Category : Philosophy

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks–Truth emerges from disagreement and debate

Coming in to Broadcasting House this morning I saw for the first time the statue unveiled this week, of George Orwell, with its inscription on the wall behind, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” How badly we need that truth today.

I’ve been deeply troubled by what seems to me to be the assault on free speech taking place in British universities in the name of “safe space,” “trigger warnings,” and “micro-aggressions,” meaning any remark that someone might find offensive even if no offence is meant. So far has this gone that a month ago, students at an Oxford College banned the presence of a representative of the Christian Union on the grounds that some might find their presence alienating and offensive. Luckily the protest that followed led to the ban being swiftly overturned. But still …

I’m sure this entire movement has been undertaken for the highest of motives, to protect the feelings of the vulnerable, which I applaud, but you don’t achieve that by silencing dissenting views. A safe space is the exact opposite: a place where you give a respectful hearing to views opposed to your own, knowing that your views too will be listened to respectfully. That’s academic freedom and it’s essential to a free society.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Education, Ethics / Moral Theology, Judaism, Language, Philosophy

(CT) Stephen Backhouse reviews Alan Jacobs new book ‘How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds’

“As any wizard knows, to practice magic is to marshal the powers of the universe into a concentrated point. Spirits, forces of nature, and other humans are subjected to the magician’s wishes. If I practice magic, I am trying to bend reality to my will. Aleister Crowley, the magician dubbed the “wickedest man in the world,” famously summed up the occultist philosophy: “Do what thou will is the whole of the law.”

This might sound like the stuff of medieval fantasy, but a quick glance at our culture confirms that habits of magical thinking are stubbornly persistent. Wherever one finds groups and individuals intent on ramming an agenda through the system—perhaps by manipulating boardroom membership, stacking organizations with the “right” people, or enacting ideologically driven purges—one finds shades of black magic. We don’t call political lobbying the “dark arts” for nothing.
Petitions, protests, and popular rallies reveal our deeply ingrained belief that voices shouting loudly in unison can shape reality. In today’s climate, many of us crave clear battle lines between good and evil and abhor anyone who dares admit that complex problems don’t have simple answers. And heaven help any poor public figures foolish enough to sincerely change their minds.

All these trends have hampered our ability to think carefully, judiciously, and generously. As a professor and public intellectual, Jacobs is well aware of the difficulties posed not so much by a lack of thinking, but instead by the way we think. “For me,” he writes, “the fundamental problem we have may best be described as an orientation of the will.””

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Philosophy, Psychology

(Guardian) Franklin Foer–Facebook’s war on free will: is technology is making our minds redundant?

All the values that Silicon Valley professes are the values of the 60s. The big tech companies present themselves as platforms for personal liberation. Everyone has the right to speak their mind on social media, to fulfil their intellectual and democratic potential, to express their individuality. Where television had been a passive medium that rendered citizens inert, Facebook is participatory and empowering. It allows users to read widely, think for themselves and form their own opinions.

We can’t entirely dismiss this rhetoric. There are parts of the world, even in the US, where Facebook emboldens citizens and enables them to organise themselves in opposition to power. But we shouldn’t accept Facebook’s self-conception as sincere, either. Facebook is a carefully managed top-down system, not a robust public square. It mimics some of the patterns of conversation, but that’s a surface trait.

In reality, Facebook is a tangle of rules and procedures for sorting information, rules devised by the corporation for the ultimate benefit of the corporation. Facebook is always surveilling users, always auditing them, using them as lab rats in its behavioural experiments. While it creates the impression that it offers choice, in truth Facebook paternalistically nudges users in the direction it deems best for them, which also happens to be the direction that gets them thoroughly addicted. It’s a phoniness that is most obvious in the compressed, historic career of Facebook’s mastermind.

Read it all.

