Friday, July 30, 2010

More on God and Aesthetics

Just now, as I was preparing for my fall philosophy of religion course, I stumbled across an article, Aesthetic Arguments for the Existence of God by Peter Williams, which touches on many of the same issues that we have been wrestling with here, and so may be of interest to readers of this blog.

That said, I don't think William's take on these issues is going to change anyone's views--and, I suspect, won't even do much to convince those who think this line of thinking is intellectually bankrupt to rethink the premises from which they reach that conclusion. It's more of a survey article combined with a sketch of a philosophical case than it is a rigorous philosophical argument in its own right.  But I like the taxonomy of aesthetic arguments that Williams offers (I think it would be an interesting exercise to go through the arguments that have been sketched out by commenters on my two Music and Spirituality posts, to see how they fit into this taxonomy).

I also think the article may have some value just insofar as it offers a different perspective from which to understanding the experiential starting points and assumptions that can lead someone to find a theistic worldview most conducive to making sense of beauty.

Pragmatic Value of Belief in Free Will

A friend of mine just posted a short essay on his blog that touches on some of the themes that recur here, so I thought I'd share it. The essay, Detrimental Determinism, quotes the results of a study in which participants were given essays to read about free will and determinism from a scientific perspective and then invited to perform a simple task in which cheating was possible. Those exposed to essays that argued for determinism were more likely to cheat--and the more they believed in determinism (as assessed by a questionnaire administered at the end), the more likely they were to cheat.

My friend speculates that the result would be the same if the participants were all Christians and were presented with contrasting essays by theologians who argue for and against divine predestination.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

A Decision About the Direction of the Blog

Let me begin by saying that I have been really impressed and delighted by the depth and richness of some of the recent discussions that have been taking place on this blog. The highest praise I can offer is this: it is the kind of discussion that I want my students to be exposed to (and to participate in).

And this has led me to make a decision about the direction of this blog over the coming months. My school year starts up again in a few weeks, and one of the courses I will be teaching is philosophy of religion. What I'd like to do is, for the duration of the coming semester, link this blog to that course in a deliberate way.

In other words, I will be routinely posting on topics that directly relate to current course readings and lectures, and I will be explicitly inviting my students to visit the blog. This is not to say that I will not be posting on other topics, but it is to say that I will prioritize posts that directly relate to current discussions in the course.

One implication of this decision is that pedagogical considerations will shape the character of the posts. You will likely see me devote more attention than usual to explicating the views and arguments of different philosophers and religious thinkers. I may be more judicious about when I reveal what I think on an issue (based on my sense of how such revelations are likely to impact my aim of inspiring independent critical thinking in my students*). And there are likely to be more posts that serve primarily to set up discussion questions.

Another implication of this decision is that certain promised posts (e.g., on Hegel, on philosophy of mind, etc.) may be delayed (unless I get to them before the school year starts...but given my need to prepare for the coming semester, I'm not expecting a lot of really time-consuming posts between now and then). While this is regrettable, I think that the benefits--both for my students and for regular contributors to this blog--outweigh the drawbacks.

*On this point, I've found that a balance between being mercurial on some topics and forthright about my position on others works best. When I do the former, some students feel less intimidated about sharing their own views, and it becomes easier to operate as a facilitator for discussions among students. But the discipline of philosophy proceeds by philosophers developing arguments for their own positions which they then present to others with an invitation to raise objections, challenges, and opposing arguments (and which they then defend or revise in the light of these objections). Modeling this process in the classroom (or, it seems, on a blog) is one valuable way for students to learn how philosophy works--and while I can (and do) ask students to be in the hotseat and defend their views in the light objections, I believe there are real pedagogical benefits to putting myself in the hotseat by presenting my own arguments and ideas and inviting students to act as fellow philosophers critically assessing them--at least once I'm confident that the students understand that they are supposed to challenge me, that I do not punish them for disagreeing, etc.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Buying and Selling Constraints on Academic Freedom and Integrity: The Case of BP

I just finished reading the short opinion article, "BP and Academic Freedom," published a few days ago in Inside Higher Ed. While the article has nothing directly to do with philosophy of religion (and while I'm pretty sure BP won't be knocking on my door offering me an opportunity to sell my academic soul in exchange for gobs of money), it chilled me enough that I wanted to share it here.

In brief, the article notes a recent trend on the part of BP to seek out researchers who are doing or may do work related to the oil spew in the Gulf of Mexico, and to offer them lucrative contracts--in exchange for agreeing to relinquish control of research findings and their dissemination to BP. As Cary Nelson, the author of the article, puts it:

...the work these scientists do will essentially belong to BP, which will be free to suppress it or characterize it in any way it chooses. Faculty members under contract to BP, meanwhile, would be unable to testify against the company in court and would be available to testify on the company’s behalf. Several faculty members in the area have confirmed to the American Association of University Professors that they have been offered contracts by BP in exchange for restrictive confidentiality clauses. A notably chilling provision directs contracted scientists to communicate through BP’s lawyers, thus raising the possibility that research findings will be constrained by lawyer-client privilege.
Contracts of this sort directly violate AAUP standards for corporate funding of research, which hold that no contract should restrict the free and open dissemination of research findings. Nevertheless, there are some who might say that no one is strong-arming researchers into accepting such contracts, and that if they choose to accept them they have voluntarily agreed to the contract's terms. As such, the contract terms do not violate Academic Freedom.

