Up-Coming Talks by Jon Haidt

Jon Haidt is going to be on campus this Monday giving two talks.  The first is at noon and is about his most recent book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.  The second is at 5 PM and is about ‘hive psychology’.  I’m definitely going to make it to the first, probably the second.  In any case, I’m quite looking forward to it and will probably post some of my thoughts about it afterward!

Dennett’s ‘Deepities’ and His One Simple Policy

While I have several reservations about Dennett’s philosophy, I have to hand it to the man – he has panache.  His written works are like this – narrative and entertaining.  And I love the idea of ‘deepities’.

Again, I have reservations.  He (like Dawkins, et al.) want to make religion a thing of the past and so he offers this policy.  However, he (like Dawkins, et al.) misunderstands people – even if you made Christianity and Islam and Judaism and all the rest disappear tomorrow, people would still be prone to irrational, intolerant and dangerous behaviours.  Neither of the two major murderous ideologies that captured state-control during the twentieth century (that is, communism and fascism/Nazism) sprung from deep-seated religious motivations.  Besides, as long as people desire transcendence, they will believe in it.  In any case, I think that’s a good policy anyway – not least because it might make people mellower about what other people think, but also because there’s just so much fascinating stuff to know!

Meditation and Philosophers of Mind

Although it will cause offence, I must admit to thinking that any philosopher of mind who refuses to practise some (broadly but appropriately defined) form of meditation is a fool.  Why?  Historically, philosophizing about the mind has arisen from phenomenological facts about our common experiences and how they could possibly fit into reality.  The trick is, meditation, engaged in diligently and over a long enough period of time, demonstrates that our naive phenomenology is actually wrong about a great many things.  In addition to helping with our direct or personal phenomenology, meditation communities have developed extensive theoretical/classificatory phenomenological schemas which are, in principle, testable (albeit, not necessarily by the  third-person methods favoured by laboratory science).  What analytic philosophy of mind desperately needs is a phenomenology of just this sort, both to help it get its concepts straight, but also to help it map phenomenology to neurobiology – a task that is of critical theoretical import for both materialists and dualists alike.

Contrary to Agressive Atheists and Their Theistic Counterparts,…

can be both an atheist and an agnostic.  It has been claimed by at least one theist of whom I am aware that he appreciates atheists because they at least have strength of their convictions, whereas he finds agnostics to be too wishy-washy.  Of course, a sentiment such as this makes perfect sense coming from a man of faith – he recognizes and admires firm belief in the face of doubt, even if that belief directly contradicts his own.  [1]  And I am personally acquainted with many atheists who would agree with this pastor that agnosticism is an unacceptable form of cowardice because it is obviously the case that there is no God. 

But I must demur.  I think both of these positions can be taken up by the same person, because they have different domains – atheism is a doxastic (i.e. belief related) position, while agnosticism is an epistemic (i.e. knowledge related) matter.  It is true that I do not believe that Christianity is true (or, more strongly, I believe that it is false), and I believe that I have good reasons for saying so.  But I also think that I do not and cannot know that there is nothing at all that exists which is invisible to us and which might well be something that is deserving of the appellation of ‘God’ or ‘The Absolute’ or somesuch.  [2]  So I don’t see these positions as incompatible.


[1] This reminds me of an old story about my great-grandfather that has been passed down in family lore.  He (British) fought in the trenches in WWI and had the following to say about Frenchmen and Germans.  Paraphrased: “give me a German over a Frenchman any day: at least you know the German’s not going to run.”

[2] Granted, the falsity of Christianity is something that can be more definitively assigned to the realm of knowledge because it posits miracles and interventions by God in the natural world – for example, I am fairly certain that I know that there has never been a virgin birth.  Other positions are firmly out of the realm of knowledge, however.  For instance, deism is precisely the sort of position that I literally cannot make any knowledge claims about.

