Philosophy: June 2004 Archives

New technology reveals much about fetal development, including certain behavior occurring much earlier than previously thought. See also Evangelical Outpost and La Shawn Barber
ht and thanks to Tim Challies for posting on this early enough for me to find it first.

Most of these posts consider the relevance of this issue to abortion. I don't think this will affect in any way the insistence of pro-choice philosophers to list a bunch of properties not yet true of a fetus and to define personhood by them, then saying that moral status only comes when you have those properties. Since the argument is circular, they can just change whatever properties they'll insist are required for personhood, and you'll still come out saying mentally handicapped people aren't persons. You'll just have to say that more of them are. Once you allow circular arguments, you allow people to get away with such moves.

Still, what some of these posts are suggesting is right. 'Murder' is a legal term, and the law as defined by judicial activism allows abortion, so I don't see how abortion can be murder at this point, but it is the killing of a living human being, biologically distinct from its mother even if it's biologically dependent on her (which I think is a moral reason to presume against abortion rather than for the right to abort). I don't see why defining personhood to exclude this kind of human being should lower our estimation of the horror of such a killing.

For you non-philosophers out there, an epistemic obligation is just an obligation related to what you should believe. Evangelical Oupost has been blogging about Pascal's Wager. I posted some comments there, but I wanted to expand on them here. I think Pascal's argument that we should seek to believe in God is a good one.

The objections that I think are most serious are that you can't just choose what to believe and that it would be wrong to believe for purely selfish reasons. Pascal deals with the first objection by saying he's not trying to argue people into belief, since that has to come on its own. (Try to believe that there's a blue elephant sitting right next to you right now, or that the car approaching you really fast isn't there, if you really think belief is voluntary. It isn't.) Still, we can do things that bring us to be able to accept something more or less easily. Pascal is just giving practical reasons to pursue the kinds of practices that will allow belief in God to come on its own. What I'm trying to do in this post is to suggest more of what's behind Pascal's suggestion and to respond to some objections. [Some of this is adapted from a class handout on religious knowledge and arguments against believing in God based on the lack of evidence.]

In line with our discussions of time and time travel, the Gnu brings up a related issue using a fun fantasy role-playing kind of example for a philosophical puzzle about conditional predictive prophecy (i.e. predicting what someone will do and then telling him that A will have already happened if he ends up doing P but B will have already happened if he turns out to do Q). I think this case is interesting in terms of its view of time and of the relation of guaranteed prediction to time, but it also has some relevance to how to evaluate statements about what would be true if someone had chosen to do otherwise than what they actually did. Read the case first at Gnu's blog, then check out my OrangePhilosophy post for my reflections on this.

Bill Poser at Language Log has defended the expression 'more perfect'. His reasoning is that we can speak of things being absolutely perfect, and therefore we already admit of degrees of perfection. So those who say that once something is perfect it can't be more or less so are ignoring the semantics of the word in its regular use. It also impugns the United States Constitution in its use of 'more perfect' to describe our hoped approach toward perfection as a country ("in order to form a more perfect Union"). Christians have a similar notion, expressed in Paul's descriptions of believers growing more and more like Christ, though I don't know if the Greek ever has an expression parallel to this one. The concept is clearly there, though, and that's all you need to show that there's no grammatical insanity or contradiction in such expressions.

This got me thinking about other constructions like this. Grammar police (as distinguished from legitimate grammarians who study grammar as a discipline wihtin linguistics) often fume at 'more pregnant', since one is either pregnant or not pregnant. How can a binary property with only two values admit of degrees? Once you think about it, it shouldn't be hard to consider how almost any supposedly binary term can admit of vagueness. Philosophers like 'flat', since it's got an absolute reading according to which nothing is flat but ideal geometric planes, but all sorts of things are more or less flat without being absolutely flat.

Divine Command Theory

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I've posted a summary of William Alston's recommendations to Divine Command Theorists at Prosblogion. Divine Command Theory explains moral obligations in terms of God's commands. Some charge the view with arbitrariness because God could then have commanded something different (e.g. torturing infants for the fun of it), and then it seems that would have been right. That makes morality seriously arbitrary. Some respond by saying God couldn't have commanded such things, because it's grounded in his good nature. The problem is that you can't define morality in terms of God's commands and then say that God commands it because God is independently good. Well, Alston has a way to say both without circularity or arbitrariness, and my post gives his account of how that can be.

