Facts, Values and Modern Myths About Ethics

Facts, Values and other Modern Myths About Ethics

R. Scott Smith, Associate Professor of Ethics, Biola University

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October 7 and 8, 2015

 

A.  Can Scientific Naturalism Fully Explain Ethics?                                               Woodward IRC Room 5 @ 4:00 p.m. October 7, 2015

In the west, until the Enlightenment, both ethics and religion tended to be seen as areas in which we could have knowledge. But that changed with the historical rise of 1) the view that the universe is a closed, mechanistic, and material system, 2) the view that science is the pinnacle of the disciplines, and 3) the rise of empiricism, science came to be viewed as the unique set of disciplines that gives us knowledge of facts. Instead, ethics and religion were relegated to the realm of mere values, personal preferences, and opinions. Before the rise of naturalism to prominence in the modern era, morals tended to be seen as the kind of thing that can be universal, objectively real, and transcendent, being knowable by reason and revelation. But under naturalism, morals have to be the kind of thing amenable to a physicalist ontology. Despite numerous alternatives proposed by naturalists (e.g., that morals are just a biological adaptation), Dr. Smith will argue that naturalism lacks the ontology to make sense of ethics. Moreover, he will argue that the fact-value split is false – i.e. that if naturalism is true, we cannot know anything (even in science, business, etc.). But we do know many things, even in ethics, and so naturalism is called into serious question. It lacks the explanatory power we need for moral knowledge. But that means a radically different worldview, and ontology, must be sought out and examined.

B.  Does Postmodernism Offer a Better Alternative to Naturalism in Ethics?Woodward IRC Room 1 @ 4:00 p.m., October 8, 2015

If we cannot have any knowledge based on what naturalism allows as real, perhaps postmodernism (as explained by Wittgenstein or Derrida) might provide a favorable alternative. On this view, everything is interpretation, for there is no direct access to reality itself. To even have an experience requires interpretation. Thus postmodernism deconstructs and shows how science’s claim to a unique ability to give us knowledge of facts as they actually are in reality, is just another modern myth. Several ethicists have proposed more postmodern approaches to ethics, and a major figure is Alasdair MacIntyre. He proposes a return to Aristotle’s virtue ethics, modified in key ways, as a means to recover from the loss of moral knowledge precipitated by the Enlightenment. Yet knowledge now is to be understood as always from under a particular aspect; no one has an ahistorical, blind-to-nothing standpoint. For many scholars, the “postmodern condition” is axiomatic and reflects how we should move forward in ethics. But one may ask whether that indeed is the case. Professor Smith will argue that while postmoderns are right to draw our attention to the ways our situatedness affects how we interpret our experience, they are mistaken in their claims that everything is interpretation. Instead, he argue that we can know reality directly, and yet that does not mean we are blind-to-nothing, or can have a “God’s eye view”, or attain exhaustive knowledge. Postmodern attempts, moreover, cannot make adequate sense of what kind of things are some core moral principles and virtues (e.g. love and justice). If naturalist and postmodern approaches fail us regarding moral knowledge, is there a better explanation? Dr. Smith will argue that the best explanation is that moral principles and virtues exist objectively, and that they have a religious grounding – in God or theism. In this way, we can make robust sense of ethics.

Biography

Professor R. Scott Smith received his PhD in Religion and Social Ethics from University of Southern California in 2000. He has been Professor of Philosophy and Ethics at Biola University since 2000. His academic interest is in Husserl, Phenomenology and Constructivism, Philosophy of Religion and Ethics. Deeply curious about the interrelationship of epistemology and metaphysics particularly in the area of ethics, he teaches graduate courses in ethics, philosophy of religion, metaphysics and epistemology. He is a member of the American Philosophical Association (APA). Dr. Smith is the author of a number of important books including In Search of Moral Knowledge: Overcoming the Fact-Value Dichotomy (IVP Academic, 2014), Naturalism and Our Knowledge of Reality: Testing Religious Truth-claims (Ashgate, 2012), and Virtue Ethics and Moral Knowledge: Philosophy of Language after MacIntyre and Hauerwas (Ashgate, 2003), along with many articles and chapters of books, including “Could We Know Reality, Given Physicalism? Nancey Murphy’s Views as Test Case,” Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 64:3 (September, 2012). He was honored with the Biola Award for Excellence in Scholarship in the year 2007-2008.

