Monday, September 7, 2015

Graduate Student Roles in University Life

Check out this article, co-written by 2007 Bethel grad Joseph Vukov.  The argument is that graduate students should play a bigger role in shaping higher education, given the stake they have in it. 

We at Bethel are always proud of the work of graduates, and no less so in this case!

And we're also proud of current faculty members, including Paul Reasoner (pictured here) who recently participated in his umpteenth 500 mile bike ride to raise money for Habitat for Humanity.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

A Book Review in MIND

Here is a book review of mine that was published in the most recent issue of the journal Mind.  It's a review of the book Renewing the Senses: A Study of the Philosophy and Theology of the Spiritual Life, written by British philosopher Mark Wynn. 

The book took a long time to read; the review took a long time to write; and Mind took a much longer time publishing it.  (But they're Mind of course, G.E. Moore's old journal.  They could take as long as they wanted, and I would not complain.)  The whole experience was worthwhile, particularly reading the book.  Hopefully you can get some idea of the value of the book by reading the review!

By the way, the picture below is relevant to the argument of the book.  This is a Gothic cathedral.  Some Gothic cathedrals were made to image a heavenly city.  Recognizing this fact can lead you to see the cathedral differently than you did before.  Wynn explores how, similarly, understanding the sensory world as being a divine creation can lead you to experience the sensory world differently -- it can light the world up, so to speak.  In that way, and others besides, a robust spiritual life can renew the senses.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Peter Singer's Philanthropy

Peter Singer is well-known for how seriously he takes utilitarianism.  It leads him to a strong defense of animal rights, to controversial views concerning care for those with severe disabilities, and to the promotion of philanthropy.

He’s at it again.  In this article from the Wall Street Journal, he talks about his goal to have wealthy people give away one-third of their income.  But not to just any cause, of course – he chastises David Geffen for giving $100 million to renovate part of the Lincoln Center in New York, when that money could be better used to prevent starvation and disease in impoverished parts of the world.

I think it’s clear that we ought to give more than we do.  There is something obscene about how much money we have, and how we spend it, in a world where there is so much poverty and suffering.

At the same time, there are legitimate questions about how much to give, and about what causes to support.  The following story illustrates the problem.  Back in the 1980’s, famines in Ethiopia made headlines and prompted rock stars to come together, record (historically bad) songs, and hold concerts, with the proceeds going to famine relief.  The success of those efforts is still unclear, leading many people to wonder whether donations to such causes do any good.

In 2013, Peter Singer gave a TED talk in which he addressed some of these questions.  The video is posted.  Note two things about what he says.  First, many of the philanthropists he highlights are philosophers.  Yay philosophers! 

Second, Singer’s answers are, again, thoroughly utilitarian.  By his lights we need to think of our philanthropic decisions in terms of overall consequences.  We need to approach these matters from "the perspective of the universe."  Rather than giving a blind person a guide dog, we should use that same money to cure blindness in hundreds of people in developing countries.  Singer doesn’t say so explicitly, but he clearly thinks this reasoning applies even if the blind individual is your own child.  Is he right?

Sunday, April 5, 2015

Dr. Postema's New Gig

Our colleague Don Postema has worked as a bioethics consultant at local hospitals for many years.  For the most part that has been a job on the side, to complement his full-time teaching at Bethel.  But this semester the roles have reversed, and the press has taken note!  Check out this article from the St. Paul Pioneer Press.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Review of Lawrence Krauss, A Universe From Nothing

Can something come from nothing?  According to physicist Lawrence Krauss, science tell us that that's a piece of cake.  In today's post, Chris Lilley, a Bethel philosophy grad and current PhD student at Marquette University, reviews the book in which Krauss tries to explain how the universe came to be from nothing.  I have also posted a video of an entertaining debate between Krauss and William Lane Craig. 

A Universe From Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather Than Nothing. By Lawrence M. Krauss. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2012. Pp. xi + 202. $24.99; $15.

In this provocative book, theoretical physicist and rising “New Atheist” star Lawrence Krauss has thrown his intellectual hat into the ring by attempting to address what has heretofore been somewhat of a weak spot in the atheist camp, namely an answer to a question famously posed by the philosopher Leibniz, “Why is there something rather than nothing?” From the outset, Krauss pulls no punches concerning his intent in writing the book, excoriating what he deems the “intellectual bankruptcy” of theologians and philosophers who insist that something cannot come from nothing (xxiv). Rather, Krauss insists once this question is extracted from the idealized realm of religion and philosophy, the natural sciences can quite ably provide an answer to the question of how the universe originated from nothing. The aim then, for Krauss, is to demonstrate to us exactly how it is science can answer this perplexing problem (xxiii).

