Monday, October 16, 2017

The ethics of talking about the ethics of eating

It’s not uncommon to hear someone at a meal asking the vegan in the room “So, why are you vegan?”, often said while biting into a chicken leg. Similar to asking a person who came alone to the party “Do you have a significant other?”, or asking “Where are you from?” when we detect an unfamiliar accent in someone’s speech, confronting the vegan with such a question is a common and accepted practice that is however much more complex than may appear. Asking “why are you vegan?” forces the interlocutor into a web of complicated ethical questions, and drags the one who asks into it, too. Before asking, we should pause and consider whether we want to impose this on the interlocutor, who most likely just wants to eat their meal, and whether we are actually ready to get entangled in that ethical web.

Let me share a story. It happened to a friend; let’s call them Vegan. Vegan had one of those professional dinners during which everyone is supposed to relax after a long day of work conversations and planning collaborations, and get to know each other better in a more informal setting. Potential Collaborators knew that Vegan was vegan, and, when organizing the dinner, they made sure the fancy restaurant had vegan options. However, as it often happens, what the restaurant staff understood as “vegan options” were less than stellar. “They can have the side dishes, boiled green beans or spinach” said the waiter. ”Or the pasta without sauce”. Potential Collaborators looked at each other in silence. “Those are vegan”, added the waiter, showing signs of impatience. Having their veganism put on the spot was an uncomfortable, but – alas - a rather familiar situation to Vegan. Vegan mustered some excitement about an order of boiled spinach. Meals were served. The waiter placed in front of Potential Collaborators a chunk of salmon framed by roasted potatoes and zucchini, a carrousel of lamb ribs accompanied by mushrooms and carrots, and two servings of some part of a cow surrounded by a steaming mix of vegetables. On a smaller plate, the waiter placed in front of Vegan a pile of boiled spinach. The conversation, which had a pleasant flow until then, stumbled. Potential Collaborator 1 apologized, followed by Potential Collaborator 2, and before 3 and 4 could join in Vegan enthusiastically expressed their profound love for boiled spinach, and their satisfaction with the meal. For a moment it seemed as if they could just laugh at the absurdity (why were all those colorful veggies inaccessible to Vegan?) and overcome the awkwardness. Vegan inquired about the wine, desperate to diffuse the attention from their clumsy pile of boiled spinach. Great effort was invested from all parties in recovering the conversation. But then, it happened. Potential Collaborator 2 inquired “So, why are you vegan?”. At this point Vegan gave up and accepted this was going to be an uncomfortable night all along. Vegan summarized their (moral) arguments, and added how becoming vegan brought the satisfaction of finally feeling coherent, behaving in line with their values. As Vegan talked, Potential Collaborators suspended their meat-eating. “You shamed us” said 1, with a sincere, quiet look, and an increasing sense of internal incoherence (this I’m hypothesizing, it was not included in the story my friend told) (I also hypothesize that Potential Collaborators 2, 3 & 4 felt slightly annoyed at the thought of working with someone with what seemed like a sense of moral superiority). The relaxed conversation was never recovered. Collaboration never occurred.

Was my friend self-righteous, as vegans are often portrayed? Vegan was forced to behave as if they were so. Think about it: you are about to eat your meal and are asked why you hold a set of morals that diverge from everyone else’s in the room. Unless you start trashing your own values, whatever you say is going to question everyone else’s moral stance. Do we want to impose that burden on our interlocutor? We are often unaware of the moral streaks in seemingly innocent questions. 

Consider the two examples from before: when you ask the single in the room about their significant other, you are subjecting them to the not-always-welcome assumption of amatonormativity, assigning inflated social value to monogamous romantic relationships; when you ask “where are you from?”, you are conveying the way the interlocutor speaks seems to you more relevant than the content of what they are saying (you might additionally assume that your past trip to that country is something your interlocutor is interested in learning about). 

I’m issuing a warning here: be aware of the hidden moral magnitude of these questions. The vegan, like the single or the non-native, might have zero interest in getting dragged into a moral deliberation. They can actually be especially unenthusiastic about those questions (the vegan would rather eat than justify, again, what they eat, the single avoids that question at every social event, while the non-native gets it several times a day). Are you sure you want to invite into the conversation the moral spill-over that will ensue? And if so, do you think that using someone’s oddity as a trigger for moral considerations about that very oddity is a good way to go? If you still find good reasons to ask, consider then whether you are ready to engage in a good argument without getting defensive about your meat, your marriage or your assumed cosmopolitanism.

There are many interesting questions to discuss about the ethics of eating. For example, arguments in favor of veganism/vegetarianism might be based on attributing intelligence to non-human animals, or the capacity to feel pain. They can appeal to the economic and environmental inefficiency of animal farming, to the morality of torturing and killing animals, or they can be the inevitable conclusion of a strong commitment not to contribute to objectification, exploitation and violence. Arguments in favor of eating meat, on the other hand, might appeal to naturalness, cultural values, or economic accessibility. Some appeal to the idea that vegetarianism sets priorities wrong: with so many human needs, animal welfare is not the priority (Tania Lombrozo has a good response to this: being good isn’t a zero-sum game). All these questions bring together considerations from different disciplines (e.g. philosophy of mind, environmental studies, psychology, ethics) and are worth long discussions. These discussions are better had voluntarily (and preferably not while eating).

If when sitting next to a vegan at lunch, you feel the pull to ask “why are you vegan?”, consider whether the occasion invites or can handle the moral weight of that. The vegan might be just interested in eating their spinach.

Saray Ayala-López
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, October 9, 2017

Watching my weight

I’ve been watching my weight recently. This morning the scale told me that I weigh 184 pounds.

Or did it?

The scale is utterly insensitive to whether there is a philosophy professor on it, a pile of steaks, joints, and giblets (prepared, perhaps, by Lecter’s Specialty Meats), or the elementary particles composing me.

The (so-far!) undetached steaks, joints, and giblets, as well as the elementary particles, weigh exactly the same as me – or so I will suppose.

What is the scale actually weighing? I require some reassurance that the scale is indeed weighing me.

(No one ever said being a metaphysician is an easy road.)

It’s surely not weighing me, and my giblets, and my quarks (or superstrings, or whatever the most recent theory of the fundamental entities would require us to countenance). After all, the nature of the resulting values would be different even if the figure expressing them (184 lbs.) is the same. My weight is a single, non-composite integral number; the weight of my undetached joints, hams, and innards is a sum. As for my quarks or superstrings, I have only the haziest notions how their mass would produce a weight on a bathroom scale.

To refine the question, consider my liver. Suppose that the function of the liver is to filter toxins. Does this purple thing, just considered in itself, have the power to filter toxins? Of course not. By itself it has the power to make the scale register 3½ pounds; it has the power to reflect light. But the power to filter toxins requires the organism. That is, considered in itself that purple thing is not a liver. Call it a ‘shmiver.’

I can filter toxins from my body; I can circulate vivifying oxygen. (I can also hit an 8-iron, solve problems in predicate logic, and decide among courses of action.) I can do these things ‘because of’ my liver, heart, hands, and brain. But the organs don’t do these things; I do. I don’t depend on those organs for my existence and my powers; they depend on me for theirs.

Without me, my organs would lack the powers they bestow on me.

Read that last sentence again. It is a difficult, but crucial, claim to understand.

Why is it so hard to understand?

Consider ‘Elementalism’: the thesis that reality must consist of some kind or category of element as fundamental; other entities are either derivative composites of those elements or logical constructions out of them. The properties of elements and the relations among them ground, without remainder, the properties of the derivative or constructed entities.

Our contemporary commitment to elementalism is so deep that it next to impossible for us to discern that there is an alternative.

But examples of entities that cannot be made sense of, either as derivative from their elements, or logical constructions out of them, abound. I’m one. (So are you: I’m nothing special.)

My liver is as dependent on me as my shadow is. The only difference is that, absent me, nothing remains of my shadow, but a shmiver remains of my liver.

So there was a single entity standing on the scale this morning, and that’s what the scale was weighing. It was weighing me.

(Well, that’s a relief!)

The difficult question, of course, is how we should state the relation between me, my steaks/joints/giblets, and my elementary particles.

