Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Chance and Temporal Asymmetry

This week, Dr Alastair Wilson  introduces a philosophical puzzle arising out of the nature of chance.

We live in a world with a pronounced arrow of time running from the past to the future. Eggs crack but don't uncrack, milk can't be unmixed from coffee, and all living things age and die. Puzzlingly, though, our best physical theories tell us that the fundamental laws of nature are nearly all temporally symmetric. If a fundamental physical process is possible, then an appropriate time-reversal of that process is also generally physically possible*. How can our world of temporally asymmetric processes result from a set of fundamental laws which our best physics says are largely time-symmetric?

One important part of this puzzle concerns objective chance: real probabilities in nature. It seems that events in the future are often chancy in a way that events in the past are not: it may still be a matter of chance what the weather will be like next month, but it's not a matter of chance what it's like right now. We may be uncertain about the present whether, but it isn't objectively probabilistic. How, in particular, does this asymmetry of chance arise?

One bold answer derives from the work of Ludwig Boltzmann (1844-1906). Boltzmann's idea traces the source of the time asymmetry we observe to a very special initial state, which is in a rigorous sense extremely orderly: technically, the initial state has exceptionally low entropy. Since the initial state is assumed to obtain at the beginning of the universe but not at the end, we recover an asymmetry in processes that go on in between.

But Boltzmann's answer can't be the whole story about the temporal asymmetry of chance. The low-entropy initial state is compatible with deterministic theories like classical mechanics, according to which the state of the universe at one time fixes the state of the universe at every time. This wouldn't allow for any temporal asymmetry of chances, on the usual philosophical understanding of chance: the chance of any given event occurring would always be either 1 or 0, and it wouldn't change over time.

There are several ways out of this puzzle. One is to adopt a conception of chance according to which it is compatible with determinism; another is to rely on an indeterministic interpretation of quantum mechanics. These approaches and others are discussed in a volume of essays that I've recently edited, which aims to explore the nature of chance, the source of its temporal asymmetry, and related questions. It's to be published in the autumn with Oxford University Press, but you can read more details about it here.

*(There is a fascinating exception involving the weak nuclear force, which has recently been experimentally verified by an amazing experiment called BABAR - but that violation of time symmetry isn't able to produce the radical asymmetries we see in the world around us.)

Alastair Wilson, Birmingham Fellow in Philosophy

Monday, 28 April 2014

Free Virtual Issue of Philosophy Compass on Meta-philosophy of Religion

Yujin Nagasawa, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham and Co-Director of the John Hick Centre for the Philosophy of Religion has edited a free, virtual issue of Philosophy Compass on meta-philosophy of religion. Four articles have been specially selected by Nagasawa, the editor of the Philosophy of Religion section of the journal, and will be available for free for the next six months (until October 2014). The articles address the nature, scope and methodology of the philosophy of religion.

Table of Contents:

The Enduring Appeal of Natural Theological Arguments

Helen De Cruz*

Natural theology is the branch of theology and philosophy that attempts to gain knowledge of God through non-revealed sources. In a narrower sense, natural theology is the discipline that presents rational arguments for the existence of God. Given that these arguments rarely directly persuade those who are not convinced by their conclusions, why do they enjoy an enduring appeal? This article examines two reasons for the continuing popularity of natural theological arguments: (i) they appeal to intuitions that humans robustly hold and that emerge early in cognitive development; (ii) they serve an argumentative function by presenting particular religious views as live options. I conclude with observations on the role of natural theology in contemporary analytic philosophy of religion.

Is There a Distinctively Feminist Philosophy of Religion?

Elizabeth D. Burns

Feminist philosophers of religion such as Grace Jantzen and Pamela Sue Anderson have endeavoured, firstly, to identify masculine bias in the concepts of God found in the scriptures of the world’s religions and in the philosophical writings in which religious beliefs are assessed and proposed and, secondly, to transform the philosophy of religion, and thereby the lives of women, by recommending new or expanded epistemologies and using these to revision a concept of the divine which will inspire both women and men to work for the flourishing of the whole of humankind. It is argued, firstly, that the philosophies of Jantzen and Anderson are by no means as different from each other as they might, at first, appear. Secondly, it is suggested that their epistemologies are not distinctively feminist, and that the classical divine attributes of the Abrahamic faiths do not necessarily privilege the masculine. Perhaps the only way in which a philosophy of religion might be distinctively feminist is by emphasising the inclusion of women. This might mean being more open to concepts of the divine which are not, even in a metaphorical sense, masculine, and enhancing awareness of the ways in which abstract arguments about the divine could be relevant to the practical aspects of human life which have traditionally been the preserve of women. Insofar as these are increasingly also the responsibility of men, however, a feminist philosophy of religion might now be more appropriately characterised as an inclusivist philosophy of religion.

