Thanks to a lot of work from my wife, I have a blog again. My long-standing parableman.net domain name is forwarding to this blog, but it's really hosted at parableman.com. The ektopos,com domain names no longer work, for either blog that I had at that domain. Since the Ektopos server got shut down, my previous two Parableman blogs have had no home. I will be gradually adding that material in posts with the original dates as I get a chance, to try to preserve the posts that I think are worth preserving. All older posts will appear earlier than this post, since they will be given their actual dates. I'm not sure I will try to transfer all the comments. Some posts are outdated and time-sensitive or keyed to events that are no longer current, and I will at least not prioritize that stuff.
I’m part of a Facebook group that discusses the teaching of philosophy, and every once in a while someone says something that I really want to comment on, but it would move enough away from the conversation and be very long and just feel out of place. I found myself writing a very long comment this morning about something that I think should be preserved, but I ended up not posting it to that conversation, because it’s really off point and probably wouldn’t be appropriate to pick out one side comment and turn it into a lengthy issue. But I think what I have to say about it is worth posting, so here it is.
The conversation was about a student who engaged in inappropriate behavior in class to support (but not actually defend) his view that morality is connected with religion. He actually stood up and looked around at the class to assert his view, as if he could win people over by the sheer force of saying it. One of the commenters pointed out that movies like God Is Not Dead probably fuel perceptions of a liberal and secular bias in philosophy classes, and to someone who has seen that movie and has no familiarity with philosophy they might think philosophy classes are actually like that and see this kind of behavior as an appropriate response. (Hint: philosophy classes are usually nothing like what that movie portrays, and this kind of behavior is totally inappropriate in a philosophy class.)
Someone else came along and mentioned a case where her insistence on using proper terminology led to a student’s parents accusing her of inappropriate bias in her teaching. That’s unfortunate when that happens, and I actually think in the case these parents were pushing back against they were wrong. But the case started from something preventable that I think would predictably lead to that perception in a lot of people.
I just read a thoughtful post on the Pop Culture and Philosophy blog about the concept of balance in the Force in Star Wars. I’ve been struggling to understand that concept myself as I’ve been reading through a lot of the Star Wars comics, both Legends canon and new canon, and thinking them through in light of the movies, Clone Wars show, and Rebels show. I don’t think the post I linked to has it right, but I’m linking to it as a thoughtful piece trying to come to grips with this issue. A quick Google search revealed quite a number of other views on this, again none of it seeming to me to get things quite right. So I wanted to put some of my own thoughts on this into writing, however, so here are some rough musings attempting to put many months of thought on this into something somewhat digestible.
Here are several things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, when put together:
We were at the bookstore yesterday looking through the science fiction and fantasy section, and I decided to get the one-volume Chronicles of Narnia edition, given that several of ours are falling apart or not even around anymore, mostly because of the efforts of one particular child. Most annoyingly, it has the wrong order of the books, so I had to write the correct order in the table of contents so the kids know what order to read them in.
Now I have good friends who like to support the publisher’s chronological order for reading these books, and I don’t really hold it against them, but they’re simply wrong. The books should be read in the order of publication. Sometimes people point to a letter Lewis wrote suggesting that it can be read in chronological order, and there really are times when you can appeal to authorial intent to establish something in the canon of the fiction. For example, Dumbedore is gay and always was. How do we know that? The author said so. Period. She made the fiction, and she can tell us what’s true in it. It’s her intellectual property, and she has the right to say what’s true in her fiction.
But this is a separate question. Lewis was trying to dissolve a dispute between a mother and child about what order to read the books in, and the reason he gave was silly. Here is the letter he sent to the child who wrote to ask about this:
I once thought David Hume's reasons for being skeptical about scientific laws were inconsistent with his arguments against miracles. He argues that we can't know about scientific laws or causes, because all we perceive are one thing happening followed by another thing happening. We don't perceive any causing, just the things we take to be cause and effect. Our taking it to be cause and effect is thoroughly irrational, Hume says, and thus we know nothing about whether there are any causes or scientific laws. For all we know, a ball you throw into the air could come back down, as you expect it, or it could turn into a bird and fly away. We expect it to do the former, but there's no reason we have to think it can't do the latter.
Hume goes on to say that we should never believe in miracles, because you should always proportion your belief to the evidence, and there is zero evidence for miracles. He rules out the very possibility of miracles, it seems, and he does this in the very same work where he has spent so much time setting up worries about whether our entire scientific understanding of the world might be wrong, leaving us with the result that, for all we know, basketballs might turn into seagulls and fly away. How can he consistently say both of these things?
But then I read Hume more closely in subsequent readings, and I came to the conclusion that Hume's approach is consistent after all. What he says in his skepticism about science is that we don't know there are scientific laws of the sort that we believe in if we think one thing makes another happen. He also says that, for all we know, unexpected things that would seem to violate the laws of physics that we believe in could be possible. But he does go on to give a pragmatist account of why we might as well believe in scientific laws anyway, since it's served us well so far, and it's not as if we can help it anyway. It's also not as if we have a choice.