One description adopts a ‘mereological nihilist’ stance towards the relation. That is, appeal to organs is necessary to explain the powers of the whole substance; but this appeal is epistemic, not ontological. The claim that I can do things ‘because of’ my liver is a statement in a factitious scheme of classification of my powers – a bit oversimplified perhaps, but helpful. For example, it would be silly to say that I hit an 8-iron ‘because of’ my liver. But as a point of ontology, not explanation, it’s just as true.

On a stronger version of this view I do have organs, but strictly speaking those organs are not parts. At each level the independent reality of the composing entities gets subsumed by the reality of the simple entity with the relevant powers. The substance grounds the reality of the organs. Organisms extrude their organs as logical constructions.

This is an intellectually respectable thesis. (We can, I think, stipulate that a philosophical thesis intellectually respectable to someone as smart as Thomas Aquinas is an intellectually respectable philosophical thesis.) I find it attractive and am thinking hard about ways to support it.

The problem with it continues to be the difficulty that bothered early modern philosophers too. Such ‘formalist’ explanatory strategies seem to make substances resistant to the analytical methods of science. As Leibniz mordantly put it,
It is as if we were content to say that a clock has a quality of clockness derived from its form without considering in what all of this consists; that would be sufficient for the person who buys the clock, provided that he turns over its care to another.
University of Texas philosopher Robert Koons proposes a second description: I am indeed a composite entity, not a simple one. At each level my parts, considered just in themselves, have certain powers (shmivers weigh 3½ pounds, reflect light, etc.) However, those parts (in virtue of their composition) have additional powers when functioning in a composite at a higher level.

On Koons’s view, then, shmivers do have the power to filter toxins. Or rather, they have the-power-to-have-the-power, in association with the other organs. The persistence of the organism is dependent at each moment on the exercise of its organs’ ‘secondary’ and ‘tertiary’ powers. On the other hand, the power a shmiver has only in association with the other parts, the powers of a liver, is dependent on the persistence of the organism.

My liver is every bit as real as me. So we can explain in an analytical fashion how livers work in the body, and Leibniz’s difficulty is solved.

Tom Pyne
Sacramento State
Department of Philosophy

Monday, October 2, 2017

The meaning of spirituality

This week we asked Philosophy faculty this question:

What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century? Is this desirable? Is the lack of it a moral failing? Does it require us to believe in a non physical plane of existence?

Saray Ayala

I take spirituality to come in two flavors. One of them contains an ontological commitment to some supernatural entity or process. This supernatural something, which might or might not coincide with what existent religions postulate, takes care of making our mortal and minute lives meaningful. Endorsing spirituality in this sense gives us some solace about our mortality.

The other flavor contains no ontological commitment with the supernatural. It is rather a way to approach the natural (and social) world. In this other sense of spirituality, the natural world is special, complex, and even meaningful enough. No need to postulate anything extra. This second sense can be expressed in a profound appreciation of life.

Garret Merriam

In my experience, when asked about their theological views, many people like to say they are 'spiritual, not religious.' I take this to reflect both a disenchantment with organized religion, and a desire for the existential value that religion has traditionally supplied. Some of these people no doubt believe (or would like to believe) in a god of some variety, or at least a vague 'higher power.' Others, though, do not believe in a god of any kind, yet some kind of cognitive dissonance prevents them from accepting the label 'atheist.' That label has (erroneous) cultural associations with nihilism, relativism, amorality, and meaninglessness that many people wish to eschew, even if technically the label does fit them. Calling themselves 'spiritual, not religious' gives them a psychological buffer, a label they can accept in place of 'atheist', one that gives them an affirmative identity, rather than simply a negative one.

So what does it mean to be 'spiritual' in general? I'm not sure. But in at least some cases, it means 'I am an atheist, but not comfortable telling other people--or even myself--that fact.'

Mathias Warnes

"Spiritual" denotes to me some type of enrollment or participation of the self in a personal understanding of ultimate meaning, and an attendant commitment to self-development in harmony with this meaning. I tend to think of the spiritual in continuity with ideas of the spirit in historical traditions. The Hebrew ruach, Greek pneuma, Latin spiritus are all unfolded within scriptural or philosophical traditions that testify to the human experience of divine immanence, the numinous, world soul or world spirit, and the potentialities for human consciousness to fathom being, nature, life, the mystery, etc. To be spiritual still means for me something analogous to what the German Idealists called Geistesgechichte, or better, Heidegger’s Geschichte des Seyns (History of Being). 

It is desirable to be experienced in spiritual matters and initiations because they often combine aesthetic, ethical, and metaphysical insights in helpful or healing ways. To have metaphysical opinions about the existence or nonexistence of a spiritual world, or to partake in an epistemological skepticism, is a very different matter than having undergone an experience of spiritual immersion, for example, a vision quest or Peruvian ayahuasca ceremony. Human beings who are well versed in diverse spiritualities seem to me an asset in the 21st century. I do not believe spirituality requires us to posit a nonphysical plane, but I am open to the existence of such a plane. On these topics, I might recommend Schelling’s underappreciated attempt at a popular novel Clara: Or on Nature’s Connection with the Spirit World (1810).

Scott Merlino

I confess that I have no clear idea about what it means to be spiritual. ‘Spiritual’ is vague in the way ‘self’ and ‘race’ and ‘free will’ are. Most people disagree more than they agree on what such terms connote or denote. This is not to say ‘spiritual’ is useless or empty, especially in such utterances as “I am spiritual but not religious”. In this case I believe people express their personal attachment to some sort of non-material, enduring, authentic existence than what is offered in religious organizations. They are also taking care to distance themselves from conventional forms of religion, which for me is progress. It says, I think, that they are aware of the limits and risks of being religious, that there is a way to be compassionate, forgiving, and charitable without the trappings and authoritarianism of fusty institutions. The term ‘religious’ unlike ‘spiritual’ is vague at the boundaries, to be sure, but we can agree on some of the essentials. (See Ninian Smart’s seven dimensions of religion for example.)

Marnie Binder

I believe that throughout history spirituality has resulted from our human inclination to have a need for meaning. We need explanations, we need meaning, and spirituality provides a sort of ad hoc answer to that – that, I believe, is key; that it can end search through this ad hoc essence of it. Spirituality crosses everything, and life without some sort of organized ontological, epistemological, and ethical explanation (not proof) can create so much anguish in people in that existential sense that Sartre so eloquently described. When we have no concrete proof, no satisfactory explanation, this is a time, among many, we may lean toward spirituality. Moreover, it can provide a particularly deep and comprehensive "meaning" for those who are very "spiritual," in whichever form it may manifest itself. Spirituality, I believe, is a circumstantial perspective to help us define our place in the world, and this is how any relativism, or at least consideration of relativism, in our experience of it may possibly be interpreted. We may start from an individual experience of it, and then proceed to find meaning in a more communal, situational circumstance.

David Corner

This is a difficult question to answer because the word “spiritual” is ambiguous.

I’m inclined to say that spirituality is an inherently religious notion, but that it means different things in different religions. Christians may associate spirituality with the supernatural, whatever that is- something non-physical, at least. But a Daoist might not. A Muslim would say that spirituality must involve a relationship with God. A Christian would agree, but a Buddhist would not.

Having said that, I do think that one can be spiritual, in a sense captured by some religion, without being an adherent of any religion. Hinduism and Buddhism might regard meditation as a spiritual practice, but one can meditate without being a Hindu or a Buddhist. Prayer is certainly a spiritual practice in the context of the Abrahamic religions, but one can pray without being a Christian or a Muslim.

On the other hand, the question of whether these practices are spiritual ones cannot be determined outside of any religious context. So, for example, one can imagine a Christian denying that meditation is a spiritual practice. A Buddhist might argue that theistic prayer, since it is predicated on belief in God, involves the denial of an important spiritual truth- the Doctrine of Dependent Origination. Such a prayer could be taken as incompatible with one’s spiritual wellbeing.

This seems to imply an odd conclusion: That one can be spiritual without being religious, even though one cannot decide what qualifies as spiritual outside of some particular religious framework.

Tom Pyne

The first “spiritual but not religious” sophisticate was the Greek philosopher Xenophanes (545 BC).

Thus Xenophanes:
Ethiopians say that their gods are snub-nosed and dark,
Thracians, that theirs are grey-eyed and red-haired.
He encouraged doubt about accepted religious practice like blood purification and the veneration of images.

