Archive for May, 2011

NDEs and Neurology

May 23, 2011

So, Jerry Coyne over at “Why Evolution is True” linked to an article by Alex Lickerman on the Neurology of Near-Death Experiences.  Coyne likes it, but to me it strikes me as precisely illustrating the problem with neuroscience and psychology in general, and particularly when talking about these sorts of odd experiences.

The article is here:

Basically, Lickerman tries to use neurological results to support this theory about what NDEs are.  But you’ll that in the entire article he never actually says that.  What he does is list neurological results that he claims are evidence for NDEs not really being souls leaving the body at all, and slips in a few theories to try to claim that.  The problem is that, right out of the gate, we have an issue of competing theories that he isn’t addressing.

In addressing his article, I’m not going to rely on any sort of “soul” argument.  I am, however, going to put on a dualist cap and consider whether NDEs demonstrate that the mind and the body are not the same object, and whether they demonstrate that minds and bodies can become separate.  As a dualist, this isn’t that hard for me, but I don’t actually contend that mind and body being different objects entails that mind and body can be actually separated.  If I was doing a “soul” argument, I’d have to, but that’s theology to me and my views on philosophy of mind are not always in sync with my views on theology.  As those are separate fields, I think it quite appropriate to wall the two off so that I can consider the issues relatively independently, only integrating later.

Anyway, on to the article.  The first thing that Lickerman comments on is that people claiming to have experiences of NDEs doesn’t mean that they really had such an experience, or that it really is what it looks like:


“But just because millions of people have experienced NDEs doesn’t mean the most commonly believed explanation for them—that souls leave bodies and encounter God or some other evidence for the afterlife—is correct.  After all, people misinterpret their experience all the time (an optical illusion representing the most basic example).  ”


Absolutely.  But, in general, we trust our experiences unless we have good reason not to.  If someone had an experience where it really looks like their mind was out of their body, on what grounds would Lickerman suggest they doubt that experience?  Obviously, in the case of NDEs a claim can be made — and, of course, has been made — that the stresses the body is undergoing at the time would be cause for hallucinatory or at least inaccurate experiences.  Lickerman doesn’t bring that up as his starting point, and so one must wonder if it’s that “soul” thing that’s making Lickerman skeptical.  And if it is, then that’s him using mostly irrelevant beliefs to be skeptical about an experience.  Which is, of course, fair enough, but certainly isn’t scientific.

Ultimately, in general we do and must trust our experiences unless we have good reason to doubt them.  The same thing applies to our memories.  That both are fallible is not cause to judge them fallible in any case simply because you don’t like what they’re telling you, and one of the big issues in any of these discussions is that the people studying it go into the experiments skeptical, designing experiments in many ways simply to prove it wrong, without having a proper understanding of what the experience is and how hard it might be to prove right or wrong.  And we shall see this sort of reasoning in the rest of the article.

The first thing Lickerman talks about is REM intrusion often caused by low blood flow:


“Nelson further observes that when our blood pressure drops low and we faint, the vagus nerve (a large nerve that connects to the heart) tilts consciousness toward REM sleep—but interestingly in some people not all the way.  A number of subjects seem to be susceptible to what he calls “REM intrusion.”

Nelson found in his research that the functioning of the mechanism that flip-flops people between REM sleep and wakefulness tended to be different in people who reported NDEs.  In those people, he found the switch was more likely to “fragment and blend” those two states of consciousness (control of our state of consciousness is found in the brainstem and is tightly regulated), causing such people to simultaneously exhibit features of both.  During REM intrusion people have found themselves paralyzed (“sleep paralysis”), fully awake but experiencing light, out-of-body sensations, and stunningly vivid narratives.  During REM sleep, many of the brain’s pleasure centers are stimulated as well (animals that have had their REM regions injured lose all interest in food and even morphine), which may explain the feelings of peace and unity also reported during NDEs.”