Doing Philosophy in Style: A New Look at the Analytic/Continental Divide

N. N. Trakakis

Questions of style are often deemed of marginal importance in philosophy, as well as in metaphilosophical debates concerning the analytic/Continental divide. I take issue with this common tendency by showing how style – suitably conceived not merely as a way of writing, but as a form of expression intimately linked to a form of life – occupies a central role in philosophy. After providing an analysis of the concept of style, I take a fresh look at the analytic/Continental division by examining the various stylistic differences between philosophers on each side. Despite these differences, I argue, both sides of the divide suffer from a common stylistic deficiency, and if this deficiency were rectified the gulf separating the two traditions may not appear as insurmountable as it presently does. To show this, I draw principally from the philosophy of religion, a field that has recently experienced a renewal in both the analytic and Continental traditions.

Some Issues in Chinese Philosophy of Religion

Xiaomei Yang

Chinese philosophy of religion is a less discussed and less clearly formed area in the study of Chinese philosophy. It is true that there is virtually no discussion in Chinese philosophy about rationality or justification of religious beliefs comparable to the discussion of the same issues in Western philosophy of religion. The inquiry about rationality and justification of religious beliefs has shaped Western philosophy of religion. However, the scope of philosophy of religion in the Western context has been widened since Hume and Kant. When the West began to be exposed to non-Western religions, philosophical reflection on non-Western religions is also brought into the scope of philosophy of Religion. We can expect that the concept of religion will become much broader, the scope of philosophy of religion will expand and new issues, especially, issues concerning specific and non-Western religions, will be framed. When we look at philosophy of religion in a broad sense, the field of Chinese philosophy of religion begins to emerge. In this survey paper, I will focus on several issues which, in a broad sense of philosophy of religion, can be construed as the issues of Chinese philosophy of religion. One of the issues is about the religiosity of Confucianism. The second issue is about the concept of Tian. The third is the issue regarding the origin and nature of Chinese state religion and its characteristics which also have caught the attention of scholars, especially, in China. Is Confucianism a religion? How should we construe the religiosity of Confucianism if it does have a religious dimension? Is Tian a theological term? How does Tian differ from Western God? Is the sacrifice to Tian religious and a form of monotheism? What is the nature of state religion in traditional China? What is the relation between the state religion and Confucianism in traditional China? The debates on the issues addressing these questions will be introduced and discussed in this paper.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Workshop on Time and Well-Being

Royal Institute of Philosophy, Birmingham Branch
Department of Philosophy, University of Birmingham

Friday 6th of June 2014
Room G51, ERI Building, University of Birmingham Campus

Workshop on Time and Well-Being

13.00-14.20 “The Passing of Momentary Well-Being”
Ben Bramble (University of Vienna)

14.20-14.40 Tea and Coffee Break

14.40-16.00 “What Is Child Well-Being?”
Anna Alexandrova (Cambridge)

16.00-16.20 Tea and Coffee Break

16.20-17.40 “Improving the Past”
Antti Kauppinen (Trinity College, Dublin)

17.40 - Drinks and Dinner

Philosophers are interested in well-being as a measure of how well a person’s life is going. It used to be assumed that you could evaluate how well someone’s life is going at any given moment, for example, simply by considering whether they are experiencing pleasure. It was also assumed that, if we want to know how well someone’s life is going over a long period of time, all we need to do is to add together their momentary levels of well-being. Some of the most interesting recent work in value theory and philosophy of happiness and well-being have challenged these assumptions by exploring temporal aspects of well-being in more detail. The presentations at this workshop introduce some of the new exciting ways of thinking about well-being and time. They consider questions such as: Can future events affect your current level of well-being? How do events contribute to the value of your life-story? How should we understand well-being during different stages of human life? For example, when is a child’s life going well? What is the relationship between momentary well-being and lifetime well-being? Is lifetime well-being a function of momentary levels of well-being, or can we understand momentary well-being only in the context of lifetime well-being?

The workshop is open to all audiences, and there is no attendance fee (refreshments will be free, but drinks and dinner will not be included). For enquiries, please email Dr Jussi Suikkanen (j.v.suikkanen@bham.ac.uk).

The workshop will be held at the ERI Building on the University of Birmingham Edgbaston Campus (G3 on the University of Birmingham Campus map).

Monday, 14 April 2014

A Conference and Lecture on War and Intervention with Prof. Jeff McMahan, University of Birmingham, 30th May 2014

Over the course of May 2014, the internationally renowned moral and political philosopher Jeff McMahan (Rutgers) will be visiting the University of Birmingham, in the role of Distinguished Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Advanced Studies.