The Future of Higher Education

Panel on The Future of Higher Education: Key Drivers of Sustainability Examined

November 17, 2015         Woodward (IRC) Room 1

Olav Slaymaker, Professor Emeritus Geography, UBC;  Jens Zimmermann, Canada Chair in Interpretation, Religion and Culture, Trinity Western University; Emily Osborne, PhD Cambridge, Postdoctoral Fellow UBC English; Bruce Hindmarsh, Professor of Spiritual Theology, Regent College 

Abstract

Recently in a Globe and Mail article, it was asked: “Is liberal-arts education any more than a nostalgia for a bygone era of higher learning, now out of sync with today’s hyper-competitive skills-based economies?” Does higher education encourage the pursuit of both academic excellence and character development of students? Is it innovative, socially relevant and ultimately sustainable? Does it prepare students for negotiating an increasingly complex and competitive globalized world? What will inspire and engage their imagination in the pursuit of citizenship and civil discourse? Post-secondary education has a huge cultural and economic influence in Canada. One might say that in many ways it shapes the future, while building on a critical appreciation of the past. It preserves a heritage. UBC Vancouver has 10,000 postgraduate and 41,000 undergraduate students from around the world with high hopes for their skill development and contribution to meaningful research and future careers. Education is essential for self-awareness and a key to maintaining the conditions for a democracy. At the same time, education is under intense pressure from various forces (intrinsic and extrinsic), currently pulling it in different directions, amidst conflicting public expectations. In the early history of the university, character development was a central priority. It is timely for this panel to reflect more deeply upon the purpose and trajectory of the university.

God and the Multiverse, with Astronomer Deborah Haarsma, May 6

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Deborah Haarsma

Astronomer from Calvin College and  President of BioLogos

God and the Multiverse

 Wednesday, May 6 @ 4:00 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 1

Audio File 

 

Abstract

The last 100 years have transformed our understanding of the universe.  We now know that the universe is ancient, beginning in a Big Bang 13.8 billion years ago, and that it continues to expand today, at an ever-increasing rate.  We’ve also seen amazing evidence that some physical laws and constants are fine-tuned for life, as well as hints that our universe is part of a much bigger multiverse. What does all this have to do with God?   This talk will give an overview of a range of religious and non-religious responses to these exciting discoveries.

Biography

 Deborah Haarsma earned a PhD in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in1997. An experienced research scientist, she was Chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy at Calvin College from 2009-2012, Professor of Astronomy from 1999-2012. She has several publications in the Astrophysical Journal and the Astronomical Journal on extragalactic astronomy and cosmology. Dr. Haarsma has studied very large galaxies (at the centers of galaxy clusters), very young galaxies (undergoing rapid star formation in the early universe), and gravitational lenses (where spacetime is curved by a massive object). Her work uses data from several major telescopes, including the Very Large Array radio telescope in New Mexico, the Southern Astrophysical Research optical and infrared telescope in Cerro Pachon, Chile, and the Chandra X-ray Observatory in orbit around the earth. Since January 2013, Dr. Haarsma has served as President of BioLogos (biologos.org) a serious academic dialogue between current world-class science and Christian faith.  BioLogos was founded by Dr. Francis Collins of the National Institute of Health in the USA, and runs annual conferences for scientists and church leaders. In this subject area, Haarsma published Origins: Christian Perspectives on Creation, Evolution, and Intelligent Design with her husband and fellow physicist, Loren Haarsma. She also edited the anthology Delight in Creation: Scientists Share Their Work with the Church with Rev. Scott Hoezee.

See also: Satyan Devados at Cal Tech God, Math and the Multiverse

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mrWyj34WGFE

See also: Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: the Quest for God in Science and Theology. (2009).

Are there viable pathways from nature to God? Natural theology is making a comeback, stimulated as much by scientific advance as by theological and philosophical reflection. There is a growing realization that the sciences raise questions that transcend their capacity to answer them—above all, the question of the existence of God. So how can Christian theology relate to these new developments?

In this landmark work, based on his 2009 Gifford lectures, Alister McGrath examines the apparent ‘fine-tuning’ of the universe and its significance for natural theology. Exploring a wide range of physical and biological phenomena and drawing on the latest research in biochemistry and evolutionary biology, McGrath outlines our new understanding of the natural world and discusses its implications for traditional debates about the existence of God.