So, he doesn’t actually say how this explains anything about NDEs, in general.  He mentions “out of body sensations”, but these do not have to be actual out of body experiences.  I’m not really sure what he means here, in fact, but let me describe an experience I’ve had that seems to be what he’s after.   When I get sick, quite often I experience states that I’ve considered to be “half-awake dreaming”, where I’m dreaming and yet still have some connection to my actual body.  The first time I really noticed this was one time when I had a cold and was having a hard time sleeping, and so would alternate between stages of watching television and sleeping.  The first time, I had just been watching Babylon 5, and so dreamed that I was flying around on my bed in space.  The second time, I had just been watching Jay Leno, and dreamed about a talk show while still knowing that I was on my bed.  Another time I recall dreaming that I was writing code with my mind at work because I obviously wasn’t in front of a computer typing.

Now, none of these are, in any way, similar to cases of NDEs.  However,  they do seem to be examples of REM intrusion.  And these examples do not map onto any sort of real-life situation at all, and aren’t actually out of body experiences.  So, we need to ask how often REM intrusions are actual out-of-body experiences and how often NDEs aren’t related to an actual experience at all.  In theory, you should get very odd experiences, and perhaps we do, but what has been impressive about NDEs is that they’ve been quite similar in their tunnel experience and such, despite the fact that associating that with death is, in fact, fairly shallow; most people have heard of those experiences but don’t seem to have directly internalized them.  But that internalization is, of course, psychologically studyable.

But there’s another issue here, which is that Lickerman is essentially arguing that because you can get out-of-body experiences another way, then it’s reasonable to believe that the claims of real out-of-body experiences are just this mechanism.  But even he admits that he doesn’t have enough evidence for this yet.  Philosophically, this argument is exceptionally poor because pretty much any possible experience can be generated artificially, but none of that in any way indicates that the experience was not real.  People on LSD have reported hallucinations of spiders, but that does not in any way cast doubt on spider experiences.  Again, it seems that without starting from a position that there really isn’t an experience there to be explained no one should consider this all that great evidence at all.  Sure, it is something that proponents of actual out-of-body experiences need to explain, but it isn’t all that hard to explain it, even as “similar but different mechanisms”.

The next explanation is of the experience of the “long tunnel”:


Neurophysiology can also explain the feeling of moving through a tunnel so commonly mentioned in NDEs.  People are well known to experience “tunnel vision” immediately before fainting.  Experiments with pilots spun around in giant centrifuges have reproduced the tunnel vision phenomena by increasing G-forces and decreasing blood flow to their retinas (the periphery of the retina is more susceptible to drops in blood pressure than its center, so that the visual field appears compressed, making scenes appear as if viewed through a tunnel).  When special goggles that generate suction were applied to the pilots’ eyes to counteract the blood pressure lowering effect of the centrifuge, the pilots lost consciousness without developing the tunnel vision effect—proving the experience of tunnel vision to be caused by decreased blood flow to the eye.”


Um, but isn’t it the case that most NDEs happen when someone is unconscious (or at least mostly so) and so have their eyes closed?  If they have their eyes closed, they aren’t getting their visual input from the eye.  It’s also certainly the case that in the long tunnel they aren’t generally describing things that they could see from the eye; they are, in fact, having experiences of loved ones that have died and are clearly not actually present and reflecting photons to their eyes.  So how can impacting the eye give them an experience of a tunnel when their visual experiences don’t seem to be generated, at least, from the eye itself?  Lickerman provides no more explanation than is given here, and this seems to me to be a rather obvious point, and I’m quite surprised he didn’t at least mention it, even in a “It’s a myth that the eyes are closed” kinda way.

So, so far the first set of evidence should not be all that convincing and the second seems unrelated to the phenomena under examination.  Next he starts on about out-of-body experiences more specifically, despite the fact that his first point was already basically about them (one hopes):


“Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of NDEs is how often they’re associated with out-of-body experiences.  This, too, however, turns out to be an illusion.  Evidence that out-of-body experiences have nothing to do with souls leaving bodies can be found in the observation that they’ve also been reported by people just awakening from sleep, recovering from anesthesia, while fainting, during seizures, during migraines, and while at high altitudes (there’s no reason to think the souls of people are leaving their bodies during any of those non-life-threatening situations). ”


First, you need more than some interesting evidence to conclude that it just turns out to be an illusion, especially since the association of NDEs with out-of-body experiences is clearly not one; it happens and he relies on it happening in his first point.  Second, asserting that there’s no reason to think that the mind is actually leaving the body in the more mundane cases doesn’t count as evidence or even as an argument, and is contradicted by the long posited — but not proven — theories about astral projection.  It may indeed be possible for the mind to separate itself from the body in mundane cases, and only by ignoring that — ie presuming it wrong — can that assertion make any headway.