Is this right? I think not. Academic researchers are under enormous pressures to secure corporate funding for their research. Often, their careers depend upon it. More often than that, their ability to do the kind of research they want to do depends on it (because other forms of funding are limited). If corporations are free to put restrictive clauses into research contracts, the ultimate effect may be that the careers of university researchers will depend on those researchers giving away their academic freedom. That is, they will be forced to choose between not having jobs or the resources to do their research, and having those jobs and resources but lacking the freedom to share their findings in the environment of open and unbiased communication essential for effective science.

To avoid this outcome, the scientific community and universities must make it clear to corporations that they are not free to put such restrictive clauses into research contracts. Were universities in general to adopt clear policies prohibiting faculty from entering into such contracts, corporations that wanted to impose these kinds of restrictions would thereby be denied access to the intellectual resources universities can provide. This would likely be the most effective way to ensure that research moneys do not come with strings (and chains, and gags) attached. In this case as in others, policies that put constraints on what people can agree to actually serve the function of protecting freedom. They do so by ensuring that people don't find themselves with no real alternative but to accept a restrictive agreement.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Science of the Violin and the Subjective/Objective Distinction

Readers of this blog--especially those intrigued by the issues raised in the last couple of posts--may enjoy a recent article in Science, "Probing the Secrets of the Finest Fiddles." In it, accoustics engineer James Woodhouse is quoted as saying, "We know pretty well how to distinguish a really bad instrument from a really good one. What distinguishes a pretty good instrument from a stratospheric instrument, I think we still don't know."

What particularly interests me here is that scientists have been able to discern measurable physical properties that distinguish instruments whose tone most listeners find lovely from instruments whose tone most listeners find tinny or in other ways less than beautiful. While a similar achievement hasn't been realized with respect to the differences between good and truly great instruments, scientists are not without hope or resources for making headway.

One implication of this fact is the following: Our aesthetic judgments in this area have been shown to track scientifically measurable differences. In this respect, even if we set aside the question of whether there are any realities beyond the physical ones scientists study, it seems that aesthetic judgments can and sometimes do track differences in the physical world.

This raises some questions about the sharp line that is often drawn between "objective" and "subjective" claims. Aesthetic judgments are routinely classified as "subjective," especially by naturalists. But on naturalist assumptions, is this entirely right? After all, that an object has a certain color is usually taken to be an objective claim (asserting something about the object that is true of it), even though color is ordinarily understood to be something that exists only "in our heads." Despite this, we treat color attributions as objective because our color experiences correlate with physical realities, tracking changes in the physical world. By contrast, calling a pizza tasty is said to be a subjective claim--that is, a claim which is really saying something about the speaker rather than about the pizza.

Could it be that this distinction is far muddier than we usually treat it as being, more a matter of degree than of differences in kind, even from a naturalist perspective?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Share Links Added to this Blog

I just wanted to point out to readers of this blog that I have now added a feature which enables you to quickly and easily share blog posts you like with your friends through facebook, twitter, e-mail, etc. Look for the icons at the end of each post. If you think the post will interest (or outrage, or inspire) those in your own network, click the appropriate icon and maybe they'll join the conversation!

Music and Spirituality, Part II: The Difference Ontology Makes

My last post, which was about music and spirituality, sparked a number of thoughtful comments. As I started to respond to some of these, my response kept growing until I realized that it should be a post of its own. is Part Two, in which I want to focus more deeply on what difference, if any, our ontology makes for assessing the significance and value of our aesthetic responses to music (and other aesthetic objects, human-made and otherwise).

Let me begin by sharing my affinity for Bernard’s comment, when he expresses “great wonder in being able to create worlds through words which are then reimagined into existence in brains on the other side of the globe. I delight in this from a purely materialist point of view.” Like Bernard, I think there is something amazing about the idea that activity in my brain could produce something in the physical world—a work of fiction, say—which would then stimulate the brains of people across the world to follow patterns similar to (but not identical with) many of those that motivated the author (and many of those experienced by other readers).

But if this is right, does that mean I should be able to dispense with any non-materialist beliefs without my aesthetic experience thereby losing any of its significance? Let me put it this way. When I contemplate a world in which artists produce physical artifacts that stimulate the brains of others, producing a kind of connection and harmony among far-flung human brains—well, I find this to be a kind of meta-level artistic creation. One of the wonders of a live musical performance is that this kind of shared experience can itself become an object of experience by musicians and listeners. One gazes across the auditorium and sees feet tapping to the same rhythm as one’s own, tension building and releasing in tandem across dozens of faces, etc.

