing, irrepressible,
you move swiftly,
your steps are noiseless,
O pure marshal of the gods,
O end that has no end.
All partake of you,
you alone partake of no one.
Self-fathered, hence fatherless,
Virtue itself, joyous, great,
you are accessible, O nurse of flowers,
you lovingly mingle and twine,
you lead and rule,
you bring life and nourishment to all…

Two related scriptures I often return to, on account of their invocative beauty and philosophic insights, are Athanassakis’s translations of the Orphic Hymns, and Majercik’s translations of the extant fragments of the Chaldean Oracles. They are delightful to read in Greek! Both are also key documents for understanding Neo-Platonic philosophy, which frequently quotes from and highly esteems these texts. Dated (roughly) to the 2nd century C.E., but possibly containing material that is far older, it is customary for scholars to devalue the literary value of the Orphic hymns. 

I disagree with this assessment. A hymn, from the Greek hymnos, is a song of praise and celebration. In this Orphic hymn to Physis, I wonder if we hear echoes of a more henotheistic goddess-oriented religiosity that seeks our deep existential structures in medias res (in the midst of things) and as natura naturans (nature naturing). Although third in the position of arch-divinities, alongside the Paternal and Demiurgic Intellect, the Chaldean Oracles, which are attributed to Julian the Theurgist, nevertheless praise Hekate, i.e. the magic of nature, as Rhea-Cybele, partner to Kronos and queen of the festive procession, with the words: “On the back of this goddess boundless Nature is suspended” for “Truly Rhea is the source and stream of the blessed intellectual realities.” 

I do find the intellectual, as well as historical and human value, of the Orphic Hymns and Chaldean Oracles to be significantly higher than is usually supposed.

G. Randolph Mayes: The parable of the talents

Versions of this parable occur in Matthew and Luke. A master leaving on a long journey entrusts each of three servants with considerable sums of money. The amounts vary in proportion to the master's opinion of each of the servants. On his return, the servants entrusted with the two largest sums have doubled the master's investment and he rewards them handsomely. But the one given the least has simply kept it buried during the master's absence. Enraged, the master seizes the original sum and hands it to the most successful servant saying:
For to all those who have, more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing, even what they have will be taken away. (Matthew 25:29)
As a child, I was surprised that Jesus would tell this story in an approving way. A good master would have been pleased that a servant he held in such low esteem did not squander the money completely (as, e.g., the Prodigal Son who was forgiven and welcomed home by his father.)

A common interpretation of this story is that spiritual wealth and poverty work in much the same way. If you have lots of faith to begin with, you see evidence of God's goodness and mercy wherever you look, and you grow spiritually rich. But if you begin spiritually poor, you are likely to live angry and scared, and lose what little faith you have.

Makes sense.

It doesn't answer my childish question though. Whether it's money, faith, or social standing, I still think starting out with less is punishment enough. If there are going to be transfer payments, they should flow in the opposite direction.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

What's up, Presup?

This week’s discussion co-sponsored by the Philosophy department and the campus Ratio Christi student group will feature a theist arguing for the rationality of believing in the resurrection of Christ. He will be engaged in evidentialist apologetics -- the putative evidence in favor of the resurrection delivers the positive epistemic status of the belief.

Presuppositionalism is an alternative approach to apologetics. It engages in a more indirect form of argument involving an attempt to demonstrate that, unless we presuppose the God of traditional Christianity, we cannot legitimately claim to know any of the things we ordinarily take ourselves to know. The presuppositions associated with any non-Christian worldview will lead to incoherence. Are the presuppositionalists right?

Here’s an instance of modus ponens (argument I):
  1. If Patrick harmed Daniel for fun, then Patrick is blameworthy.
  2. Patrick harmed Daniel for fun.
  3. Therefore, Patrick is blameworthy.
It's valid, but what if you hold a view that’s incompatible with premise 1?

Presuppositionalists say atheists who want to make argument I wind up contradicting a presupposition of atheism: if naturalistic materialism is true, then no one is ever blameworthy for anything. So atheists affirm something (Patrick’s blameworthiness) while being committed to denying it, which is a kind of contradiction.

The claim, then, is that “You, atheist, can’t make sense of blameworthiness [also: objective morality, knowledge of the external world, logical laws] because it doesn’t make sense without a grounding supposition that God exists.” But why should we agree that if naturalistic materialism is true, then these judgments go out the window?1

Usually, instead of answering this question, presuppositionalists demand that atheists justify their belief in morality, knowledge of an external world and so on. I’m unsure what to think about this demand. Judgments about who has the burden of proof in a dispute are tricky, but it seems like a fair enough request and fairly easily met. I’ll discuss two responses. One deals with Patrick’s blameworthiness; the other deals with our knowledge of an external world.