But Xenophanes was no skeptic or atheist. In fact, he seems to have been an early practitioner of ‘Anselmian’ or ‘Perfect Being’ Theology:
…(W)hole [he] sees, whole [he] thinks, and whole [he] hears…always [he] remains in the same [state], changing not at all…completely without toil [he] agitates all things by the will of his mind.
So there is indeed a divine order – the realm of metaphysical perfection. (The ‘Omni-God’ as Matt McCormick calls Him.)

However, this is not where such sophistication always leads. Often it results not in transcendence of religious tradition but mere substitution: in observing the forms of religious practice minus the content. Food taboos turn into a preoccupation with an ‘organic’ or non-GMO diet; carbon offsets are just the sale of ‘indulgences’; religion as the locus of ultimate goods is replaced by politics.

I find it amusing that now the deepest, most systematic, most revealing acquaintance with the divine order is to be found not in abandoning traditional religious practice but by more thorough commitment to it. No author from the ‘metaphysics’ section of the bookstore could have anything to offer Thomas Aquinas or Gautama Siddhartha. No yoga instructor would have anything to teach Sor Juana Inez de la Cruz.

Randy Mayes

Human beings live their lives on at least four different value planes: material, social, intellectual and spiritual. To understand the spiritual we must distinguish it from the others.

Life on the material plane is about satisfying our basic needs and desires. Life on the others are attempts to transcend the material, seeking a source of value beyond ourselves.

Life on the social plane is about becoming a part of a larger human concern. This may provide material benefits, but the satisfaction that results from a willingness to sacrifice our material interests to those of our community is uniquely rewarding.

Life on the intellectual plane is an expression of our need for greater knowledge and understanding. Intellectuals are those who willingly sacrifice material and social benefits for the freedom to think. Science and philosophy are pursued most seriously by people who love ideas more than possessions or people.

Life on the spiritual plane is like life on the intellectual plane in that it attempts to transcend the social and material. But it arises from the feeling that there is an ultimate, fundamentally ineffable reality beyond intellectual comprehension. Spiritual people are those who make sincere attempts to connect with this world, even knowing that it is an intellectual absurdity to do so. Some forms of art, music, poetry, prayer and meditation are expressions of human spirituality.

This view of spirituality does not depend on religion or a belief in immaterial souls. But it may justifiably be accused of mysticism (whatever that means).

Russell DiSilvestro

My two parallel sets of answers to these four questions—with set (b) dependent on set (a)— reflect a book I read by Dallas Willard titled Renovation of the Heart.

1. What does it mean to be a spiritual person in the 21st century?
a. I am, or have, a “spiritual” dimension in a wide sense: an inner life accessible to me including thoughts, feelings, and a will/heart/”spirit” in a narrower sense: a capacity to choose or resist things. 
b. I live with an overarching goal of transforming my spirit(ual dimension).
  2. Is this desirable?
a. Yes—and unavoidable. 
b. It depends on both the means and the end of said transformation.
3. Is the lack of it a moral failing?
a. No—lots of good and beautiful things do not have a spirit and are not in the wrong for not having one. 
b. Yes—unless I am already morally perfect.
4. Does it require us to believe in a non-physical plane of existence?
a. Interestingly, no—while I believe my spirit(ual dimension) is indeed non-physical, and that “spirit” can be defined generally as non-bodily personal power, I also believe that one can be a non-physical entity without believing in a non-physical plane of existence.
b. Again, no: while I may not cultivate something well unless I believe the truth about it, I can often cultivate my spirit(ual dimension) despite having frequent doubts and flat denials about its reality and nature. Perhaps reality is surprisingly forgiving of such failures.

Monday, September 25, 2017

How to Love Your Neighbors and Enemies While Speaking Out Against Them in Public

I recently looked for an Aristotle quote for a book blurb—and found it in a past talk, which I whittled in half for this week’s dance since I think it is still timely.

My title raises at least five questions.

Q1. How is love relevant to the way communities deal with controversial issues? (As Tina Turner sang, “What’s love got to do, got to do with it? What’s love but a second hand emotion?”)

A: Many of the people we disagree with about controversial issues are people we already love: mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, sisters, brothers, wives, husbands, friends, neighbors. If there is no way to love those we speak out against in public, then either we speak out on very few issues, or else we love very few people.

Q2. Why mention “enemies”?

A: It makes explicit that the focus is wide. Also, some who led our world by their teachings and lives believed loving enemies was an ideal worth striving for. Martin Luther King Jr. regularly preached a sermon titled “Loving Your Enemies,” and regularly practiced what he preached. Ghandi once said, “It is easy enough to be friendly to one’s friends. But to befriend the one who regards himself as your enemy is the quintessence of true religion. The other is mere business.” King and Ghandi studied Jesus: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Q3. But isn’t loving our enemies logically impossible, like squaring the circle; or morally backwards, like punishing the innocent?

A: Loving enemies is not logically impossible once we clarify what is meant by “love.” Some believe that love is always what Tina Turner said: “just a second-hand emotion.” But there are different types of love, and the type relevant here has less to do with emotion and more to do with willing someone’s good. Immanuel Kant argued that if love were just an emotion, it would make no sense to command someone to love; he said our duty to love our enemies has less to do with liking them, and more to do with choosing to act in ways that benefit them. King made a similar point: “In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It’s not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men.”

Is loving enemies morally backwards? In his UK radio talks around WWII, C. S. Lewis said “It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible.” Yet Lewis noted “I am to love [my neighbor] as I love myself,” and asked: “Well, how exactly do I love myself?” He eventually answered: “I can look at some of the things I have done with horror and loathing. So apparently I am allowed to loathe and hate some of the things my enemies do.” King made a similar point: “what Jesus means when he says, “Love your enemy”” is that “you love the individual who does the evil deed, while hating the deed that the person does…”

Q4. Still, how can we love someone while speaking out against them? If we love someone, shouldn’t we just keep quiet?

A: Yes, as a general rule of thumb. But in the words of the scripture that John Lennon used, “There is a time for everything…a time to be silent and a time to speak…” Sometimes love permits, and even requires, speaking out against someone. We often value our friends precisely because they will tell us the hard truths about us rather than flatter us for their own advantage. An ancient proverb says, “wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.” And another one says, “rebuke a wise man and he will love you.”

Q5. Still, what about doing it in public? Shouldn’t all speaking out be done in private?

A: Sometimes love permits, and even requires, speaking out against others in public. Aristotle, about to criticize his teacher Plato, notes “such an inquiry is made an uphill one by the fact that [these views] have been introduced by friends of our own. Yet, it would perhaps be thought to be better, indeed to be our duty, for the sake of maintaining the truth even to destroy what touches us closely, especially as we are philosophers or lovers of wisdom; for, while both are dear, piety requires us to honour truth above our friends.”

Sometimes love for people itself is what requires us to speak out in public. “When Peter came [to town],” Paul says, “I opposed him to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong [and his actions were misleading those we loved]…I [spoke] to Peter in front of them all…” In 2008, New Orleans mayor Nagin issued a mandatory evacuation before hurricane Gustav. At his news conference, Nagin was blunt with his beloved fellow-citizens: “You need to be scared. You need to be concerned. You need to get your butt out of New Orleans.”

John Stuart Mill, in On Liberty, argues that “the real morality of public discussion” requires “condemning everyone, on whichever side of the argument he places himself, in whose mode of advocacy either want of candor, or malignity, bigotry, or intolerance of feeling manifest themselves; but not inferring these vices from the side which a person takes, though it be the contrary side of the question to our own…”

I close by noting two rival approaches for speaking out against neighbors and enemies in public. One is captured by the clever title of a recent book: What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness. Another is captured by the parallel slogan, which is consistent with Aristotle, influential for Mill, adopted by Kant (& King, & Ghandi, & Lewis…), and available to each of us today.

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Monday, September 18, 2017

The high costs of cheap goods and cheap talk

Reports of price gouging have come fast and furious in the wake of the recent devastating hurricanes affecting areas to our South and Southeast. These reports have led to threats from politicians and social media outrage. You shouldn’t get behind this.