The original work of art—the musical work or the piece of creative writing—becomes an instrument for producing another work of art at a higher level, one painted on a human canvas. And this work of art is beautiful.

But the same question that we confronted with respect to the beauty of the original work arises with respect to the beauty of this meta-level creation. In what does that beauty consist? Is the beauty of this neurological interplay among different human brains just another brain response? When I call this interplay beautiful, does that simply mean that when my brain receives this interplay as input, it is stimulated to generate a certain kind of pleasure response?

More profoundly, does it matter? Does it make a difference for the significance of the statement “X is beautiful” whether my subjective response to X is produced by its beauty (and is a fitting or appropriate response to its beauty) or whether the statement just means “X produces in me (and others) a certain kind of neurological response.”

One thing we can say about the latter alternative is this: If beauty just is a neurological response (or, more precisely, if something having the property of being beautiful just amounts to it have the propensity to produce a certain kind of neurological response in human observers), then it is a contingent fact that Beethoven’s 9th Symphony is a great aesthetic work whereas my dog’s farts are not (please excuse the crudeness--my dogs have been eating something recently that made this example leap to mind).

What this contingent fact is contingent upon is what our human neurological wiring happens be. Had human brains been wired differently, so as to generate the kinds of responses to canine farts that Beethoven’s 9th tends to produce and vice versa, then—by virtue of brain wiring—it would be true that canine farts are things of sublime beauty whereas Beethoven’s 9th is not.

And it would follow, furthermore, that there would be nothing deficient or defective about our brain responses in this hypothetical state of affairs. That is, we could not rightly say that brains wired in this way are less discerning than brains wired in the other way (in the way that we could, for example, say that brains which fail to distinguish between fresh milk and spoiled milk are deficient in their capacity to discern significant truths about the world).

Let me summarize my point in the following way. Consider this claim: “Beethoven’s 9th symphony is a sublime aesthetic achievement worthy of Beethoven’s labors, and if our brains were wired such that we found more of aesthetic value in sniffing dog farts, then our brains would be deficiently wired.” This statement is true only if there is more to beauty than a certain kind of neurological response. If “beautiful” just means “apt to produce X kind of neurological response,” then the claim is false (because in that case alternative neural wiring could never lead to deficiencies in aesthetic discernment, and certain kinds of alternative wiring would entail that Beethoven’s efforts become aesthetically fruitless—akin to the compositional efforts of my tone deaf friend from high school—without there being any change in the actual substance of what he produced).

Now I’m pretty sure that if reductive materialism is true, then we must accept all of these implications. But I’m also pretty sure that these implications are not trivial—that they do have an impact on the significance of what is going on between artists and their audiences. If these implications are right, and there were some drug that could mimic the neurological effects of exposure to a flawless performance of Beethoven’s 9th, then wouldn’t the act of administering the drug have a comparable aesthetic significance as the act of putting on a flawless performance of Beethoven’s 9th?

Perhaps there is a difference insofar as the performers undergo neurological events that aren’t repeated when the drug is administered on the would-be audience. But then suppose there’s another drug that could produce in the would-be musicians the relevant neurological outcomes.

One might point out that administering these drugs severs the neurological activities associated with our encounter with a flawless performance of Beethoven’s 9th from the actual human effort that ordinarily goes into such a performance—the hours of individual practice and collective rehearsal, not to mention the investment of energy and attention during performance. One might suppose (and I think this is true) that the aesthetic “payoff” is cheapened if cut off from that effort—that there is something valuable about these aesthetic payoffs being the result of the cultivation of human talents and the collective effort to channel those talents together into a great performance.

But when we say it is valuable that these things--artistic effort and aesthetic payoff--be linked, what do we mean? The value of connecting effort with a certain kind of outcome is not a physical property of that connection, measurable with scientific instruments, etc. And so materialism cannot treat that value as a property of the connection. It has to treat it as nothing more than a subjective response to that connection. And if subjective responses are nothing more than neurological responses, the value of this connection just is another neurological response.

And so, once again, what if there were a drug that could produce that response? Of course, there isn’t. But the point is that if there were, the reductive materialist could offer no reason to favor a world in which musicians cultivate their talents and put on a great performance over a world in which the right drug cocktail is administered instead. The materialist cannot offer any such reasons because the offering of such reasons requires that there be objective values—aesthetic and other kinds of values that aren’t just “in our heads.” (I think this line of thought has bearing on issues of free will as well, but I won’t pursue that here).

Of course, the reductive materialist can still point out that, as a matter of contingent fact, we don’t have the hypothesized drugs. And so, in the real world, the desired neurological effects will be achieved only if actual musicians take up their instruments, work hard, and put on a performance before an appreciative audience. Since the desired effects really are highly desired and appreciated by many, this means that the work of musicians and other artists has real significance in the actual world, even if materialism is true. But my point is that, given reductive materialism, there is nothing about a great performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony that makes it true of that performance that it is has aesthetic merit. The aesthetic merit is purely a brain event, which can hypothetically exist even in the absence of the work of art.

