September 11, 2011

War, Sacrifice, and the Media

posted by KT


 In honor of the 10th  Anniversary of 9/11 and in lasting solidarity with all the victims of both the original tragedy and its costly and controversial aftermath,   we thought we’d rebroadcast our episode on War, Sacrifice, and the Media this week.  We don’t seem to have blogged for the original episode – somehow that got sacrificed.  But here is a fresh one for your consideration.

Whenever America is involved in a war in a distant land,  we’re often  involved in a war, closer to home.   This second war isn’t fought with tanks or bombs or missiles, but with ideas, words, and images.   I’m thinking of the struggle over the narration and representation  of war --  its meaning,  its cost and benefits,  its victors and vanquished,  its combatants and non-combatants.  He or she who controls the narration and representation of war controls the public perception of  war.   

Now if you are the cynical sort,  you might well think that ’s pretty obvious who determines what gets represented and how it gets represented?  Elites -  moneyed elites,  political elites,   media elites.   War comes at us through a top-down system of politically, economically and culturally condition representations designed to make us feel sympathy for our side and antipathy or indifference for the other side. 

That seems true enough,  but it’s also true that the so-called elite – of which John  and I are card carrying members,  by the way  --  doesn’t always speak with a unified voice.  And top-down efforts to control thought and manipulate sympathy through the means of mass representation hardly ever succeed, not in a fractious  and boisterous democracy like ours – at least not in the long run.   Thankfully,  in the age of the internet,  people  do  have access to alternative sources of information that offer a different take on things.  Even the most repressive and controlling regimes can’t keep competing narratives completely out of the public square.   Remember those brave Iranian students tweeting from the barricades?   And more recently the popular uprising in Egypt seems to have been sustained,  at least partly by the ability to mobilize, inform, and organize over the internet.

Still,  it would be a serious mistake to underestimate the power of top-down narration.  In the early days of the Afghanistan and then the Iraq war, the so-called mainstream media bent over backwards to tell the story of the war in terms pretty much dictated by the administration.   There were dissenting voices – but they were pushed pretty far off center stage.

But there’s a deeper question here. Are different narratives just different or is it possible for one to be true and one to be false?  How do we go about determining which is true and which is false?  And who should determine what gets represented and how it gets represented?

The realist in me wants to say that of course there can be narratives that are more true to the facts and narratives that are less true the facts.  A narrative of the Iraq war that focuses on the casualties on our side and leaves out the death and displacement we imposed on the innocent citizens of that country is incomplete and less true to the facts.   Is there any question about that?

But it also seems to me that our narratives are bound to be incomplete, because they are always constructed from a particular and partisan point of view.  It’s just a fact that in a war the lives of enemy combatants count less than the lives of one’s own soldiers.  Our narratives of war are bound to privilege the lives and losses of our own and deemphasize the lives and losses of the distant other. 

You could say that that’s not a good thing.  It’s a bad thing that blinds us to the common humanity w share with our adversaries.   But on the other hand, It’s  a human thing. We are sort of biologically programmed to care more about those near and dear than about the distant other. 

Of course, biology is not destiny.   Whatever we’re biologically programmed to do, we morally ought to care about all human beings equally.  

But now ask yourself where would such “oughts” come from?  If humans are simply hard-wired to care more about the near and dear than the distant other,  would it really be possible anyway for us to treat all lives as equally worthy of our sympathy?

To be sure,  the reach of human sympathy isn’t just a product of unaided biology.  It’s also shaped by culture, society and politics.    In the right sort of political, social and cultural context,  we could have equal regard  for the lives of innocent victims of war everywhere.   Problem is, it is a little hard to imagine how to get from here to where it seems we ought to be.

Fortunately,  Judith Butler,  our guests, had and has lots to say  that provoked lots of thought on these topics and more.   And although she is sometimes known for being a forbidding and hard to penetrate thinker,  when it comes to her more academic work, on this topic she was clear, articulate, and forceful.   Listen in and   I’m sure your thoughts will be provoked in this time of national remembrance. 

September 11, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack (0)

September 04, 2011

Deconstructing the College Admissions Rat Race.

Posted by KT & JP


Getting into the college or university of your choice – especially if it's highly selective one -- has become more daunting and more stress-inducing than ever before. 

