Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Can God ride a bike?

DZ Phillips says (here, which seems to be a transcript of what Phillips actually said and so captures his way of speaking quite nicely) that:
The meaning of omnipotence [according to Mackie and others], I repeat again, is the ability to do any action describable without contradiction. Now how do we know when a description of an action is contradictory? Who is going to decide what is or is not a contradiction. Well, I hope you would agree with this, you would have to look at the context of what he said. You cannot describe them; you cannot decide that in the abstract. So you have to look at every specific context to find out whether an action, proposed in that context, is contradictory or not. So if you accept that, this is the new look of logical problem of evil, someone challenging, like old Epicurus did; this is how the challenge would look. If God is omnipotent, he can do any action which is describable without contradiction in its appropriate context. Second line of attack, there are millions, millions, and millions and millions of actions describable without contradiction in their appropriate context which it makes no sense to describe God doing. Therefore, God is not omnipotent, that would be the challenge. If there are millions of actions, and don't forget we are speaking of the first person of the trinity, God the father; the incarnation brings in special problems, and we've got enough problems for one night on our hands with this topic without bringing in the incarnation. So we are talking about God the father as is the proof; God the father. So the challenge are there actions in context which you and I are quite familiar with, that we can describe without contradiction that it would make no sense to speak of God doing? There are millions of them, and I could get away with the rest of the lecture simply by going on giving you millions of examples, but just a few will do to disprove the proof. Here are some of them: riding a bicycle, licking a `Haagan-Daz' ice cream, bumping your head, learning Welsh, having sexual intercourse, forgetting things, being absent minding, you can go on forever. All those things we know those things; they are describable without contradiction. None of them makes sense when ascribed to the creator God
This strikes me as a bit confusing, perhaps even slightly confused, but interesting.

My first thought when I heard the suggestion that it is logically impossible for God to ride a bike (etc.) is that this is just false. If Jesus is God and Jesus can ride a bike then God can ride a bike. The idea of Jesus being God is an odd one, true, but would Phillips reject it? And if Jesus can ride a donkey couldn't he also ride a bike? Phillips says he is not going to bring in the incarnation, but that seems tricky to me. If we are talking about whether God can do something that requires a body then it is a bit arbitrary to refuse to consider his doing so by first occupying a body. Anyway, that was my first thought.

But then my second thought was that there is something very strange about this idea, something absurd. In what sense could Jesus ride a bike? In what circumstances might he do so? I keep picturing a challenge to God following which he proves his power by adopting human form and riding the nearest bicycle, perhaps doing some awesome tricks while he's at it. Or creating a bike and then riding that. But this is all absurd. He wouldn't do any of that. It's inconceivable.

It might not seem inconceivable because I just described it, and you could draw a cartoon of God proving the skeptic wrong in just this way. But, I want to say, precisely because of behaving in this way the cartoon would not (really) be of God. It would be of the familiar cartoon character called God. But it would not be of the God of the Bible. No one worships the cartoon character.

Phillips puts his point better in his book The Problem of Evil and the Problem of God (p. 19):
If it is logically impossible for God to ride a bicycle, that is, it makes no sense to talk of him doing so, not being able to ride a bicycle is no restriction on God's power. [Quoted from here.]
I don't like the 'logically impossible' talk because it makes it sound as though there is some identifiable thing that God cannot do, but if we stick to what makes sense then I agree that it makes no sense to talk about God riding a bike.

If I agree with Phillips after all why do I say the passage I quoted seems confusing? Part of the muddle, I think, is Mackie's. The business about incarnation also seems questionable, as I mentioned (but haven't explored) above. And then there's the talk about what God cannot do, e.g. his "not being able to ride a bike" (from the second, short passage). There is, I would say, no such thing as God's not being able to ride a bike. Rather, "God can ride a bike" makes no sense. Or perhaps better still, I don't know what it would mean to say of God that he either could or could not ride a bike.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Student evaluations of teaching

The most interesting thing about this article on the apparent worthlessness of student evaluations of teaching is the word 'even' in the sentence: "Yet conventional wisdom remains that students learn best from highly rated instructors; tenure cases have even hinged on it." 

Good student evaluations supposedly used to count against people at one research-focused university I heard about, being thought to indicate bad priorities. But at most colleges that emphasize teaching, i.e. that don't emphasize research, I would be very surprised if good teaching evaluations weren't the single most important factor in tenure decisions

Also worth noting is this comment:   
the majority of faculty are now off of the tenure track and these teachers are often evaluated only by students evaluations. This labor situation gives these faulty mechanisms incredible power and creates defensive teaching and a lack of academic freedom.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

What do we moan about when we moan about postmodernism?

