Archive for July, 2011

Philosophy News | The Gettier Problem: A Study

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Philosophy News | The Gettier Problem: A Study.

I haven’t read this yet, but my take on “Gettier” problems is that they break on the issue of “justified” rather than “belief”. (And further that the break is so obvious that the seriousness with which they are discussed undermines my respect for the discipline of academic philosophy.) Basically, that the justification required to qualify a belief as knowledge is a lot stronger than that required to protect the believer from censure as intellectually irresponsible. Will read further and maybe comment more later. (more…)

Philosophy News | My Philosopher Can Beat Up Your Computer Scientist

Wednesday, July 27th, 2011

Philosophy News | My Philosopher Can Beat Up Your Computer Scientist.

Philosophy’s perceived market disrespect (inferiority complex ?) is a reaction to the fact that there is no philosophy credential which predicts any useful skill any more effectively than any other arts degree. This is not to deny that a degree in philosophy may be correlated with a slightly above average skill level in literacy and basic reasoning, but I doubt that correlation is any stronger than for any other subject.  And more importantly, the absence of explicit training in philosophy not a negative indicator.  What a CS or Nursing degree has over one in philosophy is that it certifies a required minimum level of knowledge for certain kinds of employment (and if that minimum includes some exposure to the liberal arts then it should of course be included). The difference between philosophy and subjects like literature, art history, or pure mathematics seems to be mostly in the frequency of posts like this which take the legitimate value of a broad education as endorsement of philosophy in particular as some kind of technology for solving problems – for which I have seen no serious evidence and for which I am disappointed to see philosophers feeling a need.

Faith, Belief, and Unbelief

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

John S Wilkins of ‘Evolving Thoughts’  is exploring some definitions to facilitate a discussion of the philosophical landscape around the issues of atheism, agnosticism, theism, and so on.

One point I took issue with in his first post was his statement that “To be an agnostic is to neither have nor not have a belief” which seems to me to be putting the existence of agnostics in conflict with the “Law of the Excluded Middle”. Although in colloquial speech we may often say “I don’t believe it is raining” with an implication that we actually believe it is not raining, this is a) really just a colloquialism, and b) not the same wording as “I don’t have a belief that  it is raining”.

I expect Wilkins’ further discussions to be interesting and possibly illuminating, but I am actually more interested in understanding what drives people who profess apparently (to me) unfounded beliefs, than in clarifying the language of those who do not.  Commenter Sarah Collett, referring to her own Christian belief (Mormon background)  says “I believe in Christ. . .  . I do not know if Christ is divine. But I choose his philosophy”, and on her own site she expresses some of the challenges of what I would describe as sharing faith without belief.

Clearly, by “believe in Christ” Ms Collett cannot mean “believe that Christ is divine” (since she asserts one and denies the other), and it struck me that to “believe in Christ” in the sense of choosing his philosophy does not even have to imply “believe in the existence of Christ as a real physical being”. He or it could be just a concept, and to “believe in” something or someone is not necessarily to believe the proposition of its existence as a physical entity. “I believe in fairies” may ask to be interpreted that way, but for “I believe in you” to be taken the same way would be . . . well . . . at least redundant. In fact, “I believe in you” is not at all an existence claim regarding the listeners, but rather a statement of trust or faith in their ability or willingness to do something that the speaker values. Perhaps it would be less confusing if such occurrences of “belief in” were all replaced by “faith in” or “trust in”, but that is unlikely to happen and the best we can do is try to be aware of the possibility that they aren’t tied to a physical existence claim.

With such a sense of “believe in” it seems not unreasonable for someone to say something like “I believe in Him who I do not believe exists” (or even “who, I believe, almost certainly does not exist”) – and in fact I suspect that many high-ups in the Anglican communion are pretty close to that position.[Note (added Aug 5 2011): as are also apparently a substantial fraction of the mainstream Dutch Protestant Church]

Those who might mock such a faith are answered quite effectively by Ms Collett’s clarification that what she is relying on Christ (be he person, god, or myth) to provide is not anything physical but just moral guidance from what she assumes to be “his” philosophy.

It seems to me that Ms Collett’s sense of what “belief” means is as valid as any other, and that it is unfair of Wilkins to dismiss her definition as “begging the question” – (isn’t that really what all definitions do to some extent anyway?)

But when she says “I find that belief is only valid if it is accompanied by some choice” and “What does an atheist choose to manifest his belief that there is no God?” I think she is making an error in the other direction.  Actually maybe a couple. There is really no reason why belief in  the truth of  a proposition must always lead to some action, and the lack of any such implied action does not make the proposition irrelevant or meaningless. For example “2+2=4” is a useful proposition which I believe to be true, but it calls on no action from me except when combined with other facts. Similarly “there are no gods” does not force any action upon us, and contrary to Wilkins’ reply to Collett, it does not even require that we refuse to act as if we believed its negation. For example Wilkins says that “if an atheist has a positive belief that there is no god, that will necessarily <emphasis added> affect the way they live (for a start, they may not pay any attention to religiously-based prescriptions about sexuality or submission of women)”, but if I was surrounded by co-tribalists who would stone me and my family to death should I fail to beat my wife for crossing some forbidden line then I probably would beat her if she did accidentally cross it (and I suspect that she might well be thankful for that) even if, in the privacy of my own mind, I had no truck with the mean and foolish beliefs of my community.

In fact it is true that atheism per se provides no moral guidance, but what many who fear it fail to note is that that does not preclude those who lack gods from finding such guidance elsewhere (either from external sources or by consulting their own internal “conscience”).