The celebrated Gifford Lectures have long been recognized as making landmark contributions to the discussion of natural theology. A Fine-Tuned Universe will contribute significantly to that discussion by developing a rich Trinitarian approach to natural theology that allows deep engagement with the intellectual and moral complexities of the natural world. It will be essential reading to those looking for a rigorous engagement between science and the Christian faith. – Amazon

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Galaxy similar to our Milky Way

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Background Radiation from Big Bang

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Cosmological History

Jason Lepojarvi on C.S. Lewis and Love’s Meaning, March 25

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Junior Research Fellow St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford University

 Agape versus Eros: C. S. Lewis and Anders Nygren on the Meaning of Love

Wednesday, March 25 at 4:00 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 1

Agape versus Eros (slides)

Recording File  120131_004

Agape versus Eros (handout) 

Abstract

 C. S. Lewis noted that he was shaken by reading Anders Nygren’s famous book Agape and Eros(1932) while in his thirties. Nygren’s antithetical juxtaposition of eros and agape had become enormously influential in twentieth century Protestant theology. Among other controversial claims, Nygren argued that human love is always selfish. In The Four Loves(1960), C. S. Lewis vehemently denies this claim, and constructs his own theology of love. The lecture will evaluate this most important disagreement between these two prominent scholars, including its profound implications. Contrary to what Nygren thought, Lewis contends that the pursuit of happiness is not morally culpable and even eros has the dawn of agape. While arguing for this view, however, Lewis was driven to some exaggeration.

Biography

Jason Lepojärvi is a Junior Research Fellow in theology at St. Benet’s Hall, Oxford, a Ph.D. Candidate with a dissertation to be defended in early 2015, and a former President of the Oxford C. S. Lewis Society. Born to a Canadian mother and a Finnish father, he studied theology and philosophy at the University of Helsinki. His master’s thesis (2008) on the theology of the body and sexuality by John Paul II was later published as the first introduction to the subject in Finnish (2012), and his upcoming doctoral dissertation (2015) is on C. S. Lewis’s theology of love. His research interests lie in Roman Catholic and Protestant philosophy and theology, more specifically, philosophy and theology of love, the body, sexuality, worship, and idolatry. In 2014, he won the Karl Schlecht Award. http://www.st-benets.ox.ac.uk/-fellows.

CBC Ideas Series  C.S. Lewis and the Inklings  http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Ideas/ID/2411499215/

Alister McGrath, C. S. Lewis–A Life: eccentric genius, reluctant prophet.

Report: Jason Lepojarvi, gave a careful and thoughtful exposition of the difference in view on the meaning of love (agape versus eros) in the work of Swedish scholar Anders Nygren and Oxford English scholar C.S. Lewis. Essentially, Lewis legitimizes various types of human love (including eros), whereas Nygren only accepts God’s love through the person (agape) as legitimate and holy. The individual human is eradicated in Nygren, who sees eros or romantic love as selfish (denigrated) love; it is always eudaemonistic, egocentric or happiness-seeking. Nygren’s division has greatly impacted modern Christian theology, which has not sufficiently engaged with the potential diversity in expressions of human love towards other humans and the divine. Jason Lepojarvi explored how Lewis seeks to correct this bi-partite view of love, seeing an agapic opening in eros. Lewis believed that eros had nothing to do with seeking happiness, although Lewis’ position is perhaps an exaggeration in order to counter Nygren. Critical dialogue in this area opens a space for Christian academics to engage scholars from across disciplines (including theology, philosophy and sociology) as to the motivations behind human love and relationships. After Jason’s nuanced talk, many attendees joined him at dinner and enjoyed further discussion. Jason holds great promise as a young scholar; everyone appreciated his visit and the grace of his persona. He also lectured at Regent College the previous evening.

Other Lectures on C.S. Lewis   http://www.cslewis.org/?utm_source=E-Chronicles+October+23%2C+2014&utm_campaign=October23+E-Chronicles&utm_medium=email

Benjamin Perrin on Human Slavery in Canada February 25

Professor Benjamin Perrin

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Associate Professor UBC Law

Senior Fellow MacDonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy

 

Confronting Modern-Day Slavery: Human Trafficking in Canada

Wednesday, February 25, 2015 at 4 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 1

120101_003 Audio  File

Abstract

Modern-day slavery is one of the most egregious human rights violations of our time. Human trafficking involving sexual exploitation and forced labour occurs around the world – including here in Canada. Professor Perrin will present the main findings from his study on human trafficking in Canada, including the shocking prevalence of Canadian women and girls as victims, and discuss how our country is responding to this hidden national tragedy.

Biography 

Benjamin Perrin is an Associate Professor at the University of British Columbia, Faculty of Law and a Senior Fellow at the Macdonald-Laurier Institute for Public Policy. He is one of Canada’s leading authorities on human trafficking and author of Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking (Penguin, 2011), which was named one of the top books of the year by the Globe and Mail. Prof. Perrin has served as Special Advisor in the Office of the Prime Minister and Senior Policy Advisor to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration. The U.S. State Department has recognized him as a “hero” acting to end modern-day slavery.