But then in the miracles chapter, he gives a careful argument. He first defines probability as how often something happens in our own personal experience. Then he says that, if you haven't experienced miracles, it follows that miracles have zero probability. But why, then, could he say that plants could sprout legs and start walking around, as far as we know? Isn't that like a miracle? But he's careful here. If we believe that a plant did such a thing, we'd be believing in a miracle. We shouldn't do that, because it has zero probability. It's never happened, in my experience, so I should think it has zero probability. At the same time, I can't rule it out. So it's not impossible, as far as I know. If I did witness it, I'd have to proportion my beliefs with the evidence I then had. But as it is, I shouldn't believe in such things. I should just believe in their possibility, but I shouldn't allow for anything more than zero probability.
The key here is in defining probability in terms of how often it's happened in your experience, while defining possibility in terms of whether it's consistent with your experience. Something could then have zero probability but be well within the realm of possibility. So, because of that, I came to think that Hume's view was indeed consistent, even if it's a strange set of views.
But now I've become convinced again that there's a deep inconsistency in Hume's approach to these two issues. It has to do with his willingness to extend pragmatist arguments toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with respect to the scientific skepticism he begins with, while not extending pragmatism toward functioning the way we ordinarily do with the issue of miracles. He accepts our ordinary views on scientific laws, even though he insists that such beliefs are irrational and not grounded in anything more likely to produce true beliefs than crystal-ball gazing, at least as far as we can be sure. He relies on the testimony of other people in order to believe in regularities in nature that he can rely on to live his life. He refuses to accept the testimony of other people when it comes to miracles, however.
Every now and then I come across someone claiming that the word "literally" is now being used as a self-antonym. In other words, it is being used to mean "figuratively". Consider the following sentences:
1. And when he gets into the red zone, he literally explodes. (from a football announcer)
2. [Tom Sawyer] was literally rolling in wealth. (Mark Twain)
3. [Jay Gatsby] literally glowed. (F. Scott Fitzgerald)
4. [A certain Mozart piece was] the acme of first class music as such, literally knocking everything else into a cocked hat. (James Joyce)
As you can see, this isn't that new a phenomenon. It goes back at least a couple hundred years. There seems to be an incredible amount of outrage about it in certain spheres. Vice-President Joe Biden gets made fun of a lot for his excessive use of the term this way. But consider the following sentences:
5. When he gets into the red zone, he really explodes.
6. He was really rolling in wealth.
7. He really glowed.
8. The piece of music was really knocking everything else into a cocked hat.
Those sound perfectly fine. The word "literally" and the word "really" both normally indicate some genuineness to something. Yet both are used in situations where it's not really or literally the way it's being said to be. Both are wrong, if the words are being used literally. But they aren't being used literally. They're being used as intensifiers. He doesn't just glow. He really glows. Saying he literally glows is doing something similar.
What is not going on here is the use of these words as self-antonyms. The seventh sentence above does not mean "He doesn't really glow." That sentence means something very different. Nor does the third sentence mean "He doesn't literally glow." That sentence also conveys something different. These words are being used as intensifiers. Saying "he doesn't literally glow" or "he doesn't really glow" is not intensifying the sentence "he glows". But 3 and 7 are intensifying it. So the word is not being used to mean its opposite, in either case.
The word "literally" is not being used to mean "figuratively". If it were, then we would expect 3 to be synonymous with:
9. He figuratively glowed.
But the two are not synonymous. 3 would not be used if you intended to be talking about the linguistic properties of the word "glowed". A sentence like 9 is commenting on its own language. A sentence like 3 is doing no such thing. Furthermore, 3 has the intensification that 7 has. 9 does not. These sentences are not at all equivalent. If the word "literally" were being used to mean "figuratively" then they would be synonymous. What's actually going on is that the word is being used as an intensifier, the same way the word "really" gets used. That's not at all the same thing as being used to mean "figuratively". I suppose you might say that the word "literally" is being used figuratively. But that's not the same thing being used to mean "figuratively".
[This post won a Jolly award from Jollyblogger. You can see his writeup giving the award to me by clicking on the picture below. The post itself begins under the image.]
This is really a day late. Yesterday was the 30th anniversary of Richard Nixon's resignation, and I decided to do my month-delayed post on lying. Well, I didn't get to it yesterday, so it's today, the 30th anniversary of Gerald Ford's first full day as president in the aftermath of Watergate.
Is lying always wrong? I say no. Immanuel Kant argued that lying is always wrong, but what would you do if you were holding Jews in your basement and the SS troops showed up to ask if you were holding Jews in your basement? If you turn them in, you're doing something wrong. It would therefore be wrong not to lie in this case. Most philosophers are convinced by this sort of case. Kant dug in his heels and said that you just need to tell the truth. He went so far as to say that if we tell the truth in such circumstances then we're allowing the Jews in the basement to escape, while lying means if the Jews try to escape then they'd get caught because the soldiers wouldn't be in the basement where they should be if you tell the truth. If it takes that kind of denial of what's really likely to happen, the view doesn't have a lot going for it. I understand that some would say God will reward truth if only we're trusting enough to speak it, even when it seems we'd be condemning someone to death, but usually people who say such things believe the Bible, and I think lying in some cases is biblically defensible for a Christian.
