Category Archives: Academic Interest

The Transhuman Visions Conference – My Synopsis

On February 1st at Fort Mason Center in San Francisco, the Brighter Brains Institute convened the first Transhuman Visions conference.

I found the event to be really interesting and I will be participating in future conferences, not only as an audience member, but also as a speaker (at their May 10th conference on Transhumanism and Religion). Though I must admit, I do not consider myself to be a “transhumanist” – I am a bit of a skeptic about such things, and too academic to join all-out. But I find the ideas fascinating and excellent fun for stretching ideas of all sorts – technological, scientific, philosophical, religious, etc. – to their breaking points. And, of course, also seeing what ideas do not break; those are the particularly interesting ones (the infinity of God vs. the desired “infinity” of humans is one I have definitely been thinking about – that is an idea that will be hard to break).

If you want to read more about the conference, I did a write-up for the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics website at Santa Clara University.  Here is a taste:

While I see no intrinsic moral problems with extending healthy human life as long as we can (realizing that important related questions of justice, cost, accessibility, side-effects, etc., would also need to be addressed), I do not think material immortality is possible in this world. As material creatures subject to entropy, we must eventually break down and die. The existential denial of our own mortality is an evasion, not a solution. But transhumanism does not stop at evasion; it is a social movement with a lot of highly motivated and intelligent people, and is actively researching solutions of many types. I was very impressed by several of the people I spoke to. Some were there because they were deeply concerned about the health of their loved ones and they saw transhumanism as the chance to save their loved one’s lives.

I am looking forward to future conferences.


Should Ethicists Be Held to a Higher Moral Standard?


There, that was easy. But apparently not all academic ethicists think this is true. Eric Schwitzgebel of UC Riverside at The Splintered Mind (a mind laying in splinters would be a “mindfield,” no?) wrote on this question earlier this week, and it deserves a look:

Josh Rust and I have found, for example, that although U.S.-based ethicists are much more likely than other professors to say it’s bad to regularly eat the meat of mammals (60% say it is bad, vs. 45% of non-ethicist philosophers and only 19% of professors outside of philosophy), they are no less likely to report having eaten the meat of a mammal at their previous evening meal (37%, in our study, vs. 33% of non-ethicist philosophers and 45% of non-philosophers; details here and also in the previously linked paper).

Talk about not walking the talk. No wonder academic ethics seems so confused to outsiders – if you don’t actually have to do what you tell other people to do (if you even think ethics involves that sort of thing) then you can say just about anything you want. Who cares, you are not going to actually do it.

For this reason, people have known for a long time that if you want to know what a person really thinks, you look to how people actually behave (“actions speak louder than words”) rather than to what they say. What they do will show what they really think is good.

But surely the ethicists in question would not agree that they are hypocrites – philosophers can rationalize much better than most, after all. Here is Schwitzgebel’s scenario of what a hypothetical academic ethicist might say when asked why they do not practice their theoretically-higher standards:

But my role as a philosopher is only to discuss philosophical issues, to present and evaluate philosophical views and arguments, not to live accordingly. Indeed, it would be unfair to expect me to live to higher moral standards just because I am an ethicist. I am paid to teach and write, like my colleagues in other fields; it would be an additional burden on me, not placed on them, to demand that I also live my life as a model. Furthermore, the demand that ethicists live as moral models would create distortive pressures on the field that might tend to lead us away from the moral truth. If I feel no inward or outward pressure to live according to my publicly espoused doctrines, then I am free to explore doctrines that demand high levels of self-sacrifice on an equal footing with more permissive doctrines. If instead I felt an obligation to live as I teach, I would be highly motivated to avoid concluding that wealthy people should give most of their money to charity or that I should never lie out of self-interest. The world is better served if the intellectual discourse of moral philosophy is undistorted by such pressures, that is, if ethicists are not expected to live out their moral opinions. Such a view of the role of the philosopher is very different from the view of most ancient ethicists.

Indeed, Aristotle grounds his Nicomachean Ethics with the idea that the point of studying ethics is to become good, and in so doing become a virtuous, flourishing, fulfilled, happy human being.

Because really, what other point could there be? Become a famous philosopher? Ha! Well, less flippantly, finding “The Truth” might be another point, and the truth might not actually make you so happy, one might retort, but you can bet that if I figured out “The Truth,” I’d be happy since I’d just accomplished a pretty big thing.

Ethics is the study of action with respect to the good for humans, which is happiness. Once you figure that out, shouldn’t you have some practically useful insights from it? Shouldn’t you want to become a more excellent, happier human being (whatever that means to you) if you think you have that figured out?

Because if you say you have it figured out and then you don’t do it, you don’t bother to try, then, it seems like you don’t actually think it is good. That your theories won’t make you a better person, that they won’t make you happier. You say one thing and live another.

And if you say one thing and consciously do another… I start to scowl.

But I can’t say I am surprised. Many contemporary academic ethicists just don’t think ethics is about becoming a good person. That is a very ancient strand of ethics, and no longer popular.