Start with this question: what should we say about the following people?
1. In response to the series of hurricanes brutalizing Gulf Coast areas, Smith rents a U-haul and fills it with bottled water, generators, pre-paid cell phones and other supplies. She drives through the ravaged areas and gives these all away to victims, free of charge. 
2. Jones also rents a U-haul and fills it with these supplies. She also drives them to these areas, but sells these supplies to victims either at cost or at their “normal,” pre-disaster prices. 
3. Johnson does the same, except she decides to sell these goods at supernormal prices considered “exorbitant or excessive.” People still readily buy them because they need them so badly.
I suggest the following ranking: Smith is extremely generous and praiseworthy. Jones is less so, though still quite generous considering the sacrifice of her time and effort; Johnson isn’t morally praiseworthy at all.

Some go further and condemn Johnson as a gouger, without any sense of conscience. And, as Texas Governor Greg Abbott said in one news conference, “price gouging is not only reprehensible, it’s illegal.”

For example, Florida law makes price gouging punishable by fine of $1000 for every violation up to $25,000 each day. Fines are bigger in Texas. There Johnson could be fined as much as $20,000 for a gouging offense. If Johnson’s Texas customer happened to be aged 65 or older, the top fine goes up to $250,000.

There are two points to make about this condemnation of Johnson. First, behold the high costs of goods artificially kept cheap.

Keeping the sticker price of something low doesn’t mean you will keep costs low. Waiting a long time for it and, worse, going without it are also costly and probably a lot less efficient way to economize on its use than allowing the price to surge. A friend during the evacuation in Florida was headed up the panhandle with ¾ of a tank of gas, but stopped to fill up “just in case.” He might have decided differently if gas prices were $6.80/gallon instead of $2.80. 

If he had, this would have meant available gas for someone with a tank at or near empty. 

Also, limiting consumption with lines or empty shelves doesn’t do enough by itself to instigate the sort of intense and focused supply efforts affected areas need. Say what you want about Johnson, but like Smith and Jones she is bringing stuff people need where they need it. Others motivated by the profit opportunity might do so as well, which is what we should want.

This leads to the second point. It’s instructive to add another point of comparison relative to Johnson:
4. When Robinson learns about the devastation brought to Gulf Coast areas, she logs into Facebook to write a heartfelt post: “Thoughts and prayers for all the victims of Harvey and Irma! 😭 ”
Comedian Anthony Jeselnik has argued that the sentiment here roughly translates into "don't forget about me today." Even if that’s not quite correct, this kind of talk is cheap and worth much less than what Johnson does. So, it’s perverse to condemn Johnson but like Robinson (or “like” his status update). Again, maybe Johnson isn’t praiseworthy, like Smith and to a lesser extent Jones are, but at least she does that without which people would be significantly worse off.

And let’s make this more personal. I didn’t rent a U-haul and deliver supplies to hurricane-affected areas. I didn’t do it free of charge or at any price. Did any of you? How much money would it have taken to inspire you to deliver needed supplies to hurricane victims? Would you have done it in exchange for the actual costs, like Jones? No, right? Would you do it in exchange for $5000 or $10,000 over your actual costs? No? Johnson (or “gougers” like him) did, despite legal threats.

In that case, even worse than Robinson is:
5. Williams condemns “price gougers” and uses her political influence to back a law punishing them.
Kyle Swan
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, September 10, 2017

A conversation about Islam

Today's post is a conversation about a difficult subject. The participants are professors from the Sacramento State Philosophy Department: Randy Mayes, Matt McCormick, Russell DiSilvestro, Kyle Swan,  Chong Choe-Smith, Saray Ayala-López, Tom Pyne, and Brad Dowden.  

Randy: Matt, one of our many shared interests is tolerance and I know we've both defended some controversial views on this subject. You have argued that religious traditions, despite doctrinal commitments to universal love and compassion actually tend to foster intolerance in the faithful. Do you think this is a general truth, or are there important distinctions to be made between different religious traditions?

Matt: I think it’s a general truth, but there is a lot of historical variation that depends on all sorts of political and economic circumstances. Right now I’m really concerned about what appears to be going on within Islam. The polling data shows that very large majorities in a large number of countries, and significant minorities of people identifying themselves as Muslims have a number of intolerant, regressive, and dangerous views. We have good empirical evidence, I think, that that large percentages, sometimes significant majorities, of Muslims in Egypt, Tunisia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, Niger, Pakistan, Thailand, and many others hold these views:
  • Only one faith, Islam, can lead to heaven. 
  • Sharia law ought to be the law of the land, even for non-Muslims. 
  • Crimes such as theft should have corporal punishment such as whippings or cutting off of the hands. 
  • Adulterers should be stoned.
  • Apostates should be executed.
  • Suicide bombings are sometimes or often justified. 
  • Homosexuality is immoral and ought to be punished. 
  • Violating the edicts of Islam, such as drawing a cartoon of Mohammed, should be punished. 
  • Women should not have equal treatment politically, socially, morally, and religiously. 
  • Women, out of religious morality, should not be exposed to the view of men other than their family members or their husbands. 
  • Honor killings are justified for women who have had premarital or extramarital sex.
So, it seems clear to me that Islam is fostering intolerant and morally objectionable views that are deeply at odds with values like freedom of speech, freedom of religion and equal treatment for women and minority groups (LGBTQ). Obviously this is a pretty controversial thing to say, but if the polling data are to be trusted, it's also a pretty straightforward inference.  I think it is irresponsible for us to pretend that this is not so. It needs to be dealt with and discussed honestly.

Russell: I think, right out of the gate, you are going to get a question about whether those who hold these views are genuinely Muslims, or (setting that aside) whether they accurately speak for Islam as a whole. How do you answer those twin questions? (By the way, in a somewhat parallel case, I like the answer C.S. Lewis gave to the question: “Who are you, to lay down who is, and who is not a Christian?”)

Matt:  Well, we're talking about extensive face-to-face interviews with 38,000 self-identifying Muslims in 39 countries. People who want to deny that the people in the survey are “true” Muslims, run the risk of the No True Scotsman fallacy. I have a nominalist view about who’s a Muslim, or Christian--they are pretty much who they say they are. While we can challenge the PEW survey, it’s one of the best, most reputable polling groups around. We should be open to methodological objections, but I’m not aware of any serious ones. It’s better to start with their attempt to get good statistical information than with people’s anecdotal evidence about Muslims that they happen to know.

Tom: We really need to try not to get trapped into tail-chasing arguments over ‘authentic’ Islam. When some objectionable feature is shown to be a core tenet, Muslim apologists raise issues of misinterpretation, fine points of Arabic, or the objectivity of sources. The Western audience is ushered into a dialectical funhouse where rational criticism is mugged and strangled. ‘Islam’ = the set of beliefs and practices that satisfies a certain homeostatic property cluster. That’s what Pew investigated.

Randy: These data are interesting, and certainly ought to factor into anyone’s overall understanding of the reality of Islam. But it’s not news that predominantly Islamic countries don’t typically aspire to Western ideals like religious pluralism, secular democracy or equal rights for women and minorities. Do you think the data are showing that people in Islamic countries are becoming increasingly committed to Islamic fundamentalism and increasingly hostile to Western values? Or perhaps that until now we have harbored the illusion that these are features of repressive governments rather that of ordinary Muslims? If neither, why does it concern you so much now?

Matt: I don’t know about a trend up or down. What seems clear is that whatever other causes of belief and behavior there might be, the religion itself--the Imams, madrassas, mosques, doctrines being promoted, believers, sermons, and so on--are fostering these ideas specifically and directly. But for fear of appearing prejudiced, we’re not acknowledging this fact, and we often attack people who do as ignorant. Part of the solution to eliminating dangerous religious beliefs and attitudes has to be to be to make intolerance, violence, and theocracy unacceptable and tolerance, equality, and democracy the norm. And to be clear, I think it is Muslims themselves who are suffering the most harm from the former.

Kyle: I think this is important, Matt. It seems relevant that Muslims here in the US are more moderate and become more moderate the longer they are here. You haven’t said anything about Muslim immigration to the US, but consider this your opportunity to do so.

Matt: The polls of Muslims, moving from the Middle East progressively further to the west, show these intolerant and severe views dropping off. British Muslims, for instance, hold many of these views at much lower rates. To me, this could suggest a moderating effect of contact with places where tolerance, separation of church and state, equal treatment, and equal protection are the norm. I’m pro-immigration; letting more, not fewer Muslims immigrate to the U.S. could facilitate understanding, tolerance, and reform. It’s also the right thing to do given the tragic conditions in the Middle East.

