Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”


If you’re looking for one last book to read this summer, and you’re the type who likes to indulge in grand speculations without sacrificing critical reasoning, I’d like to recommend Thomas Nagel’s “Mind and Cosmos”. Like some other philosophers who have reached a certain age, Nagel seems more than willing to set aside the hair-splitting rigor required for first-rate academic work, and to suggest tentative answers to the truly mind-boggling, age-old problems: here, how we should try to adequately explain the origin of the universe, life, consciousness, cognition, and value. In a scant 128 pages, Nagel takes on this apparently intractable problem as simply and directly as a self-respecting analytic philosopher can, mainly by pursuing a negative goal: to cast doubt on the sufficiency of the usual materialist explanation of the universe, as well as on the contemporary neo-Darwinian explanation of life and its mental dimensions. In this he can’t help but share, with obvious discomfort, common ground with Intelligent Design proponents. But Nagel pays little attention to the Creationist alternative, dismissing it as insufficient, implausible, and at least as ideological as its neo-Darwinian competitor. Instead, he wants to shore up the credentials of an ancient view that goes all the way back to Aristotle: a naturalistic teleology that holds that we can adequately explain the universe can only with a theory that includes laws that work, in some sense, in reverse. According to such a view, the universe exists, in part, in order to bring about the existence of conscious, thinking creatures with the ability to recognize objective truths about physics, biology, psychology, and value (particularly morality). That is, the universe is determined to develop as it does at least partly in order to recognize itself. This is not an entirely original idea, but rarely has a philosopher of Nagel’s stature been brave enough to actually advocate it, at least publicly.

If Nagel is right (and he realizes that his argument is based on little more than quite tentative epistemological intuitions), our current science is not necessarily wrong, but it is radically incomplete, and the hope that by merely adding further causal principles of the same type it can eventually provide an adequate “theory of everything” – or even a “theory of everything that we currently know of” – has to be abandoned. To sum up this negative point and hint at the positive alternative, here’s part of the book’s last two paragraphs-

…I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world. It would be an advance if the secular theoretical establishment, and the contemporary enlightened culture which it dominates, could wean itself of the materialism and Darwinism of the gaps – to adapt one of its own pejorative tags. I have tried to show that this approach is incapable of providing an adequate account, either constitutive or historical, of our universe.

However… [a]n understanding of the universe as basically prone to generate life and mind will probably require a much more radical departure from the familiar forms of naturalistic explanation than I am at present able to conceive. Specifically, in attempting to understand consciousness as a biological phenomenon, it is too easy to forget how radical is the difference between the subjective and the objective, and to fall into the error of thinking about the mental in terms taken from our ideas of physical events and processes…

It is perfectly possible that the truth is beyond our reach, in virtue of our intrinsic cognitive limitations, and not merely beyond our grasp in humanity’s present stage of intellectual development. But I believe that we cannot know this, and that it makes sense to go on seeking a systematic understanding of how we and other living things fit into the world. …The empirical evidence can be interpreted to accommodate different comprehensive theories, but [in the case of reductive materialism and its neo-Darwinian extension], the cost in conceptual and probabilistic contortions is prohibitive. I would be willing to bet that the present right-thinking consensus will come to seem laughable in a generation or two – though of course it may be replaced by a new consensus that is just as invalid. The human will to believe is inexhaustible.

Of course, Nagel’s book has raised the ire of many of his fellow philosophers who accept “the present right-thinking consensus”. For an informative article on the criticisms, read this essay from a few months ago in the Chronicle: “Where Nagel Went Wrong”.

Is Paul Ryan A Deist?


…Or is he just ignorant of the founders’ theological influences?

If you’re a regular visitor to this blog, you might have noticed that I haven’t been posting much about the current Presidential race. That’s because I tend to get interested in political races – in a writerly way – only when there is some sort of logical or philosophical issue to discuss, and, let’s face it, this campaign hasn’t exactly been rich in philosophical content. Lately, however, Paul Ryan’s standard stump speech has often included the following sort of statement, which he also has made on the floor of the House:

“Our founders got it right when they wrote in the Declaration of Independence that our rights come from nature and nature’s God, not from government.”

Ryan is certainly correct that the founders used the phrase “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” in the first paragraph of the Declaration-

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”

But it was Ryan’s own emphasis on nature and “nature’s God” that got my attention. In Jefferson’s day, the phrase was strongly associated with the Enlightenment doctrine of Deism. Here’s a brief outline of the view from the (always enlightening) Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Deism is the form of religion most associated with the Enlightenment. According to deism, we can know by the natural light of reason that the universe is created and governed by a supreme intelligence; however, although this supreme being has a plan for creation from the beginning, the being does not interfere with creation; the deist typically rejects miracles and reliance on special revelation as a source of religious doctrine and belief, in favor of the natural light of reason. Thus, a deist typically rejects the divinity of Christ, as repugnant to reason; the deist typically demotes the figure of Jesus from agent of miraculous redemption to extraordinary moral teacher.

