I Was Never a Fetus

It’s been a while since I posted anything.  “Life gets in the way,” and all that.  The amount of time I have spent away might make you think that the topic on which I’m writing must be very important, but I don’t know that it is.  It’s just something that’s been bugging me.

The debate about abortion is a topic about which many people have very strong feelings, and understandably so.  However, this post is not about abortion in general.  It is not about whether or not abortion is moral, immoral, or amoral.  It is about one, and only one, argument that I’ve heard several times when the topic has come up in private conversations and online.  The argument of which I’m speaking is goes something like this:

  • You were once a fetus.
  • You are a person.
  • Hence, a fetus is a person.

Once the personhood of a fetus is established, the idea is that all the rights and privileges that go along with such a status would apply to all fetuses.  I don’t know that such a thing does, in fact, follow, but that is not my big problem.  My big problem is that I just don’t think the first premise, “You were once a fetus,” is true in the sense that is needed for the argument to work.

Identity as it relates to persons is a pretty tricky concept.  Part of the reason it is so tricky is that it seems very straightforward.  There is quite a bit to the issue, but it should be fairly easy to demonstrate that when we talk about a person we are generally relying on one of two distinct concepts, one biological and one psychological.

The biological criterion allows us to say that our bodies are the things that make us “us.”  It allows us to point to individuals with certain physical characteristics and readily identify them as the same person at different points in time.  This is certainly the concept that those making the above argument have in mind when they claim that you were once a fetus.

However, that’s not typically the concept we have in mind when we think of what “we” are.  Here’s what I mean:  Think about the various movies, books, and TV shows that have had as an aspect of the plot some person getting a different body, like Freaky Friday.  In that movie a mother and daughter switch bodies, and, supposedly, hilarity ensues, and a lesson is learned at the end bringing the pair closer together.  Now, if you consider that plot, it should immediately become apparent that what we are not talking about when we point to the persons involved are the bodies.  Were that the case, the movie would make no sense at all.  No, in order for the story to work, we have to separate the person from the body.  In that case what counts for personhood is (probably) some particular psychology that continues through time*.  That is, what counts for personhood is something like psychological continuity.

With the distinctions above described it should be obvious where the problem with the “You were once a fetus” argument lies.  The problem is that it is just not at all clear that I or anyone else was once a fetus in the relevant sense.  As psychological continuity is what is important for personhood, psychological states are necessary before there can ever be a person.  Exactly where full-on psychological states begin is a matter of some contention, but even if those states begin while still in the womb, they clearly don’t begin until later in the gestation period.  As such, there is clearly some time where my body existed but “I” did not, where the fetus existed, but it simply was not “me.”  For this reason the argument as it is described simply cannot work.

I think I’ve been charitable to the proponents of this argument.  In fact, I’ve cleaned it up from the version I normally hear which is something closer to attempting to making people feel like they owe it to fetuses not to abort them since those persons themselves were not aborted.  That’s a trite play at emotions that I find kind of pitiful, so I didn’t present the argument in that way.  Even so, I just don’t see how this particular argument gets off the ground for the reasons given above.  It just turns out I was not a fetus, so attempting to piggy-back the rights of fetuses on the rights of full living persons in this way completely fails.

I’ll say once more that this is not an argument in favor of abortion, nor is it meant to suggest that no argument against abortion works.  That’s not what I’m doing here.  Rather, I just wanted to point out that this particular argument, one which I’ve heard repeated numerous times, relies on a clear conceptual error and does not work at all.

*There is some debate as to exactly how this gets cashed out, but for the sake of brevity I’ll rely on psychological continuity while readily admitting that the issue is more complex than is laid out here.

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The Problem of Free Will

There is no subject more divisive in my household than the question of free will.  Holiday dinners have devolved into screaming matches over abstract reflections on moral responsibility, and so it is with some reluctance that I broach the subject in this blog.  But, I haven’t done a post in a while, and Jim suggested that I write something on this essay, so I’m going to humor him.  I would like to recommend that all of the readers of this blog take the time to review Galen Strawson’s "Basic Argument for Determinism" as well as William Eddington’s response, "The Limits of the Coded World" (linked above) before continuing this post, but since you may not have time to do that, I will briefly review the relevant arguments.

