10/31/11

Seven Billion


Today's the big day, says the UN--there are now seven billion people.  Is that too many? Tony Ord gives a really terrific lecture about the question here.  More cool graphics at NPR here.  Cool graphics at The Atlantic here.

10/29/11

Free Will and Divine Foreknowledge -- Mental Masturbation?

These days philosophers who accept Templeton money can expect to be mocked by the atheist community--by which I mean folks other than the 70% of philosophers who are atheists.  Now, I can see that the money itself is just a little dirty -- I can understand objections on that level.  But what's really odd is the way non-philosophers presume to be able to judge the research that gets funded. The idea seems to be that philosophy is something everyone can do -- it takes no expertise to tell whether a research project is worthwhile or not worthwhile.

The latest atheist-derided project is UC Riverside graduate student Patrick Todd's research on divine foreknowledge and free will.  According to the university announcement --
The fellowship enables young scholars to use contemporary analytic methods to pursue independent research in the fields of divine and human agency, such as moral responsibility and freedom of will; or philosophy of mind and its theological implications, such as the presence of the divine in a natural world and the emergence of consciousness ...
His postdoctoral research project, “Divine Foreknowledge, the Philosophy of Time, and the Metaphysics of Dependence: Some New Approaches to an Old Problem,” assesses a core Ockhamist thesis about foreknowledge. William of Ockham was a 13th century philosopher. “The central contention of the Ockhamist concerns a point about the order of explanation. According to the Ockhamist, it is because of what we do that God long ago believed that we would do these things. That is, God’s past beliefs depend in an important sense on what we do, and thus, says the Ockhamist, we can sometimes have a choice about God’s past beliefs,” he explained. “The overarching goal of this project is to develop and assess this core Ockhamist thesis along two underexplored dimensions: the philosophy of time, and the metaphysics of dependence – both of which have seen an explosion of recent interest.”
Patrick Todd works with John Martin Fischer, one of the top free will experts in the world -- and a non-believer.  Todd has already published about free will in the top peer-reviewed journal in philosophy.  Given these indirect clues, the chances that this student is a mush-minded fool are roughly zero. But here's biologist Jerry Coyne's learned, or unlearned, assessment: "This is an area about which I’m completely ignorant, and happy to remain so, because it sounds like a godawful cesspool of theological lucubration." 

Ophelia Benson at least shows appropriate modesty when she wonders if she's missing something.  She has the gut feeling that it's "conceptually incoherent" to imagine there could be divine foreknowledge in a world with free will. God would have to be capable of the logically impossible. I take it that's her point when she writes,
But what’s being described here is not something that doesn’t actually exist but something that (given everything we know) couldn’t exist – something that makes no sense – an omniscient god that knows the future, which is not determined because free will says it can’t be. If god knows the future, it’s determined. If it’s not determined, then god doesn’t know it. Gotta pick one; can’t have both. Both in combination are just contradictory.
Certainly God's omnipotence is not thought to include doing the logically impossible, like lifting a rock nobody can lift.  But is foreknowledge, in a world with free will, really logically impossible?

Suppose God right now in October 2011 knows that Obama will win the election in 2012. There is  free will, we are supposing, so millions of people will freely cast their votes in 2012, before Obama wins. Since we are ruling out determinism, God does not know about Obama winning by knowing facts about how the world is right now, and drawing on his knowledge of laws to make a prediction. Rather, God knows about Obama winning directly, despite the fact that his winning turns on all those free votes. Also suppose knowledge requires the right sort of dependence of the knower's belief on the fact that's believed. Many theories of knowledge say something of that sort.

Are we now at the point of supposing the logically impossible? Not necessarily. What we have to believe, to make all this coherent, is that the state of God's mind in 2011 can depend in a certain way on facts about the world in 2012.  The past has to depend on the future in the right sort of way.  That would be possible, even if there is free will,  assuming there is backward causation, or time worked in some funny way.  That may or may not be physically impossible, but it's not (obviously) logically impossible.   And there may(may, may) also be ways to make sense of this sort of dependence, without making extravagant claims about time and causation.  Perhaps that's part of what the student plans to think about, with the help of his Templeton grant.

Note, just for fun--the past does depend on the future in some trivial and unproblematic ways, even if there is free will.  What happens in 2012 will make sentences written in 2011 true or false, will make desires in 2011 satisfied or unsatisfied, will make hopes in 2011 dashed or fulfilled.  The past does depend on the future in some respects.  The question, though, is whether it does, or could, conceivably, depend on the future in the right sort of way for anyone (like God) to know the future, assuming there is free will.

