Archive for the ‘Philosophy’ Category

What Is the Question “What Are Women For?” For?
February 18, 2012

Creation of the Sun and Moon by Michelangelo, ...

The Dude (via Wikipedia)

Now that everyone’s gotten in their shots at James Poulos (including my friend Lisa McIntire, who I think wins the award for both aplomb and bile), I’d like to skip ahead to his follow-up column and zero in on what seems like one of the more toxic premises undergirding this whole exercise (emphasis mine):

Women are largely freer than ever to pursue their life plans without the burden of a moral obligation to center their activity and their ambitions around exercising their unique reproductive capabilities.

Yet the story doesn’t end there. We still argue and wonder about which life plans to choose in a civilization that has greatly and productively loosened the once-intense moral link between women’s fecundity and women’s lives as unique individuals. And one area in which patriarchal dominance has persisted is in privileging some kinds of human pursuits over others. Philosophers from Plato to Rousseau to Heidegger have disapprovingly warned of the apparently natural propensity of men to fill up the world with stuff — machines, weapons, ideologies, and so on — that often objectifies and instrumentalizes people, and often distracts us from its own sterility as regards fruitful human living.

Difference doesn’t presume or ordain inequality. I’m not alone in thinking that women are uniquely able to help humanity avoid becoming enthralled to the more sterile cultural creations of men. But this sort of insight is far more circumspect and modest than the central principles of virtually all social conservatives.

While I was in Israel, I heard a Hasidic rabbi — new Hasidic, mind you, with an acoustic guitar and all the affectations of a totally chillaxed SoCal beach bro — make a very similar argument. His intention was to demonstrate to us that the convention of identifying God with the male pronoun “He” wasn’t really sexist or patriarchal, because all it did was link God to the male creator energy. The universe, he argued, had a distinctly female creation energy, which was great for women, because it meant that they were intrinsically closer to their creator — God — than us guys, who don’t hold within ourselves as much of the female creation energy.

According to Rabbi Jack Johnson, the reason why men observe Shabbat — during which time Jews are forbidden from participating in any act of creation — is to become, in a sense, more female, and therefore more receptive to God’s male creation energy. Women don’t have as difficult a time doing this, because they’re already predisposed, but — unfortunately, says the good Rabbi at this point — modern women have absorbed more of the male creator energy in recent years as they’ve taken a greater participatory role in politics, business, and other profane worldly affairs.

I don’t think I’m quite doing justice to how well the Rabbi framed this fundamentally conservative argument in the liberal-values-friendly vocabulary of hippie-dippie-dom. Lucky for us, he betrayed himself by blurting out the word “unfortunately,” thereby disclosing what the real implications of this worldview were. If women want to stay close to God all week — the way men try to get close to God from Friday evening through Saturday afternoon — then they need to abstain from icky male creator acts. You leave all the politicking, horse trading, art-making and craft-working to us menfolk, sweetie. That way it won’t soil your special connection with The Ultimate Manfolkperson.

Thus we see closeness to God become a consolation prize to be awarded to that underclass which Rabbi Duderino wishes barred — either by social convention or other means — from having any direct agency in worldly affairs. Poulos, along with the philosophers he enlists in his cause, appears to be making the same argument. Difference may not presume or ordain inequality, but I’d love to hear what makes this preferred state of affairs anything but deeply unequal.

UPDATE: Elias Isquith (whose blog you should be reading, if you aren’t already) tweets:

some men think if they turn up the “Madonna” and down the “Whore” in their Madonna/Whore complex, they’re feminists

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Art Finds a Way to Take Care Of You
February 16, 2012

And these country musics that are just so—you know, “Baby since you’ve left I can’t live, I’m drinking all the time.” And I remember just being real impatient with it. Until I’d been living here about a year. And all of a sudden I realized, what if you just imagined that this absent lover they’re singing to is just a metaphor? And what they’re really singing to is themselves, or to God, you know? “Since you’ve left I’m so empty I can’t live, my life has no meaning.” That in a weird way, they’re incredibly existentialist songs. That have the patina of the absent, of the romantic shit on it, just to make it salable… But that if you cock your ear and listen real close—that it’s deep, you know?… That we find, that art finds a way to take care of you, and take part. Kind of despite itself.