Simply put, if we have no free will, then moral responsibility as we normally think of it (blame, praise, obligation, etc.) seems impossible.  This is bad news for the study of ethics because the arguments against free will are pretty compelling.  Whether we cash the story out in terms of mental states (desires, personality, beliefs) or pure physics, it looks like there’s no way around the fact that unchosen forces determine our actions.  It certainly feels as though I have a choice about whether to spend my last 20 dollars on food for my family or whiskey and cigarettes, but the choice is going to come down to the person I am (values, experiences, beliefs, and desires, none of which I choose) and the circumstances in which I find myself (again, unchosen).  Or, to reach the same conclusion in a different way, my brain states are as causally determined as all other physical phenomena,* so there is no place in the causal chain of neural events for an undetermined "free" choice.

I think that Strawson’s arguments for determinism are very compelling, which is unfortunate because the implications are devastating.  If my choices are actually illusory, then so too is my sense of moral responsibility.  I am not morally responsible for choosing whiskey over food for my family if I am not responsible for being the person I am, and there is a very good case to be made that I’m not. And of course, this same logic applies to all levels of "choices," some of which are great deal more heinous than alcoholic excess. Because the implications of determinism are so devastating, I am very sympathetic to philosophers who attempt to navigate some alternative route to moral responsibility which bypasses the problem of free will.  So, I really wish that I could agree with William Egginton.  Unfortunately, I just don’t think his argument works.

Egginton seems to think that the problem of free will and the corresponding question of moral responsibility are really issues in epistemology, not metaphysics.  In other words, he seems to believe that the fact that we don’t know our futures is somehow relevant to whether or not we have free will.  I would like to pick out one short sentence from his essay that summarizes this position, but unfortunately, for all of his references to Kant and interesting asides about neuroscience, I can’t find a single place where Egginton makes a complete argument. So, I am extrapolating a bit, but I think his point (largely borrowed from Kant) must be that because we can never have knowledge of the world from an omniscient perspective but instead must experience it temporally, the future, as it is to us, really is undetermined.  This leads him to conclude:

As much as we owe the nature of our current existence to the evolutionary forces Darwin first discovered, or to the cultures we grow up in, or to the chemical states affecting our brain processes at any given moment, none of this impacts on our freedom. I am free because neither science nor religion can ever tell me, with certainty, what my future will be and what I should do about it.

Now, as nice as Egginton’s conclusion sounds, it is clearly not logically sound.  The question of whether I believe I have a choice is certainly relevant and useful in terms of psychological motivation, but belief in moral responsibility no more corresponds to actual moral responsibility than belief in magic corresponds to actual magic.  Moreover, if Egginton’s argument is motivated by a desire preserve our intutions about free will, moral responsibility, and all of the ethical theories that depend upon them, then this "solution" to the problem of free will fails on that front as well.  We may not want to say that the child rapist is not responsible for his actions because he had no choice in his desires or impulses, but we certainly don’t want to say that the child rapist is only responsible for his actions because he feels responsible.

Free will is a metaphysical issue, not an epistemic one.  Epistemology plays an important role in ethics because belief justification is an important part of moral deliberation, but the mere fact that we believe in free will does not prove that we have it, and the mere fact that we believe ourselves to be morally responsible for our actions is not proof that we are.  If we are going to make sense of moral responsibility in any useful way,  we need some account of choice that can distinguish between non-cognitive action (impulse), delusional action, and deliberative, intentional action, and  Egginton’s story can’t do that.  I kind of wish it did.

*Also, just in case you skipped the recommended reading, and happened to see the colossally awful film What the Bleep Do We Know?,  no. Quantum Theory does not get you out of the problem of free will.

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Rebecca Watson Gets It. Color Me Unsurprised.

 

In the video here Rebecca Watson from Skepchick, the Skeptics Guide to the Universe, Curiosity Aroused, etc,  addresses the question “What does atheism have to offer?”  Her answer?  It’s a bullshit question.  And she’s absolutely right.

 

The kind of question about which she’s talking here is of a type that is often posed by people from a number of sides of various issues, and it’s always bullshit.  The presumption in such a question is that there must be some sort of benefit to conferred upon the holder of the position at issue, else there is no good reason to hold it.  Worse, in that case, there is reason to hold the opposing view.  But this concern from some practical benefit has nothing to do with the truth of the issue.  Nothing.

