Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Unintentional Absurdity of Academic Philosophy…

I was reading Debbie Nathan’s book Sybil Exposed and I came across this passage:

“[American Chemical Society] membership was so overwhelmingly male that some meetings in the 1930s were still called “smokers” – a word implying cigars, beer, half-naked girls, and pornographic movies.”

If the ACS was “so overwhelmingly male” that Nathan thinks it was sexist to still call professional meetings “smokers” in the 1930s, I wonder what she would think if she knew that a prominent meeting organized by a professional philosophical association is still called a “smoker” in the 21st century?

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Summer update

It’s almost July and I wanted to give a status update on my summer research progress. My main task of the summer has been to work on my Qualifying Paper for Wash U. The paper is more or less a complete draft at this stage, although there are about 5 more references I need to add to the bibliography. Since I have finished the draft, what I am doing now is a combination of more extensive reading of the literature as well as re-reading the paper and tweaking as much as possible, as well as adding or adjusting footnotes or minor points as I read deeper into the literature. I’ve probably read through the paper now dozens of times. And by the time I get done with revising it at the end of next semester in response to the Works in Progress PNP workshop, I will probably have read it dozens more times. I’m excited by the paper since it seems to be my best work yet. I feel pretty confident that it could eventually end up in a good journal once I get comments from my faculty committee and revise it further. It already feels fairly polished compared to my earlier publications. My only concern right now is that I might be trying to do too much in one paper. I think I could cut it down to a more narrow range of concerns, but I’d be concerned of losing sight of the broader implications of my argument. I’m not the type of philosopher who likes to write short counter-argument rebuttals of someone else’s argument. Instead, I have a broader focus and my argument is an argument against a general approach, not any specific philosopher. As such, I think the “big picture” approach is right for the paper. Hopefully my committee members won’t feel otherwise and have me do major revisions. That would suck! For my first QP though, I think the paper is pretty damn good and it’s definitely a direction I’d like to pursue further in my dissertation.

In other news, I am still waiting to hear from the Central States Philosophical Association whether or not my paper was accepted. They said I would find out by the end of the month, and the suspense is killing me!

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Quote of the day 6-24-2012

“Logic is the art of going wrong with confidence.” ~ Joseph Krutch

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The Immorality of Catholic Confessional

A Roman Catholic priest created an Ask Me Anything thread the other day on Reddit. One redditor asked the following question:

“If a man came to you in confessional and admitted to murdering someone and shares intent to do it again, do you go to the police or do you respect the rules of confession? If you read in the paper that he did it again the next day, how would you feel?I went to Catholic school for 12 years and this has been my favorite question to ask of priests since I was really young, because the answer actually varies.”

Surprisingly, this is how the priest answered:

” The seal of the confessional is inviolate, even if the person has murdered someone.”

This flabbergasted me. The immoral stupidity of such an absolutist rule can easily be demonstrated by performing a thought experiment and taking the logic of an “inviolate seal” to its logical extreme. Let’s say the confessor admits to the priest that he is planning to murder 1 billion people tomorrow with a doomsday device. If the Roman Catholic church still thinks it’s more important to keep the seal of the confessional inviolate than to prevent the death of 1 billion people, then I believe this is a reductio of the principle of the confession.

But, you might object, in order to make it a genuine confession, the confessor must genuinely repent, and you can’t really repent if you consciously plan on committing the sin you are repenting for tomorrow. So it wouldn’t be a real confession. But we need only tweak our thought experiment. Imagine the confessor has a Jekyll and Hyde personality (realistically, this could be done through hypnosis or dissociative identity disorder) and it is the good personality confessing what he thinks the bad personality is going to do. The confessor says, “I am genuinely sorry for this, but I know that I am still going to set off that doomsday device tomorrow because I can’t help it”. Would the seal of the confession still be inviolate? If so, then I think I have provided a reductio of the principle, since it seems obviously absurd to value the principle of the seal over the lives of 1 billion people (or 10 billion, it doesn’t matter for purposes of the thought experiment). Derek Parfit calls this the “Law of Large Numbers”. When you deal with extremely large numbers of lives, then “common sense” moral principles tend to wither under the pressure. If you really considered yourself a moral person, and you believed in a moral God, then surely you would reason that it’s more just to violate the seal and save 1 billion people. Upholding the rule for the sake of upholding the rule is immoral if you cannot give a justification that outweighs the prima facie reasonableness of saving 1 billion lives.

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Quote of the Day 6-19-2012

“The brain, for Miller, has evolved much like the [human] penis. People are on the lookout for entertaining mates. We prefer to be with, and mate with, those who make us happy. This puts evolution in a new light. Evolutionary psychologists typically see the mind as either a scientific data-cruncher, constructing theories of the natural environment, or as a Machiavellian schemer, trying to outfox others a zero-sum game of social dominance. Maybe the mind is also an entertainment center, shaped by the forces of sexual selection to give pleasure to others, to possess the capacity for storytelling, charm, and humor.” ~ Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works p. 85

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Quote of the day 6-12-2012

“Philosophers, of course, are supposed to be critical. We have trained, and daily refine our skills, at exposing the errors in others’ work. But while the exposing of error is an essential part of the doing of philosophy, it is not all there is to doing philosophy. Far too much of the practice of philosophy, both written and dialogical, has become one-sided: finding what is wrong in someone else’s work and failing to find what is right, useful, and meritorious in that work.” ~ Norman Swartz, “Philosophy as  a Bloodsport

h/t: The Philosophers’ Cocoon 

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A quick thought on pain and suffering

It is common for theorists to distinguish between pain and suffering. Pain is generally associated with nociception, a very primitive chemical detection system that responds to cellular damage signals. Suffering, in contrast, is usually defined as the minding of pain, sometimes called the “affectivity” or “unpleasantness” of pain. In humans and monkeys, the pain system and the minding system can be teased apart.  Such a distinction has considerable moral implications for how we treat nonhuman animals. Many philosophers think that it is only the minding of pain, and not pain itself, that deserves moral consideration. Thus, any creature who only has nociception but does not mind pain will not fall under the full umbrella of moral consideration. Moreover, the minding system has been associated with having an Anterior Cingulate Cortex. All mammals have an ACC. Therefore, this seems like a good reason to grant all mammals moral status.

But I propose to make a further distinction between the minding of pain and the introspective awareness that you mind pain. It is unfortunate that the term “minding pain” seems to imply a kind of higher-order awareness since “minding” sounds like a cognitively sophisticated capacity reminiscent of introspection. But if a rat can mind pain, how complex could it really be? Such an capacity doesn’t strike me as all that fancy. And I am skeptical that in humans we have really teased apart minding from introspective awareness of minding. Do we really know that what “bothers” humans is the minding shared with rats or the introspective awareness of minding? More experimentation will be needed to tease this apart, but it is difficult because the verbal reports necessary to determine minding levels seem to be confounded by introspective awareness.

Don’t take me the wrong way. I’m not arguing that only introspective awareness of minding is deserving of moral consideration. Otherwise, I’d be left with the conclusion that we can treat newborn babies as mere objects, a conclusion I obviously reject. It seems plausible that the ability to merely mind pain deserves some moral consideration. But the crucial question is, how much? It seems plausible to me that we have good reason to want to reduce all instances of minding pain in the universe. But it also seems plausible to me that we have good reason to prioritize the reduction of the introspective awareness of minding over the mere minding. This line of reasoning includes nonhuman mammals into the moral sphere, but does not place them on an equal status with well-developed human beings capable of introspective minding.

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