And one can even make an objective theory about it.  If mind and body are separate and separable, there’s likely a mechanism for determining when the mind should separate.  This would, of course, be triggered by actions in the brain the indicate that the brain is dying and the mind should leave.  As Lickerman already described, many of the mundane cases do involve issues with blood flow and cases where the brain is at best not functioning properly and at worst actually is in some sense shutting down.  So this mechanism triggers because it misfires, and the mind tries to separate from the body since it thinks the brain is dying.

It gets better.  Note that this mechanism itself need not be the mechanism that actually tethers the mind to the brain.  This may simply be a mechanism that tells the mind that this separation is occurring, and that it must prepare and start to vacate the brain.  But if it’s still connected, the mind and brain would not actually separate and so the mind could indeed return to the brain.  In the mundane cases, that would always occur because the separation would never have actually taken place.  In NDEs where revival occurs things would reset before real separation could occur.

We can also explain, then, how some people have different REM intrusions which makes them more likely to have NDEs.  REM intrusions might rely on similar mechanisms to this separation detection mechanism, and so people who are more likely to enter REM intrusion might also be prone to misfires of this mechanism.

Now, this is an alternate theory that also fits the evidence.  Other than Lickerman appealing to parsimony, there’s really no reason to consider his theroy better evidenced than the one I just provided at this point.  So now we turn to temporoparietal activations:


“One patient suffered from temporal lobe seizures and when Penfield stimulated the temporoparietal region of his brain, he reported leaving his body.  When the stimulation stopped, he “returned,” and when Penfield stimulated the temporoparietal region again, he left his body once more.”


Well, it should be obvious that this evidence doesn’t in any way impact the theory I just advanced; if that theory is right, then all Penfield did was find that mechanism.  And the other examples don’t support his theory better either because we all know that we can have phantom experiences — see, for example, phantom limbs — and artificially generated experiences, but none of those mean that there are never real experiences of that type, as was pointed out above.  So this is interesting and NDE theories have to account for it, but it’s not that impressive.

Which leads to:


“Further evidence that this phenomenon is an illusion comes from experiments in which people who’ve had out-of-body experiences when transitioning from sleep to wakefulness were unable to identify objects placed in the room after they’d fallen asleep, strongly suggesting the picture they viewed of themselves sleeping in their beds was reconstructed from memory.  ”


Which ignores the fact that all memory is, in fact, reconstruction, and is potentially prone to making those sorts of mistakes.  To test this properly, what we’d need is:

– Artificially generated cases where the subject is looking for the new object (to make it memorable).

– A memorable object.

– A way to make certain that these artificial cases are really the same as NDE cases.

Remember, Lickerman has already linked the sleep to wake case as a case of REM intrusion.  But REM intrusion might not be the same mechanism, as there are differences between them.  Maybe the out-of-body experiences in REM intrusions aren’t real out-of-body experiences at all, which is why you can’t identify new objects.  Or maybe there are memory issues.  In order to settle some of these, we need to define what an out-of-body experience is and what it has to have.   Lickerman asserts that they should remember but doesn’t have the evidence or even conceptual analysis to demonstrate that they really should.  It’s something, again, that out-of-body proponents need to address, but it doesn’t count as any sort of mass evidence for Lickerman’s theory and against OOB theory.


“In sum then, though far from proven, as an explanation for what actually explains near-death experiences, the REM intrusion hypothesis has far more evidence to support it than does the idea that we actually do leave our bodies when death looms near.”


