I just read the strange yet insightful NDPR review of Paul Sheldon Davies’s book Subjects of the World: Darwin’s Rhetoric and the Study of Agency in Nature. I want to share a few passages that I liked.

(1) The review (by Paolo Costa) starts out as follows:

It is no news that naturalism is the dominant philosophical position in the English-speaking world. One of the clearest signs of this hegemony is the battle now raging around its purest and most consistent interpretation and the gradual spread of a “holier than thou” attitude that, at first sight, should be a distinctive feature of ideological battles rather than of intellectual discussions.

This strikes me as right, that there is battle regarding how to be a naturalist — from John Bickle’s “ruthless reductionism” to Andrew Melnyk’s “physicalist manifesto”. I think Bickle and Melnyk are doing good philosophy though, so I wonder if Costa have different works in mind.

(2) This part of the review is amusing:

Our conscious attributions of purpose are therefore a delusion, however deeply entrenched in our psychology. The end result is somewhat paradoxical, as the author himself points out in a side-remark concerning autism. As is well-known, “autistic children tend not to conceptualize objects in their environment in mental terms; they tend not to conceptualize persons as things with minds”. We nonautistics, on the contrary, are “naïve realists concerning the existence of other minds” (117). But naïve realism is the Ur-mistake for Davies. So it appears that autistics are right and normal people are wrong as far as our attitude towards the other beings is concerned (this seems to reveal something about people in the academy or in laboratories, but I cannot further investigate the matter now).

(3) I’m always on the lookout for people using rhetoric in place of solid argumentation, and the reviewer accuses Davies of doing just that:

Seen in this light, Davies’ book is a shining example of militant naturalistic rhetoric, rather than as providing a convincing case for a stricter and monopolistic (I would be tempted to say “imperialistic”) variety of naturalism. This may help explain the unexpected religious overtones of Davies’ prose and his continuous reference to the “weaknesses”, “frailties”, “biases”, “infirmities” of our (fallen?) nature and especially his relentless admonition not to be led “astray”…

Costa certainly makes it sound like Davies is one of those militant atheists who feels the need to latch on to a worldview in the same way that militant religious people do. I saw Davies give a talk recently at U. of Colorado, and he didn’t come across that way; I’ll have to take a look at the book.

Here is a guest post from my friend Nicole Hassoun, a philosophy professor at Carnegie-Mellon:

Below is, I hope, a potentially interesting ramble on God and love. Brad and I are thinking about working the basic argument up into something dry, boring, and publishable eventually. Since, however, some might find it entertaining as it is (my apologies to those who don’t), I figure it might be worth soliciting feedback on the basic idea at this point [so, unlike most posts on this blog, this post is open for comments]. Enjoy!


I had an interesting lunch meeting with Tom Gilson of Thinking Christian yesterday. He wrote up a description of our lunch here.

I’m happy to announce that I’ve just been appointed to be a member of the editorial board for the journal Philosophy of Science. I look forward to helping to ensure that the journal continues to be one of the preeminent journals of philosophy of science.

I’ve written a review of Bas van Fraassen’s new book, Scientific Representation: Paradoxes of Perspective. You can read my review here.

I come up in an interesting review of Bill Maher’s sometimes fascinating, sometimes unfair movie Religulous.

It’s unfortunate that Maher steers clear of more thoughtful religious people, because there is here an opportunity for common cause. In a recent interview with atheist philosopher Bradley Monton, Casey Luskin confesses that in many ways he feels more kinship with an atheist like Monton who inquires deeply into the big questions than he does with his Christian brethren who do not.

Secular and religious thinkers all can commend together intellectual humility, reason, open-mindedness, and dialogue in the interest of the truth; that is, we can find common cause if it is a quest, if naturalism is not the foregone conclusion to which we must all submit at the start.

And this is the problem. Maher’s supposed doubt does not go both ways. While Monton acknowledges that though he is an atheist, he is not certain about his atheism, Maher is all too certain that the totems of twenty-first century scientific materialism are beyond question. Essentially, Maher is commending doubt, disbelief actually, to religious people, and for the most part, giving a pass to himself and his fellow “rationalists”. Luskin asks Monton: “What do you think happens when a person tries to pretend that there is no reason or room for any doubt or self-introspection in their worldview?” Monton replies:

“I think that leads to dogmatism, in part, and this sort of emotional reaction to the people who are on the other side. Because, if you think that the other side has nothing going for it, you’re going to dismiss them and react badly to them… Unfortunately what I’ve been encountering lately are more atheists who seem to be completely, incredibly dogmatic about their view, and then, at least in my personal experience, I’m encountering Christians who are more sympathetic.”

Maher, regrettably, resembles Monton’s observation. The difference between Maher and Monton, I suspect, is that Monton is regularly brushing shoulders with Christian philosophers of the highest intellectual caliber, philosophers who do in fact acknowledge uncertainty and doubt about their own worldviews. For example, he cites William Lane Craig, a leading Christian apologist, who nonetheless acknowledges that “atheism is not an implausible worldview”. Let us hope that it is the likes of Monton and Craig, who do exemplify mutual respect and intellectual humility, that show us the way forward.

Here’s a fascinating new development from the world of quantum physics: physicists (based in Boulder) were able to set up a quantum system where the mechanical vibrational states of two separated systems were entangled.

Jost and colleagues entangled the vibrational motions of two separated mechanical oscillators, each consisting of one beryllium and one magnesium ion. Each pair behaves like two objects connected by a spring 4 micrometers (millionths of a meter) long, with the beryllium and magnesium moving back and forth in opposite directions, first toward each other, then away, then back again. The two pairs perform this motion in unison, even though they are 240 micrometers apart and are located in different zones of an ion trap.

To entangle the motion of the two oscillators, the NIST group first placed four ions together in one trap zone in a particular linear order (Be-Mg-Mg-Be), and entangled the internal energy states of the two beryllium ions. The team then separated the four ions into two pairs, with each pair containing one of the entangled . Finally, the scientists transferred the entanglement from the beryllium ions’ internal states to the oscillating motions of the separated ion pairs.

Here is a nice video of Timothy Williamson giving a basic yet interesting explanation of some of the problems with continental philosophy. The video was shot during his May 2009 visit to Lima, Peru.

From today’s Writer’s Almanac, by Garrison Keillor:

It’s the birthday of philosopher Bertrand Russell, born in Trellech, Wales (1872), into one of Britain’s most prominent families. His parents were radical thinkers, and his father was an atheist, but both his parents died by the time he was four. They left their son under the care of radical friends, hoping he would be brought up as an agnostic, but his grandparents stepped in, discarded the will, and raised Bertrand and his brother in a strict Christian household. 

As a teenager, Bertrand kept a diary, in which he described his doubts about God and his ideas about free will. He kept his diary in Greek letters so that his conservative family couldn’t read it. Then he went to Cambridge and was amazed that there were other people who thought the way he did and who wanted to discuss philosophical ideas. He emerged as an important philosopher with The Principles of Mathematics (1903), which argued that the foundations of mathematics could be deduced from a few logical ideas. And he went on to become one of the most widely read philosophers of the 20th century. His History of Western Philosophy (1946) was a big best seller, and he was able to live off its royalties for the rest of his life.

He said, “The time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.”

There’s a nice review of my edited collection Images of Empiricism: Essays on Science and Stances, With a Reply from Bas C. van Fraassen, in the latest issue of journal Mind. (Unfortunately the online version is only accessible by those whose institutions have an subscription.)

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