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This is the 58th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at bodily accounts of personal identity. As a quick refresher, here is that post's summary of the personal identity views up to this point:

According to the dualist account of personal identity, being the same person is having the same immaterial mind or soul. According to the psychological account of personal identity, being the same person is having a continuation of the same set of psychological properties such as memories, desires, beliefs, personality traits, moral character, and so on. The main contender to those two approaches would be biological accounts, which base personal identity in some biological facts. The most common versions of biological accounts are the bodily account and the brain account. The bodily account takes someone to be the same person just in case they have same continuing body.
The brain view, like the bodily view, looks to biological continuity but not of the entire body, just the brain. One major advantage of this view is that it fits better with the intuition a lot of people have that a brain transplant is not really a brain transplant but a body transplant. If my brain got put into your body, a lot of people would take the resulting person to be me in your body, not you with my brain. A psychological view would give the same result, but psychological views face duplication problems too easily. You can have two candidates for who it is to be me if you continue my memory and personality in two different places, and in certain cases it's too hard to find a decent answer as to why one or the other is a better candidate for being me (such as a Star Trek transporter accident using new matter to reconstruct me, but it creates two of me, and each duplicate is intrinsically just like the other).

It seems at first glance as if the duplication problem doesn't occur quite so easily with the biological views. After all, only one body could plausibly be mine, and only one brain could plausibly be mine. If you put my brain in a new body, the bodily view would say the resulting person is not me, because it's not my original body. If you put my memories and personality in a new brain, the brain view would say it's not me, because it's not my continuing brain.

But John Perry presents a case that makes brain views seem odd too. Suppose I'm dying of brain cancer, and medical technology progresses to the point where you could produce an exact duplicate of my brain except for the brain cancer and then transplant it into my head. They call it brain rejuvenation. I get a new brain, but I seem to continue. A bodily view would be fine with that description of the case, as would a psychological view. But the brain view would say that I die, and someone new but just like me continues on in my body. Many people find such a conclusion at odds with how we would intuitively think about such a case.

A further difficulty for the brain view is that the first-glance sense of no duplication problems turns out to be wrong. You can present duplication problems for the brain. If brain cancer required removing one of my brain hemispheres, but the other one remained healthy, it would seem that I continue to exist in the same body with one-half of my brain. This would be true whether it's the left hemisphere or the right. But what would happen if you transplanted half my brain into a new body while leaving the other in my body? Many would be inclined to say I'm still with the original body, but that would mean the brain view is false, since my continuing body plays a role in determining where I am. But remove that possibility altogether. Just remove both hemispheres and put them both in new bodies. If either brain hemisphere would be me in the absence of the other, and neither body has more right to counting as me than the other, then the duplication problem arises again. Perhaps you could favor the dominant hemisphere, but person with the other hemisphere would certainly wonder why he is less a candidate for being me. He'd wonder why the other guy got to remain married to my wife and remain the father of my children. He'd wonder why all my worldly goods would belong to the other guy. It does seem arbitrary to deny the second hemisphere the rights to something you clearly give to the other, just on the ground that it was the dominant hemisphere when both hemispheres were fully half of me. Each hemisphere would take itself to be me, and it does seem that on the brain view they both have the right to such a claim.

So those are the main views on personal identity. A number of philosophers have been frustrated enough with the difficulties of these views that they have turned to more unconventional approaches to solve the problem. The next post will look at the temporal parts or (four-dimensionalist) solution.

The following passage is sometimes taken to teach that suffering and death aren't always because of the sins of the individuals who suffer or die:

There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, "Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." [Luke 13:1-5, ESV]

This passage does not teach that. You can find a teaching close to that in the book of Job. It isn't quite that, though. What Job teaches is that the immediate cause of suffering need not be the particular sins of the person suffering. It never says that there's any suffering that's not because of the presence of sin in the world, though. This passage in Luke, in particular, strikes me as in fact teaching something in the opposite direction of Job's point.

What is says is that the people who died weren't any worse sinners than the ones who didn't die. This wasn't to illustrate they were innocent and suffered anyway. Jesus' point is for his hearers to repent so that too won't perish, as if the reason for the perishing was indeed because of sin but that many of the people hearing his message were simply spared that out of God's mercy, at least so far, but they should not presume upon that mercy continuing for much longer. So the point does seem to me to mitigate the Job point. While it may well be that suffering can occur without its being directed against someone because of that person's sin, this passage isn't teaching anything about the suffering of innocents. It's teaching that those who die because of their sin aren't any worse than those who haven't yet met God's judgment as fully as they might. Consider the very next words of Jesus in Luke:

And he told this parable: "A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came seeking fruit on it and found none. And he said to the vinedresser, 'Look, for three years now I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree, and I find none. Cut it down. Why should it use up the ground?' And he answered him, 'Sir, let it alone this year also, until I dig around it and put on manure. Then if it should bear fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'"[Luke 13:6-9, ESV]

This seems to be a clear presentation of the patience point above. God is merciful, and that's why some continue to live despite deserving death. God puts it off to give them time to repent, but God need not do this. God doesn't owe this to us.

I've been thinking about two different themes that run together here, both of which came out in the still-ongoing discussion of the Canaanite genocide issue. One is the Punishment Theodicy, and the other is the Patience Theodicy. These aren't where theists typically start when dealing with the problem of evil, but I think that's unfortunate. The Punishment Theodicy is usually dismissed by contemporary philosophers pretty quickly, mainly because of the Job point. If there's innocent suffering, then the Punishment Theodicy won't do all the work. Also, you need a reason why God allows the sin that's being punished for a large amount of evil to constitute punishment. But I think the Punishment Theodicy does do a lot more work than contemporary philosophers want to give it credit. The claim isn't that every bit of evil is punishment directed against someone for a particular sin that's being punished by that particular bit of suffering. It's that the vast majority of evil in the world today is the result of sin's being in the world, and one reason God allows it to the point it gets to is because we deserve it (and indeed much worse). It's allowed, at least in very large part, in order to punish us.

Another reason this isn't popular, I suspect, is because punishment is not popular, at least not for retributive reasons. But retributive justice is very popular when you put it the right way. It's unpopular to suggest that we deserve suffering for anything when you talk in terms of sin and God, but just try telling a graduating senior who didn't get hired that it's perfectly all right for someone who had lower qualifications to get the job, as if any choice would have been equally good, and you get responses that assume some notion of retributive justice. We can't make sense of the notion of an ironic punishment if we don't think people can deserve suffering because of their sins.

The Patience Theodicy is an explanation why evildoers seem to get away with it, why God doesn't judge sin immediately. Habakkuk worried deeply about that question, and God's response is that the sinner seeming to get away with it will indeed be judged. I don't think we ever get in Habakkuk why he's delaying, though. One place we do see an answer to that is II  Peter 3, where we're told that it's out of God's patience, to allow more time for people to repent. This theodicy explains a kind of evil that seems counterintuitive from one perspective. Normally, we want a reason why God allows evil. In a sense, this is an explanation of why God continues to allow a certain kind of evil. But on another level, this is an explanation of why God refrains from doing something that causes something that's intrinsically bad -- suffering and death. So it's a funny kind of theodicy, but it's a theodicy nonetheless, and it's also a pretty powerful one in that it explains quite a bit. The Punishment Theodicy explains a good deal of suffering on a very general level (without offering any claim about the details of particular cases, which is where those who apply it often end up mistaken). The Patience Theodicy explains a more specific kind of suffering by giving a reason why it might be allowed to continue when there's an easy way of cutting short evil by ending its existence altogether. It's an answer to the "how long" kind of question, i.e. the duration of evils, in Peter van Inwagen's way of putting it.

I'm not sure I had any specific point here, just some stewing thoughts after reading Luke 13 this morning, but I wanted to record some of these thoughts.

On a paper or exam last semester (I don't remember which), a student described someone who might "prepare for death by amending for their sins". My first guess as to the student's intent was that they meant "atoning for their sins". But why choose this word to confuse with "atoning"? I suspected maybe it had to do with making amends, something that seemed to me to be foreign to the idea of atonement, which (according to biblical teaching as I understand it) isn't accomplished by you. You don't atone for your sins. It's something that has to be done on your behalf, whereas making amends is something you do for someone else.

But this was probably a Roman Catholic student, probably raised with a simplistic understanding of what Catholicism teaches (given the bulk of the student body where I teach). Perhaps it's less strange to connect atonement with making amends if you think you earn your own atonement by doing good works, as I think a lot of nominal Catholics think their church teaches (it doesn't quite; at least, it's not as simple as that, because of the strong view of God's grace that stands behind any good work that God brings people to do). If you're thinking of working to repay God for your sins or something crazy like that, then you might think atoning is something like making amends to God for all the bad you've done. Someone of that mindset might easily confuse the two concepts.

But suppose you were to take this at face value. What would it even mean? I would understand grammatically what it would mean to amend your sins. You add something to them. I'm not sure if that would be good or bad, since it might be amending your sins by complicating them with further sins, or it could be amending your sins by removing some of the sinfulness. But amending for your sins? Amending what for your sins? Don't you need a direct object? It's at least grammatical to speak of amending an essay for my sins, but I'm not sure what it would even mean to amend for my sins without a direct object.


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student comment in response to the idea that there might be a bad afterlife for bad people:

Furthermore, it is hard to believe that a higher being would wish for the suffrage of mankind, because any higher being would be above that and not involve themselves in petty nonsense.

