What’s Wrong with the World

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Something right with the world--FMER, an excellent conference

My very dear colleagues and readers,

You've probably figured out by now that I wasn't around my usual haunts and usual computer access last week much. I just got home last night from Leuven, Belgium, from a wonderful conference on Formal Methods in the Epistemology of Religion.

I have to admit that I'm doing the Wizard of Oz thing. ("There's no place like home.") I'm no traveler, that's for sure. I hope not to hear for a long time anyone ask me in a dead voice, "Has your luggage been in your possession at all times?" No! No! My luggage has been sitting quietly on my living room floor, and I haven't even looked at it for several hours!!! (Goes off into maniacal laughter.)

But what I want to talk about is the conference, because that's something that was right with the world, and it's nice to talk about something good for a change.

The conference was straight-up, hardcore, analytic philosophy of religion. If you love that kind of thing, you would have loved the conference. Most, though not all, of the papers fell into one of the two categories of decision theory or Bayesian confirmation theory. Richard Swinburne discussed multiverse theories and the fine-tuning argument, focusing on the question of independent evidence for the existence of a multiverse. Dutch atheist Herman Philipse argued against probabilistic arguments from the Big Bang to the existence of God. Australian philosopher Alan Hajek gave a delightfully clear and interesting discussion of various versions of Pascal's wager. David Glass from Ireland gave a fascinating paper on the phenomenon of "explaining away" and arguments from design. And Tim and I presented a paper on Bayesian inference, witness reliability, and the proper modeling of testimony to a miracle. Tim did the Powerpoint presentation and talk, and I joined him for fielding the Q & A.

That's only to give a few examples.

The discussions were lively, the participants fully engaged, and the standard of philosophical argumentation very high. I was reminded, indeed, just how high the standards really are in professional philosophy--a point that is easy to forget in the world of the blogosphere. This is what analytic philosophy should be at its very best: professional, rigorous, and fun. It did, for me, what a philosophy conference should do, because I came home energized and full of ideas for future work on areas including the probabilistic problem of evil and the analysis of witnesses who tell multiple implausible stories.

Another notable thing was the importance of Richard Swinburne to the entire conference. Swinburne's arguments and positions, if they did not come up in the papers, often came up in the Q & A, and Swinburne himself was available for great discussions with anyone who was interested in talking at meals and between sessions. This aspect of the conference was a well-deserved testimony to the way in which Swinburne's life work has shaped the philosophy of religion.

I was particularly struck throughout by the way in which a conference of this kind rises completely above politics. My faith in analytic philosophy's apolitical nature has been restored. (Readers will understand, in the light of some recent events on the Internet, why that faith may have been in need of restoration.) In all the discussions, the question was the argument. Nobody was out to slam anybody else, to make power plays, or to use an opponent's unrelated political opinions against him. Moreover, the kind of egalitarianism that ought to characterize the academy was very much in evidence. The "big wigs" hob-nobbed with everyone. The graduate students, as well as someone like me without institutional affiliation but with work in philosophy, were never made to feel second-class in any way. What was important was the subject matter, not who you were and whether you were "someone."

It has always seemed to me that one of the things worth fighting for is the beauty of apolitical academic excellence. The advent of postmodernism in the academy over the past 20-30 years was in many ways a direct attack on this type of excellence. Analytic philosophy has been, for a long time, the antithesis of the "everything is political" school of thought, and it is incredibly important that it should remain so. It certainly should not fall to those of us on the right alone to defend this, but very sadly, it sometimes appears that in the current stage of the culture war and the odd, totalitarian effects this stage is having in higher education, including the emergence of bullying as a form of career-shaping in philosophy, we conservatives in the profession are going to be the only ones left to keep the flame alight. But that was not so at this conference.

Finally, and while I'm passing out kudos, here's one that the relevant people will never read, but that should be said for the record: The security screening people yesterday afternoon at checkpoint 6 in Chicago's O'Hare airport were actually nice--friendly, humorous, and smiling. They did their job efficiently, but without making one feel like a suspected criminal or a non-person. They brought a smile to my face in the middle of a long day of travel.

Update: I meant to add--Great credit and thanks to conference organizers Jake Chandler and Victoria Harrison.

Comments (17)

Glad to hear the conference went well, and also about the respect people had for Swinburne's work. I hope Tim's and your presentation went over well.

One question, though, about something in your post. You say that analytic philosophy is the antithesis of the "everything is political" school of thought. Why is this? I ask because I consider myself an analytic philosopher and also someone who thinks everything is, though not exactly political, at least of moral significance (mainly for Singerian/Kantian kinds of reasons--morally speaking, I'm a Kantian who thinks we have an obligation to maximize our own perfection and the happiness of others, so long as we violate none of our perfect duties). Do you consider the "everthing is political" view different from "everything has moral implications", or do you consider the two the same, or at least of a piece?

Amen to everything you said, Lydia. And it's good to have you back!

Oh yeah, also: Herman Philipse sounds interesting. How did his presentation go, and was there a vigorous back-and-forth?

