Saturday, July 10, 2010

Notes and Links

* A remarkable animation of deliberately induced nuclear explosions between 1945 and 1998. It starts slowly, of course, but soon becomes quite the fireworks display.

* A discussion of music as philosophy by Robert Spano:

It raises more questions than gives answers, but that's hardly unparalleled when it comes to philosophy. I think the basic issue ends up being this. The reason one would usually tend not to think of music itself as a philosophical activity is that it does not (qua music) articulate any propositions or arguments. However, it is not clear that all philosophical activity requires such articulation; in fact, certain practical activities have often, by a longstanding tradition, been treated as philosophical activities despite the fact that they are not themselves articulations of propositions or arguments -- joining together into a community to live the good life, for instance. That being so, it would seem that either music is capable of being a philosophical activity in itself, or there is some principled difference that prevents music from being a philosophical activity and this principled difference is not the mere fact that music is not an articulation of positions and arguments. Moreover, since music is a rational activity, and there is no a priori reason to deny of any rational activity that it can serve as a philosophical activity, there seems positive reason to think that music can be a philosophical activity. The challenge, then, is either to elucidate how music can be a philosophical activity or to give some straightforward argument for why apparent reasons like these, in favor of music's having at least the ability to be a philosophical activity, fail.

* "The Unpublishable Philosopher" has a criticism of Karen Armstrong (ht). Armstrong seems to me to be as surely a sign of the deterioration of thought among liberal theologians as the New Atheism is a sign of the deterioration of thought among atheists; her arguments are almost always crude and simplistic versions of arguments that were better articulated and developed decades ago at least. But somehow she has become a media darling and thus is always popping up as the representative of theism generally; which makes one want to bang one's head against the table when one compares her work even to some of the classics of liberal theology, e.g., Edwin Abbott Abbott's The Kernel and the Husk (the same Abbott famous for Flatland, which in its own quirky way is also, interestingly enough, a classic of liberal theology). Thus it's perhaps unsurprising that ArithmoQuine makes some criticisms of her that really do stick.

Nonetheless, the tropes out of which she constructs her discourse have some intellectual history behind them; and, deteriorated though they may have become by the time they have reached Armstrong, the tropes themselves were hardly developed by lightweight reasoning, and are certainly not adquately refuted by playing stupid, which is what some of ArithmoQuine's criticisms come dangerously near to being. A good example is the response to Armstrong's suggestion that determinism undermines our idea of thinking, learning, reasoning, and choosing; AQ responds to this that he has no idea what she's talking about in the case of the first three. But it's not really so extraordinarily complicated; learning involves study and research, which are practical activities that involve choices, while reasoning is often nonmonotonic, which often is plausibly understood as requiring choices, and so forth, so if determinism is worrisome in any way for choice there's nothing that obviously prevents it from being worrisome for thought, learning, or reasoning. The worry has been around for quite some time in liberal theological circles; I wouldn't expect AQ to know that, but there is really no excuse for someone with philosophical training not to see the potential connections here. Everyone has studied Descartes and the Meditations on First Philosophy, and it is clear enough that there is a connection in Descartes, and that determinism would put a wrench in the works of Descartes's whole account of thinking; one may argue that this sort of analysis is flawed, but the fact that it can be made is getting pretty close to being literally Philosophy 101.

* Bill Vallicella argues that necessarily something exists.

* D. G. Myers discusses Marilynne Robinson on parascientific literature and subjectivity. Arguments of this sort are difficult to give proper rational grounding, but the book sounds interesting.

* Roger Pearse considers transmission of texts.

* Kenny Pearce on implicature and the interpretation of texts.

* Apparently an adjunct in the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Religion, who teaches a course on Catholicism, was removed from the adjunct pool for an email sent to the students that gave arguments for the position that homosexual acts were contrary to natural law. It seems to me that in his email his explanation was clumsy and mangled at best (a common failing in explaining this doctrine, since people try to make it simpler than it actually is), but it was a pretty mild email, also. There are some in arms over it as a violation of academic freedom, but I find I am not; that's just what an adjunct professorship contract is, a term-by-term hiring system (this is one major reason why academics are frustrated with the increasing reliance on adjuncts rather than full-time positions). Even to say that he was fired is arguably to overstate his position as adjunct; he was simply told that offers of courses were no longer going to be renewed. That's the line the University is taking, and they are strictly right. Adjuncts are permatemp workers. Given that the professor was both popular and recognized for teaching excellence, and that, as far as I can tell, there was one and only one complaint about the matter (and a second-hand complaint, at that), simply terminating the arrangement rather than giving a warning (particularly since it's standard to allow professors to give their own opinions on classroom topics, even of the most controversial kind, as long as they allow students room to disagree) seems a little stupid on the part of the department, and shows a lack of even minimal collegiality; but even so, it's a form of uncollegial stupidity that is their prerogative. It really makes no sense to complain of these things on a mere case-by-case basis rather than, say, advocating for better conditions for adjuncts.

Meanwhile, there are places where worse things can happen to professors who are Catholic.

* Richard Brown gives an outline of a case for agnosticism which is pretty interesting; there are other kinds of agnostics, I think, but I imagine quite a few agnostics would think something in this ballpark is right.

* Jerry Coyne and Greta Cristina insist that design arguments for God's existence. are valid. Of course, there's a purely formal sense in which any argument can be made valid, but they are insisting on a much stronger position, which is that there are plenty of kinds of design arguments are valid without any implausible assumptions underwriting the inferences (what we might call substantive validity) -- that, in fact, the only problem with them is the right kind of phenomenon to start the inference off simply hasn't been found. I always find it remarkable how many atheists today insist on this, when just a couple of generations ago it would have been hard to find any, in public at least. Part of it goes back to Dawkins, I think, who has always conceded a great deal to Paley; all the examples Coyne and Cristina provide are merely more generalized Paley-type design inferences. Part of it, too, perhaps, goes with the fact that accepting that design arguments are substantively valid allows one more easily to use the structurally related arguments from evil and hiddenness. This is a double-edged sword with regard to atheism, as the case of Cleanthes in Hume's Dialogues shows: Philo is able to use Cleanthes's similar moves to run the argument from evil, but Cleanthes had earlier used them to show that Philo had to concede the basic design inference and that the strength of the starting point would then only be a matter of degree. It is remarkable how contemporary atheism has advanced so little beyond Hume; even the examples are much the same (and, it should be noted, are much the same as those given by ID theorists when they argue that their basic inferences are substantively valid, and just need the right phenomenon to work).

My own view, of course, is that these arguments consisting of 'lists of things that would persuade me' tend to be naive as to psychology, as to analysis of argument, and as to the underlying accounts of evidential confirmation on which they rely. As Chris Schoen notes, many of the things that the atheists claim would make them believe are things of which theists would often be very skeptical unless additional safeguards were added, rightly so; and finding substantively valid design arguments for God's existence that are not question-begging is tricky business -- there are candidates, but it takes a lot of work to show that they are even serious candidates. None of Cristina's examples of things that would convince her are things for which I can see any warrants that would not themselves be highly controvertible. On the plus side of it all, it all seems to show that you can catch up completely on almost the whole range of theist-atheist debate outside of academic philosophy simply by reading Hume's Dialogues, which is bound to be a considerable time-saver.

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