Wednesday, May 20, 2009

words to live by

"When the intensity of emotional conviction subsides, a man who is in the habit of reasoning will search for logical grounds in favour of the belief which he finds in himself."

-Bertrand Russell

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Origin of Species…of theism

These are a few of my favorite things: philosophy, theology, epistemology, psychology…and the supposed evolutionary origins of each.

Michael Murray, a philosopher at the Templeton Foundation, is a self-described theist who subscribes, more or less, to the idea that everyone is born with a ‘god-shaped void’ which becomes occupied by God when one believes. Paul Bloom, a professor of psychology and linguistics at Yale, by contrast is a non-theist who nevertheless views the ubiquitous theistic tendency as “an incidental by-product of cognitive functioning gone awry”. They both take a general belief in supernatural phenomena to be innate and even hard-wired by natural selection—for Murray it’s a feature, whereas for Bloom it’s a bug.

Unfortunately, they’re both so close, yet so far away…from a meaningful appreciation of the metaphysics of faith.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The other Libertopia

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

slave-making ants

I’m a little more than half-way through Darwin’s Origin of Species and I came across, in the chapter on instinct, a fascinating account of slave-making ants. Who knew?

I’ll forego a feeble attempt to do justice to Darwin’s description of this phenomenon and just quote him instead:
This remarkable instinct was first discovered in the Formica (Polyerges) rufescens by Pierre Huber, a better observer even than his celebrated father. This ant is absolutely dependent on its slaves; without their aid, the species would certainly become extinct in a single year. The males and fertile females do no work. The workers or sterile females, though most energetic and courageous in capturing slaves, do no other work. They are incapable of making their own nests, or of feeding their own larvae. When the old nest is found inconvenient, and they have to migrate, it is the slaves which determine the migration, and actually carry their masters in their jaws. So utterly helpless are the masters, that when Huber shut up thirty of them to work, they did nothing; they could not even feed themselves, and many perished of hunger. Huber then introduced a single slave (F. fusca), and she instantly set to work, fed and saved the survivors; made some cells and tended to the larvae, and put all to rights. What can be more extraordinary than these well-ascertained facts?

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Theological Triad: Part II

As I mentioned in Part I, this installment will focus on epistemology, which is a branch of philosophy that is concerned primarily with various theories of knowledge. More specifically, epistemologists try to get at the nature of justified true belief (JTB), which many—but not all—in the field take to be synonymous with knowledge.

But there’s a notable challenge to the idea that JTB is sufficient for knowledge, namely, the Gettier Problem. The idea is that one can, by sheer luck, have a JTB that does not in fact constitute knowledge of that which is believed. Take the classic barn-façade case, for example:
Henry drives through a rural area in which what appear to be barns are, with the exception of just one, mere barn facades. From the road Henry is driving on, these facades look exactly like real barns. Henry happens to be looking at the one and only real barn in the area and believes that there’s a barn over there.
Although Henry’s belief that he sees a real barn is technically justified, it does not qualify as knowledge because the fact that his belief happened to be true was due to luck; Henry would presumably have had the same belief about the barn facades, in which case his belief would be false. Similarly, it could argued that Nicodemus fell victim to the Gettier Problem when he professed a belief that Jesus was “from God”…but he was quickly disabused of his unfounded belief (see Part I).

It’s not just the ancients who, by luck, have believed that Jesus is God without a corresponding knowledge. Take Jon Meacham’s NEWSWEEK article entitled The End of Christian America, in which he writes:
America, then, is not a post-religious society—and cannot be as long as there are people in it, for faith is an intrinsic human impulse. The belief in an order or a reality beyond time and space is ancient and enduring. "All men," said Homer, "need the gods."
Meacham’s piece is thoughtful, but he stumbles with the assumption that “faith is an intrinsic human impulse.” The truth is, authentic faith is anything but intrinsic to humans. Like so many people do, he seems to conflate faith and belief (a point I’ve made before).

In point of fact, belief is a necessary, but not a sufficient component of genuine faith. What does that mean, exactly? Well, according to the Bible, faith is not mere intellectual assent (contra Nicodemus). Rather, faith is—for lack of a better phrase—a special type of knowledge. Hebrews 11:1 explains it this way:
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.
The operative words there are substance and evidence…and I have direct, personal experience that affirms this. And by ‘experience’ I don't mean what garden-variety mystics claim to have. No, the experience of genuine faith is a deep-seated knowledge that has proven, in my case, to be unshakable and enduring. This is because faith is a type of knowledge that isn’t learned through the normal cognitive process; nor does it begin as a soft, speculative belief that hardens over time.

Actual faith both contains and transcends belief. For example, I not only believe the axiom: cogito ergo sum (as opposed to being a brain in a vat)…I know that I’m a thinking person, instead of an envatted brain.

So, meaningful faith is tantamount to knowledge…of the fact that Jesus is God; it is not synonymous with mere belief in some generic god or disinterested deity, which is mistaken at best (i.e. the Gettier Problem) and simple self-delusion at worst. The antidote for this is introspection, which, if done consistently, allows one to distinguish what one knows from that which one merely believes.

The third and final installment will focus on the deeper theological implications of that which was discussed in the first two.