That Jefferson himself was a Deist is pretty clearly stated in a letter he wrote to his friend, William Short-

“…it is not to be understood that I am with him [Jesus] in all his doctrines. I am a Materialist; he takes the side of Spiritualism; he preaches the efficacy of repentance toward forgiveness of sin; I require a counterpoise of good works to redeem it. Among the sayings and discourses imputed to him by his biographers, I find many passages of fine imagination, correct morality, and of the most lovely benevolence; and others, again, of so much ignorance, of so much absurdity, so much untruth and imposture, as to pronounce it impossible that such contradictions should have proceeded from the same being.” [“Letter to William Short, 13 April 1820” The Writings of Thomas Jefferson. Ed. Andrew Lipscomb. Hershey: Pennsylvania State University, 1907. p. 244.]

Now, I’m no historian (and if I’ve gotten anything wrong here, please let me know), but I would expect someone in Ryan’s position to be more of one. Could it be that he is unaware of the Deism inherent in the phrase he’s constantly trotting out on the campaign trail? Or, despite his professed Catholicism, could he be a “secret Deist” himself (a possibility that seems far less unlikely – thanks to the lack of any necessary outward manifestations of the theology – than the “Sekrit Muslim” charge made against President Obama)? Deism is not currently widespread, partly because it turns out to be surprisingly hard (impossible?) to prove God’s existence by “the light of reason” alone. So there’s a natural tendency for Deism to evolve or devolve either into Fideism (which rejects the role of rationality in religion in favor of non-rational faith) or Atheism. Ryan’s perhaps inadvertent endorsement of Deism is inconsistent with both Catholicism and Atheism (the view of his intellectual heroine, Ayn Rand). But since logical inconsistency would be more troubling than simple ignorance, perhaps it would be most charitable to charge Ryan only with the latter.

Are You A Boltzmann Brain?


If you’re a Boltzmann brain, then I’m likely a figment of your imagination as you float around in otherwise empty (or at least high-entropy) space, a minimum assemblage of whatever matter or energy is required to generate your thoughts and images. You emerged as a “quantum fluctuation” of particles out of the quantum fields that underlie space itself – your mother was the vacuum (no offense intended). Yes, you were an unlikely fluctuation, but given enough time – and an eternity is more than enough time – you were bound to happen at some point. In fact, at least absent assumptions far more speculative and untested than those of statistical mechanics and quantum physics, it was far more likely that you would emerge as an isolated brain – or whatever assemblage of particles you really are – in infinite space than that the Big Bang would have occurred with just the right properties to give rise to the universe as we observe it.

The idea that you could be mistaken about everything except the fact of your own bare existence as a conscious mind is nothing new. In his Meditations, Descartes developed such a scenario on his way convincing himself that his own mind certainly existed, and hence (along with several controversial assumptions) that a benevolent, omnipotent God must exist, and therefore that our everyday beliefs about the physical world are highly likely to be true (as long as we form them carefully). To make his skeptical scenario psychologically vivid and a worthy antagonist to defeat, Descartes imagined that a malevolent demon might be deceiving him in every possible way. Of course, Descartes recognized that his demon scenario was utterly improbable, but since in his view knowledge had to be built on an absolutely certain foundation, he thought that the mere possibility of such a demon could undermine his previously uncritical faith in his common sense beliefs, and that showing that such a demon could not cause him to reasonably doubt his own existence would go a long way towards establishing a firm foundation for math, physics, and the other sciences. Critics, of course, love to point out that a mere possibility is insufficient to justify a reasonable doubt. It is possible that a mountain of gold will soon emerge in my back yard, but that mere possibility gives me no reason to doubt that I shouldn’t quit my day job just yet. The possibility of a demon similarly can provide no reasonable ground for doubting my common sense beliefs. By contrast, the disturbing aspect of the Boltzmann brain scenario is that our best-tested physical theories actually suggest that being a Boltzmann brain is not only possible, it’s actually more likely – much more likely – than the situation in which we believe ourselves to be.

To explain why we observe a relatively orderly, amenable universe around us, even though a higher-entropy, less amenable sort of universe is far more likely to emerge from the cosmos on purely statistical grounds, we naturalists often appeal to an “anthropic principle”: in an infinite universe, some regions are likely to be more amenable to life than others, and life will quite predictably exist only in those regions where its evolution is possible. But the statistical reasoning that supports the probability of your being a Boltzmann brain also undercuts such appeals to anthropic principles. Sean Carroll puts this nicely in his book, “From Eternity To Here”-

… Maybe, we might reason [in accordance with an anthropic principle], in order for an advanced scientific civilization such as ours to arise, we require a “support system” in the form of an entire universe filled with stars and galaxies, originating in some sort of super-low-entropy early condition. Maybe that could explain why we find such a profligate universe around us.

No. Here is how the game should be played: You tell me the particular thing you insist must exist in the universe, for anthropic reasons. A solar system, a planet, a particular ecosystem, … whatever you like. And then we ask, “Given that requirement, what is the most likely state of the rest of the universe [given statistical mechanics and quantum theory], in addition to the particular thing we are asking for?”

And the answer is always the same: The most likely state of the rest of the universe is to be in equilibrium. If we ask, “What is the most likely way for an infinite box of gas in equilibrium to fluctuate into a state containing a pumpkin pie?,” the answer is “By fluctuating into a state that consists of a pumpkin pie floating by itself in an otherwise homogeneous box of gas.” Adding anything else to the picture, either in space or in time – an oven, a baker, a previously existing pumpkin patch – only makes the scenario less likely, because the entropy would have to dip lower to make that happen.