McMahan’s groundbreaking work in the fields of bioethics, population ethics, and the ethics of war and self-defence will need no introduction for many readers of this blog. During his stay, McMahan will be taking part in the intellectual life of the Philosophy Department, by participating in seminars, talking to staff and students about their work, and so forth. Most notably, on 30th May, he will be participating in an academic conference, and delivering a public lecture, on the ethics of war and intervention.

Registration for both the conference and the lecture is free, and blog readers with an interest in the ethics of war, both within and beyond Birmingham, are warmly encouraged to attend.

The conference, beginning at 9.30am, will be a forum for academic work on war and intervention, bringing together philosophers with members of other disciplines, including history and political science. It will include papers from McMahan himself, Victor Tadros (Warwick), and Kimberley Hutchings (LSE), among others.

McMahan’s public lecture, meanwhile, at 5pm, is intended for members of the public as well as academics. In it, he will be discussing some of the ethical complexities of military humanitarian intervention, and reflecting on current world events, including the situation in Syria.

You can reserve tickets for the conference by following the link here, and for the public lecture here. The provisional programme for the conference, as well as the synopsis of the lecture, are included below. We hope to see many of you there on 30th.

Provisional Programme: Ethics of War and Intervention, 30th May 2014

9.30-10.00: Coffee and Registration

10.00-11.00: Prof. Jeff McMahan, ‘Liability, Proportionality, and the Aggregation of Harm’

11.00-12.30: Panel Session 1

Dr Eamon Aloyo (Hague Institute for Global Justice), ‘The Last of Last Resort'
Dr Rita Floyd (POLSIS, Birmingham), ‘Just Resort to Securitization'
Dr Simon Jackson (History, Birmingham), 'Blockade then relief: the politics and law of humanitarian intervention in WW1 Syria’

12.30-1.15: Lunch

1.15-2.15: Prof. Victor Tadros (Law, Warwick), ‘The Uncertainties of War’

2.15-3.15: Panel Session 2 (Doctoral Students)

Lars Christie (Philosophy, Oslo), 'Humanitarian interventions and collateral damage: Distributing the Cost of Rescue'
Amanda Cawston (Philosophy, Cambridge), ‘What is Wrong With Alienated Violence?'
Andrew Forcehimes (Philosophy, Vanderbilt), ‘Luck ad Bellum'

3.15-3.30: Coffee

3.30-4.30: Prof. Kim Hutchings (International Relations, LSE), 'What Would We Do Without World War Two? A Feminist Critique of Cosmopolitan Just War Theory'

5.00-6.30: Public Lecture (followed by drinks reception)

Lecture synopsis: Many on the political left view virtually all exercises of military force with suspicion - even those for which there might be a humanitarian justification.  Others deplore the unwillingness of powerful states to intervene in such conflicts as those in Rwanda, Sudan, and Syria, when intervention could arguably save tens or hundreds of thousands of lives.  Many on the political right think that no instance of humanitarian intervention can be a justifiable use of a state's resources unless it can be shown to be in that state's interest.  In his lecture, McMahan will address these different views and consider when humanitarian intervention might be permissible and when it might even be morally required.

Wednesday, 9 April 2014

Contemporary Cognitive Theories of Emotions and Aristotle

Doctoral researcher Isaura Peddis considers whether cognitive theories of emotion are supported by the writings of Aristotle.

“The Emotions are all those feelings that so change men as to affect their judgments, and that are also attended by pain or pleasure. Such are anger, pity, fear and the like, with their opposites.” (Aristotle, 2008:1378a 24-26)

Aristotle is often quoted by researchers of cognitive theories of emotions to confirm the validity of their positions. However, he has never dedicated an entire piece of work to emotions; instead, he integrated them in larger topics of investigation - rhetoric in The Art of rhetoric, or happiness in Nicomachean Ethics. Therefore, in order to reconstruct Aristotle’s idea of emotions, one must compile sections referring to emotions in his different works to recreate his theory of emotions. Some of those sections have been misread and others were not considered at all, which has caused Aristotle to be wrongly labelled the “the prototypical cognitive theory of emotion”(Power and Dalgleish, 1997: 41).

Roughly speaking, the cognitive theories of emotions attribute a key role to judgments (or appraisals) in the arousal of emotions; I judge an object or situation and, from this evaluation along with the involvement of my body and its physical reactions, arises an emotion. For example, I see my father is kissing a woman, try to gain a clearer view of the situation and discover the woman is not my dad’s wife but his secretary. As a result of this judgement, I feel sad and start to cry. Emotions and feelings are different things, but emotions impact on our bodies through feelings.

