Sunday, February 20, 2011

How'd it get burned?

If one is truly fortunate, one may get to observe, just once in one's life, an event so profound, so extraordinary, as to transform one's view of the world. Such an event can take unexpected forms---even emerging from the unlikely medium of the arts. Acting can change everything; in the hands of a rare, gifted actor, the thespian craft can become nigh-alchemical, transforming a mere mortal into a living embodiment of humanity's full potential.

Ladies and gentlemen, for your edification, and for your ennoblement, I present to you a scene from the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, wherein Nicolas Cage---as though the Demiurge himself, impressing into formless celluloid matter the pefect Platonic Form of the Good---attempts to determine how it got burned:

Indeed, Mr. Cage, indeed. For, who among us has not, on more than one occasion, asked "How'd it get burned? How'd it get burned? How'd it get burned, how'd it get burned?"

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

PLSC 114: Introduction to Political Philosophy

I have to report yet another enthralling Open Yale course: Steven B. Smith's Introduction to Political Philosophy. Smith covers some of the highlights of the political thought of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli, Hobbes, Locke, and Tocqueville. His lectures, like those in every Open Yale course I have so far listened to so far, are clear and superbly organized. Moreover, Smith exhibits more than just enthusiasm for his subject (though enthusiasm would have been enough); listen to him, and you find yourself in the presence of someone who positively reveres his subject.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Defining atheism

PZ Myers at Pharyngula has come under some criticism after having denounced what he refers to as "Dictionary Atheists"—atheists who define atheism negatively, as simple lack of belief in god, rather than affirmatively, as belief that there is no god.

I'm with Myers part of the way: I think atheism should be used to refer to people who believe that there is no god, plus noncognitivists; as with Myers, one of my main reasons for this is that people who call themselves atheists nearly always have affirmative reasons for believing that there is no god. We can argue about history or etymology, but the purely negative definition is too loose to map properly (as far as I can tell) onto the people who actually apply the label to themselves. If I were still agnostic, I would not want constantly to have to say, "Yes, I am an atheist in the technical sense of the term, but I am different from most people who apply the term to themselves, so I don't want to use that word." Nor, as an atheist, do I want constantly to have to say, "Yes, I am an atheist, and, furthermore, I actually believe that there is no god." Best to reserve the term atheism for the narrower category of affirmative disbelief, and the term nonbelief for the broader category of lack of belief.

Where I part with Myers is that he seems—and there is a good chance that I am misunderstanding him, here—to be trying to push atheism into the status of a more comprehensive worldview, complete with a particular epistemology and a particular ethic. I think it is best to take atheism only as a component of many different types of worldviews—an affirmative component, to be sure, but not a worldview itself. Again, my argument simply is based on usage. When people say, "I'm an atheist," I don't think they are saying "I'm an empiricist," or "I'm a skeptic about the paranormal," or "I have liberal social and political views," even if most people who call themselves atheists actually fit into all four categories.

Where I come back again to Myers—and this, I think, was his real point—is that precious little depends upon this debate, and most of the time spent on it is time wasted. All that matters is that you are clear by what you mean by your terms, when you talk to others, so they can understand what you are claiming and what you are not. But that is just the groundwork—everything of interest comes after that, when you have to defend the position you have marked out for yourself.

See What is atheism? for a rehash. Well, actually, this post is a rehash. So, I guess the linked article is a prehash.

Phobos and Deimos don't count?

Stupid + sanctimonious = Bill O'Reilly. Fortunately, Stephen Colbert is there for the takedown. Hint to Bill: for once, have an ounce of humility, and do just a tiny bit of study before thinking yourself fit to talk down to people who are much smarter than you. There are people out there who have reasonably intelligent arguments for the existence of god; you're just not one of them, not by a long shot.

H/T: Leiter Reports.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Friday, February 4, 2011

The opacity of the mind

We like to think that we know our own minds—that they are transparent to introspection. We do not, and they are not. Oliver Sacks describes one of the consequences of a cerebral hemorrhage for one patient:

She could count ("one, two, three, four, five...") as a sequence, but could not say individual numbers or count backward. (Sacks O. 2010. The Mind's Eye. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 37.)

Who, introspecting, would think this even possible?

(For more of the impossible, see the second section of my How can we know anything at all?)