In a clear way this hits at the practical vs. the principled concern that I’ve noted here a few times, including a post dedicated just to that issue.  If you’re in an argument with someone about the truth of something, it is completely improper to ask what the benefit of holding that belief is.  What does it matter?  How does that affect the truth of it?  It doesn’t.  In terms of the way things are, your happiness is completely irrelevant.  You might be utterly miserable believing some particular truth.  It might cause an existential crisis of such a degree that your life is irrevocably ruined, but that would not change stop the truth from being the truth. 

This is not to say there is no room for discussions about pragmatic concerns.  There’s plenty of room for that.  But we need to be clear when we talk about such things that we are not talking about whether or not that makes the thing discussed is true.  They are just different questions.

Let me be clear about what I’m saying and what I’m not saying.  I’m not talking about atheism here, even though that’s the question that provoked the response Watson gives in the video.  Whether or not atheism is a justified view is completely beside the point I’m making here.  I’m saying that in a debate about a principled issue, the practical concerns of the consequences of the issue are just not relevant to the discussion.  So, in terms of the question of atheism, it just does not matter if not believing in a god makes you unhappy when the concern is which position is epistemically justified.  The same goes for theism.  If you’re a theist debating with an atheist about whether or not one is justified in believing in a god, and if that person says something like “But what good does it do to believe in you god?” tell them that they are asking a bullshit question and skirting the real issue.  It’s a red herring, and it should be pointed out as such.

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What’s So Bad about Science?

Karl Giberson, science-and-religion scholar

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The debate over the compatibility of science and religion is something about which I’ve written frequently on here.  In particular, I have repeatedly addressed the arguments from the accommodationists, those who think religion and science are perfectly compatible.  As such, and as they keep saying the same thing over and over, I don’t particularly feel like repeating myself today.  However, Karl Giberson of BioLogos has recently written a piece over at HuffPo addressing this issue, and in it he expresses a concern that I don’t particularly understand.

Giberson writes,

Jerry Coyne and I had an interesting exchange yesterday that will appear in a brief video on USA Today’s website at some point. The question related to the compatibility of science and religion. Can one accept the modern scientific view of the world and still hold to anything resembling a traditional belief in God?

My answer to this question is "yes, of course," for I cannot see my way to clear to embrace either of the two alternatives — a fundamentalist religion prepared to reject science, or a pure scientism that denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.

I want to address this issue of “scientism” and the kind of caricature that is painted by the term when it is used to describe the position of the non-accommodationists.  First, I’m not aware of anyone saying they are in favor of a position that “denies the reality of anything beyond what science can discover.”  In that sense, the position presented seems to apply to almost no one.  There might be all sorts of things that science cannot know that are, in fact, true.  This is obvious in practice as there are literally innumerable things that we don’t currently know, and it seems very, very likely that there will always be things we don’t know.  There are possibly even things we cannot know in principle via science, though it seems wise to avoid specifying what those might be as science seems to have a way of constantly closing the gaps we have imagined to be forever uncrossable.  Still, it is absolutely possible that there are things for which the method of science is simply ill-suited, hence things which are, in principle, shut off forever from scientific inquiry.  And, again, all the big names on the side of the non-accommodationists have said things of that very nature.  In this way, the worry of “scientism” is simply a strawman.

Now would be a good time to talk about how this is irrelevant to the science/religion compatibility discussion at all for numerous reasons, one big one being that the fact that science cannot reach something does not in any way mean that religion can, and, indeed, I keep meaning to write something on that subject.  But that’s not what I want to address, either.  No, what I want to hit is the concern that if it did turn out to be the case that all things can be known by science, this would, in some sense, be bad.  But for the life of me I cannot see the worry here.  What if it were true that science could know everything and there were no place for religion?  So what? 

Presumably, religious folk, and non-religious folk who are sympathetic to the religious in the sense that they are accommodationists, are interested in the way things are.  Let’s say they are interested in truth.  If that’s their concern, and if it were true that science was a way to know about everything, I cannot see how this would cause anyone to be unhappy.  That would mean we would have a way to get just what they wanted, namely the truth.  That would seem to be a good thing.