He received a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Calgary in 2001, a Juris Doctor from the University of Toronto in 2005, and a Master of Laws (with honours) from McGill University in 2007. He was called to the Bar in Ontario in 2007 and the Bar in British Columbia in 2010. Professor Perrin is an internationally recognized researcher and advocate for victims of crime. The Governor General of Canada and victims’ groups have also recognized him for his work to combat human trafficking and child sexual exploitation. Professor Perrin is the recipient of the Wilson-Prichard Award for Community and Professional Service from the University of Toronto. He is co-editor of Human Trafficking: Exploring the International Nature, Concerns, and Complexities (CRC Press, 2012), and editor of Modern Warfare: Armed Groups, Private Militaries, Humanitarian Organizations and the Law (UBC Press, 2012). He is also the author of numerous law review articles and book chapters, and regularly provides commentary in the media. Prior to joining UBC, he was a law clerk at the Supreme Court of Canada, judicial intern at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague, assistant director of the Special Court for Sierra Leone Legal Clinic (which assisted the Trial and Appeals Chambers), senior policy advisor to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration, and executive director of a non-governmental organization that combats human trafficking.

 

Medical Sustainability, January 21, UBC

Craig Mitton

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Associate Professor School of Population and Public Health

UBC Faculty of Medicine 

Senior Scientist at the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Evaluation

The Challenges of Sustaining Excellence in Canadian Health Care

Wednesday, January 21 at 4:00 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 1

GFCF Jan 21, 2015 Slides of the Presentation

Z0000005 Lecture File

 

Abstract

In this presentation Dr. Craig Mitton will begin by describing the structure of the Canadian health care system and outline where Canada sits globally on several international outcome measures. In assessing the economic dimensions of the system, Craig will review two common myths related to aging and new technologies and will show that more resources for health care are not the answer. He will then put forward two key challenges, one related to the public and one related to physicians and finally he will offer a pragmatic solution to ensure excellence in Canadian health care that includes a number of immediate policy responses. The debate will be lively and the session will offer much time for interaction and audience participation.

Biography

Dr. Craig Mitton is an internationally recognized leader in the field of health care priority setting. He is a Senior Scientist in the Centre for Clinical Epidemiology and Evaluation and is both Division Head of Health Services and Policy and Director of the Master of Health Administration program within the School of Population and Public Health at UBC. Craig is the lead author on a book titled “The Priority Setting Toolkit: a guide to the use of economics in health care priority setting” and is the lead or co-author on over 100 peer reviewed journal articles. He has delivered over 150 presentations across many different countries and regularly runs short courses in health economics. He completed both his PhD and MSc at the University of Calgary and holds a BSc from UBC. Craig lives in Vancouver with his wife and two young daughters.

Richard Johns on Materialism and Creativity, October 21

 

Dr. Richard Johns, PhD Philosophy of Science UBC 

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Department of Philosophy, Langara College

Can Physical Systems be Creative?

Tuesday, October 21 at 4:00 p.m.

Woodward (IRC) Room 5 (UBC Gate One)

 

Abstract

There are many arguments against materialism that take the general form: “Materialism is false because it cannot account for X”, where X might be consciousness, rational understanding, human free will, or the evolution of life.  Such arguments are advanced today by philosophers such as Thomas Nagel, David Chalmers and Alvin Plantinga.  Dr. Johns sees the last two arguments as linked, since free will and evolution both require creativity, in a sense that seems to be incompatible with both determinism and randomness (or a combination of them).  In this talk our speaker will define what it means for a process to be creative, and show that free will and biological evolution (as well as engineering) require creativity in this sense.  He will then look at arguments that material systems cannot be creative, and consider objections to them.

Biography

Dr. Richard Johns was born in the UK, and did his undergraduate training in mathematics and engineering before switching to logic and philosophy of science in graduate school.  He moved to Vancouver, B.C. to finish his PhD in philosophy at UBC.  Since then he taught philosophy courses at UBC and SFU before accepting a permanent position at Langara College.  His main research interest concerns the objective meaning of “probability”, as used in physical theories, which is the topic of his book, A Theory of Physical Probability (U. of T. Press, 2002).   He is also interested in the limits of self-organisation in physics, the question of whether material systems can have understanding, the possibility of free will in a material universe, and the recent emergence of “safety” as an overriding moral imperative.

