Bertrand Russell’s invitation to epistemic humility

Next summer, I plan on offering a class on the philosophy of religion. While I’ve read philosophy on the side since I was an undergraduate, I didn’t major in it, nor have I logged anywhere near the same number of hours into studying it as say biblical and religious studies. So, while the class isn’t for another year, I find myself preparing now, reading all I can, and trying to envision the shape that the class will take.

Bertrand Russell. Image via Wikipedia.

One essay that I’m considering having my students read on the first day is Bertrand Russell’s “Philosophy for Laymen” (which can be found in Unpopular Essays, pp. 32-44). It’s a gem. Russell begins with the claim that since the dawn of civilization, humans “have been confronted with problems of two different kinds”: (1) how to master “natural forces” and (2) “how to best utilize our command over the forces of nature” (p. 32). Another way he puts it is that we have sought “a theoretical understanding of the structure of the world” and “tried to discover and inculcate the best possible way of life.” He concludes that philosophy has related to both of these concerns (p. 32) and therefore, “Philosophy has thus been closely related to science on the one hand, and to religion on the other.” (p. 33)

Then he goes on to warn against what today we call “scientism” and “anti-science” (p.36). Both are a bridge too far because both are a form of dogmatism. In this essay, the one thing that Russell presents as a great danger to us all is dogmatism. This doesn’t mean he promotes skepticism because, as we’ll see, skepticism is dogmatic too.

The reason that philosophy belongs to the “layman” and not just the professional is that everyone needs to learn how to approach thinking about and acting in the world in a way that is philosophical in nature if we’re to avoid the dogmatism that leads to the either/or, us-against-them, zero-sum approach that we see emerging again today not only in the UK from where Russell hailed but here in the United States and also in places like India. Democracy has become strained in these countries as certain ideologies—the kind promoted by figures ranging from Steve Bannon to Yogi Adityanath—promote a nativist, nationalist, and often theocratic justification for just winning, even if the principles that hold pluralistic democracies (like the United States and India) must be abandoned.

Russell’s words remain a relevant response to the willingness of the mob to follow people like Bannon and Adityanath when he writes:

…so long as men are not trained to withhold judgment in the absence of evidence, they will be led astray by cocksure prophets, and it is likely that their leaders will be either ignorant fanatics or dishonest charlatans. To endure uncertainty is difficult, but so are most of the other virtues. For the learning of every virtue there is an appropriate discipline, and for the learning of suspended judgment the best discipline is philosophy.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

This call to “endure uncertainty” is seen as necessary for maturity but as I said, he doesn’t advocate a pendulum swing to skepticism or nihilism. Russell writes:

But if philosophy is to serve a positive purpose, it must not teach mere skepticism, for, while the dogmatist is harmful, the skeptic is useless. Dogmatism and skepticism are both, in a sense, absolute philosophies; one is certain of knowing, the other of not knowing. What philosophy should dissipate is certainty, whether of knowledge or of ignorance.

Unpopular Essays, p. 38

For Russell, “The pursuit of philosophy is founded on the belief that knowledge is good, even if what is known is painful.” (p. 41). But not all “knowledge” is the same: “all that passes for knowledge can be arranged in a hierarchy of degrees of certainty, with arithmetic and the facts of perception at the top.” (p. 39) My confidence that 2+2 = 4 should be higher than my confidence that a certain form of capitalism or socialism will be the most utilitarian. We can’t be frozen by our uncertainty, as Russell writes: “…it is necessary, at the same time, to learn to act upon the best hypothesis without dogmatically believing it.” (p. 39) Pragmatically, Russell tells us that we should ask what potential harm might come from acting on what we think we know. “When you act upon a hypothesis which you know to be uncertain, your action should be such as will not have very harmful results if your hypothesis is false.” (p. 40).

This last line reminds me of a claim found in the United States Declaration of Independence:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

I interpret this to mean that the architects of the Declaration are asking their audience to take their call for independence seriously because they know that something like revolution should be the last option. Now, for many who are oppressed or feel oppressed, this claim may seem unjust, but it should be remembered that the results of a revolution aren’t always positive. Yes, things can get better but they can get even worse as well. Most revolutions fail (remember the “Arab Spring”?) and stability is a virtue unless the suffering being experienced in a stable situation is worse than the potential suffering caused by the instability of revolutionary action.