The odds are stacked against students from the start.  Consider Stanford.  This year we had just over thirty two thousand applications to fill about sixteen hundred freshmen slots.  So we accepted just seven percent of those who applied.

Those are astounding numbers.

And Stanford's not alone.  Harvard admitted seven percent of its applicants, while Yale admitted eight percent and Princeton admitted nine percent of the students who applied.

To be fair that’s not the whole story.  Many very fine colleges and universities admit a significantly higher proportion of their applicants.  UC Berkeley, for example, admitted twenty-two percent of the forty eight thousand who applied.   And the University of Michigan admitted just over half of its applicants.

It is a great thing about America, that if you want to go to college, there’s a school somewhere that’ll accept you, and it’ll probably do a good job of educating you.   But given that there’s a college out there for everyone and most colleges are pretty good, it makes it all the more puzzling why there's such intense competition over the relatively few spots in the so-called elite colleges and universities. 

The problem is our society is obsessed -- extra-ordinarily obsessed -- with pedigree and prestige.  Deep in their heart of hearts, many people believe that the prestige of the college you go to will make an enormous difference to the rest of your life.

Hardly anybody stops to ask whether that belief is true.  But whether or not it’s true, the bare fact of it gives selective colleges and universities a sort of perverse incentive to be even more selective.  Because people take selectivity as a signal of pedigree and prestige.   Which makes prestige-hungry students -- and their parents -- even more eager to apply.  And more crestfallen when they don’t get in.

It’s a vicious circle.  Increased applications means more selectivity, which means higher prestige, which invites more applications, which means…  well you get the idea.

It’s a costly circle too.  As the competition for admission has intensified, the pressure on students – pressure to be more and achieve more -- has intensified too. 

The pressure starts early -- as early as elementary school -- and continues without let-up, right up through high school.  I’m not sure it's an entirely good or healthy thing.

We’re  pretty sure it’s not a healthy thing.  It leaves many students, even highly successful students, stressed out and burned out.  

Or worse.  Here in Palo Alto, for example, there was a rash of student suicides a couple of years ago.  And while we don’t know that the relentless pressure to excel was a direct cause,  wewouldn’t be all be surprised if it played a role.

Somebody needs to stop and ask some tough questions.  We need to deconstruct the college admissions rat race.  What do we really get by subjecting our teenagers to such intense pressure to achieve in the first place?

Have we distorted their lives?  To what end?  Whose interests are really served by the way the college admissions rat race is currently structu red?   And is there a better way?    

We’ll ask these questions of our guest,   Mitchell Stevens, author of Creating a Class: College Admissions and the Education of Elites


September 4, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (7) | TrackBack (0)

August 26, 2011

Today: Schizophrenia and the mind.


Posted  by JP




Schizophrenia affects about one out of two hundred people.  It’s a serious mental disorder that typically involves distortions in perception, especially vivid auditory hallucinations, and bizarre and usually paranoid delusion.  Imagine trying to carry on a conversation with while at the same time you're surrounded by four other people, talking loudly to you, often about thoughts you might have considered to be private.  That’s an exercise support groups often use to suggest to family what it's like to be a schizophrenic.

 The best-known portrayal of a schizophrenic is probably the movie `A Beautiful Mind’.  Russell Crowe plays John Nash, a mathematician who won a Nobel Prize in Economics.  In the movie, Nash’s hallucinations are portrayed as both auditory, visual and tactile.  But that’s really not at all common, and wasn’t truly the case with Nash.  Like most schizophrenics, his hallucinations were purely auditory.

There is some debate whether schizophrenia is just a label for a bundle of commonly co-occurring symptoms, or a single underlying disease.  There are no laboratory tests for schizophrenia.  However, it is frequently associated with excess dopamine --- a neuro-transmitter in the brain.  On the basis of this, there are some pretty good medications.

John Nash in real life, and in the movie, preferred not to take medication.  That’s very common.  There are side-effects, and the schizophrenic also often sees the medications as part of a conspiracy.

Schizophrenia is interesting to philosophers for several reasons.  Schizophrenics often think the thoughts they're directly aware of in their own minds belong to someone else.  Sometimes they just mean that the thoughts come from the outside --- perhaps in radio transmission through their fillings, or some other bizarre way --- and they can’t control them.  But sometimes they insist that the thoughts actually and literally belong to someone else.