Philosophy Movies

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Jason Brennan, philosophy graduate student at the University of Arizona, has constructed a philosophy movie page. It's TV show episodes that I've mostly used (since you can watch them in a class period), so I don't have much to contribute to his project, but if you have any ideas send them his way. Credit goes to Tyler Cowen at the Volokh Conspiracy for the discovery.

Faulty Logic: Straw Men

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or "Arguements up with which I will not put". The first in a series of posts where I explain why I do not accept certain kinds of arguements as valid.

Consider the following scenario:

Alice holds position A. Bob holds an opposing position, position B. Carol holds position C, which at first glance looks like position A. Bob attacks Alice using attack K, using as its central arguement Proof P. Proof P is a proof against position C.

This is the classic "straw man" setup.

Jeremy and I pretty much share our philosophy of time, the so-called "consistent" theory of time I think it is called. As much as I like this theory and hold it to be true, there is one Achilles' heel to it that I can see. Imagine the following scenario:

In 2002, Alice receives a present from Bob. The present is a watch or some other suitably complex object that must have been man-made. Alice goes back in time to 2001. She meets Bob at some point and gives him the watch.

Dilemma: who made the watch? Notice that the watch only exists from the years 2001-2002. That's spontaneous creation and destruction of matter (which might be OK on quantum scales with elemental particles, but is not so OK large, complex items).

With the "consistent theory" of time, there is no praticular reason why such a scenario could not arise. ("Branching theories" can sweep this kind of problem under the rug along with any other "inconsistencies" that go along with personal timelines trumping world timelines.) My only out seems to be that time travel (in the backwards direction) is not possible.

Any thoughts?

[Edited to swtich names around so that the example makes sense now. Kudos to Jonathan for catching the mistake.]

This entry will spoil one of the major plot elements of the new Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban (and I assume the book too, though I haven't read it), so don't read any further if you don't want to ruin it. It might also ruin my favorite episode of Andromeda and one of the most interesting elements of Babylon 5, but you can avoid that by skipping the last part (when I address other movies and TV shows) if you just want to read what I have to say about Harry Potter and the philosophy of time involved.

Another Roundup

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I've got too many things to blog about again, so here we go.

Jonathan Ichikawa has a nice post at Fake Barn Country about obesity and determinism. I think I agree with everything he says. (It's also at his own blog, but there aren't any comments there yet. If you're interested in looking at all possible comments, it's worth checking both.)

Tiger! Tiger! has a great post on arguments for atheism. The author is an atheist but is acknowleding the insufficiency of the best arguments for atheism. I think I agree with every word up to a certain point. At the end, there's an appeal to a hermeneutic of suspicion as a final method of arguing for atheism, but I wonder if again this is at best at argument for agnosticism, since of course you can apply a hermeneutic of suspicion to the atheistic framework as well (and the atheistic explanations of evidence and experiences pointing to theism) by explaining the atheistic worldview in terms of Romans 1 and the fall of humanity.

Saddam's doctor gives some inside dirt. (via The Limitless)

Stuart Buck puts Brian Leiter in his place with a careful examination of a new poll that shows the overall increasing mistrust of the media from both political parties. Leiter was trying to use it to show that Republicans are stupid for not trusting C-SPAN and that Republicans are simply mad at the press for questioning Bush and no longer groveling to him (as if they ever did). Stuart points out that the poll shows that Democrats are growing distrustful of all the media sources, that the Wall Street Journal is the biggest drop in trustworthiness according to Republicans, that Democrats and Republicans trust both Fox News at nearly statistically equivalent rates to each other, and Democrats are distrusting enough of C-SPAN that they fall prey to his charge of stupidity if Republicans do (not that the charge applies anyway if you understand what they are distrusting, on which see his argument).

Eugene Volokh, as far as I can tell, is a standard pro-choice libertarian, but he's willing to acknowledge that, even though both sides of the abortion debate are guilty of euphemistic and dysphemistic language, the mainstream media really do show a bias toward the euphemisms and dysphemisms of the pro-choice side of the debate.

