Monthly Archives: February 2013
If you have ever fished before, you will know what it looks like (though not how it feels) to be a fish out of water, flopping around helplessly as you drown in the air. It’s one thing that convinced me that fishing is as cruel as hunting, and calling it a sport needlessly turns human beings into callous killers who are unresponsive to the despair of other creatures with which they share the planet. The fact that we can think this way, even if many do not, and hold ourselves responsible for the misery we may cause by our decisions, is a vital aspect of what it means to be human. Yes, I know, other animals can feel distress at the misery of their fellows, and domesticated pets, like dogs, seem to have a second sense to catch the moods and miseries of their masters. But only humans, so far as I know, can think that causing such misery is wrong, something that, if avoidable, ought to be avoided.
As I think about these things the farther and farther I get away from the determinism that seems to underlie many of the theories of human action that seem to be favoured by those who take science as foundational for our understanding of the human, and the more I feel like a fish out of water myself, floundering around with ideas that are foreign to me, and that I find increasingly rebarbative and unintelligible. I also feel that the apparently self-contradictory attempt to empty of significance all the words that refer to our ability to make decisions and in some sense to be the originators of our actions, despite the fact that in explaining this we inevitably use words that are redolent with the same ideas of agency and decision, really represents a sort of floundering of its own. Determinists like Sam Harris think that if we were to “give up” the notion of “free will” and instead think of what we normally think of as actions, originating with us, as merely occurrences in the chain of cause and effect, we would “recognise” a number of things, but especially that the language of responsibility, praise and blame, punishment and reward, is based on nothing more than illusion, and that, by “giving up” these illusions we will, in the end, become more humane, and “create” kinder societies, since we will “see” that people are not really responsible for what they do, for either the “good” or the “bad” things that they do, and that “recognising” this will lead us to “treat” them with more gentleness and consideration.
At the same time, though, we think that “freedom” is a great “value”, that people should be left to make “decisions” about their own lives, that they should not be limited and circumscribed by laws, unless such laws are “designed” merely to make sure that when people are making “decisions” they do not limit the ability of others to do the same. But yet the making of “laws” for “purposes” which we can “entertain”, and thus “control”, by mechanisms “designed” to channel people’s energy in “socially approved” directions, implies the ability to make decisions and to originate acts which the deterministic theory itself seems to deny. Indeed, when you stop to think about it for a moment or two, the whole business of “theory construction” in this connexion and its consequent deployment in “arguments” “designed” to “convince” others by “reasons” is in fact directly contrary to the theory itself, which thus undermines itself. Because there can be no reasons, as such, in such a deterministic world, but simply causes, and if we cannot choose, because choice implies that we are somehow freely able to do so, we cannot really give reasons either, for what are reasons, if they are not meant to provide justification – and not merely a causal theory of why one behaviour occurred instead of another – why one course of action would be preferable to another?
Now, mind you, I don’t know how to argue for the kind of freedom which seems to underlie our language, and perhaps, in the end, the determinists are right, and language is no more than a system of causal triggers that prompt people (well, members of the species H. sapiens sapiens) to respond in certain predictable ways. I do not even know whether we have to have incompatibilist and not merely compatibilist free will, though I tend to agree with Derek Parfit that only the latter is necessary for morality (see On What Matters, vol I, 258-263). (I want to stress, lest I be misunderstood in what follows, that, when I speak of determinism, I am speaking of the kind of determinism that does not even provide room for compatibilist free will or free choice, something that, in fact, simply makes no sense to me.) But when an individual instance of this species “argues” that this is all that there is — that is, that “we” are deterministic systems through and through, merely skin bags of molecules that are in some sense higher level billiard balls in complicated causal interaction with their environment — no “reasons” can be thought to be being “given” for “believing” that the world is composed in such and such a manner. On this bare bones determinism all that the language of “argument” can contain are stimulus patterns “designed” to evoke particular responses.
This Post is now available in Polish translation at Racjonalista. Thanks once again to Malgorzata.
In an op-ed in the National Post this morning George Jonas seems to be desperately confused as well as confusing. People have a right to say stupid things, he tells us the in title of the piece, and then he spends 889 words telling us why Douglas Murray is wrong, and does not really stand in the tradition of his Enlightenment ancestors — the Scottish one’s, of course. Jonas is responding to Murray’s article in the Spectator in which Murray takes the press to task for not supporting one of its own, and he ends with this:
However, Murray reports “a rare piece of good news in Europe. Lars Hedegaard is … going to sue the Swedish media for libel. I hope — along with all decent people who believe the media should be more than the warm-up and PR wing of the jihad — that he takes them to the cleaners.”
Trouble is, the quoted words are not to be found in Murray’s Spectator article, which is the one Jonas highlights. So, Jonas’ parting shot –
There’s no doubt that lawsuits aren’t in a class with assassination attempts, and libel-chill is preferable to murder. Still, liberty’s ideal is a free press. That’s what constitutions guarantee, with a fair press just a hopeful consequence. I’m afraid people turn to libel suits when they lose hope in freedom.