Posted in --Social Networking, Anthropology, Blogging & the Internet, Corporations/Corporate Life, Ethics / Moral Theology, Globalization, Media, Philosophy, Psychology, Science & Technology

(NYT Op-ed) Bret Stephens–The Dying Art of Disagreement

So here’s where we stand: Intelligent disagreement is the lifeblood of any thriving society. Yet we in the United States are raising a younger generation who have never been taught either the how or the why of disagreement, and who seem to think that free speech is a one-way right: Namely, their right to disinvite, shout down or abuse anyone they dislike, lest they run the risk of listening to that person — or even allowing someone else to listen.

Can we do better?

Read it all.

Posted in --Social Networking, Anthropology, Blogging & the Internet, Education, Ethics / Moral Theology, Philosophy, Psychology, Theology

(ABC R+E) John Ozolins–Why the Argument for Same-Sex Marriage is Not Sound

The main argument put forward in favour of altering the definition of marriage as being between a man and woman is that this discriminates against relationships between individuals of the same sex and hence constitutes a violation of their right to have their relationship recognised as having equal value.

In short, the argument is that it devalues their love.

The question I want to examine is whether this is a sound argument.

One way of encapsulating the logical form of the argument is the following:

1.All love between all persons is equal (Assumption – that is, an assertion that is taken as given).
2.Love is recognised through marriage (Assumption).
3.Marriage is a human right (Assumption).
4.Human rights apply to all human beings (Assumption).
5.Marriage is a human right of all human beings (from 3 and 4).
6.Love between gay individuals is equal to other forms of love (from 1).
7.Love between gay individuals is recognised through marriage (from 2 and 6).
8.Marriage between gay individuals is a human right (from 5 and 7).

The question now becomes one of determining whether the argument is sound, since it appears to be a valid argument – that is, assuming the premises from which it begins are true, the conclusion is true. On the other hand, if any of the premises are false, then the conclusion is false, though the argument is still valid (since the form of the argument is valid). It is another matter whether the argument is sound. It is not sound if any of the premises are false, since the conclusion will not be true.

Read it all.

Posted in Anthropology, Ethics / Moral Theology, Marriage & Family, Pastoral Theology, Philosophy, Religion & Culture

(Atlantic) Kurt Andersen–How America Lost Its Mind

When did america become untethered from reality?

I first noticed our national lurch toward fantasy in 2004, after President George W. Bush’s political mastermind, Karl Rove, came up with the remarkable phrase reality-based community. People in “the reality-based community,” he told a reporter, “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality … That’s not the way the world really works anymore.” A year later, The Colbert Report went on the air. In the first few minutes of the first episode, Stephen Colbert, playing his right-wing-populist commentator character, performed a feature called “The Word.” His first selection: truthiness. “Now, I’m sure some of the ‘word police,’ the ‘wordinistas’ over at Webster’s, are gonna say, ‘Hey, that’s not a word!’ Well, anybody who knows me knows that I’m no fan of dictionaries or reference books. They’re elitist. Constantly telling us what is or isn’t true. Or what did or didn’t happen. Who’s Britannica to tell me the Panama Canal was finished in 1914? If I wanna say it happened in 1941, that’s my right. I don’t trust books—they’re all fact, no heart … Face it, folks, we are a divided nation … divided between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart … Because that’s where the truth comes from, ladies and gentlemen—the gut.”

Read it all.

Posted in * Culture-Watch, --Social Networking, America/U.S.A., Blogging & the Internet, Entertainment, History, Movies & Television, Philosophy, Psychology, Science & Technology

(TGC) Albert Mohler on the New Book “Debating Religious Liberty and Discrimination”

There’s one clash of arguments in the book that may, over time, be seen as most important. Corvino presses the case for what he calls dignitary harm as differentiated from material harm. His description of dignitary harm is quite expansive:

(1) treating people as inferior, regardless of whether anyone recognizes the mistreatment;
(2) causing people to feel inferior, intentionally or not; and
(3) contributing to systemic moral inequality, intentionally or not.