Bible = AllBooks, Divinely inspired? – Isn’t everything?


Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

Here is how people who consider themselves especially rational behave:

Person A does something which person B finds discomfiting. She says so and (without identifying A) publishes a request that others refrain from such behaviour. Howls of outrage (mostly anonymous blog comments) are directed at the unknown A on the basis of unfounded interpretations of his intent which were not explicitly alleged by B (although she did say that suspicion of such was what motivated her discomfort). More howls of outrage are directed at B, and person C publicly expresses a dismissal of B’s concerns. Person B publicly responds to C by name and objects to the dismissal. More howls of outrage either at the offense of C or at B’s response (for having the indecency to respond publicly to a public rebuke). Famous person D, having had plenty of time to come up with a considered and humane response which might calm the waters, decides instead to post a derisive attack on B’s right to express discomfort by sarcastically comparing it with others’ more serious problems, and when asked for a retraction chooses to elaborate by saying that B had no reason to feel any discomfort at all.  More howls of outrage against all of the participants. Person B expresses offense at D’s attack and responds by withdrawing her approval and support of him until he apologizes – and urges others who agree with her to do likewise. Person E calls this “vile” and a “character assassination” of the wonderful person D and characterizes it as “unskeptical” (apparently confusing skepticism with niceness and not understanding that it is a word which applies to opinions not behaviours). More howls of outrage on all sides, while outside the teacup real stuff is happening.

Personally I have no stake in the social environment of skeptics conventions and no interest in correcting every insane blog commenter, so if it weren’t for Richard Dawkins’ problematic involvement in the issue I probably wouldn’t have given any of it more than a moment’s thought. But when someone of his stature appears to behave badly it prompts more serious consideration of what the proper standards are.

I believe that any person has the right to say what makes them uncomfortable and ask for it to stop, so long as their request does not intrude unduly on others. Others may decide to accede to the request, or not. And it is reasonable to explain one’s response. But it is not reasonable to publicly belittle a reasonably and unintrusively expressed concern, nor is it reasonable to deny the existence of a bad feeling in another person since we have no reliable means of measuring the existence or extent of their distress.

What is “undue” intrusion is of course a judgement call, but
Watson’s original “elevator guy” message was made in her own space and did not intrude at all. Perhaps if it had been made during a conference presentation on another topic it might well have been judged “unduly” intrusive, but what was expressed in that more intrusive way was something different. It was a response to a pattern of responses to the original complaint which, in Watson’s opinion, was sufficiently serious to warrant the intrusion of bringing it up in the way she did. Public debate as to the appropriateness of that intrusion has been extensive and inconclusive but has no bearing on what follows.

Dawkins’ belittlement of the original concern was an inappropriate attack. (It would have been fine to disagree with Watson about the need for responding as she did to the responses, or with some of the allegations of sexism in Meyers’ post and comment stream, but not to do so by attacking Watson’s *original* concern). This was compounded by his subsequent denial of any harm at all (“zero bad”) associated with the expressed discomfort which he had no way of assessing.
So in my opinion there is nothing inappropriate in Watson’s demand for an apology.

Come to think of it, I guess he owes me an apology too – on account of the time I have wasted thinking about all this.

Note Sending Shivers through Canada’s Media

Monday, July 11th, 2011

Rafe Mair has reproduced at Tyee the resignation note of 24 year old CTV bureau chief Kai Nagata who expresses eloquently why working for a TV “News” program is not what he wants to do.

Religions, cults and wacos

Monday, July 11th, 2011

John S Wilkins’ piece on Religions, cults and wacos reproduces a couple of cartoons from Wiley Miller’s Non Sequitur which make an amusing and important point about the various levels of respect accorded to different words for superstitious belief systems.

There is some attempt in the comments following Wilkins’ post to explore more seriously what these terms actually mean, but it is largely immaterial to the main point of the piece.

For the most part, when re-inventing common words as technical terms, be it in mathematics or sociology, we are free to do as we will. There is no problem with differences so long as each party makes clear what their terms mean, and  none can claim to be more “right” than another unless both agree to work within the conventions of some academic body or discipline.  Absent that context, I would opt for traditional usages rather than give in to the ignorant abuses of the 20th century (which would for example have activists rather than cops “flaunting” their authority at a demonstration/riot). In that spirit I would suggest that a “cult” often refers to a practice or belief which is not necessarily exclusive (eg cult of the virgin mary is compatible with cult of john the baptist, cult of the little princess, or cult of the nazarene). A “sect” on the other hand, as suggested by the etymology, should refer to a subset or section of a larger group – and it is far more likely to be exclusive. Typically (at least until the language got butchered – and even then the distinction was more subtle than absolute) we follow, practice, or participate in a cult, but belong to a sect.

Of course the word that really matters is “religion” since that is the one which is most likely to scandalously command special treatment in the law. And actually, for legal purposes, I would be less scandalized by the special treatment of “religions” if they were objectively defined – perhaps even exactly as described in the cartoons.

The Uses of Philosophy

Wednesday, July 6th, 2011

A bit of a coincidence today as John S Wilkins returns to the theme of scientists’ disrespect for philosophy at the same time as Chris Hallquist announces that philosophy is dysfunctional.

I suspect that the root of the problem is in the apparent claims of some philosophers to be finding “truth” – which is hard to credit when they consistently fail to find common ground on just about anything.

The value of reading and doing philosophy to me is not in the “answers” but in (some of) the questions and, to a lesser extent, some of  the arguments. These may not actually solve anything for me but, like poetry or literature they may colour the attitude with which I approach real problems.