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On the intelligibility of human action, moral evil, & God’s omniscience

The Problem of Evil holds that some facts about human suffering are evidence contrary to (or in contradiction with) classical theism. Philosophers distinguish between two kinds of evil (or suffering): moral evil — the sort caused by human actions (rapes, genocides, etc) — and natural evil — the sort that are not caused by human actions (the destruction caused by storms, earthquakes, etc). It is a matter of common philosophical consensus that the latter is more difficult for the theist to explain away than the former. In the case of the former, theists typically cite the fact that God has granted humans libertarian free-will and that it is the free choices humans make — which God can neither predict nor interfere with — that explains the existence of moral evil. In the case of the latter, it is difficult to see how theists can use the free-will defense (as this argument has come to be called) without appealing to either victim blaming (van Inwagen) or demons (Plantinga).

Nonetheless, in this post, I will consider an argument for the position that the existence of moral evil cannot be explained away using the free-will defense. The choices humans make are typically intelligible to each other; but, as I will argue, this can only be so if those choices are in some sense predictable. I will then leave the theist with a dilemma: either human actions are more intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case God’s omniscience is in trouble, or human actions are less intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case the free-will defense will be in trouble.

In section VIII of the Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, David Hume considers several arguments opposing libertarian free-will. One of Hume’s arguments concerns the intelligibility of our social lives. We place expectations on each other and feel justified in holding each other to those expectations. If someone visits a far away country and returns with stories about humans behaving in ways that are too good to be true, we have reason to be skeptical. We have a mutual understanding of each other’s motivations and we find it reasonable that a good friend will not stab us unprovoked. Furthermore, Hume argues, history is only possible because humans in one place behave similarly to humans in other places. Ancient humans were not a different species from present day humans. Hume’s argument can be extended further: the only reason that the social sciences are possible is because human behavior is describable using something that at least approaches scientific laws (even if, as many philosophers of science argue, there are no precise laws in the special sciences).

None of this would be possible if humans were not predictable. The only reason that an expectation is formed within me concerning what my friends will do (or will not do) is because my experience with those friends will be repeated (in at least some sense). The reason we doubt stories concerning the too-good-to-be true individuals who supposedly occupy faraway lands is because our former experience with other humans allows us to form particular expectations about what humans will and will not do. We find our social lives to be intelligible because, most of the time, humans are not erratic. And when humans do behave erratically, it is not as though it is without cause; large differences in behavior often require large differences in causes. Sociology, economics, psychology, and the other social sciences are only possible because, at least statistically, humans are predictable. Otherwise, no experimental method could make sense of human behavior.

The free-will defense begins by pointing out that if libertarian free-will exists then there is no fact of the matter about what humans will do in the future. If there is no fact of the matter about what humans will do in the future, it is no violation of God’s omniscience for God not to know what humans will do. In comparison, no one would think that God knows triangles have six sides. No one can know that triangles have six sides because it is false that triangles have six sides and it is logically impossible to know false things to be true. Likewise, given libertarian free-will, God cannot know what any particular human will do because there is no fact of the matter about what any given human will do (just as there is no fact that triangles have six sides). There is no such fact to know.

The free-will defense continues by noting that God created humans not so that they could do evil, but so that they could freely choose to do good. A world where humans can only choose to do good, but not choose to do evil, is one in which libertarian free-will does not appear. Furthermore, a world in which libertarian free-will is absent is not as good as a world where libertarian free-will is present. Thus, as a perfectly good being, it would be contrary to God’s nature to create anything other than a world in which libertarian free-will existed. In what follows, I will grant the theist this entire picture: the only thing consistent with theism is the creation of a world in which there is libertarian free-will.

Immediately, this creates an obvious problem: we do not appear to live in a world where there is libertarian free-will. Thus, if we accept the free-will defense, then to the degree that we have scientific evidence contrary to the existence of libertarian free-will, we have evidence contrary to God’s existence. But put this to the side; perhaps the theist has some way of explaining away the existence of such evidence.