What value could this sort of research have, if there is no god?  Jerry Coyne has this to say--
If there isn’t one ... then the project becomes an exercise in mental masturbation, musing about what something nonexistent would do if it existed. Why is that any more valid than wondering how an omnimalevolent God could allow good in the world, or why an omnibenevolent God allows evil?  Or, for that matter, how fairies would keep their wings dry in the rain, or how Santa manages to deliver all those presents to billions of kids in only one evening. And what if you assume that God isn’t omniscient? Then the whole project is moot.
He seems to think that all counterfactual assumptions are equally valuable or valueless, but this is obviously not so. We get nowhere by supposing there are fairies in the garden, but learn a lot from other fanciful assumptions.  For example, there is a mountain of research in philosophy of mind and philosophy of language that proceeds from the counterfactual assumption that there is a place called Twin Earth--just like earth in every single way, but a distinct place.   Can you really dismiss it all as mental masturbation, on grounds that there is no twin earth? The answer is no. 

Likewise, you get some valuable insights in ethics from supposing (contrary to fact) that the fetus is a person (see Judith Jarvis Thomson's famous article on abortion), or from supposing (contrary to fact) that once upon a time people got together and contracted with one another to form a society (see Rawls and the whole social contract tradition), or from supposing there's this thing called an experience machine, that people can enter to maximize their future happiness (see Nozick). 

What do we gain, philosophically, by supposing (or even believing!) that there is an omnipotent God, and trying to figure out if his/her/its knowledge of the future is compatible with free will?  The discussion above ought to have made that clear.  To make headway on these things, you must carefully think about  time, knowledge, causation, free will,  etc. There is plenty of philosophical pay-off, whether you enter the discussion as a believer, or you regard God as a counterfactual assumption, like twin earth, fetal personhood, the social contract, or Nozick's experience machine.

10/24/11

Socratic Mama

What a great blog name!  In fact, if I had any sense (I don't) I'd have thought of that as the title of the book I'm working on.  Socratic Mama is Anne Crumpacker's blog for secular parents and kids, which originated as a result of an encounter her daughter had with Christopher Hitchens at the Freethought convention in Houston a few weeks ago.  The whole story was at Jerry Coyne's website.  I particularly think secular kids need to know there are other secular kids - they're not actually freaks.  In Dallas, it can definitely sometime seem that way.  Most amazing thing my son once heard another kid say:  atheists are people who hate life.  The youngsters need to be prepared to cope with stuff like that, without making it payback time.  Anyhow...you might like to visit.

Pinker on Violence (3)

Angels update. I'm making good progress on Better Angels of Our Nature and starting to be a fan.  One of the very likable things about Steven Pinker is that he cheerfully rebels against political correctness and academic fads.  He's not a true conservative, but doesn't mind sometimes sounding like one.  Why did crime rise in the 60s and fall in the 90s?  He doesn't mind putting some of the blame on the "decivilizing" trends of the 60s--the sexual revolution, drug use, rebellious youth, etc.  He doesn't mind crediting the drop in crime to law and order, "broken windows" programs in crime-ridden neighborhoods, more incarceration, new legislation like California's "three strikes you're out," etc. 

Pinker is an atheist, but cheerfully gives some of the credit for falling crime to black churches and things like the Promise Keeper's rally in Washington and the religiously-tinged Million Man March.  Presumably he's against the death penalty, but he doesn't spin it's continuation in the US as some huge abomination. In fact, he says we barely still really use it.  He asks an interesting question: would advocates still favor the death penalty if it were consistently used in all 50 states, instead of just in a fraction of one percent of murder cases?  How would death penalty advocates feel if there were about 27 executions per day in the US?

One question that comes up throughout the book--does it really make sense to "correct for" total population, equating 1 million murders in a smaller world with the killing of 6 million people during the Holocaust? The reductio ad absurdum of this approach is right there in the funny point Pinker point about Cain killing Abel, at the beginning of the book. At the time, if we are to believe the bible story, that amounted to Cain's wiping out 25% of the world's population.  If you're scoring moral horrors, should you really treat the murder of one man at the dawn of time as equivalent to the murder of a couple of billion people today?  No, surely not.  While the size of massacre, relative to the world's whole population, has some importance, the absolute number of killings and quantity of suffering and death is significant too.  Some of the evidence in the book about declining violence turns on this relative accounting method, so isn't totally convincing.