Now, obviously, none of this is an argument for the existence of God. At most, it is an argument in support of looking for some coherent alternative to the reductive materialist account of aesthetic value. But whether it is even that much is open to dispute. What I have most directly aimed to do here is point out that the reductive materialist account has implications for our understanding of aesthetics that I (and others) find both counterintuitive and personally troubling. These troubling implications can be avoided only if we assume that aesthetic judgments have an objective truth value—that is, only if they are true or false apart from what is going on in our heads. And it is hard to see how they can have such a truth value if we accept a materialist ontology.

While this helps to explain why I am drawn to alternative ontologies—why I might “root for them,” so to speak—can it have any bearing on what it is reasonable for me to believe?

As has been pointed out before, one cannot conclude that an ontology is false just because one finds it to be troubling or counterintuitive. That is, true statements are often personally troubling, and our intuitions can deceive us. But, as has also been pointed out before, there is a big difference between a holistic interpretation of experience and a specific hypothesis about the world of experience for which specifiable standards of evidence are clearly applicable. Among other things, one’s holistic interpretation of experience plays a crucial role in determining which of our experiences are to be treated as having the veridicality necessary for counting as evidence. As such, when we go about deciding on a holistic interpretation of experience, any attempt to do so by first settling on specific criteria of evidence will beg the question (because we will thereby implicitly embrace a holistic interpretation of experience in advance).

So how do we approach the task of deciding among such holistic interpretations, if any standard of evidence we invoke for doing so is necessarily going to beg the question? As I have alluded to before, Hegel offers an approach that I think is quite brilliant (even if his own application of that approach was, in my judgment, fatally infected by arrogance)—an approach which proposes that we tentatively “put on” or try out a holistic framework with its standards of evidence and see where it takes us. His presumption is that an inadequate framework will encounter deep problems of various kinds (which he collectively calls “contradictions”). We should then revise the framework to overcome these problems and try out the new and improved framework to expose its problems. And so on.

I will develop these ideas more fully in a later series on Hegel. For now, I just want to note that in this methodological approach, our intuitions as well as an awareness of where we cry out in protest against a framework’s implications can and do play a role.

One last point deserves mention. An important reason why many insist that aesthetics is ultimately all in our heads is because they believe that treating aesthetic claims as objective makes no sense. And the reason why they think this is because they implicitly or explicitly accept the core thesis of logical positivism, which holds the following:

“In order for a proposition to be a meaningful statement (that is, a statement with a truth value), it must either be an empirically testable claim (a claim such that the world would be different in empirically discernible ways were the claim true than it would be were the claim false) or an analytic one (one that asserts a logical relationship among concepts).”

I will hereafter refer to this as the "Logical Positivist Thesis." If this Logical Positivist Thesis is embraced, then aesthetic judgments will be meaningful only if they are understood to be saying something about what is going on in our heads. Why? First of all, because aesthetic judgments are not analytic, and so (given the Logical Postivist Thesis) in order to be meaningful they need to be empirically testable. But, to put it loosely, no scientific instrument could measure how many turps of beauty are contained in Beethoven’s 9th. If beauty is a property of the symphony, it’s not an empirical one. Since Logical Positivism has no room for the meaningful attribution of non-empirical properties, it must either dismiss aesthetic judgments as meaningless or identify them with something that is empirical. Neurological activity is empirical, and it does correlate with judgments of beauty (that is, those who experience what they take to be beautiful have something going on in their heads that is empirically different from what is going on in the heads of those who are smelling dog farts). And so the identification is made.

The big problem with this entire line of thought—one I’ve pointed out before—is that the Logical Positivist Thesis is self-referentially incoherent: it’s neither empirically testable nor analytic. And so, if we accept it, we must reject it. It is one of those principles which absolutely cannot be true. And this means that there must exist meaningful (true and false) statements that are neither empirically testable nor analytic.

In short, it is necessarily true that there exists a class of meaningful propositions (propositions which have a truth value) which are not reducible to empirical or analytic propositions. There must be true propositions that are not just matters of how ideas are related to each other, and are not empirically testable statements about the material world.

Perhaps aesthetic propositions fall into this class.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Music and Spirituality: Reflections in the Aftermath of a Recital

For the last month—amidst vacationing and writing book proposals and attending funerals—I’ve been practicing my violin up to three hours a day in preparation for a chamber music concert here in Stillwater. The concert, which took place this weekend, featured two important works in the history of chamber music. Both pieces speak to me powerfully in different ways—and I cannot help but believe, especially when I immerse myself in music the way I get to do only for short periods each summer—that music does more than just appeal to our biological affinities and cultural conditioning; that, in fact, it helps to put us in touch with some truth that defies human language.