It is not at all clear to me what sort of explanation theists could provide to explain away the intelligibility of human actions, but whatever explanation they provide should be one which does not deny our experiences of our social lives or the data of the social sciences. It seems plausible that such an explanation is possible: notice that the predictability of human actions does not entail that every particular action is perfectly predictable. It remains a possibility that some actions are more likely and more reasonable than others without entailing that there is a fact about what any particular human will do in the future. Furthermore, notice that the sorts of things a particular human is likely to do most often relate to antecedent causes. For example, a trusted friend is not likely to stab me unless there is some reason that renders their action intelligible. Thus, that some humans will have a greater tendency to do good deeds (and others a greater tendency to do bad deeds) is not a violation of their free-will.

Now ask the following question: are human actions more or less intelligible to God than they are to other humans? If human actions are more intelligible to God, then God can predict with a greater degree of certainty what any particular human will do in any particular circumstance. Yet if God knows what any particular human is likely to do in any particular circumstance, God already possessed that knowledge when God created that human and, through Her providence, brought about whatever general state of affairs that human confronts. Therefore, God could have chosen to create humans who were less prone to violence, and other misdeeds, but chose not to. The Problem of Evil reasserts itself.

The only other possibility is that human actions are even more mysterious to God than they are to other humans. Yet, as an omniscient being, God’s knowledge is, by definition, superior to ours. To the degree that human actions are more intelligible to me than they are to God, I am more knowledgeable than God. This is a contradiction; thus, if the theist chooses this side of the fork, they must either abandon theism or libertarian free-will.

So I leave theists with a dilemma: either human actions are more intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case God’s omniscience is in trouble, or human actions are less intelligible to other humans than they are to God, in which case theists again face the Problem of Evil. I’m not sure this argument is completely convincing; leave me your thoughts in the comments below.

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For Objective Morality

Lydia Allan has recently posted her argument opposed moral objectivism and in favor of something that sounds like ethical noncognitivism.

I’ve written a response, available here, arguing against her view.

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On The Cosmological Argument and Libertarian Free-Will

Consider the following argument:

  1. All things which come to exist have causes.
  2. The universe came to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe had a cause.

This is one version of the Cosmological Argument (CA). Concluding that the universe had a cause, proponents of CA draw the further inference that God was the only possible cause that the universe could have had. Those who reject CA have replied that atheists can concede that the universe had a cause without conceding the existence of God. Why, for example, should we think that the universe’s cause had a mind? If one cannot conclude that the universe’s cause had a mind, CA proponents will need an additional argument to reach theism.

In order to argue that the universe’s cause has a mind, theists may appeal to the notion that minds have unique causal powers. Human minds, for example, seem to be capable of generating ideas ex nihilo. Generally: minds possess unique causal powers because minds are uniquely creative. Perhaps only a vastly powerful mind could generate the universe ex nihilo. (This may seem fairly implausible; it does to me. But put that aside.) What the theist would need to argue is that there is something qualitatively distinct about those states of affairs in which something is willed into existence from those states of affairs where events have non-mental causes, so that the universe’s generation ex nihilo can only be explained by some mechanism which possesses a will. Because only minds can have wills, a universe willed into existence must have been caused by a mind:

  1. Nothing can be generated ex nihilo except by a mind.
  2. The universe was generated ex nihilo.
  3. Therefore, the universe was generated by a mind.

For the purposes of what follows, assume that a libertarian free-will is one which is capable of making choices without any antecedent causes. As such, LFW is incompatible with determinism — the view that all events have antecedent causes — and with what I will call  “acausalism” — the view (perhaps held by Hume) that no events have antecedent causes. Furthermore, notice that if libertarian free-will (LFW) exists — and a large number of theists believe that it does — there is a good reason to think that minds have unique causal powers in virtue of their possession of a will. (For example, in a Newtonian universe, a mind that possesses a libertarian free-will would, by definition, not be bound by the laws of physics.)

