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Do You Believe in Objective Reality?

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Here’s a quick test to determine whether you believe in objective reality (spoiler: you do).

  1. Do you believe that the earth revolved around the sun before humans came on the scene?
  2. Do you believe in evolution and/or creation?
  3. Do you believe that anyone or anything else will exist after you die?
  4. Do you believe that to visit London you’ll have to visit England?
  5. Do you believe that two plus two has always equaled four?
  6. Do you believe that wishing upon a star doesn’t make it so?
  7. Do you believe in human rights?
  8. Do you believe that there is anything no one should do?
  9. Do you believe that you have ever been wrong, about anything?
  10. Do you believe, think, feel?

Classical Rhetoric, Contemporary Science and Modern Civil Discourse

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Pathos or emotion-based appeals are common and often effective in political life, but emotion and cognition are deeply intertwined, and emotion need not detract from, but rather may be a prerequisite for, “reasoned” deliberation. Consistent with this, perhaps we can draw on the force of the emotions underlying our commitment to civil discourse to help create an ethic, culture and set of institutional incentives for civil discourse. These would aim to dramatically reduce purposive or careless deception, falsehood and “misinformation,” exaggerated claims, verbal abuse and intimidation, ad hominem attacks and personal vitriol, while enhancing issue-focused discussion, empathy and mutual respect, as well as willingness to debate in good faith, listen as much as we speak, consider the evidence, explain the reasoning behind our points of view, and remain open to ideas and evidence suggesting that our established opinions could be wrong, so that we can hear and consider seriously the reasons of those with whom we disagree. All of this would be consistent with the necessarily passionate debates, fundamental disagreements, and First Amendment principles that characterize a vibrant representative democracy. Read the full brief.

Charles Taylor on Three Kinds of Secularity

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What does it mean to say that we live in a secular age? Almost everyone would agree that in some sense we do: I mean the “we” who live in the West, or perhaps Northwest, or otherwise put, the North Atlantic world — although secularity extends partially, and in different ways, beyond this world. … But it’s not clear in what this secularity consists. There are two big candidates for its characterization … The first concentrates on the common institutions and practices — most obviously, but not only, the state. The difference would then consist in this, that wheareas the political organization of all pre-modern societies was in some way connected to, based on, guaranteed by some faith in, or adherence to God, or some notion of ultimate reality, the modern Western state is free from this connection. … Religion or its absence is largely a private matter. The political society is seen as that of believers (of all stripes) and non-believers alike.

E. J. Lowe on Progress in Metaphysics and Philosophy

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There is a widespread assumption amongst non-philosophers, which is shared by a good many practising philosophers too, that ‘progress’ is never really made in philosophy, and above all in metaphysics. In this respect, philosophy is often compared, for the most part unfavourably, with the empirical sciences, and especially the natural sciences, such as physics, chemistry and biology. Sometimes, philosophy is defended on the grounds that to deplore the lack of ‘progress’ in it is to misconceive its central aim, which is to challenge and criticise received ideas and assumptions rather than to advance positive theses. But this defence itself is liable to be attacked by the practitioners of other disciplines as unwarranted special pleading on the part of philosophers, whose comparative lack of expertise in other disciplines, it will be said, ill-equips them to play the role of all-purpose intellectual critic. It is sometimes even urged that philosophy is now ‘dead’, the relic of a pre-scientific age whose useful functions, such as they were, have been taken over at last by genuine sciences. What were once ‘philosophical’ questions have now been transmuted, allegedly, into questions for more specialised modes of scientific inquiry, with their own distinctive methodological principles and theoretical foundations.

The Epistemology of Disagreement: New Essays

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The Epistemology of Disagreement brings together essays from a dozen philosophers on the epistemic significance of disagreement; all but one of the essays are new. Questions discussed include: When (if ever) does the disagreement of others require a rational agent to revise her beliefs? Do ‘conciliatory’ accounts, on which agents are required to revise significantly, suffer from fatal problems of self-defeat, given the disagreement about disagreement? What is the significance of disagreement about philosophical topics in particular? How does the epistemology of disagreement relate to broader epistemic theorizing? Does the increased significance of multiple disagreeing agents depend on their being independent of one another?

