Tuesday, July 19, 2016

The Ethics of Not Voting

This November, for the first time in my adult life, I likely will not be voting Republican in the presidential election. But neither can I support the Democratic nominee for president. Thus, I find myself in an interesting position: do I find the nearest nominee of a third party with whom I align on “must-have” issues? Or, since this is a principled stand for me, do I simply relax and look for ideological purity, and if I find none, refrain from voting? Often, our culture simply takes it as a presupposition that you have an ethical or patriotic obligation to vote. It is more assumed than defended, and usually comes in the form of the statement “If you don’t vote, then you can’t complain.” But is that really true? In this article, I seek to show that there is a particular ethic to not voting, and in some cases, it can be not only permissible to refrain from voting, but even obligatory.

Let’s start with the obligatory cases, since if these succeed, then it follows as a matter of logic that there are at least some permissible cases. Suppose a potential voter has done no research and knows virtually nothing about a referendum issue (say, about a measure to shift funding from one place to another). Should she vote yes or no? Given what she knows, she has no way of reasonably preferring one to the other. Given that the vote at issue can have repercussions that are good or bad, one can make the case that, ethically, if she does not have a clue, she should refrain from voting. That is, not only is it permissible for her to refrain from voting, but she plausibly has an obligation to do so. This is because it is reckless to so vote.

Consider another case, where you face a referendum with two choices, A and B. If you vote “A,” then all homosexuals will be rounded up, tried, and killed. If you vote “B,” this will happen, but only for homosexuals whose last names begin with “C,” and only once per year. It seems that either choice is unacceptable. Notice it wouldn’t help to have an objector tell you, “But a non-vote is just a vote for whichever one would win!,” or “B is the lesser of two evils!,” or “If you don’t vote, you don’t have a right to complain.” Actually, in these cases, you have an obligation not to vote for either one, and you absolutely do retain your right to complain about it.

So what is the lesson here? We have an obligation to refrain from voting in cases of extreme ignorance, or in cases of two or more exhaustive choices that we can or should reasonably believe violate our principles.

Now consider the current case. I think the principles of the situation prohibit me from voting for either the Republican or Democrat. Thus, I have two major choices: I either refrain from voting at all, or I can embrace a third-party candidate. Now I think we should notice we may not necessarily have either condition in place in order to constitute an obligation not to vote, for me. Why, then, would I not vote?

First, I might refrain from voting as what is itself a protest vote. Contrary to popular belief, I neither cast a vote for Hillary/Donald nor lose my right to protest by not voting. It may be the case that I wish to voice my displeasure in one of the only ways I can: by refusing to play the game at all. This lack of voting isn’t voter apathy; it’s precisely the opposite. It’s precisely because I care that I am even considering this move. I think, then, this move might need to be accompanied by vocal action (whether by letter or in person). It is because I am involved that I retain a moral right to speak to what happens politically. Further, when the votes are tallied, none would be counted from me to a particular candidate; that’s just not how voting works. Neither could my lack of participation be interpreted as support for whomever wins. The hard-core Trump supporters told us he didn’t need us to win; if that’s true, then my position is a “no-harm, no-foul” thing. If it’s not true, as many have said, then we can always say, “we told you so.”

My next moves are to investigate third-party candidates. Currently, I am not sold on any one of them—but it’s only July. And pragmatics are mostly out the window (none of these third-party candidates are going to win the presidential race in 2016). Thus, I can afford to be principled.

Finally, I don’t trust in governments; that’s not where my hope lies. Instead, my hope is in Jesus Christ. I can trust in a God who is in control. This doesn’t mean I won’t vote at all (or even that I won’t vote for someone for president in 2016); I will do my due diligence and vote on issues and down-ticket candidates. Nonetheless, I think I am done with being a registered member of one of the two major parties for a while. The ethics of not voting seem to be relevant.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Advice about the PhD

This post will both talk about what I am doing now and what lessons I learned (positive and negative) in applying to PhD programs. First, I have been accepted into (and in turn I have accepted) the PhD philosophy program at the University of Birmingham (UK). It’s an excellent program in which I will be in the UK for two weeks at a time, once per year. The British model of the PhD is one in which you do not take courses (this is due to particulars of the British education system going back to their high school curriculum), but rather write up a dissertation. I am beginning this program under the supervision of Yujin Nagasawa, starting this September, and I am very excited! My purpose in getting this PhD is to be able to work within the professoriate, where I will try to be a professor on mission, engaging the culture around me and attempting to shape its future for Christ. If you are interested in supporting me in prayer or financially, please follow this link.

What follows is a hodgepodge of lessons I’ve learned, in no particular order; please don’t use only me as a resource in applying for PhD programs.