– David Foster Wallace, Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself

Blueprints to the Universe
February 13, 2012

In which Slate pulls an old classic out of the archives of the now-defunct Lingua Franca magazine. The topic: an enigmatic millionaire and amateur philosopher who, under the pseudonym “A.M. Monius,” wrote an audacious metaphysical treatise called “Coming to Understanding.” From the article:

“Coming to Understanding” is a remarkable document. As Ermanno Bencivenga observes in his review, in its sheer temerity the work resembles such philosophical landmarks as René Descartes’s Meditations, Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Idea. (Bencivenga describes it as “a self-standing piece of reflection which asks to be judged on its own merit.”) With few citations and nary a footnote, the manuscript seeks to provide “a large-scale account of reality, its origin, purpose, and how it hangs together.” The questions it engages are grand: Does reality have a purpose? Why are things intelligible at all?

As a work of metaphysics, “Coming to Understanding” picks up where science leaves off. The purview of science is the world of “contingent beings”—things that might not have existed, or might have been otherwise, such as you, me, electrons, mountains, and the law of gravity. Science strives to explain the nature, properties, and causes of these contingent beings, which as a whole make up our physical reality.
But science does not and cannot explain why there are contingent beings in the first place. That is a question for metaphysics: Why do contingent beings exist? Or, put plainly, why is there something rather than nothing?

In answering that question, A.M. Monius laid out a new vision of the underlying architecture of reality:

“Coming to Understanding” proposes replacing the theists’ God with reality as a whole, or Being. It also advocates replacing God’s personal intention (that contingent beings come to love God) with an impersonal, fundamental good (that contingent beings come to understand the form of Being). Having made these substitutions, A.M. Monius reaches the following conclusion: “Contingent being exists for the sake of the coming to understanding of the form of Being Itself by contingent being.” In other words, “the central theme of the whole drama of reality” is that beings like you and me and A.M. Monius come to understand the purpose and structure of reality.

And as it happens, the purpose and structure of reality are precisely what A.M. Monius has on offer. In sophisticated detail, the last two-thirds of “Coming to Understanding” are devoted to a discussion of categories similar to Aristotle’s, such as the Universal, the Particular, the Spatio-temporal, and the Cognizable. A.M. Monius believes that these categories demarcate the fundamental types of Being and—in light of their interrelations—suggest the purpose of contingent being.

Silly? Maybe a little bit. But what makes A.M. Monius such an intriguing figure — both to myself and, I think, his critics in academia — is his ambition and fearlessness; his willingness to look silly for the sake of answering really big questions. If there are many contemporary analytic philosophers out there who share Monius’ temerity, I haven’t encountered them.* (That said, if you do know of any, please leave their names in the comments.) Maybe it took a precocious amateur to do what no sane, reputation-conscious academic would ever attempt.

I often miss these grand projects, unrepentant skeptic that I may be. Regardless of whether you think they describe anything true about the universe — regardless, in fact, of whether you believe there’s any such thing as a metaphysical fact — they at least give you a different lens through which to view the world. Think of it as accidental phenomenology.

*Some philosophy nerds would probably point to On What Matters, but Parfit’s subject matter there is limited to ethics.

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Back in the Diaspora
February 6, 2012

Tel Aviv

At around 6 AM this morning my plane touched down at JFK, and I resumed life in the real world. It will take some time before my thoughts are organized enough — and I’ve caught up on sleep enough — to make sense of the ten days I spent Birthrighting through Israel, but I thought I’d jot down some preliminary thoughts and assure you all that I hadn’t gone native.

For the last couple of weeks before I took off for the Holy Land, my mantra was: “Even if it’s terrible, it’s gonna be awesome.” Turns out I was being uncharacteristically prescient. The last ten days have been both sababa (Hebrew for awesome) and very much a balagan (loosely translated: a total clusterfuck). Never before I have felt so exhausted, exhilarated, inspired, dispirited, connected, and alone in such a compressed span of time. You might say it was a rich experience. Certainly an educational one.

Which is not to say that it was educational in the way I believe Birthright’s administration intended it to be. I have no interest in moving to Israel, nor in financially supporting the Israeli state, nor in becoming a mouthpiece for the Likkud Party. I stand by my pre-Birthright conviction that my Jewish heritage gives me no right or claim on the land of Israel, and that I would reject such a claim were it offered to me. My sentiments regarding the Israeli/Palestinian conflict (which are — surprise! — significantly to the left of Birthright’s) remain more or less what they were, though I’ve managed to add just a little bit more nuance.

So my relationship with Israel remains more or less unchanged. But the personal relationships I formed in that week and a half have affected me deeply, and my relationship to Judaism writ large has altered in ways I’m still trying to parse. That’s not to say I’ve found God — far from it. But I may have found a suitable (which is to say, humanistic and godless) entry point back into the Jewish philosophy and theology I abandoned nearly a decade ago.

The tricky part is untangling all these separate threads — the personal, political, and (for lack of a better word) spiritual — and weaving something coherent out of them. Once I can do that, I’ll have a lot — a lot – more to write, either here or elsewhere, about what a Birthright trip can do to your brain. Or mostly my brain, I suppose.

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Against Atheism 2.0
January 22, 2012

Alain de Botton

Image by juan tan kwon via Flickr

Since writing this post on Godless theology, I’ve been meditating a lot on the possibility of religious atheism. That could mean anything from Jewish humanism to Zen Buddhism to the ideas outlined in Bertrand Russell’s “A Free Man’s Worship.” Jewish humanists, Siddhartha and Russell all have different ways of finding meaning in a world absent a personal God, and your mileage for each may vary; but I’ll wager that the least satisfying of those accounts is still infinitely more nourishing than Alain de Botton’s banally Gladwellian “atheism 2.0.”

De Botton begins a recent TED Talk (via — who else? — Andrew Sullivan) by attempting to distinguish his cuddly, family-friendly atheism from the more vituperative New Atheism of Richard Dawkins and the recently deceased Chris Hitchens. But the New Atheists, despite their numerous failings (of which I’ve written extensively in the past), are at least willing to treat religious claims as if they mean something. By trying to please everyone, De Botton ends up condescending to both the serious faithful and the serious faithless — in other words, anyone who bothers to think critically about big questions. As insufferable as PZ Meyers and his ilk may be, I’ll take combativeness over a pat on the head.

De Botton’s starting point for developing atheism 2.0 is reasonable enough: he argues that atheism, which is to say the rejection of a narrow band of metaphysical claims, is not on its own a sufficient foundation for a whole worldview or collective identity. So far so good, but his proposed alternative is utter pablum. He says:

I think there is an alternative. I think there are ways — and I’m being both very respectful and completely impious — of stealing from religions. If you don’t believe in a religion, there’s nothing wrong with picking and mixing, with taking out the best sides of religion. And for me, atheism 2.0 is about both, as I say, a respectful and an impious way of going through religions and saying, “What here could we use?”

I’ve complained in the past that atheists all too often try to dodge serious existential problems by just appropriating religious concepts and giving them a pseudo-rationalist gloss. De Botton not only does the same thing, but proudly announces his intention to do so. Too bad for him that a religion isn’t a salad bar, where you can nibble on the parts you like and elide the nasty bits; the pieces fit together to form a larger whole. Decontextualizing the parts you like and plugging them into your own worldview willy-nilly means importing some of religion’s most grating excesses as well: its smugness, its philosophical complacency. If atheists want to interface with religion — and that is, for sure, something I encourage — then they must be willing to interface with all of it. That means opening yourself up to uncertainty, confusion, and even fear.

De Botton clearly finds uncertainty and fear distasteful. Otherwise, he might have a very different attitude towards religious art than the one he expresses below:

My view is that museums should take a leaf out of the book of religions. And they should make sure that when you walk into a museum — if I was a museum curator, I would make a room for love, a room for generosity. All works of art are talking to us about things. And if we were able to arrange spaces where we could come across works where we would be told, use these works of art to cement these ideas in your mind, we would get a lot more out of art. Art would pick up the duty that it used to have and that we’ve neglected because of certain mis-founded ideas. Art should be one of the tools by which we improve our society. Art should be didactic.

One might wonder how one of the greatest religious artists of all time — Fyodor Dostoevsky — fits into this notion of didactic art. No doubt a didactic Christian artist in the De Botton mode never would have written the parable of the Grand Inquisitor — a critique of Christian morality so devastatingly persuasive that the author himself never discovered a proper rebuttal. That is what true religion and true art look like: struggle. Yis’rael is often translated as “He who wrestles with God.”

If religion has anything to give atheists, it’s more than just a series of empty gestures and defanged observances. Religion can help us define the terms of greater struggles, but only as a means toward taking those struggles seriously. The problem with atheism 2.0, then, is the problem with De Botton’s whole shtick: he peddles anesthetic, not real medicine. Like his spiritual brother-in-arms Simon Critchley, he specializes in masticating thorny philosophical questions into easily digestible gruel for the educated but intellectually timid. If he really wanted to do his audience a service, he would acknowledge that there is such a thing as despair.

