Friday, April 25, 2014

[PHI 2200] On playing the 'Playing God' card

In The Suicide Tourist, Craig Ewert makes the following comment:
There are people who will look at this and say, "No, suicide is wrong. God has forbidden it. You cannot play God and take your own life." Well, all right, fine. But you know what? This ventilator is playing God. If I had lived without access to technology, chances are I would be dead now, all right? When premature babies are born, they are given intensive medical treatment. Their lives are saved because doctors and nurses are playing God. They're saying, essentially, "God's plan was that this person would die right now. We're thwarting that. We're playing God."
And you know, they never say, "We have to stop organ transplants. We have to stop saving premature babies. We have to let them die." Oh, no. For that, it's OK to play God. It's only when it might ease somebody's suffering that, "Oh, we can't play God" comes out.
Ewert's comment can be construed as an argument as follows:
  1. If it is morally impermissible to "play God" in order to ease the suffering of a terminal patient, then it is morally impermissible to "play God" in order to save a premature baby.
  2. It is morally permissible to "play God" in order to save the life of a premature baby.
  3. Therefore, it is morally permissible to "play God" in order to ease the suffering of a terminal patient.
What do you make of this argument? Is it sound?

Thursday, April 17, 2014

[PHI 3000] The Punishment Theodicy

A theodicy is an account that is supposed to show why God is justified in allowing evil in this world. One such account is known as “the punishment theodicy.” According to the punishment theodicy, God allows natural evil (i.e., the pain, suffering, death, and destruction that result from natural processes, such as earthquakes, storms, and the like) as punishment for sin.


Pereboom, 2005, "The Problem of Evil," The Blackwell Guide to the Philosophy of Religion, p. 155.


Now, consider the fact that studies have shown that physical punishment is not effective and is actually harmful to kids. In light of these studies, and given that natural evil is a form of physical punishment (i.e., an action intended to cause physical discomfort or pain to correct behavior), it follows that God is allowing a discipline method that is not only ineffective but also harmful to us. That is:
  1. Natural evil is physical punishment from God. [the punishment theodicy]
  2. Physical punishment is an ineffective and harmful discipline method.
  3. Therefore, God is allowing us to be disciplined in an ineffective and harmful way.
This conclusion, namely, (3), seems to be incompatible with the concept of God as an all-powerful, all-knowing, and benevolent being. Being all-powerful and all-knowing, God could surely come up with effective and harmless ways to discipline us, if he wanted to. Being benevolent, he would want to do just that. And yet, if the punishment theodicy is true, we are being punished by God in ineffective and harmful ways. Does this mean that the punishment theodicy must be false?

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

[PHI 3800] Looks can be deceiving

According to Constructive Empiricism:
science aims at truth about observable aspects of the world, but that science does not aim at truth about unobservable aspects. Acceptance of a theory, according to constructive empiricism, correspondingly differs from acceptance of a theory on the scientific realist view: the constructive empiricist holds that as far as belief is concerned, acceptance of a scientific theory involves only the belief that the theory is empirically adequate.
According to van Fraassen:
X is observable if there are circumstances which are such that, if X is present to us under those circumstances, then we observe it.
For the constructive empiricist, then, microscopic objects and processes that are too small for us to see with the naked eye, such as cells and intracellular process, are unobservable.

Now, instead of the too small, consider the too slow. We cannot observe with the naked eye the growth of plants, for example, not because plants are too small, but because plant growth is a process that occurs too slowly for us to notice. To observe the growth of plants, we need to use technology. In particular, time-lapse photography allows us to capture processes that occur too slowly for us to observe with the naked eye.

For the constructive empiricist, then, are slow processes that we cannot observe with the naked eye unobservable?




Similarly, consider the too fast. We cannot observe with the naked eye the bouncing of raindrops off puddles, for example, not because raindrops are too small, but because this is a process that occurs too fast for us to notice. To observe the bouncing of raindrops off puddles, we need to use technology. In particular, high-speed photography allows us to capture processes that occur too fast for us to observe with the naked eye.




For the constructive empiricist, then, are fast processes that we cannot observe with the naked eye unobservable?

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

[PHI 3000] A simplified version of the ontological argument?

In this short paper, Gareth Matthews and Lynne Rudder Baker offer what they take to be a simplified version of St. Anselm's Ontological Argument for the existence of God. They present the argument as a dialogue but it takes the form of a reductio ad absurdum (as St. Anselm's original argument does):
  1. God (i.e., a being than which nothing greater can be conceived) does not exist. [Assumption for reductio]
  2. If God does not exist, then God has mediated—not unmediated—causal powers. [Premise]
  3. It is greater to have unmediated than mediated causal powers. [Premise]
  4. If God has mediated—not unmediated—causal powers, then a being greater than God can be conceived, namely, a being that has unmediated casual powers. [from (2) & (3)]
  5. Something greater than God can and cannot be conceived. [from (1) & (4)]
  6. Therefore, God exists.
According to Matthews and Rudder Baker, this is a simplified version of St. Anselm's Ontological Argument because it avoids the question of whether existence is a predicate. Instead, they argue, this simplified version of the argument appeals to the distinction between mediated and unmediated causal powers. But why exactly is it "greater" to have unmediated causal powers (and "greater" in what sense)? In other words, why think that premise (3) is true?