I think that any argument employing a strategy of this sort is doomed to failure. The problem is that, as far as I can tell, LFW is incoherent. And if LFW is incoherent, we are left with either compatibilist free-will or with no free-will at all (hard determinism or acausalism). Under either compatibilism or hard determinism/acausalism, (4) is implausible and we are left with no way to distinguish between a universe maker with a mind and one without. In what follows, I will present an argument, inspired by Hume’s Treatise, for the conclusion that LFW is incoherent. Having argued that LFW is incoherent, I will conclude that the strategy outlined in (4)-(6) is implausible and that the atheist can concede (1)-(3) without accepting that the universe was caused by a mind.

It may seem obvious that LFW is not compatible with agents choosing to act on the basis of causes external to themselves. After all, by definition, LFW can only obtain if (at least some of) the choices that agents make do not have antecedent causes. Perhaps the motivation to perform a free action can only be generated by reasons internal to an agent.

However, consider the possibility that there were reasons that went into the decisions made by agents. In this case, the decisions agents make have antecedent causes; namely, the reasons they employed. This is worse for the case of a necessary being. Such reasons could only originate in either the essence or the mind of a necessary being. Surely, different reasons would not be available to a necessary being at other possible worlds nor would the essence of such a being be different at different worlds. Thus, a necessary being, in so far as it employed reasons, would perform the same actions at every possible world. LFW would not obtain for a necessary being acting on the basis of internal reasons.

The only other possibility is that (at least some of) the actions agents perform are not produced on the basis of reasons at all. The problem now is that it is difficult to see why such actions should be termed “choices” or even “willed”. Such actions would be random and arbitrary and, because they would not be generated by reason, would not be planned. Certainly, such actions would not be distinguishable as those of an intelligent entity.

Thus, it seems difficult to make sense of LFW. If LFW does not exist, the only other possibilities are that either (a) compatibilist free-will exists or that (b) free-will does not exist at all (hard determinism or acausalism). But both (a) and (b) imply that minds have the same causal powers as any other object. Thus, (a) and (b) imply that we should reject the notion that minds can uniquely generate ideas (or anything else) ex nihilo. (4)-(6) are left without support.

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How should one respond to the Argument from Contingency?

Consider the Argument from Contingency:

1. All contingent facts, including the existence of our universe (i.e. the continuous space-time region that we inhabit), have an explanation.
2. The conjunct of all of the contingent facts is itself a contingent fact.

3. Therefore, there is an explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts.

4. The explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts cannot itself be contingent.

5. Therefore, the explanation of the conjunct of all of the contingent facts must be a necessary fact.

6. Therefore, there exists a necessary entity that explains all of the contingent facts, including the existence of our universe.

We are supposed to conclude from this that God exists. This is presumably because God, as a necessarily existent being, is the only possible necessarily existent entity that could explain the existence of our universe. As I will explain in this post, I reject arguments of the form 1-6. (I should also note that the Argument from Contingency — or Leibniz’s Cosmological Argument, as it is sometimes called — is often expressed differently.)
My friend Z recently approached me on Facebook to ask about the Argument from Contingency. Richard Howe, from Southern Evangelical Seminary, is visiting Z’s campus and Z wanted to have a better understanding of some objections to ask Howe for his opinion on. I should note that I have not read Howe’s work (nor do I know if 1-6 is precisely what he has in mind) so I am not aware of whether or not he has considered the objections I offer in this post. Nonetheless, I thought that this would be a good time to reflect on a few of my responses to popular versions of the Argument from Contingency.

One of the first things to notice about the Argument from Contingency is that it does not support the existence of God. It supports the existence of a Necessarily Existent Something or Other that created the universe. The atheist is free to simply concede this argument entirely.

