Tuesday, April 7, 2015

[PHI 3630] Rumor has it

In What To Believe Now, Coady argues that the survival of a rumor (i.e., a communication that has spread through a large number of informants) is evidence for its veracity. As Coady puts it:
the "distance" of rumors from an original eyewitness account does not constitute a general reason for skepticism about their veracity. On the contrary, such distance may make belief in rumors more warranted (p. 96).
Now, imagine that you are a young Egyptian in January 2011. You hear rumors about a massive demonstration that is about to take place.

How Facebook Changed the World – the story of the Arab Spring. episode 1 from Sam Farmar on Vimeo.

On the other hand, you also receive the following text message:
Youth of Egypt, beware rumors and listen to the sound of reason - Egypt is above all so preserve it.

From an epistemic point of view, what should you believe?

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

[PHI 3000] Love Thyself

The Western conception of God is that of an all-powerful (omnipotent), all-knowing (omniscient), and morally perfect creator. Love is often said to be an essential part of this conception of God.

In the Old and New Testament, God issues the following commands that have to do with love:
you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.
you shall love your neighbor as yourself.
If God wants us to love him and each other, which is consistent with the Western conception of God as a morally perfect being, it is rather puzzling that there are people who are incapable of loving others.

Why would God command us to love him and each other and then make some people (e.g., narcissists, psychopaths, etc.) incapable of obeying these commands?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

[PHI 3630] Are all opinions equal?

In "The science of protecting people's feelings: why we pretend all opinions are equal," Chris Mooney discusses a study which shows that participants "weight each other's opinion equally regardless of differences in their reliability, even when this strategy was at odds with explicit feedback or monetary incentives."

Here is the abstract of the paper, which was published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences:
We tend to think that everyone deserves an equal say in a debate. This seemingly innocuous assumption can be damaging when we make decisions together as part of a group. To make optimal decisions, group members should weight their differing opinions according to how competent they are relative to one another; whenever they differ in competence, an equal weighting is suboptimal. Here, we asked how people deal with individual differences in competence in the context of a collective perceptual decision-making task. We developed a metric for estimating how participants weight their partner’s opinion relative to their own and compared this weighting to an optimal benchmark. Replicated across three countries (Denmark, Iran, and China), we show that participants assigned nearly equal weights to each other’s opinions regardless of true differences in their competence—even when informed by explicit feedback about their competence gap or under monetary incentives to maximize collective accuracy. This equality bias, whereby people behave as if they are as good or as bad as their partner, is particularly costly for a group when a competence gap separates its members.
Mooney goes further than what the authors of the study say and claims that the study "underscores this conclusion — that we need to recognize experts more, respect them, and listen to them." Do the results of the study actually support this conclusion? If so, how? If not, why not?

Friday, February 13, 2015

[PHI 3630] Enjoy your achievements...

In "The Value Problem," John Greco advances the following argument as a solution to the value problem (why is knowledge valuable?):
  1. Achievements are finally valuable.
  2. Knowledge is a kind of achievement.
  3. Therefore, knowledge is finally valuable.
This argument is valid. If it is sound, then knowledge has intrinsic value (i.e., valuable for its own sake), not merely instrumental value (i.e., valuable as a means to an end). Is this argument sound?

Greco considers mostly objections against premise (2). But what about premise (1)? Is it the case that achievements have intrinsic value? Or are they valuable as means to an end? Consider the view known as psychological or motivational hedonism. According to this view, we humans are motivated by pleasure or displeasure. If something like motivational hedonism is correct, would it follow that achievements are valuable only insofar as they give us pleasure or satisfaction? If so, does that mean that achievements are not valuable for their own sake after all?

Sunday, January 11, 2015

[PHI 2200] Was Kant a hypocrite?

Immanuel Kant is one of the dominant figures in the history of philosophy, particularly moral philosophy. Kant's ethics, also known as deontological ethics, is one of the three main theoretical approaches to normative ethics to this day (deontology, consequentialism, and virtue theory).

At the core of Kant’s moral philosophy is the notion of human dignity. As the second formula of the Categorical Imperative (AKA, the Humanity Formula) states: "Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means, but always at the same time as an end." Human beings must be treated as ends, not as means to an end, because they are rational agents. The source of our dignity and worth, according to Kant, is the fact that we are free rational agents who are the legislators of our own moral laws.

Unfortunately, it appears that Kant himself was a racist.

If Kant didn't think that all human beings are equal in dignity, does that mean that he was a hypocrite? If Kant was indeed a racist, does that undermine his notion of human dignity? Should we dismiss his moral philosophy because he could not live up to his own standards? [Similar questions can be raised about David Hume.]

[PHI 2200] Do we have an obligation to resist oppression?

According to Carol Hay, we can say what makes sexual harassment morally wrong by appealing to Kant's ethical theory, in particular, to what Kant says about our duty to respect the dignity of others and our own, given that we are rational beings. As Hay writes:
Because we have an obligation to prevent harms to our rational nature, and because oppression can harm our capacity to act rationally, we have an obligation to resist our own oppression. Despite what Kant himself might've thought, we know that women's rational capacities are no different from men's. Thus we can use Kantianism to explain why women are just as deserving of respect as men and why this respect is incompatible with sexist oppression.
Her argument can be reconstructed as follows:
  1. We have an obligation to resist attempts to hinder our capacity to act rationally.
  2. Sexual harassment (sexist oppression) is an attempt to hinder women's capacity to act rationally.
  3. Therefore, women have an obligation to resist sexist oppression.
Do you think that Hay's argument can be extended to other forms of oppression as well?