Aristotle affirms that an emotion occurs when three conditions are satisfied: (Aristotle, 2008: 1378 a 24-33) a) the person must be in a suitable state of mind to experience the emotion, b) there must be a stimulus – internal mental state – of a certain type to generate the emotion, c) there must be an object – an external event – of the appropriate kind for the emotion to arise (Power and Dalgleish, 1997: 40). Anger, for example, is an emotion experienced by a person who, whilst in a particular state of mind, makes a judgement, such as this person wants to hurt my best friend, about someone.

It cannot be denied that Aristotle writes about judgement, as cognitivists do. Nevertheless, the same quotes that point to this common feature also point out a huge difference: the importance of the “state of mind”. Aristotle says that, to feel an emotion, one must be in a certain state of mind. Instead, the classical cognitive theories of emotion attribute a role to the state of mind, but define it as an opinion as an opinion or belief regarding an object. To Aristotle, the state of mind designates “a sort of feeling” which may well be connected with an opinion about an object elaborated previously, but can also influence how we feel about the opinion of another object that is not related to the previous one.

For example, if I have spent eight hours at work without a break, a lot of customers complaining for no reason, and cannot find a parking space for my car when I arrive home, I will be mad at my neighbour for parking in my spot without any authorisation. Instead, after spending a day off having fun with friends, I will react differently to the same situation and opinion related with it; I will still think that I cannot park because my neighbour’s car is on my spot, but I might not be mad because I am still in a good mood due to the wonderful day that I have had.

Aristotle. (2008) The Art of Rhetoric: Megaphone eBooks

Power M and Dalgleish T. (1997) Cognition and emotion : from order to disorder, Hove, East Sussex, UK:Psychology Press.

Monday, 7 April 2014

Perfect Me Again!

This week, Professor Heather Widdows continues her discussion of contemporary conceptions of beauty and considers the shared nature of such ideals.

In my post last week I said a little about Perfect Me! the book I'm currently working on. I said that beauty, appearance, and body image are not trivial issues, but ones that matter. This of course is a different issue from whether it should matter – currently it does and does for most people, much of the time. For some the ideal of ‘being perfect’ has become all encompassing. For some this ideal is a standard against which individuals judge their own and other’s progress, success and failure. People feel ‘happy’ or that they are ‘successful’ if they have attained some aspect of their ideal (reached their goal weight, erased their wrinkles or firmed their thighs). This view, which connects being physically perfect (having the best body) with ‘the self’, is a common one. We are often told once we move towards our ‘perfect self’ we will be able to be our true selves (‘the best you’). The assumption is ubiquitous in the language of value which surrounds talk of beauty: You should live up to the ideal and strive to be more perfect because ‘you’re worth it’, ‘you owe it to yourself’; if you don’t strive for perfection and ‘let yourself go’ then, presumably ‘you’re not worth it’. In this dominant ideal of ‘perfect me’ beauty, happiness and success begin to merge. The more perfect you are the more you will succeed: you’ll get a better job (‘look the part’, ‘dress for the job you want not the one you have’); better relationship (‘if I’m thinner, prettier, sexier s/he’ll love me more’); and better life in general (‘if I was ten pounds lighter, I’d be happier’). In these ways the beauty ideal is thought to provide rewards to the successful devotee – rewards of jobs, relationships, respect, love and happiness. It gives standards – to aspire to, and to judge ourselves and others by.

The shared nature of the ideal is crucial. The fact that it is shared matters. For a start it makes problematic claims that beautifying – in the form of routine beauty regimes or interventions (such as surgery) – is individual. You can’t choose your own beauty ideal, you can only choose to conform to it, to embody it or to reject it. If you reject it – as some do – then you are standing outside the norm and will be judged accordingly. (Remember the politicians, even though beauty isn't necessary for a politician as you might think it is for an actor or a singer, they are judged on appearance.) Standing outside the ideal isn't easy for most people – as the barefaced selfies show – most women wear make-up at least some of the time in most walks of life, and employers and others expect it. Gradually what is ‘normal’ – what is required to attain minimum standards of acceptable appearance – has extended. Not very long ago make-up and hair dye was unacceptable for most women (for respectable women). I'm not defending this division of types of women or these norms – but rather just pointing out that what is required by the beauty ideal to be ‘normal’ is changing and expanding. Body hair is a particularly good example of this – and very current if we think of the column inches written only a few weeks ago when Madonna showed underarm hair. It is now the ‘norm’ to be increasingly hairless. In public – at the beach/pool/on a night out – most women think ‘de-fluffing’ is ‘routine’, like washing or teeth-cleaning. But it’s not so long ago (days I remember from when I was at University) when underarm hair was normal, even attractive. And the changes in norms with regard to pubic hair are striking in the last 20 years. In the future what will be required? The de-fuzzing of all body hair (except on the head where the trend is the opposite and in some groups hair extensions are almost a requirement)?

These are the types of issues I will spend the next two years teasing out and writing about – as well as discussing at the Hay Festival