Russell’s concern is that we don’t usually know if we’re right in the same way we know 2+2 = 4. And since there’s room for doubt, we must be cautious. We must allow our epistemic humility to guide us away from rash decisions. Is this to say that there’s never a time for action that might have some form of “collateral damage”? That’s unclear. The Founding Fathers appeared willing to act on principles that would suggest that they saw certain levels of pain and suffering to be worth it if certain freedoms were obtained, and maybe worth it even if those freedoms weren’t obtained, but they recognized that this is rare. Russell himself held to an evolving form of pacifism over his lifespan. Though his pacifism wasn’t absolute later in life, his belief that epistemic humility requires us to “pump the brakes,” if you will, seems to have remained consistent.

Now, epistemic humility isn’t always high-stakes. For Russell, it’s an attitude that should be applied generously. For my students next summer, I hope it’ll help them develop a posture of openness and inquiry. I think that would be a great way to open a philosophy course.


Would it be unethical to simulate the universe?

The past few weeks, I’ve been teaching a unit on Indian cosmology (think Brahman, Samsara, Moksha, et al.) as I’ve been reading David J. Chalmers’ Reality +: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy while also watching a lot of Rick and Morty, so excuse the weirdness. Because of all this, I’ve been thinking a lot about Nick Bostrom‘s famous Are We Living in a Computer Simulation?” article (The Philosophical Quarterly, Volume 53, Issue 211, April 2003pp. 243-255). In that article, Bostom made the claim that “one of the following propositions is true: (1) the human species is very likely to become extinct before reaching a ‘posthuman’ stage; (2) any posthuman civilization is extremely unlikely to run a significant number of simulations of its evolutionary history (or variations thereof); (3) we are almost certainly living in a computer simulation.” (If you don’t have time to read about this theory, there are plenty of YouTube videos that provide decent summaries.) As things are looking now, (1) seems extremely probable. We can’t figure out climate change and we still have weapons that could wipe us out in minutes. But if we are going to survive and slip through our “Great Filters,” then (2) would seem extremely improbable. We’re already making simulations and have been for a while now. If technology continues to develop at the pace it has since I was a teen, then I’d be shocked if it turned out that we humans would choose to not create advanced simulations. Except there’s one idea that has grabbed my attention: humans could choose to not create advanced simulations for ethical reasons.

Chalmers (p. 94) puts it this way: “populations advanced enough to create sims will know how to create intelligent sims that aren’t conscious (while nevertheless serving many practice purposes) and will have strong reasons—perhaps ethical reasons—to do this.” I mean, if I look at contemporary humanity, this seems unlikely. We humans seem to have no problems (collectively) with causing suffering, whether we’re inflicting it on fellow humans or other non-human animals. So, there’s little reason to believe that future humans would be morally superior to us…but there’s one I’ve been pondering.

As we look at the current state of our world, assuming it’s either (A) base reality or (B) a simulation of what base reality looked like in the early twenty-first century, then it appears clear that if humans are going to make it and make it so that we don’t launch our descendants into a dystopic age where they’d have little time to worry about anything other than creating technologies that help them stave off extinction, we’re going to have to experience an evolutionary leap in ethics. I mean, not just on the level of individuals recycling, buying electric vehicles, investing in renewable energies, and maybe going vegetarian, but at the international level and hopefully in a way that includes democratic societies. (Though, as the Pill Pod discussed in their 64th episode, “Democracy Dieth in Darkness,” political scientists/philosophers like Ross Mittiga are already asking if authoritarian power is ever a legitimate form of government, especially if climate catastrophe grows more probable: “Political Legitimacy, Authoritarianism, and Climate Change,” American Political Science Review [December 6, 2021], pp. 1-14).

