Friday, October 29, 2010

Utilitarianism and Voting

It’s voting season again, and to celebrate I’m going to pretend I’m a utilitarian and give you a straightforward argument for the conclusion that you shouldn’t bother going to the polls. (Roughly speaking, a utilitarian believes that the right action is the one that produces the most overall happiness. Rightness of action depends purely on the consequences.) Here’s the argument: your vote doesn’t make a difference. It never has, and it never will. You and the world would be better off if you spent your time doing something more productive, so that is exactly what you should do.

“What do you mean?” I hear you asking. “Don’t you remember the 2008 election, where Al Franken won the Minnesota Senate seat over Norm Coleman by a mere 300 votes, out of millions of votes cast? As many people said at the time, this just proves that every vote matters!”

Well, no, it doesn’t. If you voted for Franken, then your vote meant he won by one more vote than he would have otherwise, while if you voted for Coleman, your vote meant he lost by one less than he would have otherwise. If you hadn’t voted, the consequences would have been exactly the same. There probably hasn’t been a large-scale vote in the history of democracy that was decided by one person, and chances are there never will be.

“Yeah, but if everyone listened to that reasoning and didn’t vote, the consequences would be terrible.”

True, but the fact is, not everyone is going to listen to that reasoning. (Although maybe it would be best if I kept my anti-voting arguments to myself, since broadcasting them could have just those bad consequences. It would be bad if the masses believed as I do.) And anyway, if most people were to listen and not vote, then your vote would be more likely to make a difference, so then you probably SHOULD vote. But since you know that is not going to happen, you should stay away from the voting booths and spend your time more productively.

OK, I’ll stop pretending to be a utilitarian. If you reasoned like a utilitarian, you would probably conclude that you shouldn’t vote, or at least that you have no reason to vote. The problem is that morally speaking you really ought to vote. I think that gives us a powerful argument against utilitarianism. But it raises the question: why is it the case that you ought to vote even when your vote won’t make a difference?

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

I learn everything from Star Trek

I recently had a fun discussion with some philosophy students about personal identity and the deeply held (but perhaps incorrect) intuition that spatio-temporal continuity is relevant to conditions for persistence.

I find that pop culture, especially of the science fiction variety, is such a wonderful cultural-encylopedia of reference for testing our intuition pumps. I mean, what else is pop culture but a seedbed of thought experiments?

I asked them if they ever feel robbed when watching Star Trek.

What I mean is this. Whenever someone goes through the miraculous transporter (e.g., convert Spock into energy pattern and re-materialize/re-realize in another location a few moments later), very rarely do viewers, philosophical or otherwise, experience a bait-and-switch in view of the spatio-temporal discontinuity. Rarely do we say to ourselves, “Geesh, that’s not Spock,” simply in virtue of the transporter-process.

I’m sure that this doesn’t cut that much ice in terms of the actual arguments about personal identity, persistence, and spatio-temporal continuity.

It does show, however, that deeply held intuitions may vary not just from one person’s mindset to that of another but from context to context in the very same person’s mindset. Possible lesson: metaphysical intuitions might be about as good as hunches or prejudices.

Letting go of the spatio-temporal continuity hunch in the discussion about personal identity invites all sorts of puzzles about personal identity, but not any genuinely new ones that don’t already exist.

The advantage for those who are both religiously inclined and physicalist (i.e., no such things as immaterial souls) about the nature of human persons is that this (i.e., letting go of the intuition in question) carves some conceptual space for still holding to a traditional Christian doctrine of resurrection, sans immateriality. After all, if spatio-temporal continuity is overrated, it doesn’t matter whether the discontinuity lasts a micron or an aeon.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Brilliant Christian Professors

Follow the link below to see a list of "the 20 most brilliant Christian professors." The list seems fairly reasonable to me, though it could certainly use a few more philosophers! Alvin Plantinga is on it, as he should be; but I'd say Nicholas Wolterstorff deserves to be there, too. In any case, it's an impressive collection of scholars! (Thanks to Chris L. for posting this on his facebook page. I got the link from him.)

Saturday, October 16, 2010

More on Roger Ebert

Just to supplement Tim's post below, some of you may be unaware of Roger Ebert's current situation. A few years ago, he suffered from cancer and had to have his lower jaw removed. As a result, he permanently lost the ability to eat, drink, or talk. A powerful story about this can be found here.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Ebert on Miracles

Yesterday Roger Ebert questioned the use of the term "miracle" to describe the rescue of the Chilean mine workers. In doing so, he attempted to explain what a miracle is, which for Ebert seems to be something like "a violation of the laws of nature by God."

Ebert is a smart guy, working outside his area of expertise (film), so he makes a lot of mistakes in his treatment of miracles, theology, and history. But what I find remarkable is what he says at the end of his discussion of miracles.
I argue that few people have a good idea of what a miracle actually is. It's not like entering the lottery. God doesn't perform miracles for a few lucky winners. They take place for one purpose only, and that is not to spare lives, cure disease, heal limbs or prevent a bus from falling off a mountain. Their only purpose is to demonstrate the glory of God. They're sort of wake-up calls: "Hey, people, this is Me up here on the mountain top, hurling these lightning bolts."
While Ebert says he does not believe in miracles of this sort, he is concerned with separating out a proper understanding of what a miracle is. What do you think of Ebert's claim about the purpose of miracles (according to his reading of Christian tradition)?

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

The Springfield Film Festival

Our department sponsors a writing contest for Bethel students, where we pose a question and they submit answers and win fabulous prizes. This month's question: "What is the most philosophically interesting film you've seen, and why?" The following clip from The Simpsons hints at how Homer might answer it. This takes place during the Springfield Film Festival, where Homer serves as a judge.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

fun optical experience

Stare without blinking at the red dot. The grey lines eventually fade from your perception.