July 25, 2014

Feisty Feser on “What Caused God?”

If you want to be able to say anything intelligent about cosmological arguments, especially if you teach philosophy and are intellectually honest, read Edward Feser’s righteous shredding of the beloved “If everything has a cause, what caused God?” “objection” (scare quotes) to “the cosmological argument” (scare quotes) that you hear at the beginning of every semester in Philosophy 101 classes; you know, that rhetorical Sherman’s march through theism whose unstoppable force is matched only by the brilliance and originality of the questioner.

In addition to offering a much needed but yet unheeded point of correction, Feser also raises suggestive sociological questions that need to be asked about those who continue to peddle the “objection.” Their profiles, despite being “professional philosophers,” do not seem to markedly differ from that of the freshman who I saw raise the “objection” during the last Intro to Philosophy class I TAed for: unamused, inattentive, saying anything to meet the requirement of saying something. Dispatching “the cosmological argument” for this student demanded as much thought as waiving a fly away, requiring not even that she avert her gaze from Facebook.

July 18, 2014

Philosophy Matters

Filed under: Life,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 3:35 pm

I became interested in philosophy because, at an early age, I found myself interested in questions that matter. I wanted to know if my life, and life in general, had meaning. I wanted to know not just what the meaning of life is, but why it has the meaning it does. I was curious about why, if life didn’t have meaning, one shouldn’t commit suicide. I remember being frustrated at knowing what the right thing to do was, but never doing it. I wanted to know whether God really existed. I distinctively recall one day in the winter of second or third grade being curled up in a blanket over a heating vent, slowly working out in my mind Pascal’s Wager. I also distinctively recall thinking, around the same time, that if God existed, he wouldn’t let innocent people suffer. I remember being afraid to tell anyone that I didn’t believe in God.

Philosophy that doesn’t wrestle with questions like these isn’t worth the name. That is what philosophy is. That doesn’t mean technical, austere, “academic” disputes in philosophy aren’t properly philosophical. They matter because they inform questions that matter. If doing philosophy didn’t affect who I am or what I believe about what matters, I wouldn’t do it. Because it wouldn’t matter. In this way, philosophy provides its own justification. It matters to think about things that matter.

I recently acquired a copy of Nathan Salmon’s Metaphysics, Mathematics, and Meaning (Oxford, 2005). For whatever reason, Salmon prefaces that volume by taking some cheap jabs at theists—the kind of jabs typical of professional philosophers sublimely ignorant of philosophy of religion. He begins by relaying a childhood episode where he questioned his mom’s declaration that “God can do anything.” His objection, at six years old, was that God can’t stop time. Salmon’s objection was dismissed by his father, whose “tone implied that my attempt to find something God cannot do was heretical and therefore immoral.” Salmon recalls, “My father’s reaction made me feel depressed, though I knew even at that age that it was not an intellectually worthy rebuttal.” He continues with several lessons the incident impressed upon him:

I was certain that any belief, even a religious belief, is rationally legitimate only if it can be subjected to critical assessment and only if it can withstand that sort of scrutiny. I also learned that theists typically do not share this attitude, at least not when it comes to their own religious beliefs. I also discovered that human beings (including myself) display a curious tendency to believe something not because they have good reason to think it true but because they need it to be true. …

Later experiences seemed to confirm that theists resist all attempts to subject their faith to critical evaluation. It was not until I went to college that I encountered religious people who seemed to welcome the challenge of rational criticism. However, it still seemed to me that even those few philosophical theists are unwilling, maybe even unable, to look at religious belief in a completely detached and unbiased way. …

It doesn’t take a psychologist like Paul Vitz to hypothesize that to Salmon, all theists are more or less shadows of his father, whose brilliance we can assume is comparable to, say, Alvin Plantinga’s. No need to look any further than unsurpassable dad, for anything Plantinga can do Salmon’s dad can do better—which, it turns out, isn’t anything six-year-old Salmon couldn’t confute. Having learned these lessons, Salmon the wiser reports:

Today I religiously avoid discussing religious matters with religious people. Besides, I have become so thoroughly convinced that there are no gods that I find the issue completely uninteresting. Instead, I turned my attention to contemporary academic issues that are too abstract for anyone to take very personally.

One must wonder, by Salmon’s own epistemological lights, about the rational legitimacy of his belief that there are no gods, given that he “religiously avoids” discussions with the people most capable of subjecting it to critical assessment. Could that curious tendency to believe something not because one has good reason to think it true but because one needs it to be true be on display here? No, for in the next paragraph Salmon reminds his readers:

I do philosophy. I investigate issues form a philosophical point of view, and try to achieve a deeper understanding using philosophical methods. My primary tool is reason, my primary criterion for success truth.

Philosophy, for Salmon, is the attempt to achieve a deeper understanding of things too abstract for anyone to take very personally. What kind of philosophy is this? It certainly is not the kind whose practice is continuous with father Plato. It is instead a distinctively modern way of doing philosophy that is actually anti-philosophical in spirit, premised as it is on the blithe dismissal of questions that matter. Salmon’s attitude toward philosophy is a perfect contrast to Wittgenstein’s, expressed in the quote below.