Don’t miss what Corvino claims here: even making someone “feel [morally] inferior, intentional or not” constitutes harm. As Anderson and Girgis understand, that means the end of religion, particularly any religion based on a claim to revelation. Taken to its logical conclusion, it means the end of all moral judgment. In their words:

Religious freedom includes nothing if not the rights to worship, proselytize, and convert—forms of conduct (and speech) that can express the conviction that outsiders are wrong. Perhaps not just wrong, but deluded about matters of cosmic importance around which they have ordered their lives—even damnably wrong.

Of course, both sides in a moral conflict see the other side’s position as morally inferior. But make no mistake: this idea of dignitary harm may be the biggest single threat to religious liberty in this entire book—and in our immediate future.

Read it all (my emphasis).

Posted in Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, Law & Legal Issues, Philosophy, Religion & Culture, Sexuality, Theology

(PD) Ismail Royer–Bernie Sander’s Relativism Test Is Bad for Muslims and All Religious Believers

Thus, any Muslim unwilling to repudiate the belief that Islam is objectively true and that other religions are, at least in critical respects, objectively false, would be unqualified to serve under Bernie’s relativism test.

It also follows that any Muslims objecting to Vought’s appointment must either admit they don’t believe Islam is objectively true, admit they’re employing a double standard, or drop their objection to the appointment. The corollary to this, of course, is that any non-Muslims objecting to a Muslim’s appointment to public office merely on the basis of his religious beliefs are in precisely the same position. As James Madison wrote, the No Religious Test Clause means “Jews Turks & infidels” are free to serve in government. So long as a Muslim candidate for public service is qualified for office, the fact that he or she is an unapologetic Muslim can be no grounds for objecting to the appointment. Anyone who says otherwise while opposing Bernie’s test must either admit his bad faith or repudiate the Constitution.

I am inclined to think that Bernie Sanders and his allies mean well in opposing Vought’s nomination. They want to protect the feelings of members of a religious minority that has come under fire from many quarters. That sentiment is admirable and appreciated, but misguided. Bernie needs to realize that Muslims in America are more adult, and have more confidence in themselves and in the truth of their faith, than one might imagine. More importantly, by bending the Constitution in the name of pluralism to require relativism from all holders of public office, the institution of such a test would constitute a loss for Muslims and all religious believers in the long run.

Read it all (my emphasis).

Posted in America/U.S.A., Ethics / Moral Theology, Philosophy, Politics in General, Religion & Culture

(The Australian) Kevin Donelly–Australia should not deny Its Christian roots

Civil Liberties Australia, in its submission to the Senate inquiry on freedom of religion, argues Australia is not a Christian country on the basis that “it is not correct in law and in fact is directly contradicted by the Constitution”.

The reality proves otherwise: although Australia is a secular society, where there is a division between church and state, to deny the significance of Christianity is to deny the nation’s heritage and culture and to ignore what underpins our political and legal systems.

Rather than ignoring Christianity, the Constitution’s preamble includes the words: “Humbly relying on the blessing of Almighty God” and parliaments around Australia begin with the Lord’s Prayer.

Perth lawyer Augusto Zimmermann says Australia’s political and legal systems owe much to Christianity.

He says: “It is evident the foundations of the Australian nation, and its laws, have discernible Christian-philosophical roots.”

Read it all.

Posted in Australia / NZ, History, Philosophy, Religion & Culture

(1st Things) William Doino–Alvin Plantinga’s Masterful Achievement

To appreciate his achievement, one should start by noting what Plantinga had to overcome. As Heather Templeton Dill said, announcing this year’s prize:

When Dr. Plantinga began his career in the late 1950’s, most academic philosophers deliberately rejected religiously informed philosophy. But early on, Dr. Plantinga defended a variety of arguments for the existence of God, marking the beginning of his efforts to put theistic belief back on the philosophical agenda.
Plantinga’s first important work, God and Other Minds, re-examined the classic arguments for and against God. It concluded that belief in the existence of God was rational, just as belief in other minds is. Arguments for the existence of other minds cannot be proven with certitude, yet most everyone accepts them as a given fact. Similarly, a religious believer’s personal encounter with the divine authorizes belief in a divine mind and creator—even if such a being cannot be strictly inferred from the secular world. Though these arguments sound simple, Plantinga worked them out with great intricacy and depth, and his book moved many skeptical minds toward belief.