Some philosophers are very dismissive of (what they call) postmodernism while others think it is unfairly dismissed, often on the basis of ignorance. If I speak dismissively of it I don't mean the work of Derrida, Foucault, or any other philosopher. I mean a kind of ideology or cloud of tendencies that seems very widespread outside philosophy. According to this (kind of) view:
  • there is no such thing as truth (or else, at least, we should not talk about truth, perhaps for some other reason, but only ever as if there are either no truths at all or else many (mine, yours, etc.)) 
  • the same goes for goodness and beauty (and probably logical validity too)
  • the purpose of education, therefore, is not knowledge of truth or appreciation of goodness or beauty but rather politics
  • one aspect of education in politics is simply coming to accept that everything is political, that belief in truth and beauty (etc.) is naive and that to think otherwise is to fall victim to someone else's power play
  • the other aspect is coming to accept that a) history, literature, and pretty much everything else show that dominant groups are (unfairly) dominant over others, and b) this is the point of studying history, literature, and pretty much everything else
Parts of this are true. Dominant groups are dominant. And this is either always or at least almost always unfair. (Murderers' being in prison doesn't strike me as unfair, but sexual and racial inequality do, for instance.) But other parts are absurd to varying degrees of obviousness. To assert as if true the claim that there is no truth strikes me as deeply problematic. Skepticism about truth (etc.) also, I think, helps right-wing extremists promote their causes. And then there is also the question of why anyone would want to study history or literature or religion or psychology or anything else if none of it is true or good and the only point of the exercise is to change your political views. Why would I want someone else to change my political views in a way that is explicitly not in the direction of truth or goodness? Why would I pay to have this done to my children? Why would governments pay for it? Why would employers want to hire people whose education had been of this kind? (I don't mean that education should be all about employability. I'm just going through possible reasons for education: to enlighten; to give students something that they want; to give students something that their parents want them to have; to give them something that the state wants them to have; to give them something that potential employers want them to have. Postmodernism as I've defined it seems to offer none of this.)

I don't know where this ideology comes from. One source seems to be scientism. Scientific claims might be true or false, the idea seems to be, but the humanities are a different kettle of fish. Here all is opinion and anything goes. Along with this is the existentialist idea that I am free, as you are too, to commit myself to anything with equal justification. It follows, of course, that racism is not actually unjust or unfair or evil or wrong, but also that we are perfectly entitled to commit ourselves to the view that it is any or all of the above. I don't know how much sense this makes, but I reject any view that denies the wrongness of racism. Nietzsche and Wittgenstein seem in some ways to be behind these ideas. Perhaps Foucault is too. But what I've read of Foucault's work is much better than this (i.e., the set/cloud of points listed above), and both Nietzsche and Wittgenstein would surely have rejected it. Variations on it, though, are very widespread, even standard, in large areas of the humanities, as far as I can tell. For instance, the religious studies course I gave up on a while ago presented a kind of relativism as a key feature of the religious studies approach to the study of religion. In The Good Story Coetzee defends belief in truth but is clearly aware that acknowledging the existence of such a thing is unfashionable, perhaps even rude:
Although, like most well brought up people nowadays, I am careful to avoid the impolite locution 'transcendent truth', I confess that privately I continue to distinguish between things that really happened in the past and things that did not really happen. (p. 74)
Coetzee is led to say this about halfway through his dialogue with Arabella Kurtz partly because she seems so deeply resistant to the idea of this kind of truth, which is not transcendent in any very mysterious way. It is simply the difference between what really happened and what didn't, between whether Don Quixote tilted at windmills or at giants. Kurtz is not alone in this resistance. It seems, as Coetzee notes, to be something people are brought up with.
I don't know whether anyone believes (or claims to believe) the full list of points, but something like it seems to lurk behind a great deal that is said and taught by a great many people in the humanities. And philosophers are kidding themselves if they think these ideas have all been put to bed. Of course, it might seem as though once an idea or set of ideas has been shown to be false or incoherent or otherwise implausible then there is nothing more for philosophers to do about it. But if the ideas won't die then someone needs to do more. This might be a difference between the idea of philosophy as something like a science and philosophy as therapy. Scientists prove and move on. A therapist's work, on the other hand, is never done.

I remember hearing years ago that even philosophers who are postmodernists dislike that label because it suggests something shallow and incoherent. So I'm curious about the relation between the postmodernism I'm moaning about and what we might call postmodernism proper. If the latter makes far more sense then perhaps the problem is less with bad philosophy and more with badly understood philosophy. In which case, what should we do? I'm still inclined to think that we should combat confusion wherever we find it, but that's much easier said than done. Perhaps it is simply that there are always people who talk as if influenced by philosophical works that they barely understand, and these people will move on to mangling other ideas soon enough. In short, I come and go between thinking there is a major intellectual crisis that philosophers ought to to ignore and thinking that there is really no crisis at all. But if I ever talk as if there is a crisis, or as if something called postmodernism is a very bad thing, then this is the kind of thing I'm talking (or moaning) about.  

