Friday, March 28, 2014

What’s around the web?

John Searle is interviewed at New Philosopher.  He’s in fine Searle form (and well-armed, as you can see from the photo accompanying the interview):  “It upsets me when I read the nonsense written by my contemporaries, the theory of extended mind makes me want to throw up.”

Jeremy Shearmur is interviewed at 3:AM Magazine about his work on Karl Popper and F. A. Hayek.  Standpoint magazine on Hayek and religion.

A memorial conference for the late E. J. Lowe will be held this July at Durham University. 

Steely Dan is being sued by former member David Palmer.  GQ magazine looks back on Steely Dan’s Aja, and The Quietus celebrates and cerebrates the 40th anniversary of Pretzel Logic.  Donald Fagen’s book Eminent Hipsters is reviewed in City Journal and in the New York Observer.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Dharmakīrti and Maimonides on divine action

Here’s a juxtaposition for you: the Buddhist philosopher Dharmakīrti (c. 600 - 660) and the medieval Jewish philosopher Moses Maimonides (1138 - 1204).  Both had interesting things to say about divine action, Dharmakīrti from the point of view of a critic of theism and Maimonides from the point of view of a theist committed to “negative theology.” 

Theism of a sort reminiscent of Western philosophical theology has its defenders in the history of Indian philosophy, particularly within the Nyāya-Vaiśeșika tradition.  In particular, one finds in this tradition arguments for the existence of īśvara (the “Lord”) as a single permanent, personal cause of the world of intermittent things.  The debate between these thinkers and their Buddhist critics parallels the dispute between theists and atheists in the West.  (To map the Indian philosophical traditions onto those of ancient Greece, you might compare the Buddhist position to that of Heraclitus, the Advaita Vedanta position of thinkers like Shankara (788 - 820) to that of Parmenides, and Indian theism to Aristotle’s Unmoved Mover.  But the similarities should not be overstated.)

Friday, March 21, 2014

I was wrong about Keith Parsons

Longtime readers know that Prof. Keith Parsons and I have not always gotten along.  Some years ago he famously expressed the view that the arguments of natural theology are a “fraud” that do not rise to the level of a “respectable philosophical position” worthy of “serious academic attention.”  I hit back pretty hard at the time, and our subsequent remarks about each other over the years have not been kind.  I had come to the conclusion that Prof. Parsons was unwilling to engage seriously with the best arguments of natural theology.  But I am delighted to say that I was wrong.  Prof. Parsons has said that his earlier remarks about the field were “unfortunate” and “intemperate and inappropriate, however qualified.”  He has shown admirable grace and good sportsmanship in his willingness to bury the hatchet despite how heated things had been between us.  And he has most definitely engaged seriously with the arguments of traditional natural theology in our recent exchange.  I take back the unkind remarks I have made about him in the past.  He is a good guy.

Keith is now wrapping up his side in our initial exchange.  If you have not done so already, give it a read.  In the near future we will have an exchange on the subject of atheism and morality.  I look forward to it.  Keith has also expressed to me his admiration for the quality of the comments readers have been making on our exchange.  I agree, and I thank the readers both of my blog and of Keith’s blog over at Secular Outpost.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Stop it, you’re killing me!

In an op-ed piece in The New York Times, Ferris Jabr of Scientific American kindly informs us that nothing is really alive, not even Jabr himself or his readers.  Fairly verbose for a dead guy, he develops the theme at length -- not by way of giving an explicit argument for his claim, so much as by putting forward considerations intended to make it appear something other than the killer joke it seems on its face to be.

The routine is familiar, even if Jabr’s thesis is a bit more extreme than that of other biological reductionists.  There’s no generally agreed upon definition of life; there are borderline cases such as viruses; living and non-living things are all made up of the same kinds of particles; so

Thursday, March 13, 2014

L.A. area speaking engagements

On Saturday, March 29, I’ll be the keynote speaker at the Talbot Philosophical Society Spring Conference at Biola University in La Mirada, CA.  The theme of the talk will be “The Scholastic Principle of Causality and the Rationalist Principle of Sufficient Reason.”  Bill Vallicella will be the respondent.  Come out and see the dueling philosophy bloggers.  More information here.

On Friday, April 4, I’ll be speaking at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, CA.  The theme of the talk will be “What We Owe the New Atheists.”  More information here.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Gelernter on computationalism

People have asked me to comment on David Gelernter’s essay on minds and computers in the January issue of Commentary.  It’s written with Gelernter’s characteristic brio and clarity, and naturally I agree with the overall thrust of it.  But it seems to me that Gelernter does not quite get to the heart of the problem with the computer model of the mind.  What he identifies, I would argue, are rather symptoms of the deeper problems.  Those deeper problems are three, and longtime readers of this blog will recognize them.  The first two have more to do with the computationalist’s notion of matter than with his conception of mind.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Can you explain something by appealing to a “brute fact”?

Prof. Keith Parsons and I have been having a very cordial and fruitful exchange.  He has now posted a response to my most recent post, on the topic of “brute facts” and explanation.  You can read his response here, and find links to the other posts in our exchange here.  Since by the rules of our exchange Keith has the last word, I’ll let things stand as they are for now and let the reader imagine how I might respond.

Another one of my old sparring partners, Prof. Robert Oerter, raises an interesting objection of his own in the combox of my recent post, on which I will comment.  I had argued that if we think of laws of nature as regularities, then no appeal to such laws can explain anything if the most fundamental such laws are regarded as inexplicable “brute facts.”  Oerter writes:

Sunday, March 2, 2014

An exchange with Keith Parsons, Part IV

Here I respond to Keith Parsons’ fourth post.  Jeff Lowder’s index of existing and forthcoming installments in my exchange with Prof. Parsons can be found here.

Keith, as we near the end of our first exchange, I want to thank you again for taking the time to respond to the questions I raised, and as graciously as you have.  You maintain in your most recent post that explanations legitimately can and indeed must ultimately trace to an unexplained “brute fact,” and that philosophers who think otherwise have failed to give a convincing account of what it would be for the deepest level of reality to be self-explanatory and thus other than such a “brute fact.”  Unsurprisingly, I disagree on both counts.  I would say that appeals to “brute facts” are incoherent, and that the nature of an ultimate self-explanatory principle can be made intelligible by reference to notions that are well understood and independently motivated.