By Jason Zarri
Ayn Rand had an ideology
To found philosophy on a tautology:
All A are A, at the end of the day
And therefore, you must do things her way!
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Letter to the Editor
To the Editor:
Sir. Thank you for taking my letter. I am writing the Scholardarity Philosophy Editor to challenge an assertion made by Richard Dawkins to the effect that belief in religion is similar to belief in the “Flying Spaghetti Monster.” The argument rests on a premise that religious belief or mystical experience is similar to the belief in an imaginary monster, given that both are invisible to the senses and without what scientific minds generally consider evidence. I rest my objection to this line of reasoning on the radical empiricism of William James, one that stands in contrast to a merely scientific empiricism in that it accepts mystical experiences as potential evidence. Non-dogmatic spirituality is not the same thing as a religious system that stands without evidence. Spiritual experiences stand on experience, which is evidence even if an undeniable degree of subjectivity does enter the picture as it must with all human experiences. Professor Dawkins rightly attacks authoritarian belief structures that rest on no evidence, but then proceeds to promote an ideology of scientism that equates anything without scientific verification with such belief structures.
A particularly odious argument that Professor Dawkins presents suggests that an invisible spiritual reality is equivalent to an invisible Spaghetti Monster by virtue of the fact that both are invisible to the senses and to laboratory equipment. Ironically, a somewhat similar disparaging dismissal is lodged by opponents of evolutionary biology. They will often claim that evolution is without proof because it has never been replicated in the laboratory, or that “monkeys do not change in to humans.” The notion that for evolution to be a proven fact “monkeys must change in to human beings” is a straw man that Professor Dawkins would never accept from any undergraduate challenging his positions, nor would I accept such nonsense if I were a substitute in a science class. Yet, the “monkeys do not turn in to humans” claim is more than superficially similar to the Flying Spaghetti argument. Both are attempts to argue by distorted comparisons and overly superficial claims about the opposing side’s narrative.
The crucial difference between belief in a Flying Spaghetti Monster and belief in a spiritual Reality is that one rests on experiences commonly claimed across cultures while the other is one that most little children do not literally believe in, much less adults. Even cognitive psychologists who believe that religion is a vestigial biological adaptation would recognize the difference between what they consider a vestigial adaptation and something invented out of whole-cloth. It may be possible that there is a culture somewhere in the world that has a belief structure similar one with a flying wheat creature at its center. If such is the case, then I would argue for an analysis of symbols and a respect for the beliefs of that culture that do not rely on literalism. Often religions have symbols with esoteric meanings that are lost to those believers who are literalist. I am not one to mock an honest believer in the Flying Spaghetti Monster, of which there might be among the very young in many unrelated cultures, although I would certainly challenge any fundamentalist literalism on the question were I to be a teacher to one of them.
A radical empiricist in the mould of William James would allow for spiritual experience to be recognized as valid evidence and not attempt to explain it away as merely a biological adaptation (at least without allowing for many levels of understanding) or to disparage it with the Flying Spaghetti Monster epithet. Rationalists and adherents to the mainstream scientific school of empiricism are generally not so generous. Opponents are welcome to their opinions but not their own facts. There are indeed religious dogmas that are accepted without evidence, or merely as received wisdom, and such forms of dogmatism are dangerous. Yet, the notion that all forms of religion are either dogmas or made-up stories is unscientific because it does not rely on any actual empirical data gathering or anthropological exploration. Such a view ignores the anthropological literature. As such, it must be classed with the same type of simplistic arguments that creationists often wage against evolution, however distasteful such a comparison might be to Professor Dawkins and company.
(* For the purposes of this post I consider only the past and future tenses as genuine tenses. Think of the “present tense” as the null tense, if you like.)
I believe there’s a way for presentists to have their Relativistic cake and eat it too. That is, I think there’s a way to believe in the Special and General theories of Relativity (henceforth, I’ll refer to both as ‘Relativity’) while remaining a devout presentist. In order to do so, however, one does have to believe that these theories have been wrongly interpreted.
The idea is this: There is but one moment of time; this moment, the present moment. There were none before it, there will be none after it. At this single moment, there is a four dimensional space of variable curvature, at whose points exist everything that we perceive and interact with; everything, in a word, that we ordinarily take to exist in space-time. The only error of the ordinary conception lies in the belief that the fourth dimension is time. Time, on tenseless presentism, essentially involves the idea that ‘earlier than’ and ‘later than’ are irreducibly tensed notions; granted, entities may be ordered in the fourth dimension by relations of increasing entropy and whatnot, but that is not what ‘earlier than’ and ‘later than’ come to. It is the way that our experiences are laid out four-dimensionally that gives rise to our belief that the fourth dimension is time, and to experience it as time, even though it really isn’t. Nevertheless, these experiences give rise to intuitions about time, tense, and how the former involves the latter, and thus it is only tense that could underwrite the existence of real ‘earlier than’ and ‘later than’ relations, though on this view no such relations actually obtain.