I'll look at the relevant texts given on both sides, and then I'll come back to the issue of presidential lying in the cases of Nixon and Clinton and also the purported cases of Reagan and George W. Bush. I was originally planning to use the title "What if Bush Really Did Lie?", but there are so many other issues I'm discussing here that using a counterfactual title would have been misleading about the main content of the post, so I've just gone with a generic title.
Many people consider it an article of faith that you should capitalize every word that could possibly be related to God. Those who don't think about it much will just capitalize the personal pronouns. Occasionally it extends to adjectives (e.g. "God is a Holy God.") Sometimes adverbs, nouns referring to divine attributes, or even verbs join in the fun. For a spoof on this, see this piece at The Holy Observer.
I don't even capitalize divine pronouns, and I have very specific reasons. It's not out of lack of reverence for God. My reasons are largely biblical ones. The Bible doesn't say not to capitalize these words (though it doesn't say we should do so either). It does fail to capitalize them itself, at least in the original manuscripts (except when it capitalizes every letter). Hebrew doesn't have a distinction between capitals and lowercase, and Aramaic uses the same alphabet (I think). Greek does have the distinction, but the New Testament manuscripts are either all caps or all lowercase.
So the Bible itself doesn't capitalize divine pronouns, though some translations do. This itself creates a problem, though. What if a passage is ambiguous about whether it's referring to God or a mere human being? This isn't common, but the lack of capitalization in the original creates this possibility, and it does occur. More common in when a passage about kingship in the Old Testament refers first of all to a human king (or other type of Christ) or ideal kingship and then in an extended sense to the Messiah. Should you then capitalize the pronoun?
Some people try resolve this by not capitalizing pronouns when it's unclear but doing so when it's clear, but this makes an interpretation already, since the reader will take it as a mere human reference. Another try is to capitalize pronouns for God the Father but not for Christ, since most of the references are those fuzzy Messianic references. This creates two problems. One is the fact that some passages are hard to tell whether the reference is to God or to a mere human (and some are hard to tell whether God the Father or Jesus Christ). The second problem is that this starts to make Jesus look less deserving of reverence, since the point of capitalizing was to convey reverence.
So I say we should do what the biblical authors did. We should follow ordinary capitalization conventions for our language. We should capitalize at the beginning of sentences, since that's what we do in English, and we should capitalize proper names. Other letters are lower case for the most part.
It's important to capitalize the word 'God', though. Many of my students don't do it, and it's one of my biggest pet peeves. Proper names should be capitalized no matter what sort of thing they name. I have an Ibanez guitar named Omar, an Ovation acoustic-electric named Selah, a keyboard named Vinnie, a fretless bass named Frank, and short-scale bass named Nimrod. (I guess I haven't named my djembe, my organ, or my Les Paul yet, though the latter was my brother's, and he might have had a name for it.) I once had a car named George and then one named Oscar (but no name for the current minivan). I capitalize those names.
I think students will talk about God and then think that they might not believe in him (or don't want to offend people with alternate conceptions of God), so they think somehow that means they shouldn't capitalize the name, since you don't capitalize the word 'god' when using it as a common noun. But it doesn't matter if God exists if you're using the term as a name. We capitalize the names of Spider-Man, Gandalf, and James T. Kirk, even though they don't exist. So even those who don't believe in God should capitalize his name.
[For the comment thread on the original location of this post, see the Wayback Machine Archive of the post,]
This entry will spoil one of the major plot elements of the new Harry Potter film, The Prisoner of Azkaban (and I assume the book too, though I haven't read it), so don't read any further if you don't want to ruin it. It might also ruin my favorite episode of Andromeda and one of the most interesting elements of Babylon 5, but you can avoid that by skipping the last part (when I address other movies and TV shows) if you just want to read what I have to say about Harry Potter and the philosophy of time involved.
I'm not talking about the political view. I'm talking metaphysics here. For those more familiar with theology than philosophy, I'm talking about the view Arminians assume about free will. The libertarian view can be expressed in two non-equivalent ways (and some people hold one and not the other, in which case I don't know if I would call them libertarians).
1. Your action is free only if you could have done otherwise than you actually did. It has to be genuinely possible for you to have done otherwise. If determinism is true, then (on most views) this condition fails.
2. Your action is free if it's caused by you and not by prior events. This condition by definition rules out freedom if determinism is true.
The first principle is called the Principle of Alternative Possibilities (PAP). Harry Frankfurt famously argued against this principle (I think successfully) but still thinks you can meet condition 2 without having alternative possibilities, so he considers himself a libertarian. He just only adopts the second condition. There are compatibilists who accept 1 and give a complex account of possibility to explain how we can be predetermined and still possibly do otherwise. So not everyone who accepts 1 accepts 2, and not everyone who accepts 2 accepts 1. Still, I think 2 is essential for libertarianism, whether 1 accompanies it or not. Therefore, I'm going to argue against 2, which is commonly called the concept of agent causation.
Jeremy Pierce is a philosophy professor, Uber/Lyft driver, and father of five.