His second major work, God, Freedom and Evil, proved even more consequential, as it dealt with the oft-heard objection that a good God is incompatible with a world filled with evil.

Read it all.

Posted in Apologetics, Philosophy, Theology

(G+M) Mark Kingwell–Artificial intelligence in 2017 means respect, not fear

…fear remains the dominant emotion when humans talk about technological change. Are self-driving cars better described as self-crashing? Is the Internet of Things, where we eagerly allow information-stealing algorithms into our rec rooms and kitchens, the end of privacy? Is the Singularity imminent?

But fright is closely seconded by wonder. Your smartphone makes Deep Blue look, as Mr. [Gary] Kasparov has said, like an alarm clock. In your pocket lies computing power exponentially greater than a Cray supercomputer from the 1970s that occupied an entire room and required an elaborate cooling system. Look at all the things I can do, not to mention dates I can make, while walking heedlessly down the sidewalk! This is familiar terrain. The debate about artificial intelligence is remarkable for not being a debate at all but rather, as with Trump-era politics or the cultural-appropriation issue, a series of conceptual standoffs. Can we get past the typical stalemates and break some new ground on artificial intelligence?

I think we can, and Mr. Kasparov himself makes the first part of the argument. We can program non-human systems, he notes, to do what we already know how to do. Deep Blue won against him using brute force surveys of possible future moves, something human players do less quickly. But when it comes to things we humans don’t understand about ourselves, and so can’t translate into code, the stakes are different. Intuition, creativity, empathy – these are qualities of the human mind that the mind itself cannot map. To use Julian Jaynes’s memorable image, we are like flashlights, illuminating the external world but not the mechanisms by which we perceive it.

Read it all.

Posted in Canada, Philosophy, Science & Technology

(PD) Ryan Anderson–Faith and Reason, Beauty and Holiness

This time at college was also the first time I had ever met Evangelicals, and daily Mass-attending Catholics. Indeed, it was the first time I met any Christian deeply committed to the faith. And so, at Princeton University of all places, I started to think seriously as a Christian. And I came to see that there’s no conflict between faith and reason. I came to understand more deeply the reasons for the hope I have.

I also came to see just how misguided secular liberal policies were on the most urgent and important questions, and how much damage—in terms of human brokenness—these policies cause. I saw that to love my neighbor required me to help defend the truth in terms that my secular classmates could engage. That the knowledge I had acquired in thinking through these questions wasn’t just for me, it wasn’t just so I could be secure in my opinions, puffed up knowing that I’m right and they’re wrong, but was to be shared—and it was to be shared precisely because it is the truth that sets us free, and makes us flourish. This was what God was calling me to do then and there.

He may be calling some of you to do the same….

Read it all.

Posted in Apologetics, Education, Ethics / Moral Theology, Philosophy, Religion & Culture, Theology, Theology: Scripture, Young Adults

(CC) Elizabeth Palmer on Stephen Backhouse’s new biography–Kierkegaard and his gifts for the church

The second gift Kierkegaard gives the church is the withering power of his attacks on the established church in Denmark, including its dominant theology, its institutional structure, and its pastors. This stance is the focus of Kierkegaard’s polemical writings in which he became enmeshed during the last years of his life. He was offended by a theology that turned Christianity into a form of philosophical Hegelianism (Kierkegaard’s charge against the popular professor H. L. Martensen), by culturally and politically sanctioned church leaders (embodied for Kierkegaard by Bishop J. P. Mynster), and by anti-institutional populist forms of religion that made an idol of the masses (Kierkegaard’s view of the pastor-educator Nikolai F. S. Grundtvig). As Kierkegaard saw it, these manifestations of bourgeois faith lured Danes away from Jesus’ radical call to discipleship. Caught up in the crowd of a culturally sanctioned faith, Christians were saved from the offensive but necessary movement of throwing themselves as sinners on God’s mercy.