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Moral Intuition

Occasionally I feel the need to revisit (and refine) my thoughts on morality—or ‘moral intuition’. My last attempt was this post, in which I wrote:
• Moral Equivalence: the position that, in a conflict, there can be no “hierarchy” with respect to the ethical nature of the actions of the parties involved.
• Moral Relativism: the position that there are “no absolutes” with respect to moral propositions and that all moral codes are “relative” to specific cultures and customs.
• Moral Absolutism: the position that there are, in fact, “absolute standards against which moral questions can be judged”.
• Moral Objectivism: “the position that certain acts are objectively right or wrong, independent of human opinion.” (ala Ayn Rand)
• Rational Morality: the position that “it is possible to rationally conceive of our view of right and wrong, and that this is extremely necessary because our choices and actions have larger consequences than we often imagine.” (ala Chris Wilson, the Enlightened Caveman)

The moral concepts above are only a few examples of the ways in which concepts of morality diverge. So how does one divine the correct position, if indeed one is correct? To find out, a bit of deduction is in order. Considering that, at the root of morality, there lay two very specific and mutually exclusive ideas: right and wrong, it's only reasonable that they should have a concrete and discernable meaning. If so, then it follows that Moral Equivalence and Moral Relativism are empty and meaningless concepts, in that they are both open-ended and ultimately subjective. Therefore “right and wrong”, if they are to be defined, would fall outside the scope of “morality” as such.

On the other hand, if “right and wrong” do exist (e.g. an absolute, objective standard), then the remaining propositions apply, but another question arises: what is the standard? It seems to me that, for a standard to be truly objective, it must necessarily by universally applicable. Without question, such a standard cannot be specific to this faction or that. Therefore, political parties, religious sects and all manner of “interest groups” are precluded from tailoring the standard to their tastes.

If the aforementioned premises hold, the only conclusion to be drawn is one that my fellow Classical Liberals and I subscribe to. Specifically, the proposition that a right to life, liberty and property is inherent, natural and unalienable, and as such are not granted or sanctioned by another, nor do they need to be recognized by others in order to be realized. Therefore, since everyone, regardless of status, possesses these rights by virtue of existence, the only reasonable measure of morality is found in a supreme respect for the sanctity of individual rights. All other concerns (partisan politics, religious beliefs, ideological particulars, etc.) are altogether distinct from authentic morality, inasmuch as there are innumerable possibilities of sets and subsets of each.

As I re-read this old post, I was struck by how Randian, i.e. ‘Objectivist’, my conception of morality was…just a few years ago (I had just read Atlas Shrugged, after all). That’s not to say that I completely reject objective standards of moral behavior; I just have a somewhat more nuanced view these days.

So, what is this supposed nuanced view of moral intuitions? Well, it’s actually both simple and profound: simple, in that it’s essentially mirrors the ‘Golden Rule’ and profound in that it presupposes the existence of universal, inherent rights that every human being possesses, regardless of class or creed.

First, let’s take the so-called ‘Golden Rule’. It basically states that one ought to treat others the way in which one would like to be treated. Seems straight-forward enough. But is it, really? It seems that it can be interpreted in two ways. On the one hand—and this seems to be the most popular view—the GR is taken be both negative and positive: that is, one is obligated both to refrain from intentionally and gratuitously causing harm as well as to offer meaningful support at every opportunity. After all, isn’t that what one should reasonably expect from others?

Another way to view the GR is rather more one-sided—namely, in a purely negative sense. On this view, one’s moral obligation consists solely of refraining from intentional, gratuitous harm. And this is where the aforementioned ‘inherent rights’ come in. That is, every human being is entitled to live unmolested (assuming reciprocation, which is implicit in the GR).

I favor the one-sided, strictly negative interpretation of the GR. Why? Because hypocrisy is unacceptable. Think about it. The dual interpretation of the GR is necessarily egocentric (i.e., I would do for another exactly what I would want done for me…but not necessarily what another might want me to do). In other words, the desire to be ‘left alone’ (negative) is universal, whereas the desire to receive benefits from others (positive) is specific to each individual and therefore cannot ultimately conform to the GR in a meaningful way.

So, in order to avoid hypocrisy, true morality (i.e., the Golden Rule) must be seen as negative…’do no harm’.

Finally, a word about the metaphysics of morality. I used to conflate ‘objective’ and ‘universal’. That was a mistake. I recently read Ken Wilber, who characterized morality in a way that really resonated with me. In criticizing the “industrial ontology” of Modernity, which took Nature to be the “ultimate reality” because the observable world has “simple location”, Wilber suggests that moral intuitions, though they do not have location in space-time, are nonetheless “real”.

So instead of thinking about morality as objective (an object with simple location) or subjective (peculiar to a knowing subject), it ought to be seen as intersubjective (an abstract, though real and universal, emergent property that arises in the presence of two or more human beings, each of whom being obligated to respect the inherent rights of others).

Friday, May 01, 2009

Capitalism for Anti-Capitalists

This discussion—occasioned by this book, which I can’t wait to read—is a must for those on the far right, the far left, and everyone else with an operable cognitive faculty…not to put too fine a point on it.