That challenges a very fundamental view in the philosophy of mind, that when you are aware of a thought, you know it’s your own; it makes no sense to be introspectively aware of the thoughts of another.

Schizophrenics also challenge a picture of thoughts that many philosophers find attractive.   Many philosophers feel thoughts are beliefs gained through perception, desires, and thought-processes.  In this view, to attribute thoughts to a person presupposes a certain modicum of rationality.  The thoughts you pick up from perception should be related to what you perceive in some rational ways.  Schizophrenics seem to challenge that picture.

Schizophrenia also poses ethical problems that have to do with this irrationality.  For example: we think it's OK, in the case of children, or old folks with dementia, to violate their autonomy --- the right to make their own decisions -- in various ways, including forced medication.  The schizophrenic may be motivated by extremely bizarre beliefs.  But, given those beliefs, their reluctance to take medication, or leave the house, may make perfect sense, and indeed be articulately defended.  Is forced medication a violation of autonomy, or something required to give them meaningful autonomy and a hope for a normal life?

 We’ll talk with John Campbell from the philosophy department at Berkeley, who has thought and written deeply about schizophrenia.




August 26, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

August 19, 2011

Health Care – is it a right or a privilege

Posted  JP


Posted  JP


I think when people say healthcare is a right, or ought to be a right, they don’t always have the same thing in mind.  I think everyone would agree that you shouldn’t be denied healthcare on account of race or religion or ethnic origin, or sexual orientation.  Well, maybe everyone wouldn’t agree, but it’s not what people usually dispute about.  The question is whether you can get healthcare if you don’t have money to pay for it.

 And you know that question is still not so clear.  Does it mean that you have a right to healthcare even though you can’t pay for it, but you still get billed and have to deal with it one way or another eventually?  That’s pretty much the current situation; if you’re broke you can go to an emergency room of a publicly supported hospital and get taken care of, and then maybe get a bill for $20,000 a month later. 

Or does it mean that healthcare is basically free, in the sense of covered by taxes with no debt or out of pocket charge to the recipient, the way it is in some other countries?

As I understand Obamacare, which hadn’t yet passed when we recorded this program, the basic answer the U.S. is going to provide about rights is that things stay unchanged.   You have a right to get healthcare, in that you don’t have to pay for it up front, but you still have to pay for it, or at least be in debt for what you get.

The big new change is that it's not going to be a right but a duty; everyone has to have health insurance.  So it seems to be that we have a right to healthcare without paying cash out of hand, but we have a duty to be able to pay for it, and this means having insurance.

But that is an important change, that affects our rights, namely our right to have health insurance.  You can’t have a duty to buy insurance, unless you can buy insurance.  And right now, we don’t all have that right.  Some people can’t buy insurance at all, and others can’t buy decent insurance at a reasonable price.  So if the plan is to make sense, the duty to have insurance will have to be paired with affordable, available insurance for everyone.

So our new right won’t be to healthcare, but to affordable insurance.  At least, that’s the outcome some people are hoping for.

In Western Europe, people by and large have healthcare covered by taxes.  We'll have something quite different -- healthcare covered by insurance; a duty to buy insurance; and a right to affordable insurance to buy.

There is still a lot of unclarity.  Given that I have the right to healthcare, the duty to buy insurance to pay for the healthcare I get, and the right to have affordable insurance -- still, there’s the issue of what level of healthcare I’m entitled to.  We include a lot of things under healthcare.  From setting broken arms to labia reduction surgery; from stitching up a child’s wounds to ten years of psychotherapy for a philosopher with writer’s block…

Consider the analogy with education.  Everyone is entitled to a high school education that covers basic subjects.  But some people, who live in richer school districts, or go to private schools, have smaller classes, and a wider variety of subjects.  Do we have a right to basic healthcare, like we have a right to a more or less basically adequate education?  Or does everyone have a right to healthcare that’s equal to everyone else’s?

It sounded so simple: right or privilege?  But it’s a mess.  We need help.

And we’ll have it.  Laurence Baker, a Professor of Health Research and Policy joins us in our conversation about right and healthcare.






