Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Female suffrage in the world

I was struck by a recent BBC report about the Swiss canton of Appenzell Innerrhoden prohibiting naked hiking. My interest, however, had nothing to do with the topic of the article, but rather with a parenthetical remark to the effect that Appenzell only granted women the right to vote in 1990. A little checking of the history of female suffrage in Switzerland revealed that the change was not even voluntary, but rather had to be forced by the Federal Supreme Court of Switzerland.

Such late change is an anomaly in the Western world, but female suffrage is in almost all cases still less than a century old (take a look at the timeline on Wikipedia). Although I think it is perfectly appropriate to criticize other regions of the world, where female suffrage is less common, for living in the Dark Ages, I think we in the West often forget how recently we ourselves emerged from the Dark Ages (some of us more recently than others, apparently). We shouldn't, by any means, stop agitating impatiently for universal human rights just because our own history is less than stellar, but a little bit of humility is a good thing, too. Hearing people speak as though the nations of the West have been bastions of universal human rights since their inception, frankly is grating; arrogance on our side quickly becomes as tiresome as the tu quoques of the other side.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Rosenberg's Philosophy of Science

I just finished reading the second edition of Alex Rosenberg's Philosophy of Science: A Contemporary Introduction, and want to recommend it as a solid non-anthology primer in philosophy of science. I prefer anthologies myself, but they're usually far more difficult for those who lack prior exposure to the field or an instructor to provide guidance and clarification. Philosophy of science is one of the areas of philosophy least amenable to those who want to jump right into the primary literature.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Happy Earth Day

So what are you doing for Earth Day? I'm going to buy a chocolate cake and feed it to some squirrels, and then go out and hug a pile of twigs and dirt. No, I kid. I'm actually going to spend some time evaluating my lifestyle, to consider whether there are some additional things I can do to reduce waste. Considering my lack of a car, I'm already fairly green compared to most of my peers, but there probably are some simple things I could implement that I just haven't thought of.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

E. J. Lowe's Locke

I have finished reading my fourth book from the Routledge Philosophers series: E. J. Lowe's Locke. This particular book felt denser than the others I have read so far (Hobbes, Leibniz, and Schopenhauer), but I don't mind that. I am very impressed with this whole series, and look forward to working through the rest of it.

One thing I like about Lowe is that he is cautious about recognizing the temptation to read our own views about the answers to philosophical problems back into historical figures we admire. Sometimes we see a philosopher saying something that strikes us as absurd, so we assume that he couldn't have meant that. Lowe suggests, on the contrary, that much of the value of studying the great philosophers of the past come from precisely the fact that they have their unique answers to offer, which force us to reconsider the evidential status of our own. On the other hand, Lowe also thinks many of Locke's positions have been caricatured, and thus unjustly dismissed. The trick is to navigate a course between these two distorting poles, and arrive at the most charitable interpretation that fits into Locke's texts with no violence. Lowe believes that when one does so, the historical Locke turns out to be in very good shape, despite (or perhaps by virtue of) contradicting a number of views that pass for truisms in today's academy.

Final assessment of Carrier-O'Connell debate

The four independent judges of the Carrier-O'Connell debate on Paul's theory of the Resurrection have their final assessment in. The verdict is a slight overall victory for O'Connell, with two judges calling it a draw, one judge saying that Carrier only barely won, and one judge saying O'Connell won by a significant, but not large, margin.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Stephen Hawking ill

I was saddened to hear that Stephen Hawking was hospitalized today for an ongoing chest infection that had also forced him to drop out of the Origins Symposium here at ASU. It looks like he will be sent home in the morning, but his exact condition is unclear. Let's all hope for a quick, full recovery, with no further drama.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Science podcasts

I am subscribed to far too many podcasts, but I am unwilling (for now) to reduce my current allotment in the science category. Here are the ones I have settled on:

The very best is The Guardian's Science Weekly. Alok Jha and his team are smart and entertaining, they have awesome accents, and they make no bones about talking about atheism. I miss the old opening electric guitar riff, but one can't have everything. If I could keep only one science podcast, this would be it.

Next in line is Scientific American's Science Talk. I like Steve Mirsky. His name is nowhere near as cool as "Alok Jha," but that particular bar is set very high: the only comparably cool names I know are Jagdish Bhagwati and Theodosius Dobzhansky.

Finally, there is the BBC World Service's no-nonsense Science in Action. It's no-nonsense.