General reaction:  nobody can read this book and come away still believing platitudes about the basic goodness of humankind.  The cruelty described in this book is completely mind boggling.

10/22/11

Empathic vs. Systematic?

Inspired by this report on women in philosophy, I'm going to be speaking to our undergraduates in a few weeks about female flight--so to speak.  Why do women start out being about half of all students in lower level philosophy classes, but then gradually thin out, until they're only 20-25% of all philosophy faculty?

In that report, the favored explanations have to do with "barriers"-- features of the philosophy world that drive women away.  The authors don't take it seriously that women might just be different, so less suited to philosophy in some unavoidable way.  I figure I want my presentation to touch on all the possibilities--both explanations in terms of barriers, and explanations in terms of differences.  But what--pray tell--would be the key difference?  In search of hypotheses, I decided to read Simon Baron Cohen's book The Essential Difference The difference, he says, is that the male brain is systematic and the female brain is empathic.

When Baron Cohen is trying to sound politically correct, he talks about small differences, and statistical differences, and distributions. Women more often have brains that are a little better in this way, men more often have brains that are a little better in that way.  But the take home message is much more dramatic.  Using the phrases "the male brain" and "the female brain" suggests differences like those that separate "the male reproductive system" and "the female reproductive system."  Big, pervasive differences.

He doesn't substantiate the claim that there are these big, pervasive differences, but nevertheless reaches conclusions as if he had --
 Society needs both of the main brain types. People with the female brain make the most wonderful counselors, primary-school teachers, nurses, carers, therapists, social workers, mediators, group facilitators, or personnel staff. Each of these professions requires excellent empathizing skills.  People with the male brain make the most wonderful scientists, engineers, mechanics, technicians, musicians, architects, electricians, plumbers, taxonomists, catologists, bankers, toolmakers, programmers, or even lawyers.  Each of these professions requires excellent systematizing skills.
Tell your daughter to run like hell if she ever sees this book on the shelf of her highschool career counselor! Please ...

Now I'm sure Baron Cohen would back off, if pressed. No, no, no, the male brain is just a brain--you can have one in your head, even if you've got the female reproductive system.  So never fear, ladies, you can be scientists and musicians too. But don't buy it. The message here is about men vs. women.

Now, if he'd really proven that men and women are systematic vs. empathic, we'd just have to put up with it and try to cope, but here's the next problem.  I think he forces the data into this simple pattern, and the reason he does so has nothing to do with telling the truth about men and women.  Rather, what he's after is a theory he has about autism.  He wants it to come out that women are empathic and men are systematic because he thinks autistic people have hyper-male brains. Since autism involves having an impaired ability to read minds, the hyper-male brain hypothesis requires him to see empathy as non-male; and since autistic people are highly oriented toward mechanical systems, he's got to stress the systematic thinking of men.  In short, the explanation of autism is the cart that's pulling this horse.

Some very important things about male-female differences get hidden and suppressed, so that the systematic vs. empathic contrast can predominate. For example, Baron Cohen acknowledges that women do better than men in language skills, but instead of stressing that, and using it when he draws conclusions about careers, he demotes it to the status of being merely a factor that accounts for why women are so empathic. Suppose you took it seriously that women excel at language, and made that an independent part of your thinking about their career prospects. Then you would have to add some very different options to career list for people with "the female brain" (ugh, the phrase is awful)--novelist, linguist, lawyer, professor, diplomat, journalist, programmer.

Let's suppose, just for fun, that women have particular strengths in both language and empathy.  And let's give the guys systematic thinking, in the sense Baron Cohen has in mind, but also spatial skills, since there seems to be a lot of evidence for male strength in that area. Systematic thinking means trying to figure out how stuff works and putting everything into a category.  It's oriented to mechanical systems and meaningless facts--What kind of tree is that?  How does the TV work?  If we go with language and empathy as female strengths, and systematic thinking and spatial skills as male strengths, does that help explain why women flee philosophy?