 

Possible Reading: Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies; Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos; David ChalmersThe Character of Consciousness (2010). Oxford University Press

 

Summary of the Argument: Can Matter be Creative?  by Richard Johns

It is commonplace to compare living organisms to human technology. William Paley, for example, compared organisms to watches, in virtue of containing parts with obvious purposes that meshed together to produce a functioning whole. Richard Dawkins compared bats to spy planes, bristling with advanced technology. Also note that biologists consider human technologies such as cell phones and airplanes to be products of evolution, since their creators are themselves such products.

While life and technology are similarly functional, their origins are thought to be very different. The development of new technologies requires that engineers understand the problem to be solved, and have knowledge of physical laws, the properties of materials, and so on. In short, creative engineering requires understanding. This is especially crucial when solving very difficult problems, which may take many generations of engineers. The Wright brothers, smart fellows though they were, could not have made a supersonic jet. Solving the problem of supersonic flight required a long cumulative process of somewhat gradual improvements, involving many people, who each had to understand the successes as well as the limitations of earlier designs.

Evolution on the other hand is not an intentional process, according to the standard evolutionary theory (SET). (SET refers rather loosely to contemporary versions of the ‘Modern Synthesis’, or ‘Neo-Darwinism’, developed in the 1940s by Fisher, Haldane, Wright, etc.) Evolution is a purely physical process on this view, and no thought or understanding is involved, until perhaps humans arrive on the scene. Nevertheless evolution is often described as a ‘creative’ process, on account of the fantastic technologies it has produced. I will argue, however, that no physical process can be creative in the required sense.

Engineers have, we might say, a ‘bias’ towards functional structures. If you produced a vast number of structures randomly, all with the same probability, very few of them would be functional. Very few would ‘do something useful’, such as walking, swimming, flying, detecting remote objects, producing light, generating electric currents, etc. Random processes are therefore unlikely to produce anything functional. Engineers however don’t produce objects randomly. They’re much more likely to produce a functional object than a random process would be.

Can physical processes have a similar bias toward functional structures? Evolutionary biologists say, “Yes indeed!” (Richard Dawkins is especially clear on this point.) Were this not the case, evolution – a physical process – could never have produced the complex life we see around us in so short a time.

Here’s the difficulty. The process of evolution must have a strong bias toward making new functional structures, or it cannot explain life as we find it. On the other hand, the laws of physics themselves have no bias toward functionality. The laws of physics are very simple and symmetric, and have been shown to produce only objects that are either simple and repetitive, or complex but random-looking and haphazard (or a mixture of the two). Such objects are never functional to any significant degree. A bias toward functionality arises only, SET claims, with the first appearance of a self-replicating entity, whose descendants differ from one another in minor ways. This leads to a struggle for existence, a competition for resources among these variants, and an automatic ‘selection’ of the more functional types.

So SET is committed to four claims:

  1. (i)  The laws of physics have no bias toward producing ‘technology’, or functional structures.
  2. (ii)  The process of evolution, which begins with the appearance of self-replicators, has a strong bias toward functionality.
  3. (iii)  Evolution is a purely physical process.
  4. (iv)  The spontaneous appearance of a self-replicator may be improbable, but it isn’t fantastically improbable (or evolution would require a miracle to get going).

The conjunction of these claims is however in conflict with probability theory. The first claim entails that complex life is fantastically improbable relative to the laws of physics, too improbable to be a realistic possibility, even in billions of years. (In the Markov chain formalism that can be used to represent a physical system, it has very low ‘stationary probability’.) If this probability becomes much larger, upon the appearance of a self-replicator, then probability theory tells us that the appearance of a self-replicator must also be fantastically improbable, contradicting claim (iv) above. In technical language, if Prob(A) is some low number , but Prob(A | B) is some much larger value q, then Prob(B) is no greater than /q. In effect, the probabilities of events in a physical system are fixed by the laws of physics, and the initial state, and cannot change much thereafter. For an improbable event to become probable, an equally improbable event must occur first.

There is no possible escape to this problem, as long as the probability of functional organisms is indeed very low at the beginning of time. But to drop this assumption (i) commits us to the view that the laws of physics themselves have a very strong bias toward functional objects, including computers and bicycles. Apart from there being no evidence for this at all (and much opposing evidence), it would seem to remove the need for SET in the first place.

In summary, if evolution is a physical process, then it can produce living organisms only if the laws of physics and initial state are ‘pre-programmed’ (so to speak) to do so. There is no question of a physical process creating such a disposition toward technology on its own. Physical systems, whether deterministic or not, are ruled by their laws and initial conditions.