It’s important to emphasize that Carroll’s point here isn’t to argue that we should in fact believe that we are Boltzmann brains, but rather to provide a sort of reductio ad absurdum of the limited set of assumptions and theories that lead us to that conclusion. Still, upon finishing Carroll’s book, which avoids the Boltzmann brain conclusion only by indulging in some extremely tentative cosmological speculations, it’s hard to simply dismiss the possibility that we are, in fact, Boltzmann brains.

Mysticism Versus The Will To Succeed


I’ve been reading a lot of Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) recently, prepping for a class on his philosophy I’m planning to teach next year. In this passage from one of his thousands of letters to Ottoline Morrell (his closest confidant and intermittent lover), Russell, a pioneer of symbolic logic and analytic philosophy, reveals his concern with a conundrum that would be familiar to a student of Zen Buddhism-

The rare moments of mystic insight that I have had have been when I was free from the will to succeed. But they have brought a new kind of success, which I have at once noticed & wanted & so my will has drifted back into the old ways. And I don’t believe I should do anything worth doing without that sort of will. It is very tangled.

(As quoted in Ray Monk’s excellent biography, Bertrand Russell – The Spirit of Solitude, p. 476)

In Russell’s case, it seems that although he found mysticism very seductive (as many intellectuals did a century ago), associating it with high art, expansive emotions, intuitions of subject-object unity, and the deepest sorts of intimate relationships, his hyper-rationality blocked any attempts to explore it very seriously – unlike, for a time, his student Ludwig Wittgenstein. It’s debatable, I suppose, whether this was for the best (for him, and for his philosophy).

More publicly, Russell was extremely taken with the China he found in 1920, where he’d been invited to spend a year lecturing. Disgusted by the mechanized slaughter of World War I and by the “disease in our Western mentality” that, on a visit to Russia a few months earlier, he’d found the Bolsheviks were “attempting to force upon an essentially Asiatic population”, he seemed to think that the West had much to learn from the still pre-industrial East-

The Great War showed that something is wrong with our civilisation… Efficiency directed to destruction can only end in annihilation, and it is to this consummation that our civilisation is tending, if it cannot learn some of that wisdom for which it despises the East.

(The Problem of China, pp. 17-18)

No doubt he would have been troubled to see today’s China’s ever-accelerating emulation of Europe and North America – its embrace of authoritarian Capitalism. But what’s more striking to me, in terms of intellectual history, is just how closely Russell’s 1920 views foreshadowed, both socially and politically, those of the 1960s “New Left”, to which (at the age of 94!) he contributed by forming the so-called “Russell-Sartre Tribunal” that found the United States guilty of war crimes in Vietnam.

Music, Scores, Nature, and Physics


I recently read Bertrand Russell’s The ABC of Relativity, his 1925 attempt to write a “popular” book on Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. It’s notoriously difficult to non-mathematically conceptualize (let alone imagine) space-time in any clear way, but Russell did an admirable job of presenting the basics in relatively (excuse the pun) simple English, with a few geometrical constructions to help. Near the end he allows himself to philosophically muse a bit on the mathematical abstraction of such theories, and on how little – according to his view of science and reality at the time – they actually tell us of the “intrinsic nature” of matter and energy; here’s perhaps the best passage on this topic-

Between a piece of orchestral music as played, and the same piece of music as printed in the score, there is a certain resemblance, which may be described as a resemblance of structure. …when you know the rules, you can infer the music from the score or the score from the music. But suppose you had been stone-deaf from birth, but had lived among musical people. You could understand, if you had learned to speak and do lip-reading, that the musical scores represented something quite different from themselves in intrinsic quality, though similar in structure. The value of music would be completely unimaginable to you, but you could infer all its mathematical characteristics, since they are the same as those of the score. Now, our knowledge of nature is something like this. We can read the scores and infer just so much as our stone-deaf person could have about music. But we have not the advantages which that person derived from association with musical people. We cannot know whether the music associated with the scores is beautiful or hideous; perhaps, in the last analysis, we cannot be quite sure that the scores represent anything but themselves. But this is a doubt that the physicist, in a professional capacity, cannot entertain.

-Bertrand Russell, The ABC of Relativity (pp. 217-218)

Would Machiavelli Have Loved Open Primaries?


This question might not be as interesting as the last one I asked of the same form – Would Plato Have Loved The Bossa Nova? – but the answer to this one is more obvious and certainly affirmative. As reported by Adam Rodewald in today’s Oshkosh Northwestern

Republican Senate Leader Scott Fitzgerald and State Rep. Robin Vos have both publicly stated they hope Republicans cross over and vote for Democrat Kathleen Falk in the governor’s race, according to the Associated Press. That’s because recent polls suggest Walker has a better chance of defeating Falk, a former Dane County Executive, than Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the general recall election.

However, the Winnebago County Republican Party said Walker supporters could leave the governor vulnerable in his own primary if too many cross over to the other side. Walker also faces competition in Arthur Kohl-Riggs, a 23-year old from Madison, in a primary election Tuesday. Joe Malecki, communications director for the county Republican Party, said he suspects some Democrats might be voting for Kohl-Riggs to make it appear Walker is losing support within his own party.

The Winnebago County Republican Party is explicitly recommending Republicans vote in the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. The party wants its members to vote for Republican protest candidate Issac Weix in an attempt to eliminate the actual Democratic challenger, Mitchell Mahlon.