This feels improbable right now but let’s assume it will happen (or happened, if this is a simulation that is based on base reality). What sort of collaboration would be demanded of humanity? What sort of transnational government structure would have to emerge? And if we were capable of these things, would we be moving more toward the Star Trek vision of the future than the Don’t Look Up one? And if that were to be the case, then doesn’t that raise the probability that humanity would become the type of species who knowing the suffering they’d cause by creating advanced simulations with sentient creatures (who would have to live through the era we’re living through now) would choose to avoid inflicting that type of pain on their potential digitized creations?

I don’t know that answer to this is “yes” but it’s worth considering. But it also leads to theological/theodicy questions and invites us to consider antinatalist ethics as well. First, if I’m assuming morally advanced humans would never create this reality intentionally, what does that say about a god who would create this reality? Now, I’m not actually opposed to this reality. In fact, I’m unsure that I can be because it seems odd to use existence to argue against existence. And I guess questions around postmortem sentience and even multiverses muddy that waters here. But my underdeveloped line of thought does have me wondering: if I think that advanced humans wouldn’t inflict this suffering, what does that say about the idea of “god” or god if god exists?!

Also, back to afterlives: would it be ethically justifiable to run simulations like our world if you offered your digital creations an afterlife of bliss?

Finally, am I being too negative about our current state? If a global catastrophe is around the corner, would it be immoral to have children? Obviously, if humans had foreknowledge and knew with absolute certainty that everything was going to go to hell within the next half-century, then yes. But we don’t have that foreknowledge. So, it gets trickier.

And that takes me back to the question of simulation: what if this universe is an open-ended simulation? Our fate isn’t predetermined. Maybe there’s great joy in meeting the challenge of climate change and solving it? Maybe we actually do that or have the potential to do that? Then I guess we could leave the door open to the possibility that there’s nothing immoral about our universe being a simulation if indeed it is one!

Notes on some recently read books

The school year has begun, so of course this blog has gone dormant. Sorry!

I do want to mention/recommend a few books I read as summer break was ending:

Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good?
(Amazon; Bookshop)

I’m sure there are a million reviews of this book available already, so all I’m going to say is this: as a high school teacher who has a front row seat to the Hunger Games that is college admissions, I wish each of my students and their families would read this book. Sandel exposes the flaws of the meritocratic worldview: not only that it’s not real (the hardest workers don’t receive the best rewards) but also that it harms even the “winners”.

Jason Ananda Josephson Storm, Metamodernism: The Future of Theory (Amazon; Bookshop)

Storm is brave. He attempts to do something constructive in an era that is dominated by deconstruction. The main focus of the book is this (to oversimplify): how does the humanities move past postmodernism without denying postmodernity’s critiques and returning to modernistic thinking. This book could be a game changer when it comes to epistemology and it offers a new constructive approach to several topics that are desperately needed in the humanities since we’ve poisoned ourselves for a generation by telling everyone why our fields of study are flawed and not really real. For example, modernity sought a concrete definition of religion. Postmodernity helped us realize this is quixotic and that there’s no “form” of religion (to draw Plato and then Wittgenstein into the discussion). But something important still needs to be said about things like “religion,” even if it lacks concreteness. Storm offers a way forward.

Christine M. Korsgaard, Fellow Creatures: Our Obligations to Other Animals (Amazon; Bookshop)

On Ash Sunday 2020, I became a vegetarian. I’ve been looking for a philosopher to give me words to help me think about this change because it’s not dietary as much as ethical as relates to how we treat animals and the environmental impact of animal consumption. Korsgaard’s attempt to ground animal ethics in a Kantian framework has a lot to offer. Her writing has begun to reshape my understanding of “the good,” how humans relate to other animals in our differences and similarities to other creatures; and why we humans shouldn’t think of ourselves as superior to other creatures. Yet, Korsgaard notes that what makes us different also makes us responsible and while she concludes things like vegetarianism is ethically ideal and that factory farming is deeply immoral, so also draws the readers into ongoing conversations about topics like breeding animals away from being predatory; whether we should have pets; whether we should leave all animals to be wild, among other topics. It’s the type of book I plan on reading again in the future.

