Category Archives: Reason and Philosophy

Daniel Dennett on Sam Harris on Free Will

I used to spill a lot of ink here about the question of free will. In the most recent of a series of thirteen related posts on the topic, I mentioned a disagreement on this topic between two writers whose names are often linked: the philosopher Daniel Dennett and the neuroscientist Sam Harris. Both are, […]

Rawls And Abortion

In the comment-thread to our post about Duck Dynasty a few weeks back, the discussion turned to abortion rights. I wrote this: Are the not-yet-born rights-bearing persons, deserving of moral consideration? One would think that in a morally consistent ethics this would be an attribute inhering in the unborn person — but apparently in many […]

Know Your Limitations

The computer scientist David Gelernter has just posted an essay about the aggressiveness and overreach of contemporary scientism and transhumanism. In particular, he focuses on what he perceives to be an assault on the essence of our humanity — our subjectivity, which so far remains an impenetrable mystery. We read: Today science and the “philosophy […]

Consider The Following

We’re having a busy weekend — among other things, our daughter just flew in from China to stay with us for the Christmas week — and so I haven’t had the time to sit at the computer brooding and writing. For tonight, then, a logical curiosity you may not be familiar with: Newcomb’s paradox. Here’s […]

Step Right Up

Sam Harris has issued a $20,000 challenge to anyone who can refute his claim to have placed morality on a thoroughly scientific, Utilitarianist footing. (Not a merely descriptive footing, that is: a normative one: a beneficent blend of biology and Bentham.) I might have to take a go at this myself. See also Harris’s initial […]

Steven Pinker On Scientism

Steven Pinker has just published an article that seemed to be getting a lot of attention earlier today. His essay is a rejoinder to the claim, made by many in the humanities, that scientifically minded secular types are besotted by “scientism”, which is nothing more than a new form of faith masquerading as pure rationality. […]

Everythang Flows

Snoop Dogg explains dialectical materialism. Courtesy of Gizoogle.

Worth Defending

I seem to be linking to Bill Vallicella a lot lately, but that’s just because he says a lot of sensible things, and says them well. In a fine, short post from a couple of days ago, he asks: Why Not Stick To Philosophy? Why indeed? Having worked hard enough for long enough to have […]

Ave, Kevin!

Kevin Kim, whose academic specialty is the study of the world’s religions, has written a stupendous essay on the possibly-divine nature of Peter Sellers’s character Chance, from the movie Being There. Get thee hence and read it, here.

Chasing Rainbows

A vexing feature of modern physicalistic non-theism is that, followed to its logical conclusion, it leads to moral nihilism. (I realize that theistic attempts to put morality on an objective basis also face serious challenges, but that’s not the point tonight.) Moral nihilism being, to most folks, bad, there’s been a rash lately of books […]

No Big Deal

Here’s a refreshingly forthright article about abortion, in which the author, one Mary Elizabeth Williams, avoids altogether the impossibly difficult task of parsing exactly when life “begins”. She cuts the Gordian knot by conceding, arguendo, that life begins at conception, and then justifies abortion on the grounds that some lives are simply worth more than […]

In ? We Trust

I’m an admirer of the philosopher Daniel Dennett. He can be overconfidently brusque and dismissive, and in particular I have parted company with him on the issue of activist atheism (more about that in a minute), but he has an enviably fertile and wide-ranging intellect. He’s also a terrific writer; in particular I highly recommend […]

Approaching The Bench

Here’s Stanford’s Peter Robinson, interviewing Antonin Scalia for the Federalist Society (in five parts: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5). Well worth your time, I think, and you might be surprised by some of what Justice Scalia has to say.

Some Things Are In Our Control And Others Not

In times like these, when hopes are dashed and all seems lost, when the red tide of battle has sown the fields with the corpses of your brethren, when a dark night has fallen that dawn may never break, it’s time to consult the Stoics. One of the greatest of them was Epictetus (55-135), a […]

Entropy and Ethics

Last year I wrote a little post about visiting Google’s lavish offices in Manhattan to see my friend Greg, who had recently joined their engineering staff. Here’s a longish excerpt: It being a mild day, Greg and I dined al fresco on a high terrace with a sweeping view of Midtown. (I had a delightful […]

Kim On Vallicella On Dennett

Our friend Kevin Kim has written a meaty response to Bill Vallicella’s latest remarks on Dennettian theoskepsis. (The study of religion is Kevin’s academic specialty; and in passing I’ll recommend his book Water From a Skull for those with an interest in the field of comparative religion.) A quibble: in this post Kevin discusses Bill’s […]

All Roads Lead

Here’s something odd I just read in a tooltip at XKCD: Wikipedia trivia: if you take any article, click on the first link in the article text not in parentheses or italics, and then repeat, you will eventually end up at “Philosophy”. I’ve spent the past fifteen minutes trying it. So far, it’s worked every […]

Numbers: Real, Or What?

Our friend Dr. Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has written a post arguing that numbers have an eternal, mind-independent existence as Platonic abstracta. This is of course a respectable and widely held opinion, with an ancient pedigree. I’m leery of it, though: I think numbers are what minds invent to make useful models of certain […]

Works For Me

When it comes to thinking about human consciousness and reason, people divide, broadly speaking, into two camps: those who see consciousness and reason as primary features of reality, and those who see them as emerging from the activity of suitably configured physical systems (in particular, human brains). For those in the first camp, consciousness is […]

Spin

In a recent study of psychological “priming”, boffins at two universities have turned up an unsurprising result: anxiety about death can incline people more favorably toward belief in supernatural agency and purpose, in particular “intelligent design”. (The study might have been somewhat slanted, however; one of the metrics used for confidence in naturalism was “liking […]

What Is A Moral Fact?

In the comment thread of our previous post, we’ve been looking at Sam Harris’s claim that there can be a prescriptive natural science of human morality, one that uncovers objective normative truths. This would rebut, it seems, the idea that there are no “oughts” in nature. People do want there to be absolute moral truths, […]

Sam Harris On The Ramparts

A while back I noted that Sam Harris has a new book out (The Moral Landscape), in which he argues that it is possible to develop an objective, entirely naturalistic science of human morality that would be not just descriptive, but prescriptive as well. From a philosophical perspective this is a hugely audacious assertion, because […]

Sam Harris Presents His Case

Sam Harris is about to release a new book, called The Moral Landscape. Dr. Harris has been working for a while now to try to put morality on an objective footing (something I think can’t be done). His premise, if I may sum it up with extreme brevity, is that there are some moral systems […]

Do True Scotsmen Have Free Will?

Here’s a clarifying passage from Daniel Dennett on the idea that the findings of neuroscience prove that “free will” is a fiction: Recall the myth of Cupid, who flutters about on his cherubic wings making people fall in love by shooting them with his little bow and arrow. This is such a lame cartoonists’ convention […]

Why Be A Religious Moderate?

Over at Maverick Philosopher, Bill Vallicella has written a fine post in response to a query from a reader about religious zealotry. The reader’s argument was: Given that, as most religions claim — 1) There is an afterlife of infinite duration; 2) Those who live in strict accordance with the religion’s requirements and prohibitions will […]

Knot

An unconfirmable truth: the unexamined life is not worth living.

All The Nous That’s Fit To Print

The New York Times has introduced a philosophy-blog. It’s called The Stone. It will be interesting to see how it goes.

Discussion, Discussed

Our cyber-friend Jeffery Hodges has just published, and posted at his website, a thoughtful article on the intellectual and cultural requirements for productive discourse. The subject is of particular interest to Jeffery, who is a college professor in Korea — where, in keeping with Confucian social tradition, to question one’s superiors is to get above […]

That Word Again

Of all the conceptual tar-pits into which discussions of Darwinian naturalism often sink, none smothers its victims so prolifically as the concept of “design”. We reserve it jealously for the foresightedly purposeful efforts of conscious agents, which leaves us fumfering about for a word to describe the beautiful machinery of living things, and the powerful […]

Ought From Naught

In a post over at VFR, Lawrence Auster comments on an essay by Stanley Fish in which Professor Fish remarks on the inability of pure “secular” reason, bereft of normative bedrock in the Divine, to provide any “oughts”. This is catnip to Mr. Auster, who is, despite having various admirable qualities, a crusading anti-Darwinist. The […]

Oakeshott On Conservatism, Cont’d

Recently Bill Vallicella excerpted, and I commented briefly upon, some passages from philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s essay On Being Conservative. Wishing to refresh my memory of a few points, I opened it up again today — and was impressed once more by what a fine piece of writing it is, and by how well it limns […]

Parallel Postulates

Lawrence Auster is a very smart fellow, and I admire his formidable presence on the ramparts of Western culture. But he has curious blind spots, for one so intelligent, and one of them has to do with Darwinism. Have a look at this exchange with a reader, one who patiently tries to explain, as I […]

No Comment

For years now I’ve been reading, and occasionally commenting, over at Bill Vallicella’s website, The Maverick Philosopher. Bill’s a grumpy old cuss, and an unrepentant dualist, but he’s the real deal, and an excellent writer to boot. A philosophical amateur and autodidact like myself can learn a lot there (which I certainly have). Bill’s blog […]

Les Choses Sont Contre Nous

We have all had the harrowing suspicion, rising at times almost to a dreadful certainty, that the inanimate objects of the world are arrayed against us with bloodless and implacable malice. We pop the window open on a fine spring morning and it falls back down, shattering the glass. We grab the only pencil at […]

Tower Of Babel

In grappling with persistent questions regarding key aspects of human existence and the natural world — intentionality, free will, morality, and so on — it is very easy to become entangled in terminological difficulties. Here’s a particularly contentious example.

As You Like It

From E.A. Robinson, 1931: “If a man is a materialist, or a mechanist, or whatever he likes to call himself, I can see for him no escape from belief in a futilty so prolonged and complicated and diabolical and preposterous as to be worse than absurd: and, as I do not know that such a […]

Nothing To See Here

We are still on vacation, but I did find some time for the blogosphere this evening. I spent it, though, reading and commenting on a fascinating thread about free will over at Bill Vallicella’s place. Here.

Renewed Interest In Self-Interest

According to today’s news, it appears Objectivism’s star is ascending lately, with sales of Ayn Rand’s books up sharply. Readers taking an interest in Randian thought should visit The Maverick Philosopher, where Dr. William Vallicella has for some time now been conducting a searching examination of Rand and her followers. Note also this post over […]

Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense

There is a characteristically penetrating conversation underway over at The Maverick Philosopher on the subject of whether mere thoughts can be morally wrong (Bill Vallicella says yes.) I’m still mulling over the arguments made, and haven’t had time myself to read all of the latest contributions, so am reserving comment for now. Go and have […]

Axe Of Faith

Bill Vallicella, the Maverick Philosopher, has written a series of posts lately about just what atheism is. In particular his aim has been to rebut the notion that atheists merely lack a positive belief in God, and that the burden of proof naturally falls upon the theist. I am not going to take up the […]

Pensée

Number 47, in the Krailsheimer edition: Justice and truth are two points so fine that our instruments are too blunt to touch them exactly. If they do make contact, they blunt the point and press all round on the false rather than the true.

What Is Truth?

In commenting on a recent post, our reader and commenter Addofio, parsing the distinction between truth and opinion, says that “it all depends on what we mean by ‘true’”. Kevin Kim takes a good preliminary poke at the question over at his place. Or, as my friend Anthony Bouza once explained it, in closing a […]

Bah! Humbug!

In a challenging and thoughtful comment on our recent post about tolerance, our reader Addofio chides me for the disdainful tone I have taken in some of my criticism of religion. She recommends that we discuss ideas, however preposterously absurd, in emotionally neutral terms, as a gesture of respect for the people who hold them. […]

Pensée

I recently began a careful re-reading of Blaise Pascal’s Pensées, a book I had not looked at closely in decades. The work is primarily an argument for Pascal’s Jansenist Christian beliefs, but prepares the soil with a searching review of Man’s transience and wretchedness. The genius Pascal, in his cruelly foreshortened life, acquired wisdom far […]

Change We Can Believe In

Following on from yesterday’s post, I’d like to look more closely at the matter of potentiality. As mentioned previously, the argument put forward by Bill Vallicella in his discussion of abortion at The Maverick Philosopher is that from the moment of conception the zygote has the potential to become a fully developed adult, a rights-possessing […]

Working Moms

As mentioned in our previous post, there is a discussion ongoing at The Maverick Philosopher on the subject of abortion. The argument put forward (see yesterday’s post for a very brief synopsis) is that a fertilized zygote has the potentiality to become a fully developed, rights-possessing adult — and, in virtue of that, should be […]

Does Potential Confer The Right To Life?

Over at his website The Maverick Philosopher, Dr. William Vallicella has been puting together a philosophical defense of the pro-life position based on an argument from the potential personhood of the conceptus. His argument runs as follows: 1. We ascribe the right to life to neonates and young children on the basis of their potentialities. […]

Consolation Prize

Well, we’ve just got back to New York, and should be resuming normal operations shortly. In the preceding post I neglected to mention the award given to the second-place winner: it was a copy of an amusing little book called Plato And A Platypus Walk Into A Bar…, in which the authors, Thomas Cathcart and […]

A Potential Disagreement

Sorry for the dead air yesterday; I’ve gone and got myself involved in another wrangle over at Bill Vallicella’s, and spent too long over there to have time for a post here. The topic is the morality of abortion, which as everyone knows by now is a great sucking vortex of infinite confusion and intractable […]

The Magic Feather

In a comment to a recent post, reader David Brightly asked if I was worried that naturalistic accounts of morality “might lead to less good and more harm being done.” It’s a good question, and I am not sure about the answer.