– seems not to be about anything at all. But the words do come in an article that Douglas Murray wrote for the Gatestone Institute, entitled “Blaming the Victim” (which Jonas fails to link — perhaps the Gatestone Institute is beyond the pale). But the Spectator article is all about blaming the victim too, though in the Spectator Murray doesn’t pass on the “good news” of Lars Hedegaard’s decision to sue the Swedish press. That, Jonas says with some acerbity, is what people do when they lose hope in freedom.
I have been struggling with Brian Leiter’s idea of religious toleration, and the quest for a reason for religious toleration in particular. I was finding it hard to put a finger on what seemed to me wrong about it. What is so important about religious toleration, in particular? Indeed, are there not situations in which we ought not to be tolerant of religion and religious practice? Leiter worries about the French idea of laïcité, which essentially refers to the preservation of a secular public sphere, or, as Leiter says:
to preserve the public sphere as a secular one in which persons interact as equal citizens without regard to sectarian identities, religious or ethnic. [Why Tolerate Religion? 104]
Thus, in support of the ideal of laïcité, the French government has banned the wearing of the burqa, hijab and other religiously identifying dress in public. However, says Leiter, given the French antipathy towards Muslims,
… it is tempting to think of this law as a surreptitious assault on the basic protections of religious toleration. [104-5]
This seems to me simply to be wrong. Even if there were the antipathy mentioned, why would removing identifying marks of the religious in public space increase it? Indeed, if people are not wearing identifying marks, it is arguably harder to express antipathy towards someone because of their religious affiliation. If it is racial antipathy, that is, of course, another thing. But there is no reason why people should not feel threatened by a religion which, in its expression elsewhere, and even locally, does not seem compatible with political values that are as precious to the French as the value of laïcité.
Here is where I felt the need to go back and consider the origins of the modern idea of toleration, and how this relates to religious belief. I began by reading John Locke’s A Letter Concerning Toleration (which is accessible in full here). It is a long time since I had read it, and I was surprised to find how deeply theological it was. Basically, Locke speaks of religious toleration in a theological context, first of all as an aspect of Christianity itself, and then, by separating individual interest into this-worldly and other-worldly considerations. Thus, he begins by speaking about Christian intolerance as contrary to the values of Christianity itself:
For whatsoever some people boast of the antiquity of places and names, or of the pomp of their outward worship; others, of the reformation of their discipline; all, of the orthodoxy of their faith — for everyone is orthodox to himself — these things, and all others of this nature, are much rather marks of men striving for power and empire over one another than of the Church of Christ.
In other words, Christianity itself mandates tolerance, and anything else is simply a play for power and influence. Then he points out that (again according to Christianity) there is only value in belief when it is freely adopted, and not under compulsion. Therefore, the use of fire and sword to force people to profess belief is of little value in achieving people’s salvation. Besides, as he points out from time to time, each believer is orthodox to himself, and it is pointless to try to determine by force what doctrines or beliefs are to be considered orthodox. Well, just so long as people adopt their own orthodoxy, whatever that is. For the one category of people who cannot be tolerated in the commonwealth are atheists. As Locke says so bluntly:
Lastly, those are not at all to be tolerated who deny the being of a God. Promises, covenants, and oaths, which are the bonds of human society, can have no hold upon an atheist. The taking away of God, though but even in thought, dissolves all; besides also, those that by their atheism undermine and destroy all religion, can have no pretence of religion whereupon to challenge the privilege of a toleration.
A view expressed, not that long ago, by the elder President Bush, who, remarkably, seemed to be of the same opinion. The assumption lying behind this is that there is a particular reason for tolerating religion, and those who deny religion obviously do not come within the scope of that reason.
Those who have followed my developing thought (such as it is) over at choiceindying.com will be aware that I have recently been increasingly concerned by what is generally called “scientism,” the view that knowledge itself is summed up in the sciences, and that to know the truth about something is to provide a scientific understanding of that thing. This, it seems to me, is a distortion of what is meant by knowledge and truth, and, as an increasingly powerful position being adopted by some new atheists, is in danger of calling atheism itself into question for many who otherwise would count themselves as such.
If you look at The Oxford Companion to Philosophy you will find “scientism” characterised in this way:
scientism. ‘Scientism’ is a term of abuse. Therefore, perhaps inevitably, there is no one simple characterization of the views of those who are thought to be identified as prone to it. In philosophy, a commitment to one or more of the following lays one open to the charge of scientism.
(a) The sciences are more important than the arts for an understanding of the world in which we live, or, even, all we need to understand it.
(b) Only a scientific methodology is intellectually acceptable. Therefore, if the arts are to be a genuine part of human knowledge they must adopt it.
(c) Philosophical problems are scientific problems and should only be dealt with as such.
A successful accusation of scientism usually relies upon a restrictive conception of the sciences and an optimistic conception of the arts as hitherto practised. Nobody espouses scientism; it is just detected in the writings of others. Among the accused are P. M. and P. S. Churchland, W. V. Quine, and *Logical Positivism. p.j.p.n. [Paul Noordhof]
T. Sorell, Scientism (London, 1991).
As with so many pejorative terms, the label “Scientism” has been happily adopted by those who hold this understanding of the relationship between science and human knowledge, and who argue strenuously for the omnicompetence of science, and the exclusion from the realm of knowledge all those areas of human experience (and inquiry) which do not observe the canons of scientific confirmation.
