January 30, 2024

Xunzi and Le Guin on Ritual and Social Structure

The fate of man lies with Heaven; the fate of the nation lies in ritual. Xunzi, "A Discussion of Heaven," tr. Watson "Solitude" is my favorite of all of Ursula Le Guin's works (mild spoilers to follow), and I have often assigned it to students together with Xunzi and Wittgenstein on ritual. The story is about an anthropological investigation into the planet Eleven-Soro. The investigation is stymied by the local system of taboos, which includes a taboo on adults teaching one another. One anthropologist, a woman named Leaf, decides that the only solution is to move in with her son,...
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October 19, 2023

Philosophy and Science Fiction, Unit 4: Religion and Spirituality

At long last, the reading recommendations for the fourth and final unit of my Philosophy and Science Fiction class! The task for this unit is to analyze a work of science fiction that raises questions about the appropriateness of religious attitudes (e.g., worship). Required Reading FictionPhilosophy Week 1: Appropriate Objects of Religious AttitudesAsimov, The Last Question" (1956) De Cruz, "Mathematical Revelations" (2021) "Scientists Speculate Universe May Be Simulation After 'Trial Version Expired' Appears Across Sky," The Onion (2022) Sobel, Logic and Theism (2004), ch. 1 Week 2: Appropriate Subjects of Religious AttitudesSilverberg, "Good News From the Vatican" (1971) Jha, "Pope's...
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October 11, 2023

Philosophy and Science Fiction, Unit 3: Free Will

Still working on additional reading recommendations for my scifi class! The task for unit 3 is to analyse a work of science fiction in which it is unclear whether a character chooses or acts freely. Required Reading FictionPhilosophy Week 1: Determinism and Free Will (half week)None McKenna and Coates, "Compatibilism", SEP, sections 1 and 2 Various thought experiments selected from van Inwagen, An Essay on Free Will (1983) and Dennett, Elbow Room (1984) Week 2: Reflective Endorsement and Free WillTriptree, "Love Is the Plan The Plan Is Death" (1973)Frankfurt, "Freedom of the Will and the Concept of a Person" (1971)...
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September 2, 2023

Philosophy and Science Fiction, Unit 2: Personal Identity

The semester has now begun, but I'm still working on finishing up the additional scifi recommendations for the student assignments in my Philosophy and Science Fiction class. I've just finished unit 2. The task for unit 2 will be to analyze a work of science fiction in which it is unclear whether a character A is the same person as a character B, or in which it is unclear whether a certain person continues to exist over time. Required Reading FictionPhilosophy Week 1: The Problem and Why It MattersThe Twilight Zone, "Number 12 Looks Just Like You" (1964)Olson, "Personal Identity,"...
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July 26, 2023

Philosophy and Science Fiction, Unit 1: Rights and Wrongs

As I mentioned last time, I'll be teaching Philosophy and Science Fiction this fall, for the first time in 8 years or so. The general theme will be personhood, and I've been crowdsourcing suggestions for science fiction to include. I'll be posting results here. At the end of each of the four units, students will be asked to give a philosophical analysis/critique of a work of science fiction that addresses a particular philosophical question. The task for unit 1 is to analyze a work of science fiction that involves an apparent conflict between a plausible moral rule (e.g., respect for...
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July 23, 2023

Philosophical Themes in the 'Homo Superior' Trope in Science Fiction

I am currently preparing a course on Philosophy and Science Fiction for the fall, focusing on the theme of personhood. It has been 8 years since I last taught a course on this topic, so I am re-designing it more or less from scratch, and I recently asked on social media for suggestions of scifi works to include. I'll be doing some more of that and posting the reading list and additional suggested reading here over the rest of the summer. This post, however, is about some neat stuff that I probably won't manage to squeeze onto my syllabus (this...
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March 10, 2022

Moving to James Madison University

On July 1, I’ll be starting a new job as Professor of Philosophy and Academic Unit Head for the Department of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University in Virginia. Trinity College Dublin has been a fantastic place to work, and I will miss the College, Ireland, and my wonderful colleagues. I’m looking forward to working with new colleagues at JMU to bring philosophy and religious studies to a wider range of students, and I am looking forward to leaving the big city for the beautiful Shenandoah Valley....
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December 6, 2021

