Philosophers' Blog Carnival #133

Philosophers' Blog Carnival #133 October 31, 2011

Welcome to the Halloween Philosophers’ Blog Carnival!

(A quick word of apology at the start, in reply to Brian Leiter’s complaint that I spend too much of the carnival on my own posts—below I begin with the discussion of the recent debate on my own blog because I think it would be of interest to philosophers generally since it’s a response to a relatively visible attack on the very legitimacy of how a segment of our discipline operates and because it leads into a couple other formal submissions. I went out of my way to include links to a full 23 blogs who never submitted, in order to give them exposure I thought they deserved. Every philosophically respectable blog submitted received a lengthy quote to expose even readers who do not click through to their ideas. Instead of ever quoting myself, I just gave summary links in two paragraphs full paragraphs and in a sentence, and one gratuitous link at the end.)

On Friday, I followed Verbose Stoic‘s lead, and took evolutionary biologist Jerry Coyne to task for presuming to denounce (based on his reading a mere synopsis of the nature of the project) the funding of a philosophy research project studying the contemporary relevance of Ockham’s theory of foreknowledge. Many philosophy-hating commenters wrote in and Coyne wrote a follow up attack on the project, dismissing my contention that in philosophy sometimes it can be valuable to think through the conceptual implications of non-existent beings. He also reaffirmed his confidence in his own abilities to adequately tell true philosophy from pseudo-philosophy/theology from synopses. In reply to him, I defended both the autonomy of the discipline of philosophy and the potential value in philosophy of thinking conceptually about certain kinds of non-existent beings (like an all-knowing God). Verbose Stoic also has a lengthy counter-reply. Patrick Mefford has a shorter one.

The other charge I heard a lot in all the negative comments I was receiving was that philosophy makes no progress towards greater knowledge and is irrelevant to anyone but philosophers. Gavagai! explores in detail these questions about whether philosophy makes “progress”, first by exploring ways in which philosophical knowledge has clearly advanced, and then by listing some of the vital uses to which it has been put. The whole piece is very good and worth reading. Here’s part of the section on the uses of philosophy beyond the ivory tower:

I already posted on the contribution philosophy has had throughout society here. Philosophy is indispensable for society. Our legal system depend on it. Many jurisprudential journals liberally cite works from philosophers. Philosophy has heavily shaped the legal system in the US and in Europe and also in international law (especially human rights law). Questions of moral responsibility, free will, causation, rights, personhood, etc play vital roles in our legal system.

The abortion and euthenasia debates depend heavily on questions of personal identity. One of the most important decisions in 20th US history was Roe v. Wade. The courts were persuaded to rule as they did largely due to the influence of the metaphysician Judith Jarvis Thomson’s famous paper in defense of abortion (among other philosophical arguments made).

Another far more recent example is the Kitzmiller v. Dover decision. This decision by the Pennsylvanian court struck down the Dover Pennsylvania Area School District’s proposal to teach Intelligent Design in its high school. Justice John E. Jones III, in his opinion of the decision argued that the crucial testimonies from philosophers of science Christopher Pennock and Barbara Forrest was decisive in the decision showing that ID was 1. not science, 2. a disguised version of Creationism which has already been ruled by previous supreme court decisions to be unconstitutional when taught in science classes 3. that the motives of the ID proponents are to proselytize. The decision prohibited the teaching of ID in high school science classes and set a huge precedent for the rest of the country.
That’s just two examples of some of the most important decisions in the US that have been crucially influenced by philosophical considerations but the examples can be multiplied.
Outside of law, we have the familiar examples I already talked about and also given in Stanley’s talk with logic. The electronic and computer revolution could not have occurred but for developments in logic, a branch of philosophy. Also take decision theory which have influence many areas of the sciences such as economics, psychology and even AI.

And for a real life example of a philosopher wading into real life matters and having a real life effect, here is aBBC interview with Newcastle University’s Thom Brooks on why the UK’s citizenship test is out of date.Brooks sums up his key points and their nearly immediate impact:

1. The citizenship test must be updated and revised. There are questions about departments that no longer exist, programmes that no longer run, and demographic figures about 10 years out of date.

2. The citizenship test should include new questions, especially on British history. The problems with the test are not merely out of date answers, but the range of questions on offer.

First, the Prime Minister confirmed — within two hours of my interview’s broadcast — that the Life in the UK citizenship test will be updated and it will include questions on British history.

Secondly, I see that on 14th October the writer Ian Jack also argues for the inclusion of British history and culture (in his essay “Sadly I don’t know enough about life in Britain to be allowed to remain here”).

Brooks is not the only philosopher usefully wading into the public sphere either.

Thinking about the “vagueness” charge leveled against Occupy Wall Street, Benjamin S. Nelson, at Talking Philosophy explores virtues that listeners need to have before they can go blame communicators for failing to express themselves adequately. Below are brief characterizations of these virtues which the post explains in detail:

#1. FIDELITY. The first rule is, don’t intentionally misrepresent the contents of what has been said.

#2. CANDOR. The listener also has the duty to not misrepresent their own level of engagement in the conversation.