I agree that a higher being would be above giving us suffrage. After all, wouldn't a higher being know better than us? Giving us a voting role in ultimate decisions wouldn't really serve any good. I don't see how it would be petty, though, and I don't see how this point supports the idea that there couldn't be a bad afterlife. That a higher being would be above giving us suffrage actually supports the possibility of a bad afterlife despite our protests, since it doesn't matter whether we approve.

After finding three separate occurrences in my students' papers of the claim that Augustine changed his mind from view A to view B, I decided to try to track down where this was coming from:

View A: Death is punishment for original sin.
View B: Death is natural, so it is good.

One of them cited this entry on Augustine in the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying in his bibliography. It says the following:

Augustine's evaluation of death undergoes a profound change after he encounters the theology of Pelagius. In his earlier writings, such as On the Nature of the Good, Augustine regards death as good because it is natural: Death is the ordered succession of living entities, each coming and going the way the sound of a word comes and goes; if the sound remained forever, nothing could be said. But in Pelagius's theology, Augustine encounters a radical statement of the "naturalness" of death: Even if there had never been any sin, Pelagius says, there would still be death. Such an understanding of death is very rare in early Christianity, and Augustine eventually stands with the mass of early Christian tradition by insisting upon the exegetically derived (from the Pentateuch) judgment that death is a punishment that diminishes the original "all life" condition of human nature. It is a distinctive and consistent feature of Augustine's theology of death that it is developed and articulated almost exclusively through the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis.

Now I've never read that earlier work, so I have no idea if this is even true (and I don't have it, so I can't even check), but it's the only thing I can find that remotely deals with such a view from Augustine, and I checked several pages deeper in Google after I found this. So I'm guessing this is the source for all of them and not just the one, and the rest all failed to include it.

The problem is all five students (I went looking through the stack to see if any others did this, and I found another two) got the order backwards. They all said that Augustine originally held view A and then held view B. The website says he first held view B and then changed to view A. One of them did mention Pelagius, but the others left that out. None of them mentioned the use of actual biblical arguments for changing his mind, but then they didn't think he was changing it to the biblical view but from it, not that they probably even knew which view was biblical.

Unless all these students have the same exact problem in gleaning information about the order of these views from this same text, there must have been either another source common to all of them besides this site, or one of them was the source for the others, perhaps the one who actually cited it. I'm not finding any other site that even mentions a change in his views on this. Some of them mentioned other internet sources, so why would they leave this out? Redaction criticism is hard.

None of this fits well with the assignment anyway, since what I was looking for was Augustine's view of the afterlife as a comparison with Socrates and Epicurus' arguments for not fearing death. But, as the title of this post suggests, those are the hazards of using Google for sources instead of paying attention in class or actually looking to the primary sources that I assigned.

It occurred to me while teaching Nietzsche yesterday that the use of Nietzsche to motivate antisemitism by the Nazi regime is pretty much the opposite of contemporary antisemitism, at least in one key respect. Hitler's use of Nietzsche capitalized on the idea of Jewish inferiority. If it's perfectly fine for the strong to trample the weak, then all it takes is finding a group that can be taken to be weak, and then you can trample away.

The problem Nietzsche would have is that you can't really demonstrate that Jews are the weak. In fact, the history of Jews in the United States seems to demonstrate otherwise. Before Hitler's time, Jews in the United States tended to do worse on IQ tests than the majority population. After WWII, they tended to do noticeably higher than average. The best explanation for that seems to be that Jews were sidelined more often and had become mainstreamed in a way that allowed them to develop the cognitive skills that they already had potential for but hadn't been developing as strongly. Even with the problems in using IQ tests to identify intelligence plain-and-simple, it's certainly true that there are skills that IQ tests measure, and the Nazis would have been happy to accept IQ scores anyway. So it seems as if the facts are just against their claim.

Contemporary antisemitism has to take a different stance. Not only is it ludicrous to take Jews to be inferior in terms of any important skill set for success in life, but Jews have in fact been much more successful in most of the ways people who make such judgments would actually care about than the average for the non-Jewish population. So the narrative is no longer that Jews are inferior and thus need to be trampled because of some Nietzschean mission to lift oneself up by taking advantage of the weak. Now it's almost a reversal. Jews have assumed control of society in some massive conspiracy, and the rest of us are the victims who need to resist the collective strength of the Jewish conspiracy.

Now I guess the two views are compatible. Someone could think that Jewish success is merely due to conspiratorial measures implemented by idiots who succeed only because a few of the relatively smart ones have gotten enough Jews into influential positions to prevent anyone from overcoming their collective strength. But I don't think the idea of Jewish inferiority among such conspiracy theorists is really about intellectual inferiority anymore. It's not clear to me exactly what kind of inferiority it's supposed to be, though. It clearly has some normative element, but I'm not sure it's even thought-out enough for there to be a real answer to that question.

I'm always trying to keep my students' textbook prices down. Here are some of the lower-priced books I've found. I'd be glad to hear any other suggestions any other philosophy instructors have found helpful.

For the ancient and medieval historical intro class that I've taught a number of times, there have been two books that I've liked. I had settled into Julia Annas' Voices of Ancient
at one point, since it organized the material by topics (which is arguably better suited for an intro class in some ways than working through the material chronologically, which admittedly does have other advantages), and I love a number of her more idiosyncratic choices of texts. Amazon sells it for $52, though, and I still had to provide some medieval sources. The college bookstore always jacks the price up noticeably above list price, too. I've used Penguin's edition of Augustine's City of God, and I've tried a few different Aquinas anthologies, one from Oxford World Classics and the other from Hackett (Aquinas: A Summary of Philosophy). Along the way, I discovered Nicholas Smith's ( Ancient Philosophy: Essential Readings with Commentary, which contains a pretty large amount of material for only $35.

I should say that the best inexpensive texts for historical sources are from Hackett, Penguin, and Oxford World Classics. The two things I look for are readability (at least in intro courses) and whether they include marginal page numbers and such markers, since some of the texts for ancient and medieval sources don't, and it's much harder to find a passage if you don't have those. I've looked at Amazon's preview function to compare translations for a number of these books. Sometimes one translation is much harder to introductory students to grasp.

For early modern texts, I usually use Jonathan Bennett's online translations. Those are free, and they're much more readable than anything you can buy. For an advanced history of philosophy class, I might hesitate to use these, although I'd probably do it for a 300-level survey. I don't hesitate at all with intro courses.

Other books I've used include Greg Ganssle's Thinking About God, which is an excellent introduction to philosophy of religion. It's the most readable introductory book I've ever seen. It's fun and funny. But it seriously looks at the issues, and while I don't agree with Ganssle on every point I think he's especially fair on some pretty controversial questions.

Ted Sider and Earl Conner have put together an introductory-level metaphysics book called Riddles of Existence. I think Ted Sider's chapters are better-suited to an introductory class. Conee's are generally harder and often on more obscure topics. In a few places in Conee's God chapter, I found myself wondering if he'd even looked at the literature on these questions, since the objections he were presenting were not just easily handled but known to have been dealt with by those familiar with the philosophy of religion literature. (This is a disturbingly-common trend among specialists in other fields who throw philosophy of religion into their intro works on more general topics. James Rachels had the same problem with divine command theory and natural law theory in his intro to ethics, which I've nonetheless used a number of times. The new editions edited by Stuart Rachels have improved in some ways but not at all in that aspect.)

Speaking of ethics, I have trouble using the Rachels book that I previously liked to use. It's gotten too expensive without getting any longer. I remember when it was $35 for the same content, and I was shocked to discover a few years later (after ordering it for my class) that it had jumped to about $50. I don't think I've used it since then. Now it's more like $70. It's not much longer than the Sider/Conee book, but the price difference is huge. For ethical theory, my favorite book that costs very little is an anthology edited by Louis Pojman for Hackett. Last I knew, it was about $20 for a book most publishers would probably charge at least $50 for. The title is Moral Philosophy: A Reader.

I haven't had a chance to teach applied ethics inexpensively except when I've picked a couple topics and ordered books focusing on those. The typical anthologies are far too much money for me to want to have students use them, but sometimes I've decided that it's easier to use one huge textbook than to have them buy several smaller books on other topics, which could add up to too much if I want sufficient variety of topics.

Prometheus Books has a cheap but fairly comprehensive anthology on abortion edited by Baird and Rosenkrantz. It's not as good as the similar volume edited by Pojman and Francis Beckwith, but the price difference is large enough that I'd use the Prometheus. Prometheus also has a low-priced anthology of articles on the philosophy of sex and love. There are a few volumes you can get on that topic, but theirs costs the least. I've occasionally used other books that don't cost too much, but there aren't any that stand out in my mind as particularly compelling for repeated use. I did recently come across two low-priced anthologies that I haven't had a chance to look at, but I might consider them for future classes. One is Laurence Thomas' Contemporary Debates in Social Philosophy, and the other is Andrew Cohen and Christopher Wellman's Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics. I'm curious if anyone has had a chance to look at these and offer advice about their suitability for an intro ethics class or a 300-level applied ethics class.

