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Worldviews

PJ O’Rourke on Conservatism at Worst and Best

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In its worse forms, conservatism is a matter of “I hate strangers and anything that’s different.” But in its better forms, conservatism simply says that the structures of society, both civil and political, religious and so on, are the result of a long series of trial-and-error experiments by millions of human beings, not only all over the world, but through time. And that you should toss out received wisdom only very carefully. Obviously there are some ideas that were around for centuries that were not good (slavery comes to mind). But when people have been doing something for a millennium or two, there is probably a reason. And you better be pretty careful before you just throw it out.

Naturalism Defeated?

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Almost a decade ago, Alvin Plantinga articulated his bold and controversial evolutionary argument against naturalism. This intriguing line of argument raises issues of importance to epistemologists and to philosophers of mind, of religion, and of science. In this, the first book to address the ongoing debate, Plantinga presents his influential thesis and responds to critiques by distinguished philosophers from a variety of subfields. Plantinga’s argument is aimed at metaphysical naturalism or roughly the view that no supernatural beings exist. Naturalism is typically conjoined with evolution as an explanation of the existence and diversity of life. Plantinga’s claim is that one who holds to the truth of both naturalism and evolution is irrational in doing so. More specifically, because the probability that unguided evolution would have produced reliable cognitive faculties is either low or inscrutable, one who holds both naturalism and evolution acquires a "defeater" for every belief he/she holds, including the beliefs associated with naturalism and evolution. Following Plantinga’s brief summary of his thesis are eleven original pieces by his critics. The book concludes with a new essay by Plantinga in which he defends and extends his view that metaphysical naturalism is self-defeating. ~ Book Description

Hubris Goes Marching On

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The Edge, an unassuming gathering of the worlds’ “most complex and sophisticated minds…asking each other the questions they are asking themselves” kicks of the new year with: “What is your question? Why?” The answers range in quality and interest from the disingenuous and rhetorical: “Are we ever going to be humble enough to assume that we are mere animals, like crabs, penguins, and chimpanzees, and not the chosen protégés of this or that God?” to the esoteric: What is the difference between the sigmundoscope and the sigmoidoscope? A number of these intellectuals are troubled by age-old, philosophical questions like the source of evil and the nature of identity. But unfortuntely, honest bewilderment and questioning are noticeably scarce, and in their stead are pedantry, scientistic surety, and several smug, scornful dismissals of philosophical and theological approaches to the same issues. In some cases, the essays reads like satire, guilelessly betraying the inability of science on its own to answer important questions. For example, Rafael Núñez argues that finally admitting we are merely animals is a road to peace. It is a relief to learn that what I thought were hateful slurs, like “Capitalist Dog”, actually hold the seeds of reconciliation. James Gilligan’s decent essay considers the limits of science, and almost admits this problem. (2/7/02)

Dallas Willard on Constructing Reality

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The “Midas touch” picture of consciousness, as I call it — is the view that to take something as our ‘object’ automatically transforms it in some essential way (possibly even making it ‘mental’). How, exactly, consciousness — or for that matter language, or culture — being what it is, could make a tree or block of ice what it is, or turn something that was not already a tree or block of ice into one, is truly hard to say. We actually know how trees etc. come about, and they are not made by consciousness. One can also safely say that the story about how consciousness supposedly does its transforming and productive work has never been satisfactorily told. The second interpretation plays off of the saying that one cannot escape consciousness — cannot, as it is often said, “step outside of one’s mind.” Certainly, to be conscious of anything one must be conscious. But it does not follow from this that one cannot compare a thought to what it is about and whether it “matches up” or not. Only confusion could make one think it does — a confusion probably based upon the “Midas touch” picture of consciousness. [Editor’s note: Midas, in Greek mythology, had the ability to turn everything he touched into gold.]

Jonah Goldberg on Postmodernism and Science

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For obvious reasons, PoMos hate science more than dogs hate vacuum cleaners, and they bark at it about as much. You see, scientists work on precisely the opposite assumptions as PoMos; they actually think that facts exist outside of clever word games. You can say all you like that physics is phallocentric, but it’s not going to change the rules of thermodynamics. This really pisses off PoMos, because scientists keep making really cool gadgets that work while, to date, Duke’s English department hasn’t been able to make an airplane run on metaphors or to illuminate a football stadium with the adverbs from James Joyce’s Dubliners.