If I can presume to answer for Lydia, Bobcat, I assume she means that analytic philosophers tend at least implicitly to be committed to the views that (a) there are standards of truth, argumentational quality, etc. that have nothing to do with whether they further this or that political agenda, and (b) one ought to put aside one's political disagreements with fellow philosophers when evaluating their philosophical views and arguments, try to give them as fair and charitable a reading as one would those whom one agrees with, etc. These claims are perfectly consistent with the idea that even the most apparently abstract philosophical issues have moral and political implications.

Ah. Well, if that's what you mean, Lydia, then that's certainly something I can get behind. Thanks, Ed.

I would certainly make a distinction between moral and political implications. They just aren't the same. But I have to say that I'm not sure what even the moral implications are of, say, calculus or the Kolmolgorov axioms of probability theory. I certainly don't engage in probability theory because I think it will make me a better pro-lifer or something like that. :-) I'm a culture warrior, as you all know, but I don't try to bend everything of value in life to that one end. In fact, it seems to me that part of having a well-formed mind, ethos, moral compass, whatever you want to call it, is being able to appreciate things with axiological value in themselves. If anything, I would tend to turn it around. It isn't that these sorts of things (from chess to probability theory to horseback riding) have moral, much less political, consequences, but rather that my moral/axiological meta-views have consequences for how I evaluate these things. My approach here was first formed in reaction against my fundamentalist background, where everything was evaluated in terms of whether it led to "bringing people to Christ." Nothing was glorious unless it could be fitted into that Procrustean bed, which made it hard to see much glory in the world at all. Sadly, the hard-core leftists try to do the same thing with their own religion. But I'm not at all sure that we all disagree on this when it comes right down to it.

Philipse's paper was followed by a lively discussion, especially with Swinburne. In fact, he and Swinburne went out afterwards to dinner that particular evening without (I believe) anyone else to keep "hashing it out." One of the arguments between them was the question of whether one can give a meaning to the notion of an explanation of an infinite series of events in time. Would such a series still require an "explanation of the whole series"? Swinburne was inclined to focus on the properties of the series--for example, its causal cohesion--and to argue that these properties would require an explanation and that saying, "It's always been going on" would not be this explanation. Philipse made one claim in his paper that I don't think anyone challenged him on (as far as I recall), to the effect that laws of nature are (examples of) "whys" and events are "whats," and that a "why" can be explained only by a "why" and a "what" only by a "what." I could not see any room in this view for agent causation, which seemed to me as though it might well be question-begging.

Our paper was well-received, as far as I could tell. There was a lot of fun discussion afterwards of some of the examples we had given. We got to clarify in the Q & A, for example, the point of something we had said in the presentation about non-binary testimony, detail, and the confirmation of a story. The point was that non-binary testimony can be detailed and that this can rule out certain alternative explanations to the truth of the story--simple mistake, for example. If someone tells you a sufficiently detailed story, it is hard to remain charitable while dismissing his story uberhaupt as a mere mistake, so one is forced to decide that he is making it up, is seriously deluded, is at least partly making it up, or something of the kind. This doesn't always favor the truth of the story, though, if the best explanation (given all the evidence) is that he _is_ indeed lying.

I also endorse everything Ed said about analytic philosophy.

Lydia, you mean that there was not an "apologist for murder" session catered by the Philosophical Gourmet, with entertainment provided by Barbara Forrest and the John Birch Society Paranoid Blues Singers? Wow. Sounds like philosophy is still being done somewhere on Earth.

Lydia wrote, "I'm not sure what even the moral implications are of, say, calculus or the Kolmolgorov axioms of probability theory."

Well, I don't mean that literally every thing has moral implications. I mean that most everything we do has moral implications, in the sense that, whenever we do something, there's an opportunity cost to what we do, and it's worth asking ourselves whether the course of life we're dedicated to is the best course of life possible, and whether we're centering our lives on being as good people as we can be or not. If we're not, what are we placing over being good?

"I certainly don't engage in probability theory because I think it will make me a better pro-lifer or something like that. :-) I'm a culture warrior, as you all know, but I don't try to bend everything of value in life to that one end."

My view doesn't rule out doing thing for their own sakes, without an eye to their moral consequences. For instance, when I try to interpret a passage from Kant, I don't ask myself what interpretation would have the best moral consequences for those around me; I think instead that I'm beholden to the norms of proper textual interpretation, even if my following them wouldn't edify people as much as not following them in some suitable way (if, somehow, following them would lead the deaths of millions, well I shouldn't follow them in that case, but of course whatever I did after that would no longer be Kant-interpretation). That said, it is worth asking myself why I've devoted my life to philosophy rather than, say, investment banking or charity work.

In fact, it seems to me that part of having a well-formed mind, ethos, moral compass, whatever you want to call it, is being able to appreciate things with axiological value in themselves. If anything, I would tend to turn it around. It isn't that these sorts of things (from chess to probability theory to horseback riding) have moral, much less political, consequences, but rather that my moral/axiological meta-views have consequences for how I evaluate these things. My approach here was first formed in reaction against my fundamentalist background, where everything was evaluated in terms of whether it led to "bringing people to Christ." Nothing was glorious unless it could be fitted into that Procrustean bed, which made it hard to see much glory in the world at all. Sadly, the hard-core leftists try to do the same thing with their own religion. But I'm not at all sure that we all disagree on this when it comes right down to it.