One other source that I like is Hackett's dialogues. They are especially helpful in an introductory class. My first philosophy class as an undergrad used the free will one by Clifford Williams, and I've used that in my own teaching. The two that I most use are Jay Rosenberg's Three Conversations on Knowing and John Perry's on personal identity and
immortality. I haven't spent any time in their others, but I know there's also one by Perry on the problem of evil (or maybe on theistic arguments for and against) and one by Rocco Gennaro on philosophy of mind.

This is the 51st post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The previous post discussed a different kind of dualism from Descartes' interactionist substance dualism. To avoid objections against Descartes' view, some philosophers propose epiphenomenalist property dualism. They argue for this view based on facts about the first-person perspective that can't be reduced to third-person facts accessible to science. This post looks at Frank Jackson's formal argument for that thesis. 

Consider someone who can discern shades of red better than we can. Show him two tomatoes that look the same color to the rest of us, and he'll be able to see them as two different shades. He will consistently separate the same tomatoes as being red-1 and the others as being red-2, no matter how many times and how well you mix them up again. There's something about his perception of colors that we can never know, even if we know everything about his brain and how it works. There's a fact that remains - what his experience is like for him.

Consider a color scientist named Mary who has never seen red. She lived in a black and white environment with special contact lenses all her life, so she'd never seen most colors.  Then she went on to learn the neuroscience of color perception. She now knows everything there is to know from science about color perception. She knows what color words apply to which wavelengths of light. She knows what goes on in the brain when people see various colors. But she's never seen red. Then she takes off the contact lenses, and someone gives her a tomato. She now sees red for the first time. Does she learn something? Jackson says she does - what it's like to perceive the color red.

  1. Mary knows every physical fact about color perception.
  2. There's a fact about color perception that Mary learns when she sees red - namely, what it is like to experience seeing that color.
  3. Therefore, there are more than just physical facts (so materialism is false).

There have been a few traditional ways of resisting this conclusion.

  1. If materialism is true, maybe we shouldn't expect Mary to learn anything new.  If this is right, we should expect her to see red for the first time and say "Ah! That's exactly what I expected it to look like."  That seems highly implausible.
  2. David Lewis suggests that Mary doesn't learn a new fact but just gains a new ability - how to recognize red from within. She could identify red before in different ways, and she's gained a different way to identify it. It's like learning a new language, only more complicated. You can say the same facts in a different language once you've learned it, but hearing something in German that you already knew in English doesn't mean you've learned a new fact. Some philosophers call this implausible also, since language learning is just translating things we knew into different representations, but this is a totally new experience. There's got to be something more to seeing red than just having a certain ability.
  3. Some have suggested that Mary gains a new concept but doesn't learn anything new. She has a new way to express what she already knew - in terms of color experiences now, whereas before she just had the concepts involved with wavelengths, brain waves, neurons, and human behavior. But is this going to be successful? Mary seems to gain some new knowledge about color perception. Gaining just a concept doesn't seem enough. Something about the new experience seems to suggest more than just gaining a new way to think about something she already knew.

In the end if Jackson is right, you get dualism. You might think it's the best of both worlds. It avoids the simplicity arguments against dualism, since it doesn't require actual things in the world that are non-physical. It just requires some feature of me, a physical being, to be a non-physical property. So the view is called property dualism. The standard dualist view, substance dualism, holds that there is a real thing that's part of me - an immaterial soul or mind. Also, this view avoids conservation law problems. According to our best science, matter and energy can't be created or destroyed. If something comes in from outside the physical  order and interferes, this law would seem to be broken. But property dualism just says there are features of physical things that it wouldn't be right to call physical. The natural order of things continues on as normal. Nothing outside the natural order needs to come in and affect the physical world. So someone can honor dualist intuitions and have a view that's not materialist but seems to avoid the dualist's problems. Some people think they're trying to have their cake and eat it too, but Jackson and Nagel see this as the best of both worlds.

The other way around the Knowledge Argument is to deny the first premise. Mary doesn't really know all the physical facts about color perception. She does know all the impersonal facts, facts you can know independently of experiencing the color through perception. But maybe these experiential facts are still physical facts, just not impersonal ones. This does get out of the argument, but for some reason many materialists don't take this way out. It might be because they see people who take this line as abandoning one of the motivations for being a materialist in the first place. The whole idea was to get a theory according to which you can understand all of reality in scientific terms. That's why we want to avoid dualism, since that goes beyond science. This approach abandons that idea. Science can't capture all the truths, even all the physical truths. The other ways of avoiding Jackson's argument try to hold on to that notion. This one abandons it. It could be right, but as a materialist view it seems less in line with materialism as a whole, since it loses one key reason for being a materialist.

One response to this argument might be that it's not in principle impossible to get all the facts, even first-person ones. We lack the technology, but it seems possible with virtual reality. We could give someone the same brain state as someone else. This might take a lot of work, and it might be difficult to get the person to remember it when  you restore them to their previous brain state, but it seems in principle possible to give one person the same inner feeling another person has, provided we figure out how to manipulate neurons, transform brain matter to match how another person's brain is physically arranged, and so on. It probably wouldn't take changing the whole brain, just the parts necessary for conscious experience. This does rescue at least some of the idea that science can in principle capture all facts about the universe, and any investigator could eventually in principle do what's necessary to know any fact. It would take something far more radical than just what I described above, though. After all, we would have to be able to experience for ourselves what it's like to be a bat, a bee, or any other organism that has conscious experience, even the ones with minimal experience. To get ourselves so that we could do that, we might have to modify our brains so radically that we're not really us anymore, depending on your view of personal identity. So this response has something to say, but it's not clear that it goes all the way.

Another hesitation a materialist might have at this response is that this isn't what people meant by science capturing all the facts about the world. The original idea was to list all the facts resulting from external, third-person investigation, measurable entities you can quantify. If you can't simply list off all the facts, even if you have the potential to have all the possible first-person experiences anything could have, then you can't even in principle give a scientific account of the world in third-person terms. It's that kind of description of the universe that many materialists want science to come up with, and if Jackson is right that these first-person facts are additional facts, that ends up being impossible.

In the next post, I'll look at one further mind-related issue before turning to personal identity: artificial intelligence.

Property Dualism

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This is the 50th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post looked at the interaction problem, which is raised against the standard form of substance dualism known as interactionism. This post moves to a different form of dualism, property dualism or epiphenomenalism.

According to this view, the physical does cause the mental, but no mental event causes any physical event. The physical world gives rise to mental activity, but there's nothing going the other way. It's sort of like a free rider. Whenever brains are constructed in the right way, thoughts happen. Brains have mental properties, and there's nothing physical about these properties. This view doesn't assume any soul-like mind as a substance. There doesn't have to be any thing that's non-physical. Because of this, the view is often called property dualism (as opposed to substance dualism). This view avoids the problems of interaction (at least the problem with the conservation laws) and the problem of simpler views being more likely, since the mental things don't exist according to property dualism. This view agrees with materialism about which things really exist. The strangest thing about the view is that it's got one feature in common with parallelism - the mental stuff doesn't do anything. Nothing in the world is caused by it. So your thoughts don't affect anything. It's worth thinking about which objections to parallelism also apply here.

The Mutant and Zombie cases to illustrate this view (I believe David Lewis first used the term 'mutant' this way, and David Chalmers seems to be the one who coined the philosophical use of 'zombie' in this way). Mutants are just like normal people physically but have different qualitative experiences. Some of them have their colors reversed. When a color mutant sees what we see as red, she says it's red but sees it the way we see blue. When she sees what we see as yellow, she says it's yellow but sees it the way we see orange. Is there any way we could know that such a thing was going on? Maybe it does occur. There's no way to rule it out. The same sort of thing could go on with the sense of taste (sweet and sour reversed, salty and bitter reversed), sound (high and low pitches reversed), or even touch (soft and hard, rough and smooth). Maybe even pain and pleasure could be reversed, with someone experiencing what we feel as pain but calling it pleasure and smiling, etc. This seems really weird, but if their physical makeup is just as ours, then they would smile and say it's good when they have the same brain state as we do when we experience pleasurable things. Yet maybe their internal feel is totally different. How would we know?

The zombie is someone who just has no internal feel whatsoever. The zombie experiences nothing, but we could never know. How do we know if anyone else even feels anything? They act the way we do when we experience things. They say things. They cry out in pain. They act overjoyed when things go really well for them. They talk about how great certain foods taste. But couldn't it be possible that they are just following a sort of programming? When their brain received certain input, it makes changes within the brain, and some of these affect what the body does as a response. Couldn't that occur without any actual sensation or experience?

Frank Jackson and Thomas Nagel believe both zombies and mutants are possible (though probably not actual). They hold this property dualist view. Their reasoning is that some things about our experience can't be explained in physical terms, so there must be some non-physical properties. They take this from Nagel's case of the impossibility of imagining a bat's experience and Jackson's case of someone knowing every physical fact but still not knowing what red looks like. There's something about the first-person perspective that can't be captured by any third-person understanding of what the world is like in physical terms. That leads them to a kind of dualism, though it doesn't require any soul-like mind. It wouldn't mean there isn't any such thing, but all it requires is mental properties.