The first piece of music we performed the other night was Mozart’s Divertimento—a trio for violin, viola, and cello that has the distinction of being called by Albert Einstein the most perfect trio ever written—as well as the distinction of serving as the model for Beethoven’s first efforts at string composition. Apparently Beethoven didn’t feel ready to compete with Mozart and Haydn in the string quartet genre, and so he cut his teeth on the trio form, using Mozart’s Divertimento as a template for producing a series of wonderful trios of his own (two of which I performed last summer with the same “Cimmeron String Trio” that reassembled this year for the Divertimento). Only later did Beethoven feel confident enough to turn to the quartet, of which he ultimately proved himself the master. (Back in college I wrote a paper on Beethoven’s string quartets because I was so taken with them—especially the late quartets, which I am convinced remain the pinnacle of achievement in the form).

The second piece we performed, with the addition of three more instrumentalists, was the Brahms Sextet. Interestingly, Brahms didn’t feel ready to compete the Beethoven in the string quartet genre. But instead of doing what Beethoven did—write for a small ensemble—Brahms wrote for a larger one (a move more suited to Brahms’ lush style). The resulting sextet is an unapologetically romantic piece of music that is wonderfully inventive and, for that reason among others, devilishly difficult to play well.

As with Mozart in general, the Divertimento possesses a kind of purity and clarity that makes one wonder whether the entire work might not be somehow explicable in terms of a single, elegant mathematical formula. This is not to say it’s formulaic. There is much to surprise the listener (and performer), as well as much to delight. While Mozart followed (and invented) distinct musical forms, he was also willing to stretch them and play with them in novel ways. But when Mozart has the violin play these madly rushing sixteenth note runs, it takes me relatively little practice time to master them. It’s as if every note is exactly the one that is supposed to come next, even when it modulates into a different key partway through the run--and so my fingers just seem to fall into the flow of the notes.

By contrast, a substantially slower triplet run in Brahms takes weeks of practice to master—and even then my fingers are likely to betray me in performance. In part this is because the sequences are less predictable, in part because there are leaps calling for abrupt shifts from one violin position to another. But even so, once one grasps and internalizes what Brahms is doing in one of these triplet runs, it makes sense somehow—it couldn’t be any different than it is and still achieve what Brahms achieved with that particular combination of notes and rhythm.

It’s as if both composers are describing something about reality—but what they have chosen to focus on, the “stories” they have chosen to tell, are different in important ways.

There are those who will say, of course, that the story they are telling has to do entirely with how our brains are wired. Our responsiveness to music, our wonder and delight and anguish as we hear or play a soaring passage on the violin or a resonant, crying melody on the cello—this speaks to discoveries about our brains, discoveries made on an intuitive level by musicians and composers. They have discovered, in effect, that this harmonious combination of notes will resonate in some special way with hard-wired features of human psychology, whereas that dissonance and resolution will trigger a different kind of response—corresponding, perhaps, to what occurs in our brain when we are thirsty and then get something to drink. This, they will say, is what music amounts to: human beings stumbling into the discovery that certain combinations of sounds and rhythms interact with certain features of human brain wiring in predictable and repeatable ways, so as to enable composers and musicians to influence mood and emotion and so communicate feelings without words.

In fact, I think that on a certain level all of this is right—that, in effect, the greatest composers have found ways to express with sounds certain truths about the human brain. The question is whether this is all that is going on. And when I am confronted with this reductionistic thesis, the musician in me cannot help but rebel. In fact, I wonder if my attraction to the notion of transcendence, as well as my affinity for religion in its more mystical and experiential forms, has part of its roots in my lifetime love affair with music. Before I ever dreamed of becoming a philosopher I was a violinist—not exactly a child prodigy, but a talented young musician who seriously considered a career in music, choosing to attend the University of Rochester primarily because of the Eastman School of Music (where I took lessons throughout my college career).

In music I experience something that doesn’t fit readily into the categories permitted by reductive materialism. Or perhaps it is better to say that materialism would force me to explain away something that seems in the moment to be an encounter with a profound truth that defies words. And the musician in me says no--the musician who, this past weekend, exhausted himself in a joint creative effort with several other talented amateurs (and two brilliant composers long dead), muscling through a sore back and heartburn and aching finger joints, entering into the last movements of the Brahms with almost nothing left to give—lifted out of body aches and trembling limbs by a moment of lush unison playing with the cello, or by an exquisite passage in the final movement of the sextet, when the melody is recapitulated in two-note fragments passed around among different instruments.

That musician cannot but believe that, in the words of the great 19th Century German philosopher Hermann Lotze, “what is so fair and full of significance cannot be an accidental product of that which is without significance, but must be either the very Principle of the world or closely related to its creative principle.”

Of course, many will point out that my longing for music to be something “more” doesn’t amount to evidence. Brain chemistry might not only explain the effect music has on people, but also my subjective sense that music puts me in touch with some feature of reality I cannot access in empirical ways. Some critics are even likely to say that there is something pretentious about believing music to be the language of the transcendent: I want something to be the case because it makes my efforts as a musician more significant.

But this last criticism gets things backwards, I think. It’s not that I'm trying to invest my efforts with greater significance by believing that music puts us in contact with some ineffable truth. Rather, I am inspired to engage in these efforts—to practice until my fingers are raw, to put everything I have into an unpaid performance with other amateurs—because I sense in a deep way the significance of what the music has to say.