Although Christianity in 21st-century America is far from that of 19th-century Denmark, it is not only in Kierkegaard’s day that pastors were guilty of preaching in a way that “tones down, veils, suppresses, omits some of what is most decisively Christian” (as Kierkegaard put it in an 1854 newspaper article following Mynster’s death). Refusing on his deathbed to receive holy communion from a clergyman, Kierkegaard complained about a church that was beholden to the state, a church in which “the pastors are civil servants of the Crown.” Today the co-opting of the church comes from other directions. Fear of numerical decline, nostalgia for the way things used to be, or adherence to a political agenda exerts its own pressure toward conformity and security.

And clergy are not the only ones Kierkegaard faults. Pews as well as pulpits are filled with religious complacency:

The New Testament is very easy to understand. But we human beings are really a bunch of scheming swindlers; we pretend to be unable to understand it because we understand very well that the minute we understand we are obliged to act accordingly at once. . . . I open the N.T. and read: “If you want to be perfect, then sell all your goods and give to the poor and come and follow me.” Good God, all the capitalists, the officeholders, and the pensioners, the whole race no less, would be almost beggars.

Read it all.

Posted in Books, Church History, Denmark, Philosophy, Religion & Culture

Alvin Plantinga wins the 2017 Templeton prize

Alvin Plantinga, an American scholar whose rigorous writings over a half century have made theism – the belief in a divine reality or god – a serious option within academic philosophy, was announced today as the 2017 Templeton Prize Laureate.

Plantinga’s pioneering work began in the late 1950s, a time when academic philosophers generally rejected religiously informed philosophy. In his early books, however, Plantinga considered a variety of arguments for the existence of God in ways that put theistic belief back on the philosophical agenda.

Plantinga’s 1984 paper, “Advice to Christian Philosophers,” challenged Christian philosophers to let their religious commitments shape their academic agenda and to pursue rigorous work based on a specifically Christian philosophical vision. At the same time, he was developing an account of knowledge, most fully expressed in the “Warrant Trilogy” published by Oxford University Press (1993 and 2000), making the case that religious beliefs are proper starting points for human reasoning and do not have to be defended or justified based on other beliefs. These arguments have now influenced three generations of professional philosophers.

Read it all.

Posted in Philosophy, Theology

(History Today) Eleanor Parker–Chaucer's Post-Truth World

‘Post-truth’ is a word of our times, at least according to Oxford Dictionaries, who declared it their word of 2016. Their definition said that ”˜post-truth’ refers to ”˜circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief’.

The appearance of a new word tends to encourage the idea that the phenomenon itself is new: that it did not exist before there was a neologism to describe it. That is not the case here, even if ”˜post-truth’ is the current buzz-word; as historians know well, there has never been a time when public opinion was not shaped more powerfully by emotion and personal belief than by facts. What is different now, perhaps, is how rapidly false stories and fake news can circulate: social media allows the public as well as giant news organisations to be involved in spreading untrue or distorted tales. That is a formidable challenge for those who care about truth.

But even concern about the ease with which false stories can spread is far from new. At the end of the 14th century, Geoffrey Chaucer wrote incisively on this subject in his poem The House of Fame. This poem describes a dream-vision in which Chaucer (carried by a comically talkative eagle) is borne up into the sky, taken to a castle standing midway between Heaven and Earth. This is the House of Fame, to which all words uttered in the world, spoken or written, find their way.

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Posted in * Culture-Watch, Anthropology, Books, Ethics / Moral Theology, History, Language, Philosophy, Theology