One problem with the materialist views is that they seem to leave out an important aspect of mentality - the inner feel of conscious experience. Nagel focuses on the question of what it is like to be a bat - to experience life with such different perceptual input from what we've got. It's something we can never know. Similar, men can never know what it's like for a woman to give birth or to experience the social and biological influences that affect how women think about the possibility of being raped. A white man can never know what it's like to grow up as black in the United States. Someone who has never experienced an orgasm cannot imagine what such an experience is like. Someone who has never been drunk or high doesn't know what that is like. Try imagining seeing a color besides the ones we've experienced. If there is a God and some people have genuine relationships with God, nonbelievers don't know what that experience is like. We can't even imagine going beyond our experience. These are facts about our inner mental life that we simply can't capture in terms that we can communicate to someone else. Facts about the first-person perspective seem to be left out of all the materialist views. Nagel suggests that dualism can capture what's missing.

Jackson gave a formal argument for exactly that thesis. I'll discuss that argument in the next post.

I've been looking at the case of the moral status of animals in my summer ethics class, and I've just finished rereading a piece by Tom Regan, who argues that animals have full moral rights and thus shouldn't be treated as means to human ends, including any use in laboratory experiments, for food, as pets, or for entertainment. His is just one of several views I'm looking at, and it's not new to me, since I've taught this article or another similar one several times in the past. So I wasn't expecting to notice an argument that I didn't remember from any of the previous times I included his work, but there's an argument about souls that strikes me now as particularly bad in a way that it surprises me not to have noticed it before.

He considers and dismisses several reasons people might have for thinking humans have rights that other animals do not have, and one in the list is the view that humans have immortal souls, and animals do not. His argument against this method of distinguishing the moral status of humans and animals was simply that the issue of whether humans have immoral souls is controversial, and we shouldn't base our stance on one controversial issue on our stance on one that's even more controversial.

I can't say I'm impressed by this argument. Most people who believe in immortal souls do not do so based on the controversial arguments offered by philosophers, most notably those of Plato and Descartes. There problems with their arguments. Someone who holds an alternative view has some pretty easy dodges. They can deny a premise or point out that certain inferences don't follow if materialism is true. Of course, the derision held for mind-body dualism among professional philosophers is reserved for few views, and philosophers who find these arguments unconvincing are usually unwilling to recognize that pretty much every philosophical argument for any position that doesn't command near-universal agreement is just like that. I'm not at all sure that Plato and Descartes' arguments are as bad as they're made out to be, so I'm not willing to grant that immortal souls are more controversial than views on animal rights, as Regan seems to think.

But there's a deeper reason why this argument can't easily succeed. If we do have immortal souls, then that might make a big difference in how we think about moral status. Suppose it does. Suppose also that there's no convincing argument either way. Does it follow that we shouldn't assume that we have immortal souls that animals lack? Suppose it does. I think it's only fair to say that we also shouldn't assume that we don't have such souls. Regan's claim that there's no good reason to think we have moral status that animals lack would then turn out to be true, but it would also be true that Regan has no good reason to think we don't have moral status that animals lack. We should hold no view either way, and he thinks he can just assume one stance on this issue that he thinks is more controversial than the question he's primarily writing about. He's done the same thing he's claiming the believer in immortal souls shouldn't do.

There is one reason you might favor one side, though. Regan could argue that he would assume one way rather than the other on this question because he's giving the benefit of the doubt to those who, if we ignore their possible rights, we do great wrong to. If we assume animal rights, we prevent what might be a serious wrong to animals. I should say that those who use this reason better not be pro-choice in the abortion issue on the ground that we don't know for sure if a fetus has moral status (and there are indeed people who take such a view, including the current President of the Unites States).

But there are at least two considerations that would at least moderate such a presumption. One is that the human benefit of various ways we treat animals, not least being the significant scientific advances from animal experimentation that produce benefits both for humans (and probably animals), means we would be doing a great wrong to humans (and possibly for animals) if it turned out that animals have no rights but we pretend they do.

But we also need to take into account the fact that a large number of people who believe in immortal souls do not do so because of philosophical arguments but because their religious beliefs include that view. To evaluate whether such people's beliefs are rational we'd have to evaluate the entire question of the rationality of religious belief, something I've certainly spent a lot of time on in other places but won't get into here. That's yet another controversial question, but if it turns out religious belief can be rational then there might well be a rational reason for thinking we do in fact have immortal souls that animals lack. Without knowing that, Regan's argument now has to rely on two unestablished conclusions and thus is doubly question-begging even if he's right that the other side's argument is question-begging.

I happen to think I've got good reasons for thinking my belief in immortal souls and in the non-existence of immortal souls in animals, even before I've considered the question of the moral status of animals. I don't think animals have no moral status, but I don't think Regan can dismiss a view held by the majority of the world's populace as easily as this, since he hasn't actually even given any arguments against the two views he'd need to resist for his argument to go through (although maybe he does do that elsewhere, but I doubt it since he does say that he hopes he does have an immortal soul, and he does speak once of God as if he believes in a divine being). I don't think the status of animals is anywhere near as simply as humans having full moral status because of immortal souls and animals have none because of no souls, but surely more needs to be said to refute that kind of consideration than simply noting that it's controversial.

A Few Quick Notes

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1. I've been extremely busy. I'm teaching two summer classes and barely keeping up with them. Plus the kids have been sick, meaning some have been home and in need of more attention than normal. So I haven't had time to do much blogging. But I've got a few things I've been thinking about that I did manage to put in Facebook updates, which I might as well put here in lieu of anything that will take more time than I have.

2. Remember when Rosie O'Donnell outrageously called it a separation of church and state for President Bush to take the religious identification on the Supreme Court from three to give Catholics, making Catholic justices the majority? I just thought it was worth noticing that President Obama has nominated another self-identified Roman Catholic to replace another Protestant, and I've yet to hear any similar claims from Rosie O'Donnell (although I did hear that Christopher Hitchens is being consistent on this by finding it grave and troubling).

3. I heard a strange NPR story on the dangers of fracking. It took a little listening to discover that they meant this. It was hard to listen with a straight face. I don't know how the reporter got through it.

4. The Supreme Court could rule as early as Monday on a case Judge Sotomayor was involved in that could lead to some real fodder for criticism in her hearing. SCOTUSBlog has an excellent presentation of the issue and how it might go.

5. Once I get a breather I intend to look closely at some of the Sotomayor stuff that SCOTUSBlog has been posting since before her nomination even occurred. I haven't had time to comment on her nomination, but I'm not sure I would even know what to say just yet. Her actual opinions are kind of important, and most criticism so far has not focused on them but on some political speeches and interviews she's given.

I've so far encountered the expression "God gave up our sins" or "Jesus gave up our sins" several times in reading students' answers to a question about Augustine's view of hell. It's usually in the context of the cross It has nothing to do with what I'm asking, so there's already some level of misunderstanding on the part of these students, but I'm wondering what they even could mean by this. This is at a Jesuit school, and a lot of the students are Catholics (especially marginal Catholics), so perhaps there's some particular Catholic way of saying something that I'm not getting without that background.

I asked a friend this morning what he thought, and he said he doesn't think the students who are saying it have a clue what they even mean by it. Maybe so, but then why do several of them use the expression? Perhaps they just worked together to prepare their answers, and someone sounded sure enough to the others without having any sense of things, and they all went with it. Otherwise, I'm at a loss.

"Of Course"

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One problem any teacher encounters is how to present material that many in the class will be familiar with but others will not. It's one thing to refer back to earlier material in the course, which students should but often won't remember by the time you get back to it when you encounter the same issue from a different point of view. But other background information might not have been covered earlier in the class. When I teach 300-level ethics classes, all my students should have taken the two-semester historical introduction to philosophy classes. But so many people teach those and do them so differently that there isn't any content that I can assume they've covered. It's also taught in such different styles that there isn't any basic philosophical framework that I can assume every member of the class has had.

The same problem arises in preaching. Some people hearing a sermon might know the Bible wel enough that you can refer to the sin of Achan or David's conflict with Absalom without any further information, and they'll know what you're talking about. You can mention a particular, relatively well-known chapter or section such as Romans 8, the Sermon on the Mount, or Ezeiel's vision of the temple, and some people will need no further information to be reminded of the full sense of what occurs in the section in question. At the other end of the spectrum are the biblically-illiterate who don't know that Jesus was betrayed by Judas Iscariot, aren't familiar with the biblical concept of a covenant, and would hear the expression "whore of Babylon" and think there must be some biblical character who was a prostitute in Baghdad.

One solution I've seen is to give the hearers the benefit of the doubt. I'll sometimes hear a preacher saying "of course" as an unconscious transitional marker in the middle of explaining something that only some of the people present will probably get without the explanation. It serves to signal to those who don't need the explanation that the preacher isn't treating them as if they don't already know this. The problem is that it makes those who don't know this feel sub-par for not knowing this thing that the preacher says "of course" about, as if anyone should know this. Another way of putting it would be to say, "as you know" before saying something that some people in the room do not have any knowledge of at all.

I find myself cringing inwardly at this kind of language. There's a sense of not treating those who are less-informed as important when you treat them as if the basic common denominator is higher in understanding than they are. There are certainly ways of being dismissive of someone that are worse than this, but there is a kind of insult behind this kind of language, even if it's not intended. Little things like this can have an effect on people, and this is such an unconscious habit that someone can get into when developing public speaking skills that it's easy not to think about what you're actually saying when you say this kind of thing.