August 19, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (13) | TrackBack (0)

August 12, 2011

Time, Space, and Quantum Mechanics




Posted by JP


Quantum mechanics developed in the last century to deal with the tiniest parts of nature.  It seemed that classical physics, which applied to everything from stars to grains of sand, should have sufficed.  But it didn’t.  A whole new theory was needed.  To it we owe modern bombs and modern computers.  It’s been called the most empirically powerful and accurate theory ever developed.

But quantum theory has been a pain, or at any rate a challenge, for philosophers since its beginning.  In the first place, the quanta turn out to be neither particles, or waves --- each of which classical physics could deal with --- but something that shares the properties of both, in a way that is impossible to picture.  This used to bother people more than it does now. There is a consensus that if we can understand things mathematically, or at least physicists can, we don’t need  picture them.

More worrisome is the strange role for the observer in quantum mechanics.  The idea seems to be that the systems move along from quantum state to quantum state  in predictable and unproblematic ways as long as there is no observer.  But these quantum states are just probabilities about what’s happening.  But as soon as there is an observer, things have to resolve themselves one way or the other.  And this seems to not be determined by the quantum state.

So, to use Schrödinger’s famous example, you put a cat in a box with bottle of gas rigged up so that if a particle ends up in one place, it will be released and the cat will die, but if doesn’t’ end up in that place, the cat will be OK.

Quantum theory tells us exactly what the probabilities are, but not what happens.  But when someone opens the box and looks in, the cat is alive or dead.  Some how the observer forces the world make up its mind in some way the laws of quantum physics don’t.

            Well some physicists, and some philosophers, say that what happens is the world splits, with the cat living in some and not in others, matching the probabilities.  I think that is really weird.

            These problems have been around for almost a century.  Lately, in the past quarter century, attention has focused on yet another problem, entanglement.  And what some physicists say about entanglement makes us philosophers feel like we’ve been kicked back inside of Plato’s cave, that our familiar world, spread out in space and changing through time, is being downgraded to an illusion.

            Here’s how I understand it.  Suppose that Ken and I are particles generated by some subatomic process.  We fly off in opposite directions at close the speed of light.  After a while we each raise one of our hands---simultaneously, relative to an observer at the place where we began.

            It seems like there is a 50-50 chance we will raise the same hand.  But it turns out that we do so ¾ of the time.  Somehow, what one of us does depends on what the other does.  Our states are entangled, even if after a few minutes we are thousands or even millions of miles apart.  But how?

            We can’t be influencing each other, because no signal can go faster than the speed of light, and get from me to Ken, or Ken to me, in time to coordinate out actions.  It seems like this better-than-chance correlation would be a miracle.

            But that’s the way quanta really seem to work.  Quantum physicists know this.  But they don’t believe in miracles, so they are finding it hard to explain.

           And some of their attempts at explaining I really find upsetting.  Our guest, Jenann Ismael, uses the analogy of a kaleidoscope to explain one idea.

          When you look into a kaleidiscope, you see one thing --- a red piece of glass, say, in one position, and another exactly symmetrical thing in another position.  As you turn the end of the kaleidoscope, the symmetry remains.

             So you ask yourself how their positions remain coordinated ---- some hidden connection perhaps?  Some entanglement?

             But in fact, the hidden connection is just identity.  Because of the mirrors, you are seeing the same piece of red glass twice over. 

            So one idea, one I really find philosophically distressing, is that our life in space and time is a little bit like living in a kaleidoscope.  There are other dimensions,  ones we can’t perceive, and along those dimensions, things, like the Ken particle and the John particle, that seem after a few minutes to be millions of miles apart, are quite close together --- maybe they are even the same thing.

            It is like we live in Plato’s cave, or Ismael’s Kaleidoscope, seeing shadows or mirror images, with no way of knowing what the true relations between the causes of those images are.



August 12, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (20) | TrackBack (0)

August 05, 2011

The State of Public Philosophy


posted by JP


Philosophy Talk is devoted to public philosophy.  But we mean two different things by that.

OUR first aim is to encourage the public - our listeners and participants in our blog - to do philosophy, to engage in the ongoing activity.  That’s because we think it's something a lot of people enjoy, and that it leads to better discussions and decisions.  

