Republican Senator John McCain chooses his words carefully…

… and yet speaks powerfully to the dangers that we face. This is something that the Europeans in the crowd should not miss (and I don’t know how often they see news of Sunday-morning television in the States). But there’s more than that to my decision to post the video. We presently have a Chrumptian propaganda piece, “Trump Hysteria,” on the front page of The Skeptical Zone. The author, William J. Murray, goes so far in his support of Trump as to endorse torture (see the comments section). John McCain in fact suffered torture as a prisoner in North Vietnam, and has opposed torture steadfastly in his political career. And, perhaps more to the point, he’s anything but hysterical. It is McCain’s caution and restraint that make his remarks chilling.

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Jerry Falwell Jr, a Trump appointee.

I’m sure the name Jerry Falwell Jr means more to US members than it does to me. A friend passed on a link where I read:

Donald Trump appoints creationist college president to lead higher education reform taskforce

According to Salon:

The focus will be on “overregulation and micromanagement of higher education,” according to university spokesman Len Stevens. This would be consistent with Falwell’s past positions, in which he has opposed federal regulations on funding and accreditation for American schools of higher learning.

Following the appointment of (Calvinist?) Betsy DeVos as Education secretary, should we be concerned for the future of public education in the US?

Biology as viewed through 19th Century Lenses

Most modern readers have difficulty appreciating the resilience of spiritual or metaphysical overtones to 19th Century scientific thought, alternatively referred to as “vitalism” & “teleology”. At this point, a quick historical digression is in order.

What exactly is life?”! Traditional education systems were well-grounded in the classics, and many 19th Century naturalists could relate to an ancient Greek philosopher named Aristotle who was convinced no real boundary existed between “living” and “non-living”. According to Aristotle, non-living matter could give rise to living things because our universe possesses some vital life force or soul, “anima”, which could “animate” non-living matter. In Aristotle’s view: the universe, as a whole, had its own soul. In modern terms the universe could be considered as some giant fractal and we are all but elements therein. Even today, various mystical traditions hold similar ideas.

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The Death of Humanity

The Death of Humanity is a new book by Richard Weikart.

Are humans intrinsically valuable, or are they simply a cosmic accident with no real meaning or purpose? Since the Enlightenment this debate has raged in Western culture, profoundly influencing our understanding of bioethics and informing the debate over abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, genetic engineering, etc. The title of this book, The Death of Humanity, refers not only to the demise of the concept that humans are intrinsically valuable, but also the the resultant killing of actual human lives.

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The Disunity of Reason

Last night I was talking with an old friend of mine, an atheist Jew, who is now in the best relationship of her life with a devout Roman Catholic. We talked about the fact that she was more surprised than he was about the fact that their connection transcends their difference in metaphysics. He sees himself as a devout Roman Catholic; she sees him as a good human being.

This conversation reminded me of an older thought that’s been swirling around in my head for a few weeks: the disunity of reason.

It is widely held by philosophers (that peculiar sub-species!) that reason is unified: that the ideally rational person is one for whom there are no fissures, breaks, ruptures, or discontinuities anywhere in the inferential relations between semantic contents that comprise his or her cognitive grasp of the world (including himself or herself as part of that world).

This is particularly true when it comes to the distinction between “theoretical reason” and “practical reason”. By “theoretical reason” I mean one’s ability to conceptualize the world-as-experienced as more-or-less systematic, and by “practical reason” I mean one’s ability to act in the world according to judgments that are justified by agent-relative and also agent-indifferent reasons (“prudence” and “morality”, respectively).

The whole philosophical tradition from Plato onward assumes that reason is unified, and especially, that theoretical and practical reason are unified — different exercises of the same basic faculty. Some philosophers think of them as closer together than others — for example, Aristotle distinguishes between episteme (knowledge of general principles in science, mathematics, and metaphysics) and phronesis (knowledge of particular situations in virtuous action). But even Aristotle does not doubt that episteme and phronesis are exercises of a single capacity, reason (nous).

However, as we learn more about how our cognitive system is actually structured, we should consider the possibility that reason is not unified at all. If Horst’s Cognitive Pluralism is right, then we should expect that our minds are more like patchworks of domain-specific modules that can reason quite well within those domains but not so well across them.

To Horst’s model I’d add the further conjecture: that we have pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “theoretical reason” (abstract thinking and long-term planning) with the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex and also pretty good reason to associate our capacity for “practical reason” (self-control and virtuous conduct) with the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (and especially in its dense interconnections with the limbic system).

But if that conjecture is on the right track, then we would expect to find consistency between theoretical reason and practical reason only to the extent that there are reciprocal interconnections between these regions of prefrontal cortex. And of course there are reciprocal interconnections — but (and this is the important point!) to the extent that these regions are also functionally distinct, then to that same extent reason is disunified. 

And as a consequence, metaphysics and ethics may have somewhat less to do with each other than previous philosophers have supposed.



Questions for Christians and other theists, part 7: Original Sin and the Fall

Among Christianity’s many odd doctrines is the notion of original sin. The details vary from denomination to denomination, but a common view is that all humans are born into a state of sin because Adam succumbed to temptation in the Garden of Eden, and that this state of sin makes us worthy of God’s eternal condemnation.  Only Christ’s sacrifice can redeem us.

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How and Why: questions for scientists and philosophers?

The late John Davison often remarked that science could only answer “how” questions, not “why”. It seems to me philosophers, perhaps I’m really thinking of philosophers of religion rather than in general, attempt to find answers to “why” questions without always having a firm grasp on how reality works. Perhaps this is why there is so much talking past each other when the explanatory power of science vs other ways of knowing enters a discussion. Continue reading

Excilience and Contextomy

consilience. : the linking together of principles from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory.

contextomy. : an informal fallacy and a type of false attribution in which a passage is removed from its surrounding matter in such a way as to distort its intended meaning. Quote mining.

excilience. : the linking together of Contextomies from different disciplines especially when forming a comprehensive theory. Thought mining.

The Quote Mine Project provides excellent examples of contextomy. Uncommondescent provides excellent examples of excilience.

The practices lend themselves to all kinds of humorous incongruities. Among them are:

1. free will vs predestination
2. deism vs interventionism (Michael Denton vs Michael Behe)
3. front loading vs twiddling (Mike Gene vs gpuccio, etc.)
4. ascentism vs degenerationism (Chardin vs Sanford)
5. old earth vs young earth
6. realism vs last thursdayism
7. biblical literalism vs inspirationism

There are probably a lot more, but these come up frequently. The humor comes from observing that the armies of ID clash by night, without ever mentioning or discussing their differences and their contradictory assumptions and conclusions.

Food for discussion.

Moral Obligation

So I’m pretty drunk right now. And I wanted to retain my experience with this state while I asked a question, because I think (although…what does that mean right now?) I can present my question accurately: is this state immoral?

Keep in mind that I’m asking this question as someone who has fought to stay alive through surgery and for whom alcohol (in theory) creates problems with maintaining that live. But what is life? And what is the correct way to face such a issue