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Lena Groeger

On Knowing (or Not)

Judy is an intelligent, articulate woman with a great sense of humor. She is also completely paralyzed on her left side. Trouble is, she doesn’t know she is. On the contrary, she knows that she isn’t.

What’s going on? Self-deception? Denial? Puzzling examples like this are scattered throughout a recent series in the NY Times, which explores what it means to know, not know, know what you don’t know and not know what you know. Follow? Me neither.

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A Sting for Absolutes

Sam Harris can sting. Well known for his sharp criticisms of religion, this social gadfly has picked a new target: moral philosophy. His recent TED talk and later articles about the science of morality (here and here) have caused a bit of a ruckus in philosophical circles as well as a feisty response from the general public. His main claim is simple enough: science can give us answers to moral questions. Not just inform our moral judgments or help us get what we want out of life, but actually tell us what we ought to value. In his words, values are a certain kind of fact.

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A Secular Foothold?

“Insofar as modern
liberal discourse rests on a distinction between reasons that emerge in the
course of disinterested observation — secular reasons — and reasons that flow
from a prior metaphysical commitment, it hasn’t got a leg to stand on.”

And so
Stanley Fish concludes his recent
about the role of secular reasons and religion in public life. While
he briefly touches on a number of issues that stem from this ongoing debate, he
focuses his commentary on the ideas of Stephen Smith, whose new book is called
The Disenchantment of
Secular Discourse
. Since much of Smith’s argument circles around the
notion of secular reasons, Fish begins by explaining what these reasons are all

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Metaphors We Moralize By

“He has a heart of gold.” “There’s
not a mean bone in her body.” “They’re rotten to the core.”
“We’re going to show them what we’re made of.”

What do all these statements have in
common? They all cluster around the idea that people contain fundamental
moral properties that define who they are and determine how they behave.
In other words, they form a conceptual metaphor that understands morality
as essence. There are other common conceptual metaphors for morality
as well: morality as bounds (leading astray, deviating
from the path, transgressing bounds) or morality as uprightness
(an upstanding citizen, a lowly thing to do). These moral
metaphors can tell us quite a lot, according to George Lakoff, a cognitive
linguist and author of numerous influential books like Metaphors We
Live By
and Moral Politics. In fact, Lakoff argues, metaphors may be
the key to understanding much of politics, culture, and human thought

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Renaming a Disorder

What’s in a name? Quite a lot, considering the huge commotion over proposed revisions to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Almost a thousand pages long, this psychiatric bible is
used all over the world to classify and diagnose mental patients – it’s
the definitive authority on that nebulous concept known as “normal”.
The implications of any revisions are tremendous, and
the American Psychiatric Association, publisher of the manual, has attracted support as well as harsh criticism.
Could these revisions actually cause more harm than good? I’m not sure,
but I want to explore the implications of just one of the proposed
revisions – that concerning EDNOS, or “Eating Diso
rders Not Otherwise Specified.”

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Persons of the Sea?

You’ve stumbled upon a group of beings. For all you can tell, these beings are self-aware, intelligent, have emotions, solve complex problems, and call each other by name. They have thoughts and feelings and probably experience life in a way that is very similar to your own. Are they persons? And do you have moral obligations towards them?

Thomas White, Fellow at the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, has made news claiming that we have found such a group of beings. In fact, we’ve been living alongside them for a while now. They’re dolphins, and they’re people too. At an upcoming AAAS conference in San Diego, White will be arguing that dolphins deserve the status of “nonhuman persons”. The research in marine science now overwhelmingly shows that dolphins have a highly sophisticated type of consciousness and inner world – and their cognitive capacity is second only to humans (yes, they beat chimps). With such high intellectual and emotional abilities, White claims they are entitled to special moral status and protections. The implications for current practices involving dolphins (in the context of fishing, entertainment, research and the military) are serious, since they would be considered chillingly unethical if they involved human persons.

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Aid Beyond Belief

The days following the devastating
earthquake in Haiti
saw a surge in fundraising efforts from organizations all over the world. In
this charitable climate, the atheist scientist Richard Dawkins set up an aid
campaign of his own: Non-Believers
Giving Aid
. Why donate through his group? In addition to rallying fellow
non-believers, Dawkins claims this offers a chance to “counter the scandalous
myth that only the religious care about their fellow-humans.” There are a host
of issues that could be discussed in relation to the aid effort and belief –
why we feel compelled to help distant strangers, the problem of suffering, the
idea of natural disasters as divine punishment – but I’ll concentrate on two
main objections to Dawkins.

One objection would be that the
entire project is simply a shameless propaganda scheme to get more “data” on charity
giving among non-believers. Its purpose is to give the non-believers some
numbers to point to, some “proof” that they give lots of money to charity. And
for that reason, it is just an opportunistic ploy that is deeply inappropriate in
a time of real crisis and tragedy.

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