If I didn’t believe in my bones that music touched on something profound, I wouldn’t bother with it. Every summer a part of me thinks I’m crazy to work that hard for one evening in front of a hundred people. And every year I return to the effort—drawn by something beyond myself, something that seems real and true, something that, through music, I can touch in a mystical way. When I hear about the transcendent experiences of Simone Weil and other mystics, I have a glimmering of what they’ve been through because of music—because, in moments of intense engagement with music, I come close to touching what they have touched.

Believing in the transcendent significance of music is in this sense pragmatically fruitful. It motivates me to do what I otherwise would not do, to work for what I otherwise wouldn’t work for. And when I do that work, I feel moments of connection with something greater than myself. And so my belief is deepened, and its pragmatic power enhanced.

The question is what that means. Does the pragmatic value of a conviction, along with the ineffable sense of its confirmation in human activity, speak to the conviction’s truth? Or are such pragmatic considerations irrelevant when it comes to the matter of truth? Do the deep longings of our souls suggest the tug of something beyond us, the way that the pull on an iron rod speaks to the presence of a magnet?  Does our sense of music’s significance us give any reason to suppose that it is anything more than a by-product of that which is meaningless and dead?

I’ve articulated my own answers to these questions a bit more formally elsewhere on this blog—for example here. For now, I simply want to raise the questions in a way that, I hope, reveals why I don’t think the answers are obvious—and in a way that I hope invites reflection and debate among readers of this blog.

Let me close with the words of one of my favorite authors, who found in music something very close to what I discover there. So here they are, the words of Kurt Vonnegut:

"If I should ever die, God forbid, let this be my epitaph:




I haven't checked to find out if that became his epitaph in truth.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

A Case Study in How NOT to Conduct Informative Surveys

I'm taking a break from philosophy of religion issues to briefly comment on a different issue that recently caught my attention. Next week, when I have more time, I'll put up the promised post on philosophy of mind issues.

Recently, a bit of a splash was made by the reported results of a survey conducted by economists Zeljka Buturovic and Daniel Klein. The survey asked several thousand non-economists to indicate whether they agreed or disagreed with eight economic statements. They were also asked to identify their political leanings. The purported aim of the survey was to correlate lay economic knowledge (that is, knowledge among non-economists) with political leanings—and the reported result was that liberals are in general far less knowledgeable than conservatives on these matters.

The survey measured, not the frequency of correct responses, but the frequency of incorrect ones (in other words, “Not sure” results were treated the same as correct responses). A response was judged incorrect if the respondent “somewhat” or “strongly” disagreed with a statement regarded as true by economists, or if they “somewhat” or “strongly” agreed with statements regarded as false (only statements enjoying a broad consensus among professional economists were used). The result? The more conservative you identified yourself as being, the fewer you got wrong. The more liberal you identified yourself as being, the more you got wrong.

Well, this result immediately made me suspicious—as it did to ianstoner, a contributor to The Philosopher’s Eye, who pointed out in a short blog post the substantial gap between the narrow technical meanings that economists attach to many of the words used in the survey and the more normative meanings that lay people attach. He paid particular attention to one of the statements in the survey, which reads as follows:

“Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited.”

According to economists, this statement is false. Why? Because Third World workers employed by American companies overseas are economically better off on average than their peers. When economists say there isn’t exploitation taking place, that is all they mean. But ianstoner notes that this decidedly isn’t all that most of us mean when we use a term like “exploited,” since in ordinary usage “you can’t weigh in on this proposition without taking a stand on the standards of living that people in developing countries deserve when they’re working for American corporations.” In other words, if you think these workers are getting less than they deserve, you might be inclined to say they are being exploited even if you know full well that they are better off than the impoverished masses who are digging around in garbage heaps for some useful scrap they can barter for food.

In fact, however, “exploitation” has even more meanings than this. While some would define exploitation in the manner ianstoner favors, I tend to construe exploitation as taking advantage of someone’s desperate circumstances. Imagine someone who goes into a country afflicted with desperate poverty and, seeing an opportunity for personal gratification, offers money and food to a desperate young mother without the resources to feed her infant—if she agrees to have sex with him. Has he exploited her? If, by “exploitation,” you mean “taking advantage of someone’s desperation to get them to serve your desires,” then he has absolutely exploited her. And this remains true even if she ends up better off economically than those starving mothers who didn’t have the “good luck” to come across lascivious foreigners eager to make use of them.

In any event, this sample survey question got me interested in knowing what else was included in the survey. So here are the eight statements respondents were asked to assess:

1) Mandatory licensing of professional services increases the prices of those services (true according to economists). 2) Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago (false). 3) Rent control leads to housing shortages (true). 4) A company with the largest market share is a monopoly (false). 5) Third World workers working for American companies overseas are being exploited (false). 6) Free trade leads to unemployment (false). 7) Minimum wage laws raise unemployment (true). 8) Restrictions on housing development make housing less affordable (true).