Stanley Spencer’s ‘Christ in the Wilderness’

I’m listening to a lecture (‘Consuming Creatures: The Christian Ethics of Eating Animals) by David Clough through Facebook Live right now. He has mentioned two things that caught my attention. The first is an interpretation of Mark 1.13, which contains the statement that ‘He [Christ] was with the wild animals…’ Clough suggested that this refers to Isaiah 11.1 -9’s Peaceable Kingdom. I had never understood that line, and I’ll have to think about this more, but it’s a marvelous reading that would really impact how I hear Mark 1.14-15, where Jesus (following the arrest of John the Baptist) goes into Galilee ‘proclaiming the good news of God’ which contains the claim ‘The kingdom of God has come near.’

The second is the art series by Stanley Spencer, ‘Christ in the Wilderness’, which may be inspired by Mark 1.13. It’s a beautiful series. And according to Clough, Spencer depicts the animals mentioned in Jesus’ sermons, imagining that he encountered them in the wilderness. Here are some samples:

Christ in the Wilderness—the Scorpion
Christ in the Wilderness—the Hen
Christ in the Wilderness—the Foxes
Christ in the Wilderness—the Lilies

Team Daniel or Team Esther

Yesterday, I paired the Books of Daniel and Esther. Both are post-exilic writings set in the exile/diaspora. Both feature Jews who have found their way into the royal courts of Babylon and/or Persia. Both address the question of how true one must remain to their Jewishness to show fidelity to their god. In the Book of Daniel, characters such as Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego don’t compromise. They are willing to die/suffer rather than break their dietary laws, or worship other gods, or even take a break from worshipping their god. Esther and Mordecai hide Esther’s Jewish identity which includes eating Persian foods, having sex and marrying a Gentile, and who knows what else. Mordecai might be a little more like Daniel and friends when he refuses to bow to Haman but overall the ethics of the Book of Esther are less black-and-white than the Book of Daniel.

I ended class by having my students get together in a Google Meet and record their discussion where they argued for either the quasi-deontological (or divine command) approach of the Book of Daniel or the more consequentialist approach of the Book of Esther. One of my student leaders begun the conversation by asking who was ‘Team Esther’ or ‘Team Daniel’. So far, as I watch/grade the recordings, team Esther is winning (though there were a few pro-Daniel students).

What’s fascinating is to observe their reasoning. Some students say they’d be like Daniel depending on the context though if the context was that your life was at risk, they’d be more like Esther. One student pointed out that Esther never explicitly said she wasn’t a Jew (though it could be argued many would have accused her of not living like one), so she didn’t technically lie about this.

Another topic that caught my ear was the difference between how God’s presence is narrated in Daniel contrast with Esther. Famously, God speaks to Daniel in dream and visions. He intervenes miraculously. Esther is ambiguous about God’s presence. God is never named or directly mentioned. Some of the key turning points suggest to some readers that God’s in the background but God is never mentioned. I think that’s key. For some students, if God was performing the deeds like we read in Daniel, sure, they’d adopt his approach, but life seems to be more Esther-ish: whatever we might say about divine activity, it’s not clear when and where God acts.

The Lentiest Lent

I’ve seen this image appear across social media the past few days and while humorous it’s also a seriously accurate take. While I wish this pandemic had never come upon us, it seems that if we have to go through it, Lent is the perfect season. As Richard Beck wrote:

Maybe I’m weird, but I’ve been grateful that it’s been Lent during COVID-19. Lent has helped me during this season–pondering mortality, dealing with losses and restrictions, dealing with disappointment, facing my idols of security and self-sufficiency.

‘Covid-19 and Lent’

What seems to be a lifetime ago, I mentioned that I’ve been practicing vegetarianism for Lent. It’s coincidental with this decision that COVID-19 became a global problem, in part, because of how animals were captured, treated, and consumed. I didn’t decide to try vegetarianism as a response. While it would be foolish to make an eternal declaration about my diet, I can say there’s a good chance I’ll continue this lifestyle, or at the very least practice some sort of meat-minimal flexitarianism. The origins of this virus have shown me that we must be much more thoughtful about how we treat animals and how we consume them if we do.

I live in Texas, so Wuhan is the other side of the world, but I can’t think of anything that has driven home for me the concept (which Buddhism made clearest to me) of our interconnectedness/interdependence more than this pandemic. I’m may be a human animal but I’m an animal and an animal that’s connected to other animals. I may be an American but I’m an American human and a human that’s connected to other humans. I don’t think I’ll ever go a semester teaching Buddhist concepts such as dependent-origination and interbeing with referencing this pandemic because nothing has made these ideas as real. As Thomas Friedman wrote many years ago now: the world is flat. There’s no indication that nationalist and populist impulses will change this. China may be on the other side of the planet but it’s also right next door.

This week, Bishop Curry, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, recorded a Lenten reflection video where he reflected upon Matthew 22.34-40. He interpreted this passage as being about how we live in uncertain times, in uncertain territory, as Jesus was living as he prepared for his Passion, and as we’re living during this pandemic. His take-away is that Jesus’ words here—love God, love neighbor, love yourself—are words that can guide us. And he’s right. For those of us who believe in a good, loving Creator (sometimes against the odds), we must hold to our hope. We practice this hope by loving the invisible God through loving the visible neighbor and the visible person in the mirror.

My wife used to teach her students this Mayan precept, In Lak’ech, that is fitting for us today (English version):

You are my other me
If I do harm to you,
I do harm to myself.
If I love and respect you,
I love and respect myself.

Whether it be Jesus’ Great Commandment, the Buddhist doctrines of Interbeing and Dependent-Originatation, or the Mayan precept of In Lak’ech, we must live through this together. We have no other choice. May the Lenten season remind us not only that we come from dust and to dust we shall return but also that we are one in this process and no one of us is free from the destiny of all of us.

Vegetarianism for Lent

Originally, I thought I’d limit this blog to commentary on the interface of Religious Studies, Biblical Studies, pedagogy, and adolescence. I’ve decided I’ll broaden things a bit. On occasion, I may write on topics outside of the study and teaching of religion. I may write a little on the practice of religion as well—areas related to philosophy, theology, and ethics. That said, as a high school teacher, I think it’s wise to avoid writing on politics and many current events. Hopefully this topic doesn’t make anyone irate!

Today, I had a brief conversation with a colleague about animal rights. This isn’t something I’ve pondered extensively but it’s something that’s been in the back of my mind for a while now, at least since the days when I used to co-blog with Joshua Paul Smith. My thinking about the matter has intensified over Lent as I chose to use this year’s Lent to ponder meat consumption, it’s various implications, and to see how my body would handle a vegetarian diet (so far, so good). My encounters with Wesleyan-Anglican Christianity, my teaching on traditions like Buddhism, my own philosophical wrestlings with the grounds for moral behavior, and reports I’ve heard regarding the state of industrialized animal farms, has pushed me to begin thinking seriously about whether my worldview needs vegetarianism to be consistent. (Also, I’d add the adoption of Frida into our family, which gives me a daily interaction with an animal.)

I’ve not arrived at a conclusion. I don’t want to be preachy about it. I do want to be able to articulate why I can live with this or that level of suffering in sentient beings (or not live with it) and better understand my own practices in light of realities such as climate change. I will say that the recent two-part interview with David Clough on the Panpsycast has been one of the best articulations for why vegetarianism needs to be considered, not only from a philosophical perspective, but also from a theological one within Christianity.

If you’ve thought about this matter, or tried practicing vegetarianism, I’d like to hear your thoughts on these matters as I continue to use Lent to wrestle with what I believe and how I think I should act.

When should children learn about Noah and the Ark?

When I talk about ‘generational hermeneutics’ as a potential sub-field within larger fields like Religious Studies or Biblical Studies, I imagine fruitful conversations await us both in describing how things are but also how things should be (the ‘is/ought’ division). Let me begin with the ‘is’ question. I see few scholars asking questions about how children and adolescents actually read the Bible when they read it. The only book I’ve encountered (at a library), and intend to buy and read one day, is Melody R. Briggs’ How Children Read Biblical Narrative: An Investigation of Childrens’ Readings of the Gospel of Luke. I’m sure there’s more work being done but I don’t think it’s receiving as much attention as it should.

How do children read the Bible differently from adolescents and how to adolescents read the Bible differently from adults? Or, how do children process religious instruction differently than adolescents and adolescents differently from adults? I know the latter has received some attention, for example, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Teenagers by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton. I think more attention is deserved.