No … no, it doesn’t.  OOB theory is compatible with most of the evidence presented or can be made such with minor adjusetments.  That’s hardly “far more evidence”, by any standard.

The problem here is that Lickerman isn’t treating OOB as a competing hypothesis.  He’s treating it as, at best, a folk explanation not worthy of real consideration.  That’s why he can completely ignore all considerations about what OOB actually entails and simply toss out things that he thinks the theory in its most basic form can’t explain.  But all scientific theories in all of the cases we’ve had previously were able to change their theories on the basis of new evidence without having to be thrown away because of one thing that doesn’t seem right, and I see no reason why OOB should be any different.  Eventually, some did go away — like caloric and phlogiston — but it isn’t clear what the line for that actually is; how much you can change a scientific theory before it stops being the same theory is not well-defined.  What Lickerman does here is find any issue that his preferred theory does better and declares that that means OOB is much less evidenced even if OOB could easily accommodate it.  Once we eliminated all the cases where OOB can accommodate the evidence, the evidence gap is far less than Lickerman posits.

Breaking the ice …

May 23, 2011

It’s been a while since I’ve talked about a board game here, so today I’d like to talk about a game that I bought just the other day:  NHL Icebreaker.  Basically, this is a small little NHL hockey simulator that turns out to be surprisingly fun.

The mechanism is quite simply.  You get a deck of cards just like a regular deck of cards, with all the suits and values represented, from Aces to Jokers.  The cards also have special features.  At the top is listed a direction and a number of steps, which is used to determine how far you’ve moved the puck by skating or passing it.  Below that there’s a “Shooting” section that has a team listed beside it that’s filled with flavour text about how you’ve scored a goal, and below that is a goaltending section that also has a team beside it and is also filled with flavour text, this time about how you’ve saved a goal.  Below that is an “Icebreaker” action that’s a special action that can range from you taking a penalty (lose a card and have a faceoff) to your opponent taking an action to your moving directly into the shooting zone.

So, how do players compete?  Well, each player is given a hand of cards from this deck, just like in a normal card game.  Then, they play cards mostly one at a time against each other.  The highest card wins, and the puck moves based on the skate/pass directions at the top of the card.  The goal is to move the puck into the “shooting zone” of your opponent, and then the next play determines the results of the shot on goal, whether that is a save or a goal.  When a hand runs out — and at some other times — the hand is redrawn, and when the deck runs out, that’s the end of one period.  Just like in hockey, you play three periods and potentially overtime and a shootout.

There are some special squares and circumstances, however:

– Beige/goldenish squares are called “Icebreakers”.  If the puck stops here after a movement, the next card is drawn from the deck and its Icebreaker text is applied.

– There are four breakaway squares around centre ice.  Stopping in one of these squares means that you move directly to the shooting zone.

– Each player chooses a team to represent them.  If the card you play in the shooting zone has your team written beside the appropriate action, it trumps all cards and you automatically “win” that round, either getting a goal or making a save.  In case of a tie, highest card still wins.

I played it with the solo version yesterday, playing as the Ottawa Senators against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and won 6 – 3.  In the solo version, the player only draws two cards and can’t refresh their hand until they’ve played both.  Each round is the player playing a card and then drawing the top card from the deck to be the card of their opponent.  Everything else works the same.

The game was remarkably fun, and quick.  It took me no longer than an hour to play, and there was a fair bit of up-and-down play in the game.  It was a close game until the third period when I went on a run and blew the game wide open.  The only issue is that penalties don’t matter much in this version; you can’t actually penalize the game opponent and the player doesn’t hold enough cards for it to usually matter.  The other thing I did that might not be in the rules is that when you have a path that moves diagonally and it hits the boards — ie it can’t move sideways anymore — I played it that the puck basically gets stuck along the boards and you aren’t moving anymore.

The game was very inexpensive but is quite a bit of fun.  I’m glad I bought it and it might actually get some play, especially since its solo version allows for a bit of strategy while allowing it to be played solo.

Suggest a book to read …

May 16, 2011

Okay, so Russell Blackford at Metamagician has been reading John Haught’s God and the New Atheism.  And I think I have to read it now, or at least that I probably should, just to see if it is as bad as Blackford says.  And there’s another book that I said I had to read that I can’t recall at the moment but would have to look up on “Butterflies and Wheels”.