Zagzebski and Cuneo on Religious Communities

In her book Epistemic Authority, Linda Zagzebski defends a view on which epistemic authority (the right to be believed) is very closely analogous to practical authority (the right to be obeyed). According to Zagzebski, both are justified by my conscientious judgment that I am more likely to achieve my goals (including the goal of believing the truth) if I trust the authority than if I go off on my own. In justifying authority within small communities, Zagzebski (pp. 144-148) uses the example of a community dedicated to a particular skill or way of life. I might participate in an orchestra,...
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August 24, 2021

Apophaticism and Religious Pluralism

Many world religions include some tendency toward, or tradition of, apophaticism, the view that the divine (or ultimate, or absolute, the object of our religious devotion) defies description in human language, and we must therefore restrict ourselves to saying what the divine is not. However, most of these religions are also committed to texts or traditions which appear to describe the divine in various positive ways. Puzzles arise when we attempt to combine these traditions of negative (or apophatic) theology and positive (or kataphatic) theology. If we can speak truly of God only by negation, what are we to make...
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April 2, 2021

A Good Friday Reflection

In reading the Good Friday narrative, it is important to see ourselves in the characters, who are not monsters but people like us. I am thinking today of the way the characters are driven by fear. Pilate, Herod, and the temple elites are adversaries who have achieved a kind of uneasy peace. They all see that if that peace is broken, it will be disaster. If there is civil unrest, the army will come, they will all be removed from their positions, and many, many people will die. They see Jesus' questioning of the fragile status quo—and some more drastic...
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March 18, 2021

A Brief Reflection on the History of Apophaticism

Apophaticism is the view that affirmative statements about God cannot be both literal and univocal. 'Literal' is here opposed to 'metaphorical'. (How precisely to spell out that opposition is a rather difficult question that I won't pursue here—I will just assume we have some kind of grasp of the concept of metaphor.) 'Univocal' means that the word has the same meaning when applied to God as in its other uses. So, for instance, to say that 'wise' is used univocally in 'God is wise' would be to say that it has the same meaning in this sentence as in the...
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February 21, 2021

Reflections on the Science Fiction of Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson's science fiction is, in my opinion, not so uniformly excellent as Theodore Sturgeon or Ursula Le Guin. However, he produced some real masterpieces (the 1972 novelette "Goat Song"—a futuristic retelling of the myth of Orpheus, with a computer in the role of the god—being my favorite) and he pioneered several major tropes of the 'space opera' sub-genre, as well as the "Time Police" trope. The majority of his stories are simply fun adventures. One of the most striking and interesting things about Anderson's work for me is the way his image of the future differs from many other...
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February 18, 2021

Cavendish, Hooke, and the Fall of Man

But I perceive Man has a great spleen against self-moving corporeal Nature, although himself is part of her, and the reason is his Ambition; for he would fain be supreme, and above all other Creatures, as more towards a divine nature; he would be a God, if arguments could make him such, at least God-like, as is evident by his fall, which came merely from an ambitious mind of being like God. Margaret Cavendish, Observations upon Experimental Philosophy, 2nd ed. (1668), ch. 2.7, p. 280 One of Cavendish's key theses is that a human being is merely an ordinary...
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February 17, 2021

Cavendish and Plato on Parts of the Mind

some rational Parts, may in one composed figure, have opposite actions; As for example, the Mind of man may be divided, so as to hate one person, and love another: nay, hate and love one and the same person, for several things, at the same time: as also, rejoice and grieve at the same time. For example; A Man has two Sons, one is kill'd in the Warrs, and the other comes home with victory and honour; the Father grieves for the slain Son, and rejoices for the victorious Son: for, the Mind being material, is dividable as well as...
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February 4, 2021

Berkeley on the Phenomenology of Mathematics

Nor do I think [abstract ideas] are a whit more needfull for enlargment of Knowlege, than for Communication. For tho' it be a point much insisted on in the Schools, that all Knowlege is about Universals, yet I can by no means See the necessity of this Doctrine. It is acknowledg'd that nothing has a fairer title to the Name of Knowlege or Science than Geometry. Now I appeal to any mans thoughts, whether upon the entrance into that Study, the first thing to be done is to try to conceive a Circle that is neither great nor small, nor...
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