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Abusing Philosophy September 9, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Dwight Furrow's Posts, Philosophy, religion, Science.
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Sholto Byrnes, writing in the New Statesman, commits philosophical sins.

He begins by lamenting the lack of tolerance he increasingly finds in the writings of atheists who dismiss religion as mere superstition.

…many of those who seek to defend reason show themselves to be equally unreasonable and inflexible in their views. A gentle and accommodating agnosticism has given way to an angry and insistent atheism that sees offence as the best way to defend rationalism and science.

As he rightly points out, such dismissals fail to take seriously the beliefs of most people on the planet.

But I don’t share his lamentations. The fact that lots of people believe something doesn’t make it true, and surely it is appropriate for intellectuals to criticize conventional beliefs they think are false. If you think a belief is superstitious nonsense, in the context of a philosophical debate, I don’t see why you shouldn’t call it that if you can back it up.

But tolerance is a good thing, when it is reciprocated, and if someone objects to the “tone” of one’s remarks, in the interests of civility, moderation can often enhance a discussion. Whatever.

But Byrnes’ objections go further. He is claiming that atheists are “unreasonable” and “inflexible” suggesting that their views are held dogmatically and that their arguments are flawed. He would rather see a “gentle and accommodating agnosticism”.

So what is his argument?

Much of the current noisy argument comes down to the status of knowledge, and specifically what is commonly deemed as the unbridgeable gulf between “revealed” knowledge and that of science – which Dawkins’s ally Daniel Dennett once told me was the “only game in town” when it came to “facts, and the explanation of facts”.

But this is an overly narrow view. Religion consists of far more than “revealed” truths, which are, in any case, obviously of a different kind from those derived from theoretical and empirical study. More importantly, this is to claim far too much for that corpus of conjecture we call human knowledge. As a student, I read David Hume’s argument that although we may believe the sun will rise tomorrow, we cannot know it. For me, it was as profound and as revelatory as any religious experience, and as convincing as any scientific proof.

What is his basis for claiming revelation is a form of “knowledge” or “truth”? He never says. Instead he tries to cast doubt on the methods of induction in science.

His entire argument rests on a sophomoric understanding of the work of David Hume, the 18th Century empiricist.

Hume famously argued that our ability to make inductive inferences about the world rests on the assumption that nature is uniform and the future will resemble the past. But this assumption can’t be justified. Using past experience to justify belief in the future uniformity of nature will assume the very principle we want to prove. Furthermore, information about the interaction of physical objects goes beyond what is immediately perceived. We see the “constant conjunction” of two events—morning arriving and the sun coming up, or one billiard ball striking another followed by the movement of the ball. The events repeatedly happen at roughly the same time and in a particular order. But because we cannot directly observe all the details of the causal story that explains why the sun rises in the morning, we can’t really know it. Our belief that the sun will rise tomorrow rests on a kind of habit or custom, according to Hume.

Even if one accepts Hume’s view of induction, it still does not warrant putting science and religion on the same epistemic footing. Science is able to confirm the constant conjunction of events that are hypothesized to be related even if we don’t know the entire causal story of how they are related. By contrast, religion can claim no controlled observations of constantly conjoined events. Its so-called revelations are episodic, subjective, and enjoy nothing like the constant reinforcement of our ordinary beliefs about the causal relationships between events.

Moreover, Hume’s skepticism about induction is no longer warranted. The fact that we cannot directly experience causal connections, does not entail that we cannot know of their existence. This sort of radical empiricism was rejected by most philosophers many years ago. Furthermore, in the 18th Century, Hume had little knowledge of the micro-physical structure of reality which is inaccessible to the naked eye. Today, we have a much more thorough understanding of the causal mechanisms that explain ordinary events.

Can we be certain that nature is uniform and that the future will be sufficiently like the past to warrant belief in causal laws? No. For all we know, some unknown factor might disrupt the world as we know it and transform the laws that govern nature. But our confidence that reality is relatively stable is reinforced constantly every moment of the day.

We can’t be certain about any empirical claim but scientists and most philosophers long ago gave up the idea that knowledge claims are warranted only if they can be known with certainty. We do quite well with the trial and error, probabilistic reasoning that science employs.

There are still philosophical debates about the precise nature of causation and inductive inference but these debates don’t give rise to global skepticism about science. And they certainly give us no reason to think there is some special domain of religious “truth”.

Byrnes ruminations are not based on tolerance but on special pleading for religious claims and ignorance regarding epistemology.


book-section-book-cover2 Dwight Furrow is Professor of Philosophy at San Diego Mesa College and the author of Reviving the Left: The Need to Restore Liberal Values in America

For political commentary by Dwight Furrow visit: www.revivingliberalism.com


Not Selfish by Nature April 1, 2009

Posted by Nina Rosenstand in Ethics, Nina Rosenstand's Posts, Science.
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Compelling evidence of a fundamentally less-than-totally-selfish human nature have surfaced within the last few years, for the first time providing nor just intuitive, anecdotal, logical or speculative arguments against psychological egoism, but neurological indicators that humans simply aren’t as selfish as was assumed by so many people (including some prominent philosophers) in the last few centuries. The fact that we are capable of caring about each other, capable of empathy, is fast becoming one of the human traits some thinkers focus on as an antidote to cynicism. So it is all the more fascinating to read that we have apparently had this capability for a long time: The 530,000 year old skull of a child found in Spain in 2001 has now been reconstructed, and it turns out it must have been a “special needs” child. The skull indicates a debilitating condition resulting in pressure on the brain. So half a million years ago a family/mother decided (contrary to what researchers had assumed would happen) that this child would not be killed, abandoned, or “exposed” (to the elements or wild animals) because of a disability. The child was cared for until its death between the age of 6 and 12. So what can we make out of that?