Now, I do understand that most, if not all, of those expressing such concern do so because they think that there are things science cannot know which religion can.  But there is typically something more than that to their worry.  It is that something would be lost, that it would be a bad thing, if there were nothing other than wholly natural processes of the type that science describes going on in the world.  And that’s what I don’t get; that’s what leaves me puzzled.  I just cannot see what would be lost.  In fact, it would look like something amazing would be gained.  Specifically, this means of acquiring knowledge that has been so massively successful would be the same way we could acquire all knowledge.  Yay!  Good for us!  At least, that’s the way it looks to me, and I will readily admit that I don’t understand the urge to pooh-pooh the knowledge we get from science as somehow less important than some other kind of knowledge.  If you’re interested in something like the truth, it seems cool that you get it however you can.  If you’re not interested in the truth, then I’ll admit that I’m not really clear on what your concern is.  Whatever it is, I would appreciate it if it were made clear so I would know how to address it.

I get thinking that something like scientism is wrong, but I don’t get the desire for it to be wrong.  If that’s all there is, then that’s all there is, and I don’t see what’s so bad about it.  I don’t get what is lost.  And, so far, no one has been able to explain that one to me at all.

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Ron Rosenbaum’s New Agnosticism

Ron Rosenbaum wrote an article in Slate on Monday entitled “An Agnostic Manifesto.”  It’s a ridiculous piece in which he advocates for a “new agnosticism” to deal with the rise of the dreaded New Atheism.  In his article he makes a number of bizarre assertions that are entirely disconnected from reality, shows his lack of understanding of basic philosophical issues, and, in the end, pats himself on the back for being brave enough to shrug his shoulders and take potshots at the empty strawmen he works so hard to construct.

Rosenbaum opens with this gem:

Let’s get one thing straight: Agnosticism is not some kind of weak-tea atheism. Agnosticism is not atheism or theism. It is radical skepticism, doubt in the possibility of certainty, opposition to the unwarranted certainties that atheism and theism offer.

Well, no, it’s not “radical skepticism.”  Sorry, but that term has already been taken, and it does not mean what you think it means.  Radical skepticism is just that, radical skepticism. Put simply, it’s a position that knowledge in general is impossible.  At the risk of being pedantic, it’s a position that most anyone who took an intro course in philosophy should recognize.  As Rosenbaum is going to accuse atheists of being philosophically unsophisticated, it does not bode well for him that he is unaware of such an elementary position.

The first strike at atheism comes in the next paragraph.  He writes,

Agnostics have mostly been depicted as doubters of religious belief, but recently, with the rise of the “New Atheism”—the high-profile denunciations of religion in best-sellers from scientists such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, and polemicists, such as my colleague Christopher Hitchens—I believe it’s important to define a distinct identity for agnosticism, to hold it apart from the certitudes of both theism and atheism.

Right here we can see he’s already completely derailed.  The “certitudes” of atheism?  What might those be?  How can a position that describes a lack of a belief be described as being certain of anything?  Groan.

I would not go so far as to argue that there’s a “new agnosticism” on the rise. But I think it’s time for a new agnosticism, one that takes on the New Atheists. Indeed agnostics see atheism as “a theism”—as much a faith-based creed as the most orthodox of the religious variety.

Faith-based atheism? Yes, alas. Atheists display a credulous and childlike faith, worship a certainty as yet unsupported by evidence—the certainty that they can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.

And here’s his big, radical misunderstanding.  First, it should be made explicit that atheism, new or otherwise, has nothing to do with science at all.  It is a lack of a belief in any deity.  Now, it may well be that many atheists like science, but such is neither necessary nor sufficient to be an atheist.  Indeed, such a stance has nothing at all to do with lacking a belief in a god.  If you lack a belief in a god, you are an a-theist.  It’s just that simple.  In fact, judging from Rosenbaum’s description of his own beliefs, it looks like he too has no belief in a god, and that makes him an atheist as well.  Maybe someone should clue him in on this stuff.

But then we have this question of whether or not it is, in fact, an accurate description of any of the prominent so-called New Atheists to suggest that they are certain that science “can or will be able to explain how and why the universe came into existence.”  I can’t see that it is.  Seriously, who holds that view?  We might hope that science will one day give us an answer as to how the universe came to exist, but be certain that it will?  I have never heard any thoughtful person espouse anything like such a view.  And as to the “why” question, unless by that you mean a causal description (which I would think falls under how), such as “Why is the ground wet?  Because it rained,” I’m not sure what it would even mean for science to provide such an answer.  Certainly, I have not heard or read any of the so-called Four Horsemen suggesting any such thing.  Rosenbaum quotes no one saying anything like this, and I think that is for good reason:  no one has said this.

