Monday, January 30, 2017


Some University of Washington philosophers are teaching a course this coming spring term on critical thinking. A very specific aspect of critical thinking. Their course title is "Calling Bullsh*t" without the asterisk. Right away, though, I'm disappointed. In their syllabus, the second week's required reading will be a chapter from Carl Sagan's The Demon Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. But Sagan was as much a purveyor of bullsh*t as anyone, especially when accusing others of purveying bullsh*t. The title of that book is one example. Here's another. A third can be found in Dennis Danielson's essay "Copernicus and the Tale of the Pale Blue Dot" which does not seem to be online anymore. People who laud themselves as skeptics are only skeptical about what they want to be skeptical about.

(cross-posted at Quodlibeta)

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Two more pieces

This arrangement of this piece of music just devastates me. It's Ave Maria by Vladimir Vavilov, a 20th century Russian composer. Apparently, Vavilov's schtick was to ascribe his music to earlier composers. This one he ascribes to Giulio Caccini, a late Renaissance early Baroque composer. The piece is actually less than 50 years old. You can hear it sung here, but the cello arrangement floors me, even moreso than Barber's Adagio for Strings. In fact, unless you're much less affected by music than me, if you're going through a difficult time right now, I strongly suggest you don't listen to it. It will break you.

OK, that's one piece; here's the next. The other day my wonderful six-almost-seven-year-old daughter was picking out a melody on her keyboard, which she does quite well and quite often. I wasn't listening. Then my son, who was doing something else, suddenly said to her, "Oh, I LOVE that song! That's my favorite song!" to which my daughter replied, "Mine too! That's my favorite song too!" I realized the song sounded familiar, but because it's not usually played on a child's keyboard, it took me a few moments to realize what it was:

Monday, January 9, 2017

Quote of the Day

To examine further this highly intriguing theory of psychology would take me beyond the scope of this book. I propose, accordingly, to conclude the chapter with some general observations on recent developments in psychology, with particular attention to their bearing on materialism in general and behaviourism in particular

(1) I noted in the Introductory Chapter as one of the most puzzling features of modern thought the contradictory answers which it suggests to the traditional questions of philosophy. Physics is idealist in tendency; biology points to a purposive theory of evolution; but psychology, I pointed out, has on the whole remained mechanistic and deterministic. In so describing the tendencies of psychology, I had in mind chiefly Behaviourism, Behaviourism and the implications of psycho-analysis, to which I have devoted a later chapter. Behaviourism exemplifies the generalisation in two ways:

(a) It denies that there is any non-material element in our make-up, mind, soul, spirit, call it what you will, which influences our behaviour. So far as psychology is concerned, we can, it holds, get along very well on the assumption that the human being is all body. As for consciousness, it is a by-product of bodily processes which sometimes but quite incidentally accompanies them. It does not cause the processes it accompanies, and it is not necessary that we should be conscious of them in order that they may occur.

(b) If the individual is all body, or can at least be satisfactorily explained on this assumption, his behaviour will ultimately be explicable in terms of the same laws as those which determine the motions of other bodies. These laws are in the first instance those of dynamics and mechanics, more ultimately those of chemistry and physics.

In so far as the motions of matter are determined -- and the Behaviourist believes that they are -- the activity of living organisms must be determined too. Therefore, if Behaviourism is right, we are merely complicated automata.

Conclusion (a) favours materialism; conclusion (b) mechanism. Summing up we may say that on this view, whatever may be the function of mind or spirit in the universe, it plays no part in the interpretation of the psychology of living human beings.

(2) But in establishing this conclusion Behaviourism runs a considerable risk of destroying the foundation on which it is based. It is not my intention in this book to criticise the various theories which I shall endeavour to expound; but it is pertinent to point out that, if all thought is accurately and exhaustively described as a set of responses to stimuli, responses which may be analysed into movements of the larynx and the brain, then this applies also to the thought which constitutes the Behaviourist view of psychology.

If Behaviourism is correct in what it asserts, the doctrine of Behaviourism reflects nothing but a particular condition of the bodies of Behaviourists. Similarly, rival theories of psychology merely reflect the conditions prevailing in the bodies of rival psychologists. To ask which of the different theories is true is as meaningless as to ask which of the various blood pressures of the theorists concerned is true, since the chains of reasoning which constitute their theories, like their blood pressures, are merely bodily functions, bearing relation not to the outside facts which they purport to describe, but to the bodily conditions of which they are a function.

This kind of criticism is valid against any theory which seeks to impugn the validity of reason by representing it either as a function of the body or as the tool of an unconscious and non-rational self. In this latter connection we shall find grounds for restating it in a later chapter.


Let us, in the first place, apply to the psycho-analytic view of reason the arguments which were used in Chapter III, in criticism of the Behaviourist position; let us, that is to say, push the views of psycho-analysts to their reductio ad absurdum.