#3. INTEGRITY. Provided that the listener is, in fact, engaged, he/she should be ready to make clear what type of conversation they are interested in having (i.e., the rules of their language-game).

#4. HUMILITY. If you can’t engage in the conversation in a way you find satisfying, then consider either deferring to someone who can, or disengage with the conversation entirely.

#5. DIGNITY. Both the listener and speaker should treat their interlocutor as being worthy of consideration, and expect to be treated in the same way.

(I have had a lot to say, myself, about effective and open-minded communication of late, in posts such as Who Are You Calling Stupid?)

And, back to the subject of God, Maryann Spikes elaborates a theistic answer to the Euthyphro dilemma. She posits that God’s own nature is the intrinsic good according to which God’s will must be determined if it is to be good in a non-arbitrary way. She endorses William Lane Craig’s view that atheists calling the God of the Old Testament a Moral Monster have no way to know that he is such a thing if there is no objective good since an atheistic ontology supposedly lacks a sufficiently objective good:

Simply put, the Euthyphro Dilemma (from Socrates’ dialogue with Euthyphro) asks whether the good isdependent on God’s commands (a made up, and so fictional, arbitrary good), or whether it is independent of God’s commands, because God’s commands depend onthe good (so, no need for a God to ground it—it is higher than God’s commands—and so to what in reality does it correspond?).  This was resolved a long time ago by Aquinas, who explained that God commands in accordance with his good nature—he is that good being to which his commands correspond.  Critics then ask “But what dictates God’s nature?”—If not God, then God is not omnipotent.  If God, then the good is arbitrary.  The answer is that 1) God exists necessarily, as do all his attributes, so his nature, including goodness, is not dictated (he is the Uncaused Cause and his essence and existence are identical), though he is capable of choice, of creation and so forth, and, 2) Aquinas explains that “‘To be able to sin is to be able to fall short in action, which is repugnant to the omnipotence of God. Therefore it is that God cannot sin, because of His omnipotence.’


One may be left wondering, “But why is God’s nature good?  Which theory in Ethics best describes God’s nature—egoism, utilitarianism, the categorical imperative, what? And if we can explain that using good reasons, don’t we have an account of the good that is independent of God?” First, whatever theory we come up with (epistemology), we must always ask “Is this true?  Does this describe something in reality?” (ontology).  Second, I think one reason the Arbitrariness objection persists is that no one (to my knowledge—correct me if I am wrong) ever attempts to actually answer “Which theory in Ethics best describes God’s nature?” (understandably to avoid losing ground when debating ontology by slipping into epistemology). However, to that end:  This is my epistemology (the first half is on the Golden Rule, the second half refers to ontology).  This is my ontology (though Aquinas said it first, I only make reference to Hume, and I part ways with Dr. Craig on the is-ought distinction) (here is a brief discussionwith Matt Flannagan on my position).  This longer postsums it up and refers back to other posts.  The first objection I hear is that the Golden Rule is found in every major religion and culture and so is not dependent on God. Again—we agree we can be good without believing in God.  But if there is no God, no theory in Ethics can be true or correspond to anything in reality, not even the Golden Rule.  If you say it is true and corresponds when we do fulfill the Golden Rule, then you are saying it is only ever momentarily true—so what makes it the way we all ought to be, all of the time?  There must be a being ‘to’ which it is true all of the time in order for it to be true ‘for’ everyone.

I, for one, am convinced atheists can have a perfectly fine naturalistic ontology of objective goodness, which allows us to determine objective degrees of goodness, and which can account for how morality in specificrealizes objective goods for us (even while leaving room for objectively valid variations among values across cultures and eras) and for why murder (including genocide) is evil. I have even explored how Nietzsche himself rejects the ontological value nihilism and also argued that even were divine command theory to be true, faith-based religions would be irrelevant. Richard Carrier also argues in detail there can be natural facts about goodness and not just our desires.  Additionally, since Maryann brought up the arguments of William Lane Craig on the Moral Monster of the Old Testament, I would be remiss not to mention John Pieret’s take down of Craig’s selective uses of the Bible in his rationalizations of genocide and Deacon Duncan’s examination of the problems with Craig’s notions of objective moral duties.

Tristan Haze of SprachLogik makes a plea for conceptual schemes:

In 1974, Donalad Davidson published a now famous paper entitled ‘On the Very Idea of a Conceptual Scheme’, in which he attacked that idea and exhorted the reader to give it up. One reason Davidson set upon this idea was his evident hunch that it lay behind the pernicious, nebulous doctrine of the relativity of truth. Another, perhaps more fundamental, reason, was his desire to see the world and our understanding of it in terms of a metaphysics of sentences and objects, without employing things like concepts and propositions.

I think the idea of a conceptual scheme a highly serviceable one, and that Davidson’s attack is confused. I believe that the idea of a conceptual scheme has a good deal of unrealized potential in the philosophy of modality and many other areas. My object here is simply to vouchsafe the idea from Davidson’s attack.

In another post, Haze also analyzes Davidson’s Slingshot Argument.