Ah, I understand you better there, Bobcat. Well, there I do agree that the choices one makes to pursue a given vocation--including one focused on abstract subjects--has moral implications of various kinds, including for one thing the moral implication (hopefully) that one considers abstract vocations sufficiently worthwhile to devote one's life to them.

A philosophical gathering where people were both respectful of disagreement AND critical of other positions in pursuit of the truth, rather than glibly espousing "humility" and "tolerance?" This is yet another piece of evidence that no matter how much academia may try to kill it, the nature of the human soul is to love wisdom and truth.

Reading about meetings like this does make it very hard to obey the commandment against coveting, you know.

Glenn, I cannot tell a lie. I flew there on my husband's coattails. (Only he doesn't actually wear coattails.) Which being interpreted is--they invited him originally, not me. I ended up on the program because he said he wanted to bring me along and do and co-present a paper co-written with me. They paid for half of my ticket because I was his wife, which I gather would have happened even if I knew no philosophy at all. It was serendipity--the fact that I'm married to the right person.

Lydia, at an autodidact, I enjoy vicariously flying your coattails and so glad that epistemology thrives in the dialog of civilization. As a layperson enamored with Guissani's approach to the religious experience, I was intrigued by the "why" and "what" of law and event, could you please expand? It seemed to echo this bon mot I encountered by Lorenzo Albacete recently, re methods:

"The problem is that for the method to become an experience of life, we must avoid the temptation to see it as a vision to be “applied.” [ck: a 'why' begs a 'why not?'] This will not overcome the devastating and fruitless dualism. Instead, the method becomes life through following another to whom this has happened. [ck: a what reciprocates a what]" from “Redemptor Hominis” The Announcement and the Method
http://www.traces-cl.com/2009E/04/theannounce.html

and humble admiration, may I be so bold to offer by way of a recriprocal "what" that may answer your own "... I'm not sure what even the moral implications are of, say, calculus..."

Front Porch Republic's Mark Shiffman on "Descartes, Algebra, and Alienation"

"Descartes changes this. When he develops his algebraic geometry, he chooses to represent numbers by lines, collapsing the distinction between magnitude and multitude. The emphasis is on quantitative relationships, and what we take as our unit is arbitrary. When he analyzes the basic characteristic of the being of the “external” world, he finds it in extension, not in the presence of given unities. As a result, we have a science that examines processes rather than beings, for a process is a change over time of the relationships among various measurable magnitudes. And we have the analysis of those beings into their simplest parts, the parts most easily described in purely algebraic-quantitative terms. We lose a sense of the integrity of beings as active wholes, a formal integrity that makes them what they are. Thus Dawkins, in insisting that the organism is not a unity but rather a “colony of genes”, is being a genuinely Cartesian biological theorist." http://www.frontporchrepublic.com/?p=4097
as remedial reading.

His "Crunchy Pope (parts 1 and 2)" are excellent primers also, for what could be the philosophical thrust in the Pope's imminent Caritatis in Veritate encyclical on social justice, I'm laying strong odds...)

Well, Clare, I actually am inclined to _disagree_ with the man I cited above as saying that a "why" could be caused only by a "why" and a "what" only by a "what." I think, given the way he defined these terms, he was trying to fit everything into a procrustean bed that was going to exclude the possibility of having persons, agents, causing anything, because personal agents didn't seem to fit either his definition of a "why" or of a "what." So I think he was being too restrictive.

As for the implications of calculus, one reason I can't agree that calculus is bad for the soul by splitting up the eternal unities (or whatever) is that mathematicians are pre-reflectively inclined (even nowadays) to be some variety of mathematical Platonists. At least in my limited experience. So calculus doesn't seem to have corrupted them in this regard.

Thx Lydia. Logicians being logical are not the danger to the soul surely but rather the habit of relying on lower level abstractions to inform our conscience of higher level relationships corrupts no? For philosophers debating math of course the terms aren't that "material" since an error in thought can be retracted. But when the imperfect ideology is implemented as principle of political agency, erroneous acts have irreversible consequences (mind-games in computational nuclear physics vs physical-annihilation in global nuclear war are a case in point, but in today's financial crisis, I'm seeing the mind-games in computational fiduciary media vs physical-annihilation in global fiduciary economies and of course the example the author I cited, mind-games in biological determinism vs physical annihilation of abortion).

more on calculus, philosophy (truth and morals) and the economy here:

"With CDS and more obscure types of CDOs and other complex mortgage and loan securitizations, however, the basis of the derivative is non-existent or difficult/expensive to observe and calculate, thus the creators of these instruments in the dealer community employ "models" that purport to price these derivatives."

H/T http://market-ticker.denninger.net/archives/1149-Congress-Has-No-More-Excuses.html

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