Wednesday, September 29, 2010

give the emotions some love

I’ve been reading Martha Nussbaum for a number of years now. Among the several books and articles she has written, one recent book stands out to me:

Upheavals of Thought: the intelligence of the emotions (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

In this incredibly insightful book, Nussbaum is trying to restore balance to the age-old war between “the mind” and “the heart.”

Much of the blame for this war rests squarely on the standard stories we tell ourselves about the ancient Greek philosophers and many of the medievals who really gave emotion a hard time. According to this standard story, they called emotion “the passions” or “pathos,” and the idea was that these are wild, undirected, inherently unreliable, and often destructive. The real problem they had with emotion however, was its power to overpower reason.

There is great insight in the ancient Greek philosophers across a range of subjects, including the inherent hazards of the emotions. What could be more obvious? The emotions and passions are powerful and potentially destructive. But then again, so is reason.

This isn’t really the main tactic, however, that Nussbaum pursues. Rather, her main argument suggests that the entire “mind” versus “heart” is fundamentally an inadequate and unrealistic way of understanding human nature.

She argues that the emotions are actually “forms of judgment” with rationally assessable content. Her claim is that how we perceive the world (e.g., our relationships, values, politics, aesthetics, religion, etc.) is fundamentally a function of our emotional experiences.

To put it another way, it’s more what we feel rather than just what we know that primarily influences our behavior and beliefs across the entire range of important subjects.

The response to the Greek concern is to note that the Greeks had the analysis of emotion all wrong. Emotion is not merely wild and undirected. Because they are “forms of judgment,” emotions are actually evaluative forms of appraisal that can be assessed. They are not merely reactive, criterion-less responses.

This strikes me as a much more realistic view of the relation between cognitive, conative, and emotional lived experience.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Plantinga and Dennett

I love getting free books—it’s one of the perks of being a professor. Last week I received a book called Science and Religion: Are They Compatible? (Oxford, 2010). It’s a debate between philosophical heavyweights Alvin Plantinga and Daniel Dennett. In it, Plantinga argues that science and religion are compatible, and that it’s naturalism (the view that there are no divine beings and the natural world is all that there is) that doesn’t fit well with science, while Dennett lashes out at the notion of intelligent design and argues that attempts to fit religion with science are intellectually dishonest. I’d say the book is well worth reading.

Rather than summarize the debate, I’ll just highlight two points from Plantinga that I think are quite profound. First, he observes that some people, like Dennett, find theism absurd, and address it only to subject it to ridicule. And, Plantinga says, "they are entirely within their rights to do so: It’s a free country. But why should the rest of us, those who find theism perfectly sensible and in fact believe it . . . why should we be swayed by what Dennett and company do or don’t find incredible?" (60)

That’s a good reminder: the fact that some people (even famous and intelligent people) think religion ridiculous doesn’t give the rest of us reason to think it’s false—especially since the arguments against religion that such people give are often extraordinarily weak (it’s like they don’t even try).

Second, Plantinga notes that many theists mistakenly believe that evolution and theism are incompatible; and he places some of the blame for that on those who, like Dennett, loudly proclaim that they are. Evolution most certainly does not show that God does not exist, Plantinga says; but by asserting that it does, Dennett and others promote public distrust of evolutionary theory and of science. It’s an interesting point: so-called defenders of science (and Richard Dawkins deserves a mention here) are doing their discipline a profound disservice by actively (and scornfully) turning religious believers away from it.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Cheating and the Soul

This week in CWC (a team-taught Christianity and Western Culture course at Bethel), I lectured on Plato’s view of the soul. (Only briefly, because I had to cover Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle in one lecture!) Roughly speaking, according to Plato the soul has three parts: the intellect, which seeks after truth; the spirited part, which seeks after honor; and the appetites, which seek after various worldly pleasures. In a just person, the intellect is in control. Doing what is wrong is never in the best interest of the wrong-doer because it damages the soul by strengthening the appetites (usually) and weakening the intellect’s ability to control them. A clear of example of this is drug addiction: an addict’s desire for the drug overpowers the intellect’s recognition that taking it is a bad idea. Indeed, that recognition gets ignored, and instead the intellect serves the beastly appetite by discerning ways to procure more drugs.

Another example I used is cheating on school assignments and tests. Your intellect may recognize that cheating is wrong; but once you’ve done it, it’s much easier the second time. Appetitive (and maybe spirited) desires are strengthened, the intellect’s control over the soul weakened, and the soul becomes disordered and damaged as a result.

After the lecture, a colleague called my attention to a fascinating article, in last week’s Toronto Globe and Mail, about a recent study of the personality traits of students who cheat. The study found that “Students who admitted to cheating, or who were caught, ranked high on what psychologists call the ‘dark triad’ of personality traits: narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy.” Perhaps Plato was on to something! It is nice to be reminded that in this most fundamental sense, cheaters don’t prosper.

Here’s the article:

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Variety is the Spice of Educational Life

Check out this article from the New York Times, which discusses how new research overturns some old ideas about the best ways to study. Apparently variety doesn't just spice up your life; it also makes your studying much more effective. Quite a fascinating article--and helpful, too, if you're looking for ways to improve your study habits. Professors will also be happy to know that tests which require student recall are very effective tools for learning.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Stephen Hawking and God

Perhaps you’ve read that Stephen Hawking claims in a new book that God is not needed to explain the existence of the universe. If you haven’t, here’s a link to an article on the subject. (It’s curious that the story is in the entertainment section of ABC’s website...)

From the article, it’s unclear what Hawking’s real view is. He says in his book, “Because there is a law such as gravity, the Universe can and will create itself from nothing.” I’m no physicist, but the notion of a universe literally creating itself out of nothing—with or without the help of gravity—seems absurd. Gravity can act on stuff that is already there, but is Hawking claiming that gravity can create stuff ex nihilo, initiate a Big Bang, and generate a universe? I find that hard to believe—not just that it’s true, but that Hawking thinks it is.

Maybe when Hawking says that God isn’t needed to explain the existence of the universe, he means that gravity will inevitably take “stuff” (whatever there is in the chaos prior to the Big Bang) and create a universe with it. But if that’s right, we still need to explain the existence of the stuff that gravity acts on (to say nothing for the existence of gravity itself). A sensible explanation is that God created the stuff, and is in that sense needed to explain the universe—even if gravity, rather than God, set off the Big Bang.

What is Hawking’s real view on this? Perhaps his book will clear it up. Suffice it to say that to the classic question in metaphysics—Why is there something rather than nothing?—I think God provides a better answer than gravity.