But let’s suppose that this was sufficient to show that the God of classical theism (a god with the four omni properties) existed. There are significant problems for a theology that involves a necessarily existent being. Here are a few of them.

read more »

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Thus Spake Matt Sheedy: Analytic Philosophy, Critical Theory, and the Atheism/Theism Discourse

The arguments presented in the film God’s Not Dead – and the sort of Christian apologetics with which it is associated (especially actor Kevin Sorbo’s public comments on Trunews) – are intellectually impotent. It is not difficult to find negative reviews from Christian apologists, who see their own cause undermined by such dreck (Randall Rauser, for example, states that he was “outraged” and that the film is “reprehensible”). I can think of only one reason for engaging with the film or Kevin Sorbo from an intellectual perspective: both Kevin Sorbo and the film express ideas popular among a particular demographic of evangelical Christians.

That set of ideas – that atheists secretly know God exists, that secular moral realism is an impossibility, that life without God is meaningless, and that atheists are angry, irrational dogmatists – boasts a lengthy history (longer than the history of professed atheism) and serves an important role in understanding the intellectual and cultural history of our society (even though such ideas are almost certainly – and trivially – false). For that reason, far more interesting questions can be posed concerning the God’s Not Dead milieu from a cultural studies perspective than by analyzing the associated arguments disjoint from their cultural context. The only reason I can see for doing the latter would be as a pedagogical exercise in which one instructs the public how not to make bad arguments concerning religion.

Matt Sheedy recently wrote an article for Religion Bulletin. In that article, Sheedy addresses Kevin Sorbo’s recent statement that atheists are absurd because they are angry with a god they claim not to believe in. Sorbo had gone on to claim that atheists secretly believe in God. Salon.com columnist  Sarah Gray had dismissed Sorbo’s comments as absurd and Sheedy was taking Gray to task for ignoring the relevant social context of Sorbo’s assertion:

The pithy length of Gray’s reply, clocking in at 240 words, highlights the ease with which she feels that she can dismiss Sorbo’s arguments, relying mostly on his own words to point out the absurdity of this position. While she no doubt has a point that his statement is “logically” absurd, her method, commonly associated with the analytic tradition in “Anglo-American” philosophy, is to respond from the elevated plain of rational thought, where every problem, every contradiction, can be resolved by simply pointing out where logic has gone off the rails.

Sheedy’s comments have themselves already “gone off the rails” here if he thinks that all analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy is capable of is recognizing failures to be logically consistent. More charitably, Gray’s comments should be taken as bringing into question whether or not Sorbo has any evidence for his assertion that atheists secretly believe in God (he has no such evidence). Nonetheless, we can be charitable to Sheedy and reinterpret his comments as the claim that there is more than the arguments themselves at play. The arguments might legitimize particular cultural stances and signal particular allegiances (and systematically delegitimize the stances of those atheists who criticize or question Christian hegemony). Sorbo can use “bad” arguments precisely because the content of the arguments is largely irrelevant. What is far more relevant than the logic or justifications in Sorbo’s arguments are the social processes that the arguments play a role in.

Sheedy seems to go on to say that he largely agrees with me: what is intellectually stimulating about the God’s Not Dead milieu is best understood in cultural and not logical terms.

I have to confess that I have a hard time identifying what the ultimate point of Sheedy’s article is supposed to be, but, in so far as the article aims to be an argument in opposition to analytic (or Anglo-American) philosophy, much of the article seems to be straightforwardly self-undermining. Sheedy claims that we should go beyond the approach to dialectic encouraged by analytic  philosophy because such an approach is overly reductionistic (it ignores social context). Yet Sheedy’s article itself presents an overly reductionistic view of analytic philosophy for a different reason.

In any given discourse, there will be opposing sides arguing for contrary views. In the first-order debate between atheists and theists, there are two sides which each present arguments for or against the existence of God. Kevin Sorbo is certainly not an academically respectable representative of that first-order debate, but it is not difficult to find those who are (Plantinga, Swinburne, van Inwagen, Kierkegaard, Aquinas, etc, for the theists and Rowe, Draper, Russell, Hume, etc, for the atheists).