Machiavelli reputedly advocated the morally problematic view that “the end justifies the means”. Even if this view were true for objectively good ends (and I doubt that it is), surely more evil has at least inadvertently been done in the name of good than in the name of evil. So anyone who thinks that this Machiavellian gaming of the political process is anything but a horrible idea should first have their conscience – and then other parts of their mind – examined. On the (controversial but widely believed) assumption that in any political debate one side would bring about a good while the other would (at least inadvertently) bring about an evil, it is obviously unwise – not to mention self-defeating – for either side to endorse or encourage the use of a deceptive tactic that could just as easily be used against it!

Since it seems clear that we shouldn’t have government or even party bosses deciding who can run in a given primary, all sides should agree: there should be no “open primaries”.

Would Plato Have Loved The Bossa Nova?


The Boston Review has an interesting article on a recent law passed in Brazil that mandates the teaching of philosophy to high school students-

Getting out of the cave and seeing things as they really are: that’s what philosophy is about, according to Almira Ribeiro. Ribeiro teaches the subject in a high school in Itapuã, a beautiful, poor, violent neighborhood on the periphery of Salvador, capital of the state of Bahia in Brazil’s northeast. She is the most philosophically passionate person I’ve ever met.

Most of the four million slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil were sold in Salvador, the first residence of Portugal’s colonial rulers. It’s still Brazil’s blackest city. In Ribeiro’s neighborhood, children play football or do capoeira, pray in Pentecostal Churches or worship African gods. Many are involved with drugs; “every year we lose students to crack,” she tells me. And they study philosophy two hours each week because of a 2008 law that mandates philosophy instruction in all Brazilian high schools. Nine million teenagers now take philosophy classes for three years.

“But seeing things as they really are isn’t enough,” Ribeiro insists. As in Plato’s parable in The Republic, the students must go back to the cave and apply what they’ve learned. Their lives give them rich opportunities for such application. The contrast between the new luxury hotels along the beach and Itapuã’s overcrowded streets gives rise to questions about equality and justice. Children kicking around a can introduce a discussion about democracy: football is one of the few truly democratic practices here; success depends on merit, not class privilege. Moving between philosophy and practice, the students can revise their views in light of what Plato, Hobbes, or Locke had to say about equality, justice, and democracy and discuss their own roles as political agents. To foster that discussion, Ribeiro must take on a deeply rooted political defeatism. …

…the 2008 law is above all a political project. In 1971 the military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985 eliminated philosophy from high schools. Teachers, professors in departments of education, and political activists championed its return, while most academic philosophers were either indifferent or suspicious. The dictatorship seems to have understood philosophy’s potential to create engaged citizens; it replaced philosophy with a course on Moral and Civic Education and one on Brazil’s Social and Political Organization (“to inculcate good manners and patriotic values and to justify the political order of the generals,” one UFBA colleague recalls from his high school days).

The official rationale for the 2008 law is that philosophy “is necessary for the exercise of citizenship.” The law—the world’s largest-scale attempt to bring philosophy into the public sphere—thus represents an experiment in democracy. Among teachers at least, many share Ribeiro’s hope that philosophy will provide a path to greater civic participation and equality. Can it do even more? Can it teach students to question and challenge the foundations of society itself?

(Thanks Marshall)

Most of the philosophy professors I know would be overjoyed if philosophy – at least the history of ideas, critical reasoning, and introductory ethics – were taught in U.S. high schools. Could this be done in a country as anti-intellectual as the United States?

By the way, contrary to Brazilian creativity, Plato was no fan of musical innovation, as this excerpt from The Republic suggests:

Then to sum up: This is the point to which, above all, the attention of our rulers should be directed,–that music and gymnastic be preserved in their original form, and no innovation made. They must do their utmost to maintain them intact. And when any one says that mankind most regard

‘The newest song which the singers have,’

they will be afraid that he may be praising, not new songs, but a new kind of song; and this ought not to be praised, or conceived to be the meaning of the poet; for any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole State, and ought to be prohibited.

We Might As Well Be Cars


USA Today had an interesting story a few days ago on the attitude of a growing number of Americans towards God, Religion, and Athesim: So What?.

Researchers have begun asking the kind of nuanced questions that reveal just how big the So What set might be:

•44% told the 2011 Baylor University Religion Survey they spend no time seeking “eternal wisdom,” and 19% said “it’s useless to search for meaning.”

•46% told a 2011 survey by Nashville-based evangelical research agency, LifeWay Research, they never wonder whether they will go to heaven.

•28% told LifeWay “it’s not a major priority in my life to find my deeper purpose.” And 18% scoffed at the idea that God has a purpose or plan for everyone.

•6.3% of Americans turned up on Pew Forum’s 2007 Religious Landscape Survey as totally secular — unconnected to God or a higher power or any religious identity and willing to say religion is not important in their lives.

Hemant Mehta, who blogs as The Friendly Atheist, calls them the “apatheists”

Mariann Edgar Budde, Episcopal Bishop of Washington D.C., calls them honest.

“We live in a society today where it is acceptable now to say that they have no spiritual curiosity. At almost any other time in history, that would have been unacceptable,” Budde says. She finds this “very sad, because the whole purpose of faith is to be a source of guidance, strength and perspective in difficult times. To be human is to have a sense of purpose, an awareness that our life is an utterly unique expression of creation and we want to live it with meaning, grace and beauty.”

