Ayer, On Theism

So this Ayer piece is incredibly engaging – to the point that you be forgiven for thinking this was one of my CHID teaching documents, I have scribbled it so purple. (Fellow chiddies who took classes with me, or for that matter received graded papers from me, know precisely what I am talking about. “What do you mean, did I dip this in purple koolaid?…”)

So as Ayer goes through this chapter on the critique of ethics and theology, he says the following:

For it is characteristic of an agnostic to hold that the existence of a god is a possibility in which there is no good reason either to believe or disbelieve;… As for the agnostic, although he refrains from saying either that there is or that there is not a god, he does not deny that the question whether a transcendent god exists is a genuine question. He does not deny that the two sentences “There is a transcendent god” and “There is no transcendent god” express propositions one of which is actually true and the other false. All he says is that we have no means of telling which of them is true, and therefore ought not to commit ourselves to either.1

For someone who reads as though he studied at Russell’s knees, and is quite obviously influenced by him in many areas, this strikes me as a shocking misunderstanding of what agnosticism is.

Russell was an agnostic – at least a modern agnostic who felt that the non-anthropomorphic God is one that cannot obviously be disproven. He said later on in specific clarification to the idea that he was an atheist that he doesn’t think that there is a conclusive argument bu which one can prove that there is no God. Now granted, he was speaking to philosophers, but in theory that is what we – or at least Ayer – are. Russell was also willing to postulate a superhuman intelligence, noting that it might appear to us to be more than it is simply because it is outside the bounds of what we can know (which neatly traces to the root words of agnosticism). Ayer, on the other hand, wants to stick to a binary2 concept of true/false, known/unknown.

Going back to Huxley, credited with coining the term agnosticism, we see that it lterally means without knowledge, that it is futile to attempt to know the reality corresponding not only to our religious beliefs, but our scientific and philosophic ideas.

The agnostic is not saying that we have no means of telling which sentence concerning faith is true and which is false, and therefore ought not to commit ourselves to either, as Ayer characterizes. The agnostic is saying that I don’t know, I can’t know, and futhermore, don’t care! Ayer characterizes the agnostic as waffling, when in reality the agnostic has shrugged and walked away from the entire debate as being one not worth pursuing, except over rounds of Guinness.

  1. A.J. Ayer, “Criqitue of Ethics and Theology” in Language, Truth and Logic, New York: Dover Publications, Inc. 1952. pp 114-116 []
  2. and we all know how that concept makes me shudder []

disappearing into experience

The things that make you disappear into experience are random things. Or, to place it in Sartre’s terms, since I really should be writing about Sartre and not the other things swirling in my mind, some things hit so hard and fast they drop us from the reflective into the non-reflective, me-in-the-world. Like the red stained wood and Elliot Bay ferry images of Seattle’s Best Coffee.

It’s funny; Grey’s Anatomy doesn’t really make me homesick. It makes me laugh, because the closest they’ve been to Seattle is some alternative world Seattle where you go north on 99 from Queen Anne to get to Downtown. There are occasionally things I recognize, like flyers for the 5 Spot, but it’s so obviously a fictional place I feel no greater affinity for it than I do any other place I’ve never been.

But for just a moment, the pure, non-reflective experience of this Seattle’s Best had me both wondering where I was and experiencing Seattle, and missing Seattle. I miss the sharp smell of the saltwater air, the breezes racing up streets, playing hide and seek with you as you run through the Downtown grid, the misty dripping of the weather, the campus, the people. I miss going to wine bars with friends, meeting up for coffee or movies, the occasional night dancing, sitting in my cramped living room with the cats, doing shots to Stargate, birthday parties… I miss the life I had.

Isn’t it weird, when we slip into experiential being, and forget where we are? I had that a lot last weekend in Denver – I was around everyone I see here in Albany, and inside, so it was hard to remember that I was actually in Denver and not simply at a long affair at home. Stepping up to the Seattle’s Best counter, looking at the ferry/Public Market picture, I had that same sort of experiential dissonance, where for a moment, I knew I was in Seattle, and if I turned around and walked outside, it would be damp, grey, cold, and familiar. The moment I moved to reflective self, to saying “I am thinking I’m in Seattle”, I was of course able to say “no, idiot, I’m standing in Albany thinking I’m thinking I’m in Seattle” (which I suppose leaps from the first to second reflective state), but there is still a sharp jarring between the non-reflective and reflective. I feel I’m in one place, while I know I’m in another.

I wonder if any of the phenomenologists have an answer for that?

wide reflective equilibrium and HIV testing recommendations

I spent a few hours this evening reading, and writing up a rough proposal for a paper due soon. This is that proposal,…

Thanks so much for the recommendation of Norman Daniels. I’m not sure how
I’ve not come across him so far, but I’ve picked up both “Seeking Fair
Treatment: From the AIDS Epidemic to National Health Care Reform” and
“Justice and Justification: Reflective Equilibrium In Theory and Practice”
and they’ve helped crystalize a lot of the more abstract nature of Rawls
for me.

For the first paper topic, as we already briefly discussed, I would like
to do an applied analysis of the new CDC HIV testing guidelines. While
there are several major changes in the new recommendation guidelines, what
I am specifically interested in discussing is, I suppose, the fairness or
justness of testing adolescents, particularly those in the 13-18 year old
age range. Limiting my scope to New York State law, the basic problem is
this: an adolescent can consent to HIV testing, and notification laws do
not require that the parents of an adolescent be contacted if the minor is
seropositive. However, a minor cannot consent to HIV treatment, parental
approval must be sought. While family planning clinics can offer HIV
testing, the only treatment they are allowed to provide to a minor is that
relating to family planning – that is, to provide birth control services,
abortion access, and STI testing and medical treatment for that which can
be cured.

The problem, then, becomes a conflict of several interests: the social
obligation to protect those who’re seronegative, the social obligation to
protect the privacy of adolescent sexual lives, and creating a situation
of conflicting interests for health providers, who cannot protect the
privacy of seropositive teenagers and treat them for the disease.

I think that the best way to look at this is simply utilizing Rawls’ wide
reflective equilibrium, basically testing various aspects of the moral
beliefs we hold against one another. Can we use a fair procedure to select
among the various moral beliefs/princinples that are coming in to
conflict, and reach some principled conclusion (whether it agrees or
disagrees with the CDC recommendations)? Daniels provides a framework for
how to approach this, without specifically addressing the issue of opt-out
HIV testing.

I have a feeling that will give me more than enough material for the
suggested length of this particular paper, especially if I follow Rawls
model of showing how his theory differs from what utilitarianism would
demand (and in this case, the utilitarian answer is crystal clear –
interestingly, I’m not entirely certain what the Rawlsian answer will be).

So, I think that’s my topic proposal. Please let me know where you think I
should go with it, or any modifications I should make.

Bad Jokes

The worst philosophy joke, as told to me earlier this evening by Professor Jerry Levinson:

A young man is going out on his first date, and is very nervous. He asks his father what should he do, if conversation fails? The boy’s father tells him this is easy, just remember family, food and philosophy. “The three ‘fs’.”

So the young man and his date are driving back from the movies, and conversation has indeed failed. Desperate, he remembers his fathers advice and asks, “So, do you have any brothers or sisters?”

“I’m an only child.” She replies shortly.

“Oh.” He thinks, and remembers the next ‘f’ is food. “Uh, do you like broccoli?”

“No, I hate it.”

“Oh.” He thinks a little longer, remembers the third categorty, and asks, “So, if you had a brother, would he like broccoli?”

…yes, I laughed. Hard. We all did.

And then Pete followed it up with the worst utilitarian joke he’d ever heard, which I’m also going to force on your eyes:

A small bunch of utilitarians had a food group, where they would gather together and cook for one another, sharing food and wine, appreciating the good. At one meeting, one of the members told them, excitedly, that he had just heard of a recipe that made the most perfect, succulent pork ever! The problem was, you had to put the live pig in a metal box, then heat it slowly over a period of 24 hours. The pig would die after 12-13 hours of intense pain. But! It apparently made the best pork you would ever, ever taste! The group was eager to try this, but one member asked whether or not they could, in good conscience, do this – was the net gain of good enough to warrant the extreme suffering of the pig?

Everyone sighed and frowned and thought about it, agreeing that it was an awful lot of suffering to cause… then one member snapped his fingers and said “I have it!” Everyone looked eagerly to him for the solution: “All we have to do is get more members!”

…I’ll spare you the rest of the jokes that were flying around the table. I, however, had an awesome time: an interesting discussion on aesthetics and no one true beauty, lasting several hours, accompanied by dinner at a very nice French restaurant, followed by drinks and live music at a very funky jazz bar. (And how small is this town? Small enough that we ran into another grad student at that jazz bar, out on a date.) All in all, a lovely way to spend the day – laughter, geekiness, and intelligent discourse. For all my moments of homesickness lately, having the occasional day like this really nicely highlights why I am here.

Late and Early

Insomnia struck tonight – I guess that’s what happens when I don’t take something to help me fall asleep. I’m running low on that arsenal, though, and can’t afford to pick up Lunesta on my own. I have to wait for both finaid and my prescription card to get here, and who knows how long that will take. So I thought, since I was sleepy, I’d just wait for the sleepy to become the sort of sleepy where, well, you go to sleep.

It’s 5:15am, and that hasn’t happened yet.

So on the one hand it’s late. I had a full day, too – the first day of class. I think I’ll enjoy it; phenomenology with Ron. It looks like it will be a good blend of familiar while also pushing what I know.

After class, I wandered through the graduate student office, chatted with a couple of people, and started to meet the other students. By some weird twist of fate, everyone I talked with today was also new, and we all seem to hit it off well. An added plus? We all have slightly overlapping, but very different interests. This means we compliment one another well; N~ will be able to help me with, say, political philosophy, while I can probably help Sa~ with phenomenology.

The important thing, though, is meeting people I like, and that I can talk to.

I played in the library after that, and I ended up bringing home a stack of books, a stack of books I don’t have to return until 2007. Anyone who remembers my bitching about the UW library policy for undergraduates doing research (essentially, nothing) will know how much this fills me with joy. And even better, I can have up to 200 books out at a time! Delicious freedom!

Anyhow, I did a couple of other things, and got home in time to eat dinner before my Weds night entertainment. I figured I’d be in bed around midnight, 1am at the latest. But that didn’t happen, and now it’s late.

It’s also early. We’ve ventured into and are soaking in that time of the morning I love, when the world is quiet and soft, and it seems like it can’t be complete without a cup of tea and perhaps a few biscuits at hand. It’s the dawn version of the gloaming, the world holding its breath as it waits for the sun. This is a wonderful time of day for me, and I’m always extremely productive during it. (So you’d think I’d consistently get up at this hour. The problem, of course, is that there’s so much on in the evening I enjoy, and I truly am still a night owl. What I need to do is be able to sleep from 8am – 2pm!) So I feel like I should do things, unpack things, organize and make right. I’d love to have everything set up here by Monday at the latest, but I don’t see that happening without serious energy or help. Naturally I feel like I should take advantage of this time of day and the energy and wholeness that comes with it.

Except, of course, the fact that my arm hurts when I even flex it (yet I still type; I know, I know), and the more base fact that I appear to have slipped into hallucinating slightly. It’s that sort of watery world hallucination, where you are suddenly seeing everything through 5 feet of slightly waving water. My senses are hyperalert, just…wrongly so. So in addition to the natural wonder of this time of day, I have the crystalline perceptions of a world slightly distant, shot with electric pain at every twitch.

And now, two cats, both insistently cuddling and purring. Perhaps I should rearrange things so that they have more room than the computer, and contemplate how I’d like to arrange my books – maybe I’ll get better perspective from a horizontal position. One that includes a squishy thing other than cat, and a a shawl knit from love and friendship.