Sheedy takes issue with the first-order discourse and sees himself as above it or outside it (atheists are “data” for religion studies scholars, the theist/atheist dichotomy is not necessary to maintain, etc). The implication of this is that Sheedy is engaged in a second-order discourse: a discourse about the first-order atheist/theist debate. In that second-order discourse, the assumptions of the first-order discourse can be brought into question (what sort of distinction should be maintained between atheism and theism?), the social context of the actors in the first-order discourse can be examined (what social pressures is Kevin Sorbo and his ilk responding to?), and the first-order discourse can be contextualized into a historical framework (Sheedy’s appeal to Hume and Preus, for example).

Analytic philosophy is perfectly capable of identifying these two kinds of discourse and presenting arguments in the two categories. It is also capable of recognizing that the first-order discourse can be undermined by the second-order discourse: an argument for the conclusion that the e.g. social context of the actors in the first-order debate undermines arguments made in the first-order debate is what analytic philosophers call an “evolutionary debunking” argument. Nonetheless, analytic philosophers routinely do something which might be anathema to critical theorists: engage in first-order debates with the assumption that evolutionary debunking arguments are not crippling.

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Aamer Rahman describes what reverse racism would actually look like

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Depression and David Hume

According to David Hume, previous thinkers had misunderstood the relationship between action and emotion (or what he called ‘passion’). While previous thinkers declared that logic and rationality alone can compel action (we can act rationally), Hume argued that only the passions were intrinsically motivating (so that, as he famously declared, reason is the slave of the passions). You can recognize the truth of any proposition whatsoever, but it will never compel you to action. Hume would tell us that Vulcans — people without any emotions whatsoever — would never actually be compelled to action. There would be no motivation to learn more, to be more logical, to suppress one’s emotions, to help others, to explore, to discover new things, or to do anything at all because an individual void of emotion is void of motivation. They would sit in one place staring blankly into the void.

But that’s what depression feels like. I can recognize all the reasons why it adversely affects me to not be responsible. I can recognize that I will continue being unhappy with my apartment if I don’t clean it. I can recognize that I will not accomplish my goals if I don’t do certain small things each day to get there. Yet unless I actually am moved to action somehow — Hume would say that a passion is stirred within me — I don’t do it.

For those who do not suffer from depression, it is easy to think that I am just being lazy. Hell, it is easy for me to think that I am just being lazy. It is also easy for those who do not suffer from depression to think of depression as sadness. But sadness I can do something about. Sadness I know how to change. Sadness is motivating.
What I do not know how to deal with are those periods when I stop caring.

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Guest Post: “Memes and Cultural Evolution” by Simon Frankel Pratt

This post originally appeared on Simon Said.

Many people are familiar with the concept of the ‘meme’: units of cultural material that are transmitted throughout populations and evolve in a manner somewhat analogous to genes. Richard Dawkins coined the term and the general idea [1], prompting some measure of scientific activity, including a journal [2], devoted to the study of memetics. However, memes and memetics never gained much traction amongst social scientists and philosophers, and ‘meme theory’ currently enjoys essentially no credibility as a scientific theory.

In this post, I will explain why that is, and I will point to some alternative, sounder approaches to thinking about and studying the way knowledge and practice diffuse and evolve throughout societies .

Evolutionary epistemology and social science seem to go well together. Theories spread, transform, grow, live and die – ‘are selected for’ – not just in science but in society as a whole. Nor is this pattern of diffusion, evolution, and selection restricted to substantive or propositional content (i.e. to claims about the world); music, language, food and fashion, technology all seem to fit this model throughout periods of history. If we want to understand why that is, we must answer two questions:

  1. What is the thing that is being transmitted/diffused, selected-for, and transformed? That is, what is the ‘genetic unit’ of cultural evolution?
  2. What mechanism(s) are responsible for cultural evolution? That is, what kinds of recurring processes lead to the units of cultural evolution spreading and changing?