Rosenbaum then charges that the New Atheists cannot answer old philosophical conundrums like “why is there something rather than nothing?”  He then goes further, “bravely” laying down the gauntlet, and writes,

In fact, I challenge any atheist, New or old, to send me their answer to the question: “Why is there something rather than nothing?” I can’t wait for the evasions to pour forth. Or even the evidence that this question ever could be answered by science and logic.

No Ron, you won’t be getting a flood of responses from thoughtful atheists, but that is not because they are scared.  They just don’t hold the position with which you’re attempting to paint them, namely that they are certain that science can and will provide any such thing.  In fact, I don’t personally know any professional philosopher who even takes that question seriously.  I mean, it presumes something it should not in the first place, namely that there is a “why.”  I though you were a “radical skeptic,” Ron, someone who wasn’t sure of anything.  What makes you think that there even is a why in the first place?  Worse, what makes you think that the universe is contingent, that there is some possibility that it could have not existed at all?  Surely such a possibility needs to exist in order for the question at hand to even make sense, yet we have no way of knowing that such is the case.  Come on, Ron, where is that doubt you so proudly proclaimed having in the beginning of your essay?  You’re jumping the gun here assuming things of which you have no right.

I could go on taking this article apart piece by piece, but I’ll quit after making one final point.  Rosenbaum says he wrote to one John Wilkins, someone else who proudly extols the virtues of foisting positions onto people that they don’t really hold.  In quoting Wilkins’ letter, Rosenbaum makes the following comment:

Wilkins’ suggestion is that there are really two claims agnosticism is concerned with is important: Whether God exists or not is one. Whether we can know the answer is another. Agnosticism is not for the simple-minded and is not as congenial as atheism and theism are.

Rosenbaum seems to be of the wildly ignorant position that only self-described agnostics are aware of the difference between ontological and epistemic questions.  The hubris here could take down an elephant.  Seriously, Ron?  You don’t think Dan Dennett or Alvin Plantinga are aware of the kind of distinctions that you should recognize upon completion of a Phil 101 course?  Really?  Really? The irony here of Rosenbaum’s charge of atheists and theists as simple-minded is as weighty as his hubris.

Groan.

Rosenbaum finishes by saying, “The courage to admit we don’t know and may never know what we don’t know is more difficult than saying, sure, we know.”  Nice pat on the back there, Ron.  It’s good to know that intellectual deceit and the building of endless strawmen are what pass for courage in your world.  That’s quite a marketing scheme for your New Agnosticism, but I don’t think I’ll be buying into it.

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Poverty, Values, and Why I Don’t Like Ruby Payne

I have training as a philosopher, but I pay my bills through my employment at a Community Action Program, working with the homeless.  Unsurprisingly, working on the practical side of a field in which one has lots of theoretical understanding can be as frustrating as it is rewarding.  I certainly wouldn’t expect any of my coworkers to be able to summarize Rawls’ Difference Principle (let alone trace the connection between A Theory of Justice, Johnson’s Great Society, and the subsequent CAPs that were a result of the Economic Opportunity Act), but their lack of interest in foundational issues in economics, politics, and ethics sometimes shocks me.  Recently, I had an especially polarizing experience with my co-workers when I was required to sit through the Bridges out of Poverty workshop, based upon the book, A Framework for Understanding Poverty, by Ruby Payne.

If you are not involved in social work, you may be unfamiliar with the work of Ruby Payne, which is primarily based upon anecdotal observations about the "hidden rules" of social class.  Despite the fact that Dr. Payne’s "research" is widely dismissed even by sociologists for its lack of methodological rigor, the revelation that poor people have different attitudes about food from rich people appears to be profoundly enlightening to some people, at least if anecdotal observations of my co-workers is any in indication (maybe I should write a book).  To be fair, the Bridges Out of Poverty program is well-intentioned, at least as far as I can tell.  Though after a seven-hour workshop I was still unable to identify a single explicit foundational principle or specific directive, the implicit theme seemed to be that people in different classes see the world differently, and the general directive seemed to be that we should be sensitive to that fact in our work with the indigent.