A. Utilitarianism. Here is a perfectly valid argument (II):
  1. If utilitarianism is true, then Patrick is blameworthy for harming Daniel for fun.
  2. Utilitarianism is true.
  3. Therefore, Patrick is blameworthy.
How do you know the first premise?”

From this (perfectly valid) subsidiary argument (III):
  1. If utilitarianism is true, then anyone who violates the principle of utility is blameworthy. 
  2. Patrick harming Daniel for fun violates the principle of utility. 
  3. Therefore, if utilitarianism is true, then Patrick is blameworthy for harming Daniel for fun.
How do you know the second premises in arguments II and III?

What if the answer is that these are brute or basic truths? I’m not saying that utilitarians offer no arguments for utilitarianism (they do). But they don’t need them to defend themselves from presuppositionalists. Because, watch:

Utilitarianism is a poor candidate for a brute or basic truth for the following reasons….”

This complaint switches goal posts. It’s not relevant whether presuppositionalists think that someone else’s foundational commitments are false, wacky or whatever. Whatever reasons presuppositionalists provide here, none of them will show that utilitarians have contradicted themselves or their worldview. Because, however crappy they think utilitarianism may be as a foundation for moral judgments, what is the contradiction supposed to be?

Utilitarianism contradicts the way the world is -- the way God created it.

Wrong goal post again. This is just a wordier way of saying that utilitarianism is false. Maybe utilitarianism really is false, but why should anyone think it implies a contradiction? Remember: presuppositionalists need atheistic arguments to imply a contradiction. If the objection is simply that utilitarian arguments rely on propositions that Christians reject, then presuppositionalism doesn’t do what its advocates claim.

B. G.E. Moore famously made the following argument for our knowledge of the external world:
  1. Here is one hand [waves].
  2. Here is another [waves].
  3. There are at least two external objects in the world.
  4. Therefore, an external world exists.

Well, presuppositionalists demand from atheists a justification for their belief that there are objects in an external world. Here it is: [wave, wave].

But how do you know the first two premises?

David Lewis said Moore’s argument suggests things called Moorean facts. These are propositions that we have more reason to believe than any reason there could be to the contrary, or one that we have more reason to believe than any more foundational propositions that would purport to validate it. Here are two pretty good candidates for Moorean facts:
  • We have more reason to believe in the existence of hands than there is to believe any skeptical hypothesis concerning the external world -- that we might be dreaming, that we might be deceived by an evil demon, that we might be in the Matrix, etc. 
  • We have more reason to believe that harming others for fun is wrong than there is to believe any theory about what properly grounds moral judgments.
Presuppositionalists will likely reject Moorean facts because they tend to think of knowledge as the highest epistemic status a belief can have and where this implies certainty about the proposition. Not certainty in the psychological sense of incorrigibility; rather, certainty in the objective sense that Descartes was aiming to secure in his Meditations: indubitability. That is, in order for something to count as an instance of knowledge, it has to be possible to eliminate any grounds for coherently doubting it. Obviously, Moorean facts can be coherently doubted.

But presuppositionalists think Christianity is different because they think attempts to justify propositions without Christian presuppositions will end in contradiction. That just seems false. Presuppositionalists are objecting to the ways atheists attempt to justify their beliefs.

That’s a fine thing to do. It doesn’t deliver objective certainty about Christianity, but maybe attempting to uncover objectively certain propositions is a fool’s errand. Descartes notwithstanding, there are probably better ways to spend one’s time. As my colleague danced last week, we know lots of things by way of methods that don’t guarantee their truth.

Kyle Swan
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Some arguments in this neighborhood are just bad, like Ivan’s in Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov that if God doesn’t exist then anything is permissible. Some are plausible if understood in a weaker way, like the idea that a certain understanding of morality fits more comfortably within a theistic worldview than a naturalistic materialist one and so the existence of God is the best explanation for the existence of objective moral facts.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Innatism and the justification of philosophical method

The traditional form of a quintessentially philosophical question is: What is X?  As in: What is justice? What is knowledge? What is life?

These questions are traditionally associated with a particular form of inquiry.  Roughly:
  1. Think very hard about different states of the world in which X is clearly present. 
  2. Detect some property (or set of properties) P shared by all such states. 
  3. Propose P as necessary and sufficient for X. 
  4. Submit your proposal to other philosophers for rigorous cross-examination. 
Theoretically, this process, iterated, eventually reveals the true nature of X.