For example, could one argue from Hay's premises that the poor have an obligation to resist economic oppression?

Thursday, December 4, 2014

[PHI 3000] The Principle of Credulity and the Schizophrenic Masters

In The Existence of God, Richard Swinburne writes:
if it seems to me that I have a glimpse of Heaven, or a vision of God, that is grounds for me and others to suppose that I do. And, more generally, the occurrence of religious experiences is prima facie reason for all to believe in that of which the reported experience was purportedly an experience (Swinburne 2004, 310).
Swinburne’s argument is a version of an argument for the existence of God known as the argument from religious experience. Swinburne’s version of the argument is based on a principle he calls the Principle of Credulity. According to the Principle of Credulity, "if it seems (epistemically) to S that x is present, that is good reason for S to believe that x is present" (Swinburne 2004, 310). Swinburne says that the Principle of Credulity is "a principle of rationality," that "what one seems to perceive is probably so" (Swinburne 2004, 303).

Using the Principle of Credulity, then, Swinburne argues roughly as follows:
  1. If it seems (epistemically) to me (Swinburne) that God is present, that is good reason for me to believe that God is present.
  2. It seems (epistemically) to me that God is present.
  3. Therefore, I (Swinburne) have good reason to believe that God is present.
Now, in 1907, the German artist, August Natterer, had an experience which he later described as follows:
I saw a white spot in the clouds absolutely close – all the clouds paused – then the white spot departed and stood all the time like a board in the sky. On the same board or the screen or stage now images as quick as a flash followed each other, about 10,000 in half an hour… God himself occurred, the witch, who created the world – in between worldly visions: images of war, continents, memorials, castles, beautiful castles, just the glory of the world – but all of this to see in supernal images. They were at least twenty meters big, clear to observe, almost without color like photographs… The images were epiphanies of the Last Judgment. Christ couldn't fulfill the salvation because he was crucified early... God revealed them to me to accomplish the salvation.
Based on his experience, is it rational for Natterer to conclude that God is present?

Hexenkopf (The Witch's Head), ca. 1915

If Natterer's experience does not give him (and us) a good reason to believe that God is present, does that mean that the Principle of Credulity is false?

Monday, November 24, 2014

[PHI 2200] Can excessive wealth and inequality be justified?

According to Oxfam, "Extreme Wealth and Inequality is unethical."
Gandhi famously said "Earth provides enough to satisfy every man's need, but not every man's greed." From an ethical point of view, it is extremely difficult to justify excessive wealth and inequality. In fact, most philosophers and all of the major religions caution against the pursuit of excessive wealth at all cost and prescribe sharing of income with less fortunate members of the community. For instance, the Koran bans usury and says that the rich should give away a portion of their money. The decision of Bill Gates and Warren Buffet to give away their fortunes or to call for greater taxation of excess wealth is an example to the rest of the world's billionaires.
Is there a moral justification for excessive wealth and inequality?

Are billionaires, like Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and other rich and famous people (see YouTube video), doing enough to alleviate the suffering of poor people or should they do more?

[PHI 1000] Mental health and moral responsibility

According to a report issued by a Connecticut state agency:
Newtown shooter Adam Lanza was an isolated young man with deteriorating mental health and a fascination for mass violence whose problems were not ignored but misunderstood and mistreated.
The report says that Lanza's mental health problems included "autism, anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, and suicidal disorder." The report also says that his mother made his condition worse by refusing medical treatment, keeping him at home, and not restricting his access to guns.

All of the above notwithstanding, the report concludes that "In the end, only [Lanza], and [Lanza] alone, bears responsibility for this monstrous act." But why? Why think that Lanza is responsible (i.e., that he is worthy of blame or that he deserves punishment) for the shooting despite the numerous mental health problems he suffered from?

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

[PHI 1000] Free Will, fragile lives, and shattered dreams

Some claim that free will is an illusion. What is usually meant by that is that the feeling of being able to act freely or to freely decide what to do is just that--a feeling. In other words, we feel free but we are not really free. For example, the psychologist John Bargh writes: "The phenomenological feeling of free will is very real … but this strong feeling is an illusion" (2008, p. 148).

Is this feeling of control or "up-to-me-ness" (Caruso 2012, p. 188) a feeling that most (maybe even all) people share? If it is, should we expect most people to feel that they are in control of their lives?

Suppose we find out that most people feel that their lives are fragile (see YouTube video), would the following argument be sound?
  1. If people feel that they are in control, then they will not feel that their lives are fragile.
  2. People do feel that their lives are fragile.
  3. Therefore, it is not the case that people feel that they are in control.
Suppose we find out that most people feel that their dreams have been shattered (see YouTube video), would the following argument be sound?
  1. If free will were real, then people would not feel that their dreams have been shattered.
  2. People do feel that their dreams have been shattered.
  3. Therefore, free will is not real.