Nah, Helton says. Helton, a high school band teacher in Chicago, only goes to the Roman Catholic Church of his youth to hear his mother sing in the choir.

His mind led him away. The more Helton read evolutionary psychology and neuro-psychology, he says, the more it seemed to him, “We might as well be cars. That, to me, makes more sense than believing what you can’t see.”

Well, okay… as long as I can be a Model S Tesla

Now, normally I’d be happy to see growing skepticism about religious beliefs (and, for that matter, about atheism as a sort of metaphysical dogma). But this sort of “apatheism” seems to have more to do with intellectual laziness than well-reasoned doubt. It certainly doesn’t follow from the failure of religious dogma to answer the deepest questions of existence that “we might as well be cars”. The dilemma between simple-minded religion and simple-minded materialism has always been false, but the growing (literal) awesomeness of physics and cosmology has never before made the mysteriousness of existence so clear.

Let’s just take a brief moment to appreciate how amazing it is that we’re thinking about the universe together on this blog… here… now…

Grand Spiral Galaxy NGC 1232, courtesy of NASA

For more awesomeness, visit NASA’s Astronomy Picture of the Day Archive

Blog Here Now, Be Here Now


Those of you “of a certain age” are no doubt well aware of where I got the idea for the name of this blog: Ram Dass’s famous book, “Be Here Now”, one of the holy books of the late 1960s and early 1970s “counterculture”. And if you have read much of this blog, I’m sure you also recognize that the similarity of the titles is probably the only thing Blog Here Now and Be Here Now have in common. Part of the reason for this is that, while I very much respect the insights delivered by forms of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Taoism (and the practices of meditation upon which they’re based), I don’t have much to say about those insights. In fact, I tend to think that the more one talks about them, the less insightful they seem. That’s not the fault of the insights, it’s just a result of the limits of languages and the conceptual schemes they encode. Poetry, music, and the visual arts do a better job of communicating the insights than language. But two well-educated intellectuals (or counter-intellectuals) of the mid-20th century, Ram Dass and Alan Watts, probably have done the best jobs of trying to communicate them in English. I tend to gravitate more towards Watts’ approach than Dass’s, because Watts “clothes” the insights in less religious language, and when he does use religious language, he goes out of his way to clarify what he means by it. Dass, however, perhaps more faithfully translates aspects of the Hindu tradition into English.

If you have never seen Mickey Lemle’s documentary, “Ram Dass: Fierce Grace“, which deals with how Ram Dass “transacted” – and continues to transact – with a life-altering stroke, I want to take this opportunity to recommend it to you. Here’s the poster for the film-

I think it’s particularly relevant to aging baby boomers such as myself. The way he managed, painfully, to integrate his neo-Hindu insights with his stroke is truly impressive and inspiring. Who knows when each of us might be similarly challenged?

What got me thinking about Ram Dass was an email I received from Noah Te Stroete, a former student of mine and one of the few regular commenters on this blog. It turns out that Noah has an artistic talent of which I was previously unaware: he’s quite a painter! Here’s his portrait of Ram Dass (which, I think, beautifully captures the man’s “spirit”)-

Portrait of Ram Dass

"Ram Dass", by Noah Te Stroete

The Dalai Lama: Ethics Beyond Religion


While we’re on the subject of Atheism (see my previous post), consider what the leader of Tibetan Buddhism has to say in his latest book about the need to move beyond religion in popular ethics. Here’s part of an excerpt that appears on The Huffington Post

So what are we to do? Where are we to turn for help? Science, for all the benefits it has brought to our external world, has not yet provided scientific grounding for the development of the foundations of personal integrity — the basic inner human values that we appreciate in others and would do well to promote in ourselves. Perhaps we should seek inner values from religion, as people have done for millennia? Certainly religion has helped millions of people in the past, helps millions today and will continue to help millions in the future. But for all its benefits in offering moral guidance and meaning in life, in today’s secular world religion alone is no longer adequate as a basis for ethics. One reason for this is that many people in the world no longer follow any particular religion. Another reason is that, as the peoples of the world become ever more closely interconnected in an age of globalization and in multicultural societies, ethics based in any one religion would only appeal to some of us; it would not be meaningful for all. In the past, when peoples lived in relative isolation from one another — as we Tibetans lived quite happily for many centuries behind our wall of mountains — the fact that groups pursued their own religiously based approaches to ethics posed no difficulties. Today, however, any religion-based answer to the problem of our neglect of inner values can never be universal, and so will be inadequate. What we need today is an approach to ethics which makes no recourse to religion and can be equally acceptable to those with faith and those without: a secular ethics.

This statement may seem strange coming from someone who from a very early age has lived as a monk in robes. Yet I see no contradiction here. My faith enjoins me to strive for the welfare and benefit of all sentient beings, and reaching out beyond my own tradition, to those of other religions and those of none, is entirely in keeping with this.