In looking at these statements, I see an overall trend. In general, those who self-identify as liberal tend to be more suspicious of unregulated markets. They worry about the ways in which businesses might take advantage of ordinary people who need the jobs, goods, and services that businesses provide, as well as about the effects of unregulated business practices on the environment. For these reasons they tend to favor greater government oversight and regulation of business practices.

Conservatives, by contrast, tend to trust the free market more and the government less, and so are presumptively suspicious of government regulation.

But here’s the problem. If you look at the eight statements above, you find that when some kind of regulation of business is featured in a “true” statement, it is correlated with a negative economic fact. When it is featured in a “false” statement, it is correlated with a positive economic fact. In other words, the statements are structured so as to appeal to the prejudices of conservatives while grating against the prejudices of liberals. Perhaps one reason why conservatives scored higher than liberals is because a majority of the questions were geared to appeal to conservative biases. It wasn’t that the conservatives “knew” some economic fact that the liberals didn’t know. Rather, it was that the conservatives liked the true statements and disliked the false one, while it was the reverse for the liberals.

Of course, as one of the survey’s creators, Daniel Klein, has noted, not all the survey questions fit this account. Take, for example, number 2: “Overall, the standard of living is higher today than it was 30 years ago” (a purportedly true statement). Here, it may be worth knowing when the poll was administered: December 2008. George Bush was still in office and the economy was in crisis. Liberals were inclined to say, “See what the Republican policies of deregulation have done? Our country has been driven to the brink of ruin!” Republicans were inclined to be more defensive of the current state of affairs. Again, pre-existing biases might lead liberals and conservatives to make different assessments of this statement regardless of how much or little they “know” about the economy.

Of course, there’s also the question of what is meant by “standard of living.” Economists will give this term a strictly monetary meaning, but the general population will have a vaguer understanding in terms of broad life values. If liberals and conservatives have different values, they’ll likely reach different answers even if they agree on the facts.

As to question #4, this is about the technical meaning of “monopoly.” Klein noted that liberals were more likely to get this wrong than conservatives. But what does that show? That conservatives have broader economic knowledge? Or that conservatives were more likely to enjoy playing Monopoly as kids, while their more liberal friends were playing Scrabble?

In any event, it is clear that this is a pretty lousy study, and that nobody should, on its basis, conclude that conservatives know more about economics than do liberals.

Monday, July 12, 2010

I'm BAAACK...and gone.

Although I arrived safely home from my vacation yesterday, I have to leave town again today for a funeral and will have even less computer access (that is, none) than I had on vacation. When I get back I'll be devoting my time entirely to rehearsals for a chamber concert at the end of the week, so there will be no new posts (and very little opportunity for me to chime in on discussion threads) until next week.

In the meantime, it seems as if the regular contributors to my blog are having a really thoughtful, generally respectful, and important philosophy of mind conversation over on the discussion thread for the last installment of my Naturalism blog series. Visitors to this blog are encouraged to expore that discussion thread, which appears to still be expanding daily even in my absence. When I return to my computer, my priority (besides finishing up a book proposal) will be to offer a post on the philosophy of mind which can draw together some of the themes of that discussion thread and hopefully spark further thinking about the relevant issues.

Sunday, July 4, 2010

A Certain Ambiguity

I just finished one of the books I brought along for pleasure-reading during my vacation: A Certain Ambiguity, by Guarav Suri and Hartosh Singh Bal. The book touches on so many of the themes that weave through my own life and philosophical work, as well as the discussions that keep recurring on this blog, that I would recommend it to anyone who finds the issues on this blog captivating.

It is a mathematical novel—one that weaves the philosophy and history of mathematics into a story about the efforts of Ravi, an Indian college student, to understand a transformative episode in his beloved grandfather’s life (and in the process to chart the course of his own life). The mathematical dimensions of the book are captivating in their own right. Reading the book is like having an impassioned math teacher right there with you, inviting you to be as excited as he or she is about Cantor’s proofs of degrees of infinity, or the struggle to prove Euclid’s “fifth postulate” from the other four (and the subsequent emergence of non-Euclidean geometry).

But on a deeper level the book is about the light that these mathematical insights sheds on the prospects (and elusiveness) of certainty, humanity’s quest for meaning, and the complex relationship between religious faith and the kind of intellectual virtues cultivated in mathematics (and other disciplines).

At the heart of the story is the narrator’s discovery that his grandfather, a mathematician named Vijay Sahni, was arrested while visiting a small New Jersey college town in 1919. The charge against him? Blasphemy. For reasons I won’t get into, the young Vijay is motivated to get up in a public forum and discuss the absurdities of Christianity—an act that so offends the community’s sensibilities (after they had gone to such lengths to be hospitable to this strange foreigner!) that he is arrested the next day.