I say 'theoretically' because we are entitled to ask why. What theory of inquiry motivates the view that we can learn substantive truths about the world just by reflecting on the content of own minds?

One possible reply is this: We don't need no stinking theory of inquiry. We just need to point to a heap of solid results produced thereby. Right. Well, there's the rub.

Plato, who raised this form of inquiry to high art, seemed to recognize that this question requires an answer. In struggling with it, he was led to one that is as beautiful as it is absurd: Our souls contain every truth worth knowing, but we forget them during the trauma of birth. On Plato's view, what we call learning about the world is really a process of recollection. This is his theory of anamnesis, which leads Plato to endorse an ancient myth of reincarnation.

Plato's basic answer persisted in one form or another as the doctrine of innate knowledge. Two thousand years later we find a fellow traveler, René Descartes, smack in the middle of the scientific revolution, self-consciously defending the same basic method in his Meditations on First Philosophy. Descartes famously argued that the Creator outfitted our intellect with innate indubitable knowledge of the kind of world we live in as well as reliable resources for learning all about it.

Usually we characterize the rationalist commitment to innatism by reference to the view that genuine knowledge is incorrigible, i.e., true beyond all possible doubt. Rationalists like Plato and Descartes believed that only the exercise of pure reason could produce such truths. But empiricists like Aristotle and Hume accepted the incorrigibility of genuine knowledge as well. What they hated was the conclusion that to know we know anything about this world we must presuppose a completely different one.

So a commitment to innatism has two main sources. One is the view that empiricism is too impoverished a framework to explain the possibility of human knowledge. The other is that it justifies the traditional method of philosophical inquiry.

Maybe now I will say this? Our experience with science has taught us that empiricism is right and innatism is wrong. So it's high time we exchanged armchair philosophical methods for more enlightened naturalistic ones. Well, there are plenty of philosophers today who do say this. I tilt that way. But it is too easy. Let's see why.

First, let's be clear that empiricism has, for the most part, won. But that is not because classical empiricists succeeded in showing that the ultimate foundation of infallible knowledge is experience. It is because science, using a fundamentally empirical method, has amassed a magnificent mountain of knowledge in the absence of any such assurances. By brute force, the success of science has ushered in an age of fallibilism, which is the idea that we can come to know X through methods that do not guarantee the truth of X.

Epistemologically speaking, this is just a whole different world. Back in the day, empiricists and rationalists disagreed on the ultimate foundation of knowledge, but they totally agreed that, whatever its source, the method for producing knowledge had to assure certainty. It just couldn't be any other way. But they were all wrong. Scientific knowledge is not deduced from first principles. It originates in guesses, hypotheses that attempt to account for why we observe the world behaving as it does. Hypotheses that survive extended, merciless testing get promoted to theories and may ultimately earn the status of knowledge. But they never get tenure. All scientific theories remain subject to performance review and none rise completely above their uncertain provenance.

Second, innatism persists within science itself. Rationalists were actually correct that the mind can not just be a "blank slate" at birth. In order to be capable of gaining knowledge about the world, it must begin with some kind of basic structure. Scientists differ with respect to the content and plasticity of these presuppositions, but nobody represents them as incorrigibly correct. Scientific innatism explains how infant brains can develop into functional adult ones, not how infant brains come into this world containing fundamental truths of the universe.

Third, at various stages of inquiry scientists, too, pose questions of the form "What is X?" and, like philosophers, they must consult their own minds for the answer. But they approach these questions a bit differently than we do.

First, the intuitions they consult are not ordinary intuitions, but those of a specialized research community trained up on a technical vocabulary and specific methods of inquiry.

Second, scientists do not believe that thinking long and hard on a question like "What is a hydrogen bond?" is sufficient to uncover its true nature. They believe that only experiment can reveal that.

Third, this kind of thinking does not occur in a vacuum, but with specific explanatory goals. When Erwin Schrödinger posed the question "What is Life?" he was not taking a holiday from physics to do a little philosophizing. Rather, he was trying to bring living systems within the explanatory purview of his own discipline.

Finally, scientists don't normally try to provide a set of necessary and sufficient conditions for X-hood, and they typically don't get their panties in a bunch over a single striking counterexample to an otherwise useful definition. Scientists work in a manifestly messy world and they have learned how to produce in the face of all manner of uncertainty.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State