All posts filed under: Philosophy

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 …

Worry About Piety Contests, Not ‘Virtue Signaling’

To accuse someone of virtue signaling usually means something like, “you don’t actually believe this, you’re just posturing.” There are real and troubling aspects of moral posturing, but ‘virtue signaling’ is a misnomer. Instead, by exploring how the process of internalizing genuine virtue can go wrong, I’d like to suggest the alternative term ‘piety contest,’ which, in addition to being a better description of the problem, also suggests ways to combat it. The Problems of ‘Virtue Signaling’ There are a couple of problems with the term ‘virtue signalling.’ The first is that, strictly speaking, it isn’t signaling at all. As Sam Bowman pointed out in a recent post at the Adam Smith Institute, ‘signaling’ is a term with a specific meaning and, as understood by biologists and economists, it is credible because it costs something. The kind of posturing we call ‘virtue signaling,’ on the other hand, usually costs nothing and so is actually closer to what economists call cheap talk. Everyday usage, however, doesn’t necessarily need to conform to scientific usage. The more important problem is that, in …

Premodernism of the Future

Modernism and Postmodernism are at an impasse. This was the conclusion of the first part of this essay. Without its argument, though, you are unlikely to agree. Most people aware of this debate—whether in the hallways of academia, the online magazines, or the corridors of power—are partisans of one side or the other. For them, there is no impasse, only a conflict between the reasonable and the foolish, the duped and the woke. Most readers of this site favor modernism, and there are many reasons to do so. The first part of this essay catalogued the main ones, especially universal rights and empirical science. But it also presented some scientific reasoning about reason, showing the limits of the modernist approach, including science itself. “The Impasse” began with Michael Aaron’s division of our culture wars into three camps: postmodernists, modernists, and traditionalists. After quickly knocking down a straw-man of traditionalism, Aaron reproduced the critiques of postmodern political excesses that are familiar to every reader of this site. Modernism was the winner by default. What he failed …

The Impasse Between Modernism and Postmodernism

Buying textbooks, writing syllabi, and putting on armor. This is how many students and teachers prepared to return to campus this past fall. The last few years have witnessed an intensifying war for the soul of the university, with many minor skirmishes, and several pitched battles. The most dramatic was last spring at Evergreen State, shortly before the end of the spring semester.1 Perhaps the most dramatic since then have been at Reed College and Wilfrid Laurier University.2 There is no shortage of examples, filling periodicals left and right. Wherever it next explodes, this war promises more ferocity, causing more casualties—careers, programs, ideals. What’s at stake? According to Michael Aaron, writing after the battle at Evergreen, the campus war is symptomatic of a broader clash of three worldviews contesting the future of our culture: traditionalism, modernism, and postmodernism.3 The traditionalists, he writes, “do not like the direction in which modernity is headed, and so are looking to go back to an earlier time when they believe society was better.” Whether they oppose changes to sexual …

The Postmodern Misuse of Tolerance

Tolerance is central to the structure of the liberal democratic tradition, and traceable to its inception. If a change has occurred regarding its place in our moral universe, it is the sharp increase in the intensity with which it is invoked as a motivating principle by political leaders, social activists, and citizens. We might be tempted to rejoice in this development as testament to the good health of our institutions if, at the same time, other liberal values that used to be inseparable from tolerance were not being undermined. But this divergence indicates that people increasingly rely upon tolerance because other Enlightenment values such as reason, equality, and liberty have lost the power to inspire. The Fear of Intolerance For liberal societies beset by creeping anxieties about the value of their form of government, it is doubtful that this new emphasis on tolerance constitutes a net benefit. The celebration of tolerance as an end in itself is a symptom of the shift from self-confident modern liberal democracies to the self-doubting postmodern ones. Many of the …

The Politics of Science: Why Scientists Might Not Say What the Evidence Supports

Suppose a scientist makes a bold claim that turns out to be true. How confident are you that this claim would become widely accepted? Let’s start with a mundane case. About a century ago, cosmologists began to realize that we can’t explain the motions of galaxies unless we assume that a certain amount of unknown matter exists that we cannot yet observe with telescopes. Scientists called this “dark matter.” This is a bold claim that requires extraordinary evidence. Still, the indirect evidence is mounting and most cosmologists now believe that dark matter exists. To the extent that non-scientists think about this issue at all, we tend to defer to experts in the field and move on with our lives. But what about politically contentious topics? Does it work the same way? Suppose we have evidence for the truth of a hypothesis the consequences of which many people fear. For example, suppose we have reasonably strong evidence to believe there are average biological differences between men and women, or between different ethnic or racial groups. Would …