In writing philosophical essays for a popular audience, I've had to think very hard about how someone with no philosophy background is going to read something I say. I hear my philosophical colleagues talking to their students with vocabulary and concepts that I can't imagine most undergraduate students understanding. Spending time in places where English isn't the native language and having to have serious conversations about Christianity and philosophy via a translator has certainly influenced my abilities to try to explain things more simply than I would if talking to a graduate student in philosophy.

So I'm at least sensitive to the fact that this is a problem, and I do know a fair number of places where it could arise that I tend to avoid it. But that isn't a solution to the problem, since it doesn't mean it won't occur where I'm not going to notice it, since I won't know sometimes that the terms I'm using have no meaning to the person I'm talking to. It also doesn't solve the problem of how to avoid giving those who do understand more the sense that they're being treated like children. But I do think this is something worth thinking through that I doubt very many people spend much time thinking about.

Book Suggestions?

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I'm teaching an applied ethics course this summer, and I'm thinking of covering war and terrorism again, which I haven't done a full-blown unit on in a few years, at least not with any focus on Iraq. I've got a great book that has excellent philosophical treatments of pacifism, just war theory, torture, individual rights and national security, the war vs. law enforcement models of fighting terrorism, and other general discussions of current issues on the subject. I've also got a book that I'm thinking of using that makes a case for fitting the justification for the 2003 Iraq invasion into just war thought, and even though it's not a heavily philosophical treatment it should be easy for me to provide that side of things.

What I don't have is a high-quality critique of the Iraq invasion in terms of just war theory. Does anyone know of such a thing? I would ideally prefer a low-priced book (especially something less than $20), but if I have to settle for an article or two then that would be better than nothing. There's probably much more critiquing the invasion than supporting it, simply because academics tend to fall that way in their political alignment, but I don't know much about published works, since most of my reading on the subject has been online. Any suggestions?

Student Exam Answers

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Exam question: How does Thomas Aquinas explain contingency in a world completely planned out by God's providence?

Student answer: Human beings act by free judgement because humans are rational unlike animals who are irrational and do not act on instinct. Therefore, humans act on instinct making there their choices free.

My thought: The correct answer has nothing to do with human freedom but is based on an idiosyncratic definition of contingency in Aquinas. But if you're going to bring in human choice, it's probably not best to ground human free choice in mere instinct or to deny that animals ever act on instinct.

Exam question: Why does Thomas Aquinas think everything that has understanding must also have a will?

Student answer: Thomas Aquinas thinks that everything has understanding must also have a will because everything has intellect. God has intellect and his understanding is his existing and therefore so is his will. Since God has intellect, he has understanding, and since he has understanding he has will.

My thought: The correct answer has to do with what Aquinas thinks  it means to have a will and how that comes for free once your understanding can assign degrees of goodness to various options. I expected it to be one of the simplest to answer given some sense of what the answer really is. Yet my best student this semester gave an complex, completely wrong answer involving all manner of irrelevant material. She has Aquinas thinking rocks have intellect. She appeals to his doctrine of divine simplicity, which he doesn't invoke on this question (and I never covered in class). Only a pretty good student could come up with the latter in the absence of knowin the right answer, but where is the former coming from? Everything has an intellect?

Then there was the question about absolute and hypothetical necessity in Aquinas. One student began by talking about "Absolut necessity".

Grading Issue

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I'm grading an exam that has some unusual directions. 10% of the exam is multiple choice, and I grade that unusually also, but the issue I'm facing has to do with the other 90%. I give my students freedom to choose among a number of questions to fill out that 90%. There are 10-point, 20-point, 30-point, and 40-point questions. They can skip one whole section, but they need to do at least one question from each of the other three sections. The easiest way to do it is to do one 20-point, one 30-point, and one 40-point, but there are lots of permutations to get to 90 points while doing something from each of three sections.

I've had students answer 100 points of questions. If one of their questions is a 10-pointer, then I just don't grade that one. If not, then I'll count a 20-pointer at half value (i.e. if they would have gotten an 18 out of 20, then it's 9 out of 10). I've also had students just not answer enough questions, in which case they end up with a lower score than they might have had. But for the first time (this is the third time I've used this model -- really the fourth and fifth times, if you count each section as a separate time) I've got a problem with a student answering the wrong point total where I can't think of a good solution.

This student answered three questions besides the multiple choice. She did two 40-point questions and a 10-point question. That does lead to the right point total, but it wasn't from three sections. The questions were taken from two of the four sections instead of the required three. So how do I handle this? I could simply grade the questions she did and ignore it, but that sends a message that the exam rules aren't really important. I do think some point loss is required. It's not clear how many points to penalize her, though. It isn't as if there's a question amount over the total that she's done, since she's done the right number of points. But I could claim that two 40-pointers is impossible within the rules I stipulated and then count the 40-pointer as a 30-pointer, something akin to what I do if they do too many points worth total without any 10-pointers to ignore. That 40-pointer should have been two 20-pointers or a 30-pointer and a 10-pointer. Those are the only ways for her to have followed the directions that get as close as possible to the questions she actually answered. The more generous option of those two,, then, would count one of the 40-pointers (the second one, to be precise, since that's the one that took it over the top) as a 30-pointer and insist that she should have done a 30-pointer instead and then a missing 10-pointer.

The result would be penalizing her 10 points, a whole letter grade, for not answering the right combination of questions. Does that seem too harsh? Does it seem easy enough to explain to her when justifying why I penalized her this amount? I'm not entirely satisfied with this way to handle it, but I'm also at a loss for how I might better handle this case.

Moral Luck: the Cases

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This is the 45th post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. The last post finished up the compatibilist account of freedom, and this post moves on to a perplexing problem related to freedom and moral responsibility, one that philosophers have called moral luck.

Immanuel Kant thought it obvious that we're not responsible for things not under our control. Why hold people responsible for the workings of fate? Shouldn't we be responsible just for what we intend to do, or at least what we can reasonably, foreseeably expect given what we intend? It's irrational to evaluate each other based on things not under our control. Yet Thomas Nagel points out that we do it, and we will continue to do it, since it's part of our way of thinking about morality. It seems fine to us until we think more deeply about it. Nagel argues that we can be morally responsible in circumstances we have no control over. His cases involve moral evaluations that depend on things outside our control. He calls this phenomenon moral luck (I think it was actually Sir Bernard Williams who came up with the term). These are cases in which something outside my control affects our moral judgment of my actions, usually by affecting the action or its consequences.

Some of Nagel's cases might fit into different of these categories, depending on how you think of it, so keep in mind that these are loose categories. Also, Nagel has four categories, but I think the difference between two of them is not worth the time it takes to distinguish them, at least for the purpose of these notes, which come from my lecture notes for an introductory philosophy class.

1. constitutive luck: my inclinations, capacities, and temperament aren't fully in my control. Significant aspects of who I am are from genetics, experiences, etc. Yet I often act in certain ways because of these. I may have a genetic tendency to be more violent, or maybe I'm good largely because of a good upbringing. This doesn't stop moral evaluation. We still blame the violent person or praise the good person, and it seems right to do so. (Note: determinists admit this. What's important is that libertarians have to admit a large amount of constitutive luck, which on their view means freedom is a lot more limited than you might have wished.

On Thomas Aquinas' view of natural law, law is written into the fabric of the universe. On one level, everything that happens is part of divine law, since God's plan of providence includes every single event that happens across all time. Aquinas calls this eternal law. On a second level, certain things are good for us or bad for us according to our nature, according to what kind of thing we are and what would make for contributing to our welfare and the internal purpose within us as organisms and as God's creations. That's the natural law. Then human beings can issue legitimate rules that fit with what's best for us and seek the general welfare. If it meets all these criteria, then it's a human law. If it's issued by someone without care for those it includes or if it's not for the general good or reasonable, then it's a real law. Otherwise, it's just a rule. He's got high standards for when a purported human law really is a law.

One of the aspects of this that I hadn't seen until this summer, when I covered a more extensive part of his treatment of this in what's called the Treatise of Law (but is really just a section of the Summa Theologiae, and he gave it no such title) is that he also allows for custom to generate laws. When he introduces the notion of legitimate authority to make laws, he says there are two ways this can happen. One way is that someone (singular or plural) God has placed in care over a group issues a rule that really is for the common good. The other way is that people issue a regulation over themselves. In contemporary times, we hear that and think he's talking about democracy. He surely knew of the ancient democracies, since he education would have included quite a bit about the ancient world. But that turns out not to be his primary concern when he says this. He actually means custom.

We have lots of rules by custom rather than by what we ordinarily call law. I'm pretty sure there were men's and women's restrooms before there were any laws about who can go in which in public buildings. If I'm wrong, there are lots of examples that are like that. It's not illegal in the U.S. to call people ordinary insults, but it's often immoral, and it's against custom if it's a certain kind of insult or a certain kind of context (in the middle of a job interview, say). We as a society have standards not to do things that aren't illegal. They're just frowned on, and you get ostracized or socially penalized if you do them.

What I found interesting about Aquinas on this subject is that he thinks this can go the other way too. If a certain action is worth prohibiting for the common good and is made a law (a genuine law) but then becomes against the common good, what was a law becomes merely a rule. But what about when no one follows a law, and those in authority tolerate such behavior? The movie theater in the mall near us hasn't allowed backpacks in the theater since a little after the September 11 terrorist attacks in 2001. At least that's their official policy. But no one enforces it, and lots of people don't keep it. I think Aquinas would see that as custom determining what the real human law is, and I think that's a very interesting view. It also has implications for speed limit laws in a jurisdiction where the police don't stop people for going 5 over or 10 over, and everyone drives that fast because they know where the threshold for being stopped is. On Aquinas' view, it's as if the law really is where they practice it as being, not where it's written to be. (Of course, all this depends on the custom's practice being consistent with the common good. If not, then custom couldn't modify written law in this sort of way.)