Matt Hoberg at The Consternation of Philosophy takes it to be common knowledge that academic recommendation letters are positive in inflated ways. He argues that this is bad:

Suppose that before sending out a transcript in support of a candidate’s application, the registrar’s office inflated each grade on the transcript by a small amount- changing each A- to an A, for instance. It’s quite obvious that this is deceptive and mendacious, whether one school or every school is inflating transcripts. This means that the “everyone is doing it, so it’s not a problem” defense of inflated letters is nonsense. If inflating transcripts is wrong, so is inflating letters.

Another reason one might give for inflating credentials is that once one school does it, the rest have to do so in order to compete. Again, this has no plausibility in the case of inflating transcripts, so it shouldn’t have any plausibility in the case of inflating letters. Having a need to compete doesn’t license any kind of competitive behavior whatsoever. Surely academics, especially those who rail against competitive economic markets, should be suspicious of this kind of rationalization! There is a constant chorus from academics in favor of transparency in government and corporations; by the same token they should be advocating greater transparency in academia.

One might object that grade inflation, carried out by professors rather than offices of the registrar, is also deceptive according to my argument so far. Indeed, it’s hard to see how it is not. Why would it make a moral difference whether the agent of deception is a professor rather than an administrator?

One law school is actually doing the systematic grade inflating Hoberg hypothesizes about. But they are doing it openly. Does that make it any less mendacious?

Sam Harris’s rejection of free will is focused on how our decisions are made on an unconscious level. Scott Lee argues against him that consciousness plays a role in decisions:

 we can be trained to recondition ourselves using cognitive-behavioral methodologies. A common argument might be: “well, yes, Scott, but the problem is that if we look at the brain using special instrumentation we can see that there are electrical signals being conducted before you even consciously realize you’re making a decision!” Well, yes, but you can also recondition how those electrical signals will respond to the same stimuli in the future by taking conscious action.

The simple truth is that because human beings have the frontal lobes and all physiological evidence points to the frontal lobes having a dynamic and unparalleled, consistent ability to be the command center of our brain this actually means that conscious action drives unconscious action, not the other way around. Even with things like heart rate, breathing, and other seemingly involuntarily responses, some evidence exists that shows it is possible for us to consciously redirect our non-conscious responses by reconditioning.

By the way, though he did not submit to the carnival, Philosophy By The Way also defends explores ways that a will, and not only unconscious automated processes, helps explain our actions with the help of an article by the psychologists John A. Bargh and Tanya L. Chartrand, titled “The Unbearable Automaticity of Being”. And that’s not the only interesting philosophy blog post that was not formally submitted which you should nonetheless consider checking out:

Eric Schwitzgebel has a thorough post exploring the odds of getting into an elite graduate program if you do not have elite pedigree on the undergraduate level. J.R. of Fledgling Philosophy thinks about what all this means for him.

Over the summer James Gray of Ethical Realism explored the Is/Ought gap in two parts. This month he has been diving into Stoicism with the posts: A New Kind of Stoicism: Neo-AristonianismA Second New Kind of Stoicism: Common Sense Stoicism, and My Review of Lawrence Becker’s A New Stoicism.

Kelly Oliver explores the ways that loving pets is pathologized in our culture.

Yeah, Ok But Still claims provocatively that the very word normativity smuggles monism and realism about values into philosophical ethics.

Brains could use your input on what feminism can contribute to philosophy of mind.

Philosoprapt[E]rs note the story of a baby born with only a brain stem which nonetheless can still “recognize” his mother and grandmother. They point out that this could have interesting implications for the philosophy of mind. They could use your input too.

This morning, released the 2011 Leiter Report ranking of the top 10 philosophy departments in the United States.

Andrew Taggart has an extensively detailed discussion of his Philosophical Counseling business (replete with FAQ), in which he explains both how it works and how he charges for it. It makes for a fascinating read. It seems pitched towards potential clients so it also offers a glimpse not only at how one might do and charge for philosophical counseling but how one might advertise it.

As is to be expected, The Philosophy Smoker has had a lot to say about the job market for philosophers this time of year. Today they relayed some good advice for applicants from John Doris.

Being A Woman In Philosophy continues to chronicle the seemingly pervasive stomach-churning sexism in philosophy departments. This month there was the story of a male philosophy graduate student who walked into a room full of male graduate students and one female student, and loudly asked “Who’s read for the gang bang?” Read how the department handled it.

Richard Brown discusses Sid Kouider’s views on Partial Awareness.

Rust Belt Philosophy examines the extent of parents’ rights to decide what their children can learn in school in response to claims that because parents have great responsibilities for their children they have great rights to determine how they are educated in all matters. The occasion of the discussion is the question of sex ed.

The Philosopher’s Eye announces a free virtual issue of Philosophical Quarterly which highlights representative, classic articles decade by decade.

John Searle was interviewed on a podcast discussing themes related to his newest book, Making the Social World: The Structure of Human Civilization.

In one last shameless plug for my own blog, I wrote last week about how Some People Live Better As Short-Lived Football or Boxing Stars Than As Long Lived Philosophers.

Finally, the atheistic philosophy group blog Secular Outpost added Victor StengerRaymond Bradley, and Stephen Law to its impressive roster, all in the last two weeks.

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