This view has been defended by Jerry Coyne, who, in a response to Philip Kitcher’s New Republic article, “The Trouble with Scientism,” has written:
Though ultimately all phenomena, including human social interactions, come down to the motions of molecules, we’ll never be able to understand our society using the tools of physics alone. Things as complicated as human society (nay, any society) are higher-order, emergent properties that often demand their own methods. (That does not, however, mean that those higher-order properties are not absolutely consistent with the laws of physics. The claim of inconsistency is the purview of religion and fuzzy thinking.
In other words, even if it cannot be shown that other domains of knowledge necessarily employ the methods of science, the fact that the underlying structure of reality is exhaustively described by the laws of physics, suggests that (in some sense as yet undefined) all other knowledge is not only consistent with the laws of physics, but can in principle be reduced to those laws. The reference to ”religion and fuzzy thinking” is, I am afraid, an unsubstantiated claim that appeals more to emotion than it does to reason.
Of course, all this is merely implied by what Jerry says in the words quoted. More substantively, he has this to say:
But the main problem with Kitcher’s piece, I think, is that he contrasts science with fields that use the same methods of science: reason, observation, and doubt. If you look at his examples of where scholars have produced increased understanding and progress, it is in disciplines like history, economics, ethnography, and archaeology—fields that rely on the same “ways of knowing” as does science.
Notice those words: “fields that use the same methods of science: reason, observation, and doubt.” This is a bit like writing a blank cheque, even when no bank would be foolish enough to cash it. What Jerry is doing is, by defining science as widely as possible, as a process of inquiry by means of observation, reason, and (presumably) systematic doubt, trying to capture within the compass of science, every worthwhile type of inquiry imaginable, thus by default including within science domains of knowledge which, by any reasonable standard, are now reasonably thought to stand outside of science itself.
Brian Leiter’s Why Tolerate Religion? has been out now for some weeks, and I am just getting around to reading it. One of the advantages of the book is that it does not presume a lot of prior acquaintance with the philosophical and legal traditions which underlie the concept of tolerance, and tolerance of religion in particular. Basing himself largely on the deontological views of John Rawls, and the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill, Leiter attempts to find an answer to the question: Why religion in particular? As he puts it later in the book
the question is whether there is any special reason to tolerate beliefs whose distinctive character is defined by the categoricity of its demands conjoined with its insulation from evidence. [60-61]
– which is how Leiter distinguishes religion from other possible types of communal belief systems. In the course of arguing his case Leiter concludes, I think, since I have not yet reached the end of the book — I am writing this because, as I was reading, something occurred to me that I think is a damaging lacuna in Leiter’s argument — that not only religion, but any kind of conscientious world-view, should be tolerated (with certain side-constraints).
As I have been reading along, as I said, I have been noticing something missing, namely, the origin of the idea of religious tolerance in the religious wars of 16th and 17th century Europe. It came to seem absurd, in time, that Europeans should go on killing each other in order to restore the unity of the Western Christian Church (the Eastern Church had separated from its Western sibling in 1054), which was then in the process of irrevocably breaking down. Hobbes’ idea of a war of all against all is conceived of against the backdrop of these internecine struggles which had claimed so many European lives, and it is this which prompted his vision of human life in its natural state (which he thought was being revealed in the wars of religion) as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short,” and its resolution in the formation of Leviathan, a power which summed up, in itself, the whole power of a people, in terms of each one taken individually.
Rather than simply delete this post, I merely turn it into a brief “Thank you!” to those who have been so welcoming.
Let’s get it straight to start with. Without factual information, some of it provided by science, ethics could not get off the ground. But factual information is not enough, despite the continuing attempts by scientists or science-minded amateurs to suggest that science is sufficient to accomplish what moral philosophers have been unable to accomplish — namely, a more completely adequate understanding of the moral life. Michael Shermer, who already has one book to his credit regarding this issue, is now planning another, and if his essay over at Rationally Speaking is anything to go by, this next foray into the world of philosophy is going to be, if anything, less satisfactory than the first. At least it shows a lamentable failure to learn about moral philosophy before undertaking the journey.
Why Shermer should think that he can really provide a grounding for morality without studying what the best of the philosophical tradition has had to say about morality is simply beyond me. The overweening hubris involved is a bit like military commanders who forget that every battle has flanks around which enemies can move unmolested, unless they are protected in advance so as to protect what the Germans call the Schwerpunkt of the battle. Shermer begins by dismissing moral philosophy with disarming words about “the Is-Ought Fallacy of Science and Morality.” To start by dismissing as irrelevant the fundamental distinction between science and morality, without any effort to learn what the so-called “fallacy” of the movement from “is” to “ought” consists in, is a recipe for aporia or confusion which must dog the remaining steps that he must then undertake. It is fine to pass an enemy’s strong points, if you intend to come back and neutralise their power, or if you can blockade them, so that they wither on the vine, but to leave an enemy at your back who is self-sustaining is simply a fallacious strategy, and will render all that you do otiose.