Now, my readership is not large, but if anyone here wants to suggest other books that they’d like me to read — theist, atheist, or otherwise — this is the thread to do it in.  Just add a comment with it and if I like it it’ll go on this list:

Synthese Scandal …

May 16, 2011

So, over a Pharyngula P.Z. Myers is noting an old scandal about the philosophical journal Synthese and an editorial addition to the printed version that people are unhappy about:

Seems that this has now made the New York Times, and so it’s now public.  So what is it?  Well, according to Myers, Leiter, and the Times, there was a special issue of the journal talking about evolution and rivals to it, and Barbara Forrest submitted and got published in the online journal an article focusing on the views of Francis J. Beckwith.  After it was published online, there seem to have been some complaints about the tone, and the two main editors pubished a disclaimer in the printed version that some of the papers — at least one other — didn’t quite meet the tone of academic papers.  This, then, upset some philosophers and, well, controversy and petitions and calls to boycott abounded.

I care little about that, and haven’t read the paper yet.  So, going by the Times, this is what was considered problematic:


“In language some would later criticize as unfit for a scholarly journal, Dr. Forrest also questioned Dr. Beckwith’s qualifications, writing that he takes positions on church/state issues but has “no formal credentials as a constitutional scholar.” She suggested connections between Dr. Beckwith and intelligent design theorists and the marginal, far-right Christian Reconstructionists, who believe that a theocracy under Old Testament law is the best form of government.”


So, judging just by this, in a philosophy paper no one should ever question someone’s “formal credentials” without at least going into far more detail about why they’re wrong.  In fact, you probably shouldn’t do it at all.  In fact, you probably shouldn’t do it in any academic paper.  If they’re wrong about the Constitution, point it out with quotes and evidence, don’t just toss out “They don’t know what they’re talking about”.  That’s what you do in a blog post, not in an academic paper.  And if she just said that his arguments were similar, that’s not bad (although one can question the choice of comparison; if more moderate IDers were available for comparison, it does start to look like an ad hominem attack).  If, however, she insinuated that he was associated with them that’s a clear ad hominem attack and one would have to wonder how it was published in the first place.

Again, I haven’t read it yet (my access to online journals requires things that are at home), but I think that there may well be a case for it being out of line.  And it doesn’t surprise me that Myers seems to be focusing more on it trashing a creationist than on it being a reasonable and valid criticism.

Codes of Conduct and Discrimination …

May 16, 2011

With the whole Synthese flap that’s going on — and I’ll comment on that later, I hope — I’ve looked at some of the posts on Brian Leiter’s blog about how much he really, really dislikes Francis Beckwith, which included comments about his defense of bigotry, which led to a discussion about discriminatory practices:

Basically, the issue here is that there are some — mostly Christian, one presumes; the example given is clearly Christian — that post jobs in the Jobs for Philosophers index that seem to violate the APA’s anti-discrimination guidelines.  How do they do this?  Well, they aren’t explicit about it, but include a code of conduct that applicants must sign that says that they won’t do certain things that are considered — at least in the minds of the university — to be opposed to Christian values, and one of those things is homosexual activity.  For Leiter and those he cites — and many who comment there — this violates the anti-discriminatory guidelines of the APA and these universities should not be allowed to post jobs there.

Now, there is an actual interesting issue here that kinda gets pushed aside overly quickly in the comments.  It is clear that universities and other businesses have the right — philosophically and legally — to institute codes of conduct for their employees.  It’s also the case that sometimes these codes of conduct can be used to institute hidden discrimination, by paying lip service to inclusiveness but by then defining a code of conduct that would exclude everyone of a certain group from it.  This gets tossed around a bit in the comments, but a comment from Leiter is just so indicative of the arrogance and tone issues that come up in so many places these days that I just have to highlight it:


“I think this particular thread has now exhausted itself. Professor Norcross is obviously correct, and he should not have to respond further to the non-interventions and posturings of Mr. Peoples.”


