Category Archives: tradition

Deriving “ought from is” scientifically?

Dr Richard Carrier

There has been a lot of debate recently about the role of science in deciding moral questions. And I am sure this will continue as scientific investigations reveal more about our morality.

One issue which keeps coming up, though, is the question of telling an “ought from an is.” Often this is presented dogmatically (“You can’t tell an ought from an is”) and justified as almost an ancient philosophical truism.

But this is now being challenged by some of the participants in this debate. recently I heard Richard Carrier, a philosopher and historian of science, on this. He rejects this specific dogma. In the interview Richard supplies a clear example:

“A surgeon ought to maintain high levels of hygiene in her work.”

Seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it. And we can get there from two “is’s.”

  1. Unhygienic surrounding enable fatal infections, and
  2. A surgeon protects human life.

I thought it useful for him to divide the argument in this way. Too often we think only of the first is – the facts which have an immediate effect. Most people will acknowledge that science usually has a role in this area – and that is clear in our example. Science has established the role of hygiene in prevent fatal infections.

So there is wide acceptance that science can “inform” moral decisions such as these. But Many people, not just religious believers, will maintain that step 2 is not an “is.” One can’t prove logically or scientifically that “A surgeon protects human life” or the equivalent.

Well, I think in the case of surgeons it goes with the job, the definition of the profession., But the more general case would be the “is” that humans have such attributes. The claim that you can’t prove it is human to protect life, to desire the flourishing of human life, etc.

Continue reading

It’s that time of the year

Book review: Christmas – Philosophy for Everyone: Better Than a Lump of Coal. Scott C. Lowe (Editor), Fritz Allhoff, Fritz Allhoff (Series Editor) Stephen Nissenbaum (Foreword)

Price: US$15.56
Paperback: 256 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (October 19, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 144433090X
ISBN-13: 978-1444330908

OK, this book is topical. Not only because of the timely subject. It’s also  appropriate to review now because it’s the sort of book one might consider giving or receiving as a present on Saturday. And it’s the sort of book one might enjoy reading next week.

Well, it’s obviously not your usual philosophy book – it’s far more approachable. It is, after all, part of the “Philosophy for Everyone” series. In fact, the philosophy is not obvious in some articles – it looks more like common sense. And the approach is slightly ‘tongue-in-cheek,’ especially with the essay titles and the notes on contributors (called “Santa’s Elves”).

Continue reading

Cutting off your nose for Christmas?

I think Tim Minchin‘s Song White Wine in the Sun really captures the spirit of Christmas down under. I heard it last year (see No gods required) and notice it is being promoted again this year with all proceeds going to charity.

Here is Minchin performing the song:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

The Salvation Army was a beneficiary of this because the song is included on the CD The Spirit Of Christmas, which raises money for the Salvation Army’s charity work in Australia. However, talk about looking a gift horse in the mouth. They are now criticising the song and other Christian activists, even ones supposedly supporting family values, dubbed it  ‘disrespectful’ and ‘a sick joke.’

Tim wrote about the Sally’s rudeness:

“I gave my song for free, putting aside my philosophical objection to the Salvation Army for the sake of beneficiaries. Imbeciles.”

“I think the Salvos are idiots. I didn’t know they would benefit from the CD, but by the time I found out I didn’t want to make too much of a fuss. So I gave my song free, then they turn around and say that they don’t agree with the sentiment of the song.

“Part of me is hugely outraged by what imbeciles they are, to bite the hand that feeds them and put their proselytising above charity.

“I won’t make this mistake again. I tweeted that if people want to buy my version of the song independently, I’ll give the proceeds away to a non-proselytising charity.”

“Christmas means much to billions of people who don’t believe in Jesus, and if you think that Christmas without Jesus is not Christmas, then you’re out of touch, and if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you’re a dick.”

I understand that a secular charity Autism Trust is going to benefit from sales of “White Wine in the Sun” from now until January 1st. (Cost NZ$1.79 on iTunes – I wouldn’t buy the Sally’s CD).

Similar articles

Enhanced by Zemanta

“Other ways of knowing” purpose?

A recent panel discussion in Mexico debated the question “Does the universe have a purpose?” The speakers for the affirmative were Rabbi David Wolpe, William Lane Craig and Douglas Geivett. And for the negative Matt Ridley, Michael Shermer and Richard Dawkins.

I don’t think the discussion was very good. Contributions were short and the original video is in Spanish. It’s also full of hoopla. Reminds we of an international scientific congress I attended in Mexico some time ago. All the official meetings involved many young women as decoration. And the Mexicans are certainly a very musical people. Music was everywhere.

However, I have included a video below of the short contribution made by Richard Dawkins in this discussion. It gives an idea of the issues discussed:

Vodpod videos no longer available.Prof.Richard Dawkins destroys Dr.William Lane C…, posted with vodpod

Continue reading

What is the problem?

Liked this.

Why do people get so upset about gay marriage?

Enhanced by Zemanta

A victory for secular ethics

I have been following a small controversy which has raged this year in New South Wales. It involves the teaching of ethics in school classes.