The Adjustment Bureau

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Into the ever-expanding catalog1 of films predicated on our anxiety about the extent of our free will, enter The Adjustment Bureau, perhaps the most cerebral and ambivalent of the lot. The film envisions a world in which human action is directed, though not quite determined, by a confluence of chance, free will, and the nearly ubiquitous superintendency of “The Chairman”, a quasi-religious, mysterious power that influences human actions through the intervention of a minion of “clerks” who alter circumstances (and occasionally thought patterns) in order to keep the course of human events in line with “The Plan”. This is not, as some have supposed, a film about human pawns and a grandmaster who determines their fate. Rather, The Adjustment Bureau explores how the course of human events might be guided or “nudged” by such a master when the chess pieces themselves are free agents pursuing their own ends. As it turns out, this decidedly more difficult endeavor requires constant “caretaking” or “meddling”. The film itself remains surprisingly ambivalent toward this state of affairs and offers a provocative and nuanced picture of human agency, of our wills as simultaneously malleable and free. Indeed, the various kinds of interventions in The Adjustment Bureau provide a backdrop for considering just what should and should not be considered a violation of the will. Finally, though it wisely avoids any explicit religious references, the film portrays a world that bears a striking resemblance to a particular theological proposal regarding the relationship between God’s sovereignty and human free will, namely open theism.

Our Inescapable Pluralism

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The great variety of contradictory religious views is for many reason enough to conclude that there is no truth to be had in such matters, that no one religion is at all likely to be closest to the truth. For example, in his debate with Dinesh D’Souza, John Loftus makes the gravamen of his case against the Christian God these inter-religious and intra-religious disagreements, arguing that in effect they cancel each other out in virtue of the mutually exclusive nature of their claims.1 He does not see, apparently, that by such reasoning, the ageless debate between naturalists and theists is also cancelled, each position nullified. Indeed, every point of view falls prey to such a criterion. When we look within naturalism, we also find denominations and sects, a cacophony of diverse and contradictory positions on fundamental questions. It turns out, the problem of pluralism is an equal opportunity employer. Worldviews are like personalities. Each one is unique. Though there are types of personalities, just as there are broad worldview categories, none is identical. Whatever our worldview, that view must countenance the fact that many others think it mistaken. This is the problem of pluralism. The implication of this reality, however, need not be the defeat of any particular set of beliefs. Rather, the proper response is epistemological. It begs modesty, a profound intellectual humility about our take on reality. And second, it should serve as a call to personal responsibility for our beliefs, and therefore to the epistemic virtues, for there is no consensus on ultimate questions that we can simply adopt by proxy.

The Captain of My Soul

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Central to the plot of Clint Eastwood’s Invictus is William Ernest Henley’s short poem of the same name. Though the role of the poem suffers some historical revisionism in the film, its role in the life of Nelson Mandela is worth consideration. The film recounts the remarkable story of Mandela’s efforts at national reconciliation through his embrace of the South African rugby team, which at the time remained a symbol of Apartheid’s ethnic segregation. In 1996, when I returned for the first time to South Africa, my childhood home, some old friends shared with me how meaningful it was when Mandela appeared at Ellis Park donning the Springbok green and gold. I’m gratified that this remarkable story of reconciliation has made it to the screen, especially while Morgan Freeman is still with us. He was born to play Mandela. During Mandela’s long internment on Robben Island, Henley’s poem adorned a wall of his cell, a constant reminder that though his freedom had been taken from him, he remained “the captain of his soul“. The words of this poem, and their significance to Mandela, underscore a central point of contention in the debate about human free will. It seems to me that one problem with some arguments for compatibilism, the idea that determinism and human responsibility are compatible, is the conflating of freedom and free will. Mandela’s story is a powerful reminder that there is freedom beyond freedom. That is, it matters whether we are captains or merely observers of our souls.

