New Blog

This blog has been dormant for a while. I started a new one, at www.bikesandphilosophy.com. It’s kind of like this one, but with more bicycles. I migrated some relevant posts from this blog, but from now on I will be posting there exclusively.

Are Religious Beliefs Causes?

To answer this question, one could begin with a philosophical quandary: are beliefs of any sort causes of human action? I expect that most would answer this question with a resounding “of course,” but it is not entirely moot. Without regressing into the metaphysics of free will, the issue has to do with the basic agents of human action and societal development. Marx, for example, placed the locus of social change and indeed all of history not primarily in the hands of individual actors, motivated by core beliefs, but in social structures and material infrastructures. It is not hard to conceive of cases in which actions are not primarily motivated by beliefs, much less fundamental ones.

For example, human beings have sets of nearly automatic reflex behaviours. In these cases, beliefs are not necessary causes of action, unless we take a very broad view of what constitutes a belief. Of course, the kinds of actions that are ostensibly the result of beliefs are more complex than, say, jumping at a loud unexpected sound. But reams of empirical studies show that things like patterns of consumption, movement, diet, health, and so forth, are determined by infrastructural and economic factors, among others. And even here it is not clear if beliefs are a necessary cause for action (again depending on how we define beliefs) and they are almost certainly not sufficient in themselves.

Reciprocally, one could begin with a similarly abstract question: what are the causes of beliefs? Sociological and psychological research firmly establishes that beliefs are demographically predictable, and thus, determined in part by a wide variety of “social” (for lack of a better word) processes. The social determinism need not be due to overt forces like coercion or propaganda; the subtle cultural workings of everyday life have a discernable effect on people’s world views. In short, no matter how rational and well-established your beliefs, they are, in a sense, not entirely your own. So even if beliefs are subsidiary causes of action, the beliefs themselves might have “external” causes, so to speak.

In ever-lasting tension with these views of human belief and action is a taken-for-granted assumption that underlies nearly every extant society: human beings are capable of independent, rational thought; beliefs are at least in part a result of thought processes; beliefs cause actions; thus, people are responsible for their own actions. This is the fundamental basis for virtually all legal systems and democratic political systems. It not only expects responsibility, but garners reward: meritocracies require the assumption that success is in large part the result of individual thought and action.

This philosophical dilemma sets the stage to go about answering the title question, and indeed, why it should even be asked in the first place. Continue reading

Free Speech is a Paradox

The following statement captures an idea pervading the internet over the last few days:

“Free speech, however, is not a toy. It is a responsibility, a compact, which democracy presupposes we are mature enough to use justly. We are called on as citizens not to use our rights for bacchanals of self-indulgence and emotional expectoration, but to do the work of maintaining society. What does it mean when we see words as weapons that we have no responsibility to use ethically?”

Here the author offers a deeply normative vision of what free speech means. The crucial point being missed here is that ethics is not an absolute set of rules that we can consult to sort out what counts as responsible discourse. Whose ethics? Obviously this writer’s vision of ethics is at odds with those she critiques, and probably even at odds with those who she purports to show solidarity with. Free speech is very much about allowing for the conflict between different visions of ethics. Ethics is the source of the dilemma, not the way out.

Democracy? Pfff. Maintaining society? Get lost. See what free speech entails? There is no underlying logic to be found if we dig deeper and deeper into the notion of free speech that will bound our reasoning and discourse to ethical norms. Free speech doesn’t demand rationality and reasonableness. It allows cheap rhetoric and sophistry.

“You shouldn’t say that, it’s unethical,” is precisely the kind of self-contradictory statement that the idea of free speech simultaneously stands for and against. Free speech is paradox. Simply consider that the notion of free speech contains in it the right to advocate the abolishment of free speech.

The challenge of free speech is not to make discourse answerable to ethics, but to be able to live with a radical relativism of ideas. Even this very statement reveals the deeply paradoxical nature of free speech. Here I advocate a normative vision of free speech that differs from the one offered above. And where is ethics to help sort out this mess?

Not all beliefs can happily coexist. There is no harmony to be found. The blessing and curse of the notion of free speech is that the conflict between competing ideas and ethics is inevitable.

There is simply no inner peace, no resolution, to be found in trying to concretize the norms of free speech. The human desire to have well defined ethical principles to guide our lives is common enough, ubiquitous even. But if it is inner peace that you seek, you need to accept the imminent conflict. Embrace the paradox.

Cartoon Controversy Redux (In Memoriam Charlie Hebdo)

This was the first blog post I ever published, written almost 9 years ago in response to the Jyllands-Posten cartoons, when I was a sophomoric philosophy undergrad. Not a particularly good piece, and I’ve changed my views about particular things, but it seems depressingly relevant today.