Donald Sensing at One Hand Clapping notices how Bush's order in 'women and men' sends a strong signal to Muslim practices that marginalize women. It's little things like this that show that Bush really isn't like a lot of Republicans of the past (or at least of the era since the 60s when Republicans were the civil rights party). The Bush Administration consciously thinks about things like this.

Joanne Jacobs connects talking to kids (including to babies), grades/test scores, class, and the racial achievement gap. I don't think everything she says follows from the data, but it's fascinating stuff. My comment there is sufficient to show where I disagree.

Jollyblogger has an excellent post on metaphor and whether Harry Potter can be morally redeeming for a Christian who believes the occult is evil. It's one of the best defenses of popular fiction with elements hyper-fundamentalists would reject that I've seen in a long time, using the examples of Hosea's marriage to a practicing prostitute and Isaiah's walking around "naked" (both commands from God) for an interesting point. He didn't say what I thought was the most obvious thing to say, which is that magic in Harry Potter isn't what's condemned in the Bible, since it's a natural ability of the characters in that fictional world rather than a supernatural ability not of one's own but sought out through practices involving demonic beings.

My list of favorite posts is getting fairly long, and I've decided to remove some of the earlier ones. I still want to have a link to them, so I'm linking to them in this post, and then I'll put this post in the list of favorite posts. That way the list will be shorter, but I'll be able to find them fairly easily without having to search the whole site.

New low for racist left looks at a poster making fun of National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice that I believe to be racist. I explain why in the post, and somehow some slack-jawed yokels found the post, completely ignored my reasoning and everything about me that a quick look around my site would reveal, and proceeded to call me a racist. It was probably the most commented-on entry in the history of my blog, and the comments are quite characteristic of the average response to the kind of point I was making, which is simply to ignore it and change the subject, to charge me with things I never said and don't believe, and to take everything I said in the most uncharitable way possible.

Pacifism links to my fairly comprehensive teaching notes on arguments for and against pacifism, including both philosophical and biblical arguments.

Personhood and Abortion summarizes some of my views on abortion, in response to some statements by Senator Sam Brownback (R, KS). Careful-thinking people realize that personhood is the central issue in the debate (not life or humanity), but personhood by itself itself doesn't decide the issue one way or the other, giving pro-life and pro-choice reasons for thinking that. I offer two considerations that should also come into play, one having to do with violence and the other from the fact that we view very early miscarriages as unfortunate but not as bad as losing a child at a later developmental stage.

Update: I've removed some of the posts originally in this entry and put them into a topical one on apologetics, because they belong there. This one's a little haphazard themewise.

Update 2: I've moved more into Christian Ethics Posts. This post is getting smaller and smaller.

I'm not talking about the political view. I'm talking metaphysics here. For those more familiar with theology than philosophy, I'm talking about the view Arminians assume about free will. I just finished a post at OrangePhilosophy about the basic problem, but I'd like to expand it a little bit here mostly because a lot of people who read this blog aren't as familiar with the basic background readers of OrangePhilosophy will normally have.

The libertarian view can be expressed in two non-equivalent ways (and some people hold one and not the other, in which case I don't know if I would call them libertarians).

1. Your action is free only if you could have done otherwise than you actually did. It has to be genuinely possible for you to have done otherwise. If determinism is true, then (on most views) this condition fails.
2. Your action is free if it's caused by you and not by prior events. This condition by definition rules out freedom if determinism is true.

The first principle is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). Harry Frankfurt famously argued against this principle (I think successfully) but still thinks you can meet condition 2 without having alternative possibilities, so he considers himself a libertarian. He just only adopts the second condition. There are compatibilists who accept 1 and give a complex account of possibility to explain how we can be predetermined and still possibly do otherwise. So not everyone who accepts 1 accepts 2, and not everyone who accepts 2 accepts 1. Still, I think 2 is essential for libertarianism, whether 1 accompanies it or not. Therefore, I'm going to argue against 2, which is commonly called the concept of agent causation.


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I was planning to write something really cool for my 400th entry, but I wasn't planning to get around to it today, and Wink has forced my hand by posting his excellent comment-generating entries (which also conveniently allowed me to forbear from posting anything at all yesterday without a gap in days on the blog), so we're now at post 400. Still, circumstances conspired to generate something even better for entry 400.