Of Liberty and Necessity

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In Of Liberty and Necessity James A. Harris presents the first comprehensive account of the free will problem in eighteenth-century British philosophy. Harris proposes new interpretations of the positions of familiar figures such as Locke, Hume, Edwards, and Reid. He also gives careful attention to writers such as William King, Samuel Clarke, Anthony Collins, Lord Kames, James Beattie, David Hartley, Joseph Priestley, and Dugald Stewart, who, while well-known in the eighteenth century, have since been largely ignored by historians of philosophy. Through detailed textual analysis, and by making precise use of a variety of different contexts, Harris elucidates the contribution that each of these writers makes to the eighteenth-century discussion of the will and its freedom.

Brothers Judd on Science, Reason, and Turtles on Fenceposts

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It seems to me that modern man, with our touchingly naive belief in reason and science and our delusion that we can understand existence, has lost sight of how miraculous existence truly is. Science, with button-bursting pride, offers us explanations for the history of the universe, but has not even begun to dream of what might have preceded the Big Bang. Science assures us that we are not unique, that there must be myriad planets with intelligent life on them, intelligence that is similar or even superior to ours, but can not answer the Fermi Paradox: “where are they?” Science assures us that Darwinism explains away the rise of humans and that had this or that element of evolution been just slightly different, we may never have existed, and that there must be other planets where life is quite different. And yet, with all of these scientific explanations, the fact remains that to the best of our knowledge: we exist; alone among the creatures of creation, we can comprehend our existence; and our creation seems to have been a goal of the universe. I know, I know, that’s far too anthropomorphic, yadda, yadda, yadda… Well, there’s an old saying down South, maybe it’s even popular down near where Mr. Price lives and teaches: if you see a turtle sitting on a fence post, it’s safe to assume he didn’t get there by himself. You can, of course, concoct all kinds of theories, maybe even prove some of them scientifically, that’ll show that the turtle got there naturally, but, as for me, I’d tend to assume that someone placed him there. As you look around the universe, we damn sure seem to resemble that turtle.

George Washington on Checks and Limited Government

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All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are … of fatal tendency. … However combinations or associations of the above description may now and then answer popular ends, they are likely, in the course of time and things, to become potent engines, by which cunning, ambitious, and unprincipled men will be enabled to subvert the power of the people and to usurp for themselves the reins of government, destroying afterwards the very engines which have lifted them to unjust dominion. …

Anne Lamott on Clenching Or Forgiving

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Half of the stories, which took so long for me to write and get right, are about that predicament of that clenched, clutched feeling when we don’t forgive. And then that miracle of grace, like a spiritual WD-40, that gets into the very stuck, grinding places inside of us. I’ve had to forgive both of my parents for very major injuries. Through the years, and even since they’ve been dead – just because someone dies doesn’t mean they’re off the hook. You carry it inside because there’s an injury inside. My son and I wrote a book together called “Some Assembly Required,” and he said something in there: If someone forgives you, they have found the willingness to feel awful again, and to re-experience the injury you did to them. And then to find something greater than themselves that lets them say “Goodbye, let’s be done.” And I hear your apology, your contrition, and I forgive you. That to me is so amazing. Maybe the most amazing thing is when somebody forgives me for a serious injury I’ve done them.

Anne Lamott on Discipline as Freedom

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I always say I’m so disciplined in my writing because very strict discipline is the only way I’ve found any freedom as an artist. Like meditation or in my spiritual journey, or exercise – hiking … you never want to do any hard work – you just want to watch MSNBC and eat miniature Kit-Kats. Believe me, that’s what I’d prefer to do. Or maybe try to catch up with old issues of the New Yorker. But in my work, I hold an imaginary pop gun to my head, and I sit down and my butt stays in the chair no matter what.