As far as I see it there are only two possible issues worth discussing here: 1) Free speech; 2) Hate speech. But what about blasphemy, you ask? Surely that is an important issue! We’re talking about eternal salvation here!

It is only worth talking about blasphemy insofar as it helps define the limits of acceptable speech, and whether or not satirical cartoons constitute hate speech. I am inclined to think that the Muslims who are protesting the publishing of the infamous Mohammed cartoons are protesting on religious grounds, not racial. Why? Partly because it is impossible to categorize Muslims ethnically. Many Pakistanis, Arabs, North Africans, Indonesians, and others can all be categorized as Muslims, but do not share ethnic or racial commonalities. When Muslims denounce the representation of Mohammed, satirical or otherwise, they are doing so because it is blasphemous, not because it negatively depicts an ethnicity. Continue reading

Why Do Men Defend Jian Ghomeshi?

Since the bombshell about Radio Q host Jian Ghomeshi broke, I have seen a lot of predictable responses on the internet. The predictable victim-blaming, the predictable “innocent-until-proven guilty” retorts, the predictable trivializing of the issue.

Though the details of the allegations are no doubt very important, I am, like others, mainly interested in how people respond to these situations, for the responses are immensely distressing, and indeed, cases-in-point of pervasive sexism, misogyny, and dare I say it, “rape culture.” I am most distressed by the legions of men who are vociferously coming to the defence of Ghomeshi.

If you are a man and you find yourself siding or identifying with Ghomeshi, I wonder why? Is it because you can imagine yourself in a situation that you might be “wrongfully” accused of being a creep, or worse, of sexual assault or harassment? Continue reading

Agnosticism is De-facto Atheism, Continued

I started working on a reply to some of the comments of my last post, and decided I might as well as use it as an excuse for a new post.

My last post was a bit of normative philosophy. While I’m sure the point has been made elsewhere, I argued that one of the underlying assumptions of common forms of agnosticism, namely, that the non-existence of gods is something that demands proof, is logically absurd, and thus the resulting agnosticism is nonsensical. Relatedly, common definitions of atheism (as typically defined by non-atheists) are often set in contrast to such agnosticism, and thus are similarly silly.

I didn’t make a point to take a generous view of the ways that various versions of these positions play out in different social circumstances, but certainly the terms atheism and agnosticism take on different and more complex meanings for those who identify with them. The “New Atheists” are a good example of this. For them, atheism is about more than the basic non-belief in gods; it aligns with broader conceptions of rationality. I’ve written about this previously and find their notions of combating public ignorance with scientific facts wrong-headed.

The inevitable problem of trying to prescriptively define some term is that you will find that people attach different meanings to the term, and, the crucial point here, act on these meanings in different ways. Hence why terms like feminism, or environmentalism, or really any ism, are notoriously difficult to pin down. Though, incidentally, I do think that atheism as a concept is infinitely easier to make sense of than environmentalism, for example. I guess insofar as I’m interested in relatively neat normative definitions of atheism, I would say that the ways that people like Richard Dawkins act out their atheism is just extra-baggage, certainly in no way implied or necessitated by atheism per se. Or, perhaps more plausibly, atheism is merely the subsidiary. People like Dawkins, with their particular conceptions of rationality, are the kinds of people that would also be atheists. And obviously, many people self-identify as agnostics. They think it means something different than atheism. Bertrand Russell even thought it did. I don’t. Continue reading

Agnosticism is De-facto Atheism

I have long found the drawing of distinctions between agnosticism and atheism a dubious affair. Conventional wisdom has it that agnosticism involves a suspension of belief or disbelief in the existence of gods, while atheism decidedly affirms non-existence. This view was recently reinforced in a piece on Bertrand Russell by Claire Carlisle. In his essay “What is Agnosticism?” Russell defines the distinction thus:

An atheist, like a Christian, holds that we can know whether or not there is a God. The Christian holds that we can know there is a God; the atheist, that we can know there is not. The Agnostic suspends judgment, saying that there are not sufficient grounds either for affirmation or for denial.

However, despite this, Russell acknowledges that, “An Agnostic may think the Christian God as improbable as the Olympians; in that case, he is, for practical purposes, at one with the atheists.” But is there actually a theoretical difference? Are there any such atheists as defined by Russell? Even Richard Dawkins, the caricature of a “militant atheist” (a ridiculous term, of course), does not affirm the non-existence of gods, he merely argues for their extreme improbability (or, for the more likely kinds of gods, their superfluousness). While I’m sure that if you scoured the internet you could find some convenient strawmen who claim to “prove” the non-existence of gods, I have never met one. In any case, such a definition of atheism is nonsense and thus such a distinction between agnosticism and atheism empty. Continue reading