Of course, the New Jersey blasphemy law under which the visiting “Hindoo” is charged does not quite sit comfortably alongside the Constitutional guarantee of free speech, and there is pressure from more progressive voices for the governor to step in and dismiss the charges. The resulting clash of religious conservatives and more progressive constituencies puts the governor in a difficult political situation—one he seeks to extricate himself from by passing the buck.

He does so by sending a respected, conservative judge—a religious man named John Taylor—to review the case and make a legal recommendation concerning whether the case should proceed to trial. The judge decides he needs to interview the foreign blasphemer—and the transcripts of those interviews, along with other relevant documents and newspaper articles that the grandson Ravi uncovers over the course of the novel, tell a story about two intelligent men, one an atheist mathematician from India, the other a Christian judge from America, who form a bond of mutual respect and friendship as their exchanges become about far more than whether Vijay should be put on trial.

Judge Taylor has his own distinctive notion of how and when the blasphemy law can apply without violating the right of free speech—but to make a judgment, he needs to interview the prisoner to discern his motives. Since Vijay claims him motives are rooted in mathematics—more specifically his conviction that mathematics offers the model for how we should go about forming our beliefs—the judge ends up getting an extended lesson in Euclidean geometry. As Vijay's grandson, Ravi, is working his way through these transcripts, he is taking an introductory mathematics course on infinity—in which he is introduced to set theory, including Cantor’s proofs that while the infinite set of integers is equal in cardinality to the infinite set of rational numbers, the infinite set of real numbers has a higher cardinality. In other words, there are degrees of infinity. In fact, there are infinitely many degrees of infinity.

As the story evolves, the sticking point of Euclidean geometry—the fifth axiom, which is more complex than the first four and doesn’t quite seem as if it should be an axiom at all—becomes connected to the sticking point of Cantor’s mathematics—the so-called Continuum Hypothesis, which hold that there is no (infinite) cardinality greater than that of natural numbers but less than that of real numbers.

In both cases, the contested principle defies proof but seems right to many. And yet, when the contested principle is rejected and its negation is assumed, no contradiction emerges. A whole vista of alternative mathematical systems arises instead, depending on what you take to be axiomatic.

And then, of course, the timing of Vijay’s imprisonment takes on meaning. In one of the final documents Ravi uncovers, Judge Taylor and Vijay come face to face with Einstein’s confirmation, in 1919, that space does not conform to Euclidean geometry—that is, it does not fit with the geometry that arises when we accept Euclid’s apparently self-evident fifth axiom (which can be formulated in numerous ways, but is perhaps most simply expressed with the statement that given a line and an adjacent point, you can only draw one line through the point that is parallel to the adjacent line).

What arises is a story about the quest for certainty—for knowledge that can be founded on indubitable starting points—and the epistemic struggles of human beings to figure out what to do when apparently self-evident starting points turn out not to be self-evident after all. What does it mean for human life, for our struggle to understand our world, that we can construct equally coherent geometries or set theories (or interpretive worldviews) out of alternative starting points?

In a concluding story (told through Judge Taylor’s person journal) about the reunion of Vijay and Judge Taylor in 1930, when the judge travels to India to visit the friend he’d made in a prison cell, the still religious judge at one point asks Vijay whether he now believes in God. Here’s the response:

He smiled and shook his head. “No, Judge, that is not in my nature.” He then paused, looked me in the eye, and said, “But I can understand why someone might.”

In a way, this response captures the essence of what I’m about in my philosophical work. While not every “axiomatic system” is consistent or provides an adequate template for understanding our lives and our world, our epistemic situation does not allow us to settle conclusively on just one. Some of us gravitate towards a system of one kind, while others gravitate towards another. It is often hard, once we are enfolded within a functioning axiomatic system, to see it as anything other than the indubitable truth, and to see those who disagree with it in favor of an alternative system as deeply misguided, as caring more about psychological comfort than about truth, or as indoctrinated by some cultural ideology. But while these psychological forces are often at the root of our outlooks, the reality of our epistemic situation is much more complex than the way it appears to be from the vantage point of one particular axiomatic system.

My hope, in the grand scheme of things, is that we will come to see this complexity, and so, in the process, be able to say of those who see the world differently, “It is not in my nature to look at things that way, but I can understand why someone (a reasonable person) might.”

In any event, I recommend the book to anyone interested in these issues.(My copy is from an Indian friend, but it looks as if an American edition will be released at the end of this month).

Friday, July 2, 2010


While I'm not in the habit of extending much if any credibility to horoscopes, I suppose it goes without saying that those born on this date (especially if their birth occured in the 1960's) enjoy a special place in the pantheon of humanity. They tend to exhibit an array of great-making properties--and one in particular to a degree not exhibited by others. Specifically, they possess that remarkable trait of being born on July 2nd. In fact, I would go so far as to say that this enviable trait is totally absent from the rest of the population (surely a source of distress and inevitable jealousy for the unfortunate masses).

Thankfully, I am not among the deprived majority, at least on this front. And so I will spend today expressing my gratitude, primarily by going on walks in the pleasant northeastern sunshine, hugging my kids, eating lobster, and drinking margaritas (but probably not all at the same time).