This comment was made seven minutes after Norcross asked for an additional argument from Peoples, and still didn’t actually address Peoples’ comments himself.  And he isn’t obviously right, and Peoples did actually have a point that most of Norcross’ arguments were simply making comparisons without showing that they really were relevant.  For Leiter to shut it down by saying that Norcross was just plain right should rightfully bother anyone who thinks they might disagree with him.  He can justifiably shut down a thread that’s reduced to spinning of wheels, but the thread hadn’t reached that point.  While he — like anyone who runs a blog — have the right to stop discussion for whatever reason they want, Leiter likes to stand on the side of intellectual freedom, but then cuts off discussion in a way that seemingly does not allow Peoples to respond and — by stating that the answer is “obvious” — discourages anyone else from taking up the objections in what might be a more reasonable manner.

And let’s look at those arguments that are obviously right (from the last comment from Norcross):


“First, in the comment above yours, I said, “Given the importance of sex to most people, such a ban says to those of homosexual orientation “you aren’t allowed to gain sexual fulfillment”, while saying to heterosexuals, “but you are””. ”


The problem is that this is one thing that Peoples actually did address:


“Christian colleges frequently have fairly extensive codes of conduct – at times (in what I regard as fairly extreme cases) even requiring that faculty members abstain from drinking alcoholic beverages, smoking or gambling. They realise that an applicant might find those things desirable or even enjoyable. In fact they may even make very broad claims like “we expect our faculty to live in a manner that is exemplary of Christian life.” The framers of such statements are generally firm believers that people don’t wish to do so all the time. But they require that regardless of how a person might find themselves wanting to live (be that by smoking, drinking, gambling, partaking of various forms of entertainment, having certain sexual relationships), they choose to forgo these things while they are members of the faculty even if they personally think that proper Christian morality should not require these restrictions.”


That people find sexual fulfillment important isn’t an argument, since the code of conduct applies to many such things.  For example, a ban on the consumption of alcohol would take away one of life’s great pleasures for some people, and affect me not at all (since, for issues of personal taste, I don’t drink).  Any restriction on conduct will do this, and so saying that that in and of itself is discrimination — as Norcross’ comment suggests — is absolutely false.  If this objection is to make any hay, it has to be because of a special relation to sexual preference.

Note that when Leiter quotes the relevant section of Wheaton’s code of conduct, he quotes this:


Wheaton College requires its applicants to sign a form with the following statement. “We believe that these Christian standards will show themselves in a distinctly Christian way of life, an approach to living we expect of ourselves and one another. This lifestyle involves practicing those attitudes and actions the Bible portrays as virtuous and avoiding those the Bible portrays as sinful…Scripture condemns the following:…homosexual behavior” A version of this form can be found here.”


But the full section — from the link Leiter gives — is this:


“sexual immorality, such as the use of pornography (Matt. 5:27-28),
pre-marital sex, adultery, homosexual behavior and all other sexual
relations outside the bounds of marriage between a man and
woman (Rom. 1:21-27; 1 Cor. 6:9; Gen. 2:24; Eph. 5:31).


This would include a lot of heterosexual sex, and would indeed be discrimination on the basis of marital status if it was discrimination at all.  And yet, somehow, the APA doesn’t seem to care about that sort of discrimination, as their policy as quoted in Leiter’s post is:


Further, The American Philosophical Association rejects as unethical all forms of discrimination based on race, color, religion, political convictions, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, gender identification or age,”

Anyway, making the case that this is special requires the second of Norcross’ summarized arguments:


“One I gave was about the college that claims not to discriminate against women, but requires all its employees to pee standing up. Mark Lance gave the example of the college that claims not to discriminate against Christians, but forbids its employees from attending church, praying, etc.”


Norcross’ example, interestingly enough, is a very weak one, as women can pee standing up, but it’s just difficult for them and likely messy.  If this got called out, it would be because no one can see any possible reason why anyone would implement it except as a reason to make positions there less desirable to women.  That’s clearly not the case here, as a Christian code of conduct is quite likely to include homosexuality in their more lengthly discussion of sexual immorality because it is indeed considered such and that section is only one small section of a rather large list of things that are seen as being against Christian morality.  So Norcross’ argument clearly doesn’t work.  And remember that Leiter claimed that Norcross was obviously right.