I am confident that it is both possible and worthwhile to attempt a new secular approach to universal ethics. My confidence comes from my conviction that all of us, all human beings, are basically inclined or disposed toward what we perceive to be good. Whatever we do, we do because we think it will be of some benefit. At the same time, we all appreciate the kindness of others. We are all, by nature, oriented toward the basic human values of love and compassion. We all prefer the love of others to their hatred. We all prefer others’ generosity to their meanness. And who among us does not prefer tolerance, respect and forgiveness of our failings to bigotry, disrespect and resentment?

In view of this, I am of the firm opinion that we have within our grasp a way, and a means, to ground inner values without contradicting any religion and yet, crucially, without depending on religion. The development and practice of this new system of ethics is what I propose to elaborate in the course of this book. It is my hope that doing so will help to promote understanding of the need for ethical awareness and inner values in this age of excessive materialism.

At the outset I should make it clear that my intention is not to dictate moral values. Doing that would be of no benefit. To try to impose moral principles from outside, to impose them, as it were, by command, can never be effective. Instead, I call for each of us to come to our own understanding of the importance of inner values. For it is these inner values which are the source of both an ethically harmonious world and the individual peace of mind, confidence and happiness we all seek. Of course, all the world’s major religions, with their emphasis on love, compassion, patience, tolerance and forgiveness, can and do promote inner values. But the reality of the world today is that grounding ethics in religion is no longer adequate. This is why I believe the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics that is beyond religion.

My own view (which is traceable back to Kant) is that we need to find an effective way of teaching ethical reasoning to those lacking moral sentiments and instincts; in other words, we need to find an effective way of appealing to their rationality (and I don’t mean just their self-interest). But the Dalai Lama is surely right that trying to cultivate the moral emotions is better than resigning ourselves to living in a world of endless conflict.



The Huffington Post reports the results of yet another study showing that atheists are the least trusted minority in the world. This study also suggests an obvious explanation of why this is the case-

One motivation for the research was a Gallup poll that found that only 45 percent of American respondents would vote for a qualified atheist president, says Norenzayan. The figure was the lowest among several hypothetical minority candidates. Poll respondents rated atheists as the group that least agrees with their vision of America, and that they would most disapprove of their children marrying.

The religious behaviors of others may provide believers with important social cues, the researchers say. “Outward displays of belief in God may be viewed as a proxy for trustworthiness, particularly by religious believers who think that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them,” says Norenzayan. “While atheists may see their disbelief as a private matter on a metaphysical issue, believers may consider atheists’ absence of belief as a public threat to cooperation and honesty.”

It does stand to reason that a fear of God might cause some people to behave better than they otherwise would, and hence that lack of belief in God might cause these very same people to behave badly. But that the fear of atheism is nevertheless an irrational phobia follows from a simple corollary: if atheists actually were untrustworthy (and hence deceptive), they would likely not declare themselves to be atheists (since a deceiver surely wishes not to be recognized as such). Indeed, atheists would likely disguise their atheism by pretending to be the most ardent of believers! So it seems that, on this basis, if believers should distrust anyone, it is their fellow believers.

Of course, the idea that belief in a supernatural being is either a necessary or sufficient condition of moral behavior is so obviously false that it is hardly worth raising any of the myriad counterexamples. But it seems to me that there is another reason, besides the one mentioned above, for distrusting believers more than self-professed atheists. It is this: a believer can view behaving immorally as a nihilistic – or even courageous – act of rebellion (as adolescents do when disregarding their long-standing fear of their parents). By contrast, an atheist must view similarly bad behavior as little more than mundane self-indulgance, or petty selfishness. Even if she conceives of her immorality as a rebellion against social norms, this can hardly compete with the truly grandiose notion of disobeying the orders of a transcendent being. So there seems to be an independent reason to be more concerned with the potential immorality of believers than with that of atheists.

Now, I’m not suggesting here that atheists are necessarily any less immoral than believers; they are susceptible to the same temptations as anyone else. And, as believers are fond of pointing out, secular dogmas (such as Stalinism or Naziism) can be at least as damaging as traditional religious ones. But it does seem to me that a moral theory arrived at by the voluntary exercise of one’s rationality is likely to be just as reliable – if not more so – as one based merely on religious faith, particularly when that faith is only half-hearted (as it often is when it is simply inherited as a family tradition). The bottom line is that trust should be bestowed on or withheld from a person based on their actual behaviors, not their professed attitudes towards a theistic God.

George Will Accuses Straw Woman Of Attacking Straw Men


They say you can’t fight fire with fire. Actually, you can. But what you really can’t do – at least effectively – is fight what you identify as fallacious reasoning with precisely the same style of fallacious reasoning. George Will provides a striking illustration of this self-defeating pattern of reasoning in his latest editorial about Elizabeth Warren’s now famous rant at a small fundraising event. Will writes-

WASHINGTON — Elizabeth Warren, Harvard law professor and former Obama administration regulator (for consumer protection), is modern liberalism incarnate. As she seeks the Senate seat Democrats held for 57 years before 2010, when Scott Brown impertinently won it, she clarifies the liberal project, and the stakes of contemporary politics.

The project is to dilute the concept of individualism, thereby refuting respect for the individual’s zone of sovereignty. The regulatory state, liberalism’s instrument, constantly tries to contract that zone — for the individual’s own good, it says. Warren says:

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own. Nobody. You built a factory out there — good for you. But I want to be clear. You moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for. You hired workers the rest of us paid to educate. You were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. … You built a factory and it turned into something terrific or a great idea — God bless, keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

Warren is (as William F. Buckley described Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith) a pyromaniac in a field of straw men: She refutes propositions no one asserts. Everyone knows that all striving occurs in a social context, so all attainments are conditioned by their context. This does not, however, entail a collectivist political agenda.