I don't see anything there to suggest women would be worse at philosophy--and in fact I don't see any evidence that women are worse at philosophy.  Could there nevertheless be a basis for explaining female flight in here? Yes, maybe: in philosophy, there's not a lot of opportunity to be empathic, and vigorous debate is not a very tender affair.  Someone who excels at empathy and wants to receive empathy may feel out of place.  But then, there's something here that would account for male flight too. A  brain that wants to figure out how stuff works ought to be pretty uncomfortable wading around in murky philosophical ideas all day.

So--I'm pressing on. I'm not completely closed to the idea that there are male-female differences, and that in some way or other they play into the under-representation of women in philosophy. But I don't think this book sheds much light.

10/21/11

Philosophy for Kids

A student of mine has bravely ventured out into the Real World, where he is working with third graders in a low-income area.  Here's what he writes--
I would love to find a way to introduce my students to philosophy in some sense to give them a taste of what it is that I like to do. This has been hard for me to figure out though for multiple reasons. First, since it is a public school, I am always careful of what I say and don't want to get in trouble for anything I tell to a kid that may upset a parent. I also struggle because it is difficult for me to translate a lot of the ideas that philosophy covers into terms that can be understood by elementary aged children. I did not know if you had any suggestions of a good way to introduce philosophy to kids or if you knew of any resources that I may be able to find online that could help me? Please just let me know and I look forward to hearing back from you.
Back when I blogged at Talking Philosophy, I wrote some "philosophy for kids" posts,  There was one about the little red hen and one about what we'd do if we discovered little people like The Borrowers living under our floorboards. Would we treat them as second class citizens, just because of their size?

I think using children's literature as a springboard for talking about philosophy is a cool idea.  That's what happens very naturally--you read with kids, and certain books lead to good discussions.  But which books have that potential?  I think I recall someone publishing a story-oriented philosophy book for kids, but I can't think who that is.

Anyone have ideas about how to introduce young kids to philosophy, using fiction, or not using fiction, or using online resources?  Your assistance much appreciated!

Can Compassion be General?

I've been surprised to find that quite a few people in my class on procreation and parenthood see genetic counseling as "ableist".  We're talking about pre-conception counseling here--there is no baby yet, and not even an embryo or fetus.  Parents, we are to imagine, are undergoing a test to avoid having a child with a variety of conditions.  Perhaps they're using the handy kit you can order at this website. Depending on the risk and the disorder, they may forego reproduction altogether.

Is it really ableist for a couple to opt for pre-conception counseling?  I would say "not necessarily", but admit it's a hard question.  First thing to notice--once we have children, we are constantly trying to prevent things. All parents do so, including non-ableist parents of kids who already have differences, diseases, disorders, disabilities--whatever.  If your kid has no Ds, you're going to put your  baby in a car seat, give her vaccinations, etc.  If your kid has some Ds, you're going to do the same so he doesn't wind up with more.  Even the most ardent disability activist doesn't want a child to go from being deaf to being both deaf and blind.

So: trying to prevent Ds in a specific child is not necessarily ableist. Not necessarily, but then there could be parents who try to prevent disabilities because they find them repulsive, and would reject, or neglect, or abuse their child if disabilities developed.  That could be, but you wouldn't suspect this, just from seeing parents carefully place a baby in a car seat.  You'd think they were just protecting their child from disabilities, not displaying a discriminatory attitude.

OK, now let's back up to the time period when a child is still in the making.  A woman is in her first trimester of pregnancy and she's a binge drinker, not realizing this puts her child at risk for fetal alcohol syndrome--a combination of physical and mental abnormalities.  Her obstetrician asks about patterns of alcohol consumption and counsels her to stop drinking, which she tries to do.  This is once again benign prevention--nothing to do with discrimination.

*

Now back up further.  A couple hasn't conceived yet, but is trying to.  They're thinking about ingesting Sex Pill, a drug that makes sex just a bit more pleasurable, but at the price of any resulting child having a missing finger.  (The example is from 'The Paradox of Future Individuals," by Gregory Kavka, with the missing finger added for specificity.)  They think and think, and realize that they're really choosing between two different children here, not deciding whether to endow one child with nine or ten fingers.  After all, if they take the pill, that will change the conditions of conception just slightly, but enough so that a different sperm will win the race.  Once again, the seemingly responsible decision is made.  They don't ingest Sex Pill and wind up with a 10-fingered child.

Did they act irreproachably? Like the parents putting a baby in the car seat, and the pregnant woman stopping her drinking, this couple opts for prevention.  The only thing that could make the situation different is that they are choosing between two different children as opposed to protecting one from an undesirable condition.  If the parents who use the car seat and the binge drinker both behave out of compassion, can we think the "no sex pill" couple act out of compassion too?