Stamatios Gerogiorgakis on Philosophy of Religion Traveling Widely

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Let me draw a parallel with aviation: future philosophers of religion take off, like all philosophers, by studying a wide variety of subjects from metaphysics to political philosophy, from epistemology to aesthetics, from ethics to philosophy of science. ¶ It is not in terms of taking off where philosophers of religion differ from their other colleagues in the discipline. It is rather in terms of landing. After studying metaphysics and ethics and epistemology etc. those who intend to land a career in philosophy of religion have to realize that the landing spot is too small. The horror disappears once they look to their right and to their left: the landing corridor is only a few yards “long”, but it is also several miles “broad”. In other words, philosophy of religion is no compact area in philosophy but rather a narrow path which goes through all areas of philosophy: from metaphysics to ethics and political philosophy and from epistemology and philosophy of science to aesthetics.

William Lane Craig on Quantum Indeterminacy and Something from Nothing

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Sometimes it is said that quantum physics furnishes an exception to premise (1) [Whatever begins to exist has a cause], since on the sub-atomic level events are said to be uncaused. In the same way, certain theories of cosmic origins are interpreted as showing that the whole universe could have sprung into being out of the sub-atomic vacuum or even out of nothingness. Thus the universe is said to be the proverbial “free lunch.” ¶ This objection, however, is based on misunderstandings. In the first place, not all scientists agree that sub-atomic events are uncaused. A great many physicists today are quite dissatisfied with this view (the so-called Copenhagen Interpretation) of quantum physics and are exploring deterministic theories like that of David Bohm. Thus, quantum physics is not a proven exception to premise (1). Second, even on the traditional, indeterministic interpretation, particles do not come into being out of nothing. They arise as spontaneous fluctuations of the energy contained in the sub-atomic vacuum, which constitutes an indeterministic cause of their origination. Third, the same point can be made about theories of the origin of the universe out of a primordial vacuum. Popular magazine articles touting such theories as getting “something from nothing” simply do not understand that the vacuum is not nothing but is a sea of fluctuating energy endowed with a rich structure and subject to physical laws. Such models do not therefore involve a true origination ex nihilo.

Barack Obama on Kindness as a Political Principle

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Kindness covers all of my political beliefs. And when I think about what I’m fighting for, what gets me up every single day, that captures it just about as much as anything. Kindness; empathy — that sense that I have a stake in your success; that I’m going to make sure, just because Malia and Sasha are doing well, that’s not enough — I want your kids to do well also. And I’m willing to help to build good schools so that they get a great education, even if mine are already getting a great education. And I’m going to invest in infrastructure and building things like the Golden Gate Bridge and the Hoover Dam and the Internet because I’m investing for the next generation, not just this one. And that’s what binds us together, and that’s how we’ve always moved forward, based on the idea that we have a stake in each other’s success. And that’s what drives me. And that’s what will continue to drive me.

Scott Sauls on the Core Issue in Abortion

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I believe that the core issue in the pro-life vs. pro-choice debate is whose rights matter most. Is it the rights of the mother or the rights of the infant in her womb? I believe that the answer is yes. … Pro-life advocates allege that pro-choice is not an accurate term, because only one person in the equation gets to choose the destiny of all people in the equation, namely the mother. She has one hundred percent of the decision making power and the infant inside of her has no decision making power, no voice, and no ability to defend her/himself. The idea that a woman should have jurisdiction over her own body also breaks down, because roughly fifty percent of infants in utero are female who have no choice over what happens to their bodies. ¶ Pro-choice advocates allege that pro-life is not an accurate term. This is precisely the concern that an abortion provider voiced to me just one week ago. He said, “As I see it, the so-called pro-life position only applies to one kind of life. After the infant is born, pro-life people tend to disappear from the picture.” He went on to say that over sixty percent of women who come in for an abortion are alone and live below the poverty line. Rarely has this doctor seen or heard a “pro-life” person express any concern whatsoever for her life. … If we don’t show deep concern for both mother and child, … then our religion is lopsided. Until we become both/and on this issue, our religion is not true.