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Special Topics In Crazy Metaphysics
January 20, 2012

Forgive the long blockquote, but I think this puzzle from philosopher Eric Schwitzgebel (who blogs at The Splintered mind) earns it:

In Anglophone philosophy since the 1960s, the dominant approach to the mind has been materialism: the view that human beings are naturally evolved beings, wholly made out of material stuff like elementary particles, with no immaterial soul of any sort. On materialistic views of consciousness, the reason that we have a stream of conscious experience is that we have brains that represent the world, can guide us in goal-directed action, and that are massively informationally connected in complex self-regulating loops. It is that fact about the complexity of our organizational structure that is responsible for our having a stream of conscious experience so that there’s “something it’s like”, phenomenologically, to be us, or to be a mouse, while there’s nothing it’s like (we ordinarily think) to be a toy robot.

But the United States appears to have all those same features! The citizens of the United States are massively informationally connected, in complex self-regulating loops – not in the same way neurons are connected, but just as richly. The United States engages in environmentally responsive coordinated action, for example in invading Iraq or in taxing imports. The United States represents and self-represents, for example via the census and in declaring positions in foreign policy. As far as I can tell, all the kinds of things that materialists tend to regard as special about brains in virtue of which brains give rise to consciousness are also possessed by the United States.

The United States is a large, spatially distributed entity. But why should that matter? Isn’t it just morphological prejudice to insist that consciousness be confined to spatially compact entities? The United States is composed of people who are themselves individually conscious. But why should that matter? We can imagine, it seems, conscious aliens whose cognition is implemented not by neurons but by intricate networks of interacting internal insects confined within their bodies, where each insect has a minor animal-like consciousness while the organism as a whole has human-like consciousness and intelligence. (Maybe such aliens are much-evolved descendants of bee colonies.) In the vast universe, it seems likely that intelligent environmental responsiveness, and consciousness, could emerge in myriad weird ways. It seems chauvinistic provincialism to insist that our way of being conscious is the only possible way. So why not regard group organisms as possibly conscious? And if so, why not the very group organisms in which we already participate, given that they seem to meet standard materialist criteria for consciousness?

This notion strikes me as being somewhat similar to Heidegger’s notion of Dasein — though I could be wrong about that, since I still have only the fuzziest notion of what Dasein is supposed to be. (Nor, if the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Martin Heidegger is to be believed, can real philosophers agree on a single account. Which should surprise no one.) Still, the fact that the Dasein label has been applied to both individual human beings and entire nations suggests a certain level of conceptual overlap.

There is a key difference, though: Dasein is a category of being within phenomenology, the field of philosophy which examines structures of experience while bracketing the question of whether the objects of those experiences are real. In other words, a phenomenologist might say that we sometimes have the experience of being part of a larger conscious body called a nation, though that conscious body may or may not exist outside of our experiences. Schwitzgebel, on the other hand, is not bracketing: he is suggesting that, in a very real sense, the United States is conscious.

With that in mind, some questions:

1.) Am I horribly misreading Heidegger? Wouldn’t be the first time.

2.) For the materialists who follow this blog (and who I occasionally successfully bait into replying to posts like this): Is Schwitzgebel’s theory correct? Why or why not?

3.) How big or small can a composite conscious entity be? What’s the criteria for determining when one exists and one does not? For example, can a family be collectively consciousness? What about all of humanity?

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Darwinian Ethics
January 8, 2012

A post by philosopher Michael Ruse called A Darwinian Approach to Moral Philosophy has been making the rounds in the philosoblogosphere. The thing is worth reading in its entirety, but here’s an executive summary:

  1. Substantive ethics is the product of natural selection.
  2. Naturalism is correct.
  3. Moral realism is wrong.
  4. However, ethical claims have the phenomenological “meaning and character” of objective facts.
  5. Therefore, relativism is also wrong.

Or to put it as Ruse does, “although philosophy may lead to skepticism, psychology makes it impossible to live that way.” The fact that ethical claims are “only” facts about our mental states doesn’t diminish their importance, because our own mental states are all we really have direct access to.

Note that while this is a Darwinian/naturalist approach to ethics, it differs significantly from the sort of reductive, pseudo-empirical claptrap espoused by New Atheists such as Sam Harris. As I’ve written before, Harris’ attempts to reconcile moral realism with reductio ad scientism is doomed to failure. However (if you’ll forgive some self-citation):

I can speak of a world without morality or meaning, but I can’t actually live in it. I’m trapped in the world created by language and conscious thought; there is no way for me to un-see the value I attach to things, or cause my mind to reject its own existence.