June 10, 2014


Filed under: Politics — camcintosh @ 5:34 pm

I wrote this a while back for an Onion-spoof blog that has since been decommissioned. I don’t often write satire or on politics, and so repost it here, against my better judgment, for posterity.

Obama Under Fire for Wielding Imaginary Guns

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.17.20 PMWASHINGTON–Just as the fires surrounding the gun-law controversy seemed to be cooling down, recent actions of President Obama has reignited them.

Shirley Knott contacted the authorities during a local Democratic convention in Washington, D. C., reporting to have felt threatened by the president’s hand gestures, which she said looked as though he was pretending to hold a gun. “There were concerns for peoples’ safety,” said chief of staff Jim Compupe. “In the wake of the recent spate of shootings, people have a right to be disturbed at the imagery.”

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.18.03 PMKnott isn’t the only one. Others have come forward with similar complaints. According to Lt. Doug Bischoff, head of Presidential Security, one Eileen Leftinal claims to have been shaking in terror as the president spoke at one press release, pointing and waiving his gun-poised hand emphatically. “What really got me was that his finger looked like it would have been on the trigger, if there were one,” Leftinal said. “Even more disconcerting is that at one point it looked like he switched from a handgun to a 50cal” she said. Leftinal is referring to the mounted M2 .50 caliber machine gun recently featured in Rambo, more commonly known as an assault rifle.
Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.15.08 PMSome democrats are outraged, calling for disciplinary action to be taken against the president. Incidents like the school expulsions of Josh Welch, 7, who made a pastry into the shape of a gun and Carin Read, 11, who mimicked a firearm with his hand, raise other questions, such as whether equal disciplinary action against the president would call for impeachment.

Screen Shot 2014-06-10 at 5.18.21 PMBut not all Democrats seem as troubled as Compupe. Senator Stu Pidas (MA, D) was quick to defend the present’s actions, claiming Knott and others are only reinforcing the myth created by Republicans that Democrats are hoplophobic. “The Democratic position has never been that no one, ever, should be allowed to wield guns, real or imaginary,” he said. “We only want them in the hands of people in power.”

Leftinal is suffering from PTSD, but has been forced to stop treatment after her health insurance plan was cancelled earlier this month. Her new plan, Obamacare, doesn’t cover it.

June 6, 2014

Juicy Quote VIII

Filed under: Juicy Quotes,Life,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 4:41 pm

“What is the use of studying philosophy if all that it does for you is to enable you to talk with some plausibility about some abstruse questions of logic, etc., and if it does not improve your thinking about the important questions of everyday life, if it does not make you more conscientious than any journalist in the use of the dangerous phrases such people use for their own ends? You see, I know that it’s difficult to think well about ‘certainty’, ‘probability’, ‘perception’, etc. But it is, if possible, still more difficult to think, or try to think, really honestly about your life and other peoples’ lives. And the trouble is that thinking about these things is not thrilling, but often downright nasty. And when it’s nasty then it’s most important.”

—Wittgenstein to Norman Malcolm. Nov. 16, 1944. From McGuinness (ed.), Wittgenstein in Cambridge: Letters and Documents 1911-1951 (Blackwell, 2009), p. 370.

May 22, 2014

Help Serbia

Filed under: Life — camcintosh @ 5:32 pm

Information here.

April 8, 2014

Easter Dream

Filed under: Christian Doctrine,Life — camcintosh @ 5:08 pm

Last night I had an interesting dream. In the dream I and everyone else were in a strange afterlife.

Resurrection 2Everyone I saw was either a soulless body or a bodiless soul. Those in the former group were miserably carnal, always pouring into but never filling the hollow vessel of their bodies with sensuous pleasures. They seemed oblivious to everyone but themselves, others being mere instruments of pleasure. The latter group, by contrast, were surrounded by loved ones, yet were miserably separated, always reaching for but never being able to embrace one another.

I wasn’t aware of being in either group. That just wasn’t part of the dream. But I knew I was in a miserable place. Despite that, I didn’t feel dread or despair. I felt hopeful, like it didn’t have to be that way forever, and expected it wouldn’t.

That’s the best I can explain it, anyway. Describing dream phenomenology is very difficult. It would be a good mental exercise to try to explain as accurately as possible all your dreams after they’re fresh. I bet it would increase your vocabulary.

The dream was no doubt influenced by my recent reading and thinking about the resurrection, it being Easter season and all. Apparently one side effect of using N. T. Wright’s massive tome, The Resurrection of the Son of God, as a bedtime sedative is rich dream fodder. In reality, though, resurrection is anything but dreamlike.

April 3, 2014

Group Persons Without Tears

Filed under: Philosophy — camcintosh @ 2:21 pm

CorpPersI’ll be giving this paper at the department workshop here at Cornell a week from today. If anyone in cyberspace thinks I’m wrong in what I say, comments are welcome. Otherwise I’ll interpret silence as unequivocal acceptance.