More Student Quotes

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I finally finished grading for the semester, and after sleeping only three hours I haven't wanted to expend the effort to write anything I have to think much about. I do have two more student quotes from the last batch of exams and papers. One student in my Issues in Ethics class presented me with the following gem:

Democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society in which the upper class rule the lower class.

Read that sentence over again, and think about what it says. First off, it's ambiguous. On one reading (the more natural one, I would say), democratic socialism (a) calls for the abolition of a classless society and (b) has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is a consistent definition but wrong on both counts. On the other reading, democratic socialism calls for the abolition of a classless society, and the classless society has the upper class ruling the lower class. This is the more natural reading, but it's also wrong on both counts and even has the additional problem of being flat-out contradictory!

I have another one from a dialogue. I believe it was actually Barack Obama's mouth that this was supposed to be coming out of (in a discussion between Obama and McCain):

I believe that there are three factors to determine the justness of war and terrorism. One would be that bad consequences are not intended. Next, the action should be a side-effect rather than a blunt end. The action can't be justifiable to victims.

The final sentence says the opposite of what it's supposed to say, but that's not what's especially funny about this quote. The second factor is an attempt to say that the bad consequence should be (a) a side-effect, as opposed to either (b) the goal of the action (i.e. the end) or (c) a means to that end. How did the idea of an end as in a goal or purpose somehow get turned into a blunt end, presumably of a weapon? And how is that a contrast to a side-effect? Is there some way to read this that I'm missing?

From Student Papers

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I assign dialogue papers to my students. They basically write a philosophical conversation between two characters who hold differing views, thus presenting both sides or multiple sides of a debate in a way that is fair to the people who hold such views. In the last batch that I graded, I noticed two particularly puzzling sentences and typed them up into my blogging file. I can't remember now if these were from the same paper, so I don't know if the same mind produced them both, but it wouldn't surprise me. The first one sets up the conversation, and the second was uttered by one of the characters in a conversation on the same topic (so they might well be from the same paper).

1. Lester walks into his house and tells his parents that he has been out [of] the closet for 10 years now and has kept it a secret in fear that they would not accept it.

Out of the closet but keeping it a secret? Any suggestions as to what that's supposed to mean? My guess is that the student thought being out of the closet had something to do with admitting to yourself that you're gay rather than its actual meaning of being publicly known as gay.

2. Though I disagree with homosexuality, I do not have anything against it.

I'm trying to figure out what disagreeing with it is supposed to involve if it doesn't involve holding something against it. Maybe the idea is that the person doesn't approve of it but is nice to gay people, but notice that it doesn't say against gay people but against homosexuality. So it's not well put if that was supposed to be the idea. It might be that disagreement is finding it distasteful, while having something against it is thinking it's morally wrong (or vice versa). But that doesn't seem like a natural way to say either.

As I've suggested, there's probably something coherent that these sentences were supposed to mean, but this is a philosophy paper, and clarity and precision are crucial for the very enterprise that these students are supposed to be engaged in.

I started the semester off in my applied ethics class with a unit on abortion, so I've been thinking a lot about arguments in the abortion literature that you don't often see at the popular level. I haven't taught this subject since fall 2004, so I'm sort of coming at a lot of this from a fresh perspective and rethinking a lot of the arguments I've been familiar with. Several things have occurred to me that seemed worth blogging about, so you can look for several posts on abortion in the next week or so as I write up my thoughts on some of these things.

One highly-anthologized article on abortion is Don Marquis' "Why Abortion Is Immoral". Marquis sets out to explain why abortion is immoral without assuming the personhood of the fetus. He instead develops an account of why killing in general is wrong. Killing is wrong, says Marquis, not because of some intrinsic property of the thing being killed (e.g. its capacity to feel pain, its consciousness, its ability to plan for the future, its self-concept, and so on), but because of the future it would otherwise have or be likely to have if you don't kill it. The reason it would be wrong to kill me is because of what you're taking away from me if you do so -- my future. The reason it's wrong to kill anything is because of the future you're robbing it of.

Now it follows that you're robbing a fetus of a future, and the future you're robbing it of is one like the future you and I have. You're even robbing it of more of a future, since it won't even get what you and I have already had that's now in our past. So abortion is wrong because it robs a fetus of a future like ours. This is so even if a fetus isn't a person. It has moral status not because of its current properties but because of what you would be taking away from it if you do certain things to it. In other words, its future (or what would otherwise be its future) is what guarantees the wrongness of killing it (and what you might derivatively call its right to life, but this is now being framed in very different terms.

That's the primary argument of Marquis' article. He doesn't spend much time developing it. Most of his effort goes toward motivating his theory of why killing is wrong and explaining why it's superior to person-based accounts. In this post, I'm not going to focus in on whether his theory of killing is correct, but I do want to flag a part of his support for it that strikes me as question-begging or at least as only appealing to a relatively small subset of potential readers.

One of the features he presents for his view on why killing is wrong is that it gives the right results about a number of other issues. Philosophers often give such arguments. They present a theory about something, and then they point out that their theory fits nicely with people's intuitions about other matters, and the alternative theories they're considering conflict with those same intuitions. The problem in Marquis' use of this strategy is that he chooses some controversial intuitions, indeed a pretty strange combination of them.

A colleague of mine where I teach is sort of a stickler for assigning grades according to the traditional but now completely obsolete approach whereby a C is average. He seeks to have the median student in the class earning grades in the C range, with an equal number of people in the D range as in the B range and as many failing as earning an A. His argument is that this is what these grades have always meant, and grade inflation is a violation of the meaning of the grades.

It struck me today that this argument is very similar to the argument language conservatives give against gender-inclusive language. The English language has changed since the time the ordinary English speaker could hear a sentence like "Surely every moral man must be appalled at the judicial execution of the innocent or at the punishment, torture, and killing of the innocent" and not wonder what the author thinks about moral women and children. (The sentence is from Kai Nielsen's "Against Moral Conservatism" from Ethics 82 (1972), which my students had to read this week.) Gone are the days when a sentence like that could make it into publication in a top philosophy journal.

So too have the standards changed when it comes to what letter grades mean. A grade of a C just doesn't indicate merely satisfactory anymore. Students know this. Most faculty know this. You can pound your fists and complain about this sorry state of affairs, and maybe you're right that it's regrettable (although I see no reason why we should have to stick with any particular arbitrary assignment of letters to standards). What I don't think will ultimately pass muster is sticking to your guns and giving people grades in a way that's wholly inconsistent with what the standards in fact are by basing it on some system of giving grades that hardly anyone follows anymore. Doing so means you're not giving people the grades you think you're giving them. This is why I can't in good conscience follow my colleague's policy.

This is not to say that college students today are as competent as in the past, which may well not be the case. It doesn't mean the work that now counts as satisfactory is what should count as satisfactory. Those are completely separate issues. All I'm saying is that the meaning of the letter grades has changed in a way that those who hold onto the traditianal system of assigning grades have been resisting to the point where the grades they assign are dishonest, even if not deliberately so. Grade inflation may be a problem in other ways, but one element of grade inflation is simply a fact, and resisting it in the way my colleague does seems to me to count as academic dishonesty.


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I've decided to begin a running feature on things I discover in students' submitted work that annoy me or amuse me. Usually these will be pet peeves. Sometimes they will just be odd expressions or statements. I'll begin with one that I see very regularly, and it's not just in student papers but all over the internet. It's the expression "close-minded".

It amazes me how common this is, but it doesn't make sense. No one is saying that your mind is close to something, which is what "close-minded" suggests. Even if your mind is a material object (which it isn't), this isn't about having your mind physically close to anything. What people mean is that someone is closed-minded, i.e. their mind is closed. Somehow the 'd' has become elided in how we pronounce it, and people who don't read have spelled it the way they hear it. It has become so common a way of spelling the term that there are more Google searches for "close-minded" than there are for "closed-minded".

Dictionaries do unfortunately include both, and I'm not trying to say that this is incorrect. I think it's reached a point where I can't confidently say that. But it is nevertheless stupid and annoying that it's gotten to that point. The question is whether I can justify correcting it on students' paper.

Here's one suggestion. One of the things a college course involving academic writing should teach is how not to come across as ignorant or as a non-reader. If enough people will conclude that upon seeing someone write "close-minded", then it might be worth correcting for the sake of how viewers of the writing of the student in question will see it. But I think that argument might apply to things I don't think I should correct (e.g. the singular "they", which I eagerly encourage).

Respect for Parents

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I've often begun ethics classes by having my students write about something that they've done that they believe to have been wrong, explaining why they think it was wrong. It gets them into the mode of having to give reasons for their moral views. This semester I decided to supplement that assignment by having them write a week later about someone they admire and respect or some action they respect, explaining why they find that person, trait, or action admirable. It captures a kind of ethical thinking that I think a lot of ethics classes will downplay because of their focus on what factors make an action wrong. There isn't as much emphasis on good-making features of actions, character traits, and so on in contemporary ethical theorizing.