Aristotelians and Thomists are exceptions to this. I would be interested in knowing whether they also fall into this theory/practice trap, or whether it is more the Kantians and/or utilitarians. Also I wonder if religion would have any effect.  I’m not saying I expect it would, but I hope would. After all, at least in Christianity, hypocrisy gets called out by the Big Guy himself. And if Christians can’t produce academic ethicists who think it worthy at least to try (actually doing it has always proven difficult) to follow their own standards then it starts to look a bit like they don’t believe at all. And that is scandalous.

In any case, this is terrific research and I appreciate The Splintered Mind for bringing it to light. Good job guys.

Catholicism and Conscience

One of my jobs at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center is to provide web resources for a project on Catholicism and Conscience. I’ll just cut and paste a bit here then send you over to that site to read the rest:

The Catholic tradition on conscience is very extensive, while being quite unified. One may wonder, if the teaching is so unified, why there would be so much to say. The reason is because the tradition is unified on a tension. The first pole of the tension is that under no circumstances should one violate one’s conscience – one must always follow even an erring conscience. The other pole of the tension is that, at the same time, a rightly formed conscience is expected to concur with Catholic teaching. These two moral requirements, that one should follow one’s conscience and that one should follow Church teachings, are potentially in conflict. The requirements may not align, and if so, then a point of tension has appeared between an individual’s conscience and the Church’s teachings.

Here I will endeavor to provide only a brief overview of the immense literature surrounding the Catholic understanding of conscience. In the first section I will provide some background to the subject of conscience, in the second some examples of perennial issues that arise in the discussion of conscience, and in the third some current examples of conscience in the news.

The site is a work in progress so if you have any feedback by all means leave it as a comment here (you can’t leave comments on the Center’s page). Particularly leave a comment if you know of any current news stories involving Catholicism and conscience rights (please provide a link), I will add it to the section at the end (“Current Flashpoints”) where we are compiling contemporary cases. Two prime cases being the HHS mandate on contraceptive insurance coverage, and the new tendency of some bishops to use of “affirmations of faith” with diocesan employees (in that particular case the requirement has been temporarily withdrawn).

Exploring secularity and the church-state divide

Exploring secularity and the church-state divide

This last episode of “To the Best of Our Knowledge” featured what sounds like a great book on secularism. The main point for everyone from atheists to Christian fundamentalists is that secularism is in place to protect religious freedom, not to stifle it. It does this by protecting against state-level establishment of a particular religion. Interestingly, the author, Berlinerbau, also points out that an absolute separation of religion and state is also not desirable. He points to the Soviet Union as an example of the type of state it would take to attempt such absolutism. Because, at least in the interview (I haven’t read the book), he provides a balanced approach, his work seems worth checking out for those interested in matters of “church and state.”

For those interested in the study of religion … a place where academics of religion grapple and engage in “the world”

Although, sometimes, especially as a non-religious person, I wonder why I am studying at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU), every now and then it becomes clear. Yesterday was a perfect example of why I chose to pursue my doctorate there.

Sometimes I like to study at the Pacific School of Religion’s (PSR) D’Autremont Dining Hall. When I arrived yesterday for some coffee and to read, Michael Lerner’s  Beyt Tikkun synagogue-without-walls along with Occupy Bay Area Jewish Contingent were finishing up their veggie potluck after Rosh Hashanah services. After eating they walked to downtown Berkeley to Occupy Wells Fargo.

So together in one hall, on this Protestant campus, we have Jews holding services and celebrating the High Holidays, and partaking in the local activist culture of Berkeley. It’s fascinating to see the coming together and vibrancy of such cultural flows.

Later that night, I attended the “Between Militarism and Extremism: The Excluded Middle” panel discussion held at Zaytuna College. The GTU’s Center for Islamic Studies and Zaytuna College (the first Muslim Liberal Arts College in America) held discussions on violence in the Middle-East in reaction to the “Innocence of Muslims” film. The meeting was held in Zaytuna’s new location, formerly a Christian church (University Christian Church), now the home of an Islamic institution of higher education. The panel consisted of Dr. Hatem BazianZaid Shakir and Hamza Yusuf, (Zaytuna College Co-founders), President James A. Donahue (Graduate Theological Union), Dr. Munir Jiwa (Graduate Theological Union), and Sandy Tolan (University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Journalism).

The short presentations given by the panelists along with the question and answer moderated by Tolan was informative, inspiring, and even challenging. The discussion’s major topics centered on respect for multiple religions, free speech, hate speech, ethics and the internet, and the call for a civil rights-style coming together of multiple religions to advocate for respect across and between all religions.

It was an impressive meeting attended by a few hundred people with around 4,000 people watching online. Very impressive considering it was organized less than a week earlier.

Yesterday’s events–the interaction, overlap, and neighborly-ness of Christianity, Islam, and Judaism– showcased GTU’s approach to religion as exemplary. This all happened with GTU’s 50th anniversary (albeit some member colleges are much older) as a backdrop. In the last 50 years, GTU’s graduate program has grown into one of the largest religious studies programs (including theology, biblical studies, ethics, arts, social sciences, and more) in the U.S. Yesterday’s events showcased the importance and vibrancy of the GTU.