In the first portion of the book (chaps. 1–6), Krauss guides the reader through a whirlwind tour of the latest advances in cosmology and astrophysics, organized around the overarching theme that science can provide us with genuine insight about the universe by leading us down paths that religion and philosophy dare not trod. Starting with the groundbreaking discovery that our universe had a beginning in the finite and measurable past (due in large part to the Jesuit priest Georges LemaĆ®tre) known as the “Big Bang” (21), Krauss emphasizes how further scientific research has prompted two key realizations. First, the universe is composed not simply of visible matter, but also, and to a very large degree, “dark matter” (34); and second, our best mapping of the background radiation of the universe, enables us to conclude that the universe is not curved, but is flat in the sense that light travels through it in straight lines (54). Krauss notes however that even with the addition of dark matter, roughly 70 percent of the energy required for the universe to come out flat is simply missing (55). It is here that Krauss begins to move toward the puzzle how something might come from nothing, and describes in detail his startling proposal that the missing energy can be found residing not in matter, but in empty space itself (75). For what may seem for all intents and purposes like empty space is really a realm of quantum fluctuations able to give rise to energy from genuine “quantum nothingness” in what Krauss considers to be the quintessential example of a cosmic “free lunch” (98).

After introducing us to the intriguing possibility of how something can come from “nothing,” Krauss devotes the remainder of the book (chaps. 7–11) to applying this possibility to the problem of the origin of the universe itself. For Krauss, advances in science have now placed us in a better position to answer the question of why there is something rather than nothing. In fact, it helps us to understand that the significant question is not “why” but “how,” a question that we can answer through study of the natural world (144). For Krauss, the answer simply resides in the fact that “nothing” is not really nothing, but rather seemingly empty space endowed with energy from which “something” can genuinely arise (152). Further, Krauss argues that given the implications of quantum gravity, universes may very well appear spontaneously out of nothing even in the absence of space and time, which ultimately answers the question of how the universe came from nothing at all (171). This, Krauss concludes, is the scientific answer to the question of why there is something rather than nothing.

Krauss’s book, while engaging and stimulating in its prose, nevertheless is plagued by a conceptual identity crisis. As a work of popular science literature, A Universe From Nothing is a dazzling display of science writing at its very best, with Krauss deftly handing some highly technical and complex scientific ideas in ways that make them open and accessible to the non–specialist. Unfortunately, Krauss becomes less convincing when he shifts from describing the science behind astrophysics and cosmology to providing an answer to the philosophical question of why there is something rather than nothing. This difficulty stems from a severe misunderstanding of what the question means. The heart of Krauss’s proposal seems to be that while for centuries theologians and philosophers have labored under the mistaken assumption that empty space was nothing, science has now shown us that not only what seems to be “nothing” actually contains energy at the quantum level, but that the universe itself could have sprung from this nothingness.

However, what Krauss has simply done is equivocated the “nothing” which philosophers take to be the absolute absence of anything at all with a “nothing” that for Krauss is simply a particular description of quantum energy inhabiting empty space. The end result is that all Krauss has provided us with is a scientifically informed description of how something can come from something, which is not a particularly startling philosophical revelation. While Krauss does seem to acknowledge that he has not answered the puzzle of the origin of the universe in a way that is philosophically convincing, Krauss simply dismisses this fact and retorts that all this means is “nature may be cleverer than philosophers or theologians” (174). Unfortunately, this cavalier attitude towards any form of reasoning outside of the natural sciences characterizes much of Krauss’s book, which is peppered with thinly veiled invectives against philosophy and theology.

In sum, while Krauss has offered a stimulating and up-to-date account of the latest advances in astrophysics, he falls considerably short of his goal of demonstrating how science answers the question of why there is something rather than nothing.
-Chris Lilley

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Dr. Paul Reasoner, Habitat for Humanity, and Houses in Cebu

The following comes from our colleague Paul Reasoner, describing his work in Cebu in the Philippines last month.  As a little background, Paul, his wife Shari, and their children have done remarkable work at an orphanage in Cebu over the years.  Here Paul describes is a major development connected with that work... 

I spent a few weeks in January in the Philippines where I have been working on putting together a Habitat for Humanity project for three years.  This is a joint project between Habitat for Humanity-Minnesota and Habitat for Humanity-Philippines to build homes for Filipino staff at the Children’s Shelter of Cebu (CSC), an orphanage started by Bethel Philosophy Department grad Paul Healy and his wife Marlys in 1979.  Many of the employees of CSC live in marginal housing and my son Joel (who has been working at CSC for 8 years) and I have wanted to do something significant for them.  My role has been in putting the project together and, of course, fundraising.

On January 7 land was purchased and on January 22 we had a ground breaking ceremony.  The CEO for HFH-Philippines, Charlie Ayco, flew down from Manila for the occasion and Jan Plimpton, Executive Director of HFH-MN, also took part in the ceremony.  (She traveled to Cebu with me and we also visited HFH rebuild sites in Bohol, Cebu, and Leyte related to the typhoon and earthquake disasters.)  But most important, a number of the employees of CSC who will be getting new homes were able to be present.  The actual building of the 70+ homes should start this spring, and I expect to be back in Cebu again this summer to continue working on the project.

The site of the housing project
The ground-breaking.  Paul is 2nd from the left.
Some of the workers at the orphanage who will get houses.
Paul speaking at the ground-breaking ceremony.
If you want to contribute to this cause or participate in a Bike Trainer Ride fundraising event, please see the following links:
Online donations can be made here (2.2% plus $0.30 handling charge on each donation):

Register online (free) for the Bike Trainer Ride here (registration at the event is also possible):

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Theism, Atheism, and Agnosticism: A Taxonomy of Belief

Bethel and UW - Milwaukee graduate John Grandits writes about distinguishing varieties of theism, atheism, and agnosticism.