Meme theorists seem to offer these answers:

  1. Memes are independent units of cultural information, such as ideas, behaviours, or theories, that move between human hosts and influence what those hosts do, thereby causing changes in their environment.
  2. Memes ‘leap from brain to brain’ [3] by somehow generating imitation.

These answers, as I will explain, are not very good.

The notion of independent, self-replicating units of cultural data is both conceptually and empirically problematic. Conceptually, it appears to rest on dubious ontological foundations; that is, it seems to be a very strange kind of thing. Memes are not cognitive phenomena, according to Dennett, although they clearly can produce something cognitive (beliefs). They are contained within human beings, and so they are not social structures or systems, unless we conceive of structures and systems in highly reductionist terms. So what are they? Perhaps they are just a convenient shorthand for a bunch of other stuff, and are not meant to refer to something real? But if that’s the case, then (i) they are not analogous to genes, which we probably think are real and (ii) we only have reason to use the concept of a meme at all if it provides considerable empirical value.

It doesn’t, though. Provide empirical value, that is. As any anthropologist or sociologist will attest, culture isn’t made up of little, discrete bits of behaviour or knowledge. It is this big, inter-subjective, inter-related mess of interacting and continually changing practices, tastes, dispositions, and interpretations oriented around social life. It exists in holistic ways, with one particular bit of culture only making any sense when placed within the context of the larger whole. It’s not just that culture could be a ‘memeplex’ [4], but that culture is a web of symbols and meanings [5] surrounding us and making us who we are even as we continually recreate it through our actions [6]. Hence dividing it into independent units deprives us of our ability to appreciate culture as something emergent, and completely ignores the way that culture is not only something that seems to dwell within us but also constitutes the actual social environment in which we live and act [7]. Whatever empirical value we get from keeping the concept of the meme must be counter-posed to the enormous empirical value we lose by adopting a concept that is unsuited for appreciating vast and relevant parts of culture and social life.

Not only that, but the mechanisms of evolution proposed by meme theorists seem either trivial or absurd. Nothing simply leaps from brain to brain; people imitate other people due to processes of socialisation and influence. These can be such things as direct peer pressure, in-group solidarity, coercion, persuasion, observation, or adaption. To name a few possible candidates. These mechanisms range from the level of individual psychology to society-level structural influences, and thus do not appear to correspond to anything remotely similar to the ways in which genes engineer the machinary of their own reproduction; again, we must appreciate cultural or social evolution by taking into account emergent structures and systemic wholes, as well as their component parts. The reductionist approach of memetics just won’t do the conceptual and empirical job.

Of course, if we were left with no alternatives, we might decide that memetics is good enough. Luckily, though, we have alternatives. Better alternatives. So many alternatives, actually, that there is a robust debate among actual social scientists over where and when one alternative is better than another for a given problem or area of social life. For example, one of the most popular approaches is to conceive of culture as made up of symbols. Associated with hermeneutic theorists [8] such as Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Weber, Clifford Geertz, and Paul Ricoeur, and semiotic theorists [9] such as Ferdinand de Sasseure and Roland Barthes, this approach offers a much more helpful way of thinking about what culture is, ontologically or cognitively. Nevertheless, this approach makes it difficult to understand how culture spreads and changes. To address this, theorists such as Anthony Giddens, Pierre Bourdieu, Margaret Archer, Jeffrey Alexander, and Charles Tilly have treated the symbolic structures of culture as existing in a mutually-constituting relationship with the individual actions and practices of people as they go about interacting with one-another and living their lives. Practices concatenate or chain together in various ways to produce emergent changes at the structural or system level, which circle back to the level of individuals as their environment changes accordingly, in a dialectic process stretching back into history.