In contrast to presentist views that treat Relativity as empirically adequate but false–either by regarding it as not describing a real structure, or by privileging some reference frame as the real present–tenseless presentism does neither of these things. Relativity does describe a real structure, and none of the reference frames within it are privileged, it’s just that we have wrongly interpreted the fourth dimension of this instantaneous space temporally. Even though it is treated different mathematically from the other dimensions, on this view that doesn’t make it a dimension of time, whatever else it may make it.
This version of presentism might not seem appealing, for it lacks the (alleged) virtue of more common versions of presentism, namely that they accommodate our (alleged) intuition that time really does pass, and that this passage is as we experience it to be. Still, tenseless presentism does respect our (alleged) intuition that tense is essential to genuine ‘earlier than’ and ‘later than’ relations, and to all appearances it has the definite virtue of not conflicting with accepted physical theory. So if you find presentism compelling and value the maximal consistency of one’s metaphysical views with science more highly than the (alleged) common sense intuition that our experience of time is veridical, I think tenseless presentism is the way to go.
Incompatibilism is the view that free will is incompatible with determinism; compatibilism is the view that it is compatible with it. Libertarianism is the combination of of incompatibilism with the view that determinism is false, hard determinism is the combination of incompatibilism with the view that determinism is true. Hard incompatiblism is the view the free will is compatible neither with determinism nor with indeterminism. By considerations of symmetry, there ought to be a sixth view, hard compatibilism, which holds that free will is compatible both with determinism and with indeterminism, though as far as I know it has not found any defenders. But it seems to me to be a view no less plausible than any of the others, and a good deal more plausible than hard determinism and hard incompatibilism.
My own view is that the debate over the compatibility of free will with determinism would be better construed as a debate over the compatibility of moral responsibility with determinism, because I think that free will and moral responsibility might come apart; incompatibilists might be right about free will, but moral responsibility can still be taken to be compatible with determinism. However, if someone disagrees with me about that, they could say that my view on what’s necessary for morally responsible choice applies to free will as well, and so that both free will and moral responsibility are compatible with both determinism and indeterminism.
What is it that’s required for morally responsible choice? There may be many things, and what’s specifically required might vary between circumstances, but I think it primarily includes an agent’s being able to deliberate, and to do so without coercion, to clear-headed and rational, to understand the difference between what’s morally right and what’s morally wrong, and to have the ability to do as they wish. The important point is that none of these things seems to require the truth either of determinism or of indeterminism. Granted, they require that if a possible world is indeterministic it can’t also be massively irregular in its behavior, but I don’t know of any good reason to think that an indeterministic world would have to be. Thus for all I can see a priori, some possible worlds may be deterministic and others indeterministic, and there may be morally responsible agents in both kinds of worlds.
I will close, then, with two questions: First, has anyone defended hard compatibilism in the free will literature? Second, even if they have, why does it seem to have found so few defenders? For it seems to me to be a position eminently worthy of defense, and if it’s not, I’d like to know why.
For a while my blog Philosophical Pontifications and this blog have, unfortunately, been primarily monologues. In the interest of starting more conversations, both about philosophy and the humanities in general, I’ve decided to look for guest bloggers. You can contribute one post, a series of posts, or even become a regular contributor–it’s entirely up to you. Contributions about philosophy will be posted on both blogs, and contributions on other sub-disciplines of the humanities will be posted only at Scholardarity. If you’re interested, you can email me with a post idea or rough draft at email@example.com.
I plugged my name into Google and Peoplefinder was offering my name, age, and previous addresses for free, and different levels of my information for a dollar, fifteen dollars, or forty dollars a month, that is, 39.95, of course!
We have returned from the anonymity of the big city to the technology-based everybody-knows-everything-about-everybody of a small village. The question to ask: does this work against being human or is it helpful to it?
Knowledge is power and this is really knowledge without relationship. So power comes very close and relationship is like a paper relationship that is reduced to letter writing or now emails; or a telephone relationship that was reduced to calling each other – or sometimes a one-way imaginary relationship; or a Facebook internet relationship that is also virtual and somewhat unreal unless it adds and deepens the quality of a real and living relationship.
After reading Bill Keller’s OP-ED piece, the “Invasion of the Data Snatchers,” (NYT 1/14/2013, p. A21) I realize that it is really not the case that everybody knows everything about everybody: things the government does are classified and top-secret and can remain so for twenty years or more at a time. That spells untold information about us and very little for the most part about our security state. Bill Keller points that out by mentioning Daniel Solove’s book Nothing to Hide. The government should not say “Trust us. We are the good guys.” Checks and balances have to be strong so that individuals are not trampled and undone by the concentration of power on top. That has been one ingredient in the freedom we enjoy in our country.
This power imbalance is not the only way the people at the grass roots become dis-empowered: racism divides us, our classes do, that is, those who have money and those who don’t, and in a strange way our political parties now function that way. Perhaps the old tactic of divide and conquer has also been translated into that of divide and rule, but perhaps the division of the parties has only paralyzed the two chambers of our representative government, the security state gobbles up more and more power.
What do you think?