A friend of mine was recently walking in a park in San Diego and came across a local atheist group selling t-shirts and Skeptic magazine. They also had a banner that read, "Ask an atheist a question. You might like the answer." My friend, a philosophy graduate student, took the bait. I'm not sure what questions he asked, but he told me that the group of six atheists ended up unanimously endorsing a position that embraced both agnosticism and atheism. They told him, "Agnosticism has to do with knowledge, whereas atheism has to do with belief," to which my friend responded "Huh?"

The confusion that my friend felt is also the confusion that I notice among many people when they get in debates about theism, atheism, and agnosticism. Some people claim to "lack belief in God" while others say they "believe that God does not exist" while some label themselves as agnostic atheists or agnostic theists. This is all very confusing. So what is the difference between these positions?

To answer this question, I think it's helpful to talk in terms of attitudes toward the proposition "God exists." Generally speaking, for any proposition P, you can either believe P, believe not-P, or neither. If we apply this to "God exists," there are those that believe that God exists (P), those who believe that God does not exist (not-P), and those who neither believe that God exists nor that God does not exist (neither P nor not-P). I think it's appropriate to call these theists, atheists, and agnostics, respectively.

So what are we to make of the atheists in the park who claim to be agnostic atheists? How is this not a contradiction? I think the implicit distinction they have in mind is between one's attitude toward P and one's attitude toward whether one knows that P. For instance, if I believe that P, I can go on to claim to know that P, claim to not know P, or neither. That is, if I am a theist, then, regarding the proposition "I know that P"--call this KP--I can believe KP, believe not-KP, or neither believe KP nor not-KP. Likewise, if I am an atheist, then, regarding the proposition "I know that not-P"--call this KnP--I can believe KnP, believe not-KnP, or neither. On this view, an agnostic atheist is one who believes not-P (this is what makes him an atheist) but he neither believes KnP nor not-KnP (this is what makes him an agnostic). The following table attempts to fill in the rest of the logical space:

Believe KP/KnP
Believe not-KP/KnP
Neither KP/Knp nor not-KP/KnP
Believe P
Strong theism
Weak theism
Agnostic theism
Believe not-P
Strong atheism
Weak atheism
Agnostic atheism
Neither P nor not-P
Agnosticism Proper?
Agnosticism Proper?

So I think part of the confusion over these issues results from a failure to make this distinction between one's attitude toward P and one's attitude toward one’s knowledge that P. Further confusion results from the fact that agnosticism is sometimes defined, not as the (negative) position in which one neither believes P nor not-P, but as the (positive) belief that knowledge about P is impossible. However, on the way I have set things up, this kind of agnosticism would be a subcategory of those in the second column in the table above, i.e. those who have the more general belief that they do not know P. That is, out of all the persons who believe that they do not know P, there will be those who believe that knowledge about P is impossible and those who believe it is possible. The latter of these may believe they don't know P because, say, they believe that the evidence isn't sufficient for knowledge, even if it could be.

There are also other subcategories that a comprehensive taxonomy would need to include. For instance, out of all the persons who are properly agnostic, there will be those who have never thought about or considered P and those who have. Those who have never thought about or considered P could be further divided into further subcategories, e.g. between those who have never heard of, conceived of, or properly understood P and those who have but have never taken the time to reflect on P.

I'm not sure all of this is correct, but I think this is a useful way to start thinking about our differing attitudes, not only about the existence of God, but about any given proposition.

Monday, January 12, 2015

A Philosophy Joke

This one comes from the facebook page of Jaegwon Kim, a well-known metaphysician and philosopher of mind from Brown Univerity. 

A boy is about to go on his first date, and is nervous about what to talk about. He asks his father for advice. The father replies: "My son, there are three subjects that always work. These are food, family, and philosophy."

The boy picks up his date and they go to a soda fountain. Ice cream sodas in front of them, they stare at each other for a long time, as the boy's nervousness builds. He remembers his father's advice, and chooses the first topic. He asks the girl: "Do you like potato pancakes?" She says "No," and the silence returns.

After a few more uncomfortable minutes, the boy thinks of his father's suggestion and turns to the second item on the list. He asks, "Do you have a brother?" Again, the girl says "No" and there is silence once again.

The boy then plays his last card. He thinks of his father's advice and asks the girl the following question: "If you had a brother, would he like potato pancakes?"

Friday, January 9, 2015

Interesting List of Philosophy Students in Other Fields

This comes from the APA (American Philosophical Association).  We are proud of some people on the list, but others . . . not so much.  (And maybe you're proud of different members than we are.)  Here it is.

Just so you know, our posting is less regular during the craziness of January term.  Bethel alumni, or alumni of other schools who have January terms, will understand how busy (and fun) this time can be.  We will increase production as second semester begins.  If any of you readers has something you want to contribute to the blog, please contact us through our facebook page, which is here