The second thing we try to do is to present what influential philosophers of the past and present, are thinking about.  

The latter aim is definitely secondary.  We're mostly interested in what philosophers think about, because we believe our audience may want to think about the same things.

So given that, what are we worrying about when we ask about the state of public philosophy?

People sometime worry that modern-day philosophers don’t have the same impact on the public that philosophers have traditionally had, and continue to have in some other countries. 

That is what our experience suggests.  Lots of public radio stations and their program directors are startled to hear about a show on philosophy.  They're very skeptical that their listening public would be interested.  In fact, one of our motives in doing the program is to make philosophy more a part of public life.

But our experience also points the other way.  Many people are very interested in the topics and people we discuss.  And you know, just in my lifetime  I think I’ve seen an increase in the impact of those in our profession.  Think of philosophers like Daniel Dennett, Martha Nussbaum, or Anthony Appiah.  They're not only excellent philosophers, but also writers of widely-read books, who appear pretty frequently on radio and TV and in op-ed pages.

I want to make another distinction.  There's the wider public, and there's also the narrower public, I'm talking about researchers in other disciplines.  I’ve seen the influence of philosophy in this narrower public grow a lot of over the years I’ve been involved.  The ideas of thinkers like John Rawls and Michael Bratman are widely discussed and applied in laws schools, for example. 

 And philosophy has played a respectable part in the development of theoretical computer science, A.I., and cognitive science. 

But one place that we --- in the sense of American analytical philosophers like you and me --- don’t seem to have as much impact as one might expect, is with our fellow humanists.  

Philosophy of our sort hasn’t proven to be all that inspiring to our friends in literature, especially comparative literature, and cultural anthropology, and places like that. 

European thinkers like Derrida seem to have been of more interest.  And since, in a wider sense, all humanists are involved in the great philosophical enterprise, this seems surprising and rather sad.

Our guest today is someone who feels this lack of impact intensely.  He's Hans Gumbrecht, from the Comparative Literature Department at Stanford --- which was also the home of Richard Rorty in the latter part of his life.  

  Gumbrecht is a philosopher and a public intellectual who, like Rorty, is both influenced by and deeply skeptical about the prevailing approach to philosophy in America.  I’m really looking forward to thinking through these issues with Zepp, as everyone calls him.



August 5, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (6) | TrackBack (0)

July 28, 2011

Philosophy and Everyday Life.



Posted by JP

Sunday’s guest is Robert Rowland Smith, author if Breakfast with Socrates and Driving with Plato. These books explore how the sorts of events that happen to everyone can give rise to philosophical thoughts,  provide examples of philosophical insights, and be enriched by considering those insights.

From his picture, Smith looks to me like a young guy.  I don’t know how he has lived long enough to read all the philosophers he discusses.  He has really mastered a fascinating kind of essay.   He takes an ordinary event, like taking a bath, and finds all sorts of interesting things to  say about it.  The chapter ``Going to a Party’’ leads from Leslie Gore ---  of ``It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” ---to Machiavelli.

 As I read Breakfast with Socrates, it seemed to me that Smith and I seem to take exactly the opposite approach to philosophy.  I usually start with something people find intrinsically philosophical and mysterious and extraordinary, like personal identity or consciousness or freedom, and put a lot of effort into finding  that nothing all that fascinating is going on.  That’s not really how I think of what I do, but it’s how lots of other intelligent people react to it.  As if I were trying to make the philosophical into the banal.

 Smith, on the other hand, takes having a bath, or driving to work, which seem sort of banal, and makes them philosophically alive, examples of insights from Socrates to Sartre.

We have a sort of a plan for the program.  First, we’ll talk to Smith about the Socratic idea, which he has taken near the limit, that examining one’s life makes it more worth living.  Then we’ll look at how this plays out over an ordinary day.  And then, unless the conversation goes off some other direction, how it plays itself out over one’s life time. 


July 28, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)

July 22, 2011

What Are Words Worth?

What Are Words Worth?

Posted by JP 


`Ilunga’ means a person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time. That’s a word I’ve just imported into English from Tshiluba.  A bunch of linguists voted it the world’s hardest word to translate. Then they gave us a translation.  I’m so happy to have this word.  It allows me to think thoughts that I couldn’t think before.  I wonder if Obama is basically an ilunga.  My wife is definitely not an ilunga.  She’s all over me after my first abuse.

