Does the universe care?

From a facebook conversation I just had …

Werner Herzog said:

The universe is monstrously indifferent to the presence of man.

My response:

Even from a strictly secular perspective, I think one could argue that the universe *does* care about man, through the humans in it that are a part of it. After all, if you’re going to ask what the universe cares about, the appropriate interpretation is to ask what those parts of the universe that care, care about. The fact that stars and atomic elements don’t care just means that where the universe cares it doesn’t use those parts to do so.


I know that’s sort of missing the point of the quote, but I still think it’s an interesting way to think about things.

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Disagreement on controversial issues

I’ve been listening to a couple of philosophy podcasts through iTunes U. One was from a series of University of Alabama lectures. It was lecture #7, “Understanding Skepticism about Climate Change”, and it’s found here.

It asks the question: why are people’s view on climate change so closely correlated to their political views? Shouldn’t the science just decide the issue, regardless of what people believe politically?

He makes a couple of points that I think are very important.

First, almost no one except climate scientists really understands the topic well enough to make the decision based on direct scientific knowledge. We believe what we do because we trust scientists to tell us the truth about what they’ve found. Which scientists we trust affects what we believe the science says.

Second, when the climate change data is presented, it is usually attached to a bunch of statements that liberals agree with and conservatives disagree with. For example,

  • We are headed for environmental disaster. If it hadn’t been climate change, it would have been something else.
  • Climate change is one more example of rich first-world countries profiting off poor third-world countries. We need to stop that from happening.
  • Capitalism and consumerism are non-sustainable. We have to change to a way of life which lets go of the pursuit of more and more economic growth.
  • We need to let go of some national sovereignty and accept international authority in this issue.

When conservatives hear climate change connected with these four themes, they are going to be suspicious of the climate change data. It will look to them like an attempt to manipulate the data to push through a liberal agenda.

Third, given their initial suppositions, both sides are acting rationally when they are suspicious of the other side.

Fourth, the way to convince the other side is to work hard to decouple the scientific case from the liberal or conservative baggage that goes along with it. If you are liberal, don’t use climate change to press the four issues above. See if you can find someone who disagrees with those statements to make the case for you. There is no reason that climate change has to be solved by internationalization, or changing consumerism, or any of the other thematically liberal solutions.

Fifth — and the talk doesn’t make this point, but I believe it — once the political themes have been taken out of the equation, it may be possible to find compromises that respect the ideological commitments of both sides.

Now the speaker is liberal, and I’m pretty conservative, but I think his points are excellent. In fact, I think the same points apply to political controversies generally. Suppose conservatives and liberals disagree over factual issue X. Then I think the following are key to a discussion that actually makes progress.

  • Realize that people make decisions about X based on who they trust. It isn’t that one side is willing to look at the facts and the other isn’t. It’s that each side has its own experts telling it what the facts are.
  • Expect people on each side to be rational and honest. It’s just that liberals and conservatives have different presuppositions and trust different people.
  • Don’t use X to push a liberal/conservative agenda. That instantly makes you untrustworthy.
  • Help opponents find a way to believe X while remaining conservative/liberal. That’ll take creativity, but it gives people space to look at X without feeling like they’re being pushed into something else.
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Philosophy conference

This weekend I’ll be attending the philosophy of religion conference at Purdue University.

I’m excited because it’s the first chance I’ve had for about 25 years to attend an academic conference like this. I’m sure most of what the speakers say will be way over my head, but I’m expecting to enjoy myself enormously.

The conference is in honor of Richard Swinburne. I don’t know much about him, but I know that, along with Alvin Plantinga and a few others, he has been part of the renewal of religious philosophy that has occurred in the last few decades.

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Can we choose what we believe?

Can we choose our beliefs? Hold out your hand and look at it for a moment. You see it there in front of you. Now, believe that it is not there. Can you do that? No, neither can I.

It seems as though beliefs are the inevitable result of the “facts” we have available to us. If you want to change my beliefs, you’ll have to show me something new that changes them. You can’t just ask me to believe differently.

Yet … I don’t think that is right. I think we choose what to believe lots of the time.

The point is that we are rarely absolutely certain that something is true, or that it is false. We believe things when they are reasonably sure enough that we can accept them as true, without being absolute certain. If we set the bar for evidence high, we won’t believe much. If we set it low, we’ll believe a lot of things. We don’t know exactly how high the bar should be set, but we have beliefs about how high is definitely too high and how low is definitely too low. Within those bounds, we can choose to set the bar at different levels. I can say, “Well, I guess that’s enough. I’ll accept that as true.” Or I can say, “I just don’t think that I’m going to believe without more compelling evidence.”

If something is really obviously false, like “my hand isn’t there”, then I probably can’t choose to set the bar that low. I end up just rejecting it no matter what I want to believe. But overall I think we have a lot of choice about what to believe and what not to believe.

(Here, I write about how this affects the certainty of Christian beliefs.)

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Is there progress in philosophy?

I read an interesting philosophy paper recently, here.  Here’s my paraphrase of one of the things it said:

Philosophy is odd because it doesn’t seem to make any progress. We keep working out very precise arguments for things, but in the long run nothing ever gets settled. Why is that?

The reason is because philosophy doesn’t prove anything out of thin air; rather, it simply connects premises to conclusions. It says, if you believe A and B then you should also believe C. If I don’t want to believe in C, I can just say, “Well, then I guess either A or B must be false.” So you say, “But you have to believe in A and B. D and E are true, and if D and E are true, then A and B must be.” And I say, “Oh – well I guess either D or E must be false.”

Now sometimes this leads to progress. Sometimes, I’ll say, “Hey – I didn’t notice that D and E contradict my idea about C. I really believe D and E. I guess I must have been wrong about C.” Even if not, even if I stick to my guns about C, I may end up saying, “Well, I will admit that in order to believe C I have to reject either D or E, and I can see that’s a bit odd.” As van Inwagen says, philosophy shows us the cost of our beliefs. If I’m going to believe C, I have to let go of either D or E. If you’re going to believe D and E, you’ll have to let go of C.

Often, though, even when all the costs have been assessed, it comes down to your saying “D and E are clearly true, and C is less clear, so I believe C is false”, while I say, “C is clearly true, while D and E are less clear, so I will consider it to be proven that one of D or E is false.”

Problems arise when philosophy students are not taught that arguments show the cost of holding to a conclusion, but they are taught that arguments are absolutely certain proofs of something. Some philosophers present arguments by writing as though they are settling the issue for all time.

Personally, I hope the field of philosophy moves towards a humbler style in the future. I think it would be healthy for us.

(See my personal blog for a Christian perspective on this.)

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Some interesting philosophy blogs

As we enter the unit on philosophy of religion, I want to point out some interesting philosophy blogs on the subject.

The Prosblogion is a blog devoted to philosophy of religion. (The title is a pun on “The Proslogion”, the title of the famous work by Anselm in which the ontological proof for God appears.) Here’s one of the recent interesting articles that appeared there.

Alexander Pruss is a philosophy professor at Baylor. He is a Christian. I love reading his blog, although it can be quite technical, even including frequent posts on mathematics.

In Living Color is a blog by Jean Kazez, a philosopher who write about animal rights, feminism, and atheism, among other things. Her blog is a lot easier to read than the two I mentioned above. She seems to me to have a lot of common-sense wisdom about things, even though her views are very different than mine.

What there is and why there is anything hasn’t been updated a lot recently, but it’s got some interesting posts about the origin of the universe. Variants of the first-cause argument and the fine-tuning argument get discussed a lot. Most of the posters are skeptical of both arguments, and of philosophers of religion in general.

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