1.     Apply early

This almost cannot be overemphasized. Because I was quite busy during application season, I honestly didn’t really begin applying at most programs until the week after Christmas. This was a mistake, for two reasons: a) several programs either had their deadlines quickly approaching (by Jan. 1), or else already passed (ahem, Indiana); and b) some schools had financial aid opportunities or partnerships that had deadlines pass, some as early as the end of September! My failure to move quickly may have cost me a place at one of these schools, or financial aid.

2.     Don’t swing for the fences too much

Here’s what I mean by that. I applied to eleven programs, eight of which rejected me. However, these were programs such as FSU, Virginia, Texas A&M, Baylor, and Oklahoma. These kinds of programs often receive record numbers of applications (sometimes over 250!), and often have anywhere from 4-8 spaces available. I’ve often heard that virtually nothing separates the top 20 or so applicants in these situations; it’s a virtual lottery. Perhaps I should have played the lottery a little less often, and went for an “easier” fully funded program. It’s not all luck, however…

3.     Be sure the program is a good fit

By this I mean a couple of different things. First, be sure the program is known for your preferred area of specialization (AOS) within philosophy. If you are really into the philosophy of art, but the school doesn’t talk about that being one of their strengths, that may be a sign the school isn’t a good fit for you. Second, you’ll want to peruse the faculty page to see if there are any professors whose AOS matches yours. If you haven’t already, try to read and become familiar with these professors and their work. Then, politely contact them via their preferred method (often email), referencing their work and your interest in it. Further, in a few succinct sentences, describe the direction of your research (in terms of dissertation, if you have it) or the specific questions you are currently interested in, and ask the professor if he thinks this might be interesting, or if you should apply, etc. Be sure to thank him for even reading your email. Preserve all email etiquette! This all assumes you find a prof with a match. When you do not contact a professor (which I did not do for some schools, since I had so little time), you really don’t know if you’re a match for the school. The hard truth is that if there is not a prof willing to work with you on your questions/project, then you will be rejected. This is especially true in British programs, where your entire application rises and falls, more or less, on whether there is a prof willing to work with you. It is telling that of the three acceptances I received, I had contacted and received some form of feedback from three professors.

4.     Be sure you’re OK with the location

This is a bigger deal than you might think. This is where you’re going to be spending 3-7 years of your life, depending on your situation and school. That’s a long time to be in a miserable location you hate. Your home (both town and place in which you live) needs to be a somewhat safe space for you to relax. If you’re bored to death or stressed out, that’s not going to help you complete your program and be healthy. One school to which I applied, had I been accepted (I wasn’t, so there’s that), would have required a significant adjustment in what I was used to. In some cases, that can be easy to accept; in others, it can be intolerable. With one of my other acceptances, I would have needed to move to the UK full-time. While I would love to do that, I have a family, and I would have needed to be sure they could handle the situation (they probably could). For two concrete examples, being in the middle of Manhattan for some people could be stress-torture, while living in a tiny college town with nothing for miles can give people a cabin fever. The key is to know your location, know yourself (and any family), and be honest about these prospects. If possible, visit the campus and check out area activities. I myself went to the UK this time last summer, and took a train to Birmingham one of those days (that part of the trip didn’t go well for a variety of interesting reasons, but at least I went!).

5.     Know your end goal

Part of what can help you make your decision is knowing what you want to do with your PhD. Overwhelmingly, people who get PhDs in the humanities want to teach. There’s nothing wrong with that; I certainly do! However, it does not always have to be that. You could be in a thinktank, or a consultant, or work for an academic publishing house, or any number of things! Although you cannot guarantee the future, it’s wise to work toward your end goal. For instance, I decided I wanted to be able to work in either a secular or a Christian collegiate environment. Unfortunately, I cannot do that with a PhD from a Christian school or seminary. Further, there are some American schools that don’t like to hire from British schools, either. Nonetheless, I would be comfortable at either type of school with respect to teaching, so I followed Birmingham’s offer. Just know what you’re getting into. There is not much worse in this area than getting a degree only to find out it’s worthless with respect to what you want to do!

6.     Count the cost

This cost-counting is in terms of time, money, and job prospects. We’ve already spoken a little about job prospects, but I should be honest here: if the sole or overwhelming reason you’re considering a PhD is a full-time, tenure-track position at a major research university, you should not do a PhD. Much like getting into the “best” PhD programs, these positions are a lottery amongst even the top candidates. I myself had to disabuse myself of this notion. I am pursuing a PhD because I believe that is what God would have me to do; I want a full-time position, but even if I do get one, it likely will not be tenured, may not be permanent, or may be in a context I didn’t envision. You may have to be willing to go international (I am, at least in principle!), or be willing to look outside of the university (other academic jobs, like publishing, for example). The point here is know that job prospects in the humanities for the dream job are dim. Be sure you understand that and can live with it.