The second question is the ‘ought’ question. As a high school teacher I have to be cautious about how I teach certain parts of the Bible. For example, I don’t spend a lot of time on the Song of Songs. Likewise, it’s always a little tricky explaining the appearance of Shiva’s lingam. This task is complicated further for my colleagues who teach middle school students. Definitely skipping the Song of Songs with the seventh graders! But this raises a question: When can students read the Song? Or, as I joked in the meme above, when should we teach the story of Noah and the Ark? I mean, the Creator literally washes humanity from the earth like we’re a stain and we turn around and tell children about it because, ‘Oh, look, cute animals!’ Is this wise? Is this age-appropriate?

On a recent episode of one of my favorite podcasts—The Bible for Normal People with Pete Enns and Jared Byas—they interviewed author Cindy Wang Brandt about her book Parenting Forward: How to Raise Children with Justice, Mercy, and Kindness. She talked about growing up in a fundamentalist-type home and how certain approaches to the Bible and religion can leave adults with a lot of baggage to work through. They spoke about how parents might avoid harming their children with the Bible and religion. I think these are questions that should be asked even outside of ‘practicing’ circles. Scholars of religion can and should mix with psychologists and sociologists who study children and youth and their brain development. We should be asking questions about the ‘ethics of indoctrination’. I know some of the more established religious traditions have been thinking about this sort of thing for centuries as we see in say Catholic Confirmation or the Jewish Bar/Bat Mitzvah. But there’s more to be done. And I have a feeling some work is being done in various disciplines but we need cross-pollination.

So, when should children read the story of Noah and the Ark? When are they mature enough? Is it ok to introduce it to them as a happy story about God saving animals when they’re young and then return to it later to discuss some of the more complex, even disturbing aspects of the story later?

The Hebrew Prophets as Philosophers

Last year I noticed that by the time I got to November, many of my Hebrew Bible students needed a hermeneutical change of pace. So, when I got to the Prophetic Literature, I decided to approach these texts through a philosophical lens. It revived the attention spans of many of my students. This year I planned ahead for this part of the semester and I think last year’s experiment was a success.

While discussions on Isaiah’s Suffering Servant or Daniel’s Son of Man may interest religion majors and seminarians, I didn’t get much back from my students when I covered these topics. Instead, I’ve shifted to using the Prophets as a springboard into moral philosophy.

I was inspired by Yoram Hazony’s The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture where he sets divine revelation aside to ask what philosophical underpinning can be found in the message of the Hebrew Bible. I took the same approach with the Prophets specifically. My students have discussed:

  • Utopianism in the Book of Isaiah: can we create a world where the wolf grazes with the lamb? do we want to try or does the pursuit of utopia turn into the creation of dystopia?
  • Divine Command Theory in the Book of Hosea: Was Hosea right to marry who he married, and treat her how he treated her, and name his kids what he named them, just because God said (I teased out this idea with the Akedah earlier in the semester)?
  • Deontology in the Book of Daniel: While Divine Command Theory fits better, if we evaluate the stories of the ‘Three Hebrews and the Fiery Furnace’ or ‘Daniel and the Lion’s Den’ then we can ask whether one’s moral commitments should be static, like categorical imperatives, or should we be less dogmatic with our ethics?
  • Consequentialism and the Book of Esther: It could be argued that Queen Vashti was the deontologist. She wasn’t going to be objectified by the king and his friends no matter the consequence. Esther seems a bit more relativistic. She hides her identity. She does what it takes to please the king. It isn’t until the end that she takes a great risk but that risk wouldn’t be possible without her previous, calculated actions. It isn’t until the existence of her people is threatened that she becomes a little more like Vashti.

I use the Crash Course Philosophy videos linked above to explain the paradigm within moral philosophy that I want to discuss and then use the Prophetic Literature to illustrate. Maybe it’s a stretch to connect deontology to Daniel and his friends? Maybe. But if we bracket divine revelation (not saying reject…just bracket) then we must ask what makes this text valuable to students across religious traditions and for non-religious students. I think this sort of philosophical reading is a step in a useful direction.