Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Happy Reformation Day

It's 500 years to the day since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses. You can read them here. In unrelated news, for my Halloween costume, I taped a bunch of Smarties to my jeans. I'm Mr. Smartiepants.

Sunday, October 29, 2017


I wrote a little while ago that I'd primarily be reading philosophy articles rather than philosophy books, so the books on the sidebar that I'm currently reading would only consist of science-fiction and non-philosophy non-fiction. But the last week and a half has been consumed with another set of projects, so I haven't even been reading many articles. It's also had the effect of not many blogposts. Apologies.

Monday, October 23, 2017

Quote of the Day

Scriven speaks of obligations, duties, with respect to belief: in the absence of evidence, he says, atheism is obligatory. What sorts of principles of epistemic obligation underlie this claim? Obviously we cannot sensibly hold that for any proposition A, if S has no evidence for A, then S is rationally obliged to believe ~A; for then if S has no evidence for A and also none for ~A, S will be obliged to believe both A and ~A. Some of what Scriven says suggests that it is just existential propositions with respect to which S is obliged to toe this very demanding line.


Scriven believes that positive existential hypotheses have a very different standing from negative existential hypotheses. In the absence of evidence, he seems to think, one is obliged to believe the denial of a positive existential hypothesis, whereas of course the same does not hold for negative existential hypotheses. It is hard to see any reason for thus discriminating against positive existential hypotheses -- why should they be thought of as less credible, ab initio, than negative existential hypotheses? Indeed, according to Carnap and many of his followers, universal propositions have an a priori probability of zero; since the negative existential ~(∃x)Fx is equivalent to a universal proposition ((x)~Fx), it too would have an a priori probability of zero, so that its positive existential denial would have an a priori probability of 1. Now it is no doubt a bit excessive to claim that the a priori credibility of positive existential propositions is 1, but is there any reason to suppose that in the absence of evidence either way, negative existentials have a stronger claim on us that positive existentials? It is at the least very hard to see what such reason might be.

In any event Scriven's suggestion is entirely unsuccessful. Consider

(12) There is at least one human being that was not created by God.

It is a necessary truth that

(13) If God exists, then God has created all the human beings there are.

(If you think (13) is not necessary, then replace "God" in (12) and (13) by "the being who is identical with God and has created all the human beings there are.") (12) is a positive existential proposition; hence on Scriven's suggestion we ought to believe its denial unless we have evidence for it. Hence if the arguments for (12) fail, we should accept its denial. But any argument for (12), given the necessity of (13), can be transformed into an argument for the nonexistence of God -- an argument which is successful if the original argument for (11) ["God does not exist"] is. So if the arguments for the nonexistence of God fail, then so do the arguments for (12). But, by Scriven's principle, if the arguments for (12) fail, we are rationally obliged to believe its denial, that is,

(14) Every human being has been created by God.

On this principle, therefore, if the arguments against the existence of God fail, we are rationally obliged to believe that every human being has been created by God; and if both the arguments for and the arguments against the existence of God fail, then we are obliged to believe both that God does not exist and that we have all been created by him. No doubt Scriven would view this as an unsatisfactory result.

Alvin Plantinga
"Reason and Belief in God" in
Faith and Rationality: Reason and Belief in God
edited by Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff

Jim's comments: I have some comments on this but I'll add them later.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Counting heads; or, The eyes have it

Via Ann Althouse I read an article about Jeremy Bentham's head. Here's the first paragraph:


Well, yeah, but you could say that about a lot of people.


Oh. Sorry.

for a man sometimes known as the father of modern utilitarianism. He had a pet bear, an adored black cat (named the Reverend Doctor Lankhim), and a penchant for showing dinner party guests the two glass eyes he kept in his pocket. The eyeballs were part of a larger project: Bentham wanted his body publicly dissected; his skeleton cleaned up, fully articulated, and padded with straw; and his head mummified for display.