I mentioned time as well earlier. You will likely lose 3-7 years’ worth of job experience (you likely will not have a career-style full-time job during this time) and earnings. Beyond that, you will be making a major investment whose final emotional payout won’t occur for years. Think about that for a minute. Can you go years in delayed gratification for this? Or are you likely to become very frustrated and mentally exhausted, in an unhealthy place? Don’t gloss over this question.

Finally, count the cost in terms of money. Most reputable American programs in the humanities offer full tuition remission and a stipend in exchange for TA-ing and eventually teaching undergraduate intro courses. With few exceptions, if it is an American program that doesn’t offer this, watch out.[1] However, many stipends are very low—some as low as $12,000. If you get involved with this, you need to do a thorough inventory of what this school is going to cost you and for how long. How much will you need to live there? How much will you take home? Are there fees to pay? If single, will finding roommates be easy? How much am I willing to take out in loans? This final question is huge. Student loan debt does not go away, and it’s worth it to evaluate carefully how much total debt of all kinds you have currently before answering that question.

I myself am trying a combination of my own personal funds (jobs), student loans, and fundraising to finance my PhD. We had to set a limit on what we wanted to take out in loans total. Most of all, in this area, be honest with yourself: you’re not going to buy dollar meals in boxes for five years. Having realistic numbers helps paint a picture to help you decide what to do.

7.     Speak to current students

I only did this a few times, and I wish I had done more. Why? First, because if you get in, these are the students who will become your colleagues. What are they like? Are they interested in the same AOS as you? Are they believers also? Second, because current students rarely put on a show. They’re not trying to sell you on the school. They’ll let you know the good, the bad, and the ugly. How long it really takes to get through, whether or not you can work an outside job, how accessible the profs are as supervisors, any nightmare stories, and any positive stories as well. If a student wants to warn me against going to a school for some reason, I am very likely to take it seriously. On the other hand, if a student goes out of her way to tell me her supervisor is excellent and should be considered, I am very likely to respond favorably to that as well.

8.     Know there are biases, Part 1 (Academic Background)

Unfortunately, there are definitely biases that admissions committees have. Your school could have the best accreditation and be well known in your subfield of philosophy. If the admissions committee doesn’t like it, though, it won’t matter. Here’s what I mean: there are some schools that, if you attended any school with the word “seminary” in its name, will not give you the time of day. This is not necessarily an unfounded bias, and isn’t necessarily malicious. I finally asked one school to which I was going to apply if having a philosophy degree from a seminary ruled me out of the PhD program: short story was, yes, it did. I appreciated their candor, and it saved me some time. It did make me wonder, however, if I should have found a tactful way to ask each school before I applied, and see which ones responded that there was such a bias. Bottom line: if you went to a seminary for your qualifying degree, and you want to apply to a secular school, it’s worth asking. You may receive a response ranging from “it doesn’t matter” to “you won’t be admitted here” to “you would need to do a secular master’s first.” Again, it’s just worth knowing before you dive in.

9.     Know there are biases, Part 2 (AOS)

Another mistake I made concerns the AOS. I went into it believing it should be philosophy of religion. I applied the advice given in (3), and searched. If a school had neither the strength of philosophy of religion nor a philosophy of religion professor, I just didn’t apply. Now, what I didn’t quite realize was that philosophy of religion, as an AOS, is extremely minor. That is, it doesn’t tend to get you admitted or to get you jobs. It’s best to pick one of the four major branches of philosophy (metaphysics, epistemology, logic, ethics), or a popular or major area of focus that the school is involved in (such as philosophy of science or philosophy of math). I may have unwittingly eliminated myself from schools I should not have, either by listing philosophy of religion as my AOS or by not applying because I assumed that would be. I have an MA in that area. Thus, I believe I have the strength to have that be a second AOS, while focusing on metaphysics as my primary AOS.

10.  Follow up, but don’t be annoying

Often, schools will tell you around the time you should be receiving notification (but not always). I was fortunate, in that most schools informed us around the timeframe they said they would. Do not contact the school to check on your status before the time they have given you. They are extremely busy, and it’s the academic equivalent of “Are we there yet?” However, if the school has not given you either a date or a timeframe, it’s completely acceptable to call (trust me, email can take days or even a week to be returned) and speak with someone about it. If you’re polite, and thank them for taking the time to help you, they will usually be happy to give you something.