March 16, 2014

A Materialist Picture of the Imago Dei

Suppose you accept the following two propositions, as I am inclined to:

(1) If S is created in the image of God, then S is a human.
(2) If S is a human, then S has a particular kind of body (i.e., having a particular kind of body is essential to having a human nature).

It follows that

(3) If S is created in the image of God, then S has a particular kind of body.

But we don’t want to interpret (3) as saying humans image God in having a particular kind of body, as if God has a particular kind of body, do we? Well, maybe we do. So far as I can tell, the following is fully consistent with Orthodox thought.

Designate the set of properties essential and exclusive to divinity {P}. Sans creation, God knows this counterfactual:

(4) If the second Person of the Trinity were embodied in W, that’s how He’d be.

where one of things the demonstrative ‘that’s’ indicates is the having of a particular kind of body. Why that particular kind of body? I dunno. Maybe a particular kind of body is required for a perfect person to be perfectly embodied in W. At any rate, the picture God has from (1) is that of a perfect embodied person, a person with all those properties in {P} with a particular kind of body. What this would amount to in the actual world, W@, is the post-resurrected incarnate Christ. So suppose that the kind-essence that results from embodying a divine person in W@ is humanity. A perfect embodied person in W@ would therefore be a perfect human person—a human person who is necessarily morally perfect, perfectly free, incorruptible, etc. God sees that this would be very good.

Seeing that it would be good, God decides to create persons like that—i.e., humans. However, properties like being uncreated and being omnipotent are essential and exclusive to divinity. So, any non-divine human persons God creates must lack those and other properties in {P}. In other words, God creates with this counterfactual in mind:

(5) If a human person were not divine, that’s how he’d be

imago deiwhere the picture is the same as in (4) save only those properties essential to divinity. The result is, in effect, pre-Fall Adam—a truly human person, albeit a merely human person—a human person who is not necessarily morally perfect, not necessarily perfectly free, not necessarily incorruptible, etc.

If I were a materialist about human beings—and I am as of yet unsure that I am—I would think about human persons qua created in the image of God along these lines.

Discussions of the incarnation sometimes give the impression that the incarnation is logically posterior to humanity; humanity is something antecedently there, and Christ sort of steps down into the middle of things and acquires a human nature. But on the view sketched here, humanity is logically posterior to the incarnation. God starts at the middle (so to speak) with God incarnate, then goes back to the beginning and sets the course of humanity to anticipate the incarnation.

March 12, 2014

Group Agency and the Extended Mind Thesis

Filed under: Metaphysics,Philosophy — camcintosh @ 4:18 pm

Screen Shot 2014-03-12 at 4.16.51 PMAccording to the extended mind thesis (EMT), one’s mind can literally be ‘extended’ to or located in objects in the external environment. There is a genuine sense in which one’s mind is ‘in’ one’s diary, for example. Another oft-cited example is the main character in the movie Momento, who must rely entirely on written notes and external cues and reminders for his sense of identity. An interesting consequence of the EMT is that one’s mind can be located in different objects and at different locations.

It seems to me that the EMT can make for a unique defense of a robust theory group agency realism (GAR). According to GAR, certain groups can qualify as intentional agents distinct from their members, complete with thoughts, beliefs, desires, etc. of their own. Some even argue that groups can be self-conscious, morally responsible, and have their own first-person perspective.

To the extent that one thinks a mind is required for having some or all of these properties, and that groups cannot have minds on account of lacking a tightly unified substratum in which to ground a mind, the EMT provides a way of seeing how that might be possible. By the EMT, we could say that the group’s mind is located in its members wherever they might be. Indeed, this may be an even more plausible example of EMT than the standard ones, for instead of locating mind in a non-mental, physical object like a diary, a group agent’s mind will be located in the minds of its members.

This seems like a really obvious connection. I’d be surprised if it hasn’t been made before.

February 17, 2014

Juicy Quote VII

Filed under: Juicy Quotes — camcintosh @ 12:20 pm

“Philosophy is hard. Thinking clearly for an extended period is hard. It is easier to pour scorn on those who disagree with you than actually to address their arguments. […] And of all the kinds of scorn that can be poured on someone’s views, moral scorn is the safest and most pleasant (most pleasant to the one doing the pouring). It is the safest kind because, if you want to pour moral scorn on someone’s views, you can be sure that everyone who is predisposed to agree with you will believe that you have made an unanswerable point. And you can be sure that any attempt your opponent in debate makes at an answer will be dismissed by a significant proportion of your audience as a ‘‘rationalization’’ — that great contribution of modern depth psychology to intellectual complacency and laziness. Moral scorn is the most pleasant kind of scorn to deploy against those who disagree with you because a display of self-righteousness—moral posturing—is a pleasant action whatever the circumstances, and it’s nice to have an excuse for it.”

—Peter van Inwagen, The Problem of Evil (Oxford, 2006), pp. 61-62.

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