 I don’t know about you, but I do most of my thinking in words.  If I don’t have the words, how can I have the thoughts?  And if you can’t have the thoughts, you can’t make plans.  Tonight I’m going to do some schoogling.  Until I learned the word, I couldn’t have had that plan.

While  schoogling sounds like something we can’t talk about on Public Radio, it’s just googling the names of old schoolmates.  It’s increasingly the cause of cylences.  Cylences: are  the long gaps in a phone conversations that occur when a person is reading e-mail or cybershopping while talking on the phone.  Or schoogling. 

I think there are lots of thoughts we can’t think without having the right words.  Or at least, wouldn’t be very likely to.  Different languages and cultures have different words, and hence have different conceptual schemes, and even see the world differently. 

One might suspect there’s less truth to this than there seems to be.  I just translated the word linguists found most difficult to translate, `ilunga’, with an English phrase about ten words long.  Before I ever had the word I could have thought, ``Ken is the sort of person who is ready to forgive any abuse for the first time, to tolerate it a second time, but never a third time”.  Isn’t that the same thought you I have when I think ``Ken is an ilunga”?  What’s the big deal?  I could invent the word, ``lexijerk” to mean ``radio personality who shows off by using new words in a pointless way” and offer it to Ken.  Then Ken can think ``John is a lexijerk”.  But it’s probably a thought he has had before, without benefit of this great word.  

But when a culture or a language or a co-host finds a word to be useful, it suggests that the phenomenon, for which the word stands, has some importance, gets at a distinction worth making.  The word ``Ilunga” encodes the insight, or at least possible insight, that the people it takes three offenses to truly anger form an interesting class; they may share other characteristics. 

On the other hand, I’m  told the French don’t have a word for ``berry”, just words for strawberries and raspberries and blueberries, but not a general word.  But they still recognize the class; they serve a nice compote made only of berries.

Most of these examples come from Geoff Nunberg, the Berkeley and NPR linguist who will join us on Sunday’s program.  Geoff is a thoughtful linguist, who will help us get beyond my amateurish speculations on the importance of words. 

July 22, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (14) | TrackBack (0)

July 08, 2011

Atheism and the Well-Lived Life.

Posted by JP 


An atheist is someone who not only doesn't believe in God, but believes, with some confidence, that there isn’t a God.  But ambiguity remains.  Does that simply mean rejecting the classical Judeo-Christian all-perfect God?  Or does it mean rejecting Hume’s much weaker criterion: that the world was created by some thing or things bearing some remote analogy to human intelligence?

I’ll call the more radical view “strong atheism”.  It says the world was not created by, and is not controlled by, any intelligence, or anything having any remote analogy to intelligence whatsoever.  There is not one all-perfect God, nor are there several less than perfect gods.  Not even the Great Pumpkin.  To be a strong atheist is to reject supernatural deities of all forms and kinds. 

Ken and Louise Anthony, our guest, both are, or are in the neighborhood of, being atheists of tis kind.  The more interesting point for this show is that they find it a rewarding, sustaining, and even inspiring point of view.  Let’s pose some questions, and imagine their answers. 

At first glance, it seems odd to find inspiration in the non-existence of something.  What’s it like to be converted to atheism?  We have many accounts of conversions to religion.  The world suddenly takes on new meaning; your sorrows are lifted when you learn that there is someone up there who cares.    But when you’re converted to atheism, the world goes from meaningful to meaningless, from caring to uncaring, from hopeful to hopeless.  It really sounds depressing -- the source of despair, not inspiration.  If Richard Dawkins are Christopher Hitchens set up a traveling revival show, to convert people to atheism, would the converts appear revived?  Or sort of depressed by their new-found belief in the  meaningless of everything?

But, our enthusiastic atheists will reply, conversion to atheism is not usually a sudden event.  It’s a more gradual process, and it comes in two parts.  First, it becomes clear to you that there’s no evidence whatsoever for God, and considerable evidence against anything like the Christian God, or any lesser version of God.  That can be depressing, we all must admit.  