However, some schools just keep telling you that it will be a few more weeks, and when that happens, there is still no decision. I had two such situations out of eleven, and my only advice is to be polite, patient, and persistent. Don’t be annoying, but an occasional email mentioning that you’re “just checking in to see if there has been any decision) is OK—when the timeframe the school has given you has passed. It is OK to let them know that you have other decisions riding on theirs; if they tell you, however, that it will be another week, then give them another week.

Have any other questions about my experience? Have any comments or stories you’d like to share? Do so in the comments below!

[1] I give an exception for my own Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and others like it. This is because their programs are designed to allow you to remain in your context, and thus you can work a full-time job to support your family.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

The Priority of General and Special Revelation

This relatively brief article is going to arituclate my basic position on general and special revelation. First, some definitions are in order. General revelation is the truths God has revealed about himself within the natural world; these truths do not require God specially telling or communicating them in order for someone to know them. Special revelation contains truths that would not be known without God’s communicating them specifically; at the very least, they are truths that come to be known this way (even if we later think of theological or philosophical ways to defend these conclusions).

Often, natural theology (a term used often under the umbrella of general revelation)—if it is rejected—is rejected because God is fully transcendent. Thus, only Christ can function as a knowable revelation of God. From this, it follows that there really is no natural theology; all knowledge is a reflection of what we know of Christ. The problem here is, in my estimation, both philosophical and exegetical. After I deal with these issues, I will present my own brief theory on the priority of these two subjects.

The philosophical problem: A God who is “wholly other” is self-refuting. This is because such a God one is not supposed to be able to say anything about, and yet it is clear we can: namely, this version of God has at least one knowable property: the property of being wholly other. But if being wholly other is just the property of being unknowable, then we encounter a contradiction. Thus, we should reject this property as applied to God. But if we reject this property, then it doesn’t follow that nothing can be known of God through natural theology. And thus our philosophical reason for rejecting natural theology is undermined.

The exegetical problem(s): I’m not going to be too detailed on this one, but it seems that textual evidence does exist to suggest people know something about God—something at least sufficient for their condemnation. Psalm 19.1-4 especially suggest this. Now in context there is the law and statutes of the Lord. The law typically includes all of the Mosaic Law (it was treated as a single unit). There are two considerations we must look at. First, the entire law, even ceremonial parts, were viewed morally. Thus, we should not be surprised when the moral part of the law stands by representation of the whole. Second, and more importantly, Romans 10 seems to use this text, in verse 18: “But I say, Have they not heard? Yes verily, their sound went into all the earth, and their words unto the ends of the world.” This is a clear usage of Psalm 19, and yet Paul is stating there is something about the knowledge of God that has gone out to all.

Could this be talking about Christ alone, with respect to the Jews only? Perhaps. But perhaps not; after all, Paul specifically mentions both Jews and Gentiles (v. 12), and there were (and are!) many Gentiles who have never heard of Christ. So it seems we have a kind of natural theology after all.

My account of natural theology is this: Hebrews 11 teaches that in order to come to God, you must believe he is. In this respect, given general revelation (which I argue can come in the form of either Reformed Epistemology’s Proper Functionalism, natural theology arguments, etc.), people must first have a general revelation-type belief in order to be saved via special revelation. In this very broad sense, general revelation has logical priority over special revelation. And yet, undeniably, special revelation is most important; without it, we lack the truth of Jesus Christ’s coming into the world, living a perfect life, as a sacrifice for sins!

Thursday, July 7, 2016

A Refutation of Support for Molinism?

Here is an interesting article by a self-described former Molinist; he takes the tactic of granting that God has middle knowledge of libertarian actions, but as a matter of fact, there is no good reason to think we have libertarian freedom (I am summarizing quite a bit, but this appears to be the chain of reasoning). As such, he does not want to be a Molinist. I think the article is worth responding to in a few key points.

First, while he pits Molinism vs. determinism as contenders of explanation for data, this isn’t a symmetrical comparison. Interestingly, this is recognized when he locates the issue of contention as one of freedom of the will (specifically, libertarian freedom). Whether or not libertarian freedom is present (as it is in Molinism and is not on determinism) just dictates which data set is under consideration. If it is present, then determinism is manifestly false. If it is not present, then Molinism is false.

Now he recognizes that there is another option: compatibilist freedom. So it actually comes down to whether or not there are any good reasons to think that we have libertarian freedom. He says no. Why would he do that?

Well, he says, the argument for libertarian freedom is one’s intuitions, and these are properly basic. But, he claims, sometimes “our immediate desires override what we want.” While I don’t really know for sure what this means, it turns out it’s irrelevant. Libertarianism is not the thesis that “all of my decisions are libertarianly free,” but rather “at least some of my decisions are libertarianly free,” so that this consideration does not lower the plausibility of libertarianism by one iota: any plausibility that is gained from intuitive considerations should remain.