Jonah Goldberg on Deconstructing Higher Education

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For example. If I stood up in a classroom at Brown or Harvard or Yale and declared, “Let the best man win,” the students would turn into a human sprinkler-system of deconstructing inquiry. What do you mean by “man”? What are your criteria for “best”? Why does someone have to “win” at all? Couldn’t we define the task more cooperatively? When you say “let,” who is doing the “letting”? Isn’t that just another way of saying we should “let” the patriarchal capitalist system continue to reward those already deemed “best” (and, therefore, most advantaged)? This word “the,” it seems to connote that there is only a single criterion for determining a privileged status; couldn’t there be a more pluralistic approach? Etc., yawn, etc.

Dallas Willard on Methodological Naturalism

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One could retreat to a mere methodological naturalism and say that scientific method is our only hope as human beings. Whether or not we can adequately specify naturalism or know it to be true, one might say, the “scientific method” must be exclusively followed for human well-being. Naturalism would then be a humane proposal, not a philosophical claim. The proposal would be to assume in our inquiries that only the physical (or the empirical) exists and to see if inquiry based upon that assumption is not more successful in promoting human ends than any other type of inquiry.

Todd Gitlin on Postmodernism

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Postmodernists claim that the profusion of images induces a state of vertigo, a sort of rapture of indeterminacy, in which people no longer care whether images correspond to the world in which they think they live, or, in fact, that they relish the discrepancies between images and realities, between signifiers and signifieds. Yet this is plainly not so. For all the irony and bemusement with which we manage the flow, people still search for solid ground, a search that, perversely, leads us astray, as the cultural and political industries exploit our old-fashioned, unhip longings.

Crispin Wright on a Rock and a Hard Place

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A central dilemma in contemporary metaphysics is to find a place for certain anthropocentric subject-matters — for instance, semantic, moral, and psychological — in a world as conceived by modern naturalism: a stance which inflates the concepts and categories deployed by (finished) physical science into a metaphysics of the kind of thing the real world essentially and exhaustively is. On one horn, if we embrace this naturalism, it seems we are committed either to reductionism: that is, to a construal of the reference of, for example, semantic, moral and psychological vocabulary as somehow being within the physical domain — or to disputing that the discourses in question involve reference to what is real at all. On the other horn, if we reject this naturalism, then we accept that there is more to the world than can be embraced within a physicalist ontology — and so take on a commitment, it can seem, to a kind of eerie supernaturalism.

Charles Taliaferro on Eliminative Materialism

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Eliminative materialism is not as popular as it was some decades ago. A major problem has been the task of developing a version of eliminative materialism that is not self-refuting or self-contradictory. Some eliminativists appear to be in the unenviable position of claiming to believe that there are no beliefs. Another difficulty is the problem of being able to accommodate human reasoning. A further worry still is that eliminativism is flatly refuted by experience.

Gary Kamiya on the Avante Garde

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Again and again, the authors of these manifestos open with a mighty trumpet blast, issuing the most lofty and passionate denunciations of the imbecilic, stale, decadent, safe, bourgeois, vile, outmoded, mechanical, academic, etc. tradition they are rejecting. But when it comes time for them to reveal their epochal new vision, the mighty doctrine that will overthrow the past, turn art on its head and lead mankind into a dazzling new era of truth and beauty, it turns out to be, well, “spatial forms arising from the intersection of the reflected rays of various objects” (Rayonists Mikhail Larionov and Natalya Goncharov). Or a theater in which the actors read aloud from their parts (the Russian symbolist Fyodor Sologub). Or a placard proclaiming “No Girdle!” (The nunist Pierre Albert-Birot, who also incorrectly asserted that nunism is “an ‘ism’ to outlast the others.”) Without discounting the originality of these ideas — rayonist paintings are among the first abstract works ever executed, Sologub’s theater anticipates Brecht, and Birot would have burned Andy Warhol in a game of one-on-one — after the mighty windup, there’s something banana peel-like about these aesthetic punchlines.

Camille Paglia on the Truly Subversive in Art

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Although I’m an atheist who believes only in great nature, I recognize the spiritual richness and grandeur of the Roman Catholicism in which I was raised. And I despise anyone who insults the sustaining values and symbol system of so many millions of people of different races around the world. An authentically avant-garde artist today would show his or her daring by treating religion sympathetically. Anti-religious sneers are a hallmark of perpetual adolescents. When will artists climb out of the postmodernist ditch and accept their high mission to address a general audience? An art of chic coteries, whether in rococo aristocratic France or in drearily ironic, nervously posturing New York, ends up in a mental mousehole.