Drawing more explicitly from evolutionary theory, evolutionary epistemologists such as Karl Popper or Donald Davidson have suggested that theories spread and are selected-for in a way somewhat analogous to Darwinian evolution, where more empirically successful (and perhaps more accurate) theories win out over less successful ones. And pragmatist philosophers such as Charles Sanders Peirce and John Dewey have used evolutionary metaphors to produce highly influential metaphysical theories [10] and theories of mind and action [11], which have formed the basis for more recent attempts to theorise change and innovation based on something like spontaneous mutation or novel synthesis, such as by Hans Joas [12].

It may seem daunting to look at this long list of names and theoretical traditions in thinking about what culture is and how it changes, but are you really going to stick with memes out of laziness? This is all material that can be covered in an introductory course in sociology or anthropology with enough detail to make it possible to talk about culture or society without resorting to unhelpful or incoherent Darwinian metaphors. And if taking such a course is not feasible, buying and reading a textbook surely is. I’ll even take questions by email.

Tl;dr almost everything conveyed by the term ‘meme’ can be conveyed by the term ‘practice’, ‘approach’, or ‘tradition’, and what cannot be conveyed with those terms can be conveyed with other slightly more complex vocabulary associated with an actually credible theory in the social sciences.

[1] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme#cite_note-cream-1

[2] http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/issues.html

[3] http://philsci-archive.pitt.edu/9912/

[4] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Memeplex

[5] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clifford_Geertz#Main_ideas_and_contributions

[6] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Structuration_theory

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Bourdieu#Field_and_Habitus

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hermeneutics

[9] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Semiotics

[10] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Synechism

[11] https://www.brocku.ca/MeadProject/Dewey/Dewey_1922/Dewey1922_15.html

[12] http://www.amazon.ca/The-Creativity-Action-Hans-Joas/dp/0226400441

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No, Greg Brahe, I do not want to discuss chivalry with you

I recently posted on my wall that chivalry is sexist and paternalistic and that men should not act chivalrous. In saying this, I do not mean that men should never hold open doors for women or that heterosexual men should never pay for their date’s meal. Instead, what I mean is that chivalry — the idea that there are particular actions and roles which men and women should fulfill in virtue of their gender — is sexist and that, often, this involves illegitimate expectations being placed on women (for example, that women are somehow obligated to sexual activity because their meal was previously paid for).

There were two reactions which this post received. My female friends were very close to consensus in agreement and the only disagreement was over some (relatively) more minor points. Many of my male friends have communicated agreement to me as well, either on the thread or in private conversations.

A few men — but Greg Brahe in particular — objected to the statement that chivalry is sexist. Recently, he has issued a challenge to debate and/or discuss this topic with me on his podcast. I have refused for two reasons:

1. I will not speak in place of a woman. This issue primarily affects how women are treated and I do not think it is appropriate for me to speak when it would be very easy for Greg to invite women onto his program to explain their experiences with chivalry and why they do not like it. The vast majority of posts in this Facebook conversation were written by female friends of mine and not by myself. While I did offer some posts, I do not see myself as a primary contributor to the conversation. One of the ways in which Greg’s behaviour was critiqued was that he was perceived as primarily responding to men and had to encouraged, multiple times, to respond to women. The fact that he levelled this challenge at me — and not at any of the women who participated in the thread — speaks volumes.

2. I do not want to enable a public platform where a group of men discuss issues that primarily affect women. Last time I checked, I am a cis person with a penis. I have not had a lifetime of experiences dealing with chivalry (and neither has Greg). Therefore, I would much rather listen to what my female friends and colleagues have to say on this topic than to voice my own opinions on it.

If there are women who are reading this post who would like to respond to Greg’s request for a debate and/or discussion, I encourage them to do so and wish them luck.

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A Priest, a Physiologist, and a Baron… and, no, it’s not a joke

My talk at the 2014 Secular Student Alliance East Coast meeting has been placed online. You can watch my talk below: