Review of “Leaving Beringia”

Title: Leaving Beringia

Author: Robin Molineux

Publisher: First Choice Books, Victoria, BC

Date: 2021

Review by Bob Lane

What a great title! Do you know about Beringia? This reviewer had to look it up.

The Canadian Encylopedia tells us:

 “The importance of Beringia is twofold: it provided a pathway for intercontinental exchanges of plants and animals during glacial periods and for interoceanic exchanges during interglacials; it has been a centre of evolution and has supported apparently unique plant and animal communities. The history of Beringia is important not only in the evolution of landscapes but also in that of plants and animals. . . . And, Because of its aridity, much of Beringia remained unglaciated during the ice ages. The stratigraphy of long sequences of nonglacial sediment exposed at various sites can be correlated with alpine and continental glacial advances elsewhere. Fossils from such sediments are often exceptionally abundant and well preserved. They include pollen grains, plant fossils, invertebrates and vertebrate bones. Studies of fossils and of the sediments in which they occur have permitted tentative reconstructions of paleo-environments in western and eastern Beringia. Beringia is of special importance in the study of human prehistory since it is most likely the area through which man first entered the western hemisphere, presumably following the migrations of large mammals, known from fossil evidence to have roamed eastward across the Bering Land Bridge.   – Morlan, Richard E.. “Beringia”, The Canadian Encyclopedia.

The author tells us:

“I imagine you have read about Beringia; the area surrounded by glaciers during the last ice age, where people could, and did, survive over thousands of years. They knew nothing of what lay beyond those walls of ice. Then, over hundreds of years the ice melted, the walls came down and those people began to think of what lay beyond. Once they began to leave the safe land, nothing stopped them. There was no rest. There was no satisfaction. They went on. . . . Had they found what they were looking for when they left Beringia?” (141)

The book is a travelogue. Not in the usual sense, although Os does take many journeys to many places from Victoria, British Columbia to Newfoundland, Australia, Japan, but the important travel takes place in the human mind and personality and its way of dealing with loss, with hope, with new experiences, love, new friends, new places, and life itself.   The main character, Os, has lost his wife to illness and is rocked by the loss. They were very close, and the loss has hit him hard. He continues to operate his bike shop but is continually thinking of his departed wife. Together they raised one child who is distant and withdrawn.  He makes friends with other bikers and begins to travel a bit with these friends. They travel about Canada, the USA, and other locations. Finally, in Japan, he learns from a Master:

Perhaps Os might consider looking at the death of his wife, and the burden of his continued life in these ways. Beautiful things break. We are as fragile as the most delicate pottery.  . . . An irreplaceable bowl falls by accident and is in several pieces. It came to be that we learned how to make the bowl whole again; with lacquer and gold . . . it is whole but a different bowl. It is beautiful but with a different beauty. It is not restoration but a new creation. The second suggestion . . . is this. We are impermanent, everything we believe we have is impermanent. I ask that you see this not as a cause for grief but a joy that we are living. (220)

Os is a skilled bicycle repair man whose business is doing quite well. He is the father of one daughter who is slightly weird and the husband of Grace, a thoughtful woman who loves him as much as he loves her. But, of course, “beautiful things break”. Grace contracts cancer and dies, leaving Os wondering about the ways of the world. After some time he visits Nara in Japan, listens to the Master, and meets yet another traveler, who tells him:

“Where will you go when you leave Nara?” I said I had no plans, that I had come to live and travel this way for many years.

“May I suggest that you consider a pilgrimage? Are you a religious man?”

“I thought not. Shikoku, the eight temples of Shikoku, that is my suggestion . . . . I believe that you are ready.”

This is a thought-provoking novel; always interesting – and the journey we take is internal as Os learns to accept life – and death.

Bob Lane is Philosophy Professor Emeritus at Vancouver Island University.

An expressivist theory of ethical disagreement

In Fall 2001, at Brown University, for a philosophy course taught by James Dreier, I wrote a short paper about expressivism. In metaethics, “expressivism” is a theory that maintains that ethical pronouncements express attitudes, not facts. For many people, the expressivist theory is counterintuitive because ethical discourse does appear to make truth claims.

Allan Gibbard defended expressivism in Wise Choices, Apt Feelings (Harvard University Press, 1990, especially Chapter 5, “Normative Logic”), and Dreier reformulated, generalized, and expanded Gibbard’s theory to account for why people often speak of normative judgments as true or false (“Transforming Expressivism,” Nous, 1999).