And now I have this image of Bentham at a dinner party, telling one of his guests, "I have my father's eyes." Then he casually reaches into his pocket . . .

Sunday, October 8, 2017


Mendelssohn, at his best, is at least as good as Mozart, at his best.


I heard this piece in my car during a long drive and was just in awe. Then I heard the last minute and a half -- starting at about 30:10 -- and my jaw dropped. Who does this? Who writes music like this? It's insane. (Don't skip to it, you have to hear the whole thing in order to get the full effect of that last minute and a half.) That's when I planned to write this blogpost. And when I arrived at home and looked up the piece in order to write about it, I discovered that Mendelssohn wrote it when he was thirteen years old. Thirteen. I was absolutely amazed by this piece before I learned that it was written by a thirteen-year-old. Go ahead, suggest some counter-evidence in the comments, and I'll just bring in more evidence for my claim.

Update (8 November): OK, no one has commented to propose a counter-example from Mozart so I guess I'll have to do it myself. Here's his piano concerto #20 in D minor. The first movement is simply one of the greatest things ever written, and the other two are outstanding.

And then, as my counter-counter-example, I submit Mendelssohn's violin concerto in E minor.

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Thought of the Day

From now on I'm just going to call coffee "proof of God." "You want some proof of God? I just brewed some." "Do you take sugar in your proof of God?" Etc. After all, coffee is the grounds of bean.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Please pray

for the victims of the shooting in Las Vegas. At the time I'm writing this, 58 people are confirmed dead and over 500 are injured. The gunman, as far as we know so far, had no gun or military background, and no ideological background.

I guess I need to comment on how some people now object to asking for prayers in events like this. Instead of sending thoughts and prayers (how do you send thoughts?), we should be doing something to prevent the next tragedy from happening. This objection first gained force during the San Bernardino terrorist attack. Unfortunately it became a trending topic while the attack was still ongoing, and the people trapped inside were texting people and begging them to pray for them. At any rate, some people objected that prayer doesn't actually do anything, it's a way to pretend that you're doing something without having to do the hard work of actually making a kind of world where events like that don't happen. Obviously, as a Christian, I think prayer can be effectual, I think God has created a world where he sometimes responds to prayer. But this can't be tested, and this, understandably, leads those who don't believe in these things to conclude that prayer is ineffectual. But that doesn't provide any reason to think prayer actually is ineffectual, it just doesn't provide us with any testable basis for deciding one way or the other.

So that's my first counter-objection: I think God does respond to prayer, but this cannot be tested. My second counter-objection is that there is nothing preventing us from praying and engaging in whatever methods we think necessary to prevent further attacks. Not only is there no conflict here, they often work hand-in-hand. The idea that it has to be one or the other is a false dichotomy.

My third counter-objection is that when people say we should work to prevent future tragedies, they usually have in mind a particular solution. But of course, other people may think that there are better solutions. The objection then is saying that unless you agree with a particular solution, you're not trying to solve the problem at all. This is just dishonest. Moreover, often the proposed action is to enact more legislation involving gun ownership. I'm not saying anything about gun control in general here, but these tragedies are almost always the product of people breaking the gun laws that are already on the books. That is, enacting more restrictive gun laws wouldn't have stopped them, so there's no reason to think that it would prevent the next one. It strikes me as wishful thinking. For them to criticize others for praying about tragedies is a bit much.

I have to add, however, that I do have some sympathy for this objection. Very often "sending out thoughts and prayers" is a type of virtue-signaling. It's a way to announce "I'm a good person!" by paying attention -- just a tiny amount of attention -- to the suffering of others. Of course, in this case, the attention is absolutely minimal, and the whole point is to take other people's attention off the actual event and onto oneself. All we can do is to make sure that we are not among those people who use horrific tragedies in this way. Genuinely pray and genuinely ask others to pray and genuinely try to figure out how to minimize such events in the future and work toward that solution.