Such an agenda’s premise is that individualism is a chimera, that any individual’s achievements should be considered entirely derivative from society, so the achievements need not be treated as belonging to the individual. Society is entitled to socialize — i.e., conscript — whatever portion it considers its share. It may, as an optional act of political grace, allow the individual the remainder of what is misleadingly called the individual’s possession.

The collectivist agenda is antithetical to America’s premise, which is: Government — including such public goods as roads, schools and police — is instituted to facilitate individual striving, aka the pursuit of happiness. The fact that collective choices facilitate this striving does not compel the conclusion that the collectivity (Warren’s “the rest of us”) is entitled to take as much as it pleases of the results of the striving.

Will goes on to write derisively about 1960s-era new leftists like Kenneth Galbraith, with their views about “false consciousness” implanted in individuals by corporate advertising, as if that has anything even remotely to do with Warren’s (or Obama’s) view that the rich should be taxed at slightly higher rates – closer to the rates at which the economy was actually doing much better in the past! The “collectivist” straw woman against whom Will rails is simply a traditional liberal, one who seeks to empower all individuals – rather than just a privileged few – by providing opportunities for self-improvment through public institutions. Anyone who identifies such liberalism with collectivism (or communism, or even socialism) needs to re-take Political Science or History 101. Will no doubt knows better, and is intentionally engaged in conservative rhetoric aimed to mislead the ill-informed.

What is sad is that Will is clever enough to engage in non-fallacious debate with his political adversaries, and both he and other conservatives surely have logically respectable arguments they could make in favor of their policy positions. Why don’t they bother to make them in such widely read editorials?

The Liberal Modus Ponens Versus The Republican Modus Tollens


In my previous post, “The Republican Modus Tollens“, I pointed out that arguments apparently having the valid form

(1) If P then Q
(2) Not-Q
(3) So Not-P

allow for serious irrationality when P represents a matter of well-confirmed scientific theory and Q represents a prescriptive policy preference or a tenet of religious faith. So, to use one of the examples from my previous post, we have arguments about climate change that seem to be guided by the following pattern of thought-

(1) If climate change is occurring, then we should regulate CO2.
(2) We shouldn’t regulate CO2.
(3) So climate change isn’t actually occurring.

Of course, probably no opponent of climate change has ever explicitly made just this argument. My point is that the arguments they do make are evidently motivated by some such pattern of thought. Representing the pattern this way makes clear that they are often reasonable enough to recognize that if climate change were occurring, then we (perhaps) should regulate CO2. The problem is that they also very strongly desire not to regulate CO2 (perhaps for quite defensible reasons, such as worrying about the economic effects of such regulation), and this very strong desire against a possible policy choice, along with the normally valid modus tollens pattern of thought, leads them irrationally to deny a well-confirmed theory. In order to do so, they must massively over-weigh evidence contrary to climate change, sometimes fantasize about global conspiracies of scientists, and so on. It is this last move – the irrational denial of a scientific theory – that indicates they are being guided, at bottom, by strongly held policy positions and this modus tollens pattern of thought, or something similar to it.

Psychological explanations for why people argue like this aside, I suggested that the main logical problem with such arguments is located in their conditional (‘If P, then Q’) premises. This problem arises whenever P describes a putative matter of fact and Q expresses a prescription of some sort (often signaled by the inclusion of ‘should’ or ‘ought’). In such cases, the conditional statement can be viewed in one of two ways. If we view it as the sort of statement that actually belongs in a modus tollens argument (what logicians call a ‘material conditional’), then it can be criticized as being false on purely logical grounds. Famously, ‘is’ does not materially imply ‘ought’ – descriptive language does not materially imply prescriptive language. That does not mean that facts are irrelevant to policy choices, of course. As I put it in my previous post, facts can certainly bear on policies; it’s just that they never logically necessitate policies. On the other hand, if we view the conditional premise as a mere recommendation, then it doesn’t belong in a modus tollens form of argument at all, the argument form is only superficially similar to modus tollens, and the conclusion does not validly follow from the premises.

Now, almost as famous as “‘is’ does not imply ‘ought'” is another philosophical saying: “One person’s modus tollens is another person’s modus ponens“. Modus ponens is, like modus tollens, a valid form of argument that starts from a conditional premise. But in its second premise, instead of denying the conditional’s consequent (the statement that follows ‘then’), it affirms its antecedent (the statement that follows the ‘if’), and instead of deducing the conditional’s denied antecedent, it deduces its affirmed consequent. This sounds a lot more complicated than it is, as this sketch of the form shows-

(1) If P then Q
(2) P
(3) So Q

Starting from the conditional premise in the previous argument, we arrive at an argument that is commonly asserted by liberals-

(1) If climate change is occurring, then we should regulate CO2.
(2) Climate change is occurring.
(3) So we should regulate CO2.