Well, a bit more complicated than that (why should anyone oppose the teaching of ethics). This year 10 NSW schools ran a trial project of ethics classes developed by Professor of Philosophy Philip Cam  for the St James Ethics Centre. In the trial schools it was introduced as a voluntary alternative to the religious scripture classes. (These classes are similar to those run in many New Zealand schools where the school is closed for the duration and volunteer religious teachers come in to instruct children, with their parents permission).

Continue reading

The joys of eBook readers – the Sony PRS-650 Touch

Well, I finally succumbed and got myself an eBook Reader. I am certainly not one of those who take up new technology early. Mind you, eBook Readers have been in New Zealand only since last May, so I do feel like a rapid uptaker in this case.

Of course the late arrival in New Zealand has more to do with rights management than technology. But the wait means that now eBook Readers have arrived many of the technological problems have been sorted. (And it has given me time to research the subject).

So far there are just four eBook Readers on the local market (the Kobo and two Sony models), plus the Kindle from Amazon. And they aren’t easy to find in local shops! I did my own comparison and decided on the Sony PRS-650. Here are my comments on this model, together with my general experience of using an eBook Reader overt the last few weeks.  It’s not a detailed review (I haven’t had hands-on experience with other Readers) but you might find it useful if you are contemplating purchase of an eBook Reader.

Continue reading

Secularism is important

Book Review: The Secular Outlook: In Defense of Moral and Political Secularism by Paul Cliteur

Price: US$26.95; NZ$53.97
Paperback: 328 pages
Publisher: Wiley-Blackwell (September 7, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1444335219
ISBN-13: 978-1444335217

It’s funny how some people allow their emotional reactions to interfere with their understanding of, and reaction to, words and their meaning. Almost 40 years ago I had a problem posting a letter to an address in the former East Germany. The women behind the counter in the post office refused to accept it because its address included the words “German Democratic Republic.” While she muttered things like “Soviet Zone,” and I was expecting her to starting foaming at the mouth, her colleague had to take over and provide me with the correct stamp.

Some people react the same way to words like secular and secularism. They equate these with atheism, or “worse.” So they animate their definitions of such words by their personal aversion to denial of their gods.

Pope Benedict XVI often warns of the “moral dangers” of secularism and many theologians and apologists wilfully equate secularism with attempts to destroy or eliminate religion.

Definitions and common understandings of words are important- especially where there is emotional baggage. So the first chapter of Paul Cliteur’s book is welcome – and probably necessary. “Atheism, Agnosticism, and Theism” reviews the possible definitions of these words and argues the case for a consistent and accurate meaning – taking 50 pages to do so.

And far from secularism being hostile to religion Cliteur sees it as “an essential precondition for the free development of religion. . . . It would be a serious mistake to consider the values espoused in the secular outlook as in any way inimical to religion or the rights of religious believers. On the contrary, secularism is the only perspective under which people of different religious persuasions can live together.”

The book devotes much of its content to justification of free thought. Chapter 2 argues that criticism of religion as central to free thought.

Continue reading

Can science shape human values?

There’s been a bit of discussion lately about the relationship between science and human values. Partly because of the recent Edge Seminar (see The new science of morality, Is and ought and A scientific consensus on human morality). But also because of recent talks by Sam Harris arguing that science can determine human values. He expresses his ideas more clearly in his book The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values

It’s an excellent book – I have just finished reading it and will express my thoughts on the ideas in a separate post shortly.

But for others interested in this subject NPR has produced a podcast with an interesting set of interviews (see Can Science Shape Human Values? And Should It?).

In this Ira Flatow talks with scientists and philosophers about the origins of human values, and the influence of modern scientific thought on human values. Even if science can shape human morals, should it? Or does science bring its own set of preconceptions and prejudices to moral questions?

Those appearing on the podcast include:

Lawrence Krauss: foundation professor, School of Earth and Space Exploration and Physics Department, director, Origins Project
Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona

Simon Blackburn: research professor, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Bertrand Russell professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge
Cambridge, England

Sam Harris: Author, “The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values“; Author, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason; co-founder and CEO, Project Reason

Steven Pinker: Johnstone Family professor, department of psychology
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

There’s even a discussion of “How can science and religion inform each other?” And they take some call-in questions.

Thanks to Jerry Coyne (See Science and morality: a Science Friday discussion).

Similar articles

Enhanced by Zemanta

The human mind – a history

Book Review: The Evolution of the Human Mind: From Supernaturalism to Naturalism – An Anthropological Perspective by Robert L Carneiro

Price: US$95.00, (paperback US$39.95); NZ$172.00

Hardcover: 506 pages
Publisher: Eliot Werner Publications (July 23, 2010)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0979773113
ISBN-13: 978-0979773112

With a subtitle “From Supernaturalism to Naturalism” this book obviously covers a breathtaking view of the human mind’s evolution. It’s well over 400 pages long and has 35 pages of references.  It could be intimidating but it is not. Far from it.

This is not a dry academic tome.  The writing style is economical but clear. Also, each of the 26 chapters is broken into brief sections rarely more than a few page long. The reader has no time to get bored or distracted from the content.

Carneiro’s description of the early stages of human thought must be, to some extent, speculative. However, as an anthropologist he can draw on the studies of existing and recent primitive cultures.

Continue reading