What right to an opinion?

Do you have the right to an opinion?

Many months ago I was in a discussion that ended with two people disagreeing and the other one saying something to the effect of “well, this is my opinion and I have a right to it.” I didn’t say this at the time because I was happy for the discussion to end, but my thought was: That’s the problem here. The problem is that you think you have the right to think what you think, whatever that happens to be. You don’t. That’s right, you do not have the right to an opinion, whatever that opinion might be. Continue reading “What right to an opinion?”

Rationalists and Empiricists

These days – especially on the internet, although usually out side of a formal philosophical context, a lot of outspoken atheists take the title “rationalist.” Within popular philosophy, therefore (again, in the context of internet based discussion), if a person uses the word “rationalist” it is often assumed that one is talking about opposition to religion. Groups like the New Zealand Association of Rationalists and Humanists expect people to assume, based on the name of the group, that the group’s members are not religious (I won’t delve into the use of the word “humanist” just now, but that’s fascinating too).

I thought it might be helpful to point out, therefore, what rationalism really is. The best way to do this is to compare rationalism with its philosophical rival, empiricism. I’ll be brief, because brief explanations are the easiest to remember.

Rationalists, like Descartes or Kant, believed that (some) knowledge and concepts are innate: We are born with built in knowledge concepts. Candidates for this sort of thing might be moral intuitions, mathematical truisms, or perhaps a whole range of common sense judgements summed up as “folk psychology.”

Empiricists, like Locke, Berkley and Hume, believed that everything is learned via experience. We are born as a blank slate, and we accumulate knowledge and concepts as we go.

Every now and then I have a geeky chuckle over the fact that a lot of contemporary sceptics who like to call themselves “rationalists” are in fact empiricists after all. Yes, mine is truly a sad existence….

Further reading

Episode 036: Alvin Plantinga and Properly Basic Beliefs

Here’s episode 36, in honour of the recent retirement of Alvin Plantinga as the John O’Brien Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. It’s sort of a “nuts and bolts” podcast episode on Alvin Plantinga, introducing the listener to his account of belief in God as a properly basic belief – a belief justifiably held, but not held on the basis of evidence or argument.




Nuts and Bolts 003: Analytic and Synthetic Truth

When he was presented with the accused man Jesus of Nazareth, the governer Pontius Pilate asked a question laden with philosophical importance: “What is truth?” It’s a question that I think was adequately answered centuries earlier by Plato: “The essence of truth is to say of what is that it is, and to say of what is not that it is not.” In normal english, the essence of truth-telling is to tell it like it really is.

In this edition of the nuts and bolts ( a series in which I cover the fundamentals of philosophy and later, theology), I won’t be wading through theories of truth. What I am going to do, prompted by a recent conversation, is to discuss the distinction between two different kinds of truths: analytic and synthetic. It might sound a bit artificial at first to talk about distinguishing between different sorts of truth. Some statements are true, and some are not. Right? Bear with me. Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 003: Analytic and Synthetic Truth”

Nuts and Bolts 001: What is knowledge?

In a recent discussion with one of the commenters over at M and M’s blog (see the interchange between myself and someone using the nickname “Heraclides”) it occurred to me yet again that there are people – especially on the internet – who frequently wander into arguments about what are essentially subjects in philosophy, who clearly don’t have a background in philosophy, who appear not to have done much (or any) reading in the area they are arguing about, who are at times not really familiar with some of the basic terminology involved (even though they are using it), and there’s nothing terrible about any of this so far – but then your realise that they are talking as though they are absolutely certain that they are experts in the field. You offer a little advice, but you are told by this obvious newcomer that you couldn’t possibly know what you’re talking about.

Take my recent encounter. I said that scientists treat theories as provisional, but they do not treat knowledge as provisional. Knowledge is, after all, warranted true belief, so a scientist only knows something if he has become convinced that it is true. The reply that I was promptly given was “Theories *are* knowledge 😉 This suggests to me that you don’t understand what a theory really is.” Oh, and as for the fact that knowledge is warranted true belief, this is what my zealous fellow blog visitor had to say:  “Only a religious person would write “knowledge is warranted true belief”. This both shows that you don’t understand science (and thereby aren’t in a position to criticise it) and that you don’t understand the failing of insisting something is “true belief” either (it’s blind to any revision or new information).”

Rather than simply get further frustrated at the bleak intellectual scene that one often finds in the comments section at blogs out there (as illustrated by the above encounter), I have decided to put a little more energy into becoming part of the solution. I’m adding a new category to my blog. The category is called “nuts and bolts.” In this new category, I’ll add posts that spell out basic terms and concepts used in the various subject areas in philosophy. You might think this is a bit redundant. After all, there are plenty of online dictionaries and encyclopedias out there. And you’re right, there are. But the way I see it, the more good basic information is out there, the more likely somebody will be to stumble upon it. So here it is, the very first post in the nuts and bolts category.

Continue reading “Nuts and Bolts 001: What is knowledge?”

What “The Little Prince” can teach some philosophers (and some normal people too)

My favourite children’s book right now is The Little Prince, by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry. I’m currently reading it to my son. He’s old enough to read it himself (he recently turned 10 – how the years have flown by!), but I’m making the most of reading to him while he still lets me – long may those years last!

Sometimes Children’s books (like the chronicles of Narnia, or this one) have a way of presenting profound philosophical points in such a perfect way. I doubt that all such points are self-explanatory to their young audience, which is yet more reason to think that children’s stories like this one are best when read to children as well as by them, because a really good story benefits the reader as much as the listener.

Anyway, to the point: Part IV of The Little Prince, the narrator, the man who met the Little Prince, introduces us to the fact that the Prince is from Asteroid B-612. But the narrator assures us that he’s just telling us this as a matter of fact, and not for the sake of “the grown-ups and their ways.” For you see,

Grown-ups love figures. When you tell them that you have made a new friend, they never say to you, “What does his voice sound like? What games does he love best? Does he collect butterflies?” Instead, they demand: “How old is he? How many brothers and sisters does has he? How much does he weigh? How much money does his father make?” Only from these figures do they think they have learned anything about him.

If you were to say to the grown-ups: “I saw a beautiful house made of rosy brick, with geraniums in the windows and doves on the roof,” they would not be able to get any idea of the house at all. You would have to say to them, “I saw a house that cost £4,000.” Then they would exclaim: “Oh, what a pretty house that is!”

Just so, you might say to them: “The proof that the little prince existed is that he was charming, that he laughed, and that he was looking for a sheep. If anybody wants a sheep, then that is proof that he exists.” And what good would it do to tell them that? They would shrug their shoulders and treat you like a child. But if you said to them: “The planet he came from is Asteroid B-612,” then they would be convinced, and leave you in peace from their questions.

They are like that. One must not hold it against them. Children should always show great forbearance toward grown-up people.

But certainly, for us who understand life, figures are a matter of indifference. I should have liked to begin this story in the fashion of the fairy-tales. I should have liked to say: “Once upon a time there was a little prince who lived on a planet that was scarcely any bigger than himself, and who had need of a friend…”

To those who understand life, that would have given a much greater air of truth to my story.

For I do not want any one to read my book carelessly. I have suffered too much grief in setting down these memories. Six years have passed since my friend went away from me, with his sheep. If I try to describe him here, it is to make sure that I shall not forget him. To forget a friend is sad. Not everyone has had a friend. And if I forget him, I may become like the grown-ups who are no longer interested in anything but figures.

As someone with some familiarity with – and great appreciation for – the writings of Alvin Plantinga, and just as someone who thinks that we can know that God exists without being able to convince anyone, this stood out to me immediately as really profound.

Christians believe (or at least I hope I’m not the only one who believes this) that in some really important way, we know God, and that God, to some extent, has made himself known to us. Take a philosophically unsophisticated person to whom God has personally made Himself known as loving and forgiving, and so forth. Given that God really has done so, what kind of objection is it to say to such a person, “but how can this have happened when we don’t even have any hard evidence that God exists?” In these circumstances, that God is loving and forgiving (and so forth) is evidence that he exists, because you can’t be loving and forgiving – or anything else – unless you exist.

Of course, if someone forbids the possibility that the narrator ever knew the little prince, or that God could ever have actually made himself known, this will just sound false. All the more reason to think that (a very strong form of) evidentialism leaves something to be desired.