Naturalism and Religion

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Nielsen (philosophy, U. of Calgary) presents a defense of naturalism as the most reasonable way to view humans place in the world. His naturalism is an atheistic and humanistic philosophy, but it is not a scientific or value-free one. He articulates a naturalistic explanation of the functions of religion and argues that truly understanding religion necessitates disbelief. He argues that a consistent atheism does not "rob life of its significance or make social and political commitment arbitrary." After explaining the theory he explains arguments for and against the theory as propounded by various other philosophers, most notably the work of Wittgenstein, which he believes to be the most serious philosophical challenge to secular naturalism. ~ Product Description

Naturalism: A Critical Analysis

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Craig and Moreland present a rigorous analysis and critique of the major varieties of contemporary philosophical naturalism and advocate that it should be abandoned in light of the serious difficulties raised against it. The contributors draw on a wide range of topics including: epistemology, philosophy of science, value theory to basic analytic ontology, philosophy of mind and agency, and natural theology. “This book provides a good introduction to work by some contemporary American theistic philosophers of religion. Moreover, it gives clear expression to the recent resurgence in polemical Christian philosophy of religion in American academic philosophy.” ~ Australian Journal of Philosophy

Dear Harper

Go I hope you'll be interested to know that I — near the start of a new millennium and at the age of 67 — am still able to believe, with no serious effort, that the entire universe was willed into being by an unsurpassed power whom most human beings call God. I believe that God remains conscious of his creation and interested in it. I believe that his interest may be described, intermittently at least, as love.

Richard Dawkins on Truth

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A little learning is a dangerous thing. This has never struck me as a particularly profound or wise remark, but it comes into its own when that little learning is in philosophy. A scientist who has the temerity to utter the t-word — true — is likely to encounter philosophical heckling that goes something like this: “There is no absolute truth. You are committing an act of personal faith when you claim that the scientific method, including mathematics and logic, is the privileged road to truth. Other cultures might believe that truth is to be found in a rabbit’s entrails or the ravings of a prophet atop a pole. It is only your personal faith in science that leads you to favor your brand of truth.” That strand of half-baked philosophy goes by the name of cultural relativism.

Richard Dawkins on Science vs. Relativism

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How should scientists respond to the allegation that our “faith” in logic and scientific truth is just that — faith — not “privileged” over alternative truths? An obvious response is that science gets results. As I once wrote, “Show me a cultural relativist at 30,000 feet, and I’ll show you a hypocrite… If you are flying to an international congress of anthropologists or literary critics, the reason you will probably get there — the reason you don’t plummet into a ploughed field — is that a lot of Western scientifically trained engineers have got their sums right.” Science supports its claim to truth by its spectacular ability to make matter and energy jump through hoops, and to predict what will happen and when.

Molly Ivins on Political Correctness

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You would not believe the number of sensitivities that have to be kept in mind in public discourse. I once got mad at some Texas legislators over a spectacularly pea-brained stunt and referred to them as “a bunch of droolers.” I was promptly served with pamphlets from an outfit called the Society to Prevent Cruelty to Those Who Involuntarily Drool. (Very sad, actually, people who have had strokes often drool involuntarily.) People make fun of political correctness, but if you’re running for office, left-handed lesbians of Czech descent are out there, and they are touchy.

Richard Dawkins on Science

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Is it just our Western scientific bias to be impressed by accurate prediction, to be impressed by the power to sling rockets around Jupiter to reach Saturn, or intercept and repair the Hubble telescope, to be impressed by logic itself? Well, let’s concede the point and think sociologically, even democratically. Suppose we agree, temporarily, to treat scientific truth as just one truth among many, and lay it alongside all the rival contenders: Trobriand truth, Kikuyu truth, Maori truth, Inuit truth, Navajo truth, Yanomamo truth, !Kung San truth, feminist truth, Islamic truth, Hindu truth. The list is endless — and thereby hangs a revealing observation. In theory, people could switch allegiance from any one “truth” to any other if they decided it had greater merit. On what basis might they do so? Why would one change from, say, Kikuyu truth to Navajo truth? Such merit-driven switches are rare — with one crucially important exception: switches to scientific truth from any of the others. Scientific truth is the only member of this endless list that evidentially convinces converts of its superiority. People are loyal to other belief systems because they were brought up that way, and they have never known anything better. When people are lucky enough to be offered the opportunity to vote with their feet, doctors prosper and shamans decline. Even those who do not, or cannot, avail themselves of a scientific education choose to benefit from technology made possible by the scientific education of others.

Carol Zaleski on the Afterlife

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Although social surveys indicate that roughly 80 percent of Americans believe in life after death, it is a belief cherished against the grain of perceived official skepticism; and among academically trained religious thinkers, one finds a greater measure of skepticism than in the population at large. For many, immortality is not a matter for reasoned debate, but is simply ruled out of play, along with guardian angels and statues that weep. It is taken for granted, as if it were a premise accepted by all reasonable people, that no one seriously believes in Heaven, Hell, or Purgatory, in the life of the soul, the resurrection of the body, or the personality of God as the concrete realities they were once imagined to be.

Embracing the Power of Humanism

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Is life meaningful without religion? Can one be moral and not believe in God? While many Americans believe that God is necessary to secure moral order, Paul Kurtz argues that it is quite possible for rationalists and freethinkers to lead exemplary lives. Embracing the Power of Humanism is a collection of essays organized into five parts: “The Exuberant Life,” “Independence,” “Altruism,” “Humanism,” and “Ethical Truth” throughout which Kurtz provides nonbelievers with ethical guidelines and encourages all individuals to take personal responsibility for moral excellence.

From Dawn to Decadence: 1500 to the Present

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Highly regarded here and abroad for some thirty works of cultural history and criticism, master historian Jacques Barzun has now set down in one continuous narrative the sum of his discoveries and conclusions about the whole of Western culture since 1500. In this account, Barzun describes what Western Man wrought from the Renaisance and Reformation down to the present in the double light of its own time and our pressing concerns. He introduces characters and incidents with his unusual literary style and grace, bringing to the fore those that have “Puritans as Democrats,” “The Monarch’s Revolution,” “The Artist Prophet and Jester” — show the recurrent role of great themes throughout the eras.  The triumphs and defeats of five hundred years form an inspiring saga that modifies the current impression of one long tale of oppression by white European males. Women and their deeds are prominent, and freedom (even in sexual matters) is not an invention of the last decades. And when Barzun rates the present not as a culmination but a decline, he is in no way a prophet of doom. Instead, he shows decadence as the creative novelty that will burst forth — tomorrow or the next day. Only after a lifetime of separate studies covering a broad territory could a writer create with such ease the synthesis displayed in this magnificent volume.

Phillip E. Johnson on SETI

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[I]ntelligent design theorists need to explain why the vast majority of evolutionary scientists refuse to consider evidence of intelligent design in biology, scornfully dismissing the entire concept as “religion” rather than “science.” [It] is because they identify science with naturalism, meaning that only “natural” (i.e., material or physical) forces may play a role in the history of life. Where the designer is itself some natural entity, such as a human being, evidence for design is welcome. Space aliens are also permissible entities, and so Carl Sagan’s Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) radio telescopes scan the sky for signals, which they could identify as products of intelligence by precisely the same methods which intelligent design theory applies to biology. The difference is that scientific naturalists want to find evidence for extraterrestrial life, in part because they would count it as evidence that natural laws produce life wherever favorable conditions exist and hence as clinching the case for naturalism. They don’t want to find evidence for what they think of as an “interfering” God, meaning a God who does not leave everything to law and chance. Hence they will refuse to see evidence of design that is staring them in the face until they are reassured that the designer is something whose existence they are willing to recognize.

Richard Dawkins on Science and Meaning

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Accusations of barren desolation, of promoting an arid and joyless message, are frequently flung at science in general … But such very proper purging of saccharine false purpose; such laudable tough-mindedness in the debunking of cosmic sentimentality must not be confused with a loss of personal hope. Presumably there is indeed no purpose in the ultimate fate of the cosmos, but do any of us really tie our life’s hopes to the ultimate fate of the cosmos anyway? Of course we don’t; not if we’re sane. Our lives are ruled by all sorts of closer, warmer, human ambitions and perceptions. To accuse science of robbing life of the warmth that makes it worth living is so preposterously mistaken, so diametrically opposite to my own feelings and those of most working scientists, I am almost driven to the despair of which I am wrongly suspected. … The feeling of awed wonder that science can give is us one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that makes life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living it is finite.

Phillip E. Johnson on the Scientific Community

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Darwinists can take in stride any debates over the particulars of their theory, however strident, so long as the underlying principle of naturalistic explanation is not threatened. That is why the blatant heresies of Stephen Jay Gould, to take one example, were cheerfully tolerated until very recently. As John Maynard Smith, the British dean of Darwinists, famously summed up the professional judgment after Gould finally pushed the envelope too far, “The evolutionary biologists with whom I have discussed [Gould’s] work tend to see him as a man whose ideas are so confused as to be hardly worth bothering with, but as one who should not be publicly criticized because he is at least on our side against the creationists.” Gould’s anguished response went to exactly the same point: “We will not win this most important of all battles [against the creationists] if we descend to the same tactics of backbiting and anathematization that characterize our true opponents.” Everything is negotiable except the vital objective of keeping God out of objective reality. As Gould’s ally Richard Lewontin put it, “we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door…. To appeal to an omnipotent deity is to allow that at any moment the regularities of nature may be ruptured, that miracles may happen.” In the materialist mentality, the appearance of the Lawgiver is equated with the disappearance of the laws.