The polarizing moment came when talk moved to values. After spending the better part of a morning listing less-than-revelatory observations about how poor people view violence, bedtimes, school performance, and other aspects of everyday life, the speaker cautioned us that these views were not good or bad and the program was only meant to inform us about the different ways in which people in different classes view the same issues.  I raised my hand and commented that this seemed like a bit of an exaggeration.  "Surely," I said, "we can appreciate that a person living in the inner city has reasons to fight or sell drugs, and we can still make a value judgment about why that behavior is bad."  I was met with polite nods, but nobody seemed to appreciate that my comment was a subtle criticism of the myopic relativism of the program.  I tried again after lunch.  The speaker said explicitly that we were not there to make judgments about the values of the different classes, only to learn something by observing their differences.  This time I was more explicit.  "But, surely," I blurted out, "we all know that this program and the work that we do is biased toward the values of the middle class.  I mean, we may understand why poor people don’t value education the way middle class people do, but we still make a judgment that education is valuable, and we push that value to our clients."

This time I was met with blank stares.  Several of the other participants volunteered less-than-useful responses which belied the fact that they really didn’t understand my point.  Each response was some version of,  "But, poor people really do want the same things as middle class people, they just don’t have the tools/knowledge/resources to achieve those things!"  After succeeding in annoying everyone in the room, I waited until break to take up the issue privately with the speaker who nodded sympathetically when I explained that debate about the empirical effectiveness of different means to the same end is not the same thing as a genuine difference of values.  "Insofar as there is a genuine disagreement about values, I don’t think that any reconciliation is possible," I said, "But, don’t get me wrong.  I think most people value similar things, which is why outreach programs are useful.  We aren’t teaching people to value different things, we’re teaching them better means to their ends."  Again, I was met with a blank stare, but, perhaps believing I agreed with her, she nodded and walked away.

As I tried to explain to my coworkers, my objection to the Bridges Out of Poverty program is not an objection to the implicit middle-class value judgments that give social work its motivating force.   For the most part, I share the same values as my coworkers, and I share the intuition that most of the practices that we push through education and outreach are attractive to our clients precisely because they share those values as well.  (Of course, this is another way of saying that I don’t really believe that class plays a major role in determining values in this first place.)  My objection is to the absurd and contradictory combination of explicitly stated relativism and implicitly assumed objectivity that is pervasive in the work of Ruby Payne and the people who follow her.   And, it maddens me that so many people in social work seem to miss this rather simple point:  Either values are objective, or they are not.  If values are objective, then they are not relative to class.  Also, if values are objective, then there is a fact of the matter about how people should behave, and we absolutely can and should make judgments upon people who fail to promote objective values.  If values are not objective, then it is silly to argue about them.  The only discussion worth having is about which actions are more efficient means to the promotion of values, not about the values themselves.

Though I find the contradiction between explicit relativism and implicit value objectivity worrisome, I have a pretty good guess about why it is so pervasive in my field.  On almost every level, education and outreach work is based upon the assumption that the poor have some control over their poverty.  Political activists can organize strikes, mobilize voters, and publicly denounce economic policies that create and maintain class disparity.  Social workers take on clients who have very few resources and try to improve their condition by giving them information alone.  We may privately believe that poverty persists because of huge variation in the distribution of political and economic power which will never be altered by changes in individual behavior, but our job is to reassure people that they will be able to get out of poverty if they work hard, follow the rules, and take advantage of the meager resources provided by public welfare programs.   Unfortunately, the belief that hard work and education will get you out of poverty implies that individuals who aren’t getting out of poverty are either not working hard enough or are ignorant about the resources available to them. It’s a hard truth, and nobody wants to admit it, but discussions about why different classes value different things are pointless.  The discussion we need to have is about why different classes have different things.  Community Action Programs like mine were founded upon a very simple, value-driven principle:  Poverty is a bad thing.   We don’t need a framework for understanding it.  We need practical strategies for ending it.

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Pessin’s Paradox of the Preface

Sometimes I hear people in the blogosphere complain about philosophers and what we do.  This often comes from someone who is largely unfamiliar with philosophy, and you can see this because these people commonly express explicit philosophical positions while they are complaining about philosophy.  This suggests they just don’t get what philosophy is.  Sometimes I get annoyed at this and try to point out the mistake, but most of the time I let it slide recognizing that the person in question is just naive.  Sometimes, though, I read something from a philosopher, and I understand these people’s frustration.  After all, this is likely what they had in mind when they voiced their complaint.  Now is one of those times. 