I was very surprised by the results, and I'd be interested to see if this happens with a different kind of group. I'm teaching a junior-level class, and all these students have had at least two philosophy classes that are supposed to be heavy on the history of philosophy. I wonder if newly-arrived freshmen would answer the same way. Still, it was a little unexpected to find that 19 out of 43 students who did the assignment had chosen a parent (or both parents in one case). These were about evenly split between mothers and fathers. Another 10 were other family members (a sister, two brothers, a grandmother, three grandfathers, an uncle, and a cousin). Five chose friends and one an unrelated, older role model. Two were about complete strangers they'd interacted with or observed. One was amorphous, just listing character traits. Five were famous people (Max Roach, Oprah Winfrey, Jessica Lynch, Abraham Lincoln, and professional baseball players as a whole).

For some reason it didn't surprise me that a lot had chosen family members, but this was overwhelmingly family-heavy, and the bulk of the family members chosen were parents or grandparents, with parents occupying the most (almost half of the responses). I expected a lot more than three contemporary celebrities, but I guess it's not so surprising that most people don't see celebrities as heroes to respect or admire. Most celebrities aren't all that worthy of respect and admiration.

But my question is this. Is this a reflection of a cultural change? Are college students now all of a sudden more respectful of parents than we've been led to believe? Common wisdom among those I spend a lot of time with think there's very little respect for parents among young people. Or is it something that wasn't ever really true to begin with? Or is this something due to a change as students move out from their families and live on their own, now seeing their parents in a more accurate way? Or is it something particular about this group of students because they're at a Jesuit institute of higher learning?


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I've been teaching a Maymester course on Human Nature since last Monday. It's basically an entire semester in two weeks, with a four-hour class every day, five days a week. I've been able to recycle some material I've taught before, probably a little over half of it. Most of that was last week, which was nice because my grades for the spring semester were due at noon on Friday, an hour before my class. I was asked a week ahead of time, right in the middle of heavy grading season, and things haven't slowed down since then. Given that most of what's still to come the rest of this week is stuff I've never taught before, I expect probably to have even less time than I've had. Maybe it will lead to some interesting posts when I do have more time, though, because it's a lot of material that I haven't engaged with carefully before.

This is why I've been doing a bit more linking and a bit less actual discussion for the last ten days or so, and I have no reason to think that will change before Friday at 5pm, when I'm done with the intensive part of the course. I'll have some grading to do after that, because I think it's unconscionable to expect students to do a whole semester's work in two weeks when they're probably not able to put in even enough time to do all the readings carefully, never mind write about them intelligently.

I do have one series of posts planned once I have a little more time. Max Goss, who runs the politically conservative philosophy blog Right Reason, has asked me to do a guest series at that blog, and I'm going to be writing a series on Augustine, evangelicalism, and the role a Christian (and specifically Christian views) can play in politics. I'll probably post some other things there, but at least the Augustine stuff will be cross-posted here.

Other than that, I'd like to get back to my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series once I have a little more time, and I'd like to write some commentary review posts this summer. I still wanted to put some thoughts together on the Republican candidates after the debates, but that's not complete enough yet to do in the amount of time I've got at the moment. There are several posts on various blogs that I had wanted to respond to, and some of those may just slip into nowhere or get a very late response. I do want to use the majority of my time in June to work on my dissertation, however, and I'm teaching a more reasonable but still intensive summer course from July 9 to August 9, so don't expect a major, substantive post every day even during June, and things may get busy again for me not too far into July.

Text Laundering

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Mark Liberman at Language Log has come up with a term to describe one of the most idiotic plagiarism techniques I've ever heard of -- text laundering. The usual method is to save time and effort by copying someone else's work and submitting it as your own. But it's so easy to catch people doing that from online materials that some students are masking their trail by substituting words to fool Google, using a thesaurus to find synonyms and so on.

There are at least two problems with this (purely from the perspective of not wanting to get caught). One is that such use of a thesaurus is likely to lead to awkward enough sounding phrases that anyone reading it who is slightly informed will suspect something is up, and creative enough use of Google will easily find the source anyway. At least that's so unless the student is so thoroughgoing to be immune to Google, which would seem to be the point of text laundering. But such Google-proofing would take up so much time that the student might as well have learned enough of the material to begin with to write a competent essay just from class materials. Can you imagine how long it takes to replace every important keyword in a document one is plagiarizing with alternatives from a thesaurus, all of this after having combed Google for sources to begin with and spliced them together into a format that resembles an academic paper enough that they think it will fulfill the assignment? If plagiarizing is supposed to save time, and text laundering is supposed to make the time-saving effort harder to catch, there doesn't seem to be a good way to achieve both goals simultaneously.

This is the the twenty-fifth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at why some people think theism serves as the best non-naturalistic foundation for ethics. This post now looks at an objection to seeing God as the basis of morality.

In Plato's dialogue Euthyphro, he has the character of Socrates raise an objection to the idea that morality has something to do with the gods. If something is good just because the gods view it as good, the gods could command anything, and it would automatically be right. You don't have to be a polytheist for that consequence. How could God's mere choice be the basis of morality? Are good things good because God says they're good, or does God just declare them good based on seeing their goodness? If they are already good, then doesn't that mean God's choice didn't make them good?

This is the the twenty-fourth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I looked at why naturalistic foundations of ethics seem unsatisfying to many people. In this post we'll now turn to what non-naturalistic accounts of ethics can do and why some take theism to be the best account of the foundations of morality.

How does this become an argument for God? What can someone say about morality if moral truths go beyond the natural world? It doesn't immediate show that theism is true. A few possible accounts of morality remain:

A) Moral truths are beyond nature but have no explanation.
B) Moral truths are beyond nature but necessary. Their explanation lies within themselves.
C) God's nature explains moral truths.

Moral truths have no explanation:

The first view is that moral truths go beyond the natural order. Science can't tell us anything about them. However, this view doesn't have anything additional beyond nature to ground these truths. They're true on their own as abstract principles, part of the very fabric of the universe, but there isn't anything that makes them true. They're just true, although they didn't have to be true. Some see this view as having an advantage over theism because it's simpler and admits to fewer entities.

This is the the twenty-third post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I finished discussing the design arguments for the existence of God, and this post begins looking at moral arguments for God's existence.

[Note: These posts on the moral argument are derived in part from discussions in Gregory E. Ganssle, Thinking About God and C. Stephen Evans, "Moral Arguments" in A Companion to Philosophy of Religion, ed. Philip L. Quinn and Charles Taliaferro.]

According to naturalism, the natural world is all there is. There are subatomic particles, waves, fields, etc. There's no room for God, souls, magical forces, angels, demons, a world-spirit that orders all creation, or anything like that. The natural world known to us through physics (and disciplines building on physics, e.g. chemistry, biology, psychology, economics, history, etc.) is all there is, and we shouldn't postulate the existence of anything else.

How can a naturalist account for morality? Consider what you learn from science. You won't find moral truths. It's not as if there are moral facts out there in the physical world together with facts about brain chemistry or nuclear physics. It's hard to find a place to fit morality in. Many theists think an account of morality that seeks to rely only on the natural world will be inadequate, superficial, or illusory. The deep kind of morality most of us believe in requires denying naturalism in some way.

Consider some particular naturalistic accounts of morality.

Greg Ganssle has produced the most fun and readable introduction to philosophy of religion I have ever encountered. His target audience runs from high school seniors to introductory college students, and I can say that I have enjoyed teaching an introductory philosophy course using this book. He presents the issues in a clear-headed way while drawing readers in with fun examples and humor.

After arguing for the value of thinking through philosophical questions in a reasonable way, Ganssle argues for open-mindedness in the sense of not being so sure of your views that you are not open to reason, but he also dismisses the idea that we must be neutral or that we must not make exclusive truth claims. Open-mindedness does not require having no views in those ways. I especially like seeing this in a book designed for younger students unfamiliar enough with philosophy to need some kind of way of heading off the simplistic kind of relativism that many students of philosophy find themselves stumbling over.

The main body of the work considers philosophical arguments for and against the existence of God. His presentation of the cosmological argument is the clearest I have ever seen, avoiding technical terminology when it is not needed but making the concepts as clear as can be done without such terms. His treatment of the design argument focuses on the fine-tuning argument after showing why very few are today convinced of biological design arguments, a choice perhaps reflecting a desire to stay out of intelligent design controversies in the political realm but nonetheless reflecting the philosophical consensus among believing philosophers today. His moral argument discussion helpfully begins by showing the difficulties in naturalistic accounts of morality, thus showing reasons why someone would turn to God as an explanation. I wish he had treated some naturalistic accounts of morality that are not relativist or eliminativist, and I really wished for a discussion of Euthyphro objections, but I do think his treatment of this argument is among the best I have read at this level.


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I have a few potential posts I want to write, but things have been a bit busy around here.