More importantly, does this "simplified" version of the Ontological Argument avoid Gaunilo's objection? Gaunilo pointed out that St. Anselm's reasoning can be applied to any thing whatsoever, even things that are clearly imaginary. For example, we can define Pegasus as that winged horse than which nothing greater can be conceived. Then we can apply the same reasoning to "prove" the existence of Pegasus by simply replacing 'God' with 'Pegasus' thus:
  1. Pegasus (i.e., that winged horse than which nothing greater can be conceived) does not exist. [Assumption for reductio]
  2. If Pegasus does not exist, then Pegasus has mediated—not unmediated—causal powers. [Premise]
  3. It is greater to have unmediated than mediated causal powers. [Premise]
  4. If Pegasus has mediated—not unmediated—causal powers, then a winged horse greater than Pegasus can be conceived, namely, a winged horse that has unmediated casual powers. [from (2) & (3)]
  5. Something greater than Pegasus can and cannot be conceived. [from (1) & (4)]
  6. Therefore, Pegasus exists.
If this is correct, is the "simplified version of the Ontological Argument" really an improvement upon St. Anselm's original argument?

Monday, March 31, 2014

[PHI 2200] Is virtue ethics vicious?

In this Elucidations podcast, Julia Annas talks about virtue ethics and says that to be told to do the right thing is not helpful at all until we know what the right thing to do is. To be told to do the honest thing, however, is helpful because we know a lot about honesty (as well as other virtues) from the way we are brought up.

But how can we acquire this know-how about virtues? After all, to be an honest person is to be the kind of person who does honest things. But one supposedly becomes honest by doing honest things. So how would one know how to do honest things before one is an honest person?

In other words, if an honest person is a person who is reliably disposed to do honest things, and the know-how about honesty is acquired from upbringing, then how can one become an honest person (i.e., develop the reliable disposition to act honestly) before one knows how to act honestly (given that one is not yet an honest person)?

It does not seem helpful to say that one learns about honesty from others as one is brought up, for the same question can be raised about others. That is, for any given person, how did that person acquire the know-how to act honestly? If we say "from being brought up by others," then we seem to get into a vicious regress. How did others acquire that know-how?


If this is correct, then is it really more helpful to be told "do the honest thing" than to be told "do the right thing," as Annas claims?

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

[PHI 2200] Survey Results

Here are the results of the surveys we conducted in Ethics class today using Socrative:


The Borrowed Gun Case

The Riots Case

The Firing Squad Case

I think there are two interesting points to make about these results:
  • Even though in all three cases an innocent person would be harmed if you return the borrowed gun, bear false witness, and shoot one, judgments about what you should do vary significantly from 90% against returning the borrowed gun to 77% against bearing false witness to only 58% against shooting one. Why is that so?
  • Even though you have to take direct action and shoot one person, as opposed to returning a borrowed gun or bearing false witness, 42% of you judged that you should shoot one, which is a significant difference from 23% in favor of bearing false witness in the riots case, and an even more significant difference from 10% in favor of returning the borrowed gun in the borrowed gun case. Why is that so?

Saturday, March 22, 2014

[PHI 1000] On Bats and Americans

In "What Is It Like to Be a Bat?," Thomas Nagel says the following:




The argument here seems to go roughly like this:
  1. Facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism are subjective.
  2. Facts about the neuro-physiology of the experiencing organism are objective.
  3. Therefore, facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism are not facts about the neuro-physiology of that organism.
Is this a valid argument? Nagel's argument seems to take the following form:
X has property F.
Y has property G.
X is not Y.
Now consider the following substitution instance:
  1. Americans are most likely to say that global warming is exaggerated.
  2. Americans are more worried about the economy than climate change.
  3. Therefore, Americans are not Americans.
Of course, it would be question-begging to say that the difference between Nagel's argument and this one is that Americans are Americans, whereas facts about what it is like for the experiencing organism are not facts about the neuro-physiology of that organism, for that is precisely what Nagel's argument purports to prove.

So, if the argument about Americans is invalid, does that mean that Nagel’s argument is invalid as well?

Thursday, March 20, 2014

[PHI 3800] Is the science in on science?

In this interview on The Colbert Report, Neil deGrasse Tyson talks about how scientific truths are established.


The Colbert Report
Get More: Colbert Report Full Episodes,Video Archive

According to deGrasse Tyson:
Once a scientific truth emerges from a consensus of experiments and observations it is the way of the world.
Colbert (a philosophy major) responds by raising a philosophical question about the methodology of science:
But is the science in on science?
In other words, even if deGrasse Tyson is right about the way scientific truths are established, one could still ask whether that way of establishing scientific truth is any good. Well, is it?

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

[PHI 3000] Has evolution equipped us with reliable perception?

Today we discussed sensory illusions and the distinction between appearance and reality.




One argument that came up in class is the following:
  1. Sense perception is our only source of information about the external world.
  2. If sense perception were unreliable, then we wouldn’t survive and our species would eventually die out.
  3. Therefore, the sense perception of the human species that is in existence today (i.e., modern humans or Homo sapiens) is reliable (unreliable sense perception is the exception, not the rule).
What do you make of this argument? Does it show that sense perception is a reliable source of information about the external world?

Thursday, March 13, 2014

[PHI 3000] Can we learn from works of fiction?

Epistemologists generally agree that the objects of propositional knowledge are true propositions. That is, if one knows that p, then p is true. To put it another way, propositional knowledge (knowing that) is supposed to be factive.

Now consider how we sometimes say that we learn (i.e., gain propositional knowledge) from works of fiction, such as novels and films. For example, from reading or watching Requiem for a Dream, we can learn something about drug addiction.




In this review of the film, the reviewer seems to suggest that Requiem for a Dream teaches us facts about addiction. But how can that be? After all, Requiem for a Dream is entirely fictional. How can we learn facts about addiction from a fictional film or novel? If knowledge is factive, how can we learn facts from non-facts?