Andrew Pessin, Chair of Philosophy at Connecticut College and author of The God Question, wrote an article for the Huffington Post a couple of days ago entitled “How to Be Certain Your Religion Is True and Still Get Along with Others.”  So, what’s Pessin’s big idea? 

Choose some important, life-governing, very controversial thing you happen to believe in with great fervor: the existence of God (or perhaps atheism), the truth of Christianity (or Islam or Hinduism, etc.), absolute morality (or relativism), etc. Focusing on religion as our example, you can now say, first, that you believe, with certainty, on the basis of reason and evidence and testimony, in the truth of, say, the various individual tenets of your version of Christianity, and thus believe, with equal certainty, in all the things entailed by that belief: that, say, all other competing religions and doctrines are simply false.

But then you can say, second, something else: that you may be wrong.

Yes, Pessin thinks the resolution to the world’s religious conflicts is to say you are certain about something, but then say you’re not certain at all.  He calls this the “Paradox of the Preface.” 

What’s this about?  Pessin thinks that someone can say that she is certain about something while simultaneously saying that, as a fallible human being, she is also certain she made a mistake somewhere in their reasoning.  Sounds like a contradiction, huh?  Pessin agrees.  He writes,

Well, there is the implicit, apparent contradiction. To believe of each and every sentence that it is true is to believe, in effect, that not one of the sentences is false; but to believe that there is at least one error in the work is to believe that at least one of the sentences is false, and thus to contradict the first belief.

Even so, he says we can recognize the contradiction while still being certain about both things.

Man, there is so much sloppiness here that I want to bite something.  First, in philosophy “certainty” has a specific meaning, and it means that there is no doubt.  If that’s not what Pessin has in mind, he should define the term.  The point there is that, even if I recognize that I am fallible and capable of mistakes, I likely am not certain that I have made some mistake in my reasoning.  Were that the case, I would be going over that reasoning carefully to find the error.  Rather, I just see that it is possible that I made a mistake, but that is nothing like having certainty about it.  So, even if Pessin means “certainty” as having no doubt when he talks about believing that one’s religious faith is fully correct and all others are wrong, he can’t mean certainty in the same way when talking about the fallibility of one’s reasoning.  But which use of the word does he have in mind when he talks about ‘certainty’?  There does not seem to be any way to tell.  Regardless, there is a big problem here.

Next, I just do not buy the idea that someone can be certain about something, like that God exists, while saying that he might be wrong.  That just means you are not certain!  In that case acknowledging some contradiction does not seem to be some brave honesty.  On the contrary, it seems wholly dishonest.  If you are certain, you would not think you had made an error.  If you are worried you made an error, and surely if you are certain of such, then you would not be certain of the assertion you are making in the first place.  The idea that you can be certain about both things really is a contradiction, and when you have contradictions that means at least one of the propositions in question is false.  It is as simple as that.  You do not get to brutely assert both as true and not look like either a liar or a fool.

There is a larger point to this whole nonsense, though.  Pessin is suggesting that affirming the paradox is supposed to somehow make people get along with each other, but he gives no indication of how this is supposed to work.  Indeed, there are lots of things about which I am not certain but which seem reasonable, so those are things upon which I act.  Even in those cases, lacking certainty, acknowledging the possibility that I am wrong does not prevent me from acting, and that seems to be the kind of thing for which Pessin is pushing.  He seems to think that if people admit to…well, not doubt, but being both certain and not-certain at the same time, that this will alter their actions in such a way that people of different religions can get along.  But why would he think this?  There are any number of people who admit to times when they question their religious beliefs, but that hasn’t stopped religious conflict yet.  Seriously, does Pessin think he is so smart that no one ever realized that there might be room for not-certainty in their beliefs before he wrote this?  Surely not.  And yet, here he is suggesting that such an admission will result in some kind of large-scale harmony between members of different faiths.  But, certainly, this has not happened yet, even though people recognize that they can make mistakes. 

Dude, what a dumbass.

Accepting contradictions is not a way to accomplish anything except confusion.  Being sloppy in your definitions only spreads confusion.  Confusion is not peace.  In fact, confusion is often the origin of conflict.  Pessin is the kind of philosopher who gives the rest of us a bad name.

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