1. I spent a long time troubleshooting a memory problem and then waiting a while for Dell technical support, only to find that once they've sent me my memory I still only have 128 MB instead of the 256 MB I'm supposed to have. It turns out one of the motherboard ports was bad in addition to one of the memory chips not working. I thought I tried every combination before getting off the phone with the guy, and I though both ports were working. I must have gotten things backwards in repeatedly turning the computer over to open up the bottom and then to turn it back on when done. Well, the new motherboard should solve a few minor problems that were beginning to annoy me as well, and it's nice to be operating at normal speed again. The nice thing about having a Dell complete care warranty is that they fix anything with no questions asked. I just hope they let me renew it when it expires in May. They're phasing this model out, and we're not ready to buy another computer. Sam's computer is already out of warranty, and they wouldn't let me pay ridiculous amounts of money to renew it for another year. Add to all this that my computer has been really slow lately due to the memory problem, and I've had to wait a little bit just to switch from one window to another. What's really disturbing is that Sam's computer is doing the same thing, and as far as I know she has no problem with her RAM.

2. We've finally begun our long-awaited attempt to make our windows less of a heat sink. It's good that someone who knows what he's doing is doing it, but we had to wait a while to get him. I believe we first talked to him before Thanksgiving. (There's also a currently underway renovation to this blog's design by Wink, but all I have to do is look at what he comes up with and tell him what I think. With a real life person working on our house, I have to talk to him about what he's doing and run and drive him to the hardware store when he needs stuff, since he gets dropped off by his wife.)

3. I'm spending far more time than usual wrangling three crazy kids due to having nowhere immediate to go and no immediate deadline to meet. I think I need to go to campus if I want to work, but that feels weird during a break.

This is the the nineteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. In the last post, I presented the cosmological argument for the existence of God. In this post, I'll address what I consider the two best objections to the argument before offering some concluding thoughts.

First, we might think that the universe itself is self-existent. Then the conclusion of the argument is true, but it doesn't give us anything like the traditional theistic God. Suppose that is right. This commits us to a certain view about the universe, namely that it is the sort of thing that couldn't fail to exist. It means it is false to say that there might not have been a universe. This is certainly not a conclusive argument, but many philosophers want to avoid this conclusion.

Suppose you are comfortable with that conclusion. Do we really have an explanation for why there are any dependent things at all? Being self-existent simply because your parts are all explained still doesn't give an explanation of why there are any such parts. The traditional conception of God explains it more fully. It's God's nature to exist. God is the sort of thing that has to exist, but God is also viewed as a creator. Would we see the universe as a creator in the same way? It's hard to see how, which might leave us thinking that the universe as a whole doesn't serve as the kind of explanation that God does. In short, theism as a view explains why God would be self-existent, but I know of no explanation of why the universe would be self-existent. I don't think of this response as a disproof of the objection, but I do think of it as a good reason to prefer the theistic account.

The second objection I have in mind is William Rowe's (see the reference in the previous post in the series). His strategy is to deny PSR altogether. He says there could be a third kind of answer to explanation questions. Something's nature could explain something about it. Something else could explain something about it. But if you deny PSR, you can also simply have facts without any explanation. Philosophers call these brute facts. If PSR is true, there are no brute facts. Every fact is explained. But Rowe wonders why there couldn't simply be one brute fact -- the existence of dependent beings. Then there's no reason why any dependent things exist. Some will think the question is meaningless (like the question of where the universe is or when the timeline is). I get the impression that Rowe doesn't think it's meaningless, but he just thinks there's no answer to it. Either way, this response takes PSR to be right about individual things but not about the kind of explanation this argument calls for.

This is the the eighteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear. I've posted an earlier version of this a while ago, but the comments degenerated into a discussion of things completely unrelated to the post. That time, it was a version of my notes on this that hadn't been altered since 2001. I've decided to expand it a bit based on further study of the subject, even though I haven't taught all these issues in the course that this series is based on. I should also say that my presentation depends heavily on William Rowe's work, most importantly the short article he wrote for introductory courses that appears in Reason and Responsibility, ed. Feinberg and Shafer-Landau, with one reference to one other text I have used in that course, Jan Cover and Rudy Garns's Theories of Knowledge and Reality (abbreviated TKR).

The cosmological argument for the existence of God is one of a number of classic arguments sometimes used in conjunction with each other to establish the existence of a being with some of the characteristics generally taken to be true of God. I'm going to look at three such arguments, each contributing something different to the overall picture The cosmological argument in particular occupies a very small role in any overall picture of how some have offered argumentation in support of theism.

I just (for some reason) received the hard copies of my teaching evaluations for last spring, and the online versions I looked at months ago didn't have the reverse side with the written comments, so I was able to see some of the much more useful information finally. One comment stands out as especially noteworthy: "If you didn't read you had no idea what was going on, did not present info in an easy to follow manner"

I read that to one of my teaching colleagues, and he laughed. This is what we try to get across to students in the first week of class. Isn't it a bit lame to omplain that it's true at the end of class, as if that reflects badly on the instructor? In a philosophy class, the instruction time assumes that you've already done the reading. I'm not there to summarize the reading for them just so they won't have to do it. I'm there to help them reflect on it in a way that they would have a harder time doing without someone aware of the broader philosophical tradition, to inform them of whatever the readings did not happen to cover, and to engage in methods of approaching these issues that will clarify things in ways not addressed in the readings. What would be the point of assigning reading if I didn't want them to have thought about these issues before coming to class?

What's especially funny about this is a set of further factors that I didn't notice until I turned the page over to the front. It's a comment on the following question: "How would you rate the contributions of the assigned reading materials to the course? Please explain." The choices were Excellent, Very good, Good, Fair, Poor, or Not applicable. This student chose "Very good". In fact, all of the student's answers on the computer-graded section were pretty good (except for the one about prompt grading, the bane of my teaching existence). I should also note that the student indicated that they expected to receive a C+ in the course and indicated putting in average effort to make the course a success. I'm guessing that the student vicariously experienced the very good contribution of the reading material to the course through seeing that the other students who did it tended to do well in the course. Or something.

Exam Cheating II

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I had another instance of what looks to be cheating on a take-home exam. See this post for the first case. It involves the same two students. The first time I couldn't be sure if they were cheating or just working from close notes from class. They didn't even answer all of the same questions, but the ones they answered in common (maybe 60-70% of them) were very similar. They tended to start out with identical wording, but it was because it was based on the exact wording of the question they were answering. From there the answers tended to follow similar paths but with different wordings from each other, sometimes with a sentence by one that wasn't close to anything in the other but largely consistent with working from the same outline as each other, which is what I'm guessing happened. I couldn't rule out that they had simply availed each other of each other's class notes, which I told them they could do as long as they didn't help each other arrive at their answers in any way further than that.

Well, the third exam came along, and I was right to be suspicious. The same two have submitted exams that are very similar again, but this time they did exactly the same questions. I'm guessing that they did work together on the second exam and figured I didn't notice, so they went all out this time thinking they'd be home free. The sad thing about it all is that their answers tend to be among the best in the class. I think it would have been immoral to fail them the first time, given that I couldn't really have ruled out an alternative explanation besides cheating, but it seems to me that the second time gives me enough evidence to do something.

I've decided not to fail them outright. I'd like to encourage them to come forward and admit it to me, so I'm offering a lower penalty for them if they come forward. I'm going to tell the class the basic information about the first and second occurrence and why I did nothing the first time but think it's too clear now the second time. I'll then say that I'll give half credit on each exam to each student if they don't come forward (after all they did presumably each do half the work; both are good students, as demonstrated by other work). That will still be a failing grade, but it won't be a zero. But if they come forward I'm going to be willing to let them improve their grade by answering more questions to be able to avoid failing. I won't have graded the exams yet when I say this, so they won't know if they're the ones I'm talking about, and it really will be on them to come forward. I think this is a strong enough warning to them to show that cheating is serious while giving freshmen in their first college experience a chance to make up for it if they're honest about it and willing to do the work they should have done in the first place.

Deceitful Grading

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I have two students whose take-home exams seem to follow the same lines of argument in a few questions. They use different sentence structure but use largely the same vocabulary and make mostly the same points in the same order. They didn't answer all the same questions, and sometimes one said a lot more than the other, but it really looks as if they were working together on some of the questions and deliberately trying to avoid looking as if they did. So here's my question. I had the thought to grade a couple of their similar answers with drastically different grades. If indeed they cheated, and I rob one of them of a whole bunch of points, the student probably deserves a lot worse. But it's not fair. I should do it to both. That's the downside of my plan. The upside is that it would almost assuredly motivate them to come to me to complain, and then I could point out how remarkably similar their exams were with both exams right in front of them. I'm not asking for advice here. I'm not going to do this. What I'm interested in is the ethical question. Would it be wrong to do something like this?

This is the the sixteenth post in my Theories of Knowledge and Reality series. Follow the link for more on the series and for links to other entries as they appear.

As with the other no-evidence argument posts in this series, some of my presentation is influenced by the chapter by John Hawthorne called "Arguments for Atheism" in Michael Murray, Reason for the Hope Within. This post in particular also takes a good deal from Peter van Inwagen's "It Is Wrong Everywhere, Always, and for Anyone to Believe Anything on Insufficient Evidence" and "Quam Dilecta"), which are two different presentations of the same core paper, expanded upon differently for different audiences (I assume).

In previous posts I've tried to make the strongest case for arguing that we shouldn't believe in God, on the grounds that there isn't enough evidence. There are a number of points that I'd like to make in response. This post will look at how standard responses to skepticism of any sort can enter into this debate, given that the no-evidence argument is very much like the arguments for skepticism (see the end of the last post). I have a few other points to make after considering the responses to skepticism as applied here, and those will follow in the next post.


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