Chong: In these conversations, I worry about two sorts of generalizations: (1) that extremist versions of Islam held by a few are held by many and (2) that Muslims who hold certain beliefs that are objectionable to some hold every objectionable belief associated with Islam. The polling data supports that while a majority of Muslims in many states believe in theocratic rule (no sharp division between church and state), it is inaccurate to say that a majority of Muslims would condone suicide bombings or other unjustified acts of violence. This is something that careful philosophers understand, of course, but it is easily missed by others.

Matt: Chong you are completely right about the danger of misinterpretation. I worry about that a lot. But that just means we have to be clear, not fight back with a willful misinterpretation of our own. Concerning your (1), the surveys have found that many morally extreme views are quite widely held. There’s no evidence here that a majority of Muslims condone suicide bombings, but there are alarmingly high minorities of them who do in the poll. Even 5% or 2% is cause for grave concern. And my argument is that the prevalence of other less extreme, but harsh and intolerant views in the mainstream fosters those more extreme views out at the margins. Concerning (2), I agree: these polls do not imply that a Muslim who holds one belief also holds every objectionable belief associated with Islam. I argue that holding some of them makes the cultural, religious, and social environment more receptive or encouraging to holding those beliefs, and even stronger ones, all other things being equal. When many Christians in the Midwest, for example, have the view that homosexuals should not be allowed to marry, it facilitates those Christians and others in believing that HIV/AIDS is God’s punishment for homosexuality.

Chong: I think we agree about the importance of not perpetuating further misconceptions about Muslims around the world. But I think I’m more skeptical of the polling data than you are. I think polling data generally are unreliable and susceptible to all sorts of misinterpretations. We are rarely in a good position to know the motivations for the responses or how the respondent understood the questions/answers. For example, respondent A may have agreed that Sharia law should be the law of the land because he is a devout Muslim and does not accept a sharp division between church and state while respondent B may have selected the same response because he believes the above and that the severe corporal punishments proscribed therein still applies today. Only the latter may be regressive and dangerous (from your cultural perspective).

Saray: Another concern I have is that it’s just so easy to cherry-pick the evidence. Those PEW polls you cite also suggest that there is a widespread support among Muslims for democracy and religious freedom (e.g. an average of 72% in Sub-Saharan Africa, and 55% in Middle East-North Africa prefer democracy over a strong leader; while 94% and 95% say religious freedom is a good thing). Also, an average of 58% in Middle East-North Africa think that living things have evolved over time, a number not very different from what the PEW center found for other religious groups in the US .

Tom: I think Matt’s claims about the moral views of Muslims and Islam stem from a general view, namely, that the effect of religion on morality is at best contingent and neutral, but in many cases religion causes people to act worse. He’s been directing this critique to Christians and Christianity for years, always accompanied by argument. So this is just another instance of that view. As to the argument, Pew Research Center lives and dies on confidence in its findings. Tests for veracity can be built into instrument design. So it’s more rational to believe that they are accurate than to believe they are not.

Kyle: I think the problem is that at least part of Matt’s concern doesn’t have anything to do with whether the surveys are accurate. A finding that many, or perhaps most, Muslims hold beliefs that are morally problematic is different than showing that what’s morally problematic there can be appropriately laid at the door of Islam. According to the best interpretation of Islam, does it teach those things? Does it teach that they all apply presently? In every society? Moderate Muslims argue that many of their co-religionists are wrong about a lot of that.

Matt: Kyle, yeah, that's a really good point. The “best” interpretation, as seen by the most radical and conservative Muslims, is the one that promotes the views I’ve identified as most morally objectionable. The “best” interpretation according to the moderate reformers is the one that most diminishes the emphasis on these views. I’m with them, if they are trying to moderate Islam from the inside. But this approach itself suggests that there is some other set of standards by which we can judge the interpretations than the text itself; a view that the former group, like fundamentalist Christians, flatly rejects. My fear, given the polls, is that the moderates are losing.

Saray: Matt, I’m very wary of essentialism, something we tend to do with groups of people, mostly those we see as different from us. When we inquire deep enough and with an open mind, we usually realize that there is a complex network of factors that explains their behavior, rather than a fixed essence. I wonder if you might be essentializing Muslims here. An alternative reading of the PEW results is possible, one that does not need to postulate any intrinsic wrong in Islam or those who follow it. The complex history of the relations between Western countries and the Middle East offers an explanation: given all the harm done to many countries in many different ways along history (often in the name of Christianity), and given current tensions, resistance to western culture is salient in those countries. If you look at the PEW results, the countries with higher support of suicide bombings are Tunisia, Egypt and Palestinian territories (15%, 29% and 40%, respectively). I don’t think this is by chance.

Matt: I definitely don’t want to be essentialist about the people. It’s the religious ideology that I’m singling out. There appear to be a lot of people insisting that the deepest, core values of the religious tradition are exactly those views I’ve focused on. Others say that those aren’t essential Islamic values but they do not speak for the majority. Also, we can agree that there are many other contributing factors. But that there are so many people in so many countries who espouse these views suggests that the common thread is Islam, not American imperialism, or something other than the religion altogether. It’s implausible, for example, to suggest that views in Malaysia or Indonesia about executing apostates, murdering cartoonists, and stoning adulterers are due largely to American war crimes.

Saray: I suppose I don’t think it’s as implausible as you do. For example, in 1966 the British and the Americans attempted to overthrow Sukarno in Indonesia. The real extent of the West’s role in fostering extremism isn’t that widely appreciated.

Brad: It is shocking to me that the Pew survey shows 86% of the people in Malaysia favor Sharia law as being the official law of the land, 83% in Morocco, and so forth. Do you suppose that the main reason why so many Muslims favor Sharia is that they see the institution of Islam as the only non-corrupt institution in their country? You don’t have to give a payoff to get an imam to do something, but you do need a payoff in order to get prompt police response, or a good job, or a building permit.

Saray: Brad, that actually connects to my point about resistance to Western intervention. When governments are corrupted (often aided by Western intervention) and the political scene is in general unstable (often as a result of Western intervention), religion might become the only institution to trust, and the only one reflecting some sort of national, racial or in general group identity. Islam might be for many people the only thing uncorrupted by the West. This could explain the support for Sharia law.

Randy: Matt, I think you agree with me that our beliefs, especially our normative beliefs, are not as introspectible as people assume. This is apt to be more true where believing the wrong thing can get you into trouble. Shouldn’t this weaken your confidence in the behavioral significance of the data? Members of the homeostatic property cluster we call Christianity say that they believe in the Ten Commandments, but few know what they are, and fewer live by them. Perhaps this explains why Muslims tend to assimilate so well when they immigrate. They aren’t saying what they believe so much as what they are supposed to believe.

Matt: Right, introspection isn’t very reliable. But that’s not my unique problem to address, or Islam’s special privilege to claim as a defense. The high numbers of people reporting abhorrent beliefs is evidence, I maintain, for concluding that the religion, among other things, is leading people to say and believe horrible things. If our measures of belief are off by a degree so large as to undermine that inference, then that problem is going to lay waste to all of our references to people’s beliefs. “McCormick, you’re wrong that Muslims believe bad things because of their religion because actually nobody really believes anything, or it’s impossible to measure beliefs.” That Going Nuclear objection is a bigger liability for the critic than for my argument specifically.

Randy: You’ll know when I’ve gone nuclear buster. But I just mean to build a bit on Chong’s skepticism about polls. I’m suggesting that in normatively non neutral contexts belief reports are relatively unreliable predictors of behavior. Belief reports are certainly a form of behavior, but I don’t think they are what most concerns you. I don’t want to overstate this objection, because some of those beliefs on your list are clearly reflected in traditional practices. The scariest ones, though, are harder for me to credit as predictive of individual behavior.

Saray: Right, and to further develop that concern, we could say that the fact that many Americans support the right to own guns is dangerous. Outside of the US, this support (and the belief that gun ownership protects people from crime) is really frightening. Many wonder how it is possible for a country like the US to be stuck in such an obsolete culture. We could read these results as giving us grounds to predict individual behavior, that is, individuals reporting these problematic beliefs about gun ownership will behave in problematic and dangerous ways. Or we could say that these belief reports, given the American context, are not giving us much grounds to predict individual behavior. You seem to favor the former reading for the results you report. With my example I’m trying to point out that the second reading might be a better one.