My New Article: Teleology and Theology, Aristotle and Cognitive Science

From the abstract:

Recent research in cognitive science has shown that humans innately prefer teleological explanations. Children even go so far as to hypothesize the existence of a deity in order to justify teleological explanations. Aristotle also believed in the importance of teleology for human psychology. This paper investigates the convergence of ideas from the cognitive science of teleology with the Aristotelian understanding of teleology visible in the virtues of techne and wisdom. I argue that Aristotelian psychology and ethics is gaining empirical support, and that this could have important implications for science, philosophy, and theology.

So cut to the chase – what’s the point? Humans evolved to pick up teleology – the purposes of other humans, of tools, and of skilled behaviors. This same sensitivity allows us to ponder the purpose of our own existence and the purpose of the universe as a whole, as well as hypothesize a creator. In other words, this is a major part of what makes us capax Dei – capable of relating to God.

From a theistic perspective this is great – science has shown us part of the religious architecture of our minds, as aspect of what makes us homo religiosus. And equally, from an atheistic perspective this is great; theistically-inclined humans are just misapplying an otherwise perfectly useful cognitive bias – one used to figure out what another human is doing, their purpose, or the purpose of an object – to try to figure out something purposeless, the universe. But notice that the first move is a metaphysical one – the declaration that the universe is purposeful or purposeless. No scientific experiment can tell you the answer to that, it is an assumption, not a conclusion. The data can go either way, depending on the framework it is placed in.

I have to say, I really like this paper. I worked on it a long time. The peer reviewers said nice things about it. I could easily spend more time investigating this sort of work, and at some point I most likely will.

But, alas, one of my committee members always counsels me “Go for the deeper problem!” And so the deeper problem from the cognitive science of the virtues, at least from the standpoint of naturalistic ethics, is how to relate science and ethics – or, in more Humean terms, how to get “ought’ from “is.” So that is what I am doing now.

And then the deeper problem after that is how to let that knowledge make a positive difference in the world, both for the individual and everyone. Currently some of my applications are towards environmental ethics, bioethics and technological ethics more generally, and the ethics of space exploration.

All of this is because I want to know how humans ought to relate to technology. Technology is absolutely essential to our humanity. We lack hair (we need clothes) and our digestive systems are inadequate to eat many foods (we need to prepare and cook it). And yet technology can also be extremely dangerous. Human technology has now reached the point where it can begin to alter human nature itself.

To know what to do, we must first know who we are. Identity creates action. And then action creates identity. Transhumanists will argue that our nature is to transcend humanity. And bioconservatives will argue that that is impossible – that no matter what we may become we will always remain human. Natural law yields virtue and vice. What we think humans are will dictate what we think humans should do. We are manipulating creatures – what will we do when we finally come to target ourselves? In this century, we will find out.

For more info, see my page.

The manager and therapist styled by the “All American” Salesman

After reading and re-reading Bellah, et al.’s Habits of the Heart, it’s difficult to not see their take on individualism in American culture. One of the main points is that individualism is one of the primary languages in American culture. Two subtypes of individualism are the manager and the therapist. Both are essentially utilitarian or maximizers of preferences with the manager concerned more with the external and the therapist with the internal.

Bellah, et al. do leave the possibility open for new subtypes of individualism to emerge or build off of secondary languages in America such as biblical or republican.

After years of working in the financial world and reading Greg Smith’s piece in the NY Times about the culture of Goldman Sachs,  I think that a new individualist subtype has become prevalent: the salesman. Whereas Bellah, et al. focus more on these as languages, I think the salesman is often more of a style. It may not even have its own language, but it is an approach to life. It is one that instrumentalizes all relationships in order to maximize preferences that are monetary.

Although, Smith’s piece describes those salesman that take use the language of manager, there are also those who use the language of the therapist. I encountered the latter in working with many people from the real estate and mortgage industries. There are various educational programs for people in these industries that involve “lead generation” or the ability to bring new people in, take advantage of social networks, etc. in order to increase sales. Interestingly, however, such tactics are often wrapped in the language of self-realization, self-help, and meaningful relationships.

But such a style is not limited to the financial world. It pervades much of our culture, we are constantly encouraged to “sell ourselves” or “market ourselves” in the new economy. Such advice seems like “common sense.” Yet, it’s also often mixed with notions about “being oneself.” One only need to watch an episode of “What Not to Wear” to see how so many people “become themselves” by wearing a more marketable uniform of “who they really are.”

Maybe this is why, “Death of a Salesman” is still so popular?

Finally, the gender-specific “man” in salesman, I think is appropriate as well. Much of this type of style, especially, as expressed by Smith about Goldman Sachs fits all to well into a stereotype of patriarchal culture run amok. Although this could be nuanced, you get the point.

As it stands, this is all just thinking “out loud” or “on line,” but I believe there is something to this American style of individualism. After all, marketing and sales are part of the water we constantly swim in–how could it not shape who we are?