In my own analysis at the time, I thought special attention should be paid to the moment at which norms are mapped onto propositions. The content of the specific norms and propositions would determine, in my view at the time, whether the Gibbard/Dreier theory could properly be called “expressivist.”

Transforming expressivism: Worlds in which a statement is true

If I say to you, “For goodness sake! Don’t do X. That’s terrible!,” what information am I giving you? Gibbard’s answer: The content of my statement is the set of factual-normative worlds in which my statement is true.

Example:

w1: the world in which John is a priest
n1: a complete set of norms according to which it is wrong for priests to drink

In the factual-normative world <w1, n1>, it is wrong for John to drink. There are other possible factual-normative worlds, too, in which it is (or would be) wrong for John to drink. The set of these worlds, according to Gibbard, is the content of the statement “It is wrong for John to drink.”

Objection:

Sodium chloride is the chemical name for table salt. You know this—if you had forgotten, I just reminded you of it—but imagine someone who does not know it or has forgotten it. They might be alarmed at the idea of putting “sodium chloride” on the table although they accept the norm of using “salt.” Since the terms represent the same substance, these normative judgments are always contradictory. Expressivism, when using “possible world” semantics, fails to account for the contradictory judgments of “don’t eat it” and “eat it.” (The expressivist, for their part, probably doesn’t believe that their ethical expressions are propositions at all and thus does not believe that their expressions can contradict each other.)

To account for the apparent contradiction, Dreier wanted to reorganize Gibbard’s sets of possible worlds (which, again, are the contents of normative statements) into subsets based on a shared norm. The contents of normative statements are “incomplete propositions” or “propositional functions” that can be true or false relative to a set of norms. The statement It is right/wrong to do X is true or false depending on what else is true or false. The set of norms maps itself to some other more detailed proposition that can be more simply true or false.

Indexical theory

The statement “Megan ought to fight” sounds normative. According to indexical theory, as Gibbard pointed out, it really means that a certain set of norms requires Megan to fight. It’s basically descriptive, although it becomes normative insofar as it implies that you endorse the norm you describe.

There are, of course, other sets of norms that do not require Megan to fight. So indexical theory can account for moral disagreement. Conversational context often assumes or creates a shared normative system, relative to which normative propositions can be true or false. When I wrote my paper, I suggested other possibilities for explaining disagreement. The normative statement could express additional information like “we have reason to adopt or obey that set of norms” or “we act as if that set of norms were true.” This is information about which people can disagree.

Indexical theory is a type of cognitivism. However, Dreier thought indexical theory was, on the whole, similar to a noncognitivist expressivist theory (i.e. one in which ethical expressions represent noncognitive attitudes rather than propositions).

My suggestion

Suppose we focus on the speaker’s attitudes rather than their beliefs about external facts. Using a previous example, when an expressivist says “it is wrong to put sodium chloride on beans and right to put salt on beans,” their own ignorance of chemical labels explains why they hold this self-contradictory belief, and this factual ignorance determines their attitude.

In my paper, I pointed out that it is reasonable not to ingest chemicals labeled with unrecognized names. If you don’t recognize the term “sodium chloride,” you inhabit a factual-normative world in which it can, for you, simultaneously be wrong to put one mysterious substance on food (when you don’t recognize the label “sodium chloride”) and right to put another substance on food (when you recognize the label “salt”). This has to do with knowledge, intent, and caution. We are speaking of someone’s feelings and attitudes, not objectively describing chemicals. There is no contradiction.

I suggested another example with a more obviously ethical application: deciding to donate to charity. An individual donor has different knowledge and comfort levels about how different charities operate. One might propose that it can be right or wrong to donate to a specific charity depending on the donor’s knowledge and feelings about that charity; this is not a contradiction of the form donate and don’t donate.

Am I using an expressivist-compatible propositional theory to explain normative logic (as Dreier suggested), or am I ditching propositional theory altogether and claiming that ethical statements shouldn’t be considered as propositions at all? I left that question open in my short class paper 20 years ago. Perhaps someone today has an idea of where to take this.

Religion in India

Weekly Roundup The latest findings from Pew Research Center · Subscribe ↗  
 Religion in India: Tolerance and segregation

 Indians see religious tolerance as a central part of who they are as a nation, and most across the country’s major religious groups say it is important to respect all religions, according to a major new survey based on nearly 30,000 face-to-face interviews. Indians of many religious backgrounds overwhelmingly say they are very free to practice their faiths.

But at the same time, members of the major religious groups see little in common and want to live separately.

Key findings about religion in India

From Pew Research Center