Matt: That’s a nice example, Saray.  If there’s reliable, accurate empirical evidence that a large majority has a belief, then, all other things being equal, that increases the odds of their acting in belief consistent ways. In the case of Islam, if we know that a large majority of the country condemns homosexuality on religious grounds, then we can predict that the environment will not be favorable to homosexuality. How those beliefs will come out, who will commit actions, or what they will do can’t be inferred directly. With regard to gun beliefs, we can see the results in behavior too. Americans love their guns, and it’s no accident that they have one of the highest rates of gun crimes in the world. Americans have morally objectionable beliefs about guns, in my view, and they are more dangerous as a result.

Saray: Matt, it seems you are worried, among other things, about women rights and LGBTQ people not being respected in communities that adhere to Islam. I can tell you have a genuine concern, but I think we need to be careful about how we address it. Well-intentioned people in Western countries tend to paint a very simplistic picture of the evils they see in “other countries”. Many Muslim feminists and Muslim LGBTQ activists are fighting against sexism and homophobia, but also, and importantly, against Western imperialism, colonialism and globalization. We need to make sure that in denouncing “other” religions and “other” countries, we are not playing the old game of “white western scholar to the rescue of ignorant oppressed people”.

Matt: I completely concur about being careful and respectful. The situation is not simple. On the other hand, the fact that I am a white male American scholar should not prevent me from being able to talk about a real phenomenon, or in itself raise doubts about the strength of my arguments or the evidence.

Saray: I also think you should be able to talk about this. But there is more than just respect and care we need here. Elora Chowdhury warns about the “benevolent first world feminist” in the US who devotes her efforts to try alleviate oppression of women elsewhere while being “oblivious to the US government’s role in creating or exacerbating harsh conditions for the women with whom she so wanted to be in solidarity”. A cautionary tale for people in the US, specially scholars, who want to talk and theorize about “other” countries and “other” religions is: be aware of oversimplification due to ignorance of all the relevant factors, but also, once you think you have found something significant and objectionable, be aware of the role Western countries, and in particular the US, play in creating or exacerbating the problems they are pointing out, and how our denouncing these problems could actually contribute to them.

Randy: That's interesting Saray. It reminds me of something else I think we need to be careful about, namely professors taking advantage of their position in the classroom by denouncing people, practices and policies they disagree with. Besides the fact that they are abusing their authority with students, they fail to consider that the effect they are producing may be the exact opposite of the one they imagine. That's a different conversation, though. It's nice to have a voluntary forum like this one where we can have a respectful conversation about a really difficult topic and invite students to participate in kind if they are so inclined.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Why we believe

Most of us are happy to stipulate that it is best to believe only what is true. Yes, there are weird cases in which believing fantasies and falsehoods may make you happier or keep you out of trouble. But, clearly, any creature that lacks a systematic tendency to represent its umwelt accurately is not long for its world.

This is a defensible view as long as we confine the use of the term "belief" to mental representations that yield relatively precise and falsifiable predictions. My belief that there are pickles in the pantry predicts that I will find them there if I look. If I come up pickleless, yet maintain my previous degree of confidence in their existence, there is something wrong with me.

Some philosophers do use the term in this way. Quassim Cassam, e.g., characterizes belief as a mental state that is "regulated for truth in a way that other modes of acceptance are not." This is fine, too, but it is a technical usage and one that is apt to cause confusion.

For example, it weirdly implies that most people do not believe that God is good. They may sincerely avow it, but they can not believe it because they accept it on faith, and faith is not regulated for truth. This is odd, because if you ask even a pickle-laden lay person for a typical belief, she is far more likely to say that God is good than that she has pickles in her pantry.

The critical point here is that if we think it is just obviously best to believe only what is true, this may be because we are simply defining belief in that way. If there are modes of acceptance- by which I mean modes of accepting a proposition as true- other than belief, it remains an open question whether this is true of them as well.

A different way to think about the nature of belief is to ask what they make us do. Intellectualists about belief claim that we believe P only if we reflectively and sincerely endorse the truth of P. Behaviorists claim that we believe P only if we generally behave as if P were true. Their sticking point is that we often sincerely claim to believe things when our behavior suggests otherwise. Intellectualists say we do believe in such cases, behaviorists say we don't.

Eric Schwitzgebel, a behaviorist, says that the reason my belief that there are pickles in the pantry reliably causes me to behave as if this were so is that it is "normatively neutral" and "straightforwardly connected to observable behavior." On the other hand, the reason a man may sincerely claim to love his children, despite failing to provide for them, is that whether he loves his children is not normatively neutral, and behavioral departures are more easily justified.

Neither intellectualism nor behaviorism support the idea that beliefs are inherently regulated for truth. But behaviorism is the more comprehensive framework for appreciating what Cassam’s proposal may cause us to miss. For there are often good reasons why we persist in behaving as if P were true despite strong evidence of its falsehood.

To see this clearly, let’s stipulate, contra Cassam, that we believe any claim we sincerely accept as true. I suggest that the less normatively neutral a belief, the less truth-regulated it is likely to be. Forget about explicitly normative claims, since many doubt these have truth values at all. As Schwitzgebel uses this term, even patently empirical claims like:
  • Children of traditional marriages suffer the fewest mental health problems. 
  • Abstinence counseling is an ineffective means of preventing teen pregnancy. 
  • Climate change is a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese government. 
  • Intellectual differences between the sexes are partly due to genetic differences. 
are normatively loaded. This is because those who claim to (dis)believe them are sure to suffer the (dis)approbation of others as a result. And the reason for this is that beliefs like these reliably indicate whose side we are on; i.e., our religious, political and cultural affiliations.

Of course, informed, free thinking people can evaluate such claims on the evidence alone. But most people who think of themselves in this way are deluded. Our views on a range of disparate issues can usually be predicted from our affiliations. This is nowhere truer than in the academy itself, where viewpoint diversity has been declining for decades.

Clearly, one important reason that normatively loaded beliefs are not regulated for truth is the high cost of changing them. For the individual, the expected value of truth may be minute compared to that of remaining a member in good standing. This is true even of the scientific community, our most highly truth-regulated social institution. There, young graduate students are indoctrinated into the models and methods of their mentors, and their interests and theoretical commitments typically develop along similar lines. Scientists who change their views before a sea change of opinion requires it suffer all the costs of disloyalty that we lay folk experience in the real world.

Beyond social allegiances, our beliefs are also constitutive of our personal identities. We cling to them the way we cling to quite arbitrary preferences, because a relatively stable set of each is what helps us to maintain the feeling that we are not social suck-ups but unique individuals leading independently meaningful lives. To the extent that we identify strongly with a belief, it may be folly to give it up for one that is merely true.

These claims are easy things to believe about other people, but difficult to accept about ourselves. It is humiliating to think that I have been given the gift of Reason, and yet for the beliefs that I care most about, I use it, not to discover what is true, but what it comforts me to believe. Of course, if what I am saying is true in general, then it is a very good reason for believing it is not true of me at all.

G. Randolph Mayes
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Summer reading?

Congratulations to our graduates and to the rest of our majors for completing another year toward your degree! We asked your professors for the book they are most looking forward to reading this summer. Here's what we got. (Some of it's philosophy, some of it's not.)

Matt McCormick
Joshua Carboni
Kyle Swan
Christina Bellon
Randy Mayes
Clovis Karam
Chong Choe-Smith
Saray Ayala-López
Kevin Vandergriff
Russell DiSilvestro
Christian Bauer
Patrick Smith
Phillip Barron
Brad Dowden
Tom Pyne
Jonathan Chen
David Corner
Lynne Fox
Mathias Warnes

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

How to pray when the end (of term) is near

This post begins with some conjectures, runs through three quick stories, and ends with a philosophical question and answer (or two) about prayer.


“As long as there are final exams there will always be prayer in school.”—a popular saying of former president Ronald Reagan

It’s that time of year again—the end of the semester. Time to pray, right?

Many of you know exactly what I mean.

If you are a student, you likely have more papers, projects, and other stuff to complete and turn in than you have time for.

If you are a teacher, you likely have more papers, projects, and other stuff to grade and return than you have time for...and you know that more (many, many more) are coming soon.

Some of you may be thinking about turning to prayer for help. Or a rabbit’s foot. Or something else.

Relax. Take a deep breath. I do not write to scold. But I do write to propose a few things.