                So perhaps caring for the child made the parents feel good? Wouldn’t that be a selfish feeling, then? No. Up front, let’s dispense with the notion that if you care about someone because it makes you feel good, then you’re selfish. That is nonsense. If you were selfish, caring for someone and seeing them prosper wouldn’t make you feel good. Simple as that.

Back to the issue of compassion: For one thing, it may be questionable whether we can conclude, with the scientists, that humans in general cared for helpless individuals, based on one fossil. But fossils are rare, and we may not get any other corroborating evidence, so we have to make do with what we’ve got, and make tentative conclusions based on that.

On the other hand, it isn’t completely unheard of even among (other) primates such as the apes who at least once in a while may choose to care for a disabled infant, for a while. But what makes this child’s skull particularly interesting is that the child lived for at least 6 years, being cared for by others. And those others, like the child, weren’t yet what we today would call human—they were Homo heidelbergensis, a group not directly related to us at all, except for having common ancestors going further back, to Homo ergaster. (Some charts show us being descendants of Homo heidelbergensis, but it wouldn’t be the ones living in Spain—it would be another branch of the family still hanging out in Africa.) Homo heidelbergensis, having evolved in Africa themselves, lived in what later became Europe about 800,000 years ago, and may have been the ancestors of the Neandertals—but not us, Homo Sapiens. Our ancestors—the ancestors of all living humans, everywhere, according to the “Out of Africa” theory—didn’t leave Africa until about 100,000 years ago. So not only do we have an ancient hominid population who showed compassion for a disabled individual of their own—it was a different hominid population altogether! One that is now gone from this earth, they and their offspring. And we already have evidence of their (likely) descendants, the Neandertals, showing compassion for their disabled individuals.

                The moral of the story? The capacity for compassion among humans began before we were human. Incidentally there is one philosopher who speculated that this might be the case: Jean-Jacques Rousseau. He had no idea that a theory of evolution would be proposed some 80 years after his death, but he did operate with a concept of cultural progression where humans evolve, culturally, from fundamentally good, compassionate beings to the self-centered “war-of-every-man-against-every-man” creature that Hobbes warned us lurks inside everyone of us. Another philosopher who speculated that we have an emotional caring instinct that is more fundamental than our selfishness was of course David Hume. Does that mean that all the old theories about human fundamental aggression and selfishness are completely wrong? Probably not entirely. We are still the creatures who have developed formidable weapons, and who excel in forming groups with an “us-vs.-them” mentality. But the aggressive stance toward “them” also allowed us to care for those we consider “us.” So we were probably not the aggressive, selfish, magnificent beast that fascinated some thinkers and writers. And we were probably not its counterpart, either—shy, meek little potential victims of grim predators that had to band together and care for each other. These notions have acquired political overtones over the years, and they’re both inadequate, historically and politically. My hunch is that the parents of that disabled child, probably loving their child, eons ago, were also formidable hunters with very little patience for strangers on their hunting grounds. Compassion, yes—for one’s own. Maybe not for the stranger. My guess is that’s probably a truly human Homo sapiens invention.

World-Destroying Finger Pricks March 18, 2009

Posted by Dwight Furrow in Current Events, Dwight Furrow's Posts, Ethics, Philosophy.
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This  was a minor but quite disturbing development last week that goes to the heart of why our political system does not work.

When President Obama submitted a budget that predicted passage of a revenue-raising climate change bill, hopes rose that Congress could successfully rein in carbon emissions this year.

But a cap-and-trade climate bill is almost certain to be filibustered by Republicans — and in a letter delivered to the Senate Budget Committee yesterday, eight Democratic senators joined 25 Republicans to defend the GOP’s right to set a 60-vote margin for passing emissions limits.
“We oppose using the budget process to expedite passage of climate legislation,” the senators, including eight centrist Democrats, wrote in their missive.

Using the procedure of budget reconciliation, which would allow a climate change measure to become law with 50 votes while preventing filibusters, “would circumvent normal Senate practice and would be inconsistent with the administration’s goals of bipartisanship, cooperation, and openness,” the 33 senators wrote.

Why is this a big deal? I can guarantee these Senators weren’t worried about Senate rules.

A cap-and-trade system of regulating greenhouse gases will increase the price of coal-generated electricity, hitting the South and Midwest especially hard.

The eight Democratic Senators who signed this letter were from states that generate most of their electricity from coal or have significant coal-mining industries. (The signees were Robert Byrd (WV), Blanche Lincoln (AR), Ben Nelson (NE), Evan Bayh (IN), Mark Pryor (AR), Bob Casey (PA), Carl Levin (MI), and Mary Landrieu (LA).)

The fact that greenhouse gases from burning coal (among other fossil fuels) threatens human life on this planet seems not to have been a main consideration.

David Hume famously said “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” Hume meant that it was the passions, not reason, that drove us to care about others.

Apparently these Senators prefer the destruction of the whole world to inconveniencing their main campaign donors. (It would of course be irrational to piss off campaign donors.) For Republicans and centrist Democrats, politics is not about taking responsibility for the welfare of the country, although they never hesitate to wave the flag. Its about protecting their little piece of turf.

Events like this convince me that our biggest problem is a deficit of care.