A conservative upset with my prior post might try to turn the tables, observing that if the conditional premise is a problem in the modus tollens argument, then it is equally a problem in this modus ponens argument. I would reply that yes indeed, it is a problem, but not quite equally one. This is because in the cases that concern us, the antecedent is descriptive and the consequent is prescriptive, rather than the other way around. It is still true that the conditional statement is either false or not a material conditional (because it is a mere recommendation). But the difference is that when conservatives deny the antecedent because they deny the consequent, they are allowing their policy preferences to influence their view of the facts. On the other hand, when liberals affirm the consequent because they affirm the antecedent, they are merely allowing their view of the facts to influence their policy choice: precisely the rational thing to do. Even if both arguments are unsound or invalid from a purely logical viewpoint, in these cases the modus tollens sort of argument is irrational in a way that the modus ponens sort of argument is not.

Couldn’t the Republican arguments be expressed in a modus ponens form? Certainly. For instance-

(1) If climate change is not occurring, then we should not regulate CO2.
(2) Climate change is not occurring.
(3) So we should not regulate CO2.

The problem is that this way of representing their pattern of thought leaves the conspiracy theories and evidential biases that they rely upon to justify premise (2) totally unexplained. The same can be said for the other two arguments I discussed in the last post, in which premise (2) (of the modus ponens versions) would deny evolution and the safety of the HPV vaccine, respectively. Admittedly, some who deny evolution sometimes do so by promoting the notion of intelligent design, but the arguments for intelligent design are at least as weak as the arguments for the denial of climate change. The modus tollens representations help to explain why Republicans make such arguments (namely, because they are passionately against certain policies that they think might follow from acceptance of the facts); the modus ponens ones don’t.

By the way, some readers might have noticed an asymmetry in the title of this post versus that of the previous post: here I used ‘liberal’ instead of ‘Democratic’, whereas there I used ‘Republican’ instead of ‘conservative’. That is because, if the behavior of the House of Representatives and the current crop of Republican presidential candidates is any indication, the Republican party really has morphed into a purely conservative party. For better or for worse, thanks at least to the “blue dog” contingent, the Democratic party has not yet made a similar transformation into a purely liberal party.

Finally, it’s perhaps worth emphasizing that although the sort of irrationality I’ve sketched out above currently seems more common on the Right than on the Left, liberals are certainly not immune to it. The more passionately one holds a policy position, the more likely one is to fall into this style of thinking, and liberals can be just as passionate as conservatives. The answer, of course, isn’t to be less passionate. It’s simply to be more mindful of how those passions might influence one’s thinking.

The Republican Modus Tollens


Republican leaders have become fond of denying well-supported facts in the last few years, including such well-confirmed phenomena as (at least partly human-induced) climate change, the proven safety of vaccines, and of course evolutionary theory. What seems to be guiding them, at least unconsciously, is (roughly) the following form of argument, known to logicians as modus tollens

(1) If P then Q
(2) Not-Q
(3) So Not-P

This pattern of reasoning is technically valid. That is, if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. So criticizing any argument of this form typically involves arguing that at least one of the premises is false.

For instance, here’s the Republican modus tollens argument against climate change:

(1) If climate change is occurring, then we should regulate CO2.
(2) We shouldn’t regulate CO2.
(3) So climate change isn’t actually occurring.

Or, similarly, in the case of the vaccine Michele Bachmann doesn’t like:

(1) If the HPV vaccine is safe, then we should encourage its use.
(2) We shouldn’t encourage its use.
(3) So the HPV vaccine is not safe.

Or, finally:

(1) If evolutionary theory is true, then the biblical story of creation should be denied.
(2) The biblical story of creation should not be denied.
(3) So evolutionary theory is not true.

Notice that in each of these arguments, P is a matter of well-confirmed scientific theory (there are no absolutely proven theories, of course – scientific methodology rules out such dogmatic certainty), while Q is a matter of social or political policy (or, in the last argument, religious faith). This makes the conditional (“If…then…”) premises extremely problematic (even if you agree with them), because they too simplistically suggest that facts logically entail policies, rather than simply bear on them. Thanks to this oversimplification, the arguer may think that it is necessary to deny a well-supported fact in order to avoid implementing a policy or contradicting a tenet of faith. This is psychologically understandable, but irrational and unnecessary. Policy recommendations and tenets of faith can certainly be debated on their own practical (or theological) merits. We can also debate the degree to which particular facts should bear on particular policies. But factual statements should stand or fall according to the evidence for or against them, not according to the policies to which they might lead or the theological issues they may raise.

For instance, at the risk of incurring some cognitive dissonance, Republicans could certainly continue to oppose regulating CO2 while accepting that climate change is occurring. After all, they could argue that despite the negative environmental effects of climate change, the negative economic effects of regulating CO2 would be even worse. This might well be false, but asserting it would not be as irrational as denying climate change merely for economic policy reasons. The same sort of criticism applies to the second argument. There is no need to deny a vaccine’s proven safety record merely because you want to discourage its use for, say, moral reasons. Let your moral argument stand on its own, and let the facts stand on their own. As for the third argument, many Christian theologians – both Catholic and Protestant – deny the first premise, since they argue that the book of Genesis was never meant to be a scientific description of how people came to exist. Atheists and agnostics might prefer to deny the second premise, but what is clear is that the evidence for evolution should stand (or fall) on its own.

What is truly disturbing is that so many Republican presidential candidates don’t seem to understand such obvious points, or, if they do, ignore them for the sake of influencing the gullible.