But with more thought it becomes clearer that not as much depends on God as you might have thought.  You still have fun.  You still have friends.  Certain things still are valuable, others less so.  And, unlike what Ivan Karamazov thinks, not everything is permitted. 

 What about the afterlife?  Isn’t it depressing to give up that belief?

 Well, admittedly, there is no afterlife without some miracle worker like God to provide it.  But as Hume said, all the years before I existed weren’t so bad for me.  Why think the years after I die will be so bad?

But what about the question Dostoyevsky’s Ivan poses:  Why isn’t everything permitted for the atheist?  What sort of fact is it that something is wrong --- say that torturing innocent children is wrong?  It doesn’t seem like a fact of nature; nature seems all in favor of all sorts of undeserved pain.  It doesn’t seem like a rule of etiquette.  It seems like an objective fact about the world.  Who could the fact-maker be, if not God?

But what’s implicit in this question is the Divine Command theory of right and wrong.  Something is wrong because God says it was wrong.  But that’s not the only theory of objective right and wrong.  You might think there are just moral facts -- like mathematical facts -- without God having anything to do with it.  You might think that morality derives from perfectly objective facts about pleasure and pain, life and death, human nature, reason, logic, cooperation and the like.  The atheist has no shortage of answers to Ivan’s claim.

Granted all of that, doesn’t it still seem strange to define one’s life by a negative claim, by the non-existence of something.   You can become the village atheist, and make it your mission in life to tell religious people what idiots they are.  But that doesn’t seem very fulfilling.

To which Ken and  Louise Antony will reply, no doubt, that they don’t define their goal in life to rag on the religious, but rather to explore the joys of positive atheism.   I find atheism difficult to resist, but I'm not quite so sure I should be joyful unto the non-existence of the Lord.  We shall see.



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July 8, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (18) | TrackBack (0)

July 02, 2011




Posted by JP

Lincoln is revered as our greatest President; he is virtually an American Saint.  In Sunday’s program, we look at his philosophical ideas --- both political and religious. 

 Some of these are disturbing.  The Second Inaugural Address --- the one that’s carved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial --- is really quite chilling.  Especially if you think it really represents the philosophy of someone who has just pursued a path that led to the death of half a million people.

 It ends with a very moving statement:

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation's wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.’’

Those words express a noble philosophy: charity, fairness, compassion. 

But consider what comes earlier that in the address.  Lincoln basically suggests that American slavery was something that happened according to God’s plan, but then God decided  to stop it.  And God chooses to do so by this terrible war, in which every drop of blood spilled by the lash of the whip during the 250 years of slavery shall be paid for by the blood of soldiers.  That is a frightening picture, and a frightening image for our leader to have.  He is but the pawn of a God who designs things so that first innocent people are slaves for 250 years…  And then as payback, half a million folks - the vast majority of whom didn’t own slaves and many of whom were opposed to slavery - must suffer and die.  A chilling theology.

However, to be fair, the larger context of  this part of the address is a big question:  If this is what's going on, if this is all such a plan of God, then quote:

shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes   which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

It’s as if Lincoln lays out this way of looking at things that might bring solace to the suffering believers --- it’s all God’s will --- but at the same time he really doesn’t commit himself to that.  It’s not clear Lincoln gives the answer to the rhetorical question that he intends to evoke in the minds of his listeners.

As philosophers, I suppose we ought to be impressed that an American President could write prose that posed such deep questions in such an artful way.  But that’s the whole mystery of Lincoln’s philosophy; a lot of at least these apparent contradictions.

 He lauds government of the people, by the people, for the people; words that echo the Declaration of Independence.  But that’s different from the idea that the union must be preserved, no matter what the southern states want.  Then there’s the devotion to life, liberty and the rights of citizens; but he closed down the newspapers in New York City and jailed the editors and suspended Habeus Corpus.  With malice towards none --- but he sent Sherman on his march through Georgia.

 Even though he was a stalwart and consistent opponent of slavery, he also expressed racist views. But perhaps the problem is not in our Lincoln, but in us;  we don’t understand what things were like, what options he saw.

 We will have some help thinking about this: Al Gini of Loyola University in Chicago, where he teaches a course on Lincoln and Leadership.


July 2, 2011 | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)