Naturalism: Either Vacuous or False

We hear talk of ‘naturalistic’ metaphysics, ethics, science, and epistemology, but it is never quite clear just what work it does when prefixed to any of these – or at least, it is not clear to me.  Now, in practise ‘naturalistic’ can often be taken as a code-word that stands in for something like ‘atheistic’ or ‘non-supernatural’, and that is fine (so far as it goes), but if naturalism is nothing besides atheism or anti-supernaturalism, what point is there in using that word instead of one of the others?  Unless, of course, its use is meant to disguise the actual content of the view in question (whatever motivation  there might be to do so, I’m sure I don’t know what it is) or because, by design or accident, it helps views to slip past the critical faculties of reasoners without sounding alarms.  This is not so outlandish – think about the effect that terms like (to choose two) ‘Christian’ or ‘Democrat’ have on people’s faculties of critical reasoning.  And as a concept naturalism lends itself quite well to this sort of role for, despite its being appealed to so very, very frequently, it is sometimes hard to sort out just what its supposed contents are.  Personally, I think the concept is either vacuous or false and so should be junked.

This is a strong claim, but I think it to be the right one.  Thinking about what naturalism might mean, it clearly has something to do with the denial of supernatural entities or phenomena – but in what does that denial consist?  On its simplest plausible construal, naturalism is the claim that there is no such thing as ghosts, say, because ghosts are super-natural entities that don’t observe the natural laws of the universe.  This is true, of course – there are no ghosts – but it is a perfectly meaningless statement.  Imagine for a moment that we lived in a world like our own in most relevant respects (for example, gravity has the same force and effects on matter, etc.) but with the exception that this world contains ghosts.  Obviously, the ghosts must in at least some ways causally interact with that world, else we couldn’t know of their existence.  Moreover, the ghosts would exhibit certain regularities in their existence, behaviours, and powers.  They must, since everything that exists does – in fact, it is due to the exhibited regularities of things that we can agree that there are such things as cocker spaniels and mousetraps and that they are different sorts of things.  Since the ghosts would causally interact with the world in regular ways, we would be able to postulate and identify mechanisms and laws [1] by which such interaction is possible.  So in this world ghosts exist and are governed by the laws of that world, which makes them a natural part of that world – naturalism would be every bit as true in that world as in our own, even though it is a world that possesses ‘supernatural’ entities!

A critic could object, of course, that this is simply a counterfactual scenario and that of course he doesn’t mean that ghosts are compatible with some postulated set of natural laws, but that there are no supernatural elements that are allowed by our set, the actual physical laws.  But what exactly might he mean by ‘the actual set of physical laws’? 

If by this he means to say the set of laws as revealed by a future ideal science[2], then he is again saying nothing of substance – if, on the way to our ideal science, we discover that telekinesis is real and governed by natural laws, then it would be (and always have been) part of our ‘naturalistic’ universe, skeptics be damned!  Moreover, if our ideal science is the litmus test of what counts as ‘natural’ then, since it accurately describes the actual laws of the universe, of course there could be no ‘supernatural’ phenomena – such phenomena would simply be those that are impossible under that set of laws.  If, on the other hand, our critic means by the actual set of physical laws those that are revealed by our current best physics, two things fall out of this.  Firstly, he should not properly be called a ‘naturalist’ – he is, more accurately, a physicalist.  Secondly, if he is a physicalist, then he is almost certainly wrong.  Honest scientists are rather open about the fact that modern physics is not an ideal science and, consequently, that cherished theories may have to be altered or abandoned on our way to such an ideal science.

If my reasoning is correct, then, ‘naturalism’ is either vacuous or false and can be usefully disposed of without doing harm to any philosophical or scientific enterprise.


[1] Even if such laws/mechanisms were found to be ‘fuzzy’.  Fuzziness is not a thing that should bother the denizens of an age comfortable with quantum mechanics.

[2] For the sake of the argument, let’s suppose that an ideal science is capable of fully explaining all possible phenomena within the world to which it pertains.  I don’t know that this is true, but that is beside the point here.

One More Bit of Procrastination…

I just came across a good philosophical review of Lawrence M. Krauss’ A Universe From Nothing.  It’s a good treatment of the problems, but the really great part is the last paragraph – if you read nothing else of it, read that.  (A tip of the hat to William Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher).

The Shape of Things to Come

So I am currently in the midst of end-of-term craziness – please ignore for the moment that I am procrastinating by working on this post! – and I don’t expect to be getting up much content of any great substance.  That is, there will be no 3000 word essays in the near future (I have enough of those to write as is).  I think that for the next month or so I will have my hands full with getting this bad-boy set up and running, but I will provide some short posts on whatever ideas happen to strike me.  In the longer term, however, I’m hoping to do more, like (cyber) inking essays of various lengths, as well as using the space as a sort of conceptual clearning-house and keeping on track with my reading list.