Consider three short stories:

1. In February I was in San Jose on a Sunday morning. So I drove to hear John Ortberg preach at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church. That morning I heard a story of what happened when an ordinary man named Bob was offered $500 to pray “God, use me” with an eye towards somehow helping the country of Uganda (watch 26:00 to 30:20 in the video; and/or read pages 8-9 in the transcript).

2. In March I was reading an article by the late Dallas Willard (who taught philosophy at USC) titled “Jesus the Logician.” I read a story about Catherine Marshall, who “tells of a time she was trying to create a certain design with some drapes for her windows. She was unable to get the proportions right to form the design she had in mind. She gave up in exasperation and, leaving the scene, began to mull the matter over in prayer. Soon ideas as to how the design could be achieved began to come to her and before long she had the complete solution. She learned that Jesus is maestro of interior decorating.”

3. In April I happened to be putting this post together and I was reminded of a story of something that happened to me in graduate school. I was writing my dissertation proposal when I found myself facing a looming deadline. My then-current draft was for a project with eleven chapters—far too many for a dissertation, and far too logically disconnected anyway. So I dropped my family off at the in-laws for the weekend. And I began my four-hour drive back to campus with a prayer: for divine help about how on earth I might turn my current mess of a proposal into something more logical and manageable. Within ten minutes of driving, I had a new idea just pop into my head, appearing in my mind seemingly out of nowhere, about exactly how to reorganize the contents of my eleven chapters down to a more manageable, and logical, five chapters—and that idea proved stable enough to be permanent.


Several philosophical questions could emerge from all this. Here are two:
(Q1) Does prayer ever “work”? 
(Q2) More to the point, (how) should I pray right now about something I’m facing (like my academic situation at the end of this semester)?
Of course I come from a particular set of beliefs and traditions about the topic of prayer.

But I hope to convey a bit of what I think is helpful wisdom and even knowledge, no matter of what your beliefs and traditions (and wisdom and knowledge) already are.

In case it’s not obvious, I do not hold to what is sometimes called (A) “metaphysical” naturalism—the idea (very roughly) that the realities investigated by the natural sciences are the only realities there are.

Nor do I hold to what is sometimes called (B) “methodological” naturalism—the idea (very roughly) that the methods used by the natural sciences are the only useful methods for investigating or dealing with reality.

But even if I did hold (A) or (B), here’s an even weirder thought: I think an experimental approach to (Q2) is one way any person can make progress with (Q1).

In other words, investigate whether prayer works for yourself—by trial and error.

An interesting indication that I may not be alone in thinking this weirder thought: a recent Pew study (see “fact 5”) suggests that 3% of even self-identified atheists pray, at least on some occasions.

I have argued on other occasions for the reasonableness of what’s sometimes called “the skeptic’s prayer”: “God, if there is a God, save my soul, if I have a soul!”

During the end of term, am I suggesting a “skeptic’s prayer lite”? “God, if there is a God, save my C, if I have a C”?

Well, sure. Why not? The underlying logic behind one prayer is supportive of the other. For what it’s worth, I recommend both.

I suggest a few concrete tips when offering academic-related prayers:
1. Be specific. (Pray in such a way that you might think the chance is higher that you might actually recognize it if you got an affirmative answer.) 
2. Be honest. (Pray with an acknowledgment of your own shortcomings and failures, academic and otherwise.) 
3. Be humble. (Pray without a sense of entitlement, and with the awareness that you are not All That, The Big Cheese, etc.) 
4. Be persistent. (Like Bob in the Uganda story above.) 
5. Be flexible. (As one of our own prophets has sung, be willing to “make that change…to the man in the mirror” as you pray.)
Oh, and one last thing: although I am no priest or pastor, if you want me to pray for you about school (or something else), I will—no strings attached.

So: what do you find works well (or not) when it comes to praying during finals week?

Russell DiSilvestro
Department of Philosophy
Sacramento State

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Wonderfully wrong analogies

This week we asked philosophy professors to give us a  favorite example of an excellent yet mistaken analogy.

Never gonna fall in love
Garret Merriam

The idea of 'falling in love' resonates because it captures the gravitational power of the early stages of love. And because it feels so overpowering we often forgive otherwise questionable behavior. 'Can you really blame him?', we might ask. 'He was falling in love.'

But an honest look at both reveals a key difference between love and a fall. When you fall off building you have no say whatsoever in what happens next; Isaac Newton is in the driver's seat.

Compare this to when you meet someone: There is a spark of attraction. You approach them. The two of you have a conversation. You agree to meet again. And then again...

No matter how strong one's feelings, at every stage in this process you (and they) have many choices: you can walk away; you can not talk to them; you can refuse to see them again. There may or may not be any good reason for you to make these choices, but they are choices that you have.

Love, like falling, is indeed a process. But unlike falling, it is a process that happens THROUGH us, not TO us. Being in love, even in the powerful beginning stages, is constituted in part by making certain decisions and eschewing others. It is something that we do, not something that we endure. And like all things we do, we get to (and must) take responsibility for it.

In short, unlike falling, love is a choice. Or rather, a series of them.

Motion is motion
Brad Dowden

If you are driving along the road at 40 mph, and an oncoming car is traveling toward you at 40 mph, then from your perspective, you will be likely to judge that the oncoming car is traveling toward you at 40 mph + 40 mph, or 80 mph. It is clearly better for you to hit a telephone pole than collide with the oncoming car, since the relative speed at impact is so much higher. By analogy you’d expect the relative speed at impact to continue to be twice as high even when the two colliding objects are moving much faster.

If you were to send a beam of electrons down the road at 99% of the speed of light, or .99c, while at the same time someone down the road sends their beam of electrons back toward you at .99c, then from the perspective of one of your electrons, the relative speed at impact when two electrons collide is .99c + .99c or almost 2c. Or so you would think, if the analogy held.

No object can attain a speed greater than c, no matter whether the chosen perspective is from one of the electrons or from the gun producing the electron beam. Although there is an extremely slight deviation from additivity even back in the scenario with the oncoming cars, the deviation increases with speed and only becomes noticeable at significant fractions of the speed of light.

This failure of additivity is another one of the many unintuitive consequences of Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Health maintenance is like auto maintenance
G. Randolph Mayes

The best way to keep your automobile running smoothly is to have a trained mechanic regularly inspect critical parts for damage or wear. That way they can be replaced or repaired before they create catastrophic problems. Your body is just like your car. That is why it is important to have annual physical checkups and screenings for dangerous conditions, even if you feel fine. By doing so, your doctor will be able to detect and treat them early, preventing catastrophic health problems down the road.

This analogy turns out to be dead wrong. It is sensible on apriori grounds because your car and your body are machines subject to failure through abuse, neglect or bad luck. But it fails empirically because in medicine (a) the methods for detecting problems early and (b) the capacity for prophylactic intervention are unreliable.

Everyone has a story of someone who is alive today because of a routine medical exam that caught a life-threatening condition early. The vast majority of these stories are false. The patients aren’t lying, and until recently neither were the doctors. They just believed, on the strength of this analogy, that medical problems can be nipped in the bud in this way. Current data belie this faith for most conditions and interventions that we have been raised to believe in.

This analogy has created mind-boggling profits for the healthcare industry, but it has harmed the rest of us immeasurably. Sophists rejoice. Hippocrates weeps.

Marriage is a ball and chain
Chong Choe-Smith

This is more of a punchline than a serious analogy. As with most analogies, there is a hint of truth in it, but the real-life phenomenon is far more complex. Marriage generally involves a commitment to be faithful to one person, but this is about where the usefulness of the analogy ends.

Some may say many things in life are better with some rules: parental rules rather than living in a pigsty, traffic laws rather than a free for all, and a system of crime and punishment rather than insecurity.

Marriage, one can argue, also is more liberating than constraining or even that the constraints are themselves liberating! A marriage or other serious monogamous relationship should provide a safe environment for two people to be truly themselves. Two people can take off the masks they wear in public spaces and, in the privacy of their own home, they can be naked and unashamed in every way.

The ball and chain comes not with marriage itself, but with the projects that marriage partners undertake (children) or with the problems that arise within a marriage (poor communication, money problems, other people—the in-laws?). We can conceptually distinguish marriage from these projects and problems (not all marriages have these things) and say that marriage itself is nothing or not much like a ball and chain.

But, then again, maybe you should ask my husband?