If it is in fact the case that our thoughts are not free but are dictated by our wishes, and that reasoning is, therefore, mere rationalising, then the conclusion applies also to the reasoning of psycho-analysis. This too is a mere rationalisation of the desire to believe that human nature is of a certain kind and motivated in a certain way. As such it has no necessary relation to fact; it merely reflects a certain condition of the psychologist's unconscious. This is not to say that it is necessarily untrue; merely to point out that it is meaningless to ask whether it is true or not. Truth implies correspondence -- correspondence, that is, between the belief which claims to be true and the fact which makes it true. But, if psycho-analysis is correct, our beliefs have no external reference at all; they are merely intellectualised versions of our wishes. To ask if a belief is true is, therefore, as meaningless as to ask whether an emotion is true; all that one is entitled to say is that the belief is held. Since, therefore, it seems to follow that, if psycho-analysis is correct in what it asserts about reason, it is meaningless to ask whether psycho-analysis is true, there is no reason to suppose that it is correct in what it asserts about reason. In other words, if the psycho-analytic account of reason is justified, there is no reason to take it seriously. If, on the other hand, there is no reason to take it seriously, the grounds for supposing that reason is not free and can never reach objective truth disappear.

To refuse to take it seriously means that we must be willing to regard the theories of psycho-analysis as springing from a free and impartial consideration of the evidence, as propounded: in other words, for no other reason than that they are seen to be in accordance with fact. But if the psycho-analyst can reason disinterestedly in accordance with fact, so can other people. Hence the view of reason, as being always the mere tool of instinct, must be abandoned. What is wanted is a principle which will enable us to distinguish the cases in which reason is working freely from those in which it is merely rationalising our wishes. But such a principle is not so far forthcoming.

C.E.M. Joad
Guide to Modern Thought (1933)

Comment by Jim S: Antony Flew wrote "The Third Maxim" (The Rationalist Annual 72 [1955], 63-66) to criticize C.S. Lewis's Argument from Reason. In that essay, Flew wrote that Joad is also an advocate of this argument, but much to my frustration he doesn't provide a specific reference. It looks like Guide to Modern Thought -- which predates all of Lewis's statements of the argument, save a brief entry in his diary, and a short passage in The Pilgrim's Regress (which was published the same year as Joad's book) -- is what Flew was referring to. Joad, however, was pretty prolific, so he may very well have written of it elsewhere. One place I'm going to check is his The Recovery of Belief: A Restatement of Christian Philosophy, which he wrote towards the end of his life after a fall from grace and subsequent return to the Christianity of his youth.

Friday, January 6, 2017

This is cool

Photographs of men who fought in the Revolutionary War. They were young when they fought in the war for our independence, and survived into old age, in time for photography to be invented. It's very humbling to look into the faces of these men who gave so much for us. It reminds me of the time I saw a traveling Smithsonian exhibit that had George Washington's sword and scabbard. As I looked at them and thought about the first president actually holding them in his hands, I realized I'd never visualized the reality of history before. George Washington was a name, but I hadn't ever imagined him as a flesh and blood human being.

In a similar vein, the last person alive who was born in the 1800s was closer to the signing of the Constitution (1787) on the day of her birth (1899) than to the present day. And to reiterate, she's still alive.

Monday, January 2, 2017

The Year of Reading Plantinga

I've been wanting to devote a year to reading everything of importance from particular philosophers. So I'm planning on doing "The Year of Reading Dennett," "The Year of Reading Copleston," of Kim, of Urban, maybe of Desmond to get more into Continental thought. And of course, I'd want to focus on other than contemporary philosophers. I'll plan on reading each philosopher's works in roughly chronological order, and each author would have their own challenges: I could easily combine Plato and Aristotle into one year -- or I could do them separately and include some of the more important works about them as well. There's a lot of repetition in Dennett, so I'd have to be moderately selective in choosing what to read. I've already read Copleston's history of philosophy. Etc.

As the title of this post attests, the idea for this year was to be The Year of Reading Alvin Plantinga. There's even a particular, and particularly excellent, reason for this: I'm writing a book on Plantinga and would like to be as familiar with his whole oeuvre as possible. There's a problem however. My book's focus is specifically on his epistemology with some spillover into metaphysics and philosophy of religion, and I am very much hoping I can send a rough draft to the publisher by June. (Also it's about three-fourths written already, but needs more structure.) So it would be foolish of me to do it in chronological order and start by reading Plantinga's publications from the 1960s in the hope that there might be a throwaway passage I could quote. Moreover, what I really have to focus on at this point is the various critiques of Plantinga, not Plantinga himself. Maybe if I read his writings on epistemology and the critiques thereof in time to submit the book at the beginning of summer, then I could start reading his earlier writings and work my way back up to where I started. Maybe. Then again, I just re-read Warrant: The Current Debate, and I'm not about to re-re-read it just to have bragging rights that I read all his stuff within the confines of a calendar year. So my "Year of Reading" project is off to a shaky start.