Prosblogion, the philosophy of religion blog that I've been talking about, is now up and moving along at full pace. The name comes from Anselm's famous Proslogion, in which he presents the ontological argument for the existence of God. We have two faculty members and three graduate students from various locations involved so far, and Matthew Mullins (as administrator of the site) has some feelers out to some other philosophers of religion to see if they're interested. The level of discussion is already higher than I'd hoped to see within the first few weeks. Our two resident faculty have intitiated with a few great posts on the possibility of more than one perfect being and on the topic of God's sovereignty and human freedom, and I've just posted a sort of solution to the vexing problem facing Leibniz about how he can have contingency and freedom in God while still endorsing the Principle of Sufficient Reason.

Theistic Explanations

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Stuart Buck has an excellent post on appealing to God as an explanation, showing what's wrong with most complaints about such appeals. The argument he's responding to goes as follows.

1. We're trying to explain fact F.
2. Theists appeal to God to explain F.
3. God is a further mystery.
4. Therefore, we still haven't explained F.

or alternatively:

1. We're trying to explain fact F.
2. Theists appeal to God to explain F.
3. We haven't argued for the existence of God.
4. Therefore, we still haven't explained F.

Each argument makes a mistake, but the second one is fallacious in a fairly obvious way, and I don't think that was made clear in Stuart's post. (It just happens that one of Stuart's commenters expressed exactly the second argument as a response to Stuart, which strikes me as simply stupid, not just ignoring his point but making an even dumber mistake than the first argument.)

I just said that I'd continue my discussion of Ochuk in my next post, but as I was writing that next post I decided that it would be better to post this first. I posted this at OrangePhilosophy already, but I figured I'd do a version that explains the philosophical terms more carefully for most of the readers of this blog who aren't as schooled in philosophy as most of the readers of OrangePhilosophy are.

The Rough Woodsman presents a battle between Senator Rick Santorum and Senator Barbara Boxer over partial birth abortion. What struck me as hilarious in this exchange was that it's a classic example of a sorites series from one party with the usual resistance to engage in the discussion from the other.

A sorites series is an argument regarding some vague term, making one step at a time from a reasonable claim to a nonsensical one while only changing the terms a little bit each time. I could put on grain of sand on a table and ask if it's a heap. I could keep adding a grain, asking if it's a heap each time. For a little while, you'd be pretty reluctant to say it's a heap. After many of sand, you would want to say it's a heap, but it's not as if one grain of sand makes the difference. You can do the same thing with baldness and numbers of hairs, with redness and wavelengths of light, or with tallness and centimeters of height. I won't get into the deep philosophical problems raised by vagueness. I just wanted to make the observation that, generally speaking, people will start refusing to answer once you reach the unclear segment of the series. Senator Boxer quite humorously exemplifies this tendency.

Weekend Roundup I

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While I was in New York City for the weekend I was able to do a little writing for posting when I went online with an incredibly slow connection, but I couldn't do much that involved looking around at other blogs and blogging about them, so it's time for another roundup.

Stuart Buck has a helpful post about cable companies and bundling packages. A number of conservatives and libertarians have been arguing that cable companies should charge by the channel, and then people would only pay for what they watch. As much as I'd like not to have to pay for ESPN or any other sports channel, since those will never be watched in my household unless my dad or Sam's dad is around, this sort of proposal doesn't make much sense once you learn a little more about how cable companies work.

Stuart also has a good quote from philosopher C. Stephen Layman that I think shows two things. First, a lot more arguments beg the question than most philosophers will admit. Second, begging the question isn't always all that bad. Many good arguments are question-begging. See my comment on Stuart's post for a little more on why I think this, if you can't see the reasons from Layman's quote.

At Digitus, Finger & Co. we have a striking diversity of feminist responses to Abu Ghraib.

I've got eight windows open now full of other things to read more carefully before deciding if they deserve linkage, but I'm too exhausted now to do more. We've been up late every night, partly from kids not sleeping due to the unfamiliar location, and I have to tutor football players at 8am, so I need sleep. To be continued...



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