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

A principle of non-contradiction

Wittgenstein once referred, perhaps jokingly, to the mistake of disagreeing with people. He doesn't seem to be kidding, though, when he talks about not wanting to deny anything when doing philosophy, of saying only what everyone admits. If we take this idea seriously then we won't want, when doing philosophy, to contradict our interlocutors. So there would be a (potential) problem with the following kind of dialogue:

I can't tell you how much this means to me/ how much I love you/ how great God is 
You just did
I suppose if the first speaker said, "Ha ha you're right" then there might not be a problem, but otherwise I think the response fails to take seriously what the first speaker is saying. It adopts, or pretends to, a kind of meta position outside that language game in order to pass judgment on, or analyse, it, while simultaneously pretending to be making a move in the same language game by contradicting the speaker with an implicit "Yes you can." The first speaker's words are taken as a unit meaning something like "This means a lot to me/ I love you a lot/ God is really great." But what if the speaker denies that that is what he/she means? It seems unWittgensteinian to me to tell them they are wrong about what they mean. Perhaps more seriously, I think it is usually false to tell them they are wrong. Usually when people say something like this there is something they cannot do. So far they have failed to find words that express their meaning to their satisfaction.

This taking of words as a unit seems like a kind of sealing to me, closing the individual words off from attention, treating them as irrelevant. Sometimes that is a good move. The other day someone asked me "What's new?" and I made the mistake of trying to tell him. All he meant was Hello. But sometimes the meanings of parts of the sentence matter.

There is what seems to me a similar kind of sealing off when a religious experience is treated as simply an experience, perhaps with an "as if of" quality about it but without any actual intentionality or content that points beyond itself. Bracketing, I suppose, is the word for this. And it's problematic, because if someone says "I saw God" they don't mean "I had an experience as if of seeing God," just as if I say "My dog is on the sofa" I (probably) don't mean "I am having a visual experience as of my dog on the sofa." I'm not saying that people who claim to have seen God must have really done so, or ought to be assumed to be saying something true. But if we take "seeing God," for example, as the name of a certain kind of experience that can be understood on its own, as if the experience itself were a kind of thing that could be studied in isolation, sealed off from everything else, then I think we go wrong. Or at least we run the risk of doing so. We are (potentially) no longer treating the words as spoken as they were meant. This is probably not a good idea if we actually want to understand them. It also suggests a bad, patronizing attitude toward the speaker, as if we know better than they do what they mean. We might in some cases, but surely shouldn't just assume that we do.

This all seemed quite simple and self-evident when I first thought about it, but writing it down has made it seem much less clear. I hope it make some sense. Just in case it doesn't, I'll try to retrace the steps that led me to these thoughts, although this risks repeating things I have already said. I have heard DZ Phillips criticized for suggesting that an apt response to a statement along the lines of "I can't say how much..." is "You just have." I don't have a reference to hand, but if he did say this then I agree that he was wrong (at least with regard to some cases). Sometimes "I can't tell you how much this means to me" means no more than "This really means a lot to me," and the word 'can't' should not be taken to refer to any inability. Instead it should be taken together with the rest of the words in I-can't-tell-you-how-much, which collectively mean something like: A lot is what (this means to me). Correct understanding depends on not breaking the 'can't' out of its implicitly hyphenated, blister-packed whole.

But not every case is like that. Words don't always come easily, if at all. Treating words as if they are always parts of  ready-made wholes misses this, leading to a superficial understanding of sentences and the people who utter them. If someone says "I can't tell you how much I love you" and you reply "I love you too" then you have failed (perhaps justly, but perhaps not) to take their words seriously.

And it seems to me that there is something similar going on when an experience that is most naturally described as an experience of God, an experience that implies that some kind of religion is true, is treated (perhaps by the very subject of the experience) as a pleasant hallucination, as something with no real implications at all. I don't mean that it is a mistake (or a crime) to treat religious experiences this way. All I'm saying is that writing off a (seemingly) religious experience as something not really religious after all is denying it the implications and the importance (the significance in two senses of the word) that it at first, when the experience happened, appeared to have. This means sealing it off from the rest of your life (instead of, say, making it the start of a new life) and treating it as a relatively superficial event. That might be the best thing to do, but it is a sealing off, a denial of significance. And that is what makes it like the "You just did" response.       

Friday, September 2, 2016

Pianalto on Patience

Shirong Luo has written a nice review of Matt's book for NDPR. Here's the bottom line:
Pianalto has done a great service to virtue ethics by reclaiming the long-neglected virtue of patience. His excellent book has thrust the virtue of patience to the foreground of the contemporary revival of virtue ethics, and will spark widespread philosophical interest in examining the nature of patience and its intricate relationship with other virtues that have long enjoyed the spotlight.