That’s more or less in agreement with what Ruse argues above, though he does some extra work to connect this position to the Darwinian tradition. He also connects it to the Humean tradition, acknowledging the importance of the is/ought distinction that reductive materialists tend to reject out of hand.

So if you are, like myself, both a non-believer and a non-reductive materialist, Ruse’s position seems pretty satisfying. Though I wonder what believers (particularly Christians) might make of his final claim:

I think the kind of position I have just sketched should be welcomed by a Christian influenced by naturalism, and I am thinking here of course of Thomas Aquinas and the influence of Aristotle. As a Darwinian, I think we should do what is natural. As an Aristotelian, the Thomist thinks we should do what is natural. I see a meeting point here. It doesn’t incline me to be a Christian but I see how a Christian could start with my position and then put it in a theological context.

Any thoughts?

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One Last Question For The Reductive Materialists
December 5, 2011

Which is a more accurate picture of joy? This:

Or this:

This is only a hard question if you make it one. Or if you’re not into Sam Cooke.

Mind and God
December 5, 2011

For all you New Atheists out there, a little compare and contrast exercise. Tell me if you think this proof makes sense:

  1. My mind is identical to certain neurochemical processes in the brain.
  2. We have observed these neurochemical processes, and have verified that they exist.
  3. Therefore, my mind exists.

If that one sounds valid, how about this one?

  1. God is identical to the whole of nature.
  2. We have observed the whole of nature, and verified that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I can think of two objections to the second proof. The first is that a lot of modern theists might not be able to sign onto our working definition of God. Fair enough, but I should note that our pantheistic account is not wholly without precedent — Baruch Spinoza believed in deus sive natura (God or nature) as interchangeable properties, and much of Eastern philosophy contains roughly analogous concepts. (Replace “God” with “tao,” and the proof still holds.)

The second, stickier objection is that “God” in this proof has a form, but not much content. (Same goes for tao.) We can point to physical properties we believe to be correlated with God as much as we’d like, but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual. So demonstrating the existence of certain physical phenomena that we’d expect to exist in a God-created universe really tells us absolutely nothing.

So for atheists who believe in the existence of their own minds, here’s the dilemma: why does that rebuttal apply to the second proof, but not the first?

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On Godless Theology
November 26, 2011

Guys, I dunno about this:

It’s important to understand that atheists scare religious people not because we’re different, in other words, but because our beliefs do literally threaten their own. We don’t simply present ourselves as another religious group whose beliefs can be kept to ourselves. We openly and unabashedly argue that religion is toxic and we’d like to see it end, just as we believe sexism and racism are toxic and should end.

My first thought on reading something like the above is that I must be pretty shitty at being an atheist. For one thing, I’m terrible at scaring religious people, even when I wear my black turtleneck and talk about how heaven is a lie and death is the end of existence. (It does not help that I am not a very intimidating dude.)

But then, maybe I’m not trying hard enough. I certainly don’t “openly and unabashedly” call for the death of religion, like good atheists are supposed to. That’s probably because I openly and unabashedly don’t care whether or not people believe in God.

Really, the whole New Atheist “death to religion” push seems like a case of misdirected priorities to me. If there’s one thing we’ve learned from the history of Communism and watching The Big Lebowski, it’s that people don’t need religion as an excuse to do shitty things to each other. Religious people don’t even have a monopoly on banning abortion!

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe the point is that religious claims are false, and people shouldn’t be teaching their children lies as a means of controlling them. To that, I again say: “Eh.” It really depends on the character of the religious claim being made. People shouldn’t have to grow to adulthood thinking that the world is 6,000 years old and dinosaurs died because they got left off the ark (the world is actually 8,000 years old, and dinosaurs died because they were too awesome for this fallen world). But most religious claims — indeed, the most popular and important ones — are metaphysical in nature. They don’t concern facts in this world, but the other world. You know, that one.

You can call claims about that world “lies,” but I prefer to think of them as “fictions.” A lie is a verifiably false claim — false in the sense that it contradicts a fact. But what is the nature of a “fact” that takes place outside of the physical world? On what grounds do you call a claim about that world “false?”

The standard atheist response here is that such a world doesn’t exist. “There is something beyond the material world” is a false claim, and any subsequent claim that takes that one as a premise is also false. Which, sure, okay. The only problem with that argument is that most of the people making it don’t seem to really believe it.

(more…)

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