The "no sex pill" couple have a desire they might express in general terms:  I want my child, whoever he or she is, not to have to go through life missing a finger.  Or even more generally: I wish for a world in which fewer kids are missing fingers.  This is a wish about a set of people--the set of my offspring, or the set of human beings--not about any definite person or group of people.  Does that stop the state of mind from being compassionate?  Is it in fact just the opposite--discriminatory, quality-control-ish, perfectionistic, dehumanizing?

It would be really weird if that were so!  People express those kinds of general thoughts all the time, and we think of it as "good will" .  You might even say this sort of thing on Santa's knee:  I wish for, no, not a new ipad, but a world in which there is no more war, no more disease, no more racism, etc.  The fact that this is not a wish on behalf of a specific individual, or specific individuals, doesn't stop it from being compassionate.

Fun little analogy:  suppose determinism is false, so there there is not now any particular group of people who will be milling around in Time Square at midnight tonight.  If I say I wish the best for the midnight crowd, whoever they are, I'm still (surely!)  expressing compassion, even if it's not for anyone (singular or plural) in particular.

*

OK--so the generality of wishing well for my offspring, whoever they are, is compatible with compassion.  So let's press on now, to the parents who take a genetics test, to see what their risk is of conceiving kids with specific disorders. They discover they have a 25% chance of having a child with some syndrome roughly as serious as fetal alcohol syndrome.  They think they wouldn't want their children, whoever they are, to go through that, so they decide not to conceive.  Is this yet another example of generalized compassion, as in the Sex Pill case, or it discriminatory, quality-control-ish, perfectionistic, and dehumanizing?

My sense is that the state of mind is compassionate, not discriminatory, but the details in the example seem to matter.  What if we shift to the supposition that the parents discover their offspring just have a 25% chance of having missing finger syndrome?  This time it's not a matter of having a 9-fingered kid rather than a 10-fingered kid, but of having a 9-fingered kid or none at all.  They decide not to procreate.

Considering the strength of most people's desire to have children, it's hard to see what they could be thinking, save that missing one finger is a terrible, terrible thing.  Now that sort of exaggeration does suggest ableism. They are likely to be freaked out by the sheer fact of abnormality, not concerned for their offspring, whoever they turn out to be, and the real deficits involved in missing finger syndrome. 

So yes, I can see how pre-conception counseling could lead to or be motivated by discriminatory, ableist states of mind.  If the conditions the kit tests for are myriad and some are trivial, you've got to suspect the demand for the kit comes partly from parents with a sort of consumer approach to procreation.  Give me the perfect kid, or no kid at all!   But if the conditions they're trying to avoid are serious enough, that suspicion seems to vanish.

10/16/11

The Children We Should Avoid Having

from the New York Times, 10/16/11
In my procreative ethics class this week, the issue is whether there are children we should avoid creating, and what means of avoidance are ethically permissible.  We are talking about pre-conception counseling, pre-implantation diagnosis, and prenatal tests like amniocentesis (followed by abortion).  To make the issues vivid, we are also talking about specific diseases, disorders, and disabilities.  And to make all that vivid, we are watching short video clips--like this clip of conjoined twins and some clips from the show Little People, Big World

The clips make the whole issue of selective procreation very uncomfortable--but maybe in a useful way.   Who would want to say that any real, live person on screen has a life "not worth living," or has such dim prospects that their existence makes the world a worse place (to use an expression from Jonathan Glover's book Choosing Children).  Just watching these clips makes you feel the force of the expressivist objection to selective reproduction, the objection that says selectiveness denigrates those who actually have the conditions that selective people are trying to avoid.

But then, how does it denigrate them?  I avoid car accidents that might lead me or my family members to wind up with missing limbs, or blinded, or paralyzed. Nobody would think it was an insult to people in these conditions to try to prevent more people from being in the same condition.  If I showed a video of a quadruple amputee, so students could see what the condition is like, and then we talked about the ethics of war, nobody would take this to be insulting to amputees.  We can both want to avoid more people having a condition, and accept, respect, and accommodate people with the condition.

