All posts filed under: Philosophy

The Failed Hero’s Journey

There is no more quintessential a model of the failed hero than Elliot Rodger. Rodger, a young man who was promised the world, turned against it when it failed to provide him with eros, love, and romance. His open hand reaching for the future became a fist clenched in opposition, an inversion of the successful hero story. Consumed with jealousy, resentment, and a rejection of the very notion of a healthy human being, Rodger indiscriminately murdered three men in his apartment, and three women at a sorority house. At twenty-two years old, he had chosen to end his life in bitter disappointment, choosing malevolent violence and suicide over the hope of continual and incremental improvement. Carl Jung understood that those who ultimately reject life itself have failed to experience the archetypal ‘hero’s journey’. To Jung, every single young person who leaves their parents’ home and forages into the world has taken the path of the hero, whether they know it or not. A hero’s journey is simply the departure from comfort, warring against the chaos …

Freedom of Expression and the Flight from Reason

The last few years have seen acrimonious public clashes about the value of free speech, with activists both on the Left and the Right accusing the other side of trying to silence them. ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ are, admittedly, not particularly informative terms, since there are significant differences within each camp. But each is concerned that the other is trying to silence it, whether by means of censorship or intimidation. It is hard to be sure of the true extent of this hostility to free speech, since much of the evidence is anecdotal and, of course, the plural of ‘anecdote’ is not ‘compelling data.’ For example, much of the conflict about free speech is focused on university campuses. I have taught thousands of students in the UK, including, more recently, American students studying in London, and I have rarely encountered petulant ‘snowflakes’ crying out to be protected from offence. Nevertheless, there is plenty of credible evidence that my experience is not wholly representative. There is reason to believe that an increasing number of young people regard …

Immanuel Kant Against Elitism

Now a year has passed since Kelly Anne Conway coined the term ‘alternative facts,’ everyone is familiar with the ‘post-truth era.’ But pinning down exactly what this means is difficult. There is consensus that facts (particularly statistics) now have less influence on public debates. Most agree that social media is a key factor. Everyone accepts that fake news is real and litters the internet, though the question of who the litterbugs are is highly contentious. It has recently been argued that the supposed epistemic crisis is of such severity that even if it is proved that Russia used fake news to get Donald Trump into the White House, it might not make any difference. We are now so far beyond truth that even incontrovertible evidence has lost its power. Most of those grieving for the pre-2016 era claim that post-truth means emotive reactions supplanting rational argumentation. The Oxford definition points to “circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion.” Helen Pluckrose, the co-author of ‘A Manifesto Against the …

On the Benefits of Philosophical Instruction

The average scores of philosophy majors on the LSAT and other standardized tests are regularly presented as reasons for university students to major in philosophy.  In an age of increasing pressure to compete for student enrollments, data of this sort are important for the discipline of professional philosophy. Tenure lines are partly justified on the basis of student enrollments, and students are encouraged to enroll in philosophy partly on the basis of the impact that philosophical instruction has on cognitive ability, these claims are part of the mechanism by which academic philosophers hope to secure university funding for their departments.  Given these institutional arrangements, the profession of academic philosophy has an interest in determining whether these statements about the beneficial cognitive impact of the study of philosophy are justified. In an essay published at Quillette in July of last year, Neven Sesardić critically examined the evidence for these statements and found them wanting. He wrote: In reality, however, there is no justification for such claims. Getting higher test scores after studying philosophy does not show …

Utilitarianism’s Missing Dimensions

In 2001, Joshua Greene and colleagues published a report in Science that helped turn a once-obscure philosophical conundrum involving trolleys into a topic of conversation at scientific conferences, philosophical meetings, and dinner tables across the globe. The report used fMRI technology to probe what is going on in the brains of research subjects when they are faced with hypothetical ethical dilemmas represented by two classic scenarios. In one, subjects are asked if they would be willing to pull a lever to divert a trolley onto a track on which one person is standing, if doing so would prevent the death of five people standing on the track of the trolley’s current trajectory. In scenarios like this one, where there is no direct physical contact between the person taking the action and the person being sacrificed, most subjects say it would be ethically appropriate to sacrifice one to save five. In the second scenario, subjects are asked if it would be appropriate to push a strange man off a footbridge onto a track, if his death …

The Ethics of Cognitive Enhancement

Editor’s note: this is a companion piece to The Neuroscience of Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Haier. I first met Richard Haier at the annual conference of the International Society of Intelligence Researchers (ISIR) in Montreal last July. I told him I was hoping to write a book about the public policy implications of the growing weight of evidence that intelligence is genetically based and he said he had already written a book in which he touched on that subject. He then gave me a copy of The Neuroscience of Intelligence. Not only is Haier’s book an excellent summary of the progress we have made to date in understanding the science of intelligence, it also looks ahead to a future in which various technologies arising out of our improved understanding may be developed to enhance IQ and considers some of the ethical questions that gives rise to. Haier makes no bones about his own enthusiasm for cognitive enhancement. “Higher intelligence is better than lower intelligence; no one seriously disagrees,” he writes in Chapter Five. “All …

Reason and Reality in an Era of Conspiracy

Did Nelson Mandela die in prison or did he die years later? Many people reading this probably lived through such recent history, and know perfectly well that he died decades after his release. Many of our students, however, do not know this because they didn’t live through it, and they haven’t been taught it. That is trivially true, and not particularly worrisome. But in 2010 a quirky blogger named Fiona Broome noticed that many people she met – people who should know better – incorrectly believed that Mandela had died in prison. She dubbed this kind of widespread collective false memory the “Mandela Effect” and began gathering more cases, inspiring others to contribute examples to a growing online database. Ask your students if they’ve heard of the Mandela Effect and you will find that 95 percent are familiar with it. They are fascinated by it because it is a highly successful topic of countless YouTube videos and memes. Examples of the Mandela Effect are amusing and easy to find online. Everyone thinks that Darth Vader …