Mark Lance, though, has a decent analogy, which can start off the discussion.  Why the case of “We’ll hire you if you’re Christian, as long as you agree to not practice your religion” raises alarms is that practicing your religion is certainly a protected right.  It’s odd to have as a restriction on your behaviour that you not practice your religion as a protected right.  However, no one would have any issues with a code of professional conduct that said that you couldn’t — in your professional life — display or discuss your religion, or pray in those cases.  So clearly, one can restrict religious behaviour in a professional code of conduct, but there are limits to that restriction.

To get the same special consideration, then, sexual preference must tie into a right.  There is no right to a sexual preference, so this must get in under the right to not be unduly discriminated against, which I’ll grant here for the sake of argument.  Thus, we can consider whether or not in this case they are being unduly discriminated against.  And this is no where near as obvious as Leiter thinks it is.  Recall the case above about peeing standing up.  In that case, we concluded that it was problematic only because there seemed to be no reason for the restriction; it seemed clearly designed to discriminate.   This also seems to be the natural distinction between the “Can’t go to church or pray” and the “Can’t display religion in your professional dealings”; we can all see why the latter might be instituted — to avoid any hint that there might be preferential treatment on the basis of shared religion — but can’t really see any reason for the latter.  If we could — and right now I don’t want to try, but would on request — I submit that we’d be willing to accept the discrimination in that case, as it wouldn’t seem to be an arbtrary restriction put in place only to discomfort a particular group but a reasonable restriction referencing the goals of the institution.  As long as we accept those goals, then, we’d accept the “discrimination”.

And this returns us to the code of conduct, and its goal of promoting a Christian way of life.  It certainly does that; the code of conduct lists many such rules covering a wide range of topics.  The restriction, then, is part of an overall policy that supports a specific goal.   As such, it is not arbitrary, but a reasonable code given that end goal of promoting a Christian way of life.  If one accepts that a Christian university may hold as a valid goal promoting a Christian way of life — even if you think they are wrong to do so — then this cannot be seen as discrimination.  At least, to my mind.  And so the arguments don’t seem to work; more and better arguments are needed.

Finally, I find the end of Norcross’ comment bemusing:


So, Glenn, once again, let me tell you something about how philosophical argument goes. In ethics, it’s common to argue from examples. Philosopher A wants to demonstrate that behavior X has moral feature F. He says, X is morally relevantly just like Y, which clearly has feature F. What’s the proper response to this, if you want to disagree? You have two options:

(i) Show (as in actually demonstrate by argument) that X is not morally relevantly just like Y. This will involve explaining the morally relevant respects in which X and Y differ.

(ii) Show that Y doesn’t clearly have feature F.

“I just don’t buy it” is not a philosophical response. It is a piece of psychological autobiography. If you don’t want to/ aren’t capable of engaging with what are clearly arguments, fine. Not everyone is cut out to be a philosopher. Let a thousand flowers bloom. But don’t pretend that no-one has given arguments.”


Well, the problem is that if someone merely asserts that X is like Y and so if we think that Y is wrong then X should be as well, it’s a perfectly good response — even from philosophers — to say “Why do you think that X is sufficiently like Y to make the case that both should have F?”.  Surely it isn’t up to the objector to define the similarity that the person proposing the argument is going after and the refute it?  Who has the burden of proof?  Argumentatively, the person putting forward the argument should demonstrate why they are the same, and not just rely on people seeing it that way.  This is even more important in philosophy since clear notions of concepts are critically important to it and what philosophy is all about.  Saying that he isn’t cut out for philosophy because he — possibly rightly — pointed out that Norcross seems to have relied on the examples to completely provide the arguments instead of providing one himself is, bluntly, quite out of line.

Computer of Hats …

May 11, 2011

In the latest Not-So-Casual Commentary, I take on Valve’s Portal 2 store: