Monthly Archives: October 2016

The never ending discussion: what’s philosophy good for?

Footnotes to Plato

Seven years ago I officially began my career as a philosopher, being appointed as Chair of the Department of Philosophy at CUNY’s Lehman College. One of my first duties was to completely restructure the Department’s web site, which looked awful and was hopelessly out of date. So I spent my first summer on the job (well, technically, even before starting my job, which officially began at the end of August) putting together the new site. If you visit the web pages of most philosophy departments, including Lehman’s, you will notice two differences between them and those of pretty much any other academic field (including not just the natural sciences, but also the rest of the humanities): first, they will almost certainly feature either a painting of Rafael’s School of Athens, or an image of Rodin’s Thinker (those accompanying this post, up left). Second, they will have a tab labeled something…

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A petition to remove Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali from the SPLC “hatemonger list”

Why Evolution Is True

As I noted yesterday, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) has screwed up big time by including the names of Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali on its “field guide to anti-Muslim activists”, saying that these reformers “fuel the hatred of Muslims.” That’s simply not true, and is an outrageous accusation. If reform is to come to extremist Islam, it will be from people like these, who have no fear of criticizing not Muslims, but the oppressive parts of their faith.

Change.org has a petition directed to the SPLC to remove the names of Hirsi Ali and Nawaz from their list. Of course they won’t, but I think it’s important that the SPLC know that many of us support the reformist activities of Hirsi Ali, Nawaz, and the Nawaz’s Qulliam Foundation. If you found the SPLC’s inclusion of these two as odious as I and many readers did, please go over…

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On the difficulty of being a world citizen

The Conversation

Mark Beeson, University of Western Australia

To say the idea of world government gets mixed reviews would be an understatement, to put it mildly. Many people dismiss the idea out of hand as either a utopian fantasy or a recipe for dictatorship by unaccountable elites bent on world domination.

Even those who don’t lie awake at night fretting about black helicopters and what goes on in smoke-filled rooms packed with powerful vested interests quite justifiably worry about democratic accountability.

At an historical moment when democratic institutions around the world are suffering a crisis of legitimacy and being undermined by a rising tide of populism and xenophobia, making the case for world government is consequently getting increasingly difficult.

The most promising example of institutionalised international cooperation we have yet seen – the European Union – is in crisis and has become synonymous with dysfunction. Britain’s ill-advised decision to leave only reinforces the idea that such projects are definitively off the historical agenda.

Paradoxically enough, however, some of the smartest people on the planet continue to argue that not only is world government desirable, it’s actually a functional necessity and one that will inevitably be realised. The only question is when.

The casual observer can be forgiven for feeling somewhat confused. Even those of us who take a professional interest in such matters can succumb to bouts of acute cognitive dissonance as we try to get our heads around what we – in this case the human race – need to do to survive in a civilised fashion.

The reality is that some problems such as climate change simply cannot be addressed by isolated “communities of fate” of a sort that have come to dominate politics and governance over the last four or five hundred years.

The fact that we all live within nationally demarcated boundaries is one of the defining features of modern political life. And it determines the existential variety, too. Those born in Victorian Britain thought they had won life’s lottery – or those in the upper classes did, at least.

Even now, people are willing to risk their lives to get into “the West” with its implicit promise of affluence, peace and social stability. It’s not hard to see why.

Some would say it was ever thus: throughout history, life has always been tough and uncertain for many – perhaps most – of the human race. Indeed, it’s possible to make a plausible argument that we humans have collectively never had so good.

But this rather abstract way of thinking about the human condition is not much consolation to those living in Syria rather than Sydney. For those of us fortunate enough in such privileged enclaves of peace and prosperity the question is whether we have obligations beyond borders.

Are we obliged to care about the fates of strangers we will never meet and whose lives only appear fleetingly, if at all, on our television screens?

At one level, the answer is clearly “no”. Unless you subscribe to some sort of religious belief that obliges you to take an interest in the welfare of your fellow man or woman, no one can compel us to care. True, seeing children getting blown up night after night gets a bit wearing, but you can always literally and metaphorically switch off.

But even if we take this quite understandable approach to problems we can do little to address, they will not disappear from the world’s political agenda or even from our consciousness. The fact is that we are stuck with them.

The world really is much more interconnected, interdependent and interactive than it has ever been before. What happens in one part of the world really can exert an influence elsewhere – even if it’s only in an increasingly futile effort to seal off one part of the world from the problems of another.

It is precisely because of the global nature of many problems that some people think that world government, or at least an increasingly effective process of global governance, has to be part of the way we conduct human affairs, however unlikely that might seem in principle.

It is also becoming ever more apparent that even relatively humdrum policy issues such as taxation are becoming impossible to manage without high levels of international cooperation that transcend national boundaries.

Yet even if we accept that transnational cooperation is a necessity for achieving effective governance in everything from climate change, disaster relief, to the governance of myriad areas of economic and social life, actually doing this effectively and uncontroversially is much easier said than done.

Not only will some actors inevitably benefit more than others from such initiatives, but some states also remain implacably opposed to the very idea of anything that impinges on national sovereignty.

In East Asia where I do most of my research, states have a long history of jealously protecting national sovereignty and little enthusiasm for the sort of cooperation that characterised the European Union in its heyday.

Indeed, many in Asia feel vindicated by what has happened to the EU of late and read it as a cautionary tale of elite level hubris, rather than the most important attempt yet to transcend narrow national interests in pursuit of a more cosmopolitan common cause.

For students of international politics like me this is a real problem at both an intellectual and personal level. Part of me thinks that the arguments for greater international cooperation in the face of global problems are simply overwhelming and self-evident.

But I am also very familiar with Asia’s empirical and historical record; it has created entrenched ideational and institutional obstacles to greater cooperation that are unlikely to be overcome in my lifetime – which is understandably the principal focus of my attention.

So what should those of us who would like to see greater collaboration occur actually do in the face of such seemingly insurmountable institutionalised obstacles? One response might be to follow Antonio Gramsci who said that he was “a pessimist because of intelligence, but an optimist because of will.”

Developing forms of global citizenship, world government and a common consciousness do seem inherently improbable at this historical juncture. Believing in the possibility of change is vital, however, if only for our own psychological well being.

[An earlier version of this article appeared on the World Government Research Networklink text]

The ConversationMark Beeson, Professor of International Politics, University of Western Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali named a “anti-Muslim extremists” by the Southern Poverty Law Center

Why Evolution Is True

Many readers reported this incident to me, and I wish I had time to do justice to this story, though others, including Harry’s Place and especially Sarah Haider at The Ex-Muslim, have written about the story in detail.

The upshot: the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), increasingly a refuge for Social Justice Warriors, has published a list and analysis of critics of Islam called “A field guide to anti-Muslim activists” (pdf of the full report is here). The SPLC named 15 people who, in their view, “fuel the hatred of Muslims” in America. Among those named are those who are marginal bigots, like Pamela Geller as well as seemingly real bigots like Frank Gaffney; but two names also appear who are familiar Muslim or ex-Muslim reformers: Maajid Nawaz and Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

You can read the analysis at the respective sections (Hirsi Ali here and Nawaz here), but all I…

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Gorgeous Gaudi, Barcelona, 28.10.10

Travels with Tim and Lisa

Well, today we slogged our way through two very long queues but we have seen and been inside both the Sagrada Familia and the Casa Mila.  These iconic works of architecture by Antoni Gaudi are huge tourist attractions, and now we know why!

We started with the the church because we were expecting the queue to be long, and we had an excellent guide – much better than an audio guide because she was there to answer questions, and was also up-to-date with the latest news…

Which is that the Pope is due to come and consecrate it next week!  (That’s why there’s a poster on the steeple, it’s advertising The Big Event).    Thank goodness we came this week and not next because the crowds will be unimaginable – this building was started in 1883 and so proclaiming it as a basilica is a major milestone and one that will bring Barcelona…

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Do we thank science for all our prosperity?

The Conversation

Beth Webster, Swinburne University of Technology

It is easy to see the benefits from the advances we have made in physics, chemistry, engineering, computer science and the life sciences. Without these impressive leaps in understanding, we would not have lifesaving drugs; computers, wifi; modern transport and the warm, safe houses that are essential to our contemporary lifestyle.

Ask anyone to list the world’s top inventions and you are sure to get a list of gadgets and materials. The benefits are immediately tangible and directly traceable.

What about the social sciences?

Less heralded are the benefits to society derived from the ideas of the social sciences and humanities. Anecdotally, we can see that when they are good, they are very good.

Financial innovations in the form of marine insurance, for example, made the great 17th century European voyages of trade to India and beyond possible. The invention of the joint stock company funded the railways.

Without the theory of British economist John Maynard Keynes, the financial crisis of 2008 would have deepened into a 1930s-style depression. Economics has brought us the theory and translation behind Medicare; HECS, the income contingent student loans scheme and Bruce Chapman) and the National Disability Insurance Scheme (the Productivity Commission and others).

In most cases, reforms to social institutions do not occur without shifts in public attitudes about human rights, entrenched poverty, business models and social responsibility. Policy makers rely on the eloquence and clinching logic of philosophers from law (Julian Burnside, Michael Kirby and others) and the other humanities to lever these changes through.

Innovation is a team sport

Innovation is a human activity. It is rare to find a lone genius, and, even if one existed, they would be unlikely to make a big impact because human interaction is needed to transform these ideas into widespread use.

Yet our understanding of how we can engineer change and societal betterment is largely unscientific and is based on anecdotes, intuition and prejudice. We throw dollars at nascent ideas with only a rudimentary consideration of the human context in which the research will be undertaken.

There are researchers who are undertaking objective, robust studies on what makes research successful: how do research teams transcend national boundaries (Paula Stefan); how do networks of researchers optimally interact (Dean Lusher); what is the trade-off in research between breadth and depth of skill (Ben Jones); and how do breakthrough inventions arise (Reinhilde Veugelers)? But funding for these studies is minuscule compared with the billions of dollars spent worldwide in research for the physical sciences.

Physical sciences still seen as the main game

The explicit assumption in almost all research funding bodies is that the physical sciences are the main game – serious men’s work – and the HASS (humanities, arts and social sciences) is the fluffy stuff we need to keep the “girls” happy.

Three quarters of Australian Research Council funds go to the science and engineering disciplines and only one in ten Centre of Excellence grants are given to the HASS community.

University rules about what constitutes good research are dominated by what is normal in the natural sciences. Professors have “labs” with a few post-docs and a dozen PhD students. This is not the model that works for the HASS disciplines, but the HASS are constantly having to fight against this assumed model of “gold standard” research. International rankings are based on hi-cite definitions and Web of Science databases that assume the normal physical science mode of operation is the best.

Where should we spend our marginal dollar?

It is a question of where is the best place to spend our marginal dollar. Consider the last million dollars of our national research budget. Should we spend it on the physical sciences or on the social sciences and humanities? Where are the barriers to change that are stalling improvements to our society?

I would argue that changing community understanding on how a carbon tax operates (i.e. by changing householder and business behaviour) would have had a bigger effect on Australian carbon emissions than another study on the engineering of photovoltaics.

The ConversationBeth Webster, Director, Centre for Transformative Innovation, Swinburne University of Technology

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Folly at Tufts University: Cops could investigate questionable Halloween costumes, students could be expelled

Why Evolution Is True

The College Halloween Costume Follies are spreading, and I can only imagine how ludicrous they will be next year. From The College Fix(you’re not going to read this in PuffHo), we hear about the costume policies of Tufts University in Medford, MA. That’s just outside Cambridge, MA, and the academic home of Daniel Dennett.

First, the Greek Life Council at Tufts (recall that the use of the word “Greek” in conjunction with fraternities and sororities was recently deemed a cultural appropriation) sent a letter to the heads of the university’s fraternities and sororities outlining the kinds of costumes that are verboten. You can see the full letter here, and this is an excerpt:

Greek Brothers and Sisters have worn costumes that appropriate cultures and reproduce stereotypes on race, gender, sexuality, immigrant or socioeconomic status. Outfits relating to tragedy, controversy, or acts of violence are also inappropriate. We…

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Stoicism and social justice

How to Be a Stoic

Justice is one of the fundamental Stoic virtues, together with practical wisdom (or prudence), courage, and temperance. And yet there is rarely talk, in Stoic circles of social justice, in the contemporary sense of the term. This, I will endeavor to argue, should be neither surprising nor problematic, but at the same time I do think that we need to clarify what is a reasonable Stoic take on social justice, which I will also attempt to do here.

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The curious power of hate propaganda in open societies

The Conversation

Cherian George, Hong Kong Baptist University

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.


When George Orwell contemplated trends toward tyranny in 1984, he saw a world where truths were violently obliterated to leave Big Brother’s lies unchallenged. This negation of knowledge and erasure of human experience, he mused, was:

… more terrifying than mere torture or death.

But something curious has happened in the post-totalitarian world, which even Orwell’s penetrating gaze did not foresee.

Today, demagogues don’t actually need to silence or censor their opponents. It turns out their followers are quite happy to succumb to wilful blindness, believing what they want to believe even as contradictory evidence stares them in the face.

One result of this is open societies remain surprisingly susceptible to misinformation that instigates intimidation, discrimination and violence against vulnerable groups. Untruths doled out in hate campaigns find ready buyers even in a free marketplace of ideas.

The unholy appeal of outright lies has been on stunning display in Donald Trump’s rise as the Republican candidate for the US presidency. Independent fact-checking organisation PolitiFact has found 71% of his statements to be mostly false, false or in the “pants-on-fire” category.

This phenomenon is not new. More than a decade has passed since satirist Stephen Colbert coined the word “truthiness”, referring to stuff that some people lap up because it feels right – even though it definitely isn’t.

Right-wing conservatives on every continent have long mastered the art of weaving simple, comforting ideas into a security blanket against a complex and diverse world they perceive as threatening to their values and way of life.


Who needs to think when just feeling is enough?

This tendency toward self-delusion might be largely harmless but for the fact the untruths being circulated often vilify other communities. And the invective is not confined to idle gossip, but converted into blueprints for action: remove them; ban their places of worship; censor their viewpoints; restrict their practices; kill them.

Often this emerges as straightforward hate speech or misinformation that incites hostility, discrimination or violence against a group. Or it is expressed as righteous indignation, accusing the targeted community of behaving in a manner that causes outrage.

These twin tactics – the giving and taking of offence – meld into a potent political strategy that I call “hate spin”. Its practitioners manipulate the visceral, tribal feelings of their audience in order to mobilise supporters and defeat opponents in their quest for power.

Mobilising intolerance

Hate spin is distressingly common – and effective – despite its ultimate reliance on half-truths and even pants-on-fire lies.

In the US, a small network of misinformation experts have pushed extreme claims about Muslims from the loony fringe into the edges of mainstream discourse: American mosques are terrorist training centres; the Muslim Brotherhood has infiltrated the US government; Barack Obama is a closet Muslim.

Although under 2% of the American population is Muslim and there is no lobby urging US courts to recognise Islamic law, several states have enacted statutes or constitutional amendments to protect against sharia. Such has been the power of Islamophobia agents to whip up paranoia about Muslims.

In India, Hindu nationalists use hate spin to consolidate the country’s religious majority into a dependable vote bank that transcends the internal divides of caste, class and language.

This group has tried to make fundamental a faith that is inherently eclectic and fluid. They have chosen to take violent offence at the killing of cows and the eating of beef, as if Hinduism ever treated such prohibitions as strictly as the Muslim injunction against pork.

The Hindu right claims Muslims – through their polygamy and a “love jihad” conspiracy to convert Hindu girls – will turn Hindus, who currently make up 80% of the population, into a minority in India. This fantastical projection has somehow seeped into the political discourse of a civilisation renowned for its mathematical prowess.


Just another piece of misinformation in a democratic marketplace of ideas.
Andy Herbon/flickr

Demographic delusions seem particularly popular among hate-spin agents.

Indonesia has hardline Islamist groups that claim to have uncovered a conspiracy to Christianise the country. This would be quite an accomplishment, considering Indonesia has some 200 million Muslims – around as many as the five largest Arab states combined. They account for almost nine in ten of the country’s population.

Constitutionally, Indonesia upholds belief in God, but not exclusively Islam. Protestantism and Catholicism have explicit status alongside Islam among Indonesia’s religions.

The central government and Supreme Court have upheld the right of Christians to build churches. Yet local hardline groups have blocked church construction in some localities for years, exploiting religious frictions to extract protection money from Christian congregations.

What’s striking about these cases of hate spin is that they are occurring in established democracies with strong traditions of press freedom and intellectual debate.

The US, India and Indonesia are nowhere near the Big Brother totalitarian regime Orwell described. Each has its own vibrant, noisy marketplace of ideas. It’s just that the market does not seem to value truth as consistently as it should.

Faced with the real harm that can be inflicted by hate propaganda, it’s no wonder that many reasonable people wonder if there should be more restrictions on speech.

Prohibitions on incitement are sometimes warranted, in line with international human rights law. But censorship is not the answer in most cases. Hate spin is more prevalent and dangerous in countries with less freedom of expression, not least because such countries usually have less regard for the equal rights of vulnerable minorities.

Instead, we should begin by recognising that a free marketplace of ideas, while necessary, is not sufficient. Truth’s victory over hate propaganda is neither automatic nor preordained. It requires a commitment to equal rights and norms of tolerance that is at least as determined as the uncompromising hate of demagogues and fascists.

The ConversationCherian George, Associate Professor of Journalism, Hong Kong Baptist University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. (Reblogged by permission). Read the original article.

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Don’t attack the straw men: Straw man fallacies and reductio ad absurdum fallacies

The Logic of Science

strawmanPeople love to argue. We all have views and opinions, and we tend to promote them prominently and viciously attack opposing ideas. There is nothing inherently wrong with that as long as your views are evidence-based and you use proper logic when attacking your opponent’s position; however, many people fail at this and succumb to logical fallacies. One of the most common blunders is something known as a straw man fallacy. This occurs anytime that you misrepresent your opponent’s argument, then attack that misrepresentation instead of the view that they actually hold. It is a fairly simple concept, but it is often misunderstood, and it is rampant in debates (this year’s presidential election has been full of a sickening number of these fallacies). Therefore, I want to talk a bit about this fallacy and when it does and does not occur, as well as explaining a particular subset of…

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