Brains are to thoughts as hardware is to software
Matt McCormick

The idea that brains are related to thoughts as hardware is related to software is ubiquitous, powerful, and deeply misguided. There are significant philosophical differences between the hardware/software relation and the brains/thought relation. Our continued uncritical use of the metaphor misguides our understanding of both.

Computers have Von Neumann architecture. Inputs arrive at a processing unit which has a set of instructions loaded from memory, where serial computations are performed. Results are then sent to memory or converted into an output. Neither the hardware nor the software change significantly as a result of processing. The system is deterministic and employs a formal language with discrete, modular, and symbolic units. And system failures are catastrophic.

Brains are massively parallel distributed processing (PDP) networks.  Brain activity is best described as waves of activation patterns coursing across billions of synaptic connections. Instead of a single operation being performed on a single variable which is then sent to the next function, millions or billions of signals simultaneously course across connectionist nodes each of which have thousands of connections to their neighbors. The capacities of the system are stochastic, and embedded in the constantly updated weights of these nodes, which change due to the frequency and intensity of the signals from their neighbors. There are no discrete physical structures or processes that map easily onto concepts, symbols, or logic; there is no language of thought that mirrors my thoughts in English. There is no set of instructions to access. And neural nets degrade gracefully.

Government is what we all do together
Kyle Swan

Here’s Robert Nozick in The Examined Life: “There are some things we choose to do together through government in solemn marking of our human solidarity, served by the fact that we do them together in this official fashion.”

This statement is true. Sometimes the things we do as a collective society through the institutions of government are things that are aptly comparable to projects we set and pursue through the kind of genuinely voluntary associations that we’re familiar with in our communities, like worshipping with co-religionists or running little league baseball for kids. Yes, governments are groups of people and sometimes, in a more or less similar way, these people together pursue desirable social ends. And it’s even sometimes true that there is such widespread public support for these ends that it makes sense to say that we all participate in solidarity in their pursuit.

Something like Nozick’s statement is attributed to former Massachusetts Rep. Barney Frank, which goes, “Government is simply the name we give to the things we choose to do together.”

This suggests a much tighter connection between our government and things we might choose to do together, and it’s nonsense. We in no way that’s recognizably analogous with the examples above chose at any time to invade Iraq, provide bailouts to failing financial institutions, spy on each other, use drone attacks to kill and maim children, target Muslims for travel bans, and literally millions of other things.

It ain't a slate and it ain't blank 
Kevin Vandergriff

Human nature is like a blank slate; that is, human psychology and behavior is mainly, or even completely shaped by environmental causes. Many have believed this picture of human nature is plausible for philosophical, social, and political reasons. But, as Stephen Pinker argues in The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, human psychology and behavior is largely the result of natural selection having shaped the “selfish” genes inherited by those with the best overall chances of survival and reproduction.

In response, defenders of the blank slate view have said that our “selfish” genes would preclude significant moral progress being made by human beings during their short time on earth. Pinker says this worry is unfounded.

Even though “selfish” genes can and do construct human brains to be psychologically and behaviorally predisposed to respond selfishly in particular ways to particular stimulus events, genes do not make the moment-to-moment decisions themselves, or necessarily constitute our true selves (Pinker, 1997, 410). Moreover, as long as we have altruistic motives that can be harnesses and expanded via psychological mechanisms, moral theories, and the imitation of religious exemplars, significant moral progress can be made by human beings.

Besides, as Pinker argues, it is the belief in the blank slate that has hampered significant moral progress by resulting in the:“…persecution of the successful, intrusive social engineering, the writing off of suffering in other cultures, an incomprehension of the logic of justice, and the devaluing of human life on earth (Pinker, 2002, 193).”

That's a real painy stick you got there mister
Tom Pyne

Several examples of an analogy pervasive in early modern philosophy:
  • Perceiving heat is like being tickled (Galileo). 
  • Light, heat, whiteness, or coldness is like the nausea produced by a purgative (Locke). 
  • Perceiving intense heat or cold is a feeling of pain (Berkeley).
All propose an analogy between:
  • perceiving features of the external world, and
  • having a sensation like pleasure, pain, nausea…
The analogy is advanced in the service of two philosophical claims:
  • The contents of perceptual states are private and subjective.
  • The intrinsic nature of those contents does not reveal any feature of the external world.
Just as the ticklishness is not in the hand, nor the nausea ‘in’ the purgative, the perceived qualities are not in external things. Roses aren’t, strictly and literally, red. Fires aren’t, strictly and literally, hot.

Since sensations are immune to error through misidentification, our perceptions involve things we can’t be wrong about either. They have gone by various names over the years: ideas, sense data, qualia,…

Even in the present it is difficult to overstate the power, seductiveness – or mischievousness – of this analogy.

It generates so many gratuitous philosophical problems that a complete list starts to look like contemporary philosophy itself: The problem of other minds; anti-realism about secondary qualities; countenancing qualia as a problem in philosophy of mind. You name it.

The analogy doesn’t limp; it crawls. The tickle does not present itself as a property of the hand, but the rose looks red. The phenomenology is all wrong.

Life is like a box of chocolates
Brandon Carey

There’s something attractive about the analogy that life is like a box of chocolates. It makes your life seem full of options, each of them a (probably good) surprise. There’s also something exactly right about it. When you choose a course of action, there’s always a chance that you’ll be surprised. Things might not work out the way you planned, and the world might not be quite how it seems. Fundamentally, life is uncertain, which is a good reason to be open-minded and intellectually humble

But uncertainty comes in various degrees and kinds, and most things in your life are not like choosing from a box of chocolates. Chocolates may have various distinguishing features, but you have no idea how those features correlate with their fillings. So, based on the information you have, you have no reason to think that that next chocolate is filled with coconut rather than anything else—you never know what you’re going to get.

In life, though, you typically do have some reasons to think that certain choices will lead to certain outcomes. When you choose which bus to take, you’re not picking blindly. You take the 67 because the schedule says it will take you downtown, and you’re almost always right. There’s some chance that the driver will get confused and take you to the airport instead, but you have excellent reasons to think that you’ll end up downtown. So, unlike with a box of chocolates, you often know what you’re going to get.

Like sand through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives
Russell DiSilvestro

Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives.

This was the opening tagline used in the American TV show Days of Our Lives from 1972-1993.

The analogy is an attractive one if you know what an hourglass is. (If not, pause your online stopwatch and Google it.)

There are conflicting prudential tips that might flow from this picture of our lives.

"Your life is gradually, relentlessly, inevitably going away, so live it up now while you still can." (An hourglass-half-empty tip.)

“Your choices build your character gradually, like grains that form a heap, so be careful how you live.” (An hourglass-half-full tip.)

In any case, I think this analogy may be misleading.

Set aside whether we have a pre-set number days to live. And whether a possible afterlife counts as part of your life. I think the analogy pushes a kind of existential reduction on us.

A philosophy professor once asked me why Sartre’s famous slogan "you are—your life and nothing else" was not obviously true. "What else are you if not your life?" He asked me.

I replied: "a traditional philosophical answer from materialists and dualists alike is that you are a stuff or a substance or a thing that has a life. But you are not literally identical to your life, since it could have gone entirely differently than it did, and yet it still would have been yours."

The axe and the lance
Jon Chen

Chinese Legalist philosopher Han Feizi writes: “Benevolence might have worked long ago in the ancient times, but it certainly does not serve us today. Shields and battle axes worked before, but they no longer worked with the invention of iron lances.”

Here, Han Feizi seems to suggest that different times require different standards, and that contemporary society has little use for benevolence in governing. In fact, benevolence isn’t just regarded as ineffective, but as positively harmful. Wielding a short-ranged axe and facing off against an opponent with a long-ranged lance is foolish and will put one in mortal danger. What the axe-wielder ought to do, then, is replace his axe with a more suitable weapon.

This foxy analogy is compelling at first, but only if benevolence were akin to the axe. I don’t think so. I think benevolence, at least in this context, more so resembles good leadership, in that it has the ability to rally others to one’s side. Thought of in this way, benevolence is at the very heart of winning any era of wars and its usefulness is not contingent to some chapter in time. This sort of leadership, it appears, is guided by an appreciation for certain principles that one deems necessary and inherently valuable to the welfare of humanity (e.g. a deep respect for goodness and uprightness). If I’m right about this, then an iron lance is as futile as a battle axe if it is not guided by benevolence.