The second reason he gives is as follows: “The fact that we chose A when B was a valid option does not necessarily mean that we could have chosen B.” Once again, I frankly do not know what this means. What does he mean here, then, that B was a valid option? If he means we could have chosen B, then, yes, we necessarily could have chosen B. The world-indexed proposition “Randy could choose B in circumstances C in world W” would be true in all worlds, even deterministic ones. But regardless, he goes on to say that advocates for intuitive support for libertarianism have to argue that agents in a deterministic world would not have the intuition that they are free, which we (supposedly) do not know. I think the point here is supposed to be that this renders the intuitive support for libertarianism equivalent with support for determinism.

But I don’t see that we have to argue that, “In all deterministic worlds, no determined creature has the intuition that he is indeterministically free.” First, it may be that we do have reason to think creatures in such a world would not have such an intuition: namely, God is not a deceiver. Most people would be overwhelmingly deceived about their everyday actions. But let that pass (it is not essential to the response). Second, the mere possibility that we are mistaken in our intuitions is not enough to render these intuitions just as likely as not to be false. Why think that our intuitions need to be incorrigible in order to provide sufficient source for particular beliefs? Finally, he may be undermining his own later responses to other, relevant issues. If he thinks the possibility of intuitions going wrong is enough to nullify their use, and if he thinks that it’s just as likely (by implication) as not that we have determined, massively false beliefs about our everyday experiences and our roles in choosing them, then he has a 50-50 shot at thinking that any given belief he holds is false. But no one should hold any 50-50 belief as true. Therefore, he has acquired a defeater for literally any belief he holds, including his belief that libertarian intuitions are undermined.

Additionally, he seems unaware of the fact that there are indeed positive arguments for incompatibilism, and by a slight extension, libertarianism. This extension involves both intuition and moral reasoning. For example, certain versions of the consequence argument entail that incompatibilism is true, and that entails that one of two options is true: hard determinism and libertarianism. Most determinists do not accept hard determinism; the overwhelming number accepts soft determinism, also called compatibilism. But compatibilism is ruled out by the consequence argument. But what if he decides he will in fact be a hard determinist? Well, aside from ruling out biblical discussions of freedom, we can suggest: God would be acting against his character in forcing unfree creatures to do actions that are evil; in other words, God would be performing these evil actions alone, as the agents involved would be no more free than a child’s GI Joe action figures are. The intuition is that we are not so determined, and God is not of such poor character. The moral argument is that “if we are not free, we are not responsible; we are responsible; therefore, we are free.” If this is so, this leaves us with libertarianism. He will have to address both the consequence argument and its implications in order to move forward, unless he does embrace hard determinism.

A few other notes: first, he writes that, “The argument from the explanatory power of Molinism requires that determinism cannot account for human freedom.” Strictly speaking, this is not correct. Explanatory power is typically used to refer to the idea that the best explanations make the evidence we do see more probable than if the explanation was not correct.

Suppose determinism could account for human freedom. Why would it follow that Molinism’s explanatory power falls below that of determinism? Just run the (admittedly made up) “numbers” in your head: if Molinism were true, would we expect to see the evidence we do see or infer (human freedom, God’s omniscience, the seeming truth about counterfactuals, our intuitions that we are libertarianly free)? Sure. What about if Molinism were false? Is it just as probable? Well, pretty plainly, no. Now what about determinism? Without begging the question as to which type of freedom is true, would we expect to see the data we do see (human freedom, God’s omniscience, the seeming truth about counterfactuals, our intuitions that we are libertarianly free) on determinism? Surely not; even if possible, I doubt it’s even 50-50. But let’s say it is. In this case, then, Molinism emerges the clear winner in this category.

He offers Frankfurtian compatibilism as an alternative, but there are two issues worth addressing. First, as to this contention—“if God were to determine you to do precisely what you would have freely chosen, then perhaps freedom can be preserved”—this is what is called “overdetermination,” and counts against explanations when all else is equal (a permutation of Ockham’s razor). Second, his Frankfurtian example doesn’t actually show that freedom is preserved in this scenario. Indeed, Frankfurt examples just are examples of the lack of determination in a case where some agent chooses a particular way, and the other way is not actually open to him after all; they are not examples where a causally determined action is itself deemed free.

While there is much more that can be said, the point of my article is to suggest that the original author has not shown that there is no good reason to think we have libertarian free will, and has not shown philosophically that libertarianism and compatibilism are equally plausible.