The question, though, is whether those two attitudes are compatible, if the means of avoidance is not conceiving a child to begin with, or disposing of an embryo, or having an abortion.  They are clearly in tension, but not (I suspect) really incompatible.  A moving editorial in today's New York Times makes that clear.  Emily Rapp writes movingly about her child Ronan, who has Tay Sachs disease (picture, above).  She treasures the child, who is expected to die of the condition by the age of three. But she writes openly of having had two prenatal tests for Tay Sachs (false negatives, both times).  You can want to prevent a certain kind of child from being born, but that doesn't at all mean rejecting or denigrating the child once he or she is born. This may be odd and hard to fathom, but it's true.

Pinker On Violence (2)

Progress report.  I'm not even on pg. 100 of Better Angels of Our Nature yet, and I'm feeling just a little weary.  Reason:  Pinker presents himself as a debunker of a Great Myth.  What's the myth?  That over the course of history, humanity has become more and more violent.  But the thing is, I have no great attachment to that myth - if it's a myth - so I don't need 700+ pages worth of disabusing.  In fact, it's taken less than 100 pages for Pinker to make me see that yes indeed, modern life is pretty peaceful, relatively speaking.  Let's hope the chapters explaining why we've become less violent are more interesting.

Why I bought this book:  I've greatly enjoyed other Books about Everything, like Jared Diamond's Guns, Germs, and Steel,  and (though much less so) Matt Ridley's The Rational Optimist.   The beauty of Guns, Germs, and Steel is that it asks such a wonderful question.  Why is it that different groups of people have made progress at such hugely different rates?  Diamond's book simply tries to answer the question, instead of posing as a repudiation of some seductive conventional wisdom.  The danger of the second approach, I'm seeing from Pinker's book, is that it can only succeed to the extent that readers are tenacious about the conventional wisdom.  If the author poses as doing battle with something, the reader has to play the role of opponent, or at least take the battle seriously. But I have no deep-rooted pre-conceptions about uneven progress or about whether we're getting more violent or less violent.

I will persist. I will persist. 

10/11/11

Pinker on Violence (1) & A Question about Contagion

I'm going to post occasional impressions, as I read Steven Pinker's new book Better Angels of Our Nature (acclaimed by Peter Singer here).  The first chapter is about violence through ages, with the evidence drawn partly from literature.  There's all the ghastly violence in Homer, the bible, and  Shakespeare, for example.

I had no problem with this sort of evidence-gathering until I went to a movie on Sunday and sat through 20 minutes of previews depicting scenes of horrific carnage.  Let's hope nobody in 1000 years digs up our movies and draws any conclusions about what we were like. If they did, they'd be wrong. Couldn't it be that the violence in the literature of 2500 and 500 years ago was hyped up for entertainment purposes?  After all, these poor souls didn't have movies to go to when they wanted to watch people slaughter each other.  (Why do we enjoy that so much?) 

The problem of using literature as evidence is particularly obvious in the case of the bible.  After an amusing recital of horrors, Pinker says something like "but never fear, none of this ever happened."  Alright, then why bring it up if you're writing a history of violence?

Now about Contagion (which wasn't as good as I was expecting)--  There's a scene in there I found baffling, and I'm hoping someone saw the movie and can explain.  The CDC guy, played by Laurence Fishburn, finally gets some vaccine and gives it to the janitor's son and to his fiance. I gather we are to believe he doesn't take any himself. Nevertheless, he puts on the "I've been vaccinated" bracelet, sending a false message to others that he's "safe".  Any CDC chief would understand that this is  a total breach of ethics.  So ... did I miss something?  Did he actually get himself vaccinated?  Thank you for your kind assistance, if you know the answer.

10/9/11

What about the Cherubim?

Jerry Coyne tells a nice story [more here] about Christopher Hitchens' appearance at the Texas Freethought Convention in Houston.  I thought pretty hard about going - Houston is just 4 hours down the road - but the timing wasn't good, since yesterday was Yom Kippur. We Jewish atheists have a lot on our plates.

**

While sitting in services yesterday I read the first couple of chapters of Genesis and gave a little more thought to the Shea-Coyne-Sullivan-Rosenhouse debate about Adam and Eve.  There's a lot in there that reinforces what I said a few days ago about sheer story telling, with neither literal/historical import nor metaphorical/meaningful import.

Like:  what about the cherubim?  God banishes Adam and Eve from the Garden of Eden and then "he stationed east of the garden of Eden the cherubim and the fiery ever-turning sword, to guard the way to the tree of life."  Come on--why should I think the author of this passage was serious about cherubim (winged creatures of some sort) and fiery ever-turning swords, instead of just a colorful story-teller?  And if the author was a colorful story-teller, why should I think he/she put the cherubim in the story to convey some deep, ever-lasting meaning?

So it's "none of the above"--we shouldn't necessarily think the author(s) believed in cherubim, nor should we think they're metaphors.  Sometimes story elements are just story elements.  The beanstalk in Jack in the Beanstalk is--a beanstalk! The fact that we find story elements evocative and amazing doesn't mean that the story teller was in the metaphors 'n' meanings business, like Melville writing Moby Dick.

**

But what about the core of the Adam and Eve story, and how they got expelled from the garden?  That's obviously supposed to be instructive ... or so it seems.  So either it was intended as an instructive history, or as an instructive story. It's not an option to think it was just a story. Ross Douthat reasons it must have been intended as an instructive story, based on all the inconsistencies.  Nobody could have meant such an inconsistent story to be read as The Historical Truth.

Sitting there in services, I spent some time examining the inconsistencies, using the very fine Torah with commentary provided in front of each seat for scholarly (or bored) congregants.  In Genesis 1, God created humans, male and female he created them.  So it's definitely not first Adam, then Eve.  In Genesis 2, it's first Adam, then Eve, and all signs are nobody else exists.  If Adam could have wandered out of the garden and found himself some friends, he wouldn't have had to create Eve from his rib to avoid being "alone" and to have a "helper."  In Genesis 3 we have the expulsion, and then in Genesis 4 Adam and Eve have a couple of nice (or not so nice) boys, Cain and Abel. After Cain kills Abel, Cain "knows his wife."  Um, where'd the wife come from?

So in the space of a few pages, there are three pictures of the beginning:  (1) First there are two humans, a male and a female; (2) first there's one human (Adam), and then there's a second (Eve); (3)  the first humans include a lot of people beyond the garden.

What does it tell us that compilers and bible readers were satisfied with such a mess?  I don't think it tells us (a la Douthat) that this is all in the realm of metaphor&meaning. Even in a metaphorical/meaningful story, consistency is important.  You can't have Ahab chasing one whale on page 1, and two whales on page 2, even if the whale is just symbolic, and the whole thing is presented as make-believe.

One thing you have to say is that ancient compilers and readers didn't care if the story/history went like (1), (2), or (3). These were not matters of orthodoxy--there was no catechism.  You could think it was one way or it was another, and nobody would freak out.  That's why it's strange how fundamentalists today put so much energy into defending the veracity of one of these accounts.  They're doctrinaire about human origins, when the ancient Israelites evidently were not.

10/8/11

The Green and the Grey

Green Anti-natalists think we should hold back from having a child for environmental reasons.  They think the world population has to shrink, or human life (and all of life) in the far future will be threatened. On the other side of the coin, Grey Pro-natalists see supporting the elderly as one of the reasons people ought to have children.  Saul Smilansky makes the Grey argument in the interesting  article "Is There an Obligation to Have Children?" as does Bryan Caplan in Selfish Reasons to Have Children (he doesn't think all the good reasons to have children are selfish reasons).

Both the Green reason to have no children and the Grey reason to have (let's say) two seem like compelling reasons, but how do they combine?  Does the Grey reason for cancel out the Green reason against, leaving the decision-maker at "neutral"?  Or is the Green reason too huge to be canceled out by the Grey reason?

It seems obvious that if the population shrinks, older people will pretty quickly start being deprived of social, financial, medical (etc) benefits.  It's very hard to see how you can get around the fact that 10 people can provide better support for 10 people than can 5 or 2.  What technologies or innovations could possibly come along and change something so basic?

It seems equally obvious that after another 200 years, if the population doesn't shrink, earth's resources will have been more and more depleted, and horrific amounts of despoiling "junk" will have been generated ... but all that's techology-dependent, and not so obvious and basic.  Imagine someone in 1800 predicting the terrible congestion of horses and carriages there would be by 2000, because the population was growing.  More people, so more horses!  Only no, because "more people, more horses" isn't a basic law, and isn't true.  New technology made it possible for there to be more people and fewer horses.

So--my sense is that the Grey reason to have two children trumps the Green reason not to have two children.  Pray tell, if you think I've gone wrong, how?

10/7/11

Applause

It's very hard for women to talk about their abortions publicly, and lots of nonsense and misinformation festers when something is forced into the shadows. So I want to applaud Katie Stack for writing this brave, truthful, and necessary editorial in the New York Times.  Every day, women are told lies at Pregnancy Crisis Centers, and they're forced into much unnecessary turmoil.  Some of them will wind up continuing pregnancies based on false information, when that's not what they wanted. It took courage for Katie to come out and cry foul. 

I was reminded of this editorial praising the ethics of the liars. That's all very well as a philosophical gambit, and I pondered the matter at length here, but in the real world, we need to just say no to lying about abortion.  Women are entitled to accurate information so they can make up their own minds about a procedure that is, after all, legal in all 50 states.

10/6/11

Truth, Metaphor, or Something Else?


I've always wondered about the state of mind of the authors of the bible.  What were they thinking when they told the story of Adam and Eve, stories about 900 year old people and whatshername who got transformed into the pillar of salt and ... all that.  Jerry Coyne's been having a debate with Mark Shea, Ross Douthat, and Andrew Sullivan that's (partly) about that question.

10/5/11

Goodbye Steve Jobs

Thank you for being such a genius.

Wish Me Luck!

You have to like an author an awful lot to open an 832-page book, but I do like Steven Pinker a lot.  The Language Instinct is a really great book.  Now he's written a history of violence, and why it's declined.  It seems like we've had the worst violence of all time in the last century, so how can that be?  My curiosity about how he answers that question is part of the reason I ordered the book, so I sure hope he addresses it.

10/3/11

Metamorphosis

John Finnis has a very simple argument for fetal personhood (in "Abortion and Health Care Ethics," which is reprinted in Bioethics, edited by Kuhse and Singer) -- 
"Any entity which, remaining the same individual, will develop into a paradigmatic instance of a substantial kind already is an instance of that kind. The one-cell human organism originating with the substantial change which occurs upon the penetration of a human ovum by a human sperm typically develops, as one and the same individual, into a paradigmatic instance of the rational bodily person, the human person; in every such case, therefore, it is already an actual instance of the human person."
Making the argument about my own one-cell zygote (call it "Z"), it goes like this--
  1. Z developed into a paradigm case of a human person, i.e. JK, the person writing this post.
  2. Z is the same individual as JK, not a different individual.
  3. Personhood is a substantial (or essential) kind, not an accidental kind - it's a property that an individual can't gain or lose while remaining the very same individual.    THEREFORE,
  4. Z was a person.
Premise 1 is obviously true.  I think I could also go along with premise 2 as well--or at least I'm not violently opposed to it.   What I don't find at all obvious is premise 3.  Adulthood is obviously just an accidental kind--it's gained part way through the career of one and the same individual.  Butterflyhood seems more essential than adulthood, but it's accidental too. It's gained part way through the same lifespan of one individual.

Why not think personhood is just as accidental as butterflyhood?  A butterfly would no doubt be appalled by the suggestion that she -- she -- was once a lowly crawling caterpillar.  I'm not sure there's anything more backing up the essentialness of personhood than the human equivalent of butterfly-pride.

10/1/11

The Animal Art of Rob Dunlavey

Visit his blog and website for more visual delights.


The Essential Skeptic

This article in Moment magazine reveals there are a lot of Jewish atheists, and many even belong to synagogues--like I do.  I was thinking about this at Rosh Hashanah services on Thursday, for the billionth time. Why am I so comfortable in that setting, despite being a non-believer? Well, I like the music (that's critical), the history and ancient texts, the shared liberalism, the beauty of the place, the solidarity with people throughout history who were persecuted for being Jews ... lots of things. But here's the surprising thing.  I'm comfortable there partly because the goings on give me a lot to be puzzled and skeptical about. In fact, that's allowed.  A couple of years ago one of the rabbis proposed that the story of Abraham and Isaac, the Torah reading for the new year, gives us the perfect start to the year, precisely because it's disturbing and puzzling, and so makes us think for ourselves.  Skepticism is a part of the tapestry of Judaism.  I've toyed with joining communities where unbelief was more the norm, or at least more open--the Unitarian church, or my local fellowship of free thought. But no--I'd miss the music, history, solidarity, and so on, but ironically, one of the things I'd miss most is the feeling of being a skeptic and a dissenter. That's just maybe 5% of the experience, but it's an essential 5%.