Between these three podcasts, you should be able to get all the science news fit for public consumption, and then some.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Libertarian agent causation

I recently reread Roderick Chisholm's classic paper on libertarian free will, "Human Freedom and the Self," in which Chisholm presents and defends the idea of agent causation as a solution to the standard dilemma faced by libertarians. The article seemed more insightful this time than when I first read it, but ultimately it just helped clarify to me why I think libertarian agent causation is problematic.

I did like Chisholm's defense of the very idea that the agent can be a cause, but, then again, agent causation in this restricted sense should be unobjectionable to materialists, since we identify agents with their material constituents. I am doubtful about his contention that we experience our ability to cause things to happen—I am unaware of anything beyond the constant conjunction of my will with certain bodily movements—but he seems right that as far as the direct observability of causation goes, agents enjoy at least parity with other things as wielders of causal power, since causation (as Hume pointed out) is never observable. Of course, if Chisholm means to identify the agent with some Cartesian mental substance, that's a different story, because then we become much less clear about what this thing is to which we are attributing causal power; but, in this case, the problem is with the agent's status as a thing, not, as a thing with causal power specifically. But, on a materialistic account of agency, I see nothing (well, nothing special) to worry about.

The real sticking point is in the idea of the agent as prime mover, and this is something that applies, more generally, to any libertarian conception of a free prime mover. The problem is that we don't just want agents to be causes; they must be free causes. And what do we mean by this? Certainly, that their actions must not be necessitated by their desires. But, there is more to it than this. We also require that the agents control the decision of how to act. And that is something I don't think Chisholm or anyone else has been able to provide a coherent picture to, at least so far.

Let me try to flesh out my worry by providing a picture that gets us as close to libertarian agency as I think we can get. Libertarians are quite right that there is no dichotomy between determinism and strict randomness, where the latter is understood as saying that my actions will be haphazard. We can weight actions with probabilities, so that the agents' decisions will be influenced without necessitation. My analogy for this is the standard interpretation of quantum mechanics. Suppose we are interested in some observable O, of which a system can have one of two possible values, O1 or O2. We can (in general), prepare a system in such a state that it has, say, a 3/4 probability of taking on value O1 upon measurement, and a 1/4 probability of taking on value O2. Which of these happens is purely a matter of the probabilities. So, in this situation, we have an event that is not determined, but heavily influenced, by the previous total physical state of the universe. Why not understand free actions in this way, with the sum of our desires standing in for the state of the system, and our free decisions standing in for the measurements?

The thing that is missing from this picture, that makes it incompatible with free will, is that nothing in the quantum mechanical picture (the system, the measuring device, or anything at all) dictates which of the outcomes will in fact occur. Nothing controls the outcome of the collapse. The prior state of the system controls the probabilities, but there is absolutely nothing that chooses the actual outcome. If we imagined there were something (let's call it an "agent") that chose the outcome, then the only way we could get the agent's actions to match the probabilities would be by making its choice random, like having it shut its eyes, throw a dart at a board that is 3/4 red and 1/4 black, and having it act on that basis. But in this case, the agent still doesn't have the right kind of control over the outcome, because there is a random process at the basis of its decision. The agent may just as well be a robot that is hooked up to a random number generator and a program that assigns weights to different arm movements: the robot acts, and is needed for the act, but it isn't really choosing anything at all.

There are more sophisticated accounts of libertarian free will than Chisholm's, but none of them appear to me to solve this problem. Attempts to bypass it all seem to end up either in obscurity or in a semantically-cloaked retreat to compatibilism. If my assessment is accurate, and extends to the accounts I have not yet studied, then that is only to be expected, because the classic dilemma gets it right: neither determinism nor indeterminism is compatible with libertarian free will—there is no logical space for the position at all.

Not that I am sure enough about that to stop studying new attempts, or new defenses of old ones.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Death of God and the Meaning of Life

I recently finished my second book by Julian Young, The Death of God and the Meaning of Life. It's really just a fantastic book, the very best I have read so far about Continental philosophy.

I normally don't have much patience with obscure writers, which means I generally don't care for the Continentals. The two exceptions are Nietzsche, whose sheer coolness overcomes his obscurity, and Schopenhauer, who is in fact such a clear writer that I am tempted, circularly, to declare that he must not be a Continental philosopher after all.

In any case, Young makes a whole set of the usual suspects accessible. And wouldn't you know it, they're all interesting, when presented by someone who knows how to write more clearly than they do. (Plato shows up in the book, too, but I've never had a problem with him.)

Anyway, hats off to Julian Young. He is rapidly becoming one of my favorite writers.

The Return of the Atheologian

People don't rise from the dead, but occasionally blogs do.