I recently saw the movie Timer, and it turned out to be a fascinating exploration of the idea of a soulmate. Spoiler-ridden reflections are below the fold.
Recently there’s been a debate in the political blogosphere about “epistemic closure.” As far as I can tell, Julian Sanchez introduced the term here, in the following passage:
One of the more striking features of the contemporary conservative movement is the extent to which it has been moving toward epistemic closure. Reality is defined by a multimedia array of interconnected and cross promoting conservative blogs, radio programs, magazines, and of course, Fox News. Whatever conflicts with that reality can be dismissed out of hand because it comes from the liberal media…
And somehow this idea of epistemic closure among conservatives turned out to be really attention-grabbing. Lefty bloggers like it, naturally. Read Yglesias or Sullivan. But there’s also right-leaning NYT columnist Ross Douthat lamenting his fellow conservatives’ epistemic closure; there’s conservative-ish Jim Manzi criticizing right-wing talk radio host Mark Levin’s epistemic closure; there’s arch-conservative Jonah Goldberg (of “Liberal Fascism” fame) grumpily announcing that “epistemic closure” has already jumped the shark; and — well, I haven’t even scratched the surface. If you read mainstream political blogs, you’ve probably heard talk of epistemic closure.
The funny thing, though, is that the much older philosophical idea of epistemic closure has pretty much nothing to do with the sort of epistemic closure that all these bloggers are talking about.
Superstar philosopher Jerry Fodor and cognitive scientist Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini have recently published a controversial book, What Darwin Got Wrong. They argue that “Darwinism,” specifically the theory of natural selection, is not just false, but even incoherent and therefore couldn’t be true. A summary of their argument is here. Elliott Sober debates Fodor in a diavlog on Bloggingheads.tv here. If you watch the diavlog (perhaps best to start about 6 minutes in: here) you’ll quickly notice that Sober doesn’t think Fodor’s argument works. In that respect I think Sober represents the vast majority of philosophers and scientists.
If you like to be entertained and you don’t mind F-bombs, watch this very unsafe-for-work talk by Richard Carrier. He argues that Jesus did not exist.
I do wonder how effective this line of argument can really be. Carrier spends a lot of effort showing that New Testament gospel accounts are inconsistent and implausible. For instance, at one point the Sun is supposed to have gone out for a few hours — but later on, no one seems to remember that it happened. Also, according to Carrier, some of the New Testament writers seem to have in mind a purely spiritual son of God, not a flesh-and-blood Jesus. Continue reading “The ultimate case against Christianity?”
People who are not too familiar with contemporary philosophy sometimes get the impression that Slavoj Zizek is widely respected among philosophers. This isn’t the case. The comments underneath this Crooked Timber post contain some of the reasons why not. Zizek’s style of philosophy — if “philosophy” is the right name for what Zizek does — is pretty far from the mainstream, and I believe that even those who like the kind of thing Zizek does will admit that Zizek is mainly known as a provocateur, not a particularly careful or serious thinker. Which isn’t to say that he can’t be entertaining and thought-provoking. His Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is fun.
Anyway, what I really want to do in this post is nitpick something John Holbo says in the comments to that CT post: Continue reading “The ethics of beating up on Slavoj Zizek”
If there is an all-good, all-powerful God, why is there so much wrong with the world? This ancient problem — the problem of evil — receives unfortunate freshness every time something terrible happens. Philosopher David Bain discusses the problem of evil, and its connection with the Haiti earthquake, in this short and accessible essay.
I usually think that the best hope for a solution to this problem lies in the idea that there is no best of all possible worlds. This view says that, for any possible world God could have created, there is an even better world that God could have created instead. If this were true, then God would have to make a less-than-perfect world — or else nothing at all. And presumably an imperfect something is better than absolutely nothing. Thus we might be able to explain how an all-good all-powerful God could have created an imperfect world. However, it’s another question whether this line of thinking can offer a complete solution to the problem of evil. For that you’d need to explain how an all-good all-powerful God could allow, not just imperfections, but also hugely catastrophic events — like what has happened in Haiti.
Philosophy of Action and Philosophy of Religion By Stewart Goetz, Ursinus College (Vol. 1, 2006) Philosophy Compass
Morality and Religion By Tim Mawson, St Peter’s College (December 2009) Philosophy Compass
James Cameron’s Avatar is a cousin of some famous thought experiments from the philosophy of personal identity. For example, here’s a product of Daniel Dennett’s imagination circa 1978:
Several years ago I was approached by Pentagon officials who asked me to volunteer for a highly dangerous and secret mission. [They] had succeeded in lodging a warhead about a mile deep under Tulsa, Oklahoma, and they wanted me to retrieve it for them. … The difficulty that brought the Pentagon to my door was that the device I’d been asked to recover was fiercely radioactive, in a new way. According to monitoring instruments, something about the nature of the device and its complex interactions with pockets of material deep in the earth had produced radiation that could cause severe abnormalities in certain tissues of the brain. No way had been found to shield the brain from these deadly rays, which were apparently harmless to other tissues and organs of the body. So it had been decided that the person sent to recover the device should leave his brain behind. It would be kept in a safe place as there it could execute its normal control functions by elaborate radio links. Would I submit to a surgical procedure that would completely remove my brain, which would then be placed in a life-support system at the Manned Spacecraft Center in Houston? Each input and output pathway, as it was severed, would be restored by a pair of microminiaturized radio transceivers, one attached precisely to the brain, the other to the nerve stumps in the empty cranium. No information would be lost, all the connectivity would be preserved.
Sounds pretty Avatar-like to me! Even the plot devices are similar: In Avatar, one reason why the hero needs to remotely control an alien body is that the alien planet’s atmosphere is toxic to humans but not aliens; in Dennett’s thought experiment, the hero needs to remotely control his own body in order to avoid exposure to toxic radiation. (Of course, there are some differences. Dennett’s essay has a cooler ending whereas Avatar has more dragons.)
Anyway, it looks like Avatar’s implications about race have gotten a little more attention than anything it might have to say about personal identity. I was especially interested by this widely-linked io9 piece by Annalee Newitz accusing Cameron of being motivated by “